Thousand Cranes

Thousand Cranes
Yasunari Kawabata

Kikuji is on the way to a tea ceremony held by Chikako, who had been his father’s mistress. Over the years, he had received many invitations from her, but since his father’s death, this is the first one he accepts. At the ceremony, he meets Mrs. Ota, who is the total opposite of Chikako, and Kikuji falls for her immediately, just as his father once did. From then on, Kikuji finds himself at the center of Chikako’s intrigues, and although he is not a born fighter, it is not clear yet who will get the upper hand in the end.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Kikuji who is torn apart by his feelings for no less than four women: meddlesome old crone Chikako who wants to see him married to Miss Inamura, a nice girl and protégé of hers, and the attractive and still young-at-heart Mrs. Ota and her daughter Fumiko, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with her mother’s strange attraction to Kikuji – or her own.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), was born in Osaka into a wealthy family, but was raised by his grandfather after he was orphaned. From a young age, he showed talent – and was interested in – both painting and writing, but he eventually turned to writing and published his first stories when still in high school. After graduating from university, Kawabata quickly became one of the most important modern Japanese writers. After WWII, his fame spread internationally, and in 1968 he became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you’re up for something melancholy and short, try this one – it’s available on amazon.

Coin Locker Babies

Coin Locker Babies
Ryu Murakami

When Kiku and Hashi meet at an orphanage, the two boys quickly bond and become friends, because of their shared history: Both were abandoned by their mothers in coin lockers at train stations in Tokyo. They are adopted by parents from a rural village where they grow up together, but at all times they keep harbouring the wish of finding their mothers. As young adults, both leave the village and return to Tokyo where they end up in Toxitown, an abandoned plot of land within the city where outcasts, criminals, and other lost cases end up. Hashi eventually escapes to become a successful singer, but in the end, Kiku’s destructive tendencies will catch up with both boys.

An interesting story of two boys looking for the love of a mother they never knew. While each of them seemingly finds their own solution to the feeling of loss, in the end, they both succumb to violence and self-destruction. It would not be a book by Ryu Murakami if they didn’t…

Ryu Murakami was born in 1952, and started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before moving on to film and writing books. His first book, written in university, won him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction, only the first of many more prizes to come. A number of his novels have been turned into films. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

If you want to try anyway, Coin Locker Babies is available on amazon.

Musashi

Musashi
Eiji Yoshikawa

Takezo and his best friend Matahachi barely survive the battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. Upon returning to his village without his friend, Takezo incurs the wrath of Matahachi’s mother, but he is saved by the travelling priest Takuan Soho who becomes Takezo’s teacher for the coming three years. Afterwards Takezo – now calling himself Musashi – travels through Japan to study swordsmanship and to challenge other famous fighters. However, he soon learns that brute strength alone is not sufficient to win and he begins to study calligraphy and painting, wood carving, and even farming. On the path to ever refine his Way of the Samurai, he makes a number of influential friends, and even more powerful enemies, until it comes to the great duel with Sasaki Kojiro, another of the great wandering samurai of his time.

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the best-known swordsman of Japan. It is said that he never lost a duel, and he has 61 victories to his name, more than any other samurai. This book depicts about 15 years of his life from the battle of Sekigahara to the duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In this fictionalised biography we nevertheless meet a number of real people who influenced him, like Honami Koetsu, Takuan Soho, Yoshino Tayu, and of course, Sasaki Kojiro, another great swordsman of the time who eventually becomes Musashi’s arch enemy. Overall, the story is that of a reluctant hero trying to find his own way.

Eiji Yoshikawa, born in 1892, began his literary career when he was 22. During his 30s he worked as a journalist, but kept writing short stories and novels that were often published as a series in newspapers and magazines. He received the Cultural Order of Merit, the Order of the Sacred Treasure and the Mainichi Art Award. When he died from cancer in 1962, he was considered one of the best historical novelists of Japan.

If you’re in for an excellent novel about one of the great figures of Japan, this book will do the trick. Get it from amazon.

Last Winter, we Parted

Last Winter, we Parted
Fuminori Nakamura

A writer – whose name we never learn – has taken a commission to write a book about Judai Kiharazaka. The famous photographer has been convicted of burning two young women alive, and the writer interviews him to understand the motive. Kiharazaka is reluctant to open up, but the more the writer learns about Kiharazaka’s background, the more an obsessive personality comes to the foreground. However, when his investigations lead him to K2, a group centered on an artist who creates life-sized dolls after the image of dead women, the writer begins to doubt everything he has found out about Kiharazaka so far…

A complicated thriller, written from perspectives of both the writer and that of Kiharazaka. It is comprised of interviews, letters, and the writer’s notes and memories, and the plot unfolds slowly and in bursts. The big reveal at the end is a twist so far out there, I doubt that anyone could see it coming.

Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, is a Japanese writer. He published his first novel “The Thief” in 2002 and won three prestigous literature prizes within three years, one of them the Akutagawa Prize. In 2010, he won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize. A translation of “The Thief” was selected among the best 10 books of 2013 by the NY Times. Out of his 15 books, 7 have been translated into English so far.

If you’re in for something different – warning: it’s not a lighthearted read this one – then you can get it on amazon.

Journey under the Midnight Sun

Journey under the Midnight Sun
Keigo Higashino

Cover for "Journey under the Midnight Sun" by Keigo Higashino.

Osaka, 1973. In an abandoned building in a poor part of town, a local pawnbroker is found stabbed to death. Although the investigation is able to zero in onto a prime suspect – the man’s lover – the case cannot be solved and is put on ice. But inspector Sasagaki is not deterred and keeps a watchful eye on Ryo, the son of the pawnbroker and on Yukiho, the daughter of his suspected mistress.

Over the years, Yukiho turns into a mesmerising and independent woman, and Ryo becomes a small gangster involved in computer crime before he disappears without a trace. Only 20 years after the murder inspector Sasagaki is finally able to tear apart the web of deceit that surrounds Yukiho and Ryo and finally finds out who and what was behind the murder.

Another fascinating novel by Keigo Higashino with a startling twist near the end. We follow the two children at the periphery of the murder from their teens to their early adulthood and although they never seem to meet openly, there are too many coincidences in both their lives not to believe in an ongoing connection. What starts out as a strong bond of friendship between them is soon brimming with criminal energy, both out in the open and hidden in the dark.

Keigo Higashino was born in Osaka in 1958 and received a Bachelor of Engineering from Osaka Prefecture University. He started working in the automotive industry, but left the company in 1986 after receiving the Rampo Prize for best unpublished mystery. Has written more than 85 novels and short story collections, and is one of Asia’s most popular authors. From 2009 to 2013 he served as the president of Mystery Writers in Japan.

Get this great summer read on amazon before heading to the beach.

The 10 Loves of Mr. Nishino

The 10 Loves of Mr. Nishino
Hiromi Kawakami

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.

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).

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.