Sugimoto Residence

As I mentioned in my post last Tuesday, the highlight of my extra long Golden Week vacation was my visit to the old Sugimoto family home to see an exhibition of Boy’s Day decorations. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos in the house, but here is the homepage of the Sugimotoke with a lovely gallery of the building and its gardens:

http://en.sugimotoke.or.jp/about-sugimoto-residence/introduction/

The Sugimoto family were merchants who sold fabric for kimono and their old machiya – built in 1870 is open to the public at very special occasions only. The house is quite large, even for a wealthy family, and it has a number of special features that I haven’t seen elsewhere before:

A special room where a visiting priest could wait and get changed into formal clothing before praying at the family altar. This room lies on the other end of a corridor which, to honor the status of the priest that came from the Nishi Honganji Temple, is laid out with tatami. This is highly unusual, since corridors in kyo-machiya or other old houses tend to be from wood.

The room with the family altar is considered the main room of the house, and having a private prayer room in a commoner’s house is highly unusual. The altar is located in a small two-tatami space that can be closed with fusuma and seems to me rather usual, but the interesting bit is the room itself. It has a small cellar underneath made from stone, where the altar could be moved in case of a fire. Basements like this are very rare, especially in such an old house, but this one was – thankfully – never needed.

The other interesting feature of the house was in the large main guest room, and I don’t even mean the lacquered tokonoma that was only uncovered at special occasions. The guest room is an already impressive 10 tatami room, and as usual, just by removing the sliding doors to the adjacent room, it can be enlarged by another 6 tatami. The interesting part is that the wooden grooves for the fusuma (in Japanese they are called shikii), can be taken out of the floor. The tatami from the adjacent room would be moved up and thus create a space of 16 unbroken tatami for very large events. When the event was over, the tatami, grooves, and fusuma would be put in place again, and normal life could be resumed.

There is also an interesting Western-style drawing room near the entrance that was built in 1929 and has cork flooring, modern furniture, and a piano. The low ceiling was taken out and the room now covers what has once been two floors at once, with an extra window on the former second floor. This makes the room feel very spacious, airy, and bright.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the gardens or to see the three kura storehouses. Still, just sitting in the rooms gazing out the large windows grants a nice and relaxing frame of mind.
The Sugimoto Residence is one of the largest kyo-machiya still existing in Kyoto. In 1990, the house was designated as a Tangible Cultural Asset by Kyoto City and in 2010, it was designated as a National Important Cultural Property. One year later, its garden was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.
As I said, it is only open for special occasions and it’s not possible to take photos inside. But if you are in Kyoto and even remotely interested in old houses, this is definitely one to visit!

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. 😉

The End of Heisei

60 years imperial coupleToday is the last day of the Heisei era. Emperor Akihito abdicated and is now the “Emperor Emeritus”. This sounds a bit funny to my ears, because I’ve only every heard “emeritus” in an academic setting. Of course, most members of the Japanese imperial family have a university degree or other, and honorary degrees as well. But that’s just as an aside.

The Heisei era spanned 30 years of peace for the Japanese, and the Emperor Emeritus, who grew up during WWII and its aftermath has expressed his gratitude for that. Together with his wife, he has visited many countries and has tried to make amends for war crimes not of his own doing. Also in Japan itself, the imperial couple has travelled widely, visiting many smaller communities over the years. This and their attempt to position the imperial family closer to the people has endeared them to many Japanese of all ages Especially their visits to shelters for refugees after the Fukushima tragedy in 2011 are memorable in this respect (even if they are not the only ones). We will see if the new emperor, who formally ascends to the throne tomorrow, will be able to follow in his father’s footsteps.

I would like to say something about the general mood in Japan right now, but I am not sure what it is. Certainly everyone has an opinion, but which one is hard to gauge, especially for the younger ones. It appears that many people are happy for the Emperor Emeritus and wish him a long and peaceful retirement. Some people treat the occasion like a New Year and will stay up and celebrate the beginning of the new era at midnight.

I myself am curious what will happen now. While the emperor plays a minor role politically, it is a new beginning after all, and people do get energised by that fact alone.

 

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto

Cover of A Quiet PlaceTsuneo Asai is on a business trip in Kobe when he recieves the news that his wife had died. Eiko had had a weak heart, so, while her death was sudden, the heartattack causing it was not exactly a surprise. The circumstances of her death, however, are puzzling: What did she do in that neighborhood in a part of Tokyo they had never visited before?

When Tsuneo visits that neighborhood to apologize for the trouble caused by his wife’s death, he notices a number of love hotels on top of the hill. Immediately, the idea that his wife must have had an affair takes hold, and Tsuneo is determined to find out the truth.

This is not your typical “whodunit” crime novel, since the death of Eiko was from natural causes. Still, Tsuneo acts like a sleuth on his quest to unravel his wife’s apparent double life, which makes this a compelling read. Once the truth is found, Tsuneo must make a decision, which turns the story into a direction of obsession and what can happen when you don’t let sleeping dogs lie…

Seicho Matsumoto was born as Kiyoharu Matsumoto, an only child, in Kyushu in 1909. He never finished secondary school or university, and worked as an adult making layouts for Asahi Shimbun. His first short story was entered in a 1950 competition and won him third prize. Six years later, he had quit the newspaper and worked full-time as a writer and until his death in 1992, he wrote more than 450 works, only a handful of which were translated into English. His detective and crime fiction, where he not only depicts the crime but also Japanese society and its ills, was very popular in Japan. He won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1952, the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970, and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957. He chaired the president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 1963 to 1971.

Recently, I discovered Seicho Matsumoto, and his crime novels are well crafted and fun to read. Try for yourself and get the novel from amazon.

Reiwa

Japan is moving into a new era – quite literally – with the abdication of the current emperor on April 30th and the ascension to the throne of his son on May 1st. The preparations for this enormous event must have started a long time ago, but most of them are done in private, so that the average Japanese is not aware of all that’s going on behind the scenes.

Yesterday, however, the first big official event took place: The reveal of the new era (gengo) name. Each reign of a Japanese emperor is associated with an era name, and while an emperor is never called by his given name during his lifetime, his era name will be used to refer to him when he is dead. Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there were four eras: Meiji (1868 – 1912), Taisho (1912 – 1925), Showa (1925 – 1989) and Heisei, the current one. Before the Meiji Restoration, the era name could change more frequently. Often, a new era was begun to give the nation a symbolic fresh start, after a natural disaster, or a number of deaths in the imperial family, for example.

Yoshihide Suga , Chief Cabinet Secretary announces the name of Japan’s forthcoming new eraAnyway, the new era that we in Japan will live in from May 1st will be called Reiwa. The two kanji were taken from the Manyoshu, one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry, compiled in the second half of the eight century. Like many characters, these kanji have different meaning. The first one – rei – has a meaning of to rule, to order, but can also mean elegant, fine, beautiful, or auspicious. The second character can mean peace, calmness, harmony.

There are two interesting articles on how Japanese era names are chosen in the modern era.
This one is about the forthcoming one, Reiwa:
http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201904020020.html
And this is an interview with one of the people sitting on the committee for the current one, Heisei:
https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/nhknewsline/backstories/insiderexplains/

It is interesting to note that the term Reiwa itself has no meaning as a word, it is more a concept that is open to some interpretation (just like Heisei, by the way). Prime Minister Abe explained that Reiwa signifies “a culture being born and nurtured by people coming together beautifully.” We will see how this will work out. For now, however, the Japanese seem to be pleased with the new era name. Friends have told me that they sound is good. Let’s hope the era itself will live up to the “good sound”.

Shunbun-no-hi

Today is Shunbun-no-hi, the vernal equinox, and a national holiday in Japan.

Traditionally, people would visit the graves of their ancestors and do some spring cleaning around their homes, but I am not sure if this is still a thing. Also, this day was meant as the official beginning of winter, since from now on the days will be longer than the nights again.

The moon at Ishiyama by Hiroshige, 1834.

I am definitely looking forward to spring, even though the winter this year was quite mild. For now, it is too cool still for hanami, and I have not seen any cherry blossom buds except in very sheltered spots. But, this year’s cherry blossom forecast states that they will start blooming in Kyoto some time early next week. I shall report.

Taiko

Among the many types of traditional Japanese music instruments, taiko drums are probably the most exciting. They have been used in many settings, including court music and theater – both noh and kabuki – but the biggest taiko drums were used during warfare. There, they were used chiefly for communication, to let the troops know when to attack or to retreat, or simply to keep the beat during long marches.

Today, these large drums are often played during festivals, and then, it’s usually in the form of a kumi-daiko, where a group of people with different sized drums performs together. I enjoy listening to taiko music, it is – excuse the pun – always very upbeat and energising. The video below shows a performance by Kodo, which is probably the taiko troupe that is best known outside of Japan, since they are touring abroad for four months each year.

The video is 8:24 long and safe for work – although you might want to turn the volume down a bit.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Cover for The Goddess Chronicle16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?

This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.

I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…

Natsuo Kirino is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka, a female Japanese novelist born in 1951. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.

Find out for yourself what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.

The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book
Sei Shonagon

Cover of "The Pillow Book"The Pillow Book is hard to describe. It is an ancient diary, not a novel, so there is not much plot. The entries are undated and although there are references to this or the other festival in this or the other season, it is hard to get a feeling of the flow of time. On the other hand, the little entries tell of a time and place so strange, that whatever moved the writer at her time seems to come from an entirely different universe and sounds like fiction after all. The individual entries talk about the routines of daily court life, interesting outings to festivals, and there is gossip of course, about friends, foes, and lovers alike.

The book is very strange, and every time I read it, I feel differently about it. Her stories, although they seem trivial at times – as diary entries are bound to be – still have an eerie way of drawing you in. I don’t know much about the customs of that time, but I wonder what people with a better understanding of them think about The Pillow Book.

Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1017/1025) was a court lady of the Heian court in Japan at about 970 – 1020. She began writing The Pillow Book when she received a book of fine writing paper as a gift, and her diary ends when the paper was used up. Her little vignettes tell of a time long gone and of strange customs that even at her time only a few people were privy to.

Go find out for yourself and get your copy from amazon!

Transition

As you probably know, this year, Japan will have a new emperor. The current one – the Heisei Emperor – will retire on April 30th, and his son will ascend to the throne on May 1st. There are many preparations for this event, some things are known already, and others have yet to be decided.

It is known that the retired emperor will receive the title Jōkō, which means “retired emperor” and he is the first to hold this title in almost 180 years. It is not known if he will stay in Tokyo or not, although Kyoto people do (more or less secretly) hope that he might come to live in the palace here.

It is known that on April 30, the Heisei Period will officially end, but it is not known which name the new era, starting on May 1, will have. This will be announced on April 1st, and for practical reasons, it is unlikely that the new era name will start with a T, S, or an H.

It is also already known that, on occasion of the enthronement of the new Emperor, there will be 8 national holidays in a row, from April 29 – May 6. That’s because the change will take place during Golden Week, where there are already several holidays to begin with.

  • April 29 is Showa Day, in remembrance of the father of the Heisei Emperor
  • April 30 is a “Sandwich National Holiday” because, according to Japanese law, all work days falling between two national holidays are automatically national holidays as well.
  • May 1 is a Special National Holiday because of the ascension of Still-Crown Prince Naruhito and the celebrations for the occasion
  • May 2 is a “Sandwich National Holiday” like April 30.
  • May 3 is Greenery Day, the first day of Golden Week
  • May 4 is Constitution Day, also part of the Golden Week
  • May 5 is Children’s Day, the last Golden Week holiday
  • May 6 is a “Happy Monday Holiday” because, according to Japanese Law, all National Holidays falling on a Sunday will be celebrated as a day off on the following Monday.

Add to this the weekend before, and (most of) the Japanese are looking at 10 days off in a row.

The ceremonies are not over at this point, the real enthronement will take place only on October 22nd and will probably involve a very private and secret ceremony at Ise Shrine, the highest ranking shrine in Japan.

Already now, ceremonies are being held since this year is the 30th anniversary of the current emperor’s enthronement after the death of his father in 1989. There is a large exhibition organised by the Imperial Household Agency that shows photos of many of the Heisei Emperor’s visits to Japanese and foreign cities, as well as gifts received at those occasions. Also on display are the traditional clothing worn by the current emperor and empress at their enthronement ceremony 30 years ago.

If you are in Kyoto, this very popular exhibition is taking place at the Takashimaya right now, and definitely worth a visit.