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.

 

An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World
Kazuo Ishiguro

cover of artist of the floating worldIt’s just after WWII and Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, is in the middle of marriage negotiations for his daughter Noriko. The procedures disrupt his quiet retiree life full with gardening, making house repairs and drinking with old friends in the local pleasure district – now all but abandoned. To secure a positive outcome for his daughter, Masuji is forced to revisit his past – both figuratively and literally in the form of old acquaintances from before the war, and not all of this is as pleasant as he might have wished.

We follow Masuji Ono from 1948 to 1950, in which Japan makes a rapid jump towards industrialisation, American style. While Masuji is more and more ready to accept responsibility for his past actions of glorifying the war through his art, it appears that the views of his surroundings take the opposite direction, as they are striving to let go of the past and look toward the future.

WWII is still a sensitive topic in Japan, and not readily talked about. Also in school, many parts of the war that are less than pretty are left out deliberately or are heavily censored and sanitised. I found Ishiguro’s view from the outside in – as an Englishman with Japanese roots – very interesting and enlightening.

Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki in 1954, but living in England since age 5, has just been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though he never lived in Japan, his books have definitely a Japanese feel to them, with his many allusions and implications that are directed at the insider. Many of his novels come with a shocking twist somewhere, that hit the reader – the outsider – with a harsh surprise.

Try out this – or other novels by Ishiguro – on amazon.com.

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

Cover of Colorless Tsukuru TazakiTsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…

The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.

When I first read this novel, I found it incomprehensible how the four “color” people could ditch Tsukuru from one day to the other without explanation, without talking to him, without apparent remorse. Now that I lived in Japan for longer, I can see that this is a very standard Japanese pattern. It is done to protect the harmony of the group, which is paramount in Japanese society and thinking. And sometimes, it’s not the “guilty” person who has to leave, it is somebody else. Been there, had that done to me…

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied drama in Tokyo and became the owner of a Jazz bar. At age 29, he started writing, and since has become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.

Interesting book – check it out on amazon.

Tanuki

One of the most ubiquitous creatures that can be found all over Japan is the tanuki. Statues of the tanuki – translated as raccoon dog – are often seen outside restaurants or shops to beckon customers, just like the Japanese maneki neko cat. Unlike the maneki neko, however, tanuki can also be found at entrances to private homes or around the precincts of Buddhist temples. They are also the subject of many woodblock prints from the Edo period, and they feature in numerous stories, the oldest ones dating back to the 8th century.

Tanuki in Buddhist templeLong before that, tanuki were revered as gods or at least godlike creatures, who ruled over Japanese nature. However, that changed with the introduction of Buddhism and tanuki were relegated to divine messengers and local guardian spirits. They are still seen as magical today, mostly as pranksters and mischievous little beasts, who, even though they may mean no harm, can wreak havoc to the minds and bodies of their unsuspecting victims.

The most amazing feat any tanuki can perform is shapeshifting. Shapeshifting into anything, really: stones, trees, statues, things as extraordinary as the moon and as common as household items… There is a cute story about the latter: A tanuki wanted to repay a farmer for a good deed and transformed into a beautiful tea kettle, which the farmer sold for a good price to a rich man. But the first time the tea kettle was put to use and heated over a fire it sprouted head, tail, and legs, and returned to the farmer. In the end, the farmer earned a lot of money for showing people the tailed and snouted tea kettle, so there is a good ending to the story after all.

Tanuki as Tea KettleTanuki also enjoy taking human form, in particular that of Buddhist monks, in which they received the special name of tanuki-bozu. In this shape, they are out to cause mischief by imitating – more or less perfectly – human activities like attending funerals, or working as a scribe. Of course, sooner or later the disguise will be discovered and the poor tanuki is thrown out of the temple, but there is one legend of a tanuki-bozu that was allowed to become a page at the temple after his discovery, and was even buried in a regular grave. Most of the times such a favourable treatment is not the case though, and the tanuki must leave, which means that all the things he has bewitched during his stay – something else they are capable of – will return to their real shape, piles of money will then turn to leaves, for example.

As mentioned above, statues of tanuki can be found all over Japan, and although they come in various sizes, they all essentially look the same. The reason for this is, that these statues go back to a single artist called Tetsuzo Fujiwara, a potter who lived in Koga, a village in Shiga prefecture, that one day was visited by emperor Hirohito. Since Koga is known for pottery, the streets were lined with tanuki statues waving flags and the emperor was so amused by this, that the wrote a poem about it – and the rest is history.

tanuji statueSince tanuki have been ascribed with eight special traits supposed to bring good fortune, many of the statues depict at least some of them:

  • friendly smile
  • hat (protecting against bad fortune and weather)
  • big eyes (help making good decisions and perceive the environment)
  • sake bottle (representing virtue, often with the kanji for 8 written on them)
  • big tail (strength and steadiness until one is successful)
  • promissory note (representing trust or confidence)
  • big belly (stands for decisiveness)
  • big scrotum (symbolising luck in money matters)

Especially the final trait may seem a bit odd, and indeed, the origin story behind it is quite interesting. In fact, tanuki are real animals, properly translated as Japanese raccoon dogs. Sometimes, the word tanuki is falsely translated into English as badger or raccoon, but those are different species. The mistake is not surprising, because even within Japan, there are differences in naming the animal; even though tanuki is the official name, mujina is a regional variation. The confusion goes back to the kanji, which originally mostly referred to wild cats. But since there are no wild cats native to Japan (other than in Okinawa), the kanji began to be used for the tanuki. Tanuki are widespread in Japan. They live mostly in forested areas, but have also been seen scavenging in cities even as large as Tokyo.

Real TanukiAnyway, back to the scrotum: Real tanuki already have a large scrotum, but this alone would probably not be enough for comic depiction. The background here is that in the old days, metal workers in Kanazawa who were charged with producing gold leaf, put their gold nuggets into the skin of tanuki scrotums before hammering. It happens that this skin in particular can be stretched extremely thin – allegedly to the size of eight tatami mats – which makes it very useful for producing gold leaf. Moreover, tanuki scrotums were made into wallets, and surely the connection between kin no tama – small gold balls – and kintama – slang for testicles – helped the legend along quite a bit as well.

tanuki scrotum cloakThere are many stories about tanuki and their mischievous behaviour, but not many of them involve their kintama. This particular trait was picked up by ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period. There, tanuki are depicted using their scrotums as sails for boats or even boats themselves, as fishing nets, umbrellas, cloaks… Nowadays these depictions are rare, but the statues are still very popular throughout Japan, and the tanuki also functions as mascot for a number of Japanese companies. And who knows, maybe that jolly old Japanese you just met is nothing but a tanuki in disguise waiting to make a fool of you…

Seiryu-e Festival

I’m so busy these days with all sorts of stuff, so even though I finally know about many of the cool events in Kyoto, I barely have time to go there anymore… However, last Friday I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule and visit the Seiryu-e Festival of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Seiryu-e Festival is the festival of the blue dragon, where an 18 m long dragon is carried through the temple precincts and later though the streets below Kiyomizu-dera. In the beginning, the dragon emerges from the 3 storied pagoda near the entrance of the temple. It is accompanied by three women in front and a group of men (monks?) behind it. Of course, a number of people with shell trumpets must be there as well to announce the coming of the dragon.

The blue dragon enters Kiyomizu-deraThere is a very short ceremony in the main hall of the temple before the dragon moves on to the newly renovated stage where it performs an elaborate dance to the chanting of the monks that have followed it earlier. Afterwards, the dragon moves through the temple precincts and back to the pagoda, which it circles once before leaving the temple through the main gate and going down to the streets below to bestow its blessings onto the town.

The blue dragon is believed to be an incarnation of Kannon – the goddess of mercy – and it is said that it visits the waterfalls of Kiyomizu-dera each night to drink. To Western minds it may sound a bit weird, but in Asian culture, dragons are associated with water instead of fire, and many temples and shrines have wells with a dragon-shaped spout. Also, the translation of Kiyomizu-dera is “Clear Water Temple”, so it seems natural for this temple to have a festival like this.

The blue dragon of Kiyomizu-deraInterestingly, this is one of the newest additions to Kyoto’s festival calendar. The first Seiryu-e festival was held only in 2000, and although the dragon is quite spectacular, it appears as if not many people are aware of the performance. I had the impression that most people who were visiting Kiyomizu-dera – which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto – didn’t know about the festival and were taken by surprise.

Because of this, the ceremony was not overly crowded, and I managed to get a first row spot to take photos; and I even managed to receive a special blessing including a paper talisman that was given out by the women accompanying the dragon through town. If you like, you can have a look at a short video of the Seiryu-e Festival at the homepage of Kiyomizu-dera: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/seiryu-e/

Maguro

In Japan, tunafish is the most popular fish for sushi and sashimi. Large tunafish can sell at auctions for thousands of US$, and the carving of a tunafish into bite sized pieces is an attraction that draws lots of people every time. Thanks to Japan being an island, fish is popular and ubiquitous, and most people buy their tuna – fish in general – raw and cook it themselves.

In the West, tunafish is much less attractive. Of course, it is eaten often, but not many people have ever seen anything else than the cooked pieces that are drowned in oil and packed in cans. In fact, this kind of canned tuna also exists in Japan, of course, but here it is called “sea chicken” for some reason.

The best way to cook tuna – according to a Japanese tuna salesman I asked – is to grill it very lightly so that it is still raw in the middle, just like good steak. But the most delicious way to eat tunafish is as sushi or sashimi because only there the delicate taste comes out as it should. What many people don’t realise is that tunafish tastes differently depending on which part of the fish is eaten. After all, a grown tuna can be up to one metre long, that’s a lot of meat!

3 types of maguro sushiWhen eating sushi, there are essentially three types of tuna available: Maguro sushi is the most common, and this is usually what is served abroad as well. It is dark red, comes from the fish’s back near the spine and is the leanest type of tuna. Pieces from the belly are called Otoro, their color is light pink because they contain a lot of fat. Often, otoro pieces are marbled like good beef, and they are so tender that they melt easily on the tongue. The taste is quite oily though, not everybody likes that. A bit more to the inside of the belly of the fish are the pieces called chutoro (written with the Kanji for “middle”). They are pretty much in the middle between maguro and otoro, in taste, fat content, and in color.

Interestingly, otoro is the most expensive part of a tuna fish, at least of the parts that are eaten as sushi. For the average Westerner this must sound strange – just imagine all that fat! – but the Japanese don’t mind fat that much, and otoro is very tasty indeed. If you have a chance somewhere at a sushi bar to try out all three kinds of tuna cuts, do so! You will not be disappointed, promised!