Tokyo Ueno Station

Tokyo Ueno Station
Miri Yu

Just outside Ueno Station, where the trains bound for northern Japan leave, lies Ueno Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo. It attracts lots of homeless people, and Kazu is one of them. He talks about his life in the park, how to build a house from tarps and cardboard that is easy to dismantle. How to make a little money by selling cans and used magazines. How, thanks to local restaurants leaving out leftovers, food is a minor problem. And how to make friends among the homeless without revealing too much about yourself.

Kazu is one of many people from the north of Japan who came to Tokyo to build the infrastructure for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And they stayed on, always in search for jobs, so they could send money to their wives and children at home. Kazu also has a family, and he did return to them upon retirement. But when his wife died unexpectedly, he chose not to be a burden to his daughter and granddaughter, and so he returned to the place where he spent most of his life in: Tokyo. But life isn’t easy in Ueno Park, and eventually, there is only one way out…

If I had to summarize this book in one word, it would be “heartbreaking”. What got to me most, interestingly, wasn’t so much the descriptions of Kazu’s homeless life in the park, but of his life before that. When his children were small, he left for Tokyo to earn money; the price his family pays is his constant absence. He is not there to see his children grow up, and when his son dies at 21, Kazu cannot come to terms with his loss.

Miri Yu does an exceptional job portraying Kazu and the other homeless people in the park with compassion, and she draws a vivid picture of those who live on the edge of society. In an afterword, she describes the research that has gone into this novel. She also relates some remarkable acts of callousness after the Tohoku earthquake, which I wouldn’t have thought possible from the ever so polite Japanese.

Miri Yu, born in 1968, is one of Japan’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1997, she received the Akutagawa Prize for the short story “Family Cinema”. Being of Korean descent, she knows from experience what it means to be an outcast from society. After the Tohoku earthquake, she moved to Fukushima in 2015, where she owns a bookshop.

For a heartbreaking glimpse into the life of the homeless of Japan, get this book on amazon.

Soken-in

This is one of the 24 subtemples of Daitoku-ji, one of the headquarters of a branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Soken-in dates back to 1583, when it was established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi as the mortuary temple for Oda Nobunaga, who dies one year earlier in what is known as the Honno-ji incident.

Soken-in’s main hall holds a lacquered statue of Nobunaga that was created at the temple’s founding. The seated lord is 115 cm tall and wears ikan-taito courtdress. He looks down upon visitors with inlaid eyes and has a somewhat haughty expression on his face.

At the back of the temple lie the graves of Nobunaga and some of his sons and family members, or rather: one of Nobunaga’s “graves”. After he had committed suicide at Honno-ji in 1582, the temple was burned to the ground and destroyed the body. Thus unable to properly cremate his lord, Hideyoshi had two life-sized statues made from agarwood. One of the statues is the one mentioned above, the other was cremated in lieu of Nobunaga’s body and put into the grave at Soken-in. Agarwood is very fragrant, and contemporary sources tell how the smell from the burnt wood hung over Kyoto for days. To this day, there is a grand Buddhist ceremony on June 2nd, the day when Nobunaga died.

As can be surmised from the fact that Soken-in has no less than 3 tea houses, there is a strong connection to tea ceremony as well. The founding abbot, Kokei Sochin, was the Zen-master of Sen-no-Rikyu, who is revered as the one who perfected tea ceremony as we know it today. Coincidentally, Rikyu’s own mortuary temple, Juko-in, is just next door. In 1585, Hideyoshi held one of his large tea gatherings in Soken-in, where he prepared tea with his own hands. And there is also a chasenzuka, a memorial mound for tea whisks. Sadly, the yearly ceremonies to give thanks to used tea whisks were stopped already before the pandemic and are unlikely to return.

Unfortunately, many of the temple’s buildings are not original. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, there was a movement to abolish Buddhism, and many of the buildings were destroyed, and only restored in the 1920s; the main hall being from 1928. This gives the temple, especially its front garden and the grave site, a modern, almost cold appearance.

Nevertheless, there are still original features from the 16th century, and they can be found on the temple’s boundaries, literally. The main gate dates back to 1583, as well as the beautiful bell tower that lies just outside the precincts and is an Important Cultural Property. In contrast, the earthen wall surrounding the temple doesn’t look extraordinary at all. However, it is in fact two walls built next to one another with a hollow space in between and a roof on top. This unusual construction has earned it the name “mother and child wall”.

So, is Soken-in worth a visit? I think Nobunaga’s statue is beautiful, and if it’s true that it resembles him closely, it is interesting to see. But since the buildings and grounds are fairly recent, and there is o typical Zen garden, Soken-in lacks this peaceful ambience I am looking for in a temple. The tea houses are nice too, but overall, Soken-in is not the most picturesque temple of Daitoku-ji.

It’s getting a bit late here, so I’ll add pictures tomorrow. ­čśë

Kogen-ji Temple

Tiny Kogen-ji is one of the subtemples of Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama. For Kyoto standards, it is comparatively new, having been established in 1429 by a high-ranking official in the Muromachi Shogunate, Hosokawa Mochiyuki. The name Kogen-ji is derived from Hosokawa’s posthumous Buddhist name. Kogen-ji was originally located at the foot of Mount Ogura north of Tenry┼ź-ji, but following a number of fires it was relocated to its present site in 1882.

Because the temple is so small, its main attractions are the temple’s treasures. It has a number of paintings by Takeuchi Seiho and his students. Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942) was a nihonga style painter and extremely influential in Kyoto’s artistic circles throughout his career. He is most famous for his paintings of animals that incorporated a realism usually found in Western art at the time. Takeuchi was friends with the head priest of Kogen-ji, and when his son Shiro fell ill, he was allowed to convalesce at the temple. Despite the lovely surroundings, it must have been a relatively dreary place, so Takeuchi’s students created many paintings to cheer up Shiro; their paintings that are held at the temple to this very day.

Staying with paintings for a moment, before entering the main buildings, the Bishamon Hall lies on the left side of the path. The plaque above the entrance features calligraphy by famous priest Kobo Daishi (774-835). Inside, there is a wonderful ceiling with 44 paintings of flowers of all the seasons, created by Fujiwara Fuseki, also a nihonga painter. The colors are very lively, so the ceiling must be comparatively new.

The rest of this building is subdued as usual, so as not to distract from the main image, a beautiful standing statue of Bishamonten, a god of war. It dates back to the 9th century, and the graceful curve of his body as he slays a demon is worth a closer look. Unfortunately, the hall may not be entered, but there is a life-size photo of the statue at the entrance.

Further down the path lies the main hall, built in the early 1600s. It is made in a residential style rather than in classic temple architecture. Maybe this was the reason why in 1864 samurai of the Choshu domain army bivouacked at Kogenji and Tenryu-ji. Before their attack on the Imperial Palace, they tested their swords on the wooden pillars of the main hall. To this day, you can see the cuts the made in the wood; however, the swords were not sharp enough to win them the battle.

Of course, Kogenji wouldn’t be a proper Zen temple without gardens. The Lion’s Roar Garden is the main garden of the temple. It is a typical dry garden with a big sea of grey sand, but the hedges surrounding it add a splash of color. There is also a garden at the back of the main hall, which has lush greenery and must look lovely during the momiji season Arashiyama is famous for.

Overall, I’d say Kogenji is nice to visit if you’re looking for a more quiet place and if you like nihonga paintings. Otherwise, skip it in favour of Hogonin, another sub temple of Tenryu-ji or the main halls of Tenryu-ji itself.

Historic Research

Yesterday, there was a talk about “Kyoto’s festivals and events in October” to which I was invited. At first, I was reluctant to go – this is complex stuff with advanced vocabulary – but it turned out alright, thanks to the many photos and a bit of background knowledge I had gathered over the years. I was able to understand the gist of the talk, and it was fun, too.

Directly afterwards was another talk, and since there was no break, I felt it was rude just to leave, so I was a bit annoyed at first that I was forced to stay. With the handout we all got at the beginning consisting mostly of text, I didn’t expect to understand anything.

However, this talk turned out to be extremely interesting. When you look at a map of Kyoto, you may notice that Oike, Horikawa and Gojo dori around the city center are significantly wider than any of the other streets in Kyoto. The reason for this is that they were artificially widened during WWII, when people were worried about air-raids and resulting large-scale fires. At the time, Kyoto still had mainly wooden buildings, especially in the old part of town in the center. So, the above mentioned streets were broadened – Oike dori from some 20 to now 50 meters – and together with Kamogawa river, they still create a rectangle around what was then the most populated part of Kyoto.

Looking down Oike dori towards Karasuma dori
Oike dori during Gion Matsuri.

This is especially obvious at the crossing of Oike – Horikawa streets, where these two huge roads dwindle into nothing towards the north and west, in the case of Oike dori immediately behind the crossing. And on photos of Gojo dori in that area, you can clearly see that the northern side still has a number of old, wooden houses, while the southern side consists of mostly new(ish) apartment buildings. Also, according to the talk yesterday, what is now the pavement on the north side was once the entirety of Gojo street.

I had indeed noticed the abrupt ending of the broad Oike dori at Horikawa before, but never questioned the why. I mean, it’s Japan, don’t they do all sorts of weird stuff? Knowing the reason behind this makes it even more fascinating. And a bit sad too. Who knows how many ancient machiya were destroyed at the time…

Anyway, both talks were given by members of the Kyoto Historical Research Society, a loose organisation of local history buffs. Obviously, I was lucky to understand what was going on yesterday, this won’t be the case in general. However, I hope there will be more of these talks about festivals, they are fairly easy to understand, and as a bonus, help me with my job.

Snakes and Earrings

Snakes and Earrings
Hitomi Kanehara

19-year-old “not a Barbie girl” Lui meets mesmerizing Ama in a club and moves in with him rightaway. She is fascinated by his forked tongue and soon takes the first step to get one herself: Ama’s friend Shiba pierces her tongue. On a whim, Lui decides to get a tatoo as well, and Shiba uses the opportunity to talk her into having sex with him. Lui is torn between the two men, but when Ama’s jealousy explodes, she is forced to take drastic measures. Can she prevent things spiralling out of control?

The unexpected meeting with Ama draws Lui towards the edge of Japanese society, where people experiment with body modifications, choose unorthodox lifestyles, and mingle with underworld types. This book provides an interesting glimpse into a part of society that (prefers to?) remain in the shadows.

I picked up this book because Dogen mentioned the author in one of his videos. To be honest, I didn’t like it very much. Although the subject matter reminded me of Ryu Murakami, she’s not a writer of his calibre, and some of the violence and an s&m sex scene were too graphic and drawn out for my taste. Since these occured faily early in the book, I wonder if the author wasn’t only after the shock value. It was also pretty short, more of a novella, and the best thing about it is that it’s a fast read.

Hitomi Kanehara was born in Tokyo in 1983, dropped out of school at age 11 and left her home when only 15. Snakes and Earrings was written when she was 21, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and subsequently sold more than a million copies in Japan. She claimed that some of the themes in the book were inspired by her own issues with self-harm. In 2012, she moved to France with her husband and children where she lived for 6 years before returning to Japan. Kanehara has gone on to write more than 10 books to date, some of which won further literary prizes or were translated into other languages as well.

If you want to try something a bit different, you can get this book from amazon. But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Hardest Part of Japanese

I’ve stumbled across this youtube channel and have been binging his videos ever since. Dogen-san makes fun of (learners of) Japanese, (foreigners living in) Japan and, every so often, himself too. His Japanese is impeccable, and he has a patreon where he teaches Japanese pronunciation.

This is one of his slightly less serious lessons. If you ever struggled with this part of the Japanese language, you’ll understand.

Shinz┼Ź Abe’s Death

Shinz┼Ź Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, was assassinated last Friday during an election campaign speech in Nara. He was born in 1954 into a family that served as politicians, and he himself entered the political scene in the 1990s. For four terms, he served as prime minister, until he retired for health reasons in 2020. Yet, he remained an eminent figure in the background and still had considerable influence over his party and thus, the country.

His assassination shocked the country. There is a video out there, showing him on a street corner in Nara at around 11:30, giving a speech. Suddenly, from nearby, shots are fired (you can see the smoke), and Abe falls, obviously hit. He was pronounced dead in the hospital at around 17:00.

What’s so shocking is, that Japan has extremely strict gun laws. It is very difficult and can take years to get a gun licence, and in fact, the assassin had to make his own gun. Last year, in 2021, there were only 10 incidents with guns; 8 of them were related to the yakuza (organized crime) and only one of them was fatal. Interestingly, assassinating Japanese politicians seems not to be unusual. In 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot during an electoral campaign, and in 2002, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan was assassinated. The assassinations of the last prime ministers, however, date back to the February 26 Incident in 1936, when two former prime ministers were killed.

I found it especially disturbing how close the murderer could get to Abe. Watching the video I mentioned, they were within a few meters of each other; Abe had his back turned. Yes, Japan is a very safe country and violent crimes outside the yakuza are rare. Yet, I found security sorely lacking. Would Abe be still alive if the assassin had only had a knife? I’m not so sure.

I’m also curious about the ramifications on the country. Clearly, Shinz┼Ź Abe’s politics have shaped the country for 15 years, if not twice as long. The void he leaves will have to be filled one way or the other. But how this will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Shimabara’s Last Tayu

Together with maiko and geisha, the tayu are traditional female entertainers of Japan. And yet, they are much less known to the (foreign) public, partly because today, there are even fewer of them than there are geisha, and partly because of their origin: In the Edo period, tayu were courtesans.

At that time, prostitution in Japan was legal and strictly regulated. The three largest cities – Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka – had city districts dedicated to the love for sale. In Kyoto, this was the Shimabara district, which lies near Kyoto station and still maintains some of its charms (if not the prostitutes). In Edo, it was the famous Yoshiwara district, and old photographs show women sitting in rows behind wooden lattices, ready for work.

You would search in vain for a tayu among them, though. Just like their geisha sisters in the hanamachi, tayu were highly trained and honed their skills in dance, playing instruments, and seductive banter for years. As a tayu, the top-ranking courtesan of the town, she commanded the highest prices for a meeting, and her lovers counted among the country’s elite, financial or in society.

And so were the tayu. In old Japan, the views on prostitution differed greatly from that in the West. It was simply another job. In fact, the young women in the photo above may have come to the Yoshiwara only temporarily to help with family finances. When they returned home, their reputations – and even marriage prospects – were untarnished.

In Kyoto, the famous Yoshino Tayu is revered to this day. She is said to have been the most beautiful tayu in history, and she is featured in kabuki plays and Japanese novels. Her wealth was such, that she could afford to donate a new front gate to Joshoji temple in Kyoto. She was laid to rest there, and has a festival in spring dedicated in her honour.

Kyoto’s Shimabara district and its entertainments are long gone, and although there is still a tayu in Kyoto, she doesn’t usually perform in public. However, I was lucky to see her dance at an exhibition with photos of her, and it was truly special.

As you can see, the style of her dress is so much more flamboyant than that of any geisha – notice the colour red everywhere! The obi is tied in front where it is easy to undo – a nod to her work of old. I was quite surprised by the dragon painted on her outer kimono (which is a family heirloom, possibly more than 100 years old, btw.) as dragons are usually associated with men. Her hairstyle with the dozens of kanzashi pins must be very time-consuming to maintain, and yes, this is her real hair. She also has blackened teeth, something that was normal for married women in the Edo period.

The dance, at first, seemed not much different than the ones that geisha perform. A fan, a letter used as props to tell a story, delicate hand gestures, little kicks to get the long kimono out of the way. And yet, her dance seemed so much more erotically charged, and I’m not sure why. Was it the smiles, the raised eyebrows? The shy looks flashed to the audience from behind the fan? Or her naked toes peeking out from beneath her red underkimono?

I guess, where a geisha means to symbolize an almost maiden-like modesty, a tayu is seen as a grown woman who knows what she wants – and how to get it.

Newcomer

Newcomer
Keigo Higashino

When a woman is murdered in Tokyo’s busy Nihonbashi district, newly transferred detective Kaga is assigned the case. His sharp observation skills and relentless questions lead him through the woman’s neighbourhood, which is filled with little, old-fashioned shops. Many have been there for generations, and Kaga uncovers a number of their owner’s carefully kept secrets. But which ones are pertinent to his case? It turns out that the murdered woman, who had only recently moved to that neighbourhood, had some secrets of her ownÔÇŽ

This is another one of Keigo Higashino’s masterful mysteries, but this time it’s told from the perspective of the people of the neighbourhood, as detective Kaga is coming around and asking questions. We peek into their lives and follow what’s going on right behind the old shopfronts, where not everything is what it seems but deserves a closer look. I love Higashino’s mysteries, I feel that he comes up with something new in every book.

Keigo Higashino grew up in Osaka and is one of the most popular writers in Asia. He has written more than 65 novels, including books for children. Almost 20 of his books were turned into movies, and his work was also translated into many languages. He has won numerous Japanese awards for his books, and in 2012 he received the American Library Association Award – Best Mystery Novel for his book The Devotion of Suspect X.

Newcomer is set in Tokyo in the sweltering heat of summer, so if you need something suitable for beach reading, you can get it from amazon.

Miyamoto Musashi

When I wrote about the Dokkodo the other Sunday, I found out that I never wrote about famous samurai and ronin, Miyamoto Musashi. Well, here it goes!

Born in 1584 in the middle of the Sengoku period, young Musashi learnt fighting from his father, a lower-class samurai. Although he would go on to become Japan’s greatest swordsman, it is very hard to separate the facts of his life from the legends that were woven around him already during his lifetime.

It is true that he fought – and won – his very first duel at the age of 13, and it is said that 3 years later, in 1600, he fought in the Battle of Sekigahara which helped establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. The experience set him to wander around the country to study swordsmanship and to challenge fighters of various styles.

In 1604, Musashi arrived in Kyoto and challenged the local Yoshioka clan, one of the top schools of swordsmanship at the time. He fought with them three times, the best-known is the final fight at the pine at Ichijo street. A descendant of that very pine still marks the spot where Musashi wiped out the whole clan and effectively put an end to the school. Further up from the pine lies Hachidaira Shrine with a nice statue of Musashi, and all the way up the mountain, at Tanukidani Fudoin-san Temple, is a waterfall, where it is said that Musashi has performed misogi, ritual ablutions, before the fight.

In 1612, at the age of 28, when he was at the height of his powers, Musashi defeated the equally famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro in a well-publicised fight on a beach and from there went on to win 61 duels in total, more than any other swordsman in Japanese history.

But Musashi was more than just an excellent fighter. He took great care to cultivate other Japanese arts like calligraphy and ink painting, and he became an early adept of the new style of tea ceremony developed by Sen-no-Rikyu.

While some of his works survive, this part of his life remains mostly in the dark. He is said to have met illustrious figures like spiritual leader Takuan Soho, renowned artist Hon’ami Koetsu and famous courtesan Yoshino Tayu, but little proof survived. It is also said that he fathered a son, possibly with a courtesan, but there is no proof of that either. What is known is that he has adopted several sons, who became swordsmen in their own right.

In his later life, Musashi established the Niten-Ichiryu school of swordsmanship, which is famous for its use of two swords, and which still exists to this day.

Just a few days before his death in 1645, at the age of 61, Musashi handed his favourite student the “Book of Five Rings” on martial arts and the “Dokk┼Źd┼Ź”, 21 precepts expressing his views on life in general. Both keep inspiring readers from all over the world to this day, and they have established Musashi’s name as thinker and philosopher.

I already talked about the great book by Eiji Yoshikawa, who weaves a story out of legend and fact that leads up to Musashi’s duel with Kojiro Sasaki. I can still recommend it if you want to delve a bit further into Musashi’s life (and have a bit of fun while doing so).