The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami

Cover of Colorless Tsukuru TazakiTsukuru Tazaki is an engineer in Tokyo who is living his dream: building railway stations. Recently he started to see Sara, a travel agent, and as they get closer, Tsukuru opens up and tells her a secret: 16 years ago, when he was a student in Tokyo, the tight-knit group of friends he belonged to in highschool abruptly and without explanation cut off all ties to him. Sara urges him to find closure, and he agrees to visit his four friends in Nagoya and get to the bottom of the issue. Tsukuru returns to his old world of friendship, dominated by unwritten obligations to protect the weakest member under all circumstances…

The novel’s title is an allusion to the names of the five friends: All except Tsukuru’s last name contain a color: red, blue, white, black. Haruki Murakami draws an image of deep friendship among the five highschool students which is destroyed forever on outcasting one of them, who, for lack of understanding, is himself reduced to utter despair that lasts for years.

When I first read this novel, I found it incomprehensible how the four “color” people could ditch Tsukuru from one day to the other without explanation, without talking to him, without apparent remorse. Now that I lived in Japan for longer, I can see that this is a very standard Japanese pattern. It is done to protect the harmony of the group, which is paramount in Japanese society and thinking. And sometimes, it’s not the “guilty” person who has to leave, it is somebody else. Been there, had that done to me…

Haruki Murakami is probably the best known contemporary Japanese author. Born in Kyoto in 1949, he studied drama in Tokyo and became the owner of a Jazz bar. At age 29, he started writing, and since has become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide. Even though many Japanese critics don’t like his work because they see it as “too Western”, he has won many prizes in Japan as well as abroad.

Interesting book – check it out on amazon.

Tanuki

One of the most ubiquitous creatures that can be found all over Japan is the tanuki. Statues of the tanuki – translated as raccoon dog – are often seen outside restaurants or shops to beckon customers, just like the Japanese maneki neko cat. Unlike the maneki neko, however, tanuki can also be found at entrances to private homes or around the precincts of Buddhist temples. They are also the subject of many woodblock prints from the Edo period, and they feature in numerous stories, the oldest ones dating back to the 8th century.

Tanuki in Buddhist templeLong before that, tanuki were revered as gods or at least godlike creatures, who ruled over Japanese nature. However, that changed with the introduction of Buddhism and tanuki were relegated to divine messengers and local guardian spirits. They are still seen as magical today, mostly as pranksters and mischievous little beasts, who, even though they may mean no harm, can wreak havoc to the minds and bodies of their unsuspecting victims.

The most amazing feat any tanuki can perform is shapeshifting. Shapeshifting into anything, really: stones, trees, statues, things as extraordinary as the moon and as common as household items… There is a cute story about the latter: A tanuki wanted to repay a farmer for a good deed and transformed into a beautiful tea kettle, which the farmer sold for a good price to a rich man. But the first time the tea kettle was put to use and heated over a fire it sprouted head, tail, and legs, and returned to the farmer. In the end, the farmer earned a lot of money for showing people the tailed and snouted tea kettle, so there is a good ending to the story after all.

Tanuki as Tea KettleTanuki also enjoy taking human form, in particular that of Buddhist monks, in which they received the special name of tanuki-bozu. In this shape, they are out to cause mischief by imitating – more or less perfectly – human activities like attending funerals, or working as a scribe. Of course, sooner or later the disguise will be discovered and the poor tanuki is thrown out of the temple, but there is one legend of a tanuki-bozu that was allowed to become a page at the temple after his discovery, and was even buried in a regular grave. Most of the times such a favourable treatment is not the case though, and the tanuki must leave, which means that all the things he has bewitched during his stay – something else they are capable of – will return to their real shape, piles of money will then turn to leaves, for example.

As mentioned above, statues of tanuki can be found all over Japan, and although they come in various sizes, they all essentially look the same. The reason for this is, that these statues go back to a single artist called Tetsuzo Fujiwara, a potter who lived in Koga, a village in Shiga prefecture, that one day was visited by emperor Hirohito. Since Koga is known for pottery, the streets were lined with tanuki statues waving flags and the emperor was so amused by this, that the wrote a poem about it – and the rest is history.

tanuji statueSince tanuki have been ascribed with eight special traits supposed to bring good fortune, many of the statues depict at least some of them:

  • friendly smile
  • hat (protecting against bad fortune and weather)
  • big eyes (help making good decisions and perceive the environment)
  • sake bottle (representing virtue, often with the kanji for 8 written on them)
  • big tail (strength and steadiness until one is successful)
  • promissory note (representing trust or confidence)
  • big belly (stands for decisiveness)
  • big scrotum (symbolising luck in money matters)

Especially the final trait may seem a bit odd, and indeed, the origin story behind it is quite interesting. In fact, tanuki are real animals, properly translated as Japanese raccoon dogs. Sometimes, the word tanuki is falsely translated into English as badger or raccoon, but those are different species. The mistake is not surprising, because even within Japan, there are differences in naming the animal; even though tanuki is the official name, mujina is a regional variation. The confusion goes back to the kanji, which originally mostly referred to wild cats. But since there are no wild cats native to Japan (other than in Okinawa), the kanji began to be used for the tanuki. Tanuki are widespread in Japan. They live mostly in forested areas, but have also been seen scavenging in cities even as large as Tokyo.

Real TanukiAnyway, back to the scrotum: Real tanuki already have a large scrotum, but this alone would probably not be enough for comic depiction. The background here is that in the old days, metal workers in Kanazawa who were charged with producing gold leaf, put their gold nuggets into the skin of tanuki scrotums before hammering. It happens that this skin in particular can be stretched extremely thin – allegedly to the size of eight tatami mats – which makes it very useful for producing gold leaf. Moreover, tanuki scrotums were made into wallets, and surely the connection between kin no tama – small gold balls – and kintama – slang for testicles – helped the legend along quite a bit as well.

tanuki scrotum cloakThere are many stories about tanuki and their mischievous behaviour, but not many of them involve their kintama. This particular trait was picked up by ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period. There, tanuki are depicted using their scrotums as sails for boats or even boats themselves, as fishing nets, umbrellas, cloaks… Nowadays these depictions are rare, but the statues are still very popular throughout Japan, and the tanuki also functions as mascot for a number of Japanese companies. And who knows, maybe that jolly old Japanese you just met is nothing but a tanuki in disguise waiting to make a fool of you…

Seiryu-e Festival

I’m so busy these days with all sorts of stuff, so even though I finally know about many of the cool events in Kyoto, I barely have time to go there anymore… However, last Friday I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule and visit the Seiryu-e Festival of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Seiryu-e Festival is the festival of the blue dragon, where an 18 m long dragon is carried through the temple precincts and later though the streets below Kiyomizu-dera. In the beginning, the dragon emerges from the 3 storied pagoda near the entrance of the temple. It is accompanied by three women in front and a group of men (monks?) behind it. Of course, a number of people with shell trumpets must be there as well to announce the coming of the dragon.

The blue dragon enters Kiyomizu-deraThere is a very short ceremony in the main hall of the temple before the dragon moves on to the newly renovated stage where it performs an elaborate dance to the chanting of the monks that have followed it earlier. Afterwards, the dragon moves through the temple precincts and back to the pagoda, which it circles once before leaving the temple through the main gate and going down to the streets below to bestow its blessings onto the town.

The blue dragon is believed to be an incarnation of Kannon – the goddess of mercy – and it is said that it visits the waterfalls of Kiyomizu-dera each night to drink. To Western minds it may sound a bit weird, but in Asian culture, dragons are associated with water instead of fire, and many temples and shrines have wells with a dragon-shaped spout. Also, the translation of Kiyomizu-dera is “Clear Water Temple”, so it seems natural for this temple to have a festival like this.

The blue dragon of Kiyomizu-deraInterestingly, this is one of the newest additions to Kyoto’s festival calendar. The first Seiryu-e festival was held only in 2000, and although the dragon is quite spectacular, it appears as if not many people are aware of the performance. I had the impression that most people who were visiting Kiyomizu-dera – which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto – didn’t know about the festival and were taken by surprise.

Because of this, the ceremony was not overly crowded, and I managed to get a first row spot to take photos; and I even managed to receive a special blessing including a paper talisman that was given out by the women accompanying the dragon through town. If you like, you can have a look at a short video of the Seiryu-e Festival at the homepage of Kiyomizu-dera: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/seiryu-e/

Maguro

In Japan, tunafish is the most popular fish for sushi and sashimi. Large tunafish can sell at auctions for thousands of US$, and the carving of a tunafish into bite sized pieces is an attraction that draws lots of people every time. Thanks to Japan being an island, fish is popular and ubiquitous, and most people buy their tuna – fish in general – raw and cook it themselves.

In the West, tunafish is much less attractive. Of course, it is eaten often, but not many people have ever seen anything else than the cooked pieces that are drowned in oil and packed in cans. In fact, this kind of canned tuna also exists in Japan, of course, but here it is called “sea chicken” for some reason.

The best way to cook tuna – according to a Japanese tuna salesman I asked – is to grill it very lightly so that it is still raw in the middle, just like good steak. But the most delicious way to eat tunafish is as sushi or sashimi because only there the delicate taste comes out as it should. What many people don’t realise is that tunafish tastes differently depending on which part of the fish is eaten. After all, a grown tuna can be up to one metre long, that’s a lot of meat!

3 types of maguro sushiWhen eating sushi, there are essentially three types of tuna available: Maguro sushi is the most common, and this is usually what is served abroad as well. It is dark red, comes from the fish’s back near the spine and is the leanest type of tuna. Pieces from the belly are called Otoro, their color is light pink because they contain a lot of fat. Often, otoro pieces are marbled like good beef, and they are so tender that they melt easily on the tongue. The taste is quite oily though, not everybody likes that. A bit more to the inside of the belly of the fish are the pieces called chutoro (written with the Kanji for “middle”). They are pretty much in the middle between maguro and otoro, in taste, fat content, and in color.

Interestingly, otoro is the most expensive part of a tuna fish, at least of the parts that are eaten as sushi. For the average Westerner this must sound strange – just imagine all that fat! – but the Japanese don’t mind fat that much, and otoro is very tasty indeed. If you have a chance somewhere at a sushi bar to try out all three kinds of tuna cuts, do so! You will not be disappointed, promised!

The Hunting Gun

The Hunting Gun
Yasushi Inoue

Hunting Gun CoverA man who calls himself Josuke Misugi recognizes himself as the figure described in a poem published in a hunting magazine. He writes to the poet and sends him three letters he had received from the three most important women in his life.

Saiko, Josuke’s wife, found out the identity of his long-term lover, and now wants a divorce. In a matter-of-fact way she not only tells him what she has chosen from their property, but also that she had been unfaithful as well for years.
Midori, Josuke’s lover and cousin of Saiko, has been sick for a long time. When Saiko finds out about the affair with her husband, Midori is ready to put a long intended plan into action. She writes a last letter to Josuke and then poisons herself.
Shoko, Midori’s daughter, finds her mother’s diary and is shocked to learn about the affair. Finding it hard to deal with it, she decides to end all contact with both Josuke and Midori.

The three letters tell the story of not only the three women’s, but also of Josuke’s life, and the only things we hear about him are seen from their perspective. The main themes of the novel are love and loneliness, and how the former may lead to the latter.

Of all the four people involved, I mostly felt for Shoko. Finding her mother’s diary and seeing how she had suffered emotionally for so long, almost leads to Shoko’s own breakdown. Shoko’s letter feels the most distressing of the three, her new and thus still raw feelings are expressed beautifully and perfectly by the author.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was born in Hokkaido and studied history and art at Kyoto University. He started writing very late, and his first short stories were published in 1949; they won him the Akutagawa Prize one year later. In the 40 years until his death, he was one of the most prolific writers of Japan, he published many short stories, but also full size novels. He is most famous for his accurate historical fiction and is still one of the most read Japanese authors in Germany.

Check the book out on amazon.

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…

Sento Kuyo

In August, when the Japanese celebrate Obon – the festival of the dead – there are many related events, and not all of them take place during the few days leading up to August 16th, when the dead are sent back to the underworld again. The Sento Kuyo or Manto Kuyo festivals take place at temples throughout Japan, and they are meant as memorial services for ancestors long gone.

Tonight, there was the Sento Kuyo (literally: 1000 lights memorial service) festival at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple. This temple from the Heian period, located in the Arashiyama mountains west of Kyoto, is famous for its approximately 8000 stone monuments. Many of them are quite small and have been found during excavations in the area – which has long been a graveyard – in the early 20th century and relocated to the temple grounds. Some of them are in the shape of small Japanese tomb stones, others may have once been Jizo statues; it’s hard to say because they are heavily worn with age.

8000 Monuments at Adashino Nenbutsu-jiWhatever their former purpose, they now stand densely packed in a walled part of the temple grounds, with a large stone pagoda and Buddha at the center. And this garden of stones lies at the centre of the Sento Kuyo ceremony. In the beginning, the monks chant sutras in a small building adjacent to the cemetery. Then, the first candles are lit before the central Buddha in the cemetery and the monks pray there, before making a round through the cemetery.

Temple staff will now light the first candles and distribute them throughout the graveyard, there are little iron spikes everywhere, on which the candles are placed. When the first candles have been lit, visitors to the temple are now invited to also light a candle at one of the stones. I have seen many people doing this and saying a little prayer there, even though it is not known whom the stone belonged to – or if it was ever meant as a tomb to begin with. Lit candles during sento kuyo festivalThe ceremony starts at 18:00 and there is chanting all the way through until the temple closes again at 20:30. It is very nice to watch as dusk is falling and the candles are (almost) the only thing lighting up the graveyard in the end. I think it was a beautiful and spiritual sight, but the Japanese friends I talked to say to them it’s just creepy. Maybe that was part of the reason why the ceremony attracted relatively few people. At least it did not feel crowded at all, even though the part where the ceremony took place is relatively small.

After I had decided to have taken enough photos, I left, and downstairs, on the street passing the temple, there was another, more profane light up: Large hand painted lanterns lined the street on both sides, and here and there, huge oval lanterns were hung up and served as a focal point. Many of the lanterns were painted by kids, but there were a few really artistic ones as well. The backdrop there were old houses; apparently this is part of a special preservation area at Arashiyama.

Lightup in ArashiyamaIn any case, I had a nice evening watching the ceremony. It was touching to see people coming and praying over their candle that they had just placed somewhere… I really should go there again at some point and have a closer look at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and its surroundings – during daylight hours.

Summer Purification

Last weekend, there was a very interesting summer purification rite at Shimogamo Shrine. This time, we random spectators were not allowed to participate, but it did involve the Mitarashi Pond at the Shrine again. When I arrived in the early evening, there was a circle of arrows stuck into the pond, and some fire places were set up and a table for a prayer ceremony.

A circle of arrows in the Mitarashi Pond of Shimogamo ShrineEventually, two priests came to pray in front of the little shrine you see in the back of the above photo, and when it became dark, the fires around the pond were lit. There was quite a bit of waiting, but when it was really dark, two groups of men arrived together with a number of priests. The men took their seats on the steps leading down to the pond on both sides, and there was more praying and a blessing of both groups.

When this was done, a sign was given, and all of a sudden, both groups jumped up and into the water and tried to get as many of the arrows as possible. While they were splashing about, the priests were throwing yellow pieces of paper into the water and onto the participants.Everything was over in two or three minutes when there were no more arrows to be grabbed. The participants, now all wet, sat down again for another blessing, and then left quickly, and the whole ceremony was over.

Nagoshi no Harae ceremony at Shimogamo ShrineThis ceremony is meant to pray for health for the rest of the year, and getting one of those arrows is meant to be extra lucky. I could not find out what was happening after the official ceremony, and what purpose the arrows have, but I guess they will be put in the houses of the participants who won them. However, the yellow paper was in the shape of humans, and on each piece was written a name and the wish of that person for the rest of the year. Those paper dolls were fished out of the water rather unceremoniously in the end, I guess they were thrown away or maybe burnt afterwards.

The most interesting part of the ceremony was that there was one woman amongst all the guys competing for the arrows. Never before have I seen women participate in this sort of religious events (other than as helpers somehow), so I don’t know if this was an exception or common at Shimogamo. Maybe Japan is changing after all?

Otsu Hanabi

What a day! After my Japanese class I went to a lovely exhibition of handmade glass items (pity I couldn’t afford anything), then I was off to my weekly business meeting. And from there, I went straight to Otsu, a little town some 30 km east of Kyoto, situated on lake Biwa.

This was the highlight of my day, because today was the Biwako Hanabi – fireworks! Japanese fireworks usually happen in summer, and it’s always a big festival with drinks and food on the streets. Different to the West, a fireworks display is not part of a bigger event, it IS the event, and it can last an hour or even more.

I went there with a friend whose friend lives in Otsu and was up even earlier than me this morning and reserved a spot for a picnic in the very first row directly on the lake. This is necessary since there are very few places available where you won’t have to pay for your seat, and apparently, Otsu draws some 350.000 spectators for the fireworks each year. The train going there (2.5 hours before the event) was already packed, and upon leaving (my friend was driving) there were long, long queues in front of the train stations…

After the heavy rains yesterday, the weather was nice and cool, perfect to bathe your feet in the water, have a sushi bento and a beer, and watch the fireworks above you. We sat exactly opposite one of the two spots in the lake from which the rockets were shot, and this year’s theme was also water, by the way. There were fireworks depicting fish, umbrellas, and water melons, for example. Unfortunately it is notoriously difficult to photograph fireworks without a tripod, but I did get a few good pictures. Here’s one of them before I’m off to bed. Enjoy! Otsu Hanabi 2017