Japan is very much a kawaii culture. Think of Hello Kitty, Doraemon and yuru-chara like Kumamon. Even official letters from the government, tax office or health center cannot do without specially designed characters, the cuter, the better. More traditional ones that originate centuries ago are the maneki neko in stores, the ubiquitous tanuki and the teru teru bozu.
This little doll resembles our kids’ idea of spooky disguise: put a bedsheet over your head, paint on black eyes and turn into a ghost! The resemblance is purely superficial though. In Japan, a teru teru bozu is believed to be a good spirit that influences the weather!
These dolls were originally made by farmers as a prayer for good weather. They became very popular in cities during the Edo period when they were made by children and hung outside their windows just before a school outing. Sadly, they don’t seem to be very common anymore, probably because of vastly improved weather forecasts. In all my time in Japan I have only seen the one above – and at a temple to boot (which is funny because the name means literally shine shine monk.) However, if you do see one, you can find out easily how enticing the upcoming school outing is to the child: If the teru teru bozu hangs heads up, the prayer is for good weather the next day, heads down, and the prayer is for rain. I wish I had known a trick like that when I was in school…
The first time we hear about Mr. Nishino is when he suddenly appears in the garden of one of his ex-lovers, and claims that he’s dying. She and her daughter, who knows him as the man who bought her parfait as a child, sit with him and reminisce, until he disappears again as unexpectedly as he has come. This pattern (minus the dying) repeats itself with nine other women of Mr. Nishino’s life who share their own memories of their often brief relationship with this fascinating man, who nevertheless remains elusive to each one of them.
This is not so much a novel than a set of 10 vignettes centered around the main character, Mr. Nishino. From early childhood on he is irresistable to girls and women, who fall over each other to land in his arms. Yet, even though some of them know he’s double-dating, they still describe him positively, almost as if he couldn’t help it.
Unfortunately, each chapter is written from the viewpoint of the woman du jour, so that the “real” Mr. Nishino never has to reveal himself. And the women themselves function merely as chroniclers of rather than as participants in the stories. This left me unsatisfied and none the wiser about any of the characters, and there is no plot either to provide a cohesive whole. I like Kawakami’s books in general, but this was not one of her stronger ones.
Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and started out as writer and editor of science fiction stories after graduating from college. She has since received numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Yomiuri Prize.
I’d recommend getting this from the library, but if you prefer to own your books, here’s a link to amazon.
While looking for photos for my work, I found this amazing one. The location is at Kitaoji Bridge over the Takano river, looking south, just 5 minutes away from where I live. I wish I could take photos like these!
Kitano Tenmangu is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, among locals and visitors alike. Not only does it have a huge flea market (Tenjin-san) each month on the 25th, but many students of all ages visit before an important exam to pray to the God of Wisdom that is enshrined there. The year 2021 is an especially good year to visit Kitano Tenmangu because of its connection with the ox, this year’s zodiac animal.
Kitano Tenmangu enshrines a real historical person, Sugawara-no-Michizane as its main deity. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a courtier, where he was supported by Emperor Uda. However, after Uda’s retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later without returning to the capital, and was buried in Kyushu. Now, the story goes that after his death, Kyoto was hit by natural disasters and a number of Fujiwara courtiers and even the emperor’s family met with illness and personal tragedies. In search for the reason, Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams. Thus, in 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of around 12,000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan.
The approach to Kitano Tenmangu from the south starts at a large stone torii and follows a path lined with stone lanterns. At the end lies the shrine’s impressive romon gate, a bit elevated from the outer grounds and the main entrance. It is flanked by the common statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern right above the path.
On the other side of the gate the precincts open wide. To the left lies the emasha exhibiting large wooden tablets, typical presents to shrines. During the New Year’s period people come here to write their very first calligraphy of the year, and the best ones are exhibited afterwards. Further down this path lies the plum garden of Kitano Tenmangu. These were the favourite trees of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and more than 1500 trees can be found in the precincts. The fruits are pickled and sold in December, to be put into tea on New Year’s day as a good luck charm.
To the right lies the shrine’s treasure house, where many valuable gifts that were presented to the shrine over the centuries are stored and exhibited. The most important treasure is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll below which depicts the origin story of Kitano Tenmangu.
However, the main buildings of the shrine lie straight ahead from the romon gate. You must pass through the sankomon gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, behind which lies a lovely courtyard with the outer and main prayer halls straight ahead. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, these two prayer halls lie under a single, wood-shingled roof, which is very unusual and called the yatsumune zukuri style. The two main gates and the main hall show the typical architecture of the Momoyama period with intricately painted carvings, golden ornaments and pretty lanterns. They were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1607, and the main reason why Kitano Tenmangu is designated as a National Treasure.
Another historically important feature of Kitano Tenmangu is often overlooked by the casual visitor. It’s the so-called Odoi, a slightly elevated hill at the western end of the precincts that was once part of the city’s fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which a littlestream flows. As can be expected, this part is especially beautiful during the the koyo in autumn and the aomomiji fresh leaves in spring.
Okay, enough teasing: What’s the connection with the ox? Well, Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox, and thus, oxen or cows are seen as his messengers. Another story goes that when he was supposed to return to Kyoto, he died on the way, and the ox that was pulling his cart lay down on the street and would not get up anymore. In any case, throughout Kitano Tenmangu, you will find many statues of cows. These are called nade ushi, stroking cows, and the idea is that you first rub your ailing body part and then its counterpart on the cow to transfer your malaise to the statue and get rid of it for good. Definitely worth a try!
Because it is visited by so many high school kids preparing for their university entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is very busy throughout the year. Like at all other shrines, you can buy goshuin stamps and omamori charms, mostly related to scholarship. Since I like useful stuff, I bought a lovely wooden box of pencils with the shrine emblem and wise sayings on them. Not sure it helps with the wisdom though…
When I wrote the story of Gio last Sunday, I was quite surprised to find that I haven’t talked about “The Tale of the Heike” yet. Here’s to remedy that oversight!
The Heike Monogatari is an epic tale that essentially tells the story of the Japanese Genpei War. This war from 1180 – 1185 was a power struggle between the Heike/Taira clan and the Minamoto/Genji clan that had been going on for a while already.
At first, Taira-no-Kiyomori is one of the most powerful men in the country, even having married his daughter to the emperor. However, when he tries to put his grandson, 2-year old Antoku, on the throne, the rival Minamoto conspire with the deposed emperor to overthrow him. Both sides gain allies and prepare from war that starts with the Battle of Uji. From there, a series of battles between the two clans ensues in which the Minamoto eventually gain the upper hand and Emperor Antoku is killed. At the end of the war, the Taira clan is defeated and all but wiped out, while the victorious Minamoto establish the Kamakura shogunate.
The monumental Tale of the Heike is comprised of numerous stories and legends that were at first passed on orally by so-called biwa-hoshi bards. It was complete by 1330. A number of individual stories have been transformed to Noh plays that are still performed to this day, as well as movies, manga etc.
Personally, I found the first part that deals with Kiyomori and the scheming by and against him the most interesting. Once Kiyomori dies of old age and his son takes over, the war soon begins and the story turns to detailed accounts of who-killed-whom-and-how. This part I found a bit tedious because there were so many people involved that they were hard to keep track of, and most were killed on the very page they entered the scene anyway. Yet, having read the Heike Monogatari gave me an insight both into Japanese history and beloved heroes like the unbeatable Benkei and Yoshitsune, whose stories are an important part of Japanese culture.
If you’d like to try one of the famous Japanese books on war, you can get the Heike Monogatari on amazon.
While I was out and about in Saga for the Dainenbutsu Kyogen last weekend, I also veered a bit off the beaten tracks to a tiny temple called Gio-ji (emphasis on the o). Well, it’s not really a temple, more of an hermitage, with a single building. There is one Buddha statue in a room that is not bigger than most modern living rooms. In fact, the temple is mostly garden; huge maples and other trees in a bed of moss with the occasional lantern or memorial stone. Right now is not the best time to visit, as you can see below. The moss is at its prime during the rainy season and the temple shows off its beauty when the maples are blazing in autumn, of course (as in the last two photos).
Gio-ji was not alwasy that small though. Once it was part of a larger temple complex called Ojo-in which is said to have reached all the way up the mountain. This temple was allegedly founded in the late 12th/early 13th century by a disciple of Honen, he himself founder of Jodo-shu Buddhism. Be that as it may, this large temple fell into disrepair, and all that’s left today is the little hermitage and the moss garden.
However, Gio-ji is more than just a remnant of another temple, and it is more than just another pretty spot for moss and maples in the Arashiyama mountains. What makes Gio-ji famous is the story behind its name, the story of a woman. The following is a story as related in the Heike Monogatari:
Gio was one of the most beautiful women of the 12th century. She was a shirabyoshi, a dancer, and, as beautiful women often do, she had numerous admirers. One of them was Taira-no-Kiyomori, the military leader of Japan in the late Heian period. This powerful man took a liking to Gio and, as powerful men often do, wanted to have her all for himself.
Gio fought hard. She resisted with everything she had, brought up a younger sister and an ailing mother she had to take care of. But Kiyomori insisted, sent poems, beautiful robes, and other gifts. Eventually, Gio’s defenses broke down. Besides, what could go wrong as the mistress of the country’s de-facto leader? So, Kiyomori installed Gio in the palace. She had traded her freedom for the easy life plus all the attention a dancer could crave. But of course, it couldn’t last forever.
Gio’s luck ran out when that of another woman started: Kiyomori had cast his eye on a new, younger dancer called Hotoke. And the story repeated itself: Kiyomori courted Hotoke with all he had and eventually installed her in his palace. And Gio had to leave.
Even though Gio was only in her 20s at the time, she decided to become a nun. And it is said that she together with her sisiter and mother, took up residence in the little hermitage that today is Gio-ji. This is why you will find not only Buddha, but also statues of several nuns in the little room at Gio-ji. And among the temple’s graves are that of Gio and her family.
Is the story true? Probably. It is told to us in the Heike Monogatari, one of the epic tales of Japan, that dates back to at least 1330. We can expect that the story was embellished over time, of course; a Noh play, and many other retellings of the story did help with that. No wonder, it’s a timeless story that we have all heard one way or the other…
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?
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!