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.

 

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.

 

Mountains

A friend of mine is an artist who makes woodblock prints in the shin hanga tradition, and his flower prints have a very distinctive style. He is also teaching people the art of shin hanga woodblock printing, and some time back in June, I went to his yearly exhibition of prints made by his students.

Art is something very personal, and my approach to it is straightforward: Either I like something, or I don’t. I don’t care for big names or current movements, if something doesn’t strike a chord within me, that’s it. I guess I would neither make a good art critic, nor a good art collector… Anyway, I went to my friend’s students’ exhibition without big expectations and I was not disappointed. Some pictures I just passed by, others I recognised because they were of places in Kyoto I had been to myself, and a handful or so were really fantastic.

My favourite print was a scene from the Japanese Alps, somewhere in the central provinces: A high mountain range during sunset. It instantly reminded me of home; the bare rocks of the mountains, the gleaming colors of the sun lit slope… I returned to this picture two or three times, and I talked about it to the people at the entrance (also students of my friend), and then I left. And nothing more happened.

Until a few weeks ago when my friend announced that the student who had made the mountain scene had decided to give it to me. Just like that…

Evening sun at Kitadake.It’s called “Evening Sun at Kitadake”, which is the second highest mountain in Japan with 3193 m elevation.  It’s a very simple image but very powerful, to me at least, who loves mountains. And that’s exactly the way the Austrian mountains look like – it makes me almost a bit homesick! I now only have to frame the picture and then I will hang it on a wall in my new home to remind me of my old home one and a half continents away…

Under Wraps

In Japan, giving gifts is a very important part of culture. Not only what is inside can make or break a relationship, also the way it is presented is crucial. That’s why gift wrapping has evolved to almost an art form in this country.

Very often, if you buy food items as gifts in a department store, there’s already a wrapped version available. Sometimes, the wrapping is done in front of you though, and there is a small but important difference to Europe in the way it is done: When wrapping a box in Europe, we place it in the middle of the paper such that the sides of the paper and of the box are parallel. Unless one uses a really large piece of paper, three strips of tape will be necessary.

In Japan, the box is placed on the paper at an angle near a corner. With a bit of experience, only a single strip of tape is needed to close the package. it’s quite fascinating! Of course, there are many youtube videos for that – check out the one below from some large Japanese department store. (He needs three strips of tape though 😉 )

Maneki Neko

The maneki neko – literally beckoning cat, also called welcoming cat, lucky cat etc. – is probably one of the best known objects associated with Japan. The little cat figurine with its raised paw can be found at the entrances or cash registers of most shops and restaurants in Japan, and has made its way into numerous Asian restaurants abroad as well. black manekineko with lucky koban coinThe maneki neko is of truly Japanese origin, although when exactly it became customary to put the little statue up is unclear. They most likely first appeared in Tokyo in the mid to late 19th century, and by 1902 they were already extremely popular. There are a number of folk tales that give a story for the first appearance of the maneki neko; the one most down to earth simply talks about two competing ramen shops situated next to each other. One of them put up a maneki neko in the window, just to see an increase in customers, at least until the other shop followed suit.

many many manekineko...A cat statue is only allowed to call itself maneki neko if it has a paw raised in the typical Asian beckoning gesture, which is executed palm-down here. The raised paw is supposed to beckon customers and/or wealth in general. You can find maneki neko with left or right paws raised, but interestingly not even the Japanese themselves seem to know whether the right paw stands for money and the left paw for customers or vice versa. Other interpretations are one paw for shops (especially bars), the other paw for the home; one for wealth, the other for luck… About 60% of the Japanese maneki neko have their left paw raised, thus bringing in customers (probably), according to research by the Japanese Maneki Neko Club. Really clever people have come up with maneki neko that raise both paws, just to be sure, but they are not very common.

2 calico maneki neko with left/right paw raisedIn any case, the paw became raised higher and higher over time, so some people use this as an indicator of the age of the statue. The idea is here to increase the reach of the cat to lure in customers and money. The latest development is clearly the solar-powered arm that is beckoning for real – and forever.

Other common features of a maneki neko are the red collar with a bell and a little bib. These things most likely go back to the Edo period where wealthy pet owners were actually dressing their cats like that. Furthermore, many maneki neko hold or sit on coins, mallets, carp, or marbles and gems, all of which symbolise money. The coin represents a koban, a gold coin used in the Edo period that was worth one ryo, and the writing on the coin usually says senmanryo – 10 million ryo – a huge amount of money, not just for a little shop owner.

Maneki neko come in various colours. The three-colored calico is based on the Japanese bobtail breed and, probably because those animals are quite rare, is considered the luckiest. Other traditional colours are white (happiness, purity, and positive energy), black (to ward off evil spirits and, in a modern interpretation: stalkers), and gold (wealth and prosperity). A red color is rather unusual, it stands for protection from evil and illness, but nowadays, maneki neko can be bought in practically any color – with more or less modern meanings attached.

modern manekineko in various coloursAn interesting side note to the probable origin of the maneki neko is the following: In the Edo period, sex was not quite as shunned as it is today, and many houses where female companions were available had shelves with lucky charms – often in the shape of penises of all sizes. Enter the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the much more prude West; obviously those charms had to go. However, they were replaced with the maneki neko, because in Japan, the cat is associated with young, beautiful women, especially geisha. This may be because of the witchery cats are said to be exercising – just like young women…geisha figurine with maneki neko

Hidenobu Suzuki

For all of you who are not stalking me at my workplace on Facebook, I just have to share this wonderful photo of what is called “Monet’s Pond” in Gifu Prefecture:

Monet Pond by Hidenobu Suzuki

Monet Pond in Gifu by Hidenobu Suzuki

The photo has been taken by Hidenobu Suzuki, a young Japanese photographer and digital artist living in Aichi prefecture. He says about his work:

My landscape photographs are like Japanese paintings. I think that realism is more Western style. Japanese like to express emotions and spiritual feelings through the landscape photography.

Many more of his absolutely fantastic photographs from places all over Japan can be found on his National Geographic Page; and his work has even been chosen 10 times or so as “Picture of the Day” by the National Geographic – and they are known for exquisit photos! Last December he even had an exhibition in the Louvre in Paris! I wish one day I’ll be as good as he is…

Japanese New Year Traditions

A New Year has begun, and again, I have tried yet a few more of the hundreds of traditions that surround this time of the year in Japan.

Unfortunately, I have been rather sick since Christmas, so instead of going out for the joya-no-kane ringing of the temple bells, I stayed in bed. I could hear the bells from there, however, and even so, it gives a wonderfully spiritual feeling to the quiet night.

I tried two of the food related Japanese New Year traditions though: On New Year’s Eve, I ate what is called toshi-koshi-soba, year crossing soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different version of their significance in the dish: The noodles are long and symbolise a long life; but they are also easy to cut, so they make you let go of the hardships of the past year; and since the buckwheat plant is very hardy, this is a representation of strength and resilience (something I can definitely use right now).

New Year's SweetsFor New Year’s Day, I had bought not a full Osechi menu, but only the sweets that come with it. The rooster is a symbol of this year, and the long flat thing is a paddle that’s used for hanetsuki, a type of old Japanese shuttlecock I have written about before. Interestingly, only half of the pieces had anko in it – I was very happy about that!

Ceramic statue of a RoosterBesides that, I bought a rooster for my home. Not a real one of course, but a small ceramic statue that is usually displayed near the entrance. Since I don’t have space there however, I put it in my living room – one of the few things that are decorative there at the moment. It is my first such zodiac animal and according to a friend, you should not reuse an old statue (the zodiac repeats itself every 12 years), but always buy a new one, to attract new good luck to your home, so to speak. Well, this is a nice tradition to start in my home I guess, and it’s neither expensive, nor does it take too much space, so…

Hakusasonso

Kyoto has lots of beautiful Japanese gardens, and there’s only so much time to visit them all. Last week, in the peak of the momiji season, I took time out to visit Hakusasonso, a private garden near Ginkakuji temple. I had passed by there many times before, but now I finally went in.

Teahouse in HakusasonsoThe Hakusasonso is the former residence of Kansetsu Hashimoto, a nihonga painter of the Taisho and early Showa period. He bought the site in 1913 when it was nothing more than rice paddies. Until his death in 1945, he worked on the 7400 square metres that make up the gardens now and most of it – including the buildings – are unchanged. Today, the garden is still in possession of the Hashimoto family.

Buddhist temple in Hakusasonso.There are five old buildings in the garden, two small tea houses, one private Buddhist temple, and the old residence that is now used as an expensive kaiseki restaurant. The most interesting building is called zonkoro, it is essentially one very large hall that Hashimoto used as his studio. All four walls have large glass windows, and you can see almost all of the garden from the studio.

Zonkoro StudioNot only did he paint, Hashimoto also designed the buildings and the garden himself. He collected stone lanterns, pagodas, and Buddha statues (many from China) and placed them throughout the garden. Especially lovely is the little hill where Buddha statues meditate underneath large bamboos.

Meditating Buddhas in Hakusasonso.At one end of the garden there is the museum, a modern, two storey building where Hashimoto’s works are displayed. From the second floor of the museum, one can overlook the whole garden, and with the borrowed landscape of Mount Daimonji in the back, the scenery is made perfect. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Nihonga was a special style of painting that combined Western painting methods and ideas with Japanese materials and aesthetics. Nowadays, most Japanese painters work in truly Western style, and the distinction to Nihonga has all but disappeared.

Monkey by Hashimoto Kansetsu