Teru Teru Bozu

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These dolls were originally made by farmers as a prayer for good weather.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…

Studying Cute

Wouldn’t you have guessed – our state of emergency has been extended once more, this time until June 20. I hope this is the last time for the forseeable future. The number of active cases are decreasing, Osaka has the highest in all Japan with currently some 9500, Kyoto has 10% of that. The government is stil stubbornly holding on to the Olympics, even though many people are against it. It’s nice that the IOC is planning to get all the athletes vaccinated, but what about their whole entourage – the trainers, managers, masseurs, staff, all the journalists? If we’re getting a fifth wave in September, I hope the IOC will be kind enough to provide Japan with vaccines too…

Anyway, I don’t want to bitch too much. The weather is picking up, and it is pleasantly warm without being humid. It’s nice to take a short bicycle trip right now, and there are a few places I’d like to go and see soon. Also, despite the extended lockdown, many museums are opening up again this week, so there’s something else to do if I feel the need to get out of the house.

Speaking of something to do: I have decided to put more energy into my Kanji studying. This takes a lot of time and effort, and although I’m pretty good at pattern matching, the more difficult Chinese characters bring me to my limits… Enter the Kanji Drill workbooks. Isn’t this cute:

These are for kids in elementary school, and each workbook covers the Kanji of one grade. The above is for first grade with the 80 most basic Kanji. I know most of them already, but I still have troubles writing some of them, which is an interesting problem that plagues many Japanese as well, thanks to computers and smartphones.

These books are super cute with their characters and drawings, and they even come with stickers that your parents can award you on the bottom right hand side if you did the exercises well. I have only seen these books for elementary grades (6 years, covering 1026 Kanji). There should be similar books for secondary grade (another 6 years, 1110 Kanji), but let’s cross that bridge when I find it! It’s good to know that Japanese children get 12 years to learn the basic 2136 “Joyo Kanji”, so there’s no reason to feel bad that I’m not perfect yet.

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.

Early Onset Rainy Season

raindrops on a windowOh my, is it really tsuyu already? It’s been raining daily for a week now and people start calling this the rainy season. This would make it three weeks earlier than usual, and the earliest start of the rainy season ever recorded. It was the same with the cherry blossoms this year – everything seems to have shifted forward significantly. Well, as long as the trend doesn’t spontaneously reverse and provides us with three extra weeks of rain…

But in a way, it’s not too bad that the rainy season is that early. At this time of the year, it’s not yet very hot, so the additional humidity from the rain doesn’t make you feel uncomfortably sticky. Also, Kyoto is still under a state of emergency, which has been extended to much of the country a few days ago. The rain usually keeps people from going out, so it may also prevent a further increase of Covid infections, to date around 80,000.

So yeah, there is a silver lining even to these rain clouds…

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

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.

Wooden Statue of Sugawara-no-Michizane.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.

Painted Scroll showing the founding of Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto.

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 little stream 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!

Statue of a black cow with red bib in Kitano Tenmangu.

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…

I’m back!

My first post in 2 weeks! I had a great “holiday” at home. The three national holidays in a row provided some much needed peace and quiet, and I’m very happy to say that so far, it’s still pretty quiet since the construction next door is on a break. I’m feeling perfectly relaxed, which is wonderful.

flyer for 20 years of Sannenzaka Museum exhibition.In the last 2 weeks, I did some smaller things around my place, but mostly I spent my time reading. Not the weather was that good anyway. Unfortunately, it was also raining on Children’s Day (May 5), so I skipped the ceremony at Kifune Shrine, which I wanted to see. Oh well, there’s always next year (a dangerous thought, I know). However, I did visit my favourite museum, the Sannenzaka Museum. They specialise in Japanese arts and crafts from the Meiji and Taisho period, and I made it there just before the end of the last exhibition period. Since it is a rather small museum, they have chosen to remain open during the state of emergency, giving me some place to go.

Speaking of our state of emergency… Well, it was supposed to end yesterday, but it was not only extended until May 31, but now includes Aichi prefecture (Nagoya) as well. This is exactly what happened last year! Looking back, it’s quite hilarious how in June last year I thought that everything was over and “back to normal” already.

Even though some things are indeed more relaxed (definitely compared to last year), we should remain careful. Vaccinations go very slowly here, and Japan plans to have most elderly people vaccinated by July, which probably means that we young ones can get our shots then, finally.

Anyway, I’m back and I’m trying to stay positive and focused on what little work there is at the moment. There will be a “normal” soon. I hope I’m right this time around…

Wish Fulfilment…

Last week, on this very blog, in a comment to one of you dear readers, I vented my frustration about our Corona measures. Essentially, I said: Oh, just shut everything down already! Well, what can I say.

In the latest episode of the perennial hit series “Careful What U Wish 4”, the government has done exactly that: Kyoto, together with the neighbouring prefectures Osaka and Hyogo, is under a new lockdown, pardon me: state of emergency. Beginning last Sunday and ending, hopefully, on May 11, restaurants, bars, shopping centers, museums… are closed. And Kyoto Zoo. With more people sick in Osaka than in Tokyo (which is under lockdown too), the measure is understandable. Besides, I dare not complain again…

Well, here goes my holiday. For the last couple of weeks I was thinking of going out of town for a couple of days around Golden Week (which starts tomorrow). I didn’t want to go too far anyway, down to Nara again perhaps, or over to Otsu, more a change of scenery than a holiday, really. It’s not going to happen now. But, I have all intentions to take time off from tomorrow through next week, so that’s at least something.

There are other good news too: Just yesterday, they finished the demolition next door. The ground is level, the machines are gone, and it’s quiet again, for the first time in months! I very much hope that they will take their sweet time with the surveying before they tear everything up again and start constructions. I am pretty confident though that nothing much will happen until the end of my “home holiday”.

Yeah, I’m good, for now. Let’s hope it lasts.

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.

New Trend: Mokushoku

Today was one of the days when I fled my apartment mid-morning because of all the noise next door. (No more complaints, promised!) I went to my favourite cafe nearby to get some writing done, as usual. But I arrived to a rather unusual setting.

I did mention that we’re in another “lockdown” until May 5, right? For my dear beloved that means that there are now two more tables for two (my favourites) that you can’t sit at because of social distancing. And the huge table that dominates the room and usually sits 12 people at least, if not more (never counted pre-Corona, honestly), has now only 6 chairs left, three on each side. No wonder they had to raise the prices (2 yen per cup of “Royal Milk Tea”, but it’s ’bout the principle.) Thankfully, I did find an empty spot, but on the table was a notice like this one:

(I recreated this at home because no smartphone to take pictures… but I carefully took down all the kanji and even tried to match the colors.) It says:

Silent Meal

Please cooperate with the silent meal. Conversations with meals pose a risk of infection. We recommend “silent meals” to prevent infection. Separate “conversation” and “meal” and refrain from “conversation without mask”.

Well, that’s definitely a new one! And it’s hilarious. Just think about it: How is it possible that speaking while having a meal is a bigger infection risk than a conversation without food? How much open mouthed do you need to eat to make this possible? And how come that if you’re such a sloppy eater you still have people who’d want to go out for lunch with you?

I can see this with babies, toddlers even, but this is not a daycare for kids. It’s a cafe for adults who like to step out every now and then and have a coffee and catch up with the papers. And most people who are coming are doing so alone because they study or read – I mean, that’s the whole point of a quiet book cafe… The mind boggles. I’m seriously wondering what else they’re coming up with next.