Taking a Break

Sorry for not writing for such a long time. I’ve had good intentions, but I need a break again. Things are busy, and I feel like I’m in a rut and sitting at the computer 24/7, even if I don’t. And with the summer heat that has finally hit Kyoto, it’s pretty difficult to work anyway.

So, I have decided to take a break from posting here over summer, probably even until the end of August. I have no plans of going anywhere – not that I have money to do so, and Pumpkin doesn’t like being left alone – but I may try a few fun things in Kyoto. So far, there are still very few tourists, and the locals enjoy themselves.

Speaking of local enjoyment, here are a few highlights of Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri 2022. This is the Saki Parade on July 17, I watched it with a friend of mine from Tokyo:

Shinzō Abe’s Death

Shinzō Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated last Friday during an election campaign speech in Nara. He was born in 1954 into a family that served as politicians, and he himself entered the political scene in the 1990s. For four terms, he served as prime minister, until he retired for health reasons in 2020. Yet, he remained an eminent figure in the background and still had considerable influence over his party and thus, the country.

His assassination shocked the country. There is a video out there, showing him on a street corner in Nara at around 11:30, giving a speech. Suddenly, from nearby, shots are fired (you can see the smoke), and Abe falls, obviously hit. He was pronounced dead in the hospital at around 17:00.

What’s so shocking is, that Japan has extremely strict gun laws. It is very difficult and can take years to get a gun licence, and in fact, the assassin had to make his own gun. Last year, in 2021, there were only 10 incidents with guns; 8 of them were related to the yakuza (organized crime) and only one of them was fatal. Interestingly, assassinating Japanese politicians seems not to be unusual. In 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot during an electoral campaign, and in 2002, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan was assassinated. The assassinations of the last prime ministers, however, date back to the February 26 Incident in 1936, when two former prime ministers were killed.

I found it especially disturbing how close the murderer could get to Abe. Watching the video I mentioned, they were within a few meters of each other; Abe had his back turned. Yes, Japan is a very safe country and violent crimes outside the yakuza are rare. Yet, I found security sorely lacking. Would Abe be still alive if the assassin had only had a knife? I’m not so sure.

I’m also curious about the ramifications on the country. Clearly, Shinzō Abe’s politics have shaped the country for 15 years, if not twice as long. The void he leaves will have to be filled one way or the other. But how this will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Tsuyu or not Tsuyu

raindrops on a window

Tsuyu is the Japanese name for the rainy season in early summer. Some people call it even the fifth season in Japan. It’s a stretch of time when it rains almost every day, but not necessarily continually. During the tsuyu, both temperature and humidity rise steadily, and when the rain finally stops, summer has begun for real.

Last week, the head of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) declared this year’s tsuyu to be over, after one of the shortest and not overly rainy periods in history. And Friday/Saturday promptly turned out very hot and sunny already – just to be followed by another cluster of heavily rainy days until yesterday. According to the forecast, we’ll now have two or three hot days again, followed by more rain in the weekend.

Well, is it now tsuyu or not? Maybe the JMA misspoke? In any case, as long as I can stay home, I don’t mind the rain very much. It cools down the house quite nicely. Unfortunately, the humidity is already here to stay this year…

Shimabara’s Last Tayu

Together with maiko and geisha, the tayu are traditional female entertainers of Japan. And yet, they are much less known to the (foreign) public, partly because today, there are even fewer of them than there are geisha, and partly because of their origin: In the Edo period, tayu were courtesans.

At that time, prostitution in Japan was legal and strictly regulated. The three largest cities – Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka – had city districts dedicated to the love for sale. In Kyoto, this was the Shimabara district, which lies near Kyoto station and still maintains some of its charms (if not the prostitutes). In Edo, it was the famous Yoshiwara district, and old photographs show women sitting in rows behind wooden lattices, ready for work.

You would search in vain for a tayu among them, though. Just like their geisha sisters in the hanamachi, tayu were highly trained and honed their skills in dance, playing instruments, and seductive banter for years. As a tayu, the top-ranking courtesan of the town, she commanded the highest prices for a meeting, and her lovers counted among the country’s elite, financial or in society.

And so were the tayu. In old Japan, the views on prostitution differed greatly from that in the West. It was simply another job. In fact, the young women in the photo above may have come to the Yoshiwara only temporarily to help with family finances. When they returned home, their reputations – and even marriage prospects – were untarnished.

In Kyoto, the famous Yoshino Tayu is revered to this day. She is said to have been the most beautiful tayu in history, and she is featured in kabuki plays and Japanese novels. Her wealth was such, that she could afford to donate a new front gate to Joshoji temple in Kyoto. She was laid to rest there, and has a festival in spring dedicated in her honour.

Kyoto’s Shimabara district and its entertainments are long gone, and although there is still a tayu in Kyoto, she doesn’t usually perform in public. However, I was lucky to see her dance at an exhibition with photos of her, and it was truly special.

As you can see, the style of her dress is so much more flamboyant than that of any geisha – notice the colour red everywhere! The obi is tied in front where it is easy to undo – a nod to her work of old. I was quite surprised by the dragon painted on her outer kimono (which is a family heirloom, possibly more than 100 years old, btw.) as dragons are usually associated with men. Her hairstyle with the dozens of kanzashi pins must be very time-consuming to maintain, and yes, this is her real hair. She also has blackened teeth, something that was normal for married women in the Edo period.

The dance, at first, seemed not much different than the ones that geisha perform. A fan, a letter used as props to tell a story, delicate hand gestures, little kicks to get the long kimono out of the way. And yet, her dance seemed so much more erotically charged, and I’m not sure why. Was it the smiles, the raised eyebrows? The shy looks flashed to the audience from behind the fan? Or her naked toes peeking out from beneath her red underkimono?

I guess, where a geisha means to symbolize an almost maiden-like modesty, a tayu is seen as a grown woman who knows what she wants – and how to get it.

Pet Panic

On Monday, Pumpkin, miaowing loudly, woke me up at 6 in the morning. I wanted to ignore it as usual (that’s how you train your cat to let you sleep), but then he started retching… I made it just in time to lay out some tissues before he vomited. No big deal, cats spit out hairballs all the time, and he’s losing a lot of fur at the moment, courtesy of the summer heat.

But when he walked away dizzily and fell over his own paws, I got concerned. Even more so when he was panting and drooling heavily. Then he stood completely still for a while, totally spaced out. When I wanted to pick him up and comfort him, he growled at me. That’s when I got seriously worried.

Thankfully, Pumpkin found his bearings after 10 minutes or so, and when he went downstairs to lie in his favourite spot, I followed him and took a quick shower, just in case we’d have to go and see the vet on short notice. But his breathing had calmed and his ears and nose felt cool when I came out of the bathroom. I kept an eye on him all day, but he had no further problems.

I have no idea what might have happened. Pumpkin only gets wet food for breakfast, and the dry food I give him the rest of the day doesn’t spoil (not over night, at least). My only guess is that he might have eaten a bug or a spider, thus the signs of poisoning. The house is old, who knows what kind of critters hide here, only to come out at night.

By now he has fully recovered. And as you can see, he’s back to training for his next performance as contortionist… I just hope he’ll stick to the food I put in his bowl from now on.


Keigo Higashino

When a woman is murdered in Tokyo’s busy Nihonbashi district, newly transferred detective Kaga is assigned the case. His sharp observation skills and relentless questions lead him through the woman’s neighbourhood, which is filled with little, old-fashioned shops. Many have been there for generations, and Kaga uncovers a number of their owner’s carefully kept secrets. But which ones are pertinent to his case? It turns out that the murdered woman, who had only recently moved to that neighbourhood, had some secrets of her own…

This is another one of Keigo Higashino’s masterful mysteries, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the people of the neighbourhood, as detective Kaga is coming around and asking questions. We peek into their lives and follow what’s going on right behind the old shopfronts, where not everything is what it seems but deserves a closer look. I love Higashino’s mysteries, I feel that he comes up with something new in every book.

Keigo Higashino grew up in Osaka and is one of the most popular writers in Asia. He has written more than 65 novels, including books for children. Almost 20 of his books were turned into movies, and his work was also translated into many languages. He has won numerous Japanese awards for his books, and in 2012 he received the American Library Association Award – Best Mystery Novel for his book The Devotion of Suspect X.

Newcomer is set in Tokyo in the sweltering heat of summer, so if you need something suitable for beach reading, you can get it from amazon.

Summer is coming…

… kind of. The beginning of last week was so cold, I put on a thick sweater again. And Pumpkin slept in my bed – under the covers – for two days straight. So far, we haven’t had really hot and sunny days, at least not several in a row. It was overcast quite often, even when it wasn’t raining.

But this week, summer is speeding up. It’s actually starting to get humid, and for the rest of the week, temperatures in the low 30s are forecast. We’ll see. I’m curious if and how I will be able to sleep. My roof seems to be not insulated at all, and although I leave the windows open now, it can still get quite hot upstairs in my bedroom. I wonder how bad it will get in August. And how Pumpkin will deal with the heat and humidity. For now, he has found an elevated spot on some moving boxes (yeah, I know… go on, judge me) and sleeps there during the day. In the night, I often find him in his kitty bed that I place at the head of my own futon.

One thing I find quite interesting is that the sunlight, just before sunset, is now reaching into my office, which is on the north side of the house. At the moment, it’s just for a few minutes every day, but the light gives a beautiful orange tint to my white rooms. I didn’t catch it today, but I’ll try to take a photo and share it with you here soon.

Miyamoto Musashi

When I wrote about the Dokkodo the other Sunday, I found out that I never wrote about famous samurai and ronin, Miyamoto Musashi. Well, here it goes!

Born in 1584 in the middle of the Sengoku period, young Musashi learnt fighting from his father, a lower-class samurai. Although he would go on to become Japan’s greatest swordsman, it is very hard to separate the facts of his life from the legends that were woven around him already during his lifetime.

It is true that he fought – and won – his very first duel at the age of 13, and it is said that 3 years later, in 1600, he fought in the Battle of Sekigahara which helped establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. The experience set him to wander around the country to study swordsmanship and to challenge fighters of various styles.

In 1604, Musashi arrived in Kyoto and challenged the local Yoshioka clan, one of the top schools of swordsmanship at the time. He fought with them three times, the best-known is the final fight at the pine at Ichijo street. A descendant of that very pine still marks the spot where Musashi wiped out the whole clan and effectively put an end to the school. Further up from the pine lies Hachidaira Shrine with a nice statue of Musashi, and all the way up the mountain, at Tanukidani Fudoin-san Temple, is a waterfall, where it is said that Musashi has performed misogi, ritual ablutions, before the fight.

In 1612, at the age of 28, when he was at the height of his powers, Musashi defeated the equally famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro in a well-publicised fight on a beach and from there went on to win 61 duels in total, more than any other swordsman in Japanese history.

But Musashi was more than just an excellent fighter. He took great care to cultivate other Japanese arts like calligraphy and ink painting, and he became an early adept of the new style of tea ceremony developed by Sen-no-Rikyu.

While some of his works survive, this part of his life remains mostly in the dark. He is said to have met illustrious figures like spiritual leader Takuan Soho, renowned artist Hon’ami Koetsu and famous courtesan Yoshino Tayu, but little proof survived. It is also said that he fathered a son, possibly with a courtesan, but there is no proof of that either. What is known is that he has adopted several sons, who became swordsmen in their own right.

In his later life, Musashi established the Niten-Ichiryu school of swordsmanship, which is famous for its use of two swords, and which still exists to this day.

Just a few days before his death in 1645, at the age of 61, Musashi handed his favourite student the “Book of Five Rings” on martial arts and the “Dokkōdō”, 21 precepts expressing his views on life in general. Both keep inspiring readers from all over the world to this day, and they have established Musashi’s name as thinker and philosopher.

I already talked about the great book by Eiji Yoshikawa, who weaves a story out of legend and fact that leads up to Musashi’s duel with Kojiro Sasaki. I can still recommend it if you want to delve a bit further into Musashi’s life (and have a bit of fun while doing so).

Special Mention

Last September, the true crime anthology “Crimes of Passion, Obsession & Revenge” came out with an article of mine about the notorious case of Sada Abe. I mentioned it before on the blog. Recently, a friend of mine from Tokyo expressed interest in the book, so I sent her a link to it on amazon Japan. So far, so uninteresting. But on that amazon page, besides the usual blurbs and reviews, there are also short excerpts of two stories. One of them is mine.

I had no idea! I guess the publisher chose to do this as a way to drum up interest – after all, the crime I wrote about took place in Tokyo. But it is also included on a few other amazon pages in different countries, even if they have their own notorious case in the book… I have to say, I’m pretty excited about this!

Anyway, in case you haven’t bought the book yet, I highly recommend it. Especially the “Revenge of the Nagpur Women” case moved me. And if you did buy the book already – thank you very much – there’s another one in the pipeline with another article of mine., this time about an Austrian case. It will be out in September, and no worries, I’ll tell you more about it when the time comes.

Takigi Noh

As mentioned, I went to see this year’s Takigi Noh, a two-hour-long Noh/Kyogen performance on an outdoor stage set up at Heian shrine. The surroundings with vermilion buildings reminiscent of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace lend a special ambience when stacks of fire and paper lanterns are lit just before dusk to light the stage. After all, Takigi Noh means “outdoor fire-lit Noh”.

The Takigi Noh at Heian Shrine was first staged at the end of May 1950. From 1955 on, the dates were fixed to June 1 and 2. On these two days, 8 plays are shown, two of them are kyogen. Japan’s top actors are invited each year to make this event truly special. However, this is not the only firelight Noh performance, merely the biggest. In Kyoto, Shiramine shrine has a pretty famous one too, and many other shrines show Noh plays at special festivals.

In fact, Takigi Noh has its roots more than 1000 years ago, at Kofukuji temple in Nara, where religious ceremonies called Shunigatsu-e were held in the 2nd month of the year. At that time, Takigi-sarugaku performances took place, early precursors of what later developed into the Takigi Noh theatre of today. Takigi Noh reached the peak of its popularity in the Edo period, fell out of favour after the Meiji Restoration, and was revived again after WWII.

Heian Jingu’s Takigi Noh features 8 plays, and often, there is a common theme that runs through one day. For example, the plays I have seen all had the overarching theme of “heavenly intervention”. It’s not just the atmosphere that makes this Takigi Noh special. The plays are condensed to their most visually exciting parts. Written synopses of all plays are available – even in English – and if you miss getting a leaflet at the entrance, the plays are introduced by two kyogen players who manage to weave in a commentary of current events. Finally, the speech that is given after the fire lighting ceremony is translated into English, something I was especially grateful for.

Unfortunately, taking pictures during the performance was not allowed, that’s why you’re just getting this year’s poster as illustration… Anyway, overall, I had a great evening, and I’m really considering making this a regular occurrence.