Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

I had a great day yesterday, spending some time in Arashiyama. It was not as busy as it used to be, no wonder, all the foreigners are yet to return… The reason I went yesterday were the performances of Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen at Seiryo-ji Temple. I wrote about them in detail before, but this time, probably thanks to COVID-19, somebody had recorded the plays and put them online. These are the two kyogen that were shown yesterday:

The first play was called Shaka Nyorai and it’s a funny or “soft” Yawarakamon play. The title refers to a Buddha statue that is set up in a temple by a priest. When a beautiful woman comes to worship, the statue turns his back. The priest and a samurai (or worker?) at the temple ask her to worship again so that the Buddha will turn his back and face the proper side once more. Instead, the Buddha lays his arm around the woman and leaves with her. The priest takes the Buddha’s place and the same thing happens with the woman’s beautiful daughter. Finally, the worker at the temple tries the same – will he succeed in finding a wife too?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTUjgGQpeLs

The second play was the famous Funa Benkei (Benkei on a Boat) and it’s a serious or “hard” Katamon with an origin in Noh, or rather, in the Heike Monogatari. The story tells how famous warrior Yoshitsune is urged by his friend Benkei to leave the city to save his life. He first takes leave of his lover, Shizuka Gozen before he reluctantly boards a boat together with Benkei. When they have sailed for a short while, the ghost of Taira no Tomomori appears and tries to kill Yoshitsune in revenge for his own death. The two fight but almost draw until Benkei recites prayers that send Tomomori back to the underworld.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iw-V_5zx5D0

All Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes that need no words, but it does help if you know the story. They are rather slow moving with stereotypical costumes and accessories and the players – all male – wear beautiful masks. In the background, music is played, a simple beat that speeds up at the most exciting parts like fight scenes. Enjoy! (I have no idea why the embed is not working, but the links should).

Japan’s Most Beloved Loser

It may seem weird, but in Japan, it’s not all about winning. It’s more about having the right fighting spirit. The ubiquitous cry “ganbatte” does not so much spur you on to win, but merely prompts you to do your best. And as long as you do that, and don’t give up, you can even make the headlines of national media. It helps if you’re a horse though.

Japan’s best-known loser is Haru Urara, “Glorious Spring”, a horse born on a farm in Hokkaido in 1996. Although she had famous racehorses in her pedigree, she didn’t sell, so the owner decided to keep and train her himself. Her first race was in 1998 in Kochi, Shikoku, where she came in 5th place. That’s no unusual for a beginner, and somebody has to be last after all, so, Haru Urara went on racing.

And she lost in the next race too. And in the race afterwards. And then again. In the next 4.5 years, where she steadily ran races about twice a week, Haru Urara collected loss after loss. She wasn’t always last, mind you, but she never made it to the top of the field at the finish line.

In 2003, a local news reporter picked up the story and Haru Urara, the constant loser in the pink Hello Kitty facemask became an instant media sensation. After Japan’s “lost decade” with record unemployment and the economy in a deep hole, people were immediately drawn to the horse that never gave up.

More and more people came to see her races, and Haru Urara was soon called “the shining star of losers everywhere”. Her losing tickets were stamped with “ataranai” and placed behind car windshields as a lucky charm, the term not only meaning “to lose a bet”, but also “to avoid being struck”. Fans could buy t-shirts, toys and other merchandise, and her fame even reached the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who said “I’d like to see Haru Urara win, even just once. The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.”

But her biggest race was yet to come. On March 22, 2004, she was set to run on her home racetrack in Kochi. At the height of her fame, Japan’s #1 jockey Yutaka Take had agreed to ride her on that day, and with 3000 won races, it was certainly possible that with him, Haru Urara could achieve her very first win.

On the day, Kochi racetrack was packed with 13,000 spectators, many of whom lined up hours before the track opened. A special booth was set up, selling “Haru Urara Commemorative Tickets, and people placed bets of 121,751,200 yen (more than 1 million US$). Even international media were present to cover the race, and the sun came out just before Haru Urara was going onto the track for her 106th race.

It would be wonderful if I could tell you that Haru Urara beat all the odds and won that race. But she didn’t. She came in 10th place. The crowd was pleased nevertheless, again, it was more important that the horse hadn’t given up.

Haru Urara ran another seven races before she retired in August 2004 with a record of 0 wins to 113 losses. Her whereabouts were unknown for a while, but she was eventually found enjoying her retirement on a horsefarm in Chiba, where she is still visited and supported by fans. In 2019, a short film about her life was made, and I can heartily recommend it: (18:38)

So as you can see, it’s not necessarily about winning, as long as you don’t give up. Ganbatte!

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata

There is something odd about Keiko Furukura. She has few friends, no hobbies, doesn’t care about food and often takes things literally. Her family members have long given up on “making her normal” and mostly let her live her life. Keiko’s life is simple and centers on her part-time work in a Tokyo convience store. The daily routines ground her and she takes social cues like speech or dress from her coworkers.
Things change when Shiraha starts working at the store. In his mid-thirties, he only wants to find a wife but is continually disappointed. When he gets fired for stalking a customer, Keiko suggests a relationship of convenience. Shiraha is pleased at first, but then he forces her to choose between him and her work…

This novella (165 pages) showcases the fringes of society. Keiko seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, she is socially inept and we hardly hear about her life outside of work. However, she is content with her life as it is and her coworkers value her.
Shiraha on the other hand is a university dropout and incel who wants to get back at society by mooching off of it. I hated him with a passion (what woman wouldn’t) and felt sorry for Keiko who believed he would be her ticket to a normal, society-approved life.

Sayaka Murata, born in 1979, is a renowned Japanese writer. She started to write her first novel in elementary school, which prompted her mother to buy her a wordprocessor. By now, she has written 11 novels, already her first won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. Subsequent books were nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize, which she won at her fourth nomination. Convenience Store Woman won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and was her first book to be translated into English. Throughout her writing carreer, she kept working part-time at a convenience store.

Delve into her world filled with interesting people and get Convenience Store Woman from amazon.

Bamboo Weaving

A few weeks ago was Design Week Kyoto, a period of 10 days each February, where art studios and small factories producing Kyoto crafts are open to the public. It’s an eclectic mix of things like textiles, paper, ceramics and bamboo crafts, but also swordsmiths, a producer of artificial limbs, and a firm dealing with traditional architecture for shrines and temples are on the list of places you can visit. And some even offer short classes to learn the very basics of a craft.

Personally, I have been interested in bamboo weaving, that is, making baskets, for a while. So, together with a friend, I took the opportunity to produce one at the bamboo store Takenoko that took part in Design Week. Here’s what I started out with and what I was supposed to have produced after 90 minutes of work or so (and I did pretty well, actually):

This is the simplest basket of them all because the top is woven too instead of cut and as you can see, the bottom, which is the most difficult part, was already prepared for us. The bamboo pieces had all been prepared and they had to be rather wet to make them easy to use. I was surprised at the change of color of the material. Wet, the bamboo was almost orange, but now that it is thorougly dry, it is a light beige only.

Overall, the weaving itself was very simple to do, but at the same time, it is hard to be precise. Of course, like with everything else, it is a question of time and routine to make good pieces, but it must take years of effort to produce some of the exquisite crafts I saw in the shop of the Takenoko.

Anyway, I would love to pursue this is a hobby, but sadly, the shop doesn’t offer classes beyond this one. Which means that I’ll have to look for a good teacher elsewhere in Kyoto because I don’t think this one is easy to learn on your own. Oh my, so many interesting things to learn!

Chocolate Cornets

If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have noticed that I have a thing for all things sweet. Chocolate in particular. Wherever I go, I try the local chocolate thing to see if it’s worth it. (Note: none of the national Nutella-knock-offs are, just stick to the real stuff.)

So I was very happy when I discovered these little things, which the Japanese call Chocolate Cornets:

They are wonderful for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Heck, whom am I kidding here: They are great 24/7 and for any occasion! These pastries are palm-sized and really nothing more than a soft sweet yeast dough filled with chocolate custard. You can find them in most of the cheaper bakeries in Japan.

The interesting thing about them is that they are a true Japanese invention, even though they might not look very exotic. They are named after the Western music instrument cornet because they resemble them (or so I am told).

In any case, if you have an oven and would like to try out these delicious chocolate pastries, here is a detailed recipe with wonderful images and even a youtube video to watch. Bon appetit!
https://cookingwithdog.com/recipe/chocolate-cornets/

Hina Matsuri

Today is Hina Matsuri, also called the Doll or Peach Festival. It’s an old celebration of the girls in a family, and it’s usually done by displaying hina dolls in the home. Traditionally, these dolls are dressed in Heian-style court attire, with costumes made from real silk, and they are not to be played with because they are so expensive.

As I have just learned when writing my latest newsletter for What’s up in Kyoto, the hina matsuri displays started only in the early Edo period. At this time, the merchants began to imitate the higher classes as a way to show off their newly gained wealth (which was otherwise prohibited). Before that, dolls in general were much simpler, often even just made from paper, and were often used in religious rituals and not just as toys.

Thankfully, nowadays there are equally simply hina dolls that don’t break any bank and fit into small homes too. Common materials are cloth, ceramics, wood, and of course, you can make origami hina dolls as well. I am personally not a big fan of decorating my home, but in a moment of weakness, I bought the pair of dairi bina you see here. They are just palm-sized and I like the modern style and the loving vibe the couple sends. While it would be great to get a “real” dairi bina pair, this one does the trick quite nicely too.

Six Four

Six Four
Hideo Yokoyama

For eight months, Mikami has been the head of the Press Office in the Police Headquarters of Prefecture D. He still struggles with his own desire to open up communication with the local press and his superior’s demands to keep things as they are. The matter escalates just when the Director General from Tokyo has scheduled a visit to the victims of an as-yet unsolved kidnapping that happened 14 years earlier. While Mikami tries to prepare for the visit, he discovers not only the true reason behind it, but also a serious cover-up related to the old crime. With Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs locked in a power struggle, Mikami finds himself alone between the lines. All things come to a head when another kidnapping happens that has eerie similarities to the unsolved one. Will Mikami be able to find out the truth?

This mystery gives insights into the daily workings of Japan’s police apparatus. Mikami does not solve any crimes, but his investigation into the commissioner’s visit and why everybody suddenly refuses to talk to him is among the most gripping stories I have ever read. Although they are not taking a front seat (because the Japanese audience would be well aware of them) the descriptions of the intricate hierarchies and stifling rules of the police are a reminder of a culture most foreigner will never understand or experience.

Hideo Yokoyama was born in 1957 in Tokyo. For 12 years he worked as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture. His crime novels are meticulously researched; Six Four took him 10 years to write and caused a heart attack. This book – the most popular of the eight novels he wrote so far – was ranked Best Japanese mystery novel in 2013. He lives with his wife in Gunma Prefecture.

Try out this amazing thriller – it’s a long one, so be warned – and get it from amazon!

Botchan

Botchan
Soseki Natsume

Botchan is a young mathematics teacher, fresh out of college, and his first assignment takes him to a small school in the countryside. From the first day, he – the Tokyo metropolitan – looks down on everything in his new town, especially his country-bumpkin students. They, however, know how to pay him back in the same coin: by pulling all sorts of pranks in school and cheerfully commenting on his private life. Botchan does not fare much better with his colleagues, and the only one he feels somewhat closer to – Porcupine – is engaged in a silent but fierce battle with another teacher – Red Shirt.

Botchan soon sees himself trapped between the front lines of the battle, and while he begins to see Porcupine as a friend, an alliance with Red Shirt will have more long term benefits. At some point, Botchan will have to choose…

Botchan, sometimes translated as “Master Darling” has morality as its main theme, and is still widely read by pupils throughout Japan. It is a fun little book and the quarrels of the teacher’s room bridge cultures as well as time…

Soseki Natsume, pen-name of Natsume Kinnosuke, was born in 1867 as the 6th child of a rather poor family. From the age of 15, he wanted to become an author, and because of his father’s disapproval, he entered university in 1884 where he studied architecture and English. He went to England in 1901 for two years, and did not like the experience. Upon return to Japan, he began publishing haiku and short stories. Today, he is one of the most famous writers of Japan. Botchan is based on his own experiences of teaching in a small school in Shikoku and considered one of the most important works of Japanese literature. Natsume died in 1916, only 49 years old, from a stomach ulcer.

If you’re not afraid to go back to your own years in school, try out this book from amazon.

Happy New Year 2021!

Happy New Year of the Ox!
I wish you all a very happy, healthy, and successful year 2020!
I hope for all of us that this year will be a vast improvement over the last one and that things will get back to the real normal soon.

Silence

Silence
Shusaku Endo

Father Sebastian Rodrigues is a Catholic priest whose dream it is to go to Japan as a missionary. When news reaches Portugal that his old teacher, Father Ferreira, has apostatized, he finally receives permission to go to Japan, where Christianity has been outlawed and all foreign priests are persecuted.
When Rodrigues enters Japan in a little boat in the dead of the night, a hidden Christian community welcomes his arrival and hides him from the authorities. However, he is soon betrayed and imprisoned, where he awaits his trial at the hand of the lord Inoue. While in prison, Rodrigues reflects on his life and faith, and can finally meet with Ferreira, who has an unexpected confession.

I greatly enjoyed this gripping story, and from the very beginning, you want to know what will happen next. Endo tells of the persecution of Christianity in the early Edo Period in great detail, but always through the eyes of the outsider Rodrigues. Once captured, he questions his determination and even faith, and the “silence” of the title refers to that of God, who is unmoved by the sufferings of the Japanese Christians and Rodrigues’ prayers. A great history lesson in a great story of human (and divine?) failure. Highly recommended!

Shusaku Endo was born in 1923 in Tokyo, but his family moved to Machuria when he was three. Already in elementary school, he published a newspaper with friends. He returned to Japan with his mother after her divorce in 1933, and one year later, he was baptised at a Catholic Church. He began studying in 1943 and started publishing stories in literary journals throughout the war. Endo received the Akutagawa Prize for “White Men” in 1954 and the Tanizaki Prize in 1966 for “Silence” which was turned into a movie by Martin Scorsese. Most of Endo’s writings have a decidedly Christian, if not Catholic bent. He died in 1996 in Tokyo.

This historical novel may not be the best read for the Christmas season, but if you want to give it a try, it’s available from amazon.