Shiso Sparkling

Shiso SparklingShiso is the Japanese name for perilla, a plant of the mint variety with a strong and distinctive taste. The leaves are about the size of a palm and green. Usually, shiso is served raw with sushi and sashimi, and also used in other dishes. There is also a red variety of shiso leaves, but they are not usually eaten, but used as ingredients in making umeboshi, for example, mainly for the flavour and colour.

Recently, I came across Shiso Sparkling, an alcoholic drink made with (of?) red shiso leaves, and of course, I had to try this. It does have a refreshing minty taste, but it is not overwhelming, and the extra bubbles make this very quaffable. It’s nice to drink on the rocks, so more of a summer drink, and for those who want to go the extra mile, maybe top it off with a mint leaf?

Tokyo Family

Cover of Tokyo FamilyTomiko and Shukichi Hirayama, living on a small island on the Inland Sea, decide to visit their children who all live in Tokyo. Their eldest son Koichi, with whom they stay, is a doctor running a small clinic; their daughter Shigeko is very busy with running both her family and a beauty salon; only their youngest son Shuji, who works as a freelance stage hand, seems to be content with his life. He is most happy to see his mother, and tells her – as the only one in the family – about his girlfriend. Koichi and Shigeko mean well when they treat their parents to a few nights in a fancy hotel, but Tomiko and Shukichi feel isolated and rejected instead, as they expected to spend time with their children. The well-established routine comes to a full stop when Tomiko unexpectedly dies because of an accident and the one person holding the family together suddenly disappears. How will Shukichi fare, once he must return to his home on the island?

Tokyo Family (Tokyo Kazoku), 2013, 146 minutes
Director: Yoji Yamada
Cast: Isa Hashizume (Shukichi Hirayama), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tomiko Hirayama), Masahiko NIshimura (Koichi), Tomoko Nakajima (Shigeko), Satoschi Tsumabuki (Shoji)

This film is a remake of Tokyo Story from 1953. It is a very slow film without much of an exciting plot. It depicts life as it is in Japan; the tiny spaces and minimal pockets of private time that need to be carefully carved out from obligations towards others. Probably the best glimpse into busy Japanese city life I have yet seen.

A Japanese version with English subtitles is available from amazon.

The Key

The Key
Junichiro Tanizaki

Cover of "The Key" by Junichiro TanizakiIn our diaries, we may write our most intimate thoughts and desires, safe in the knowledge that no eyes other than ours will ever read them.

This is not the case for an elderly professor and his attractive young wife. Their married life has become dull and although they would never openly admit this to each other, they cannot suppress their desires for ever. So, each of them starts a diary to write about the things they cannot say openly. Although they carefully hide the books, they do expect the other to find and read it. The diaries, mutually read, soon provide the key to spice up their marriage, but things become rather complicated when Kimura, a young colleague of the professor’s arrives on the scene and arouses not only the daughter of the house but also the wife.

We read the entries of both diaries and follow the story of love and jealousy, sexual desires and their fulfillment. Both partners play their respective games, innocent in their talking, but highly dangerous in their writings. In the end the fire of their lust is all-consuming – was this what they wanted all along?

An interesting book, almost a psychological study. If you know something about your partner you shouldn’t know – how do you deal with it? Confront him openly? Get what you want – or what he wants – by sly manipulations? The end of the book comes with a shocking confession and nothing is what it seems…

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), born in Tokyo, was one of the most popular modern writers of Japan. He began his literary career in 1909, and only a year later, he was well-known in literary circles. Many of his writings have sexuality and desire as their focus. In 1923, when he moved to Kyoto after the great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed great parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, his career was boosted to new heights, and after WWII, he was regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. In 1949, he won the Asahi Prize and was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture, and in 1964, he was elected as honorary member in the merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the first Japanese writer. He died of a heart attack shortly before his 79th birthday.

Interested in spicing up your own marriage? Well, have a look what Tanizaki is doing here and get the book from amazon!

Fluffies

It finally happened, it’s getting cold again, and I broke down… The Japanese have a fantastic array of special clothing for winter: From special high-tech underwear called “heat tech” to thin down jackets for indoors to fluffy and very kawaii onesies for kids and adults, all of this is designed to keep you warm when you must leave the one and only heated area of the house. And yes, after five years in Japan, I finally bought myself one of these things to keep me warm.

Fluffy boots in pinkIn case you were hoping for a picture of me in one of those pink onesies with bunny-eared hoodie, I have to disappoint you: I didn’t go quite that far. I did go pink though and bought a pair of … let’s call them boots, to keep my feet warm which is really important because I am feeling very uncomfortable – to the point of getting cranky – when I have cold feet (or a cold back, by the way). I agree, these things are not quite as cute as I had hoped for, but as they are made of glorified plastic, aka polyester, they do what I expected of them – keeping my tootsies warm.

I am feeling very Japanese now! Not like a particularly elegant one, mind you, but it is a start!

The Gardens of Jonan-gu

Jonan-gu is a shrine in the south of Kyoto, near Takeda station. It is said to date back to the establishment of Kyoto as Japan’s capital in the 8th century, but written history talks about it from the 11th century, when retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa built the so-called Jonan Rikyu villa around the shrine. The gardens of the villa were extensive and became a popular watering hole for the aristocrats of the time. Even nowadays, the gardens of Jonan-gu are its most impressive feature, especially since the shrine buildings had to be replaced after a fire in the 1970s.

The Rakusuien Gardens of Jonan-gu measure an enormous 30.000 square metres. They were designed by famous garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the 1960s, and comprise five different garden architectures that each mirror a popular garden design of a historic era. Altogether, the garden is home to about 150 plum trees, 300 camellia bushes, and 100 maples, which give the gardens a beautiful and changing atmosphere throughout the seasons. Furthermore, all the 80 plants that are explicitly mentioned in The Tale of Genji can be found in Rakusuien, and strolling through it gives the impression of taking a long walk through time.

When entering through the gate at the west side of the shrine precincts, at first there is  Spring Mountain, which boasts many beautiful pink plum trees in April, but is not quite so impressive during the other seasons.

Jonan-gu spring mountainWalk behind the honden – the main shrine building – into the eastern part of Rakusuien, the Heian Garden, which is dominated by water: With a pond, a waterfall, and a little stream winding through, these types of gardens were popular among aristocrats of the Heian period.Jonan-gu Heian GardenFurther along the path, you must cross the main road of the shrine and enter the southern part of Rakusuien, which boasts three different garden styles. First, there is the Muromachi Garden, where majestic stones surrounding a large pond dominate the scene. There is meaning throughout: the quiet Medaki waterfall in the foreground is considered female, the big one in the back – Odaki – is male. Horaijima island – the island of the immortal hermit – features pine trees as symbols of longevity. And the three large rocks on the other shore are meant to be Buddha and two Bosatsu, residing in the ideal Buddhist World. This part of the garden is especially beautiful during the autumn colours and in April and May, when wisteria and azaleas bloom.

Jonan-gu Muromachi gardenThe second garden you will encounter is the Momoyama Garden, whose large open lawn is meant to reference the Pacific Ocean. The trees at the back represent Japan’s mountains, and the black rocks within it the Japanese islands off the coast. Look for the pine that looks like a ship at the back right. This symbolises a European ship coming to Japan – Japan’s Momoyama era indeed saw the first Western people arrive from Europe.Jonan-gu Momoyama Garden in Winter

Take your time admiring both Muromachi and Momoyama Gardens from the Rakusuiken Tea House that lies right between them. Enjoy the view from there with a cup of green tea and a seasonal wagashi sweet. When you are ready to move on, have a look at the small Suisekitei gallery, where exhibits pertaining to the history of Jonan-gu are on display.

On your way towards the exit, you will see Jonan Rikyu, the third and last of the southern gardens. Again, this is a karesansui garden without water. This garden is meant to depict the time when Jonan Rikyu dominated the area, and again, there is a lot of hidden meaning in the design: The stones represent the river Kamo, the white pebbles the pond of the imperial villa, and the big rocks in the garden are supposed to be the old buildings.Jonan Rikyu Garden in Jonan-gu Shrine

The Rakusuien gardens of Jonan-gu are worth taking the trip down south at any time of the year. And because the shrine is a bit off the beaten tracks, there are rarely enough visitors to make it feel crowded. I have only been to Jonan-gu in November and January, but I have seen stunning pictures of Spring Mountain, well, in spring. The one on top is not mine and by far not the best one out there! I guess I will have to take the trip down again next year!

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 – especially how cool many Japanese are about insects.

praying mantis