Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Nonomiya Jinja

Deep in the bamboo forest of Arashiyama lies Nonomiya Jinja, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, dating back to the 7th century. Nowadays, it is a rather small shrine overflowing with tourists, but when it was established, it was literally a “shrine in the fields” (hence the name) dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Those imperial princesses who were meant to become priestesses at Ise, the main shrine of Amaterasu, first came here for a purification rite that took a year or more. Afterwards, they were sent off in a colorful procession, never to return to their family.

The first such saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of the Saga Emperor in the 8th century. However, the practice ended in the 14th century. Afterwards, the shrine continued to be used for a variety of imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, and probably its size as well, it is still maintained and visited by members of the Imperial Family until today.

Nonomiya Jinja lies in the evergreen bamboo forest of Arashiyama – the traditional meaning of bamboo is to ward off evil. The entrance to the shrine precincts is at the black kuroki torii which is made from oak with its bark left intact. This kind of “natural” torii is the oldest style of torii that has been used, but because they are nowadays seen very rarely since they are expensive to set up and properly care for.

The haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu is to be worshipped, lies only a few steps behind the torii. This is the main square of Nonomiya shrine and there are many ways to pray to the gods. For one, there is the large kame-ishi stone that looks like a turtle. It is said, that if you ask the gods for something and afterwards, with that wish still in mind, give the kame-ishi a good rub, the wish will come true within a year.

Here is also a spot to put up ema or to write your wishes onto prayer sticks, both of which will be ritually burned at special intervals. And if you buy one of the special mizu omikuji, there is a little well where you can float your water charms and see what is in store for you.

To the right of the haiden, there is a red torii that leads further into the shrine’s precincts. Here are the shrines for the minor gods that are worshipped here, like Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten who are responsible for good marriages and childbirth, and Shiramine Bezaiten and Ooyama Bezaiten watch over the arts and traffic safety, respectively.

There is also an interesting mikoshi portable shrine that looks quite different to the others that are usually used during festivals. I am not sure why this is, but it makes a nice motif for photos.

Another popular motif is the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small compared to many other shrine gardens, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.

Because Nonomiya Shrine lies within the rather dark bamboo forest and it carries the idea of parting from Kyoto, it has a rather sombre atmosphere which has inspired many painters and writers. For example, Nonomiya Shrine plays an important part in a chapter of the Tale of Genji, where prince Genji visits his lover – the mother of a saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a famous noh play by Zeami, called after the shrine Nonomiya (Shrine in the Fields). Of course, many poems have been written about the shrine and its suroundings, and it even plays a role in the book The Old Capital by Japanese Nobelprize winner Kawabata Yasunari.

Nonomiya Shrine is popular amongst women who look for relationships and marriage, or who come to pray for easy childbirth. There are beautiful enmusubi (tie-the-knot) omamori available, which show motifs of the long gone Heian era. Sadly, the goshuin stamp of the shrine is not very pretty, since it is only a red stamp without the usual calligraphy written in black.

Kyoto's Bamboo Forest, completely empty.I would not necessarily recommend Nonomiya Shrine on its own since it is rather small and there are too many people to enjoy the experience (if there’s no pandemic going on…) However, if you’re strolling around the bamboo forest anyway, it’s a nice place to step in. The big event at Nonomiya Shrine is the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession in October, where the ancient procession of the princess to Ise is reenacted, even though she only goes as far as the river these days.

Chrysanthemum Festival

September 9 is one of the special days in the Japanese calendar. It is the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival, also called choyo or kikku-no-sekka, and many shrines and temples have ceremonies to pray for health and, in particular, longevity. This is because 9. 9. is the largest single-digit day possible, and so there is a connection. Looking at the Japanese statistics of people who lived beyond 99 years of age, the prayers actually seem to work.

In Kyoto, the most famous Chrysanthemum Festival is at Kamigamo Shrine, where there is karasu sumo, a special event with kids performing sumo for the gods. I visited this event already in 2013, you can read about my impressions in the post I did then.

So, today I had to go elsewhere, partly also because the karasu sumo was cancelled because of Covid19. Many other shrines have cancelled their events too, so I decided to visit Kuramazaki Jinja who promised a special dance for the occasion. I have passed the shrine before, on my visits to Arashiyama, and it looked interesting, so off I went just before noon.

At Kuramazaki Jinja, the kikku-no-sekka ceremony started with the usual prayers to the gods, accompanied by gagaku music. Then, different types and colors of chrysanthemums were offered to the gods in a comparatively short but nevertheless solemn ceremony. Afterwards, there was indeed a dance performance by a female dancer who also held chrysanthemums in her hands during the dance. For some reason, the music for her performance came from a tape, I did not quite understand why, since there were gagaku players present. Finally, guests to the ceremony were allowed to make their offerings to the gods as well.

Altogether, the ceremony took about 30 minutes. I felt that it had been scaled down from its usual size. For one, there was no chrysanthemum sake offered to the visitors because of Covid19. Also, I believe there should have been more performances of music and dance after the religious ceremony, but whether they were cancelled because of Corona or because of the rain, I am not sure.

One thing that struck me immediately: There was a woman among the priests of the shrine. I have never seen this before. Usually, all the priests are male, and the only women allowed near the gods are the miko, the shrine maidens, who to this day have to be unmarried women. And here, there was a young female priest, and she even seemed to lead the ceremony. Slowly, slowly, even Japan is changing. Maybe.

Torarin

Japan is the land of mascots. Every prefecture has one, many cities have one, every government office has one, and even private businesses sometimes have one. They are called yuru-chara and most of them are cute – after all, they are meant as ambassadors and promotional tools.

Kyoto’s official mascot is Mayumaro. He’s based on a silk cocoon (because of Kyoto’s silk and textile industry) and has been doing public relations for Kyoto since 1969. But there are many other yuru-chara in Kyoto, for example Kyoto’s public transport offices have two – one cute little bus called Kyo-chan, and Miyako-kun who represents Kyoto’s subway.

One of the latest additions to the ranks of Kyoto’s inofficial ambassadors is Torarin, the mascot of Kyoto National Museum. Officially, this little tiger is called Kogata Rinnojo, but Torarin will do just fine, after all, he’s just 5 years old. The name is a portmanteau of Tora (tiger) and Rin (for Rinpa, a Japanese school of painting), and he is modeled after a famous ink painting by Ogata Korin. That’s also the reason why he’s black and white and not as colorful as many other yuru-chara.

However, he is absolutely cute, and on my last visit to the museum, I just had to buy him in effigy, I mean: a plushie which now sits on my desk and watches me writing this post… I came across him via the homepage of the Kyoto National Museum, where there is a link to Torarin’s youtube channel. There, he explores the museum, his home, with the help of the staff. Some of the videos have been translated into English, and while they are obviously made for kids, they are interesting for adults as well.

Of course Torarin also has a personal website (with an online shop for fans), a facebook page (as a “public figure” nonetheless) and a twitter account. He’s quite busy, obviously. Well, the next time I’ll visit the National Museum, I will try to see if I can match my schedule to his. Would be nice to meet him “in person”.

Kwaidan

Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
Lafcadio Hearn

This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.

Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.

Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.

Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.

Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.

Obon Reduced

Today is the last day of Obon in Japan, the mid-summer period where the ghosts of one’s ancestors return to earth. During this time, many people return to the gravesites of their family to clean them and leave little gifts for the dead like flowers or foodstuffs. I once even saw a small beer can placed on a tomb, which I found rather touching.

In Kyoto, the evening of August 16 is the time for the Gozan-no-okuribi fires, or short: the Daimonji, where on 5 mountains surroundig Kyoto large bonfires are lit that spell out five kanji characters and are meant to guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead. Even though I am not religious, watching the fires being lit is very moving, and even I think of my family…

Anyway, although these fires draw large crowds every year, they do have a religious background, so it’s not a tourist spectacle. For this reason, they are always lit on the same day, regardless of weather or other outside influences. Only during WWII, the characters were drawn onto the mountains using white cloth, because making nightly signal fires for airplanes wasn’t a great idea.

This year, of course, things are different than usual because of Covid19. And because the fires draw so many spectators to only a few strategic points, the organisers decided to drastically scale them down: All except for the one on Daimonji Mountain were to be reduced to a single point.  So, here is the big “dai” 2020 as seen from my balcony:

I am torn about this to be honest. It was nice that the organisers went through with the fires – and if you know what the big dai should look like, it was easy to make out – but at the same time it felt very sad too, somehow. If Corona does not go away, how much of our culture will we have to sacrifice?

Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami

This is a collection of 17 short stories by Haruki Murakami. They don’t have a common theme, but they are all tied together by an “I” narrator, which gives the stories an almost personal feeling. Most often, this narrator seems like a stand-in for Murakami himself (a male author talking about his past), but there are also stories told from a female perspective. Typical for Murakami, in the beginning, the stories are grounded in the real world until something happens that is unlikely or impossible:

A man searches for his wife’s cat and spends the afternoon lying in the sun in a stranger’s garden. A woman becomes an insomniac who does not need to sleep at all and doesn’t even feel tired. A man works in an elephant factory until a dancing dwarf takes possession of his body. A woman is the target of a love sick green monster. A couple robs burgers from a MacDonalds in the middle of the night. An elephant vanishes without a trace from a heavily guarded enclosure. A man talks about his desire to burn down barns.

I’ve been reading a lot of Murakami’s books and short story collections lately. The selection of stories in this book felt more coherent than in “After the Quake”, which I read just before this one, even though there was no common theme here. The stories range from light hearted to cruel, from funny to profound. Since Murakami writes literary fiction, there is often not much plot, but the insights into the characters makes up for the fact that not much is happening.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and studied drama in Tokyo. While managing a Jazz club in Tokyo, he started writing at age 29 and has since become one of the most acclaimed writers world-wide who has won many international literary prizes.

If you need something to take your mind off things without having to commit to a long time of reading, this collection of shorts of various length is a good book to pick up. Available at amazon.