Streets of Kyoto

When Kyoto was founded more than 1000 years ago, it was modeled after the then capital of China. This means, all of the city was laid out on a rectangular North-South, East-West grid, with the grounds of the imperial palace on the northern end of the city, representing its head.

Lots of things happen in 1000 years, in particular the growth of Kyoto beyond its original boundaries to fit the 1.5 million people living here today. A large portion of the newer parts of the city have simply extended the grid scheme, but especially near the mountains that enclose the town, this is not the case anymore.

However, to be considered a “true” Kyoto person, you must live in that inner part of town that once made up the original city (ideally, that means your family has been living there forever). And so as not to get lost in those little streets that all but looked the same in the time of the old Japanese wooden houses, children learnt the Kyoto street song, listing all the streets of Kyoto “proper” first from North to South, and then from East to West.

Even today, every person born in Kyoto knows this song. I am not sure if the song itself has a meaning beyond the street names, but since they are abbreviated and one of the lines talks about “Ane san”, meaning older sister, I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually did tell a story. Enjoy!

Just in case you’re wondering what’s with the penguins: Kyoto City Aquarium houses 47 penguins that are all named after the 47 streets in this song. And in this video, you hear the staff of the Aquarium.

Masks

Masks
Fumiko EnchiBook cover of Masks

Yasuko Togano has lost her husband Akio in an avalanche on Mount Fuji several years ago. Nevertheless, she has decided to stay with her mother in law Mieko, and also to finish Akio’s work on ghost possession. This work is her link to the friends Ibuki and Mikame, who both are in love with the attractive Yasuko, despite the fact that Ibuki has a wife and daughter.

Mieko Togano is a renowned poet, and although she tries to remain out of sight, it is in fact she who pulls all the strings. She is the hidden force when Yasuko starts an affair with Ibuki, and when Harume, the strikingly beautiful but mentally handicapped twin sister of Akio gets caught up in things, Mieko will do anything to see her long harboured plans bear fruit.

Mieko, although only prominent in the last third of the novel, is the main character, the driving force behind everything. She, who has lost everything and tries to regain a small piece of it, is not above sacrificing her own family.

This was a fascinating read about the strength of women. When Ibuki and Mikame muse about Mieko’s being a witch, possibly able to control other people with her mind, they make an interesting statement: The misogyny found in Buddhism and Christianity was simply a way for men to control that inner strength of women, which they always feared, but never understood…

Fumiko Enchi (1905 – 1986) was born in Tokyo. She was home-schooled and was taught English, French, and Chinese literature; through her grandmother she got to know the classics of Japanese literature. She is one of the most prominent Japanese writers of the Showa period.a

A fascinating book – get your copy from Amazon!

Oyamazaki Sanso

Last Thursday, two friends and I took advantage of the holiday to visit Oyamazaki Sanso, or, officially: The Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It is located on a hillside in the south-western part of Kyoto, overlooking the place where the rivers Kizu, Uji, and Katsura merge. The villa consists of a number of buildings in a more than 16000 m2 large garden, which alone is worth a visit, in particular now.

Oyamazaki SansoThe main house was built in the Taisho era (about 100 years ago) and was subsequently enlarged. It has an obvious Western feeling to it, but even so, there are many features that are reminiscent of Japanese style: enormous wooden beams (one square one with a side length of 50cm) support the ceilings, and the entrance and second floor have high ceilings where the roof structure can be seen, there are little ornaments featuring bamboos… But mainly, the house is Western style: there are two large terraces on the second floor, together with a very modern looking guest bathroom with beige tiles that even features fixtures for hot water. The ground floor sports a large dining room and parlour with enormous fireplace, and out into the back, there is an airy corridor with lots of windows that once led to a greenhouse for orchids.

Oyamazaki Sanso EntranceThis main house was built as a country villa for Shotaro Kaga, a wealthy businessman from Osaka. He had many interests, like cultivating orchids and drawing pictures of them, and he was also involved in the founding of Nikka Whisky Distilling. A close friend of his was Tamesaburo Yamamoto, the first president of the Asahi Breweries. After the death of Kaga and his wife, the house changed hands a number of times, but eventually fell into disrepair. By the mid 1980s, the house was slated for demolition to make room for luxury apartments, but the locals could convince Asahi Breweries to buy and renovate the Oyamazaki Sanso.

The old buildings were renovated, and two new buildings that now serve as the main museum were added. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, they are so well integrated into the site that they are all but inconspicuous when approaching the main building. The whole museum now contains the main house, a watchtower (from where Kaga watched the main house being built), two tea houses, a rest house (originally a garage) and the modern jewelry box and dream box museum annexes. The museum opened in 1996, and the old buildings were designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties in 2004.

Oyamazaki SansoThe museum shows various special exhibitions during the year, and it also shows pieces from the Yamamoto collection of art, collected by the first president of Asahi Breweries who was interested in the Mingei Movement that focused on folk art. The underground jewelry box, a small, round single room shows parts of the permanent collection, in particular some of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. This was quite a surprise to me, mostly because the museum is so small. I now found out that Monet had painted some 250 versions of the Water Lilies, but still, that there are three of those paintings in such a small museum is quite a feat I think.

Oyamazaki Sanso GardensAs mentioned above, the museum lies in an enormous garden on a hillside. Especially now during the koyo, the garden is lovely – and it can be visited for free, by the way! Of course there are the obligatory Japanese lanterns and little bridges over the water, and right next to the entrance to the jewely box with the Water Lilies paintings there is – a waterlily pond. The pond with the carp next to the corridor that once led to the greenhouse was my personal favourite spot.

Oyamazaki SansoUnfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the building. There are beautiful ones on the homepage of the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art’s homepage though, including a video and lots and lots of information about the building, the collection, the location… Do check it out, it’s worth it:
http://www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com/english

Kinro Kansha No Hi

It’s a national holiday again in Japan – Kinro Kansha No Hi, Labour Thanksgiving Day. To be fair, I haven’t worked in a really Japanese environment (except for my weekly visits to the Kyotogram office), but I have found that Japanese companies seem to be really fond of open plan offices: Essentially one big and endless table where every single employee has some (rather small) space. The boss sits somewhere at the end, farthest away from the entrance door.

open plan office in Japan

photo courtesy of MUGENUP @wikimedia commons.

I am wondering if this is an expression of the Japanese collective mind, so to speak, or if this is simply an American import. Haven’t found that one out yet, but if my own company every grows big enough for so many employees, I will definitely use the European system of smaller offices…

Kyoto Map

In the ROHM Theatre, where I have a meeting once a week, there is the following piece of art, hanging near the entrance.

Taguro Noguchi's Map of KyotoIt is huge, maybe 3 x 1.20 metres or so, and it must be very expensive – the gold and silver are real precious metals! It has been made by Takuro Noguchi, a local artist from Kyoto, who has coined the term hakuga for this kind of work made with gold leaf and other precious metals and with lacquer.

This particular type of artwork is relatively new, Noguchi himself has started to develop this art form only in 2001. But, the idea itself is an old one – he comes from a dynasty of craftsmen in the Nishijin district, who used gold leaf to cover silk threads which in turn were used to weave obi. No wonder one cannot wash such an obi!

With the above hakuga, it took me quite a while to realise that it is not just something abstract. The moon is kind of obvious, but the rest is supposed to be a map of Kyoto and its surroundings. And indeed, when you look closely, you can find landmarks like the big Torii at Heian Shrine, or the Daimonji.

Takuro Noguchi's Map of Kyoto, DetailsIf you are interested in seeing more of Noguchi’s works, he shows a number of them on his homepage. And also, if you’re in Kyoto, he has a solo exhibition at the Daimaru Department Store Gallery from November 29  – December 5, 2017.

National Treasures

Yesterday, I went to the National Treasures Exhibition in the Kyoto National Museum. The Japanese Government has designated a number of works of art from all over Japan and all centuries as “National Treasures”; they can be ink paintings, calligraphy, lacquerware, swords, clothing, ancient artifacts,… And in this exhibition, a large number of them were brought together from museums from all over Japan. And it seemed to me that people from all over Japan took the opportunity to visit the museum.

Even though I had been warned by a friend who went in the weekend and had to wait in line for three hours, and even though I came right when the museum opened, it was full already – I had not expected such masses of people. I have never experienced anything like this in a museum before! A ticket was quickly bought, but then I had to wait in line – 4 people per row – for half an hour, just to enter the museum. Inside, the people were standing in rows three deep before the exhibits, and it was really hard to get to the front where you could actually see anything at all. Interestingly, I saw quite a few people who had brought binoculars usually used in theatres to get close and personal with the exhibits. I found that quite funny, but then again, progress was so slow, there was plenty of time for detailed examination between two steps.

Irises by Korin, left screenAnyway, apart from the masses of people, I did enjoy myself. There were indeed stunning objects; remember that most Japanese art is applied and intended to be used. For example, there was a beautiful 14th century samurai armor; a bit rusty the helmet ornament, a bit faded the colors, but still imposing. Stunning pieces of lacquerware belonging to the trousseau of a Shogun’s daughter. A beautiful scroll with calligraphy, where one artist had written the same text in three different calligraphy scripts – I asked, even the Japanese could only read the most formal one. Another scroll with a chapter of the “Tale of Genji”, decorated with gold and silver flakes throughout and a lovely painting at the end from the 12th century.

Hard to say which were my favourite pieces, especially since I couldn’t see everything in detail (I should really buy one of those opera glasses). I guess I’ll go for two large scale 18th century screen paintings. The one above is by Ogata Korin, it depicts Irises on a golden ground and was painted around 1701/02 in Kyoto. It was announced with great pride, since it was exhibited in Kyoto for the first time in more than 100 years!

The painting below is by Maruyama Okyo, another golden screen painting depicting pines in the snow. Even though it is only in black and white, it is very realistic, and on first sight, I was stunned. It was painted around 1785 and looks still fresh and vibrant. I would have loved to buy a postcard or something with this motif, but there weren’t any, maybe the Irises above are more popular overall.

Pine Trees in Snow, left screen, by Maruyama Okyo

Rakugo

When it comes to Japanese performing arts, one first thinks of Noh and Kabuki, two very old forms of theater. Elaborate costumes are used, the masks are stunning, the movements highly stylised, and the stories told are often moral and serious.

And then there is rakugo, and it’s none of these. To be fair, rakugo is not so much a theatrical performance, but a storytelling. A single performer – rakugoka – sits on a stage, with nothing but a cushion and a folding screen (and sometimes a little table) as stage design. He – yes, mostly they are men – has nothing by way of props but a folding fan and a tenugui, a small Japanese towel. But this is all he needs to tell his story: gestures and body movements, a change of pitch in his voice, or a slightly changed posture will do – the rest lies in the viewer’s imagination.

A rakugo stageRakugo goes back to Buddhist monks of the 10th century, who interjected little, often humorous stories to their sermons to make them better understandable for the lay people. The stories evolved to a kind of monologue that people told among themselves, and especially the daimyo of the Edo period were the patrons of this kind of storytelling. With the rise of the rich merchant class, however, rakugo as an art form finally spread to the common people, and by the end of the 18th century, professional rakugoka had emerged, who rented rooms – yose – for their performances. Finally, theaters especially for rakugo were set up as well.

Suehirotei Rakugo Theatre in Shinjuku

Suehirotei in Shinjuku. Photo by James Justin on Flickr.

Many of the stories performed date back to the beginnings of rakugo as it is known today, some 400 years ago. The traditional canon comprises several hundred pieces of various lengths, but there are some modern rakugoka who write and perform their own stories. A large part of the attractiveness of the stories is the fact that they are dialogues between different stereotypical people, and that these dialogues sound very natural. Some of the stereotypes employed are: The sexy young girl, the authority figure, the dumb vs. the smart person, the cunning and lying figure, etc. They are pitched against each other in the performance, and at the end, there is an ochi (literally meaning fall) which brings the main story to an unexpected, funny end.

Before the main story starts, however, the rakugoka starts with an anecdote called makura (literally: pillow) to lead the viewer into the main story. Watch this English performance of the famous story “The Cat’s Bowl”; the first half of the video is the makura (which may or may not be true recollections of the performer), and the main story starts at about 5:20.

Today, there are about 700 professional rakugoka in Japan, about 30 of them women, divided between the two traditions of Edo/Tokyo and Osaka. Even today, the way to become a rakugoka is by receiving direct instruction from a master performer. Just like in the old days, the student – deshi – will move into the master’s house and essentially run his household. During the 2 – 4 years of training, the master in turn is fully responsible for the student, including in financial matters.

The training in the art itself is done verbally only, and while audio and video are now allowed, books or other notes are still frowned upon. After all, this is an oral tradition! The master tells the story, and the student imitates. Only when the student has fully memorised the story, will he get permission to perform it – this particular story only! The three ranks of rakugoka are zenza, futatsume and shinuchi; the final rank allows a rakugoka to train students of his own.

Rakugo is still quite popular, both on TV and live. The setup of the performance can almost be called intimate, and the Japanese take advantage of the opportunity to let their hair hang down in public.

 

Audition

Audition
Ryu Murakami

cover of Audition by Ryu MurakamiIt’s been six years since Ryoko’s death, but Aoyama is not even dreaming of dating, lest marrying again. Only when his teenage son, Shige, starts urging him to find a new wife, is he willing to give it a try.

When Aoyama tells his friend Yoshikawa about his plans, film director Yoshikawa is all ears and sets up an audition to find his friend not just any, but the perfect wife. The whole scheme is skillfully disguised as the well-publicized search for the main female character in an upcoming movie. Of the thousands of applicants, young Asami captures Aoyama’s heart at first sight, and they soon begin dating, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings, who feels that there is something wrong about her.

And indeed, at first, everything seems perfect, but how far is Asami – in her desire for love, undivided one, that is – willing to go?

I have read a few of Ryu Murakami’s novels, and this one is an easy introduction to his works. The book starts out with a desperate man trying to find love again – and succeeding quickly, to his great delight. Soon, however, a feeling of danger is creeping into the story, and the finale – very typical for Ryu Murakami – is drowning in blood…

Ryu Murakami is the enfant terrible of Japanese authors. Born in 1952, he started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before he moved on to film and writing books. His first book was written when he was still in highschool, immediately winning him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

Get this book from amazon – if you dare!

Matcha Presso

Suntory's Matcha PressoIn Japan, matcha – powdered green tea – is a ubiquituous ingredient in all sorts of sweets: there is matcha Baumkuchen, matcha chocolate, matcha ice cream, even matcha kitkat. And recently, I came across matcha liqueur.

It is made by Suntory and called Matcha Presso. In fact, the name is well-chosen, since the drink is very strong (14% alcohol) and very sweet. And it’s almost pitch black! When poured out of the bottle, it looks like dark coffee, but when adding ice cubes – Suntory recommends to drink it on the rocks – the distinctive bright green matcha color becomes visible immediately.

Since it is so sweet, it’s not a drink to sip on all evening, but a little glass every now and then is a treat a real matcha fan would not decline…

Hashiguchi Goyo

Hashiguchi Goyo (1880 – 1921) is a renowned Japanese artist and considered the founder of the shin-hanga style of woodblock printing.

Hashiguchi was born as the son of a samurai and painter in 1880 and was then named Kiyoshi. He started to study Japanese painting in the traditional Kano style with a private tutor when he was 10, and in 1899 he moved to Kyoto to continue his studies in the Kano style. However, the famous painter Kuroda Seiki convinced him to instead study Western painting, and so Hashiguchi enrolled in the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Is was there that he changed his first name to Goyo – inspired by the five needle pine in his father’s garden – and he graduated in 1905 at the top of his class.

At this time his older brother introduced him to Soseki Natsume, and Goyo’s first commission was to design layout and illustrations for the novel I am a Cat. More book covers followed, all in all he designed about 70 covers in art nouveau style for various writers, among them notable ones like Junichiro Tanizaki, Nagai Kafu, or Mori Ogai.

illustration for I am a CatIn 1907, Hashiguchi exhibited a painting in the Tokyo Bunten show, which received 2nd prize, but overall, the reception of his oil paintings was below his expectations. In 1911, however, Goyo won the first prize – 1000 yen – for an ukiyo-e poster he designed for the Mitsukoshi department store, depicting a modern Japanese woman in a colorful kimono. Hashiguchi’s interest in ukiyo-e was piqued, and he began to study art and technique in detail. He even wrote several scholarly articles about old ukiyo-e artists Utamaro, Harunobu, and Hiroshige.

Poster for MitsukoshiAround this time, Watanabe Shozaburo contacted Hashiguchi, having seen the Mitsukoshi poster. Watanabe, a publisher of ukiyo-e woodblock prints was looking for artists who would push the old methods and style forward into the new era. Hashiguchi thus, in 1915, produced the artwork for the print Bathing, which was carved and printed by one of Watanabe’s assistants. This was the birth of the shin-hanga – new prints – movement.

Bathing by Hashiguchi GoyoSince this sensitive print was an immediate success, Watanabe wanted to continue the collaboration, but Hashiguchi declined, preferring to work independently. In the years 1916 and 1917, he supervised the production of 12 volumes of “Japanese Color Prints”, containing hundreds of scaled-down reproductions of renowned ukiyo-e artists’ works. During this time, he deepened his knowledge about the printing process, and from 1918, he produced his own prints again. Often, Hashiguchi started with drawings from live models, which he then adapted and refined to make his beautiful woodblock prints.

Hashiguchi Goyo: Woman combing her hairUnfortunately, Hashiguchi’s health was quite frail. He suffered from beriberi around 1914, and by late 1920, his latent health problems escalated to meningitis, from which he ultimately did not recover. Nevertheless, he supervised his last print Hot Spring Hotel from his sickbed, but could not see it to completion. He died in February 1921, only 41 years of age. His grave is in his hometown in Kagoshima.

Hashiguchi Goyo "Woman at Hot Spring"Because of his untimely death, Hashiguchi’s body of shin-hanga prints comprises only 14 works in total. Besides the single sheet for Watanabe, he produced 1 nature print, 4 landscapes, and 8 more prints of women. Seven more prints that were in various stages of completion at the time of his death were later finished and published by his heirs – his elder brother and nephew – and 10 more prints based on Hashiguchi’s remaining designs were published years later, together with reprints of his original work. These reprints have an additional mark in the margins, which the originals do not have.

Hashiguchi Goyo "Woman in Nagajuban"Hashiguchi’s work is characterised by a mastery of technique, owing to his perfectionism. His standards were so high, that many of his editions had print runs of not more than 80 sheets. This led to his prints being technically the best since the late 18th century. Not only the high quality, but also the beautiful, sensitive, and modern designs, reminiscent of art nouveau, made Hashiguchi’s shin hanga extremely popular; from the very beginning, they demanded high prices.

In the 1923 Kanto Earthquake that all but destroyed Tokyo, most of the original printing blocks and prints themselves were destroyed. This makes any original Hashiguchi Goyo prints and sketches extremely valuable and sought after – they can sell for as much as 10.000 $, which makes them among the most highly prized of all shin-hanga.