The River With No Bridge

The River with no Bridge
Sue Sumii

Koji Hatanaka has just started school. He has many friends in Komori, his village, and he even wins the governor’s prize as the top student of his class. Still, his future is less than bright because all the people from Komori are eta or burakumin, outcasts from Japan’s strict class hierarchy for generations. Once Koji understands what that means, he is determined to prove all of those wrong who call him dirty and a good for nothing. But this may mean to leave Komori behind, like his older brother did, and even in the big cities, escape from his background is not certain.

The book is set in the early 20th century, when discrimination against the burakumin was officially outlawed after centuries. However, old habits die hard, especially in the countryside. We follow Koji through his time at primary school as he becomes more and more aware of the daily injustices he and his fellow villagers have to endure. It is heartbreaking to read about his struggles, even more so when you realize that the story is all too close to reality.

Sue Sumii was born 1902 in Nara Prefecture. She was an advocate for the burakumin and devoted her entire life to breaking down barriers for them. The River With No Bridge is her best known work with that goal; however, of the 7 volumes, written over 30 years, only the first has so far been translated into English. Sumii died in 1997.

If you want to learn more about a part of Japanese society and history that is decidedly not talked about, get this book from amazon.

Murin-an

One of the many designated places of scenic beauty in Kyoto is the garden of Murin-an near Nanzen-ji temple. Built in 1894-96, the villa with its garden give us a glimpse into upper-class lifestyle of the Meiji era. Murin-an is one among many garden villas in Okazaki, but the only one that is open throughout the year, and yet, it is mostly overlooked by tourists visiting the area.

The name Murin-an means No Neighbor Hermitage, and when it was built in the mid-Meiji period, this was largely true. Of course, there was Nanzen-ji to the east of it, but many of the daimyo’s villas that stood there before the Meiji Restoration had been abandoned or demolished by that time. With the opening of the Lake Biwa Canal in 1890, the area was redeveloped, however, landmarks like the Kyoto City Zoo (1903), the Prefectural Library (1909) and the Municipal Museum of Art (1928) shaped Okazaki then and to this day.

Anyway, back to Murin-an. It was built for and partially designed by Prince Aritomo Yamagata, a top politician and twice prime minister of the Meiji and Taisho eras. He was born in today’s Yamaguchi Prefecture and wanted to recreate the rural landscape of his home in Kyoto. While he had a knack for garden design and made some very unusual choices for Murin-an, he hired one of the top garden designers of his age to shape his vision: Jihei Ogawa VII.

Jihei Ogawa was born in 1860 and became the head of the Ogawa family – garden designers for generations – at the age of 19. Some 15 years later, he was already famous. He would create gardens for a number of villas in the Nanzen-ji area, as well as the Heian shrine gardens and Maruyama Park. But because of Yamagata’s influence, Murin-an became a very special work.

First, the most unusual feature of Murin-an is its flowing stream that adds a certain liveliness where typical Japanese gardens prefer the quietude of a pond. The water springs from a large waterfall at the back and crosses the whole garden before being piped underneath the street to the neighbor’s property.

The second focal point of Murin-an is the large expanse of grass at the center of the garden. Or rather: Yamagata wanted it to be grass, but Kyoto’s ubiquitous moss eventually overpowered the grass. In any case, the center of the garden is rather empty and gives the illusion of a seemingly endless space.

This illusion is only underscored by the borrowed landscape of the Higashiyama mountains that visually close the garden at its eastern side. Although the surrounding trees cannot shut out the noise of the adjacent street, they are meticulously trimmed so that none of the surrounding buildings can be seen from the best viewing spot – the main house.

The main building of Murin-an is a beautiful traditional Japanese house. Its two largest rooms have tatami and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allow for a full view of the garden, even more so in summer, when they are entirely removed. There is another large room on the second floor, but it is not always accessible, and the view is somewhat impeded by the boughs of a large tree.

Of course, a Japanese garden is not complete without a tea house. The one at Murin-an is a replica of a famous tea house that the tea master Furuta Oribe is said to have favoured. Occasionally, special tea ceremonies are held in the tea house, but in general, it is not accessible to the public.

Prince Yamagata was for a time educated in Europe, and to follow current fashion, he also had a Western-style house built at Murin-an. The second floor shows an interesting mix of Japanese wall paintings and Western upholstery and even has central heating. This room saw one of the most decisive events of Japan’s history: In April 1903, Japan’s prime and foreign ministers met with Yamagata and Ito Hirobumi, another elder statesman, to discuss the deteriorating relationship with Russia. Although the details are unknown, this “Murin-an Conference” set the scene for the Russo-Japanese War that began in 1904. While the second floor room has been preserved in the state of that date, the first floor gives an overview of the garden and its current management.

But the main attraction of Murin-an remains the garden with its many small details. Follow the paths all the way up to the waterfall. Look for the large round stepping stones that are said to provide the best views. Read the inscription on the memorial of the Meiji Emperor presenting Yamagate with two trees for his garden (and see if you can find where they once stood). And marvel at the enormous rock that Yamagata secured for the garden, some 300 years after Toyotomi Hideyoshi had attempted the same – and failed. But above all, take some time to relax and enjoy Murin-an as a peaceful retreat from the busy world outside.

Note that thanks to Corona, a visit to Murin-an currently requires a reservation at least one day in advance. See the Murin-an homepage: https://murin-an.jp/en/

My Hero

Pumpkin and I have lived together now for 5 months, and we got to know each other better during this time.

His favourite pastime is to sit at the window in my office and look outside, growling at the neighbors and passersby. But when they notice him and look at him, he runs away immediately. That’s why I like to diss my dear kitty as “my hero”, but in fact, he is so much braver than I gave him credit for.

Last month, we went to the vet. With 12 years of age, Pumpkin already counts as a senior, so regular checkups are a must. (Spoiler: he’s healthy – even healthier than I am.) So, my friend came by with her car and pet carrier to bring us to our appointment.

When Pumpkin saw the carrier, he went berserk. He screamed on top of his lungs, clawed his way out of my grip and tried to hide. He kept crying of sheer panic throughout the (blissfully short) car ride.

Interestingly, he calmed down at the vet, and during the exam not a single tone came from him, not even when the vet took a bloodsample. On the contrary, released from the carrier, Pumpkin’s curious nature came out too, and he looked around the vet’s office with great interest. Even the vet remarked that he was an unusually calm and friendly cat. On the way home he was fairly relaxed again and only small “let me out” cries could be heard from the carrier.

So, why did he get so upset in the first place? Well, the last few rides in a carrier ended up with him being abandoned in a new home, twice within 3 months, before he came to live with me. That’s why my friend and I assume that he was afraid it would happen again, that he had to start all over with yet another person or family. We think that his cries meant something like “No, no, don’t do this to me, not again!”

No worries, sweetie kitty, you are mine now! And I think he understands that. He is more affectionate than ever (although he will never become a lap cat), purrs more often and allows me to touch his belly and paws. And he is now sleeping in my bed all afternoon, happily ignoring all the cat beds everywhere else in the house. Cats, eh?

Jakko-in Temple

Ohara is a sprawling rural community situated in a wide plain (hence the name) northeast of Kyoto. It still belongs to Kyoto, even though it lies more than 30 minutes by bus outside of what I would consider the city limits. Ohara is famous for its oharame – local women who used to peddle firewood, flowers or produce in Kyoto – Sanzen-in Temple with its beautiful moss gardens, and the former nunnery Jakko-in.

Jakko-in is a tiny temple that lies in the opposite direction of Sanzen-in at the end of a little valley. The walk there is very pleasant, it leads first along a little stream, then though the community. Judging from the number of souvenir shops and cafes on the way, it must be less popular than Sanzen-in. And had it not been mentioned in the Heike Monogatari, I guess it would have been forgotten long ago.

But let’s start at the beginning, in 594, when the temple was established by Shotoku Taishi to pray for the soul of his father, Emperor Yomei. At that time, Buddhism had only recently been introduced to Japan. Therefore, one of the first nuns of the country (who also happened to be the wet nurse of Shotoku Taishi) moved to the temple. Subsequently, Jakko-in became a retreat for nyoin, female members of the Imperial family and daughters of other high-ranking families. It seems, however, that taking vows was not a requirement to live there.

According to the temple, the third nun only moved there in 1185, and it’s because of her that Jakko-in is famous to this day. Her name was Kenreimon-in Tokuko, daughter of Taira-no-Kiyomori and mother of Emperor Antoku. Sounds familiar? The Taira (or Heike) fought against the Minamoto (or Genji) clan in the Genpei War (1180–1185), which was immortalized in the Heike Monogatari mentioned above. Sadly, the entire Taira clan was wiped out , and even Emperor Antoku, a mere boy of 6 was killed. Kenreimon-in spent the rest of her days in Jakko-in praying for the souls of her son and relatives.

From the temple’s entrance, stone steps lead straight up to the main hall. It is home to a statue of Rokumantai-Jizoson, the protector of children. There are also wooden statues of Kenreimon-in and her servant Awa-no-Naishi, only the second nun ever to live at the temple. Her garments are said to have been the model for the oharame’s clothes.

Sadly, none of this is original, not the building, and not the statues either. The temple was burned down in an arson attack in May 2000, and all you can see are reproductions. The main statue especially looks very modern; it is dressed in a colorful garment that I would call garish to the point of kitsch. However, on asking, I was told that that this is the original look of the statue when it was – supposedly – created by Shotoku Taishi himself, according to old documents.

To find out more about the temple, the nuns, and the arson attack, you can visit the treasure house which holds a lot of artifacts. The most interesting of these are more than 3000 wooden statues of Jizo, roughly 10 cm tall, that were all found inside the main statue after the arson. The original, badly burned statue, an Important Cultural Asset, is not usually on display.

Since the temple is so small, the gardens are not very extensive. The ones surrounding the main hall are the most beautiful, and there is a stump of a 1000-year-old pine that sadly did not survive the fire. It is said that this part has been maintained since the time of the Genpei War, and right now, you can hear tree frogs croaking in the little pond beneath the former pine. Another pond with koi carp and a little waterfall lies to the north of the main hall, and on a lower level, there is a tea house with yet another pond in front of it.

Kenreimon-in is still present at the temple. Just south of the main hall, a marker indicates her former residence, and once you leave the temple and take the steps uphill just outside of it, you can visit her tomb.

All in all, I found Jakko-in a nice experience. I like to visit places that are not overrun by tourists, and being just a bit off-season does help as well in this respect. The staff are very friendly and happy to answer questions.

Finished/Furnished: Kitchen

Finally, my kitchen is finished! It was always fully functional, thank goodness, but the dirty walls didn’t help create an appetising view. Since I didn’t (and still don’t) have enough money to tackle the ancient kitchen furniture, this was the main thing to be done – and I am proud to say, I DIYed it all by myself. But let’s start with the state of the kitchen when I bought the house:

As you know from my bathroom renovation, there is not enough space for a washing machine there. So, one of my first decisions was to remove that green cabinet to make space for the washing machine. The other three cabinets were temporarily moved to allow for more space for the work, thankfully the wall behind the washing machine was already tiled, saving some money. And I came just at the right moment to clean everything as much as possible:

One thing you can’t see in the photos is the gas outlet in the kitchen floor. It was apparently meant for a gas heater, but it is right in front of one of the cabinets where you stand when cooking, and the cover was broken. I don’t use gas heaters, so all I wanted was to close the thing and cover it up with a piece of wood. Instead, I got a new, functioning cover… It looks very neat thought, and who knows, I might just change my mind about the gas heater.

The following photo was taken on the day of the move, literally 3 minutes before the washing machine was put in. What you see is what they call a “sentakki pan”, a pan that goes underneath the washing machine and prevents any leakage to flood the whole room. Not only is there a drain, but in this super modern version, there is also an integrated water faucet, again saving money – no need for any holes in the wall.

Next thing to tackle: That wallpaper… Well, it turned out that the only wallpaper in the kitchen was on the doors and fusuma. The walls – I’m still not entirely sure, so bear with me – are wooden boards that had been covered in something resembling paper before they were nailed to the wall studs. In other words: Nothing to be removed there.

I’m glad I took the time to watch youtube videos about the whole wallpapering business. First thing I learned: The walls need to be smooth – really smooth – before putting up the paper. So, I bought some putty to go over the nails and the edges of the wooden boards. This was pretty easy to do.

I then bought lovely stick-on wallpaper. There are many different designs, many more than for regular wallpaper, and as you will see, I chose something fun to go with the color scheme of the furniture. Another pro is that it’s easy to work with because you don’t need to handle any glue. It’s also not as heavy as regular wallpaper, and the website I bought it from advertises it as “especially for first-timers and women”. So, on one warm day in March I decided to finally tackle the job. That’s when I found out that stick-on wallpaper is very thin, and with the light color I chose, the old pattern was shining through… So, out came the white paint again. At least, a single coat sufficed this time around.

With that setback, it took me a few weeks to muster up the courage for the wallpaper. And it was just as difficult as I thought it would be, especially around the corners. I managed with a lot of cursing and redoing stuff and in the end, it was still done faster than I had expected. I also painted the main door, but the color dried too dark, so I’ll probably go over it again at a later point.

Then it was time to finish the fusuma and put wallpaper on them as well. This turned out to be straightforward, because by then I had learned a trick or two.

You were probably wondering why I left a hole in the paint and wallpaper. Well, I wanted to put up a cork board for all the fun stuff I get in the mail and otherwise. Maybe you can see it, this is not real cork, but one of those floor coverings people use in kids rooms. At first, I was a bit annoyed when I noticed this, but it turned out alright – there is no way to stick anything through those wooden wallboards, trust me, I tried!

So, here it is, my new kitchen. The blinds are from my office in the old apartment, so they don’t fit the new space perfectly, but they’ll do. However, I think the big wall clock has found its forever home. The doors in the floor open up to extra storage space. I use it for cat food, cleaning supplies and as a wine cellar. And the black cats, these are actually coasters – courtesy of a friend of mine.

It’s not perfect, but I’m quite happy with the result. The walls are not perfectly smooth, so there are blisters in the wallpaper that show up and need to be flattened out again every now and then. I’m not sure what to do with the ceiling; especially the beam that marks the former dimensions of the house sticks out a bit too much for my taste. But otherwise, there’s not much more I can do on my own. On to the next challenge!

Greenery Day

Happy national holiday!

The purpose of today’s Greenery day is for people to enjoy the great outdoors of Japan – and also to remember Emperor Showa, who, despite all his shortcomings, had a great love for nature.

So do I, as long as nature doesn’t manifest itself as insects in my bedroom…

Daigo-ji in Kyoto by David Emrich on unsplash

Ikenobo & Ikebana

A few weeks ago, I visited the Ikebana Spring Exhibition at the Ikenobo Headquarters in Kyoto. On no fewer than 8 floors, there were hundreds of flower arrangements, so many that at the end, they all blurred together. I wish I had done a bit of research earlier, but better late than never. The photos below show flower arrangements from that exhibition, I’m afraid I chose not overly traditional ones (because they are more fun).

The Ikenobo is the oldest school of flower arrangement in Japan. It dates back to 8th century Kyoto, and its headquarters are still at the same spot, at Rokkaku-do temple in the heart of Kyoto. Rokkaku-do itself was founded by Shotoku Taishi in 587, long before the capital was moved here. The temple’s priests lived in a hut (bo) at a nearby pond (ike), and over time, the people began to call them ike-no-bo. The priests made flower offerings at the temple every day.

So, Ikebana has its roots in such flower offerings at Buddhist altars, and as such, it is an import from India and China. However, at first, these offerings took the simple form of putting flowers into a vase in front of the Buddha, whereas Japanese ikebana over time developed into a style with dozens of formal rules.

These rules crystallized during the Muromachi period into tatehana, a simple style that presented flowers as they occurred in nature, meaning “standing up”. At this time, flower arrangements were quite large and therefore only shown in temples and the homes of wealthy aristocrats.

The term ikebana – it means arranging flowers or living flowers – can be traced back to the 15th century, however the oldest book on the subject, the Sendensho is dated 1445 and already gives very detailed instructions for arrangements for special occasions.

In the first half of the 16th century, Senno Ikenobo wrote another book on the art, called Kadensho. There, he mentions the importance of finding the inner beauty of plants through the arrangement, instead of merely appreciating beautiful flowers. At this time, the style of rikka became popular, and Senno Ikenobo was not only its main artist, he also formalized the style as a combination of fixed elements that needed to be present in every arrangement. In this manner, virtually everybody could produce pleasing arrangements, but on the other hand, artistic expression was rather limited.

In the 18th century, a simpler style was created that used a reduced number of the parts in a rikka arrangement. This style is called seika or shoka (pure flowers), and its significantly smaller end results found their way into private homes of fairly wealthy but common people as well.

In the Meiji era, Japanese traditions lost their appeal under the influences of new art and lifestyle introduced from the West. However, through new styles like the nagairebana (thrown-in flowers) and moribana (piled-up flowers), as well as permitting Western flowers in the arrangements, ikebana saw a renaissance. This was reinforced when ikebana, together with tea ceremony and calligraphy, was seen as essential in the education of women, especially of the upper classes.

So far, the last innovation in ikebana was the introduction of the jiyuka style (free flowers) after WWII. As the name suggests, there are no more rules and the focus lies on creativity, so much so, that even non-flower materials are permitted.

Over time, dozens of new ikebana schools have been formed, all with slightly different rules for their arrangements and a varying emphasis on formality and creativity, respectively. Today, ikebana is taught worldwide, but nowhere else has it such a recognition as in Japan. In Kyoto, the birthplace of ikebana, the Ikenobo school operates an entire college dedicated to it.

Sneak Peek

I’ve been busy again with all sorts of end-of-the-month stuff and other things.

Catching insects in my bedroom, for example, with the help of Pumpkin, who apparently doesn’t like to sleep in a bug-infested space either. (I’m glad he doesn’t).

Getting money to all sorts of tax offices and membership fees to a whole bunch of groups I got into at some point – and letting those know that I’ve moved while I’m at it.

Trying to finish work as much as possible, so I can do fun stuff next week – it’s Golden Week again! There are more sights near my new place than I had thought, so I hope I can explore them soon.

And, finally, getting my latest DIY project finished. Here’s a preview, more photos to come soon:

The Decay of the Angel

The Decay of the Angel
Yukio Mishima

Former judge Honda is 75 years old and long retired when he meets Toru by chance. The teenage boy bears three moles that make Honda believe that Toru is another reincarnation of his school friend Kiyoaki. Honda sees another chance to prevent Kiyoaki’s/Toru’s premature death, and he decides on the spot to adopt the orphan.

But Toru could not be more different from Kiyoaki. He has a malicious streak and joyfully seeks to thwart Honda’s best intentions. He gets one of his tutors dismissed, destroys a proposed marriage and abuses the maids. Things only escalate when Toru becomes a legal adult, and he is now violent towards Honda as well.

However, when his presumed former lives are revealed to him, and that he may be a fraud after all if he survives his 20th years, Toru cannot accept this. Clearly upset, he makes a drastic decision that changes his life for good.

This is the last of the four books of the “Sea of Fertility” and the one I liked least. Toru is, quite frankly, an asshole from the very beginning. In “Runaway Horses”, I didn’t care for Isao’s nationalistic views, but he honestly believed that he’s doing the right thing. Toru, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, he is mean because he can. Interestingly, it seems that Honda can see through his facade also from the beginning, and yet, he doesn’t do anything to address the issue, not even when he stop believing in his reincarnation theory.

Over all, the book is worth reading, though – Mishima was a great writer – but you may need the other three books to understand some of the references, and the ending in particular.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th century Japan. Already his first short story was a great success, and in 1968, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to his benefactor, Yasunari Kawabata. Besides being part of the intellectual elite of his time, Mishima trained rigorously in martial arts and achieved several black belts in kendo, battojutsu, and karate, respectively. After a failed coup d’état that he instigated, Mishima committed ritual suicide. This book was finished only shortly before that.

Follow Mr. Honda through the last years of his life and get the book from amazon.

Time Flies…

Goodness, where did the month go? Somehow I’m missing a whole week! Yesterday I noticed that it was the 20th already, when I had the feeling that the month had barely started…

Now I have to start thinking about end-of-month things for work and privately, and I feel I’m running out of time, even though some of the things that need doing don’t get done very long ahead of time anyway (shame on me).

In any case, I’ve been busy! The house is looking better by the day (I think I can post another finished/furnished next week) and just today, I was invited to a press preview of two museums, and tomorrow, there’s another one scheduled. These are the days when I love my job – even when it’s raining.