Snakes and Earrings

Snakes and Earrings
Hitomi Kanehara

19-year-old “not a Barbie girl” Lui meets mesmerizing Ama in a club and moves in with him rightaway. She is fascinated by his forked tongue and soon takes the first step to get one herself: Ama’s friend Shiba pierces her tongue. On a whim, Lui decides to get a tatoo as well, and Shiba uses the opportunity to talk her into having sex with him. Lui is torn between the two men, but when Ama’s jealousy explodes, she is forced to take drastic measures. Can she prevent things spiralling out of control?

The unexpected meeting with Ama draws Lui towards the edge of Japanese society, where people experiment with body modifications, choose unorthodox lifestyles, and mingle with underworld types. This book provides an interesting glimpse into a part of society that (prefers to?) remain in the shadows.

I picked up this book because Dogen mentioned the author in one of his videos. To be honest, I didn’t like it very much. Although the subject matter reminded me of Ryu Murakami, she’s not a writer of his calibre, and some of the violence and an s&m sex scene were too graphic and drawn out for my taste. Since these occured faily early in the book, I wonder if the author wasn’t only after the shock value. It was also pretty short, more of a novella, and the best thing about it is that it’s a fast read.

Hitomi Kanehara was born in Tokyo in 1983, dropped out of school at age 11 and left her home when only 15. Snakes and Earrings was written when she was 21, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and subsequently sold more than a million copies in Japan. She claimed that some of the themes in the book were inspired by her own issues with self-harm. In 2012, she moved to France with her husband and children where she lived for 6 years before returning to Japan. Kanehara has gone on to write more than 10 books to date, some of which won further literary prizes or were translated into other languages as well.

If you want to try something a bit different, you can get this book from amazon. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Hardest Part of Japanese

I’ve stumbled across this youtube channel and have been binging his videos ever since. Dogen-san makes fun of (learners of) Japanese, (foreigners living in) Japan and, every so often, himself too. His Japanese is impeccable, and he has a patreon where he teaches Japanese pronunciation.

This is one of his slightly less serious lessons. If you ever struggled with this part of the Japanese language, you’ll understand.

Shinzō Abe’s Death

Shinzō Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated last Friday during an election campaign speech in Nara. He was born in 1954 into a family that served as politicians, and he himself entered the political scene in the 1990s. For four terms, he served as prime minister, until he retired for health reasons in 2020. Yet, he remained an eminent figure in the background and still had considerable influence over his party and thus, the country.

His assassination shocked the country. There is a video out there, showing him on a street corner in Nara at around 11:30, giving a speech. Suddenly, from nearby, shots are fired (you can see the smoke), and Abe falls, obviously hit. He was pronounced dead in the hospital at around 17:00.

What’s so shocking is, that Japan has extremely strict gun laws. It is very difficult and can take years to get a gun licence, and in fact, the assassin had to make his own gun. Last year, in 2021, there were only 10 incidents with guns; 8 of them were related to the yakuza (organized crime) and only one of them was fatal. Interestingly, assassinating Japanese politicians seems not to be unusual. In 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot during an electoral campaign, and in 2002, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan was assassinated. The assassinations of the last prime ministers, however, date back to the February 26 Incident in 1936, when two former prime ministers were killed.

I found it especially disturbing how close the murderer could get to Abe. Watching the video I mentioned, they were within a few meters of each other; Abe had his back turned. Yes, Japan is a very safe country and violent crimes outside the yakuza are rare. Yet, I found security sorely lacking. Would Abe be still alive if the assassin had only had a knife? I’m not so sure.

I’m also curious about the ramifications on the country. Clearly, Shinzō Abe’s politics have shaped the country for 15 years, if not twice as long. The void he leaves will have to be filled one way or the other. But how this will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Shimabara’s Last Tayu

Together with maiko and geisha, the tayu are traditional female entertainers of Japan. And yet, they are much less known to the (foreign) public, partly because today, there are even fewer of them than there are geisha, and partly because of their origin: In the Edo period, tayu were courtesans.

At that time, prostitution in Japan was legal and strictly regulated. The three largest cities – Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka – had city districts dedicated to the love for sale. In Kyoto, this was the Shimabara district, which lies near Kyoto station and still maintains some of its charms (if not the prostitutes). In Edo, it was the famous Yoshiwara district, and old photographs show women sitting in rows behind wooden lattices, ready for work.

You would search in vain for a tayu among them, though. Just like their geisha sisters in the hanamachi, tayu were highly trained and honed their skills in dance, playing instruments, and seductive banter for years. As a tayu, the top-ranking courtesan of the town, she commanded the highest prices for a meeting, and her lovers counted among the country’s elite, financial or in society.

And so were the tayu. In old Japan, the views on prostitution differed greatly from that in the West. It was simply another job. In fact, the young women in the photo above may have come to the Yoshiwara only temporarily to help with family finances. When they returned home, their reputations – and even marriage prospects – were untarnished.

In Kyoto, the famous Yoshino Tayu is revered to this day. She is said to have been the most beautiful tayu in history, and she is featured in kabuki plays and Japanese novels. Her wealth was such, that she could afford to donate a new front gate to Joshoji temple in Kyoto. She was laid to rest there, and has a festival in spring dedicated in her honour.

Kyoto’s Shimabara district and its entertainments are long gone, and although there is still a tayu in Kyoto, she doesn’t usually perform in public. However, I was lucky to see her dance at an exhibition with photos of her, and it was truly special.

As you can see, the style of her dress is so much more flamboyant than that of any geisha – notice the colour red everywhere! The obi is tied in front where it is easy to undo – a nod to her work of old. I was quite surprised by the dragon painted on her outer kimono (which is a family heirloom, possibly more than 100 years old, btw.) as dragons are usually associated with men. Her hairstyle with the dozens of kanzashi pins must be very time-consuming to maintain, and yes, this is her real hair. She also has blackened teeth, something that was normal for married women in the Edo period.

The dance, at first, seemed not much different than the ones that geisha perform. A fan, a letter used as props to tell a story, delicate hand gestures, little kicks to get the long kimono out of the way. And yet, her dance seemed so much more erotically charged, and I’m not sure why. Was it the smiles, the raised eyebrows? The shy looks flashed to the audience from behind the fan? Or her naked toes peeking out from beneath her red underkimono?

I guess, where a geisha means to symbolize an almost maiden-like modesty, a tayu is seen as a grown woman who knows what she wants – and how to get it.

Newcomer

Newcomer
Keigo Higashino

When a woman is murdered in Tokyo’s busy Nihonbashi district, newly transferred detective Kaga is assigned the case. His sharp observation skills and relentless questions lead him through the woman’s neighbourhood, which is filled with little, old-fashioned shops. Many have been there for generations, and Kaga uncovers a number of their owner’s carefully kept secrets. But which ones are pertinent to his case? It turns out that the murdered woman, who had only recently moved to that neighbourhood, had some secrets of her own…

This is another one of Keigo Higashino’s masterful mysteries, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the people of the neighbourhood, as detective Kaga is coming around and asking questions. We peek into their lives and follow what’s going on right behind the old shopfronts, where not everything is what it seems but deserves a closer look. I love Higashino’s mysteries, I feel that he comes up with something new in every book.

Keigo Higashino grew up in Osaka and is one of the most popular writers in Asia. He has written more than 65 novels, including books for children. Almost 20 of his books were turned into movies, and his work was also translated into many languages. He has won numerous Japanese awards for his books, and in 2012 he received the American Library Association Award – Best Mystery Novel for his book The Devotion of Suspect X.

Newcomer is set in Tokyo in the sweltering heat of summer, so if you need something suitable for beach reading, you can get it from amazon.

Miyamoto Musashi

When I wrote about the Dokkodo the other Sunday, I found out that I never wrote about famous samurai and ronin, Miyamoto Musashi. Well, here it goes!

Born in 1584 in the middle of the Sengoku period, young Musashi learnt fighting from his father, a lower-class samurai. Although he would go on to become Japan’s greatest swordsman, it is very hard to separate the facts of his life from the legends that were woven around him already during his lifetime.

It is true that he fought – and won – his very first duel at the age of 13, and it is said that 3 years later, in 1600, he fought in the Battle of Sekigahara which helped establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. The experience set him to wander around the country to study swordsmanship and to challenge fighters of various styles.

In 1604, Musashi arrived in Kyoto and challenged the local Yoshioka clan, one of the top schools of swordsmanship at the time. He fought with them three times, the best-known is the final fight at the pine at Ichijo street. A descendant of that very pine still marks the spot where Musashi wiped out the whole clan and effectively put an end to the school. Further up from the pine lies Hachidaira Shrine with a nice statue of Musashi, and all the way up the mountain, at Tanukidani Fudoin-san Temple, is a waterfall, where it is said that Musashi has performed misogi, ritual ablutions, before the fight.

In 1612, at the age of 28, when he was at the height of his powers, Musashi defeated the equally famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro in a well-publicised fight on a beach and from there went on to win 61 duels in total, more than any other swordsman in Japanese history.

But Musashi was more than just an excellent fighter. He took great care to cultivate other Japanese arts like calligraphy and ink painting, and he became an early adept of the new style of tea ceremony developed by Sen-no-Rikyu.

While some of his works survive, this part of his life remains mostly in the dark. He is said to have met illustrious figures like spiritual leader Takuan Soho, renowned artist Hon’ami Koetsu and famous courtesan Yoshino Tayu, but little proof survived. It is also said that he fathered a son, possibly with a courtesan, but there is no proof of that either. What is known is that he has adopted several sons, who became swordsmen in their own right.

In his later life, Musashi established the Niten-Ichiryu school of swordsmanship, which is famous for its use of two swords, and which still exists to this day.

Just a few days before his death in 1645, at the age of 61, Musashi handed his favourite student the “Book of Five Rings” on martial arts and the “Dokkōdō”, 21 precepts expressing his views on life in general. Both keep inspiring readers from all over the world to this day, and they have established Musashi’s name as thinker and philosopher.

I already talked about the great book by Eiji Yoshikawa, who weaves a story out of legend and fact that leads up to Musashi’s duel with Kojiro Sasaki. I can still recommend it if you want to delve a bit further into Musashi’s life (and have a bit of fun while doing so).

Takigi Noh

As mentioned, I went to see this year’s Takigi Noh, a two-hour-long Noh/Kyogen performance on an outdoor stage set up at Heian shrine. The surroundings with vermilion buildings reminiscent of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace lend a special ambience when stacks of fire and paper lanterns are lit just before dusk to light the stage. After all, Takigi Noh means “outdoor fire-lit Noh”.

The Takigi Noh at Heian Shrine was first staged at the end of May 1950. From 1955 on, the dates were fixed to June 1 and 2. On these two days, 8 plays are shown, two of them are kyogen. Japan’s top actors are invited each year to make this event truly special. However, this is not the only firelight Noh performance, merely the biggest. In Kyoto, Shiramine shrine has a pretty famous one too, and many other shrines show Noh plays at special festivals.

In fact, Takigi Noh has its roots more than 1000 years ago, at Kofukuji temple in Nara, where religious ceremonies called Shunigatsu-e were held in the 2nd month of the year. At that time, Takigi-sarugaku performances took place, early precursors of what later developed into the Takigi Noh theatre of today. Takigi Noh reached the peak of its popularity in the Edo period, fell out of favour after the Meiji Restoration, and was revived again after WWII.

Heian Jingu’s Takigi Noh features 8 plays, and often, there is a common theme that runs through one day. For example, the plays I have seen all had the overarching theme of “heavenly intervention”. It’s not just the atmosphere that makes this Takigi Noh special. The plays are condensed to their most visually exciting parts. Written synopses of all plays are available – even in English – and if you miss getting a leaflet at the entrance, the plays are introduced by two kyogen players who manage to weave in a commentary of current events. Finally, the speech that is given after the fire lighting ceremony is translated into English, something I was especially grateful for.

Unfortunately, taking pictures during the performance was not allowed, that’s why you’re just getting this year’s poster as illustration… Anyway, overall, I had a great evening, and I’m really considering making this a regular occurrence.

The Dokkodo

Miyamoto Musashi’s “Path of Aloneness” or “The Way of Walking Alone” are 21 principles written by the master swordsman shortly before he died in 1645.

1. Accept everything just the way it is.

2. Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.

3. Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.

4. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.

5. Be detached from desire your whole life long.

6. Do not regret what you have done.

7. Never be jealous.

8. Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.

9. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others.

10. Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.

11. In all things have no preferences.

12. Be indifferent to where you live.

13. Do not pursue the taste of good food.

14. Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.

15. Do not act following customary beliefs.

16. Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.

17. Do not fear death.

18. Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.

19. Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.

20. You may abandon your own body, but you must preserve your honour.

21. Never stray from the way.

The River With No Bridge

The River with no Bridge
Sue Sumii

Koji Hatanaka has just started school. He has many friends in Komori, his village, and he even wins the governor’s prize as the top student of his class. Still, his future is less than bright because all the people from Komori are eta or burakumin, outcasts from Japan’s strict class hierarchy for generations. Once Koji understands what that means, he is determined to prove all of those wrong who call him dirty and a good for nothing. But this may mean to leave Komori behind, like his older brother did, and even in the big cities, escape from his background is not certain.

The book is set in the early 20th century, when discrimination against the burakumin was officially outlawed after centuries. However, old habits die hard, especially in the countryside. We follow Koji through his time at primary school as he becomes more and more aware of the daily injustices he and his fellow villagers have to endure. It is heartbreaking to read about his struggles, even more so when you realize that the story is all too close to reality.

Sue Sumii was born 1902 in Nara Prefecture. She was an advocate for the burakumin and devoted her entire life to breaking down barriers for them. The River With No Bridge is her best known work with that goal; however, of the 7 volumes, written over 30 years, only the first has so far been translated into English. Sumii died in 1997.

If you want to learn more about a part of Japanese society and history that is decidedly not talked about, get this book from amazon.

Murin-an

One of the many designated places of scenic beauty in Kyoto is the garden of Murin-an near Nanzen-ji temple. Built in 1894-96, the villa with its garden give us a glimpse into upper-class lifestyle of the Meiji era. Murin-an is one among many garden villas in Okazaki, but the only one that is open throughout the year, and yet, it is mostly overlooked by tourists visiting the area.

The name Murin-an means No Neighbor Hermitage, and when it was built in the mid-Meiji period, this was largely true. Of course, there was Nanzen-ji to the east of it, but many of the daimyo’s villas that stood there before the Meiji Restoration had been abandoned or demolished by that time. With the opening of the Lake Biwa Canal in 1890, the area was redeveloped, however, landmarks like the Kyoto City Zoo (1903), the Prefectural Library (1909) and the Municipal Museum of Art (1928) shaped Okazaki then and to this day.

Anyway, back to Murin-an. It was built for and partially designed by Prince Aritomo Yamagata, a top politician and twice prime minister of the Meiji and Taisho eras. He was born in today’s Yamaguchi Prefecture and wanted to recreate the rural landscape of his home in Kyoto. While he had a knack for garden design and made some very unusual choices for Murin-an, he hired one of the top garden designers of his age to shape his vision: Jihei Ogawa VII.

Jihei Ogawa was born in 1860 and became the head of the Ogawa family – garden designers for generations – at the age of 19. Some 15 years later, he was already famous. He would create gardens for a number of villas in the Nanzen-ji area, as well as the Heian shrine gardens and Maruyama Park. But because of Yamagata’s influence, Murin-an became a very special work.

First, the most unusual feature of Murin-an is its flowing stream that adds a certain liveliness where typical Japanese gardens prefer the quietude of a pond. The water springs from a large waterfall at the back and crosses the whole garden before being piped underneath the street to the neighbor’s property.

The second focal point of Murin-an is the large expanse of grass at the center of the garden. Or rather: Yamagata wanted it to be grass, but Kyoto’s ubiquitous moss eventually overpowered the grass. In any case, the center of the garden is rather empty and gives the illusion of a seemingly endless space.

This illusion is only underscored by the borrowed landscape of the Higashiyama mountains that visually close the garden at its eastern side. Although the surrounding trees cannot shut out the noise of the adjacent street, they are meticulously trimmed so that none of the surrounding buildings can be seen from the best viewing spot – the main house.

The main building of Murin-an is a beautiful traditional Japanese house. Its two largest rooms have tatami and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allow for a full view of the garden, even more so in summer, when they are entirely removed. There is another large room on the second floor, but it is not always accessible, and the view is somewhat impeded by the boughs of a large tree.

Of course, a Japanese garden is not complete without a tea house. The one at Murin-an is a replica of a famous tea house that the tea master Furuta Oribe is said to have favoured. Occasionally, special tea ceremonies are held in the tea house, but in general, it is not accessible to the public.

Prince Yamagata was for a time educated in Europe, and to follow current fashion, he also had a Western-style house built at Murin-an. The second floor shows an interesting mix of Japanese wall paintings and Western upholstery and even has central heating. This room saw one of the most decisive events of Japan’s history: In April 1903, Japan’s prime and foreign ministers met with Yamagata and Ito Hirobumi, another elder statesman, to discuss the deteriorating relationship with Russia. Although the details are unknown, this “Murin-an Conference” set the scene for the Russo-Japanese War that began in 1904. While the second floor room has been preserved in the state of that date, the first floor gives an overview of the garden and its current management.

But the main attraction of Murin-an remains the garden with its many small details. Follow the paths all the way up to the waterfall. Look for the large round stepping stones that are said to provide the best views. Read the inscription on the memorial of the Meiji Emperor presenting Yamagate with two trees for his garden (and see if you can find where they once stood). And marvel at the enormous rock that Yamagata secured for the garden, some 300 years after Toyotomi Hideyoshi had attempted the same – and failed. But above all, take some time to relax and enjoy Murin-an as a peaceful retreat from the busy world outside.

Note that thanks to Corona, a visit to Murin-an currently requires a reservation at least one day in advance. See the Murin-an homepage: https://murin-an.jp/en/