Noh Costumes

All the way back in March, I visited an event called “Noh Translation”, an introduction into the ancient Japanese theatre form Noh. I wrote about it then, and tonight was another one of these events called “Discover Noh”. This time, the focus was on Noh costumes, in particular the ones worn at the play Hagoromo, which is a lovely little fairytale. Discover Noh flyerThe same three Noh actors were taking part again, and it was really interesting to learn in detail about the costumes, the significance of their patterns and their lifetime (about 50 years). We then saw an actor getting dressed – with the assistance of three people – and in the end, there was a short performance of the last bit of Hagoromo.

I am very busy these days, but I made a point to have this evening off to go to this event. I really enjoy Noh and would love to see more of these events, because it hardly ever happens that you can chat with a Noh actor about his job (and they are all very enthusiastic about it!) Maybe, I’ll talk a bit more about this at a later time, but I just came home and I’m quite tired and I have more work to do tomorrow, so…Good night!

Mount Hiei

After two days of stressful work, I decided to take today off. The plan was to take a walk along the Philosopher’s Path on my way home from Japanese class and to visit a few of the places I haven’t seen in a long time. However, this morning, my Japanese teacher cancelled unexpectedly and on short notice. And because I still felt like walking around somewhere outside, I decided on the spot to visit Mount Hiei.

Hieizan as it is called in Japanese, is the highest mountain among those that surround Kyoto; and it lies on the northeastern mountain range. It is 848.1 m high and marks the boundary between Kyoto and Shiga province. From there (although not from the same spot) one can see both Kyoto and Lake Biwa, and the views are beautiful. In the ancient times it was said that Mount Hiei would serve as a guardian for Kyoto and the imperial family. This is not just a fanciful saying: On top of the mountain lies Enryakuji, the headquarter of the Tendai sect, and from the founding of the temple in 788, its famous warrior monks have protected Kyoto in times of war and danger quite literally.

And Enryakuji is the main reason to visit Hieizan today. There are some hiking trails on the mountain and the Monet-inspired garden museum Hiei, but the top of the mountain is dominated by the temple. Or rather: the temples, because there are three different areas where several temple buildings are clustered together, and the whole is called Enryakuji, even though no single building has this name.

I did not know that there was so much walking involved, even within one of those areas. As this is a mountain, there are many, many stairs to climb and long paths between each temple. The silence and relative solitude on the mountain does make up for it though. And the temple buildings are beautiful! Many of them are very old, and they fit perfectly into their surroundings. I’ll just add a few of my photos below to give you an impression of the mountain.

EnryakujiEnryakujiEnryakuji ShakadoEnryakuji

The Briefcase

The Briefcase
Hiromi Kawakami

cover of "The Briefcase"Tsukiko is a 38-year old office lady in an undistinguished Japanese company, leading an average life. One evening, as Tsukiko orders her dinner at a small bar, she is addressed by the old man next to her. Surprised at the approach, she finally recognizes him as her teacher of Japanese literature from high school. From that evening on, they keep meeting each other – always unplanned – and marvel about how similar they are. Sensei and Tsukiko like the same food and drinks and eat the same snacks to their sake. After a while, they begin to meet on purpose, for short little trips to the local market or to the high school reunion. Their feelings for each other and the perceived unlawfulness of them leads to internal struggles for both. Will they overcome their fears and stop hiding their feelings?

This is a wonderful love story between two soul mates who struggle not only to overcome an age difference of 30 years, but also their own perceptions of what an “appropriate” relationship should look like.

Hiromi Kawakami, born 1958 in Tokyo, studied science, taught biology, and wrote short sci-fi stories before her first book was published in 1994. She counts among the most popular authors of Japan. This book received the Tanizaki Prize in 2001, and has been made into a movie.

If you want to find out whether Tsukiko and her sensei get together at the end, get the book from amazon!

Hagi Matsuri

Last weekend was the Hagi Matsuri (Bush clover Festival) at Nashinoki Shrine. Nashinoki Shrine is rather small and lies next to the Imperial Palace, and it is full of bush clovers. One thing that people do during this festival is to write short poems and tie them to the bush clovers of the shrine.

The main attraction throughout those days, however, are the performances of traditional Japanese arts. There are three performances per day, and they show different types of art – including martial arts.

I went there on Saturday afternoon with a friend, where we caught the last bit of the Iaido (sword drawing) performance. At the end, there was the cutting of reed mats, something that seems to be surprisingly difficult.

cutting reed matsThen we took part in a tea ceremony. It must have been my third or fourth, and still, I don’t know how the tea is prepared! There are so many other things I need to pay attention to during the ceremony – it is pretty hard to be a guest even.

I went again on Sunday morning for a kyogen performance where I understood a bit here and there, but not enough to get the whole picture. It was funny though, the facial expressions alone could make you laugh.

kyogen playAfterwards there was a short shakuhachi concert. I love the tone of the bamboo flute, and the first song that all three players did together, was my favourite. I am tempted to learn it myself eventually… But maybe I should finish my soroban degree first!

I did not return on Monday, the last day, so I missed the Japanese dance and the archery. However, it was fun to watch so many different traditional arts in such a short time span.

Praying Mantis

I went to a shrine this weekend where somebody picked up this lovely member of Japanese wildlife. He held it on his hand for quite a while before and after this shot.  Fascinating Рespecially how cool many Japanese are about insects.

praying mantis

Tirol

There are new sweets on sale at my supermarket. And they have the enticing name of “Tirol” (a federal state in Austria). And since they appeared to be chocolate tarts… You see where this is going:

Tirol Chocolate TartsThey are nice, with a very rich chocolate taste, so there will be more to come even though they are pretty small. The one thing I don’t understand is the Tirol connection. Especially since most Japanese wouldn’t know the name – the only two places they know about Austria are Vienna and Salzburg. But I guess it’s just like with so many things used for advertising in Japan – as long as they look and sound cool, anything goes…

Monument of Gratitude

Memorial/tomb of KyodaiWhat do you think this is?

A tomb maybe?
It does look like one, and the sheer size of it (about two storeys high and with a diameter of perhaps two metres) would suggest a very important personality. But this is not on a graveyard, but in the middle of a standard residential neighborhood. Imperial tombs, the very old ones at least, are large and located all over the city, however, they have a distinct look that is very different from this here.

A memorial perhaps?
Could be, but there is a meadow around it with a stone fence, and it is not publicly accessible.

So, what could it be? memorial/tomb of Kyodai, closerIn fact, it is both a tomb and a memorial. It belongs to Kyoto University and is meant for the people who donated their body to science.

I am not sure whether this monument really hold physical remains – that is, a few bones of each person – like a normal Japanese tomb, or maybe just a list of names, or other things that are more symbolic. But just the fact that somebody took the time and effort to build something like that, does show an enormous amount of gratitude. It makes me happy.

Excursion

When looking for events for the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar, I came across a tiny little exhibition in an old machiya in Kyoto. And because me and my English students all are interested in old houses, we went there this afternoon and had a look.

Yoko Hoshino ExhibitionIt was a tiny exhibition of only three pieces of furniture, made as a graduation project by a student of one of the local art universities. There was a large round floor lamp (made from very thin wood that let the light shine through just a little), a small round table with lacquerware and a large chaise longue type of chair (with cushions made from an old curtain. Really!). The motto of the exhibition was “Waiting for the Moon Life” and the designer played with light and shadows in the furniture and in the house itself.

The house was a machiya, some 100 years old, with a typical part in front, then an inner garden, and a tea room in the back, that belonged to the designer’s family. She said that she remembers coming here as a child when things were still a bit different, the house was gently remodeled in the 1970s, and sadly, a parking lot now replaces the front garden.We were allowed to see all ground floor and finally ended up sitting in the living room where we were chatting with a cup of tea.

What I found so interesting was the fact that she deliberately kept the lights off in all the house. The darkness indeed had a calming effect on all of us, and always surprising, the house was almost completely quiet, even though there was a big road with heavy traffic nearby. She said that Japanese houses were meant to be pretty dark inside, lit only by candles, and that this was the way she wanted to exhibit her work in the first place. Only now that she has done it this way, she feels her work is complete..

A fun thing was that she was talking about a book by Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows”, where he describes the influence on darkness and shadows on Japanese culture. Fun because this is the book I am reading right now! Small world, full of coincidences…

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan
Yasushi Inoue

cover for The Samurai Banner of Furin KazanTakeda Shingen is the daimyo of Kai province in central Japan and one of the greatest warriors of the Sengoku period. This book tells his story as seen through the eyes of Kansuke Yamamoto, one of Shingen’s 24 generals. The crippled, disfigured Kansuke is an excellent swordsman and a brilliant strategist, and his shrewd ideas win many a battle for his master.

Not only the men are scheming in this period though, the women are their equals, and sometimes even their betters. Princess Yuu, who wanted to kill herself upon her father’s defeat, becomes Shingen’s concubine, and, through a number of open and hidden plots, she secures the succession of her son as Shingen’s heir.

In the end, Kansuke dies in the battle of Kawanajima in what would turn out to be his greatest victory. Shingen himself however, is ultimately killed by the armies supporting Oda Nobunaga, one of the major players of unification of Japan.

Takeda Harunobu, 1521 – 1573, later named Shingen, was one of the strongest warriors in the Sengoku period, a time of uproar and fighting throughout Japan. The shogunate was very weak at that time, and the hierarchical order broke down, so that anyone who had the power and ability could aspire to lead and rise through the ranks. The banner Shingen carried in his campaigns bore the four characters fu-rin-ka-zan from Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, which can be translated as: Be as swift as the wind, as silent as the wood, attack as fiercely as fire, be as composed as the mountain.

The book starts shortly before Yamamoto Kansuke entered Shingen’s services and ends with his death on the battlefield. The main focus lies on the battles that Shingen fought with Kansuke’s help, but we also get some insight into the daily lives of the people of this period. Interesting to see is how Shingen keeps acquiring women as concubines for his pleasure – very much to the dismay of Kansuke, who is very devoted to Princess Yuu, maybe even more so than to Shingen.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was known as the master of historical fiction in Japan. Before becoming an author, he worked as a journalist, and already his first novel Togyu (A Bullfight) received the renowned Akutagawa prize.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, this book is for you – of course available on amazon.

Going Out

Last Thursday, one of my English students took me out to one of his favourite restaurants in town. It was a relatively large restaurant in inner city, with three storeys of different sized rooms, and we took a small private compartment on the first floor. The restaurant (sorry, I forgot its name and didn’t take a business card either) boasts 100 different dishes, from the very simple kara age fried chicken available at food stalls at every festival to the most elaborate Japanese dishes.

We – or rather, my student, because I have no idea about Japanese food – chose a la carte and ate a seven course meal, together with a large bottle of (cold) sake. I wrote down the name of every dish, so I could remember it, and below I am sharing a few pictures. We did eat faster than I could take photos, sorry ’bout that.

We started out with sashimi, of course, and hari hari salad, a kind of vegetable. sashimi and harihari saladThen we had kara age, fried chicken, and, popular among the Japanese, beef in red wine sauce together with fried potatoes and onions (which were very tasty). kara age and red wine beefMy student also ordered tomorokoshi, fried corn, he said it reminded him of his grandmother who made this dish very often just for him. The most exciting dish, however, was tai no kabuto, sea bream’s head (literally: tai’s helmet). I love fish in general, and tai is one of the dishes that are served on very special occasions when people have reason to celebrate. That’s why this fish is sometimes jokingly called omedettai (omedetto means congratulations). tai no kabuto - tai's helmetAs the final dish, we had ochazuke with salmon. Ochazuke is simply rice with green tea, and if you are served this soup by somebody in Kyoto, it is a more or less covert way of telling you to get up and leave. Obviously, the meaning is different if you order it yourself in a restaurant, but it is still supposed to be the last dish of the evening. ochazukeI had a lovely evening, my student is very knowledgeable about Japanese history, and we had a lot of fun together. I really hope we can do this again soon, he certainly did promise…