Encounters With Kyoto

I have reason to celebrate: I can now call myself a “published author”. Yay!

As I mentioned before, since last November, I am a member of the group Writers in Kyoto, as the name suggests, a small group of writers who live in (or around) Kyoto or have some other connection to Kyoto and who write in English.

This year, for the third time altogether, the group has put out an anthology to which the members of the group were invited to contribute. There was also a writing competition that was free for everybody to join. About half of the Writers in Kyoto members have sent in short stories or poems or non-fiction essays – and I’m one of them!

Cover of Writers in Kyoto Anthology, Vol. 3And, our book “Encounters With Kyoto – Writers in Kyoto Anthology 3” is now available on amazon in paperback! An e-book version is in preparation and there’s lots of fun stories to read. For example, there is a very interesting non-fiction piece on ropes made with human hair that were used to lift the wooden beams of Higashi Honganji Temple – some of the ropes are still on display there. Or the lovely poems full of childhood memories by a local Kyoto lady. And then there’s my essay about a Japanese garden I was not supposed to enter… My personal favourite is a fun piece on an encounter with yakuza – in the sento to boot!

Last Saturday the group met for the official book launch in Umekoji park near Kyoto station. We had sake and local and international snacks and then some of the authors went on to read their pieces from the anthology. It was my first time at a group meeting, so I decided to read my piece by way of introduction. People seemed to like it, or at least the liked my reading, so we had something to talk about afterwards, thank goodness.

It was fun to meet other English speakers in Kyoto, some of whom have lived here for decades, some of whom have just arrived; some of whom I have heard about from friends, others I would have never known otherwise. And it was fun to meet so many different people – and to find out interesting things we have in common regardless.

I realise that this self-promotion is a bit of an unusual book post for a Sunday, but I really enjoyed working on my essay and reading the other contributions. If you’d like to check it out – and I promise there are better writers in it than me –¬† as I said, it’s available internationally on amazon.

Return to Tsugaru

Return to Tsugaru
Osamu Dazai

Return to TsugaruTsugaru is the old name of the northernmost peninsula of Honshu, which today makes up part of Aomori prefecture. The people in Tsugaru have always been poor and, as the part of Japan from which to set sail for Hokkaido, has had a reputation of a certain backwardness in cities like Tokyo.

Osamu Dazai, considered among the foremost Japanese authors of the 20th century, was born in Kanagi, a small town on the Tsugaru peninsula. In this memoir from 1944, he takes us on a trip to his hometown and nearby places, like the castle town Hirosaki, the village where he went to school, etc. Travelling chiefly on foot, he pays visits to family members and relatives, as well as old friends, where he is always welcome and served sake and crabs, his favourite food.

This book is part travelogue, part history – both of Tsugaru as well as his own family – part commentary on current events and the war-time of 1944. Throughout the book shines Dazai’s deep love for the land and the people living there.

Osamu Dazai was the pseudonym of Shuji Tsushima, born in 1909 as the eight (surviving) child of a man from humble origins who eventually became a respected local politician. From an early age on, Shuji wanted to become a writer and he eventually moved to Tokyo as a student of French literature. Aged only 26, he was nominated for the very first Akutagawa Prize, and although he did not receive it, his reputation was made. His most important works were published after WWII. Always the family’s enfant terrible, he finally committed suicide with his mistress in 1948, at only 39 years of age.

Looking for the Lost

Looking for the Lost – Journeys through a Vanishing Japan
Alan Booth

Cover: Looking for the LostThe perennial classic “Looking for the Lost” tells about rural Japan as the author retraces the steps of famous people before him on three different journeys.

The first journey “Tsugaru” describes Booth walking in the steps of Dazai Osamu, in a journey back to the writer’s home in Aomori prefecture in Northern Honshu. Dasai had walked there for three weeks and described his impressions in a book with the same name. The second journey follows “Saigo’s last march”, as Japanese hero and commander in the Satsuma rebellion, Saigo Takamori fled from surrender and returned to Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu to make a final stand there. The third journey “Looking for the Lost” starts out from Nagoya and moves northwards through Gifu prefecture in an attempt to trace possible descendants of the clan of the Heike who were all but wiped out in the middle of the 12th century.

Throughout the book, Booth mixes historical facts with his observations about contemporary Japan and muses about various subjects. On all his journeys he is walking through the countryside, obstinately refusing any other means of transport. He mostly stays on small roads and often stops for a beer or two at local liquor stores. Talking to the locals and staying at traditional ryokan provides him with new friends as well as unique opportunities to broaden his knowledge of Japanese life outside the big cities.

Alan Booth (1946 – 1993) was born in London. Throughout his life, he was interested in theatre, and moved to Japan in 1970 to study Noh. There, however, he soon began writing and worked for Macmillan Press. He wrote numerous articles and two books about his hikes through Japan, “Looking for the Lost” being his second book. He died from colon cancer in 1993.

Although more than 20 years old, this book is a classic and a must-read for everybody interested in the “real” Japan. You can get it from amazon!

Hiroshima Notes

Hiroshima Notes
Kenzaburo Oe

cover of Hiroshima NotesAt 8:15 in the morning of August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, immediately killing about 100000 people. Twenty years later, from 1963 to 1965, journalist and writer Kenzaburo Oe travelled multiple times to Hiroshima where he visited hospitals, talked to survivors, and witnessed first hand the ongoing struggle of all Hiroshima people to deal with the aftermath of the bombing. Hiroshima notes consists of seven essays written in these two years. Oe talks about such divers topics as the fighting between different Japanese charities dedicated to help the victims; the marginalisation of the survivors suffering from radiation sickness; their own shame and guilt of being sick; but also the dignity these people are exhibiting regardless, up to their very last days.

This book is one of the few where a Japanese view on the Hiroshima bombings is exhibited, and with only 20 years after the facts it is a relatively early account. Although Oe should be one to understand the sentiments of the people he is talking to, one can feel that he is struggling greatly with what he hears and how he should interpret it, how he should make sense of it all. It is not an easy book to read, especially for somebody who is not familiar with Japanese culture, but still, if you are ready to delve into a book that will certainly provoke mixed feelings, it is worth it.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935 in a small village on Shikoku. When he was 19, he started to study French Literature at Tokyo University, and in 1957 he began publishing his own stories. In 1994 Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as the second Japanese citizen. He is still writing – his latest book was published in 2013 – and he is now active in pacifistic and anti-nuclear movements.

Check out the book on amazon

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Isabella L. Bird

The Meiji restoration in 1868 and the following opening of a country closed to outsiders for centuries sparked an enormous worldwide interest in all things Japanese. While the average Japanophile of the time was content with exported ceramics, kimono, art, or weapons, there were a handful that were not satisfied with second-hand accounts, but visited the country by themselves.

Photo of Isabella L. BirdIsabella Lucy Bird was one of them. Already a seasoned traveller, she toured mostly the rural parts of Japan. Her trip of 1878 took her first from Tokyo to Nikko, and then all the way through the often hardly passable wilderness of the Japanese Alps to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. From there, she took a steamer to Yezo (Hokkaido), then a wild and untamed island inhabited by the native Ainu, a people of non-Japanese origin. Isabella travelled chiefly with man-pulled carts and on horseback, stayed at tiny local guesthouses where she – often grudgingly – had to eat the local fare, and was generally considered a major attraction for miles on end as the first white woman the local residents ever laid eyes upon.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of letters she wrote to her sister, where she faithfully describes her impressions of the landscape and the Japanese and their strange customs. As a foreigner, she is often a special guest at various ceremonies or of high-ranking people, and especially her account of the Ainu and their long-lost customs holds many surprises even for modern Japanese.

I greatly enjoyed this book, it gives a glimpse into a Japan long forgotten, although some things still appear familiar. However, her writings are not at all politically correct, and she certainly never sugarcoats her opinions. She generally loves the countryside and is charmed by the children everywhere, but she despises the Japanese food she had to eat once her own provisions ran out, and she also views the Japanese adults unfavourably – she describes them as ugly, uncouth, and dirty, the last most likely because of their extreme poverty. Anyway, if you can see beyond her old-fashioned, almost missionary attitudes, the book is a great source for those interested in the really “old” Japan.

Fun fact: Although more than 100 years old, this book has been translated to Japanese less than five years ago.

The book is available from amazon of course, but there is also a free e-book available from gutenberg.org, and, based on it, a free audio version from librivox.org.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

Cover of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetJacob de Zoet arrives at Dejima with Unico Vorstenbosch, who has vowed to rid the island of the ever present corruption and embezzlement. And Jacob is the right aide for this; the clerk, finicky, compliant, and honest to a fault beholds a rosy future. Of course, his incorruptability makes him some enemies fromt he start, but among his trusted friends are translator Ogawa and Dejima’s doctor, Marinus. And when Jacob becomes infatuated with one of Marinus’s students, Aibagawa Orito, and seriously considers marrying her, it seems that he is on top of everything.

However, his nice life is falling to pieces when Vorstenbosch is about to leave Dejima and in an interesting turn of events is revealed as the greatest crook of them all. On refusing to cover up his crimes, Jacob’s promotion is revoked and he is forced to fend for himself. Rock bottom is hit, when Orito – upon the death of her father – is forced to become a nun at a dubious Shinto shrine.

What is Jacob to do? Everything seems hopeless, but then, an unexpected ship anchors in the harbour…

Dejima island near Nagasaki was a treaty port of the Dutch, and for a long time provided the only way for the West to trade with Japan. The novel is set at the end of the 18th century, and it gives an apt description of the scheming and corruption that must have taken place on both sides. Some of the events in the novel are based on historic facts. Only the happenings in the Shinto shrine seem to be far fetched, but they do provide the suspense that keeps you reading.

David Mitchell was born in England and came to Japan in 1994 where he taught English in Hiroshima for eight years. He visited the Dejima museum – rather by accident – in 1994, the novel appeared in 2010 and won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ (regional) Prize (South Asia and Europe).

Check out the book on amazon.

A Geisha’s Journey

A Geisha’s Journey: My Life as a Kyoto Apprentice
Komomo and Naoyuki Ogino

Cover of "A Geisha's Journey"A Japanese teenager living abroad suddenly misses her heritage and identity: What does it mean to be Japanese? On her quest for an answer she discovers the hanamachi, the geisha districts. Enthralled by this fantasy world of beautiful kimono wearing women and ancient customs, she decides to become the most Japanese woman of them all – and enters the hanamachi in Kyoto at age 15 to become a geisha. Given the name Komomo as an apprentice maiko, she starts a demanding training lasting five years to fulfill her dream.

This book tells about those years and gives a glimpse into the intimate details of the hanamachi of Kyoto. Always at Komomo’s side is Naoyuki Ogino, a photographer who is equally fascinated by the flower world and whose striking images of Komomo’s life add an almost magical touch to her story.

Komomo’s story is fascinating, and her change from an insecure teenager to an accomplished Kyoto geiko is obvious in Ogino’s photos. I especially enjoyed learning the little secrets of a geisha’s life. You could probably have guessed that a maiko cannot dress herself alone – but did you know that it takes a man (called the otokoshi) to tie her obi?

Check the book out on amazon.

36 Views of Mount Fuji

36 Views of Mount Fuji – On Finding Myself in Japan
Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy and her husband Ted visit Japan for the first time in 1980 to teach book coverEnglish at Kyoto University. Expecting the typical Japan shown to the tourists, inhabited by flower-arranging geisha living in tiny wooden houses, they are shocked by the industrialized nation they encounter. However, they soon discover a Japan where tradition and modern life are not mutually exclusive. Although not everything can be changed (e.g., having open conversations even with friends remains difficult) and some plans fail outright (like permanently moving to Japan), it becomes clear that the couple have lost their heart somewhere in Japan. This book contains 16 encounters with Japanese culture – profane, funny, and embarrassing ones, but always personal – and describes also their aftermath.

On my way towards Japan, I try to gather as much info about the country and its people as possible. This means that I currently read anything I can find about Japan: history books, literature, travelogues, … This book is extraordinary. Cathy Davidson describes her experiences with Japan and its culture, both the good and the bad ones, with unromanticised candor. And still, in every word her love for the country is palpable, just as is her pain at the realisation she will not be able to live there permanently. Highly recommended!

Check out the book on amazon.