The Decay of the Angel

The Decay of the Angel
Yukio Mishima

Former judge Honda is 75 years old and long retired when he meets Toru by chance. The teenage boy bears three moles that make Honda believe that Toru is another reincarnation of his school friend Kiyoaki. Honda sees another chance to prevent Kiyoaki’s/Toru’s premature death, and he decides on the spot to adopt the orphan.

But Toru could not be more different from Kiyoaki. He has a malicious streak and joyfully seeks to thwart Honda’s best intentions. He gets one of his tutors dismissed, destroys a proposed marriage and abuses the maids. Things only escalate when Toru becomes a legal adult, and he is now violent towards Honda as well.

However, when his presumed former lives are revealed to him, and that he may be a fraud after all if he survives his 20th years, Toru cannot accept this. Clearly upset, he makes a drastic decision that changes his life for good.

This is the last of the four books of the “Sea of Fertility” and the one I liked least. Toru is, quite frankly, an asshole from the very beginning. In “Runaway Horses”, I didn’t care for Isao’s nationalistic views, but he honestly believed that he’s doing the right thing. Toru, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, he is mean because he can. Interestingly, it seems that Honda can see through his facade also from the beginning, and yet, he doesn’t do anything to address the issue, not even when he stop believing in his reincarnation theory.

Over all, the book is worth reading, though – Mishima was a great writer – but you may need the other three books to understand some of the references, and the ending in particular.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th century Japan. Already his first short story was a great success, and in 1968, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to his benefactor, Yasunari Kawabata. Besides being part of the intellectual elite of his time, Mishima trained rigorously in martial arts and achieved several black belts in kendo, battojutsu, and karate, respectively. After a failed coup d’état that he instigated, Mishima committed ritual suicide. This book was finished only shortly before that.

Follow Mr. Honda through the last years of his life and get the book from amazon.

Uemura Shoen

There must be something in the air in Kyoto that is especially conducive to artists. Clearly, while Kyoto was the capital of Japan, this was the place to be if you wanted to make a living as an artist, or even as a craftsperson. But even today, Kyoto is a hub of Japan’s art world and many people with strong ties to the city become leaders in their fields, be it ukiyo-e, paintings, calligraphy, ceramics etc.

One of the most famous Japanese artists – and a woman to boot – is Uemura Shoen (1875 – 1949). She stands out as one of the few female painters from the Meiji/Taisho/Showa eras of Japan who rose not only to national but even to international fame during her lifetime.

When she was born in 1875 as the second daughter of a tea merchant in Kyoto’s Shimogyoku district, she was named Tsune. Her father had died two months before her birth, so she grew up in a household dominated by her mother and aunts. Tsune’s mother ran a popular teashop called “Chikiri-ya” which attracted affluent clients purchasing tea and other items for tea ceremony.

Little Tsune loved to draw from an early age and impressed her family so much with her talent that she was sent to the Kyoto Prefectural Art School to study when she was only 12 years old. Just three years later, her painting The Beauty of Four Seasons was sent to an art exhibition and was promptly bought by Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, who was visiting Japan at that time. From one day to another, the young girl now known as Uemura Shoen became a celebrity.

At that time, this was highly unusual. Even though many women, especially of the higher classes, learned how to paint (mostly in the traditional Japanese style), they practised the art as a pastime rather than as a profession. While other professional female painters did exist at the time (for example, Ito Shoba and Kajiwara Hisako), most of Japan’s art scene was dominated by men, in particular outside of Tokyo. Uemura’s international success – a version of The Beauty of Four Seasons won an award at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago – was unprecedented.

Uemura Shoen studied under several teachers (Suzuki Shonen who gave her the first kanji of his name, Kono Bairei and Takeuchi Seiho) and in her work integrated the traditional Maruyama Shijo, Kano, and Sesshu schools of painting. She also drew influences from ukiyo-e and Chinese landscape paintings.

The majority of Uemura Shoen’s works are so-called bijin-ga, paintings of beautiful women, doubtlessly influenced by all the women who visited her mother’s teashop. Their bodies often take up most of the painting and draw the focus towards the intricate details of their kimono and hair ornaments, painted with unparalleled delicacy. Many of her works were inspired by Noh theater. Even though women are not allowed to perform, Uemura’s paintings of Noh show women in classical dance poses and with a strong and determined mien.

When Uemura was 27 and unmarried, she gave birth to a son, Uemura Shoko, who later became a painter himself. She raised him and his sister, born a few years later, as a single mother, and never revealed the name of their father. It is speculated, however, that it may have been her teacher, Suzuki Shonen. Not only did he allow her to use the first character of his name in her own pseudonym, but he also accelerated her education and let her learn and practice the painting of figures in his own atelier instead of at school. Already at that time, people suspected an affair between the two, and her reputation took a downwards turn. However, in the long run, her exceptional talent silenced all critics, whether of her work or her private conduct.

In her later years, Uemura Shoen’s status as outstanding female painter was officially recognized. She became the pioneer in numerous top-ranking awards: first female painter accepted in the Imperial Art Academy (1941), second female court artist to the Imperial Household Agency (1944), and first woman to receive the Order of Culture (1948). Her painting Jo no mai of a female Noh dancer was the first painting by a Japanese woman rated as Important Cultural Propery. Uemura Shoen died in 1949, aged 74, still painting until the very end.

Uemura Shoen was a very prolific painter. To see a wide range of her pieces, you don’t have to go far (from Kyoto, that is): The Shohaku Art Museum in Nara focuses on her works, as well as those of her son and grandson.

The Temple of Dawn

The Temple of Dawn
Yukio Mishima

Shigekuni Honda, successful international business lawyer, is called to Bangkok in 1941 to settle a dispute. While engrossing himself in the study of Buddhism, in particular reincarnation, he is permitted an audience with the royal princess Chantrapa. She is the daughter of Honda’s high school classmate and insists that she belongs to Japan. When she recognizes Honda, he believes her to be a reincarnation of the revolutionary Isao whom he had defended years ago, but in the end, he must leave Thailand without proof.

They meet again 11 years later when the princess – now 18 years old and calling herself Ying Chan – comes to Japan to study. Honda is obsessed with the young woman and tries to crack her secret, but Ying Chan avoids him whenever she can, just spurring on the advances and scheming of the lawyer.

The first part of this book, set in Thailand, is heavy with Buddhist teachings that demand quite some attention. In the second part, we can focus on Honda and his desire to find out whether Ying Chan is indeed Isao’s reincarnation. Although some of Honda’s schemes are quite unsavoury, I still felt sympathy for him overall. I feel that Mishima is at his best when describing land- and cityscapes, and I loved the images of Bangkok he could conjure up in my mind’s eye. This is probably the reason why I liked this book more than the “Runaway Horses”, and I myself got very curious about this whole reincarnation business…

This is the third book in Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” cycle, and it centres on Honda, who has hitherto been a mere side character. There were so many references to Isao, the protagonist of the second book, that it would be hard to follow without having read “Runaway Horses”.

Yukio Mishima is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost authors of the 20th century. A weak child, he took up bodybuilding and kendo when he was older and became very fit. He started writing early and eventually became the protégé of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides his numerous books, he also wrote plays for Noh and Kabuki, as well as for contemporary theatre. He was 45 when he committed ritual suicide.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into Buddhism and the practice (or art?) of reincarnation, you can get this book at amazon.

Equinox

A long weekend just ended today with shunbun-no-hi, the vernal equinox. It was a nice day, so I went out and many other people did, too. The streets in Okazaki were bustling, and the atmosphere was quite energetic. Since many universities and high schools have their graduation ceremonies, there are lots of young people around wearing their finest kimono. It’s a lovely time to be out and about.

It is too early for a proper hanami yet, but some cherry trees here and there are in bloom already. I’m curious to see this neighborhood during hanami, the approach to Saginomori Jinja is lined with sakura trees, but overall, I’d say the area is better known for the koyo in autumn. This year, I have special plans for hanami – yozakura (evening lightup) to be precise. I’ll keep you posted.

And finally, from tomorrow, there will be no further Covid-19-induced state of emergency in Japan. We still have more than half a million active cases, but the numbers are declining rapidly. I received my invitation to the third shot already, I just have to make an appointment. I am really looking forward to ditching the masks, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Spring is coming, and things will get better. For good, this time. Hopefully.

Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum

I found out about this new museum recently and just had to check it out (I love my job). It’s always special to find something brand new in Kyoto, where everything else dates back hundreds of years and even people are not considered “real” Kyoto people unless their family moved to Kyoto “before the war” – the Onin War of 1467, mind you…

The Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum in Gion was established last year, and it is housed in a newly-built building in zen-like style, very minimalistic. An effort has been made to make it fit among the surroundings, which also show a traditional exterior.

This little museum is a private one, founded by the Kagizen Yoshifusa, a maker of traditional Kyoto sweets that dates back to the Edo period. Usually, sweets shops like these cater to monks and tea houses, since traditional kyo-gashi confectionary is most often used at tea ceremonies or to offer to guests. However, back in the Showa period, the then-head of the family, Zenzo, managed to establish the Kagizen as a salon for artists, writers, researchers, in short: the intellectual crowd of Kyoto. Their sweets have been immensely popular among general citizens as well.

So, said Zenzo, the 12th generation head of the family, made lots of connections to the local art scene, and especially the mingei movement (folk art) headed by Kawai Kanjiro was favoured by him. He also established a deep friendship with Tatsuaki Kuroda, a wood craftsman and lacquer artist, who designed pieces for the Kagizen store and teahouse. This friendship laid the foundations of the museum’s collection, and I wish I had found the museum already last year, because the very first exhibition was about the connection between Kuroda and Zenzo – and I love lacquerware.

But their current exhibition on wooden molds for sweets is equally fascinating, because it explores the history of the Kagizen Yoshifusa as sweets maker famous for higashi, dried sweets. These tea-ceremony favourites are often nothing more than sugar, sometimes colored, and pressed into molds to create a large variety of shapes. Chrysanthemums and other flowers are common, as are seashells and fish. For weddings etc. there are auspicious cranes or turtles, and each new year sees the appropriate zodiac animal.

I was surprised by the variety of the shapes, and how delicately the molds were carved. Of course, this is a job for an expert, and besides molds used by the Kagizen over the years, there were also some from a collection of a 3rd generation artisan sweet-mold maker. My favourite? The astronauts!

So, if you’d like to check out this lovely new museum, here’s their website: https://zenbi.kagizen.com/ The exhibition on the sweets molds is on until April 10, 2022.

On the way home, drop by at the shop on Shijo dori and get some sweets – definitely worth it as well! https://www.kagizen.co.jp/en/store/


Runaway Horses

Runaway Horses
Yukio Mishima

Japan, 1932. Isao is a youth who lives and breathes the ancient samurai spirit. He is worried about the modern Japan that he sees in the hand of greedy industrialists instead of that of the benevolent emperor. Spurred on by a book bout a group of rebels in the early Meiji era, he forms his own “League of the Divine Wind” with 20 of his best friends. Supported by high-ranking men in the military, they set out to kill the country’s business elite and to restore the purity and integrity of Japan under the emperor.

This book tells of a fanatic group of young men in their early 20s who see the greatest honour not necessarily in killing, but in dying for a cause they believe just. Ideas of nationalism are expounded in detail, which make this book difficult to read at times, in particular when knowing that these ideas led to war just a few years later.
This is the second novel in the “Sea of Fertility” series by Yukio Mishima. Except for a few recurring characters, it can be read as a stand-alone, though.

Yukio Mishima was born into an old samurai family in Tokyo in 1925. He started writing at a very young age and had his first work published in a literary magazine when he was only 16 years old. Five years later, he approached Yasunari Kawabata with manuscripts and became his protégé. Mishima wrote 15 novels and more than 250 other works in his lifetime. He is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost novelists, but his nationalistic tendencies are viewed more sceptically by the Japanese. The above novel foreshadows his own death in 1970.

Not my favourite novel of the four, but if you want to have a go at it yourself, here’s a link to amazon.

Vending Machine

This is a quite old picture of one of the many Japanese vending machines. It’s only for beer – in case your nightly cravings are so strong you can’t quite make it to the next convenience store… This one is aptly called “The town’s liquor store”. Next to it was another one just for Gekkeikan Sake. It had only three different offerings (and not the priciest ones).

I took these photos years ago, so I’m not sure these two are still there – or any of the alcohol serving vending machines. Let’s keep the city clean and sober, guys.

Spring Snow

Spring Snow (Sea of Fertility I)
Yukio Mishima

Japan 1912. The Meiji era has just ended, and the old ranks of aristocrats are slowly giving way to a new class of rich people who are staking their claims at the top of society. Kiyoaki Matsugae, of lower samurai class, has been raised by the aristocratic Ayakuya family, together with their daughter Satoko, who is two years older. Kiyoaki’s complex feelings for Satoko eventually blossom into a tender young love, which is destroyed because both lovers avoid being open with each other. Only when Satoko is promised to an Imperial Prince do they recognize what they are about to lose, but now it is too late for a happy ending…

This is one of those romances where you’d like to slap both parties and force them to speak to each other. Much pain would have been avoided. And yet, Mishima draws a detailed picture of the time with all the scheming going on so that the Matsugaes can advance their position and the Ayakuras can at least keep theirs.

I greatly enjoyed this book; the romance between the two youths is only a part of it, which is growing in importance towards the climax. I loved the insight into Japan of the early 20th century, and Mishima once again is able to draw up splendid pictures in your mind’s eye.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970; pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka) is considered one of Japan’s greatest authors. When he was 16, he got a story published in a very prestigious literary magazine, the editors of which thought him a genius already. After the war, Mishima was taken under the wing of Yasunari Kawabata. Both of them were considered for the Nobel Prize of 1968, but the elder Kawabata received it. Mishima wrote 34 novels in total, and committed ritual suicide after a failed coup attempt.

This book is the first of four novels that make up the “Sea of Fertility” cycle, which were the last four books written by Mishima before his suicide. I have read them all, and will give a final verdict when I post the last one. In the meantime, you can get this one from amazon and judge for yourself.

I’m a Winner!

Of course I am, ever since I moved to Japan…

Seriously: I have won the Nengajo Lottery. Every December, Japanese people send millions of nengajo New Year cards, which are delivered early in the morning on New Year’s Day. Each and every one of these cards has a 6-digit lottery number, and on January 16, you can find out if you’ve won anything.

First prize (6 correct numbers; one out of a million cards; 1,916 winners max) are 300,000 yen in cash (or 310,000 for online shopping or 200,000 yen plus a set of 2021 stamps.)

Second prize (4 correct numbers; one out of 10,000 cards; 191,660 winners max) are a number of choices from food to household articles. I’m not sure what they are worth, but I guess several thousand yen each.

Third prize (3×2 correct numbers; three out of 100 cards; 57,498,015 winners max) are these two cute stamps with tigers. They are meant to send one letter and one postcard within Japan, but I’m wondering how many winners actually use them.

Now guess which prize I won. 😉

Winter Wonderland

Today, I wanted to write about something completely different. But then, weather happened… It has snowed several days this winter already, which is quite unusual for Kyoto. Here’s Saginomori Jinja in the snow from last Friday. The snow has gone from the streets now, but it’s still pretty cold. Pumpkin does not approve and neither do I…