Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.

After Dark

After Dark
Haruki Murakami

Cover for "After Dark"It’s midnight in Tokyo and once again, Mari doesn’t want to go to bed, doesn’t even want to go home. A regular late customer, she sits in a Denny’s cafe reading when Takahashi enters, a trombone case slung over his shoulder. He recognizes Mari from a date some years previous and sits at her table for a while but he soon leaves for his band practice. Mari is alone again until Kaoru, the manager of a nearby love hotel, storms into the place and asks Mari for help. A young Chinese prostitute has been assaulted in her hotel, and she needs an interpreter. Mari follows Kaoru into the night, and soon she is enveloped in the weird stories that happen after dark in the big city.

Three stories are being told in this book: The one of Mari and Takahashi, of Kaoru and what’s going on in her love hotel, and – of Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, who, like Snow White, has been sleeping for a very long time… The three stories don’t form a single whole, but like the myriad of rail tracks in Tokyo, only cross and touch each other at intervals, but in general, they run independently.

Haruki Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, studied drama in Tokyo and afterwards managed Jazz club in Tokyo. He started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. He has won many Japanese and international prizes. In this book, Murakami has painted a perfect japanese picture – beautifully detailed in the important parts, but with enough empty space for the beholder’s imagination.

Follow Mari into the night in Tokyo and check out the book on amazon.

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.