Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Dainenbutsu Kyogen are short theatre performances that were originally meant to teach Buddhism to the general population of Japan. In Kyoto, there are three major such kyogen performances: Mibu Kyogen (in Mibudera Temple), Senbon Enmado Kyogen (in Injo-ji Temple) and Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen.

The latter ones, shown in spring and autumn in Arashiyama’s Seiryo-ji Temple, originate in a ceremonial event called Dainenbutsu-e that was initiated by the monk Engaku in 1279. In modern times, their history was a bit rocky: In the 1960s, these plays went through a crisis when the number of actors declined and performances had to be cancelled. In 1975, volunteers founded the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen Hozonkai organisation to train new actors and keep the art alive through regular performances. In 1986, the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen were designated as a Japanese Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and today, the performances have become an integral part of Kyoto’s cultural calendar.

the servant stereotypeThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes, where a set of (male) actors dressed as certain stereotypes (like the young woman or man, the monk, the servant, etc.) breathe life into the story that is performed on a simple stage with barely any stage design and only a few necessary props. The actors – called kyogen kata – share the stage with musicians – hayashi kata – who play a special, 9-hole yokobue flute, kane bell, and small taiko drum. There are only two basic patterns of alternating the bell and drum, it is more of a rhythm than a melody, and is played throughout the performance. Also on stage is a supervisor – koken – who may help the actors with props etc.

Musicians and supervisorThis is necessary, because in the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen, all actors wear full face masks in the style of Noh masks, a tradition going back to the Muromachi era (14th – 16th century). These wooden masks have only very small eye holes through which the actors can see, which makes finding small props or immediately reacting to another actor quite challenging. Thus, the actors sometimes clap their hands or stomp their feet as a sign for the others who may wait at the edge of the stage for their next action that the play has progressed to a certain point. It is possible that two unrelated scenes that are taking place at the same time but in different places, are acted out simultaneously on stage.

Monk and woman with childThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen has a repertoire of about 20 plays. Not all kyogen are funny, or “soft” Yawarakamon plays, about half of them are more serious or “hard” Katamon that have their origin in Noh. Up to three plays may be grouped together and performed in one afternoon, usually the focus lies on the funny Yawakaramon though.

surprising the monkThe atmosphere around these plays – whether soft or hard – is very relaxed, it is an outdoor performance in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are pleasant. Because the plays were developed to teach laypeople about Buddhism and they work without any speech, the stories are very easy to understand and transcend time and culture. Universally funny, they are definitely worth watching!

Important Cultural Property

You have no idea what I have met last Sunday… But let’s start at the beginning!

Last Sunday, I took a few hours off to take an introductory course on Noh in a very small Noh theater. Noh (or Nohgaku) is traditional Japanese theater with a history of some 600 years, and I have seen one play before. This time, however, there was an in-depth explanation of some aspects of Noh, given by three actors of both the Kanze and the Kongo theater – both major traditional Noh schools.

The course came in three parts: In the first, we got a brief historical overview, then talked about chants (Utai), masks (Omote), and movements (Kata). Two people could even try putting on one of the masks, which must have been very exciting for them. Anyway, in the second part, the movements were explored further, and the audience learnt a very short chant to which the actor then performed the moves on stage. Even though I can’t sing, this was the most fun part of them all.

Nohgaku TranslationIn the third part, we saw a short excerpt of the Noh play “Atsumori“. But first, the most senior actor played that part with all its movements and chanted in English what was happening. Noh movements are very complex and refined, without knowing what is going on it is pretty much impossible to discern it just from watching the play. So, this part was very useful, since we could compare the English version to the stylised real version we could watch just a few moments later. I liked this part a lot, and it gave me more incentive to go back and see more Noh plays. Yes, for some odd reason, I do like Noh, even though most of it is practically incomprehensible to the outsider.

Anyway, after the course, there was first a question and answer session, and afterwards, a few people – me included – went to have dinner in a nearby Japanese restaurant. There, the instructors of the course, the staff of the theater, and 12 people from the audience could sit together and eat, drink, and talk to the Noh actors. It turned out that the oldest one – who spoke English almost flawlessly – was the representative of a very small local Noh theatre. He was very knowledgeable, and talking to him gave me lots of things to think about.

Towards the end of the dinner, people exchanged business cards, and, you won’t believe it: That old sensei was a “Designated National Human Important Cultural Property” of Japan. These people are usually extremely knowledgeable in a traditional art of craft, and they are officially charged to maintain the art on the highest possible level and transmit their knowledge to future generations. Obviously, there are not many of them, and I am so thrilled that I could actually meet one of them – and even more: That he could speak English so well and that I was allowed to ask all sorts of questions.

Yes, I do indeed like Noh. I will be back for more!

Higashiyama Hanatouro

Every year in early spring, just before the cherry blossom season starts, there is the Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro. Between Shoren-in and Kiyomizudera temples, thousands of lanterns light the back streets of the Higashiyama mountains. Many of the temples en route hold special light-up events as well, and also, there are displays of large Ikebana works, most of them in Maruyama park.

This year was the first Hanatouro I visited, and it was lovely! The evening last Friday was cool, but not too cold, and as it was not raining, the atmosphere was very pleasant. There were other events and exhibitions on the way as well: You could write your wish to the world on a cherry blossom shaped sticker and put it on a lantern. There was a “fox wedding”, where a bride with a fox mask was drawn through the streets on a rikisha. There was an exhibition of designs for lanterns (and some of them were used on the streets). There was a stamp rally where you could win prizes. And there were many Ikebana displays, from the sombre and serious ones to the modern versions, one of which you can see below (it looked like the model of an atom, as my friend observed).

So, today just a few pictures of this year’s Higashiyama Hanatouro – enjoy!

Chion-in Temple during Hanatouro Modern style Ikebana. Huge Paper lantern warriorApproach to Sorenin during Hanatouro 18Ceramic lantern "cherry blossom"Kiyomizudera Temple during Hanatouro 18

Kyoto Map

In the ROHM Theatre, where I have a meeting once a week, there is the following piece of art, hanging near the entrance.

Taguro Noguchi's Map of KyotoIt is huge, maybe 3 x 1.20 metres or so, and it must be very expensive – the gold and silver are real precious metals! It has been made by Takuro Noguchi, a local artist from Kyoto, who has coined the term hakuga for this kind of work made with gold leaf and other precious metals and with lacquer.

This particular type of artwork is relatively new, Noguchi himself has started to develop this art form only in 2001. But, the idea itself is an old one – he comes from a dynasty of craftsmen in the Nishijin district, who used gold leaf to cover silk threads which in turn were used to weave obi. No wonder one cannot wash such an obi!

With the above hakuga, it took me quite a while to realise that it is not just something abstract. The moon is kind of obvious, but the rest is supposed to be a map of Kyoto and its surroundings. And indeed, when you look closely, you can find landmarks like the big Torii at Heian Shrine, or the Daimonji.

Takuro Noguchi's Map of Kyoto, DetailsIf you are interested in seeing more of Noguchi’s works, he shows a number of them on his homepage. And also, if you’re in Kyoto, he has a solo exhibition at the Daimaru Department Store Gallery from November 29  – December 5, 2017.

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 😉 )