Last Winter, we Parted

Last Winter, we Parted
Fuminori Nakamura

A writer – whose name we never learn – has taken a commission to write a book about Judai Kiharazaka. The famous photographer has been convicted of burning two young women alive, and the writer interviews him to understand the motive. Kiharazaka is reluctant to open up, but the more the writer learns about Kiharazaka’s background, the more an obsessive personality comes to the foreground. However, when his investigations lead him to K2, a group centered on an artist who creates life-sized dolls after the image of dead women, the writer begins to doubt everything he has found out about Kiharazaka so far…

A complicated thriller, written from perspectives of both the writer and that of Kiharazaka. It is comprised of interviews, letters, and the writer’s notes and memories, and the plot unfolds slowly and in bursts. The big reveal at the end is a twist so far out there, I doubt that anyone could see it coming.

Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, is a Japanese writer. He published his first novel “The Thief” in 2002 and won three prestigous literature prizes within three years, one of them the Akutagawa Prize. In 2010, he won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize. A translation of “The Thief” was selected among the best 10 books of 2013 by the NY Times. Out of his 15 books, 7 have been translated into English so far.

If you’re in for something different – warning: it’s not a lighthearted read this one – then you can get it on amazon.

Yoiyama 2021, Part 2

This week is the second yoiyama of Gion Matsuri, the three days leading up to the Ato Matsuri Parade on July 24th (which has also been cancelled this year). Only 6 of the 10 yamaboko that take part in the Ato Parade were constructed. I visited “my” Ofune Hoko, where I usually help selling souvenirs, but this year I was just a guest because I can’t stand on my feet for 5 hours with my hip problem…

It was nice seeing my friends again and they even got me free entrance to the top of the Ofune Hoko. This is the first time I noticed all the names and numbers on each and every piece the Ofune Hoko is constructed of.

There are more than 600 pieces for the main boat and the large dragon that sits at the front of the float is made from 12.

Just like last week, the Daimaru Department store, which is nearby where the yamaboko are built, showed miniature versions of them. They are maybe a meter high (excluding the poles) and are made in loving detail. These look like antiques, so they are probably priceless. I couldn’t find out whom they belong to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are owned by one or more of the old merchant families of Kyoto that have been involved in Gion Matsuri for centuries (literally).

As usual around the time of the Ato Matsuri, it is very hot. Today it was around 35 degrees and the inner city streets were stifling. I went out pretty early and still got myself a nice sunburn… And yet, it is comparatively cool, several degrees below what is usual. There was even a slight breeze today and I haven’t used my fan a single time yet. Maybe tonight’s the night?

Atsuage Donburi

Time for another summer recipe! My friend Junko taught me this dish, and besides being quick-and-easy, it has the added bonus that it is extremely cheap: The tofu needed for this recipe costs only 50 yen a slice! Initially, I hesitated putting it up, as some of the ingredients may be a bit hard to find outside of Japan, but then again, I modified the recipe already, and so can you. Here we go:

Atsuage Donburi à la Junko san
(for 1 person)

  • 1 bowl of cooked rice
  • 1 tablespoon of furikake
    Mix the rice with the furikake and put it in a bowl.
  • 1 piece of yawaraka tofu (atsuage). These are very thick slices (3cm) of fried tofu.
    Wash the tofu in hot water to remove any remnants of oil. Use a fork to poke small holes through the tofu.
  • 1-2 tablespoons each of dashi and mirin
  • 1 teaspoon each of sugar and soysauce
    Combine the above ingredients and heat them in a small pan. Put in the tofu and heat it from all sides so that it absorbs the broth.

    When this is finished, take the tofu out of the broth, cut it in squares and place it on top of the rice.

Now, if that wasn’t quick and easy – and it’s vegetarian too! As I said, I modified the original recipe which called for carrots and daikon cut into small pieces and replaced it with the furikake. I’m using furikake made with sesame and red pepper to add a spicy flavour to this otherwise rather bland dish (the broth doesn’t help that much). But any type of furikake or fresh herbs and spices will do just nicely, depending on your own preferences.

Enjoy!

Kinkaku-ji, Plain

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, is probably one of the best-known tourist attractions of Kyoto. The two top floors of the temple are covered in leaf gold; the third floor with the main Buddha relics is gilded inside as well (and not accessible to the public).

However, the temple as you see it today – I’ve written about it before – is not the same one as built in the 14th century. The original building was set on fire by a novice monk of the temple in 1950, and was restored in 1955. At that time, gold leaf was added quite liberally to the top two floors, and some people question whether this is historically accurate.

At any case, here is an image of Kinkaku-ji from some time in the Meiji period. It has been colored by hand and does not show much golden sparkle, but this may be just because of the age of the building. It’s absolutely stunning, and, compared to the modern building, it feels much less sterile. What do you think?

An old photo of Kinkaku-ji

Journey under the Midnight Sun

Journey under the Midnight Sun
Keigo Higashino

Cover for "Journey under the Midnight Sun" by Keigo Higashino.

Osaka, 1973. In an abandoned building in a poor part of town, a local pawnbroker is found stabbed to death. Although the investigation is able to zero in onto a prime suspect – the man’s lover – the case cannot be solved and is put on ice. But inspector Sasagaki is not deterred and keeps a watchful eye on Ryo, the son of the pawnbroker and on Yukiho, the daughter of his suspected mistress.

Over the years, Yukiho turns into a mesmerising and independent woman, and Ryo becomes a small gangster involved in computer crime before he disappears without a trace. Only 20 years after the murder inspector Sasagaki is finally able to tear apart the web of deceit that surrounds Yukiho and Ryo and finally finds out who and what was behind the murder.

Another fascinating novel by Keigo Higashino with a startling twist near the end. We follow the two children at the periphery of the murder from their teens to their early adulthood and although they never seem to meet openly, there are too many coincidences in both their lives not to believe in an ongoing connection. What starts out as a strong bond of friendship between them is soon brimming with criminal energy, both out in the open and hidden in the dark.

Keigo Higashino was born in Osaka in 1958 and received a Bachelor of Engineering from Osaka Prefecture University. He started working in the automotive industry, but left the company in 1986 after receiving the Rampo Prize for best unpublished mystery. Has written more than 85 novels and short story collections, and is one of Asia’s most popular authors. From 2009 to 2013 he served as the president of Mystery Writers in Japan.

Get this great summer read on amazon before heading to the beach.

Kyoto’s Three Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Super short weekend post today. I was out all afternoon and came home later than I expected. I was watching Dainenbutsu Kyogen – short pantomimes that often have a religious theme but are mostly meant to be funny – by the three most famous groups in Kyoto, all in one afternoon and all in one venue and for (almost) free to boot!

I will give you a more detailed report next week.

Teru Teru Bozu

Japan is very much a kawaii culture. Think of Hello Kitty, Doraemon and yuru-chara like Kumamon. Even official letters from the government, tax office or health center cannot do without specially designed characters, the cuter, the better. More traditional ones that originate centuries ago are the maneki neko in stores, the ubiquitous tanuki and the teru teru bozu.

This little doll resembles our kids’ idea of spooky disguise: put a bedsheet over your head, paint on black eyes and turn into a ghost! The resemblance is purely superficial though. In Japan, a teru teru bozu is believed to be a good spirit that influences the weather!

These dolls were originally made by farmers as a prayer for good weather. They became very popular in cities during the Edo period when they were made by children and hung outside their windows just before a school outing. Sadly, they don’t seem to be very common anymore, probably because of vastly improved weather forecasts. In all my time in Japan I have only seen the one above – and at a temple to boot (which is funny because the name means literally shine shine monk.) However, if you do see one, you can find out easily how enticing the upcoming school outing is to the child: If the teru teru bozu hangs heads up, the prayer is for good weather the next day, heads down, and the prayer is for rain. I wish I had known a trick like that when I was in school…

The 10 Loves of Mr. Nishino

The 10 Loves of Mr. Nishino
Hiromi Kawakami

The first time we hear about Mr. Nishino is when he suddenly appears in the garden of one of his ex-lovers, and claims that he’s dying. She and her daughter, who knows him as the man who bought her parfait as a child, sit with him and reminisce, until he disappears again as unexpectedly as he has come. This pattern (minus the dying) repeats itself with nine other women of Mr. Nishino’s life who share their own memories of their often brief relationship with this fascinating man, who nevertheless remains elusive to each one of them.

This is not so much a novel than a set of 10 vignettes centered around the main character, Mr. Nishino. From early childhood on he is irresistable to girls and women, who fall over each other to land in his arms. Yet, even though some of them know he’s double-dating, they still describe him positively, almost as if he couldn’t help it.

Unfortunately, each chapter is written from the viewpoint of the woman du jour, so that the “real” Mr. Nishino never has to reveal himself. And the women themselves function merely as chroniclers of rather than as participants in the stories. This left me unsatisfied and none the wiser about any of the characters, and there is no plot either to provide a cohesive whole. I like Kawakami’s books in general, but this was not one of her stronger ones.

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and started out as writer and editor of science fiction stories after graduating from college. She has since received numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Yomiuri Prize.

I’d recommend getting this from the library, but if you prefer to own your books, here’s a link to amazon.

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Kitano Tenmangu is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, among locals and visitors alike. Not only does it have a huge flea market (Tenjin-san) each month on the 25th, but many students of all ages visit before an important exam to pray to the God of Wisdom that is enshrined there. The year 2021 is an especially good year to visit Kitano Tenmangu because of its connection with the ox, this year’s zodiac animal.

Wooden Statue of Sugawara-no-Michizane.Kitano Tenmangu enshrines a real historical person, Sugawara-no-Michizane as its main deity. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a courtier, where he was supported by Emperor Uda. However, after Uda’s retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later without returning to the capital, and was buried in Kyushu. Now, the story goes that after his death, Kyoto was hit by natural disasters and a number of Fujiwara courtiers and even the emperor’s family met with illness and personal tragedies. In search for the reason, Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams. Thus, in 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of around 12,000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan. 

The approach to Kitano Tenmangu from the south starts at a large stone torii and follows a path lined with stone lanterns. At the end lies the shrine’s impressive romon gate, a bit elevated from the outer grounds and the main entrance. It is flanked by the common statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern right above the path.

On the other side of the gate the precincts open wide. To the left lies the emasha exhibiting large wooden tablets, typical presents to shrines. During the New Year’s period people come here to write their very first calligraphy of the year, and the best ones are exhibited afterwards. Further down this path lies the plum garden of Kitano Tenmangu. These were the favourite trees of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and more than 1500 trees can be found in the precincts. The fruits are pickled and sold in December, to be put into tea on New Year’s day as a good luck charm.

To the right lies the shrine’s treasure house, where many valuable gifts that were presented to the shrine over the centuries are stored and exhibited. The most important treasure is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll below which depicts the origin story of Kitano Tenmangu.

Painted Scroll showing the founding of Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto.

However, the main buildings of the shrine lie straight ahead from the romon gate. You must pass through the sankomon gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, behind which lies a lovely courtyard with the outer and main prayer halls straight ahead. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, these two prayer halls lie under a single, wood-shingled roof, which is very unusual and called the yatsumune zukuri style. The two main gates and the main hall show the typical architecture of the Momoyama period with intricately painted carvings, golden ornaments and pretty lanterns. They were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1607, and the main reason why Kitano Tenmangu is designated as a National Treasure.

Another historically important feature of Kitano Tenmangu is often overlooked by the casual visitor. It’s the so-called Odoi, a slightly elevated hill at the western end of the precincts that was once part of the city’s fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which a little stream flows. As can be expected, this part is especially beautiful during the the koyo in autumn and the aomomiji fresh leaves in spring.

Okay, enough teasing: What’s the connection with the ox? Well, Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox, and thus, oxen or cows are seen as his messengers. Another story goes that when he was supposed to return to Kyoto, he died on the way, and the ox that was pulling his cart lay down on the street and would not get up anymore. In any case, throughout Kitano Tenmangu, you will find many statues of cows. These are called nade ushi, stroking cows, and the idea is that you first rub your ailing body part and then its counterpart on the cow to transfer your malaise to the statue and get rid of it for good. Definitely worth a try!

Statue of a black cow with red bib in Kitano Tenmangu.

Because it is visited by so many high school kids preparing for their university entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is very busy throughout the year. Like at all other shrines, you can buy goshuin stamps and omamori charms, mostly related to scholarship. Since I like useful stuff, I bought a lovely wooden box of pencils with the shrine emblem and wise sayings on them. Not sure it helps with the wisdom though…