Taiko

Taiko
Eiji Yoshikawa

Book CoverIn the year 1537, yet another child is born into the family of an impoverished samurai. Although little Hiyoshi is smart and streetwise, he cannot hold an apprenticeship and is finally kicked out of the house by his stepfather. Wandering through the provinces, he encounters the young Oda Nobunaga and immediately decides to serve him. Starting out as a lowly sandal-bearer, a combination of hard work, tenacity and wit lets him climb the social ranks higher and higher until, in his 40s, he is known as Hideyoshi and considered one of the top generals of Japan. From there, it is just a small step to avenge the murder of his lord Oda Nobunaga and to become Taiko, the leader of the country.

This epic historical fiction – the abridged English translation runs just shy of 1000 pages – follows the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi from his humble beginnings all the way to his appointment as Taiko. Through his sharp wit and gift for rousing speech, he manages to manoeuver the dangerous Sengoku Period (the Warring States of Japan) and remains the unchallenged victor at the end.

Whenever I read books like this, I wonder how much we really know about any historical figure. I know that the Japanese are meticulous record keepers and even many private letters of that time survive. Still, how much do we really know about Hideyoshi and his relationship to Nene, his wife? Anyway, If you’re even remotely interested in Hideyoshi and his time, this is a very exciting read!

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career at twenty-two years of age. During his thirties he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published serially in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered among the best historical novelists of Japan.

For all of you who need something longer to keep them occupied during the Corona shutdown, get this book at amazon.

Yes…Noh

Just as promised in my last post, I went to the Yes…Noh event at Murin-an garden last week with a friend of mine. My friend was semi-happy about it, since she is not really into Noh, but she likes the garden, so this was a good compromise. And I had fun, even though the Noh was not quite as I expected.

yes...nohI thought that maybe we’ll see a few scenes with a fully dressed actor, but no, it was a su-utai performance. Here, the actor sings his role (or part of it) but there is no accompanying music, no costumes, no mask. The only accessory he has is his fan. This kind of performance feels very raw, and because of the venue it was very intimate too. The actor sat in one of the rooms of Murin-an and sang  while looking out into the garden. And for two more acts, he stood in the garden and performed there.

We got a short introduction to the play the songs were taken from, it was Yuya, suitable for the sakura season. The play was well-chosen, not just to fit the season, but it also is set nearby, at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple. Like many of the Noh plays based on the Heike Monogatari, it is said to have a true core. Anyway, here is a summary of Yuya:

Yuya is a concubine to Taira no Munemori, one of the most powerful men in the country. She receives word that her mother is sick and begs to return home. But Munemori refuses twice, he wants her to be present at a cherry blossom viewing. There, a little rain makes the cherry blossoms fall, Yuya composes a poem on the fly and Munemori finally relents and lets her go.

A lovely sentimental play for a lovely time of the year (even though Murin-an is not famous for its cherry blossoms…) And there’s more to come: Apparently, this is now a monthly feature event at Murin-an. I’m looking forward to more!

Signs in Kyoto

Kyoto is different from any other city in Japan, and even Japanese people – born in Kyoto or not – generally agree with me. Personally, I like to call Kyoto “the most Japanese city” of the country, whereas the other big centres like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Sendai… feel more generally Asian to me. The differences range from language (besides the special vocabulary that is common in any dialect, Kyoto-ben is considered more formal than any other local variety of Japanese) to customs, food, building styles etc.

Part of the latter are strict zoning laws for the city. For example, with the one and only exception of Kyoto Tower (131 m), no building may be taller than the 5-story pagoda of Toji temple. It measures 54.8 meters, the elevation difference of Kyoto’s Shichijo and Kitaoji streets. 

Anyway, I wanted to talk about another thing where Kyoto is quite different from all other cities in Japan, something most people don’t even notice. Look at these two photos below. Notice the difference? Sure you do, but what is it, exactly?

The signs are gone! Since 2013, Kyoto has implemented rigorous standards for company signs, ranging from sizing and placement to detailed rules for coloring. Nowhere in Kyoto will you find gaudy colors during the day or flashy neon signs at night. If you want to hang out your shingle, it better be a classy one.

Starbucks near Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

For this reason, many Japanese companies had to come up with special color schemes for their signs just for Kyoto. And even multinational corporations like Mac Donald’s have to obey the rules. Not every company goes quite as far as Starbucks though, but then again, this particular cafe near Kiyomizudera is the exception there as well.

Many long-established Kyoto companies go the traditional route when it comes to their signage. Even on modern buildings you can see wooden signs, but the large carved ones are most often found on traditional buildings. There also, you may be greeted with a chochin lantern inscribed with the company name or with a logo-bearing noren in front of the main door, which, by the way, is a practical indicator of whether the place is open for business. 

Signs at the Shimadai Gallery

Yes, Kyoto is different! And with this rather small and insignificant change, the city government allows you to take your eyes off the blinking signage so you can focus on the things that really matter.

Yasaka Pagoda at night

All photos above are taken from the publication “Signs in Kyoto” by the Kyoto City Government.

Hina Matsuri

Tuesday was March 3rd – the day of Hina Matsuri, or the doll festival. It’s an ancient purification festival dedicated to daughters. In the old days, special dolls were used to absorb illness from people and then often ritually discarded.

Nagashi Bina dolls at Kamigamo Shrine.This year, I went to Kamigamo Shrine for their Nagashi Bina ceremony. Many shrines have a ceremony like this and the core of it is simple: You write your name and your wish onto a slip of paper that is often shaped like a human figure, and then you place the doll into a stream at the shrine so that the water “purifies” the paper and takes your wish with you. Some rituals have you rub the paper doll at your (aching) body or you blow on it to have the doll soak up all your misfortunes or illnesses before you place it into the stream.

At Kamigamo Shrine, there is first a ceremony at the main shrine. I did not see it because I was rather late and the entrance to the building was crowded. Anyway, I bought a little paper box and wrote my wish onto a piece of paper that I put into the box. After the ceremony at the main shrine, the priests and shrine maidens came down to the stream and did a quick purification and prayer ceremony at the stream. They were then the first ones to release boxes into the stream. Afterwards, the other visitors were allowed to do the same.

Nagashi Bina and Plum Branch from Kamigamo Shrine.It was a nice ceremony and overall, there were not many people, either because of Corona or because Kamigamo Shrine is a bit off the beaten tracks. There was an NHK TV team filming the scene though, and the friend I was with told me later that they showed a short segment on the evening news (sans yours truly, thankfully.) As a bonus, we received flowering plum branches to take home as the doll festival is often also called the plum festival, fitting the season. My branch is now gracing my living room, and I hope it will remain blooming for a while.

As I have mentioned before, now that I know about all those fun events, I rarely have time to go anymore. However, I am resolved to see more of Kyoto’s traditional events, especially at places I have not visited before. I hope I can get out of my shell a bit more and meet more people this way too.



Malice

Malice
Keigo Higashino

Bestselling author Kunihiko Hidaka was found murdered in his office by his wife and his old friend, Osamu Nonoguchi. Detective Kaga, who happens to be an old acquaintance of Nonoguchi’s, investigates the case and thankfully, the murderer is quickly found. All the evidence that is subsequently revealed seems to corroborate the motive as the murderer explains it, but detective Kaga is not satisfied. Thus begins a search for the true motive behind the killing, which sends Kaga back to the past of Hidaka and Nonoguchi – as well as his own.

This is not your typical whoduneit, but more of a whydunit. After about a quarter of the story, the murderer has been found. However, the motive he reveals is nothing but a smokescreen erected to slander the victim beyond his death, and the real “Why?” comes to light only at the very end. While I know that people can go to great lengths to destroy an enemy, I found the fabricated motive too far-fetched, and the denouement of the real one at the end somewhat disappointing, although it was quite chilling. But maybe I’m just too much of a goodie two shoes…

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started his professional writing career in 1986. He published more than 60 novels, 20 of which have been turned into films. He won a number of prestigious awards and served as the 13th president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 2009 to 2013.

Find out why the writer was killed and get the book from amazon.

Tenno Tanjobi

Today is a national holiday – the birthday of the Emperor of Japan. This year it is the first time it is celebrated on February 23rd, after the old Emperor’s birthday is exactly two months earlier in December. Because of the abdication/ascention being in April/May last year, there was no Tenno Tanjobi in 2019.

Usually on this day, the Imperial palace in Tokyo is open to the public and people may go and see the Imperial couple and sign a guestbook. However, this year, with the corona virus scare rampant even in Japan, the event was cancelled, even though the government thought it not necessary.

The new emperor Naruhito turned 60 today, and we all hope that he will lead a long and healthy – and not too restricted – life.

Japanese Parking Lots

Japan as a country ranks among the most densely populated places on Earth. Especially in the big cities, space is at a premium, and a family of 5 living in a 60 m2 apartment is not unusual. Another place where this lack of space shows in parking, and Japan has a number of interesting and often unique approaches to deal with the issue.

Although Japan boasts one of the safest and most reliable public transport systems on the planet, owning a car is still seen as a status symbol, in particular when it comes to expensive and foreign cars. However, before you lay down your money to buy an expensive car, you must prove that you have a parking lot for it, no matter if you live in Tokyo or somewhere in the Japanese Alps.

In Japan, curbside parking is virtually nonexistent, so what to do? Some people rent a paid parking lot nearby their home. Often these are temporary lots where the owner waits for permission to erect a new building. Many of the parking lots people use on their errands are like these too, and the pricing often varies according to area.

Most people, however, park on their own property right in front of their home or they rent (or possibly own) a parking lot at their apartment building. And this is where things get really interesting!

My own block of apartments was built in the 1970s, at a time when this part of Kyoto was still considered “outskirts” (and a little it still is). This means that there was ample space between the buildings with room for trees and grass and – parking lots. More modern buildings, or those that are in inner city, do not have or cannot afford this luxury to begin with. So, they build parking garages, but with a twist!

A Japanese parking rack for cars

In many Japanese garages, the parking lots are stacked on top of each other with no space for a person to move between the cars. The idea is as follows: All you need to build one is space for, say 10 parking lots in two rows plus access to the first row. Let’s also say you have space for 4 storeys, one underground and three above ground. The whole thing is one large metal “rack” (for lack of better words), where each parking lot can move individually left/right and up/down as needed. You rent your very own parking lot and only have access to this one.

Now, say you need your car, but it’s not in the first row on ground level – how do you get it out? You have a key that you insert into the control box. Your parking lot with your car will automatically move to one of the front row spots so you can get to your car. Other lots that are blocking the way automatically move. Of course, it may take a while until your car is in the right spot, so people need to factor that in if they are in a hurry.

Looking down a "parking rack" in Japan

On the other hand, this kind of parking racks saves a huge amount of space. In some areas, they are also used for temporary parking. Often, they are in very high but narrow buildings, and customers only have access to the ground floor. They leave their car there and an operator will take care of it – valet parking for everyone!

Here is a video on how parking works in one of these parking garages. It’s similar to the private ones in apartment blocks, but has an even more eerie feel (why are there announcements when there’s nobody down there??)

It is quite interesting to see such a system operating. I know that I was totally stunned the first time I saw one. In fact, a friend of mine whose building has one of these parking racks says that there are always tourists taking photos of it.

Japanese parking garages – the secret tourist attraction. Who would have thought!

Setsubun at Rozan-ji

Yesterday was setsubun, the last day of winter in the traditional calendar. It is said that between the seasons there is a gap through which evil demons enter the world. Obviously, this is not good, so they have to be repelled – by throwing roasted beans at them while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. I wrote about setsubun and the ceremony at Kyoto’s Yoshida Shrine on this blog before (and also on What’s up in Kyoto by the way), if you are curious about details.

Yesterday I went to two setsubun rituals. In the morning, a friend of mine invited me to the temple were she usually goes to. First, there was a normal worship with lots of chanting done by the congregation, which was the first time I experienced this – usually, it’s only the monks chanting. Afterwards, there was a short sermon by the current head of the temple (broadcast from Tokyo, another first time for me) and then there was the mamemaki bean throwing. My friend’s mother was smart enough to bring a large shawl that she draped on our laps, so we got an extra amount of lucky beans without straining too much.

After lunch, we went to Rozan-ji temple, where Kyoto’s second largest setsubun ritual (after the one in Yoshida shrine) is taking place. Here, there is a Buddhist ceremony taking place inside the temple, and while only selected guests may enter, you can hear the chanting outside as well. Then, all of a sudden, three scary demons in red, green, and black appear on the scene, wielding a sword and a torch, an axe, and a mallet. They perform a kind of dance on stage and slowly and with lots of looking about, approach the temple and finally enter it.

Inside, the priests appear undeterred from their ritual and keep on chanting as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I could not see what was going on, but after a while, the three demons ran out of the temple, without their weapons and staggering from left to right. They disappeared somewhere at the back of the precinct, never to be seen again – setsubun mission accomplished!

Right afterwards, an archer came out and shot arrows into the four cardinal directions. This is meant to create a kind of blessed circle around the temple, which evil demons cannot cross. Catching one of these arrows is also considered lucky, and if you do, they should be displayed in the altar of the home or, lacking one, near the entrance door.

Finally, it was time for the setsubun highlight, the mamemaki bean throwing. Some of the priests and other invited people came onto the stage where just before the demons had danced, and started shouting “oni wa soto” while throwing beans to the spectators. Besides the lucky beans that were covered in white and pink sugar-coating (and were quite delicious), they also threw small mochi into the crowds. Some of them had a stamp on them saying “lucky”, and you could exchange these mochi for a sacred arrow.

There was quite some scrambling for the beans and the mochi. It’s surprisingly hard to catch them, but people were just as happy to pick them up from the ground (which meant more scrambling). I was not lucky enough to catch an arrow, nor did I catch one of the “lucky” mochi. I did catch one normal mochi though and picked up a second one, and one of the lucky beans caught in my collar.

All in all, with all the beans I got throughout the day and the two mochi, I think I will be decked in with luck for the time being. Which is always a good thing, I think we can agree on that!

I’ll add some pictures tomorrow!

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami

Cover of "Norwegian Wood"Taru Watanabe is a student at a private university in Tokyo in the 1960s and he lives the average life of an average student: some parties, some studies, some music, some girls… But then Naoko re-enters his life, a girl he knew from school. Taru had a crush on her then, but she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki and thus off-limits. Now however, Naoko is free, and they rekindle their friendship that soon blossoms into a tender romance. But then Naoko disappears, and despite his efforts, Taru cannot find her.

At this time, he meets Midori, who is the total opposite of the quiet and introverted Naoko. Taru quickly falls in love with the outspoken and demanding Midori, but just as he is ready to commit, a letter from Naoko arrives…

On the surface, this sounds like a typical “man between two women” story, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Taru loves Naoko deeply, but her inner troubles don’t permit her a relationship. Midori on the other hand is open and available – which makes her scary in another way. Will Taru be able to choose in the end?

Haruki Murakami, born in 1949, is among the best known Japanese authors of today. He started writing with 29 and the above book, published in 1987, became his breakthrough with millions of copies sold in Japan alone. Haruki Murakami has been the recipient of a number of prestigious literature prizes, among them the Tanizaki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Franz Kafka Prize, and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.

To relive the times of young adult angst in and about love, get this book on amazon.com.

The Crab Cannery Ship

The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle
Takiji Kobayashi

Cover of The Crab Cannery ShipThis book consists of three novellas, all written in the late 1920s/early 1930s. All three concern class struggles, the rising of the working class, and the left-wing movements in Hokkaido.

  • The Crab Cannery Ship is a novella about a season of crab fishing near the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. Neither factory nor ship, local fishermen and other laborers from Hokkaido have to endure unspeakable hardships to feed their families, until, at last, there is an uprising… 
  • Upon the jailing of her brother, Okei and her mother must move to Otaru to make ends meet. Yasuko, the younger sister works there already, in a small restaurant. When she gets involved with Yamada, a member of the worker’s union, the lives of both sisters change, but whether it’s a change for the better remains to be seen.
  • Life of a Party Member is exactly that, the struggles of a member of the left-wing party who is forced into the underground. However, he still keeps up his work to convert people to the socialist movement. It is not clear whether this piece is autobiographical.

The three stories in this book can probably be called left-wing propagandist literature, and the author, as a member of the labour movement does nothing to hide it. However, the writing is incredibly vivid and conjures up dreary pictures of the lives of impoverished people. I felt very drawn to the protagonists, and was ready to step in to help, all the while seeing through some of the more obvious propaganda (of course, with almost 100 years of hindsight). The first story was republished in 2008 and became a bestseller in Japan, a sign for the constant need to make a change, I guess.

Takiji Kobayashi was born in 1903 and moved to Hokkaido as a small child. He started writing short stories and published them when at university, and at that time he became a member of the labour movement. “The Crab Cannery Ship” was written in 1929 and it sold 15.000 copies before it was banned. He continued to write more stories and books in support of the labour movement and socialist ideas. In 1931, Kobayashi became an official member of the already outlawed Japanese Communist party, and one year later, he went underground. In 1933 he was captured by the police, tortured, and died while in custody – officially – from a “heart attack”.

If you’d like to read this book that became a bestseller and sold 500.000 copies 80 years after it was published, head over to amazon.