Novelist as a Vocation

Novelist as a Vocation
Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami ranks among the best known contemporary Japanese authors. In more than 30 years, he has written 14 novels, a number of nonfiction works and countless short stories and essays, many of which were translated into dozens of languages. Despite his status as an international celebrity, Murakami stays mostly out of the limelight, preferring to write books rather than giving interviews.

This book is a collection of 11 essays in which he talks about his path as an author. He explains his views on writing, his audience, literary prizes, and the relationship between mental and physical fitness when it comes to write books. Although some essays have titles like “On Originality”, “What to write about”, or “What characters do I put on stage”, these are not manuals on how to write but rather detail how Murakami himself approaches the craft.

I have read this book a few years ago in a German translation (Von Beruf Schriftsteller). While I like Murakami in general, that translation doesn’t read very well. He used a lot of “in my view” and “in my opinion” hedging, which may be expected by a Japanese audience, but to me, it seemed a bit arrogant at times. I wonder if the English translation suffers from the same problem. However, if you’re interested in a (partial) autobiography of one of the world’s best-selling authors, you should definitely read this one.

Even if you’re not a writer, this one is interesting if you like Murakami. Get the book from amazon.

Bad Decisions

Sorry for not writing on Sunday, a single decision on Thursday laid me flat for the weekend… But let’s start at the beginning:

On Thursday afternoon, I visited a concert at Yasaka Shrine (Bati-Holic again, yay!) with a friend of mine (who enjoyed the concert quite a bit too). As it is this time of the year, I afterwards went to the Takashimaya to buy Oseibo. Even though it’s relatively early to do that, I had to wait for 90 minutes to do the actual ordering. So, down to the basement’s food court I went during the wait for some special shopping.

If you’ve never been to a Japanese department store food court, the first trip there can be quite overwhelming. A whole floor with dozens, if not well over a hundred tiny little outlets to buy edibles. From local seafood to imported cheese, tiny chocolates to cakes in several tiers, cold bento and hot chicken wings, teas, coffees, alcohol… Whatever you could possibly want, you’ll find it there.

And I found there some chocolates and Korean-style pancakes with seafood. I love those chichimi as they are called in Japan as it reminds me of good times in Korea. They came complete with sauce, and were the perfect dinner after half a day out.

Unfortunately, they had been prepared kimchi. I love kimchi, but my body couldn’t be less enthusiastic about it… After some preliminary rumbles throughout Friday, I finally spent the night on the porcelain throne. And Saturday, too. By Sunday, I was completely exhausted.

Of course, this is all my fault, I should have known better than to eat kimchi – and fried one to boot – but of course, now I’m way behind schedule on my work commitments. And this week is especially busy. Oh well, can’t be helped. I hope I can catch up again by the weekend. I have plans for next week…

Online Orders

Sorry for not writing on Sunday, I was out three days in a row. Friday and Saturday, I visited the Kyoto Modern Architecture Festival where more than 30 buildings, mostly from the Meiji and Taisho period, were open to the public as a whole or showed special, otherwise closed rooms. And on Sunday, I took a friend of mine to Arashiyama to see the momiji. Sadly, it was the only rainy day in weeks, and we got pretty soaked and cold. We finished the day in a Chinese restaurant in town, and by the time I came home, I was exhausted…

It took me a day or two to get my mojo back, and in the meanwhile, I didn’t want to do any serious cooking. So, as I have done a few times before, I ordered pizza at the PIZZA-LA, a countrywide chain claiming to be the “Japanese Standard”. While they have an English menu, their order form is all Japanese, and it took me several times to understand which boxes I need to tick (and, to be honest, I still use Google Translate for some of the words…)

I order once a month now (the mozzarella – asparagus – bacon pizza is my favourite), and they have recently added a “P” size (for pair, presumably? It says it’s for 1.5 people) that is now the smallest size. When I tried their pizza for the first time, I was surprised how good it was. Obviously, it’s still take out from a chain “restaurant”, so we’re not talking culinary heights here, but I can definitely recommend it if you’re in Japan and need a quick pizza fix.

Finished/Furnished: 2nd Floor Living Room

Finally, I can show off my traditional Japanese living room! This one didn’t need much work, so there won’t be any in-progress photos. Also, to be perfectly fair, it’s not completely finished yet. But first, let’s have a look at the state of it when I moved in:

The first thing that had to go were those cables, I removed them soon after I bought the house. In fact, these were all TV antennas; it seems the previous owner really loved his TVs and had them all over the house. I also bought a new ceiling lamp in a traditional design that not only looks better, but also weighs less than a quarter of the old one. You can’t see it on this photo, but the old lamp had a solid metal core and was very heavy. If you sleep there and a lamp like this comes down during an earthquake, it would definitely cause serious injuries. No wonder it was chained to the ceiling!

The old tatami were replaced with brand-new ones before I moved in. I’ve talked about this before, so let’s leave it there. You will see that their original green colour has already faded to a soft yellow, and the lovely fresh smell of the rushes is long gone too.

What really needed fixing were the shoji in front of the windows. The one on the left side was stuck and didn’t move, and my carpenter fixed it and all the others last year already. To my shame, I have to admit that changing the paper took me … ummm… much longer. I guess I was reluctant to do this because I didn’t know what I would get myself into, but in the end, the paper was comparatively easy to replace. So, here’s how it looks right now:

The furniture – the tansu, the low table and the boxes for writing utensils and cards – are all antique or second hand. It makes a lovely look overall and fit together perfectly, even though the writing box in the tokonoma could be spruced up a little. There is no way to hang anything on the walls, but for the moment, I like it this way. And yes, this blue thing is a cat bed. It’s still warm enough during the day for Pumpkin to sleep there, but from mid-afternoon onwards, he prefers to sleep in my bed.

What needs to be done: The paper on the fusuma needs to be replaced. The paper is not as dirty as the wallpaper in the kitchen was, but there are quite a few holes. I am not sure I could handle this myself since the fusuma are much larger than the shoji, but maybe it’s just another question of trial and error.

Same thing with the walls. Other than downstairs, these here are traditional daub-and-wattling walls with the requisite cracks through which I can see outside… The interior at least would need a refurbishing, but I have no idea how to do this. This one is probably a job for a pro, but I don’t have money for this right now. We’ll see.

Overall, I’m very happy with how the room turned out given the limited means I have at the moment. It feels very peaceful and in the afternoon, with the sun coming through the shoji, it’s almost like a Japanese dream come true.

Outing

I’m exhausted! I was out all day, first had a meeting with a potential client, then headed to an exhibition preview. This one was especially interesting, paintings by Okoku Konoshima, a rediscovered painter of the Meiji through early Showa periods. He is best known for his life-like animal paintings, but this exhibition focuses on his landscapes. He travelled extensively throughout Japan, and after a long period of sketching, he turned to landscape paintings in a traditional style, which he modernized and made his very own.

While the exhibition itself was lovely and already showed a number of large folding screens, the highlight was a special opening of Nanyoin, one of the subtemples of Nanzen-ji. All the fusuma paintings in its abbot quarters were painted by Konoshima, and each room has a special theme that is often revealed only at second glance. I will write a bit more about Konoshima and his art this weekend. For now, just the garden of Nanyoin. Pity you can’t hear the waterfall in the background.

Tokyo Ueno Station

Tokyo Ueno Station
Miri Yu

Just outside Ueno Station, where the trains bound for northern Japan leave, lies Ueno Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It attracts lots of homeless people, and Kazu is one of them. He talks about his life in the park, how to build a house from tarps and cardboard that is easy to dismantle. How to make a little money by selling cans and used magazines. How, thanks to local restaurants leaving out leftovers, food is a minor problem. And how to make friends among the homeless without revealing too much about yourself.

Kazu is one of many people from the north of Japan who came to Tokyo to build the infrastructure for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And they stayed on, always in search for jobs, so they could send money to their wives and children at home. Kazu also has a family, and he did return to them upon retirement. But when his wife died unexpectedly, he chose not to be a burden to his daughter and granddaughter, and so he returned to the place where he spent most of his life in: Tokyo. But life isn’t easy in Ueno Park, and eventually, there is only one way out…

If I had to summarize this book in one word, it would be “heartbreaking”. What got to me most, interestingly, wasn’t so much the descriptions of Kazu’s homeless life in the park, but of his life before that. When his children were small, he left for Tokyo to earn money; the price his family pays is his constant absence. He is not there to see his children grow up, and when his son dies at 21, Kazu cannot come to terms with his loss.

Miri Yu does an exceptional job portraying Kazu and the other homeless people in the park with compassion, and she draws a vivid picture of those who live on the edge of society. In an afterword, she describes the research that has gone into this novel. She also relates some remarkable acts of callousness after the Tohoku earthquake, which I wouldn’t have thought possible from the ever so polite Japanese.

Miri Yu, born in 1968, is one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1997, she received the Akutagawa Prize for the short story “Family Cinema”. Being of Korean descent, she knows from experience what it means to be an outcast from society. After the Tohoku earthquake, she moved to Fukushima in 2015, where she owns a bookshop.

For a heartbreaking glimpse into the life of the homeless of Japan, get this book on amazon.

Cooling Down

Kyoto is slowly cooling down. The many cherry trees along the Kamogawa river show their best autumn leaves already, even though the momiji are still far off. The last week or so there were wonderful sunny days with blue skies, truly picture perfect. The evenings can get pretty chilly, though, and I now, somewhat reluctantly, close my windows during the night.

Unfortunately, my office is on the northern side of the house and can get quite cool even during the day. In the afternoon, when both living rooms are sunny and much warmer, I go there to work, but I return to the office in the evening since it is the smallest room downstairs and easiest to heat. Before you’re asking: yes, I’m heating here already, on occasion, when my fingers get too cold while typing.

Pumpkin now finds the warmest spots in the house. In the morning he sits on his kitty tower surveying the neighborhood. Afternoons see him curled up in my bed, on top of the duvet, and he only leaves when it’s getting dark. Then, he sleeps on his own bed in the shelf until it’s time for me to go to bed too. He now likes to sleep with me, under the covers, and it’s really cute when he comes up to the cushion and scratches carefully, so I’ll let him inside. Unfortunately, he has the habit of sleeping across the bed and with his head sticking out of the covers. Right now, that this creates a hole in my warm cave is not a problem, but when the nights get even colder, I may have to find a workaround…

Soken-in

This is one of the 24 subtemples of Daitoku-ji, one of the headquarters of a branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Soken-in dates back to 1583, when it was established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as the mortuary temple for Oda Nobunaga, who dies one year earlier in what is known as the Honno-ji incident.

Soken-in’s main hall holds a lacquered statue of Nobunaga that was created at the temple’s founding. The seated lord is 115 cm tall and wears ikan-taito courtdress. He looks down upon visitors with inlaid eyes and has a somewhat haughty expression on his face.

At the back of the temple lie the graves of Nobunaga and some of his sons and family members, or rather: one of Nobunaga’s “graves”. After he had committed suicide at Honno-ji in 1582, the temple was burned to the ground and destroyed the body. Thus unable to properly cremate his lord, Hideyoshi had two life-sized statues made from agarwood. One of the statues is the one mentioned above, the other was cremated in lieu of Nobunaga’s body and put into the grave at Soken-in. Agarwood is very fragrant, and contemporary sources tell how the smell from the burnt wood hung over Kyoto for days. To this day, there is a grand Buddhist ceremony on June 2nd, the day when Nobunaga died.

As can be surmised from the fact that Soken-in has no less than 3 tea houses, there is a strong connection to tea ceremony as well. The founding abbot, Kokei Sochin, was the Zen-master of Sen-no-Rikyu, who is revered as the one who perfected tea ceremony as we know it today. Coincidentally, Rikyu’s own mortuary temple, Juko-in, is just next door. In 1585, Hideyoshi held one of his large tea gatherings in Soken-in, where he prepared tea with his own hands. And there is also a chasenzuka, a memorial mound for tea whisks. Sadly, the yearly ceremonies to give thanks to used tea whisks were stopped already before the pandemic and are unlikely to return.

Unfortunately, many of the temple’s buildings are not original. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, there was a movement to abolish Buddhism, and many of the buildings were destroyed, and only restored in the 1920s; the main hall being from 1928. This gives the temple, especially its front garden and the grave site, a modern, almost cold appearance.

Nevertheless, there are still original features from the 16th century, and they can be found on the temple’s boundaries, literally. The main gate dates back to 1583, as well as the beautiful bell tower that lies just outside the precincts and is an Important Cultural Property. In contrast, the earthen wall surrounding the temple doesn’t look extraordinary at all. However, it is in fact two walls built next to one another with a hollow space in between and a roof on top. This unusual construction has earned it the name “mother and child wall”.

So, is Soken-in worth a visit? I think Nobunaga’s statue is beautiful, and if it’s true that it resembles him closely, it is interesting to see. But since the buildings and grounds are fairly recent, and there is o typical Zen garden, Soken-in lacks this peaceful ambience I am looking for in a temple. The tea houses are nice too, but overall, Soken-in is not the most picturesque temple of Daitoku-ji.

It’s getting a bit late here, so I’ll add pictures tomorrow. 😉

My Art Week

Sorry for not writing last week, I was pretty busy with work – and with art exhibitions.

On Thursday, instead of English class, we went to one of my student’s exhibition of water colors. She is taking lessons from a teacher who focuses on flowers, and this was a joint exhibition of all his students’ and his own art work. I was impressed with how realistic the paintings were. At times like these, I wish I could do anything even close to that…

Saturday, a friend from Tokyo visited for this year’s Art Kyoto, where invited galleries exhibit the (latest) works of their artists. My friend came down specifically to see Clifton Karhu, but there was some miscommunication since it was his son’s work that was shown. However, we were not disappointed. There was a great mix of internationally renowned artists and rather new ones, and we found interesting pieces in either group.

The only thing neither of us really got into was the purely digital art. Some of these pieces had attractive colors, but I wouldn’t want to put something that is always moving into my living room or office, where it would be a constant drain on my attention (not to mention increase my energy bill). And let’s not get started on NFTs…

On Sunday, my friend and I went to a contrast program in Daitoku-ji temple: strictly gardens, baby. But before I even arrived, my friend got lured into a kintsugi gallery. Kintsugi is the art of fixing broken ceramics with lacquer and gold, and my friend has been learning kintsugi for a while now. Anyway, we spent about an hour talking to the kintsugi master in his gallery. He is also the head of a nonprofit to try and revive traditional crafts that are the basis for other crafts. Think of making brushes or tools, harvesting lacquer, producing gold dust… It was very interesting, and I’ll try to find out more about this. I shall report my findings here.