The Lake Biwa Canal

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, around this time last year, I took a pleasure cruise on the Lake Biwa Canal from Otsu to Kyoto. I’m finally ready to share a few pictures and a bit more info on this marvel of Japanese engineering.

The Lake Biwa Canal was constructed from 1885 to 1890 and was mainly meant to ease transportation of goods from Shiga to Osaka, one of the biggest centres of business in Japan then and now. Additionally, the canal’s water was – and still is – used as water supply for the city, to produce electricity in the first commercial hydroelectric plant in Japan (for the very first electric tram), and to provide water to a number of gardens near the Keage incline (like Nanzen-ji or Murin-an and even the Imperial Palace) and to rice paddies in the north of Kyoto.

When it was built, the canal was quite the engineering marvel, even more so because it was built entirely by Japanese people, from the cheap day labourers to the head of engineering. It soon attracted many tourists who wanted to walk along it or even take a cruise on the canal. In the 1950s, the canal was not being used any longer and everything was shut down, but a few years ago, it was revitalised, and now again you can take cruises in spring time during the cherry blossoms and in autumn during the koyo. So, let’s go!

Right after you board the ship, the first of three tunnels begins. With 2,436 m, this is the longest tunnel, and it was constructed from three sides: The excavating would start from the two ends of the tunnel and from a 47 m deep vertical shaft in the middle of it. This was the first time this method was used in Japan, probably because the chief engineer, Sakuro Tanabe, learnt it from his Scottish professor at university. Yes, Tanabe was only 24 years old when the construction started. I doubt that any fresh graduate would get such an important job today.

The tunnels have interesting features. On top of the portals on each end are large stone inscriptions penned by important elder statesmen of the time, and they surprisingly poetic. Halfway through the first tunnel, there is a very large tablet with the words of Kunimichi Kitagaki, the third governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It reads “The Imperial Throne is eternal”.

It is interesting to note that the canal is very shallow. Obviously, there were no motorboats around when the canal was built, so the boats carrying goods and passengers were propelled forward by long stakes, like the gondolas in Venice. A slight decline of 4 meters from Otsu to Keage keeps the water flowing and the boats moving. However, what surprised me most on the trip was the fog in the first tunnel. It was a nice and warm day outside, but it cooled down quite a bit inside the tunnels. There were also many insects, obviously attracted to the light of the boat.

When you exit the first tunnel, you find yourself in a very quiet part of Kyoto. Most tourists never visit Yamashina, even though Bisshamon-do temple is quite famous, and especially lovely in autumn. The Shinomiya Dock is surrounded by large trees and must be very beautiful during the momiji. As you can see, I took the trip too early, but it is still a lovely sight. The dock was once a resting place for the workers on the canal, and even now, you could get off the boat here. I guess not many people do so, though.

Right after the dock is the so-called Moroha tunnel. It was only built in 1970 when the nearby railroad was straightened out and part of the canal had to give way to it. Beyond it lie a number of bridges to get to Yamashina, and there is a long walking path that follows the canal until the second tunnel, the shortest with only 124 meters. The red bridge below is the Seichaku bridge, and it leads to Honkokuji temple, which is connected to Nichiren.

The final and third tunnel is 850 m long and leads to Keage in Kyoto, near Nanzen-ji temple. Directly next to it is a beautiful Western-style building, the former Imperial Palace Water Pump Station. From here, the water of the canal takes a 30 m or so plunge to the Keage Power Plant to produce electricity for Kyoto. This Keage Incline, where the boats were brought down on rails, is famous for its cherry trees in spring. Another branch canal takes water to the nearby aqueduct of Nanzen-ji temple. From there it also feeds the canal on the Philosopher’s Path.

I really enjoyed going on this trip and I recommend it to everyone. With only 12 passengers per boat plus two staff members, it is an almost intimate experience. For 55 minutes, you’ll see a part of Kyoto and hear of a history that even many Japanese are not aware of. You should give it a try! This year, the schedule has been greatly reduced (thanks, Corona), and it may be hard to get a spot on one of the boats. Alternatively, you can also walk or cycle along the canal, and while the perspective is different, it’s still something very special to do.

For more info on the Lake Biwa Canal and decidedly better photos than mine, check out their homepage here: https://biwakososui.kyoto.travel/en/ By the way: I recommend not just taking the cruise, but going to Otsu a bit early and spending time there and on Lake Biwa for a nicely rounded day trip.

Koto

What do you “hear” when I ask you to think of traditional Japanese music? Is it the shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, or the shamisen or biwa, guitar-like string instruments? Most likely, it’s the soft tones of the Japanese koto, ubiquitous in many videos about Japan.

The koto is one of Japan’s string instruments, a large zither-like instrument with origins in China. It’s made from Paulownia wood, is 180 cm long and has typically 13 silken strings. It is played with the right hand (using fingerpicks) and the left hand is used as support and to move the bridges that are used by tuning – sometimes even during the performance of a piece.

As mentioned above, and like many other things, the koto has its origins in China, and it was introduced to Japan somewhere in the 7th or 8th century. It is already mentioned in the Genji Monogatari of the 11th century, so it must have been quite widespread at this time already.

There once were different types of koto, and interestingly, as far as professional musicians go, these were exclusively blind men in the beginning. Only when this rule was changed, were women allowed to play and to teach the instrument. For this reason, many of the traditional songs were written by men.

With the westernization beginning with the Meiji Restoration, koto music, together with other Japanese traditions, lost a lot of its appeal for the Japanese, who were more likely to study the violin or other classical instruments of the Western canon.

However, Michio Miyagi, a blind man who reached the highest rank of koto performer when he was just 18 years old, created many new songs in which he combined the traditional and the Western style of music. His piece below is called “Tegoto” and I like it because it is so dynamic and shows off not only the instrument’s unique sound, but also the player.

The sound is not the best in this video, but you can see the hands of Ms. Kimoto at every note of the song. Enjoy!

Coin Locker Babies

Coin Locker Babies
Ryu Murakami

When Kiku and Hashi meet at an orphanage, the two boys quickly bond and become friends, because of their shared history: Both were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers at train stations in Tokyo. They are adopted by parents from a rural village where they grow up together, but at all times they keep harbouring the wish of finding their mothers. As young adults, both leave the village and return to Tokyo where they end up in Toxitown, an abandoned plot of land within the city where outcasts, criminals, and other lost cases end up. Hashi eventually escapes to become a successful singer, but in the end, Kiku’s destructive tendencies will catch up with both boys.

An interesting story of two boys looking for the love of a mother they never knew. While each of them seemingly finds their own solution to the feeling of loss, in the end, they both succumb to violence and self-destruction. It would not be a book by Ryu Murakami if they didn’t…

Ryu Murakami was born in 1952, and started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before moving on to film and writing books. His first book, written in university, won him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction, only the first of many more prizes to come. A number of his novels have been turned into films. 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.

If you want to try anyway, Coin Locker Babies is available on amazon.

Photogenic Cat Exhibition

We had a holiday today, the autumnal equinox. I’m still very busy with work; there are four projects I’m involved in right now with European clients; with steep workloads and tight deadlines. However, somehow this week all four got delayed for some reason or other, and when I hadn’t received a single job this morning, I jumped at the occasion and took the day off.

I now have to admit that I was very naughty. Instead of staying at home reading, as I would have done otherwise, I joined friends of mine on a day trip to Otsu on Lake Biwa. Why naughty? Because we’re still under a state of emergency until the end of the month; we shouldn’t travel at all, and definitely not across prefectural borders…

However, all four of us have been fully vaccinated; the venue is less than 30 minutes drive away from my place (and 11 minutes by train from Kyoto station); and I guess that half of Otsu’s population work in Kyoto or Osaka anyway. “Dear God, please make sure I always have an excuse handy.”

This is why we didn’t think twice when Kosuke Ota announced his exhibition “The Story of Biwako Cats”. Ota-san is a retired war photographer who worked in the Yugoslavian war, in Iraq etc. In his retirement, he moved to Otsu and documents the feral cat population that roams the area around the Biwako Otsukan, where the exhibition was held.

Taken from Ota-san’s blog: http://uchino-toramaru.blog.jp/

We met the photographer there, who kindly signed two of his books for my friend. And afterwards we had delicious Belgian waffles in the restaurant on the first floor. Towards late afternoon, we met some of the cats starring in the exhibition and took some pictures of our own (not quite so masterfully though).

I had a great day, and it was worth going out. This is the first time I left Kyoto since last October, when I went on the Lake Biwa Canal Cruise – for which, I now see, have never posted any pictures… Well, it’s been almost a year, so it’s time for that soon.

Sushi in Film

I spend too much time online. On youtube in particular. There are many interesting videos out there, mostly about cats, but every now and then, something else catches my eye. This one is fun: a master sushi chef from Tokyo rates the skills of other “chefs” as seen in movies or on TV.

Sushi master Endo Kazutoshi looks at nine sushi scenes from popular TV shows and movies and rates them based on realism. Endo is a third-generation sushi master specializing in the Edomae style of sushi, a technique particular to Tokyo. He was born in Yokohama and has been working in kitchens for 26 years.

From the video description.

Musashi

Musashi
Eiji Yoshikawa

Takezo and his best friend Matahachi barely survive the battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. Upon returning to his village without his friend, Takezo incurs the wrath of Matahachi’s mother, but he is saved by the travelling priest Takuan Soho who becomes Takezo’s teacher for the coming three years. Afterwards Takezo – now calling himself Musashi – travels through Japan to study swordsmanship and to challenge other famous fighters. However, he soon learns that brute strength alone is not sufficient to win and he begins to study calligraphy and painting, wood carving, and even farming. On the path to ever refine his Way of the Samurai, he makes a number of influential friends, and even more powerful enemies, until it comes to the great duel with Sasaki Kojiro, another of the great wandering samurai of his time.

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the best-known swordsman of Japan. It is said that he never lost a duel, and he has 61 victories to his name, more than any other samurai. This book depicts about 15 years of his life from the battle of Sekigahara to the duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In this fictionalised biography we nevertheless meet a number of real people who influenced him, like Honami Koetsu, Takuan Soho, Yoshino Tayu, and of course, Sasaki Kojiro, another great swordsman of the time who eventually becomes Musashi’s arch enemy. Overall, the story is that of a reluctant hero trying to find his own way.

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career when he was 22. During his 30s he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published as a series 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 one of the best historical novelists of Japan.

If you’re in for an excellent novel about one of the great figures of Japan, this book will do the trick. Get it from amazon.

Murderer out of Love – Sada Abe

On May 19, 1936, a lowly prostitute became known in all Japan. From that day on, the name of Sada Abe carried a certain spine-chilling factor that fascinates people to this day. Who was Sada Abe and what happened that made her a household name for more than 50 years?

Sada Abe was born in 1905 into a family of tatami makers. Her parents were fairly well-off and especially her mother doted on the little girl, indulging her every whim. When Sada became a teenager, her calm family life became upset through quarrels over the succession to the family business. To protect their youngest daughter, she was sent out of the house to spend her days with friends.

Sadly, this didn’t turn out well. Sada fell in with the wrong crowd and became an unruly and even promiscuous teen who stole money from her parents and went out during the night without permission. Her father, seeing no other way to discipline her, sold her to a tea house, where she was to train as an apprentice geisha. Sada was 17 at the time.

At first, Sada was thrilled about her new life. Since childhood she had enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes, and now she had finally the opportunity to put her long training in traditional music to good use. And her clients loved spending time and money on the young maiko.

However, disillusionment soon followed. Sada had to learn quickly that she would never be a top-ranking geisha who commanded respect in addition to highest rates. Instead, customers demanded sex from the young girl, and the tea house did not object.

Over the following years, Sada Abe turned from geisha to prostitute, in successively seedier establishments, first in Tokyo and then in Osaka. Although she tried several times to leave the sex industry, she did not succeed until she met Goro Omiya. He had more serious designs on her than any of her previous lovers and suggested that she learn how to run a restaurant. In time, he promised, he would buy one for her and set her up as his mistress. Sada gladly accepted.

In February 1936, she began working in a restaurant in Tokyo. The owner, Ishida Kichizo, didn’t waste much time with the beautiful woman, and already in mid April, they became lovers. Kichizo was a womanizer and knew hot to please Sada. Not only was she in love for the first time, she also felt sexually satisfied like never before. Like any woman in her situation, she wanted Kichizo, who was married, to herself.

In order to consummate their affair undisturbed, Kichizo and Sada left the restaurant and went on a two-week lover’s spree, starting on April 23rd, 1936. They rented a room at an inn, ordered expensive food and geisha to entertain them and had sex over and over again. Only when they ran out of money did Kichizo return to his restaurant, but he promised to meet Sada again, on May 11.

On that day, they checked into the inn again and once more indulged in food, entertainment and sex. Their sex play became wilder and they eventually tried erotic asphyxiation and they both enjoyed it. Sada found it hard to control herself. In the early morning hours of May 18, 1936, Sada strangled Kichizo in his sleep. She then cut off his penis and scrotum, tidied up the room and left the inn.

Thanks to an ensuing media frenzy after the discovery of Ishida’s body, the public went into a what became known as “Sada Abe panic”. She was spotted by people as far as Osaka, and one alleged sighting in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district caused a traffic jam. All the while, Sada went about her days as if nothing had happened, undisturbed and still carrying her trophies of Kichizo.

Sada was arrested in the afternoon of May 20th and questioned extensively by the police. She asserted that she killed Kichizo out of love and that she was not crazy or depraved. Her lawyers and the judge at her trial thought otherwise. That’s why she was sentenced to a mere 6 years in prison on December 21, 1936.

She was a model prisoner in the Tochigi women’s penitentiary, where she served only 5 years of her sentence. After being released on May 17, 1941, Sada was surprised to find herself somewhat of a celebrity. The transcripts of her police interrogation had been published, and many writers took her case as inspiration for stories.

Unable to escape the public eye, Sada decided to cash in herself. She wrote an autobiography and appeared in a film about the case. The bar where she worked became famous with the locals. Eventually, however, Sada grew weary of the attention. She retired from the bar and left Tokyo. After 1971, her trail is completely lost. Nobody knows where she went or when she died., although some sources point to Kyoto. All that’s left is her story that fascinated people to this very day.

Sada Abe definitely fascinates me! The above is just a short summary of a longer piece I have written about her, which has just been published in an anthology. There, I talk in greater detail about the early life of Sada Abe and the possible reason she turned to prostitution, as well as her fatal attraction to Kichizo Ishida.

If you’re interested, the book is called “The Best New True Crime Stories: Crimes of Passion, Obsession & Revenge” and it has a number of other essays on passionate crimes from all over the world and many eras. As always, you can get the book from amazon. I hope you’ll like it!

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!