The Lake Biwa Canal

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, around this time last year, I took a pleasure cruise on the Lake Biwa Canal from Otsu to Kyoto. I’m finally ready to share a few pictures and a bit more info on this marvel of Japanese engineering.

The Lake Biwa Canal was constructed from 1885 to 1890 and was mainly meant to ease transportation of goods from Shiga to Osaka, one of the biggest centres of business in Japan then and now. Additionally, the canal’s water was – and still is – used as water supply for the city, to produce electricity in the first commercial hydroelectric plant in Japan (for the very first electric tram), and to provide water to a number of gardens near the Keage incline (like Nanzen-ji or Murin-an and even the Imperial Palace) and to rice paddies in the north of Kyoto.

When it was built, the canal was quite the engineering marvel, even more so because it was built entirely by Japanese people, from the cheap day labourers to the head of engineering. It soon attracted many tourists who wanted to walk along it or even take a cruise on the canal. In the 1950s, the canal was not being used any longer and everything was shut down, but a few years ago, it was revitalised, and now again you can take cruises in spring time during the cherry blossoms and in autumn during the koyo. So, let’s go!

Right after you board the ship, the first of three tunnels begins. With 2,436 m, this is the longest tunnel, and it was constructed from three sides: The excavating would start from the two ends of the tunnel and from a 47 m deep vertical shaft in the middle of it. This was the first time this method was used in Japan, probably because the chief engineer, Sakuro Tanabe, learnt it from his Scottish professor at university. Yes, Tanabe was only 24 years old when the construction started. I doubt that any fresh graduate would get such an important job today.

The tunnels have interesting features. On top of the portals on each end are large stone inscriptions penned by important elder statesmen of the time, and they surprisingly poetic. Halfway through the first tunnel, there is a very large tablet with the words of Kunimichi Kitagaki, the third governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It reads “The Imperial Throne is eternal”.

It is interesting to note that the canal is very shallow. Obviously, there were no motorboats around when the canal was built, so the boats carrying goods and passengers were propelled forward by long stakes, like the gondolas in Venice. A slight decline of 4 meters from Otsu to Keage keeps the water flowing and the boats moving. However, what surprised me most on the trip was the fog in the first tunnel. It was a nice and warm day outside, but it cooled down quite a bit inside the tunnels. There were also many insects, obviously attracted to the light of the boat.

When you exit the first tunnel, you find yourself in a very quiet part of Kyoto. Most tourists never visit Yamashina, even though Bisshamon-do temple is quite famous, and especially lovely in autumn. The Shinomiya Dock is surrounded by large trees and must be very beautiful during the momiji. As you can see, I took the trip too early, but it is still a lovely sight. The dock was once a resting place for the workers on the canal, and even now, you could get off the boat here. I guess not many people do so, though.

Right after the dock is the so-called Moroha tunnel. It was only built in 1970 when the nearby railroad was straightened out and part of the canal had to give way to it. Beyond it lie a number of bridges to get to Yamashina, and there is a long walking path that follows the canal until the second tunnel, the shortest with only 124 meters. The red bridge below is the Seichaku bridge, and it leads to Honkokuji temple, which is connected to Nichiren.

The final and third tunnel is 850 m long and leads to Keage in Kyoto, near Nanzen-ji temple. Directly next to it is a beautiful Western-style building, the former Imperial Palace Water Pump Station. From here, the water of the canal takes a 30 m or so plunge to the Keage Power Plant to produce electricity for Kyoto. This Keage Incline, where the boats were brought down on rails, is famous for its cherry trees in spring. Another branch canal takes water to the nearby aqueduct of Nanzen-ji temple. From there it also feeds the canal on the Philosopher’s Path.

I really enjoyed going on this trip and I recommend it to everyone. With only 12 passengers per boat plus two staff members, it is an almost intimate experience. For 55 minutes, you’ll see a part of Kyoto and hear of a history that even many Japanese are not aware of. You should give it a try! This year, the schedule has been greatly reduced (thanks, Corona), and it may be hard to get a spot on one of the boats. Alternatively, you can also walk or cycle along the canal, and while the perspective is different, it’s still something very special to do.

For more info on the Lake Biwa Canal and decidedly better photos than mine, check out their homepage here: https://biwakososui.kyoto.travel/en/ By the way: I recommend not just taking the cruise, but going to Otsu a bit early and spending time there and on Lake Biwa for a nicely rounded day trip.

Murderer out of Love – Sada Abe

On May 19, 1936, a lowly prostitute became known in all Japan. From that day on, the name of Sada Abe carried a certain spine-chilling factor that fascinates people to this day. Who was Sada Abe and what happened that made her a household name for more than 50 years?

Sada Abe was born in 1905 into a family of tatami makers. Her parents were fairly well-off and especially her mother doted on the little girl, indulging her every whim. When Sada became a teenager, her calm family life became upset through quarrels over the succession to the family business. To protect their youngest daughter, she was sent out of the house to spend her days with friends.

Sadly, this didn’t turn out well. Sada fell in with the wrong crowd and became an unruly and even promiscuous teen who stole money from her parents and went out during the night without permission. Her father, seeing no other way to discipline her, sold her to a tea house, where she was to train as an apprentice geisha. Sada was 17 at the time.

At first, Sada was thrilled about her new life. Since childhood she had enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes, and now she had finally the opportunity to put her long training in traditional music to good use. And her clients loved spending time and money on the young maiko.

However, disillusionment soon followed. Sada had to learn quickly that she would never be a top-ranking geisha who commanded respect in addition to highest rates. Instead, customers demanded sex from the young girl, and the tea house did not object.

Over the following years, Sada Abe turned from geisha to prostitute, in successively seedier establishments, first in Tokyo and then in Osaka. Although she tried several times to leave the sex industry, she did not succeed until she met Goro Omiya. He had more serious designs on her than any of her previous lovers and suggested that she learn how to run a restaurant. In time, he promised, he would buy one for her and set her up as his mistress. Sada gladly accepted.

In February 1936, she began working in a restaurant in Tokyo. The owner, Ishida Kichizo, didn’t waste much time with the beautiful woman, and already in mid April, they became lovers. Kichizo was a womanizer and knew hot to please Sada. Not only was she in love for the first time, she also felt sexually satisfied like never before. Like any woman in her situation, she wanted Kichizo, who was married, to herself.

In order to consummate their affair undisturbed, Kichizo and Sada left the restaurant and went on a two-week lover’s spree, starting on April 23rd, 1936. They rented a room at an inn, ordered expensive food and geisha to entertain them and had sex over and over again. Only when they ran out of money did Kichizo return to his restaurant, but he promised to meet Sada again, on May 11.

On that day, they checked into the inn again and once more indulged in food, entertainment and sex. Their sex play became wilder and they eventually tried erotic asphyxiation and they both enjoyed it. Sada found it hard to control herself. In the early morning hours of May 18, 1936, Sada strangled Kichizo in his sleep. She then cut off his penis and scrotum, tidied up the room and left the inn.

Thanks to an ensuing media frenzy after the discovery of Ishida’s body, the public went into a what became known as “Sada Abe panic”. She was spotted by people as far as Osaka, and one alleged sighting in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district caused a traffic jam. All the while, Sada went about her days as if nothing had happened, undisturbed and still carrying her trophies of Kichizo.

Sada was arrested in the afternoon of May 20th and questioned extensively by the police. She asserted that she killed Kichizo out of love and that she was not crazy or depraved. Her lawyers and the judge at her trial thought otherwise. That’s why she was sentenced to a mere 6 years in prison on December 21, 1936.

She was a model prisoner in the Tochigi women’s penitentiary, where she served only 5 years of her sentence. After being released on May 17, 1941, Sada was surprised to find herself somewhat of a celebrity. The transcripts of her police interrogation had been published, and many writers took her case as inspiration for stories.

Unable to escape the public eye, Sada decided to cash in herself. She wrote an autobiography and appeared in a film about the case. The bar where she worked became famous with the locals. Eventually, however, Sada grew weary of the attention. She retired from the bar and left Tokyo. After 1971, her trail is completely lost. Nobody knows where she went or when she died., although some sources point to Kyoto. All that’s left is her story that fascinated people to this very day.

Sada Abe definitely fascinates me! The above is just a short summary of a longer piece I have written about her, which has just been published in an anthology. There, I talk in greater detail about the early life of Sada Abe and the possible reason she turned to prostitution, as well as her fatal attraction to Kichizo Ishida.

If you’re interested, the book is called “The Best New True Crime Stories: Crimes of Passion, Obsession & Revenge” and it has a number of other essays on passionate crimes from all over the world and many eras. As always, you can get the book from amazon. I hope you’ll like it!

The Tale of the Heike

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!

Heike Monogatari

cover image of "The Tale of the Heike". 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.

The Tragic Loves of Gio-ji

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.

Stone lantern at Gio-ji temple surrounded by moss.

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…

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).

Labour Thanksgiving Day

Today is the end of a long weekend in Japan, with Labour Thanksgiving Day – kinro kansha no hi – today. This national holiday was established in 1948 and is meant to “praise labour, celebrate production and give thanks to one another”. Especially the “celebrate production” was important after WWII when Japan and its economic miracle took the world (and the car industry in particular) by storm…

When it comes to Kyoto, the most celebrated type of production was going on in the textile industry. For centuries, it was a thriving industry with thousands of people working in it, and even today, it is one of the main industries in Kyoto (after tourism, of course). In Kyoto, the traditional textile industry has seen some of its most interesting innovations, like yuzen, shibori and other types of dyeing, and of course, nishijin-ori weaving for obi. Interestingly, when it comes to looms for weaving, Nagoya’s Toyota company was a large manufacturer, before they moved into the automotive business.

Although modern looms are used almost everywhere, obi are usually still woven by hand with traditional Jacquard machines – which have been modernised from punch cards to computer controls at least. Still, there is something special about seeing a craftsman working on a traditional loom. And even though the photo below was taken in a studio and does not depict the reality of an 1875 weaving workshop, it does come pretty close to how the work is done even today.

Pictures From Taisho

I’m very interested in Japanese history, in particular in the time of the Meiji and Taisho Emperors.

The Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) was when the Shogunate was abolished and Japan opened up to the Western world and had to speedily catch up with it. It was an era of extreme modernisation, in particular in the cities, while I would assume that most people in the countryside kept living their lives like they had for the last 250 years.

The Taisho Era (1912 – 1925) that followed saw a similar development, but at the same time, the West’s fascination with the newly discovered Japan lessened and whatever was left was drowned out by WWI.

In any case, below is a video of early film recordings taken in Tokyo in the very early years of Taisho, 1913 – 1915. You can see most of the people, in particular children, wearing traditional Japanese clothing and sporting traditional hairdos (I’m a fan of those!) The streets are crowded (as they are today) and I don’t recognise anything except the big lanterns at Asakusa temple in the very end.

The old film has been colored for this video, and there is an underlying soundtrack. The coloring is pretty good, but I’m not happy with the soundtrack – Japanese people are never so noisy! On the other hand, these are mostly children, and maybe things have changed in the last 100+ years. Anyway, enjoy!