Bansugoroku

By chance, I have come across a very old Japanese board game called Bansugoroku. Just like Go and Shogi (Japanese chess), it was popular at the Heian court in Kyoto some 1000 years ago. However, over time, it became a major game for (illegal) gambling, and when the Edo government cracked down on this and banned gambling, bansugoroku fell out of favour and nowadays is practically forgotten.

That’s a pity because it is actually quite fun to play, a mixture between backgammon and “Mensch ärgere Dich nicht”. You need: A board with 24 fields arranged on opposite sides like shown in the picture below, 15 black pieces for one, and 15 white pieces for the other player, and two dice. Bansugoroku mid gameAt first, the pieces of each player are piled at one side of the board, and the goal is to bring all pieces to the opposite side where now the other colour is. That means, that the white and black pieces move in opposite directions on the same board, like in backgammon.

And this is how to play: After agreeing on who starts, the first player rolls both dice. She is now allowed to move one or two of her pieces according to the result of the dice throw. For example, if you roll a 3 or a 6, you can either move one piece 3 fields forward and the second piece 6 fields, or you move a single piece 9 fields forward. Then, it’s the other player’s turn.

playing bansugorokuSounds simple? The game is not trivial though, since there may only be a single piece on any field: if two pieces of the same colour would fall on the same field, you have to move another piece instead. And if a black piece reaches a field occupied with a white one (or vice versa), then the white piece has to move all the way back to the beginning (just like in Mensch ärgere Dich nicht). Also the final field has to be reached with the correct number of moves – no overshooting allowed! The game is over when one player has moved all his pieces to the opposite side.

The above are the rules as they were explained to me, but I am sure there are variants of the game. How to approach the finish was a bit unclear for example: If you cannot reach the goal and are not allowed to overshoot, then what do you do? I have been told to turn back at the finish, but it is probably best to wait until you roll the correct number.

bansugoroku / backgammonI have since done a bit of research and the Internet in its infinite wisdom insists that bansugoroku was played similar to modern backgammon – with the pieces even laid out on the board in the same way in the beginning. I have found a number of images and woodblock prints from the Edo period of the 18th century which would suggest the same thing. It is possible though that the game was played differently at the Heian court of 1000 years ago and has evolved into a variant or predecessor of backgammon. Since I am not a scholar in the history of Japanese games however, I will leave this open.

In any case, as mentioned above, bansugoroku is not played any longer, although some Japanese do play “real” backgammon these days. I wouldn’t mind owning one of those bansugoroku boxes though – aren’t they fabulous? Bansugoroku box

Cold

I’m having a cold. Since last Monday I’ve had the sniffles, with a bit of temperature even in the evening. I know exactly what caused it, and looking back: It was worth it!

Last Sunday I spent 7 hours sitting in a rather unheated event hall in Osaka watching the first day of this year’s Spring Tournament of Sumo. It was rather unplanned, a friend of a friend bought the wrong tickets and couldn’t find anyone else to go with her, so we were four girls sitting high up there above the ring to watch sumo. Before entering the hall at about 11 in the morning, we bought food and drinks to last all day, and then we hunkered down and enjoyed the show.

Two sumo wrestlers preparing for their boutA sumo tournament lasts for two weeks, and every rikishi or sumo ringer has one match a day. The ranking after the tournament is determined by the number of wins each rikishi could score, and there are very complicated rules as to how and when to move up to the next level. I guess I’ll write about sumo in more depth in a Sunday post some day.

This was my second sumo event (I saw one in Nagoya some 8 years ago or so), and there were essentially three parts to the whole day. The lowest ranking rikishi start wrestling in the morning – the tournament was well under way when we arrived – and the last match of the day in the late afternoon is always the one of the yokozuna, the top ranked rikishi.

It may sound a bit funny, but you can actually notice a difference in the matches. The lower ranks seem to be more different in fighting strength, so many of the early matches are over very quickly, with one rikishi clearly dominant. The higher the rank, the more even the pairs, and a match takes much longer, including of course the going into the ring and clearing it with salt, the foot stamping etc. which is sometimes repeated several times before the match really starts.

It’s also not always true that the bigger fighter with more fat wins, often the not so fat ones are more muscular or agile and can thus make up for a lack of sheer body mass. Nevertheless, no matter what their size, sumo wrestlers are in a very good shape – or could you lift your foot over your head like the two guys in the picture above?

Altogether, I had a fun day last Sunday, and I gladly paid for it with the cold I caught (even though I could use a good night’s sleep by now).The greatest bit happened at the very last match when the yokozuna lost… This is always a big disappointment for the spectators, and they show it. Enjoy!

(This 2013 video is a bit loud in the beginning, but sound is not necessary for the fun part. In January 2017, Kisenosato became the first Japanese yokozuna in 19 years. He’s the one winning the fight in the video.)

White Day

Today is March 14th, and the Japanese celebrate White Day. It is the day when guys are supposed to “pay back” the chocolate they received a month ago on Valentine’s Day. Of course, just as I thought a month ago already, there are no especially nice chocolates around this time, but White Day gifts still appear to be quite difficult…

marshmallowsThe thing today is that men are allowed to make differences in the gifts they buy according to recipient: If he just has to reciprocate for what is called giri choco, obligation chocolate, from coworkers for example, simple sweets in return are fine. A favourite one in this case are marshmallows for some reason, probably because they are (mostly) white?

Girlfriends get special treatment, the present may be more expensive, luxury handbags and expensive jewellery are not unheard of. Once you are married however, there’s no need to worry about gifts any longer: After all, your wife has access to your bank account and will simply go out and buy herself a present – and deduct the price from your monthly allowance. Yes, at least the first part of this sentence is still true in some households!

The above information I have gathered from a friend of mine, and she said that in her youth, a boy was supposed to reciprocate with a present that was about 10 times as expensive as the one he received! Of course, this was back during the bubbly economy, nowadays this number has gone down considerably – to about 3.

Still, I cannot understand why there’s not more exciting chocolate around on White Day. The displays have shrunken a great deal and it’s more of the standard fare this time – maybe guys aren’t as picky as girls? My friend assures me though that the 3 times as expensive holds for giri choco as well. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the Japanese ways…

Salvation of a Saint

Salvation of a Saint
Keigo Higashino

Cover Salvation of a SaintYoshitaka Mashiba is found dead in his livingroom. Soon it is clear that he was poisoned by arsenic in in coffee, and when it transpires that he had an affair with his wife’s assistant, the prime suspect is logical: Yoshitaka’s wife Ayane. But since she had spent that weekend in Hokkaido with her parents, she could not have committed the crime, could she? Detective Kusanagi is convinced of her innocence and tries to find another suspect, but his young assistant Utsumi is not so sure. And when she sees that Kusanagi is falling for Ayane, she must be ready to call on an outsider to prove her suspicions and solve the case.

This is another of Higashino’s crime novels featuring detective Kusanagi and his old friend Prof. Yukawa. Although not on speaking terms at the moment, Yukawa is intrigued by the ostensibly perfect crime that has been committed and agrees to help. Once again, the solution comes at the very end and with a twist that is completely unexpected and touches the reader to the core.

Keigo Higashino, born 1958 in Osaka, started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. At age 27, his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he began to write professionally. In the West, he is mostly known for his brilliantly crafted mystery novels.

Check it out on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

Kisen de Oden

Sorry for not writing on Sunday. First I was occupied and later incapacitated…

A friend of mine took me out to Otsu, some 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu is the capital of Shiga prefecture and the largest city situated on Lake Biwa which in its turn is the largest freshwater lake of Japan. Both Otsu and Lake Biwa are popular day trip destinations from Kyoto, and there is even a path over the mountains from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, but it is probably not for the weak of limb…

Anyway, we went to Otsu on Sunday evening for a Kisen-de-Oden. Oden is a soup or rather a hot pot that is eaten throughout Japan during winter: in a light broth various types of fish cake are boiling, together with a whole egg, some daikon radish, and konyaku. It’s a bit like shabu-shabu with the difference that the ingredients are already pre-cooked and just heated in the hot pot.

Kisen means boat in Japanese, and Kisen-de-Oden thus means that you eat Oden while riding in a boat somewhere on the lake. Well, it didn’t work out like that exactly, but still: There was a short trip by boat from the main harbour of Otsu to the little landing at the old Biwako Otsukan hotel. This is a lovely building situated directly on the lake with a beautiful garden right next to it. Of course, when we arrived it was dark already and neither the building nor the garden could be seen. However, Otsu lies on the southern tip of Lake Biwa, and surrounds a good part of it, so there was a wonderful view of lit up Otsu from Otsu across the lake.

Old Otsu Hotel at Lake Biwa(photo by 663highland on Wikimedia commons)

The Oden was an interesting mix of French and Japanese cuisine. We had cooked beef in sauce, some hearty egg pudding, and foie gras as appetizers. Then the pot for the oden was heated on our table, and we were supposed to eat it – and top it off with the grated cheese that was provided. When the oden was finished we put a fried, plain onigiri rice ball into the remaining soup to make our own risotto. My overall impression was: interesting combination, but delicious.

With these sort of things I am never sure whether they are meant for the food or for the drinks. Together with the ticket, you got three coupons for free drinks (I chose three glasses of wine) plus an additional glass of hot wine on the trip plus another additional glass of wine upon arrival. That’s 5 glasses of wine – within 90 minutes, not for the weak of stamina… Of course, as usual in Japan, the whole evening was minutely planned, and executed as well, and while the waiters held themselves in the background, you still had the feeling of being rushed a little. 30 minutes more would not have been amiss.

After 75 minutes in the restaurant we had to leave and were taken by boat back to Otsu harbour again. My friend forgot to order dessert (which was a good thing because there wasn’t time enough for another course anyway), so we went to have pancakes in a Hawaiian restaurant (of all places) near the train station.

Altogether I had a nice evening in Otsu. The place looks peaceful in the night and worth examining further. I have been there before for Otsu matsuri (with the same friend) and this time we kinda sorta got invited to return for the Otsu fireworks in summer. But that’s still five months to go, and with a bit of luck I will go there earlier.

Baby Kasutera

One of the great things of Japanese festivals of a certain size is the fast food sold there. From very simple grilled meat – on sticks – and very elaborate pancakes with different toppings – rolled around sticks – to the all time favourites of yakisoba and okonomiyaki. Sweets are either caramelised fruit like apples or strawberries – on sticks – or bananas – on sticks – dipped in chocolate and sprinkles.

And then there are Kasutera. They are hard to describe, little oval balls made from simple pancake batter (I think) and baked in a special mold. They are not very sweet as there is no sugar added (although is there certainly some in the batter), and they are best when eaten fresh and really hot.

Making Baby KasuteraBaby Kasutera like this seem to be a speciality of matsuri, I have never seen them sold elsewhere. Also it seems that at least in Kyoto there is a monopoly on Kasutera. No matter what festival, and no matter how large, there is a single Kasutera booth only and it is always the same company. So, if you come visit a Kyoto festival, try to find the Kasutera booth, they are certainly worth it!

By the way, there is also a sponge-like cake called Kasutera, but the taste is a bit different. Don’t mistake those two, although the Kasutera cake is not usually sold at matsuri anyway.

Nail House

You have heard of nail houses or holdouts, right? Those are houses or rather the property on which it stands that did not become a part of a larger development (a shopping centre, public building, etc) because the owners refused to sell. Nail houses is a relatively new term for these properties, many of them are in China and there are plenty of photos online.

Recently, there is a lot of building going on in Kyoto. Lots of beautiful old buildings, many with large gardens, are torn down to make room for a brand-new mansion – I positively hate them! Often, a number of houses in a neighborhood are bought up by a developer to be able to build even bigger mansions… When you are walking down the roads in Kyoto in 20 years or so, all you will see are mansions and parking lots, with a few convenience stores strewn in between, I swear. The old buildings that will be left at that time will feel like a zoo because nobody will live in them anymore, they will be just cafes and souvenir shops…

Anyway, I wanted to write about a nail house near the old place where I lived. The owner refused to sell to one of those huge mansion developers, and now her house is surrounded on three sides by the mansion, the fourth side is facing the road. While I commend her guts to stand up to the guys with the big money, I have to say I wouldn’t want to live like that…

But then I realised that there is an even more prominent nail house in Kyoto. It is smack on one of the busiest corners in inner city, at Shijo-Kawaramachi, and it is this:

Kyoto Takashimaya Building, 2006The big building is the Kyoto Takashimaya, one of the largest department store chains in Japan. It was founded in Kyoto in 1831 and moved to this prominent spot in 1948. And at that point already, the owner of the little house on the corner refused to sell to the big developers, and you can see what happened then: Just like what would happen nowadays. You see, in Japan, it’s all about tradition… 😉

DNA

Every living being on the planet comes with its own genetic code all neatly tucked away in its DNA. It’s a fascinating and unique piece of information, but it is not really useful in daily life. I mean, of course, DNA evidence comes handy in paternity disputes and similar crimes, when trying to find a match for a lung transplant, or simply to make sure that the arm that has just been fished out of the sewers is not the one missing from your body.

But other than that, human DNA has not been really commercialised on a large scale, an interesting oversight in today’s economy. But never fret, the Japanese – ever eager to create the latest novelty – are trying to fill that gaping hole. Recently I became aware of two different commercial uses of one’s DNA that I will present below.

DNA Hanko

A hanko is a seal that is used in Japan instead of a signature whenever one makes an important legal contract; buying houses, opening companies, or getting married for example. They are usually exquisitely carved in wood or even stone and show the kanji of the owner’s name, often in a design that is based on ancient writings of those kanji that are undecipherable today even for educated Japanese.

The company Hankoya, the largest producer of hanko in Japan, has come up with a way of encoding one’s DNA into a hanko. Obviously not into the kanji themselves, but a hancode as they call it uses a sample of the owner’s DNA to create a unique background for the seal, on which a rather standard rendition of the name kanji is placed. The seal itself is made from titanium and resembles a double helix, and it looks something like this:

DNA seal and imprintsOf course, all this glory comes at a rather hefty price: First of all, one personal DNA seal takes months to make; when you order one, you receive a DNA sampling kit which you use on yourself and then return to the company. There, your DNA will be extracted and an algorithm will produce from it the background of your seal. Second, the cost of one hancode is 75.000 YEN at the moment, not too shabby, although I have to say that I find the idea with the double helix quite fascinating!

The main drawback of the hanko in general has not been solved though: That it can be stolen and used by anyone. Even though the owner’s DNA is encoded in it, there is no way of verifying whether the person who is using it to sell away his soul is the owner of both the hanko and the matching DNA. But who knows what the Japanese will come up with next…

DNA Glass

A much less serious application for DNA comes from beer and whiskey producer Suntory: The DNA Glass for beer. They say that in one person’s DNA they can identify five traits that are then translated into the size and shape of a beer glass:

Alcohol tolerance is encoded as capacity,
sensitivity to hops bitterness as rim thickness,
sensitivity to malt aroma as top diameter,
stimulation preference as sharpness, and
sociability as complexity of the glass.

The overall result is a glass from the 3D printer looking like this:

DNA GlassSomehow this sounds like fun and I wonder if they could find out that I don’t like beer very much. I could not find a link to purchase such a glass, but maybe there will be one later. Here is a link to a design rules I have given above: http://en.dna.glass/howtocreate/ The main page starts with a very noisy video, so go there at your own peril: http://en.dna.glass/

Valentine’s Day

Today is Valentine’s Day and depending on where you live, you will get your loves ones Valentine’s cards (US), flowers (Austria) or chocolates (Japan). Obviously, I prefer the Japanese type of gift to all the others, but then again: I will not receive one. That’s not because I’m single, mind you, no woman in Japan will receive any Valentine’s gift today.

That’s because in Japan, Valentine’s Day is an occasion for women to buy chocolate for men. And not the other way around. Also, it’s “men” in general, not just lovers or husbands. So, today many Japanese girls bring chocolates for their colleagues and bosses as well; and, given that many more men are in the workforce than women, especially in traditional companies, this can become very expensive.

Surely this is the reason why many supermarkets have had standard chocolate products for sale for weeks already, and mine even allocated extra space for a special display of Valentine’s chocolates – from cheap single pieces to very expensive family size boxes.

Anyway, I thought I could easily get over the fact that I won’t get any chocolates today, but then I found this: An exquisite “galaxy” chocolate box containing six planets of our solar system:

Valentine's chocolate galaxyIsn’t that the perfect gift for any nerd? I’m seriously jealous! Not because I had to buy them myself, but because by the time it is White Day – March 14th – where men should reciprocate and buy chocolates for women, the only thing to be had then will be hearts and flowers and Hello Kitty shaped stuff, all in pink and cute and boring. Why would I want that?

Creation of Japan

Yesterday was Kenkoku Kinen No Hi, the National Foundation Day, which is a perfect opportunity to have a look at the Japanese creation myth. The source used for my summary here is the Kojiki from 712, a fascinating account of Japanese myth that later turns into history, and the oldest surviving Japanese book.

In the beginning, there was chaos. But then, the light and the particles separated and ascended, but because the particles were heavier than the light, they could not rise that high – this is why the light is above everything else, and then there are the heavens and the seas and lands below it.

Five generations of heavenly deities and two generations of earthly deities came into existence, they were neither male nor female, and hid shortly after. Then, five pairs of deities  – brother and sister – came into being, the last pair were called Izanagi and Izanami, respectively. To these two the older deities gave the order to make, consolidate, and give birth to the land now known as Japan, and they handed the two siblings a bejewelled spear to do so.

Izanami and IzanagiIzanagi took the spear and stirred the oceans with it, and when he lifted the spear out of the waters again, the drops falling from it formed the island Onogoro. On that island, Izanagi and Izanami built a palace with a mighty pillar in its middle. They then decided to procreate as they had been ordered, and to do so, they first circled the pillar in opposite directions.

When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first: “Oh, what a beautiful and kind youth indeed!” and Izanagi answered his sister in the same words: “Oh, what a most beautiful and kind youth!” Izanami then went on to bear two children, but they were both misshapen. So, they went back to the heavens to inquire the reason for this, and the elder gods said: “This is because the woman spoke first when you met at the opposite side of the pillar”.

Izanagi and Izanami returned to Onogoro and repeated the ritual of circling the pillar, now taking care that Izanagi spoke first, and henceforth, Izanami bore many healthy children. Their first eight children were the Oyashima, the (then known) major islands of Japan: Awaji, Shikoku, the Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima, Sadoshima, and finally Honshu.

Afterwards, Izanami bore six more islands of Japan, and then began to give birth to a plethora of different gods and goddesses, until she died of the wounds she suffered at the birth of the God of Fire. But that’s another story that’s starting here…

I find this creation story quite interesting. Of course, there are many themes we have seen before: A chaos giving way to order, the first gods coming out of nowhere and giving birth to the land (and many more gods). The interesting part is the story of Izanagi (male-who-invites) and Izanami (female-who-invites), and I am not aware of a similar one.

Even though ordered to procreate, Izanami voluntarily agrees – after an inspection of each other’s bodies – to Izanagi putting “his excess into her scarcity”, a scene that must be so raunchy in the original that the first English translation dares only reproduce it in Latin (for the sake of the reading ladies, obviously). This is a far cry from the common rape and abduction scenes and even the “oh, by the way, you’ll be having God’s child” of Christianity. And even though it is punished immediately, it is the female Izanami who speaks first at what could be interpreted as a wedding ceremony. The story is almost feminist, which I find quite exceptional.

Anyway, the list of eight major islands mentioned in the Kojiki shows its age: At the time it was compiled, Okinawa had not been discovered (that would take another 60 years). And Honshu’s north was so scarcely populated, that even the existence of Hokkaido does not seem to have been common knowledge until the Nihon Shoki – the second oldest book in Japan, also a myth/history compilation – was completed in 720.

If you want to read further in the Kojiki, you can read the very first, 1882, translation into English at Sacred Texts. The footnotes are extensive, but not really needed if you are simply interested in the (hi-) story of Japan. In any case, I might come back at a later time and tell some more Japanese myths.