Saturday, December 27, 2008

Typical Japanese Drinks

Despite the invasion of American sodas, there are still quite a lot of native non-alcoholic beverages - some of them very healthy - doing the rounds in Japan, for example:

We start with a purely nostalgic product. The carbonated soft drink Ramune (from "Lemonade") was first brought market in Kobe by Alexander Cameron Sim (1840-1900), a Scottish pharmacist. Although Ramune rather tastes like an ordinary soda, it is the "Victorian" glass bottle that makes it interesting. Called a Codd-neck bottle after its inventor Hiram Codd, when you buy it the bottle is sealed with a glass marble. The marble pushes against a plastic (in the past rubber) gasket/washer at the top of the neck and is held in place by the pressure of the carbon in the drink. You have to open it by pushing the marble inward with a plastic pin which sits in the cap of the bottle. The marble falls into the neck of the bottle which has been formed into a special shape so that the marble remains there and nicely rattles round when you are pouring. Ramune therefore was popular with children in Japan and reminds people here nostalgically of summer festivals and childhood. It is a symbol of summer.

Ramune is a rarity, but Calpis can be found in every street corner convenience store and supermarket in Japan. For obvious reasons called "Calpico" in English speaking countries, Calpis combines the "cal" from calcium with "pis" from the Sanskrit "sarpis" (butter flavor). It has a somewhat milky and slightly acidic flavor, thanks to the fact that it includes nonfat dry milk and lactic acid, and is produced by lactic acid fermentation. It was first brought to market in 1919 and quickly became popular. The idea for Calpis was born when the founder of the Calpis company, Mishima Kaiun, traveled in Inner Mongolia and came across a traditional cultured milk product called "airag," which also contained natural lactic acid. Nowadays there are various variants of the drink, including a Calpis Soda and Calpis with different fruit tastes.

Although not a soft drink but a health drink (reason why it is marketed in mini portions), Yakult should not be left out as this Japanese product is not only available everywhere in Japan, but has also conquered worldwide markets. It is a probiotic dairy product made by fermenting a mixture of skimmed milk with a special strain of the bacterium Lactobacillus casei Shirota. The Yakult drink was created in 1935 by scientist Shirota Minoru. The name "yakult" was derived from "jahurto," which is Esperanto for "yogurt" (although Yakult in fact is not a yogurt).

Like Calpis, another not very happily named popular drink is the non-carbonated
sports drink Pocari Sweat, which was brought to market in 1980 by Otsuka Pharmaceutical. It was so named when it was developed (originally for the Japanese market alone) as it has the function of supplying water and ions (electrolytes) which are lost during transpiration, for example during sports or otherwise in the hot and humid Japanese summer. It is also good after a hot bath, or first thing in the morning. As it approximates the electrolyte concentration in the human body, it is quickly absorbed.

Another well-known drink sold by Otsuka Pharmaceutical is the health drink Oronamin C. This carbonated health drink is sold in characteristic small glass bottles and contains isoleucine and other essential amino acids as well as vitamins such as vitamin B2, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

The language of Kyoto (Kyo-kotoba)

The language spoken by the inhabitants of Kyoto.... Don't make the mistake of calling it a "dialect" - the language of Kyoto has for centuries been the norm in Japan and Kyotoites are proud of their heritage!

Its roots are in the language of the court and the aristocracy, as well as the townspeople - the traders and craftspeople (including the Nishijin weavers) who catered to the upper classes, and copied their language, plus the elegant geisha towns. Kyoto language is soft and elegant, consonants are long drawn out and the speed is slow. Often circumlocutions are used. It is a somewhat feminine language.

[The river Kamogawa in Kyoto]

Roji becomes "rooji," itta "yuutta" and takaku "takoo." "Hon wo motte kite kudasai" (please bring the book) becomes "hon wo motte kite moraehen yaro ka?"

The language is also very polite, and therefore quite vague. It is full of subtle nuances and often you do not know whether something positive or negative has been said. People can criticize by praising.

Here are some typical Kyoto expressions:

standard-Japanese irassharu (polite verb "to be") becomes "iharu" in the language of Kyoto

inai (normal and negative form of "to be") becomes "iihin" or even better "iyarahen"

irasshaimase (welcome) becomes "oideyasu" or, even more polite (only in case of people one knows well), "okoshiyasu"

shitsurei shimasu (pardon me) becomes "gomenyasu"

kutabirete iru (to be very tired) becomes "shindoi"

tamago (egg) becomes "ninuki"

ocha (tea) becomes "bubu" (both of these I have never heard from my Kyoto family, certainly not "bubu" for ocha)

hotto suru (to be relieved) becomes "hokkori"

nenaide itsu mademo okite iru (not getting sleepy, although it is late) becomes "me ga katai" lit. "the eyes are stiff"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Day of Sake and the Sake Year

Today, October 1, is the "Day of Sake." On this day, the new sake year starts for breweries. Japan's premium sake makers, who follow tradition by only brewing in winter, wake up from their long summer slumber. The low temperatures in winter make that there are less harmful microbes around (after all, the fermentation tanks are open!) and they also make it possible to control the brewing process better. Brewing is all about temperature control.

In October the seasonal workers, including the top man, the toji or master brewer, return to the brewery and start cleaning the vats and all the implements. The new sake rice has by now been harvested and rice polishing can begin.

Every brewery has a Shinto altar dedicated to Matsuo-sama, the patron-deity of sake brewing, from the large Matsuo Taisha Shrine in western Kyoto. Here a prayer is said for safety and success in brewing before any real work starts.

[Koji spores being sprinkled on steamed rice at the Daishichi Sake Brewery]

The first job is to steam some rice, make a small batch of koji and then fill the yeast starter (shubo) with that koji, with more steamed rice, water and lactic acid (to create a suitably sour environment in which the yeast can grow without interference from other microbes). When two weeks later a very strong and pure yeast has been cultivated, the first fermentation tank is filled with the yeast starter, more steamed rice, koji and water. This is added in three stages in order not to smother the yeast starter in the large tank.

Usually first some non-premium sake, or the simpler honjozo, is brewed. The most difficult processes, for the ginjo sakes, usually have to wait until the coldest time of the sake year, January and February.

The first sake brewed in December, is ready in January. When that sake is pressed, many breweries hang up a sakabayashi, a ball made from cedar twigs. Traditionally, these balls are provided by the Miwa Shrine in Nara, another Shinto establishment deeply involved in sake matters. The balls used to come from the sacred woods of the shrine, but I doubt that still is the case.

For New Year, breweries sell specially bottled New Year sake, sometimes with a few gold flakes added to the brew. Nigori-sake, "cloudy" sake or sake that has not been finely sieved and therefore still contains some particles of rice, is also popular at this time.

[Yamaoroshi process for making the Kimoto yeast starter at the Daishichi Sake Brewery]

Many months of hard work continue (sake brewing also goes on during the New Year holidays) and then, finally, in March the last rice for the last batch of sake is steamed. This is celebrated in a short ceremony, koshiki-taoshi, where the steaming vat, the koshiki, is turned on its side to be cleaned. All brewery workers are releaved their hard task is almost over and a party is held. The next month, the last brewed sake is pasteurized and with the rest of the sake from this winter, stored as genshu in the storage tanks of the brewery to mature during the summer. This is the time the master brewer and the other seasonal workers leave the brewery.

Not all sake is pasteurized and today it is common to sell part of the genshu in spring as unpasteurized, un-matured sake. This sake is called "hatsushibori" (first pressing); you also come across the term "shinshu" (new sake"). This type of sake has a young brashness and freshness that makes up for the slight rawness of the taste. Unpasteurized, it is of course drunk cold and has to be handled with care.

During the next months, as spring turns into summer, more unpasteurized sake is sold as  "namazake", which means that it is indeed a bit "raw". Drunk cold, this is a popular and refreshing  summer drink.

July is the time for "hatsunomikiri," a day when the toji returns to taste the maturing sake and check on its progress. "Hatsu" means "first" and "nomikiri" means "opening the tap" at the bottom of each tank to do the tasting. Now such tastings are complimented by monthly chemical analysis of the contents of the tank, to check in detail on the state of the precious genshu.

Then autumn comes along and the properly matured sake is now once again pasteurized, bottled and finally sold. Again a small amount of the sake is not pasteurized for this second time, but sold directly from the maturing tanks as "hiya-oroshi," the sake sold when the weather gets colder so that a second pasteurization is not asolutely necessary. At least, that was the case in the Edo-period. The hiya-oroshi season is still in full swing when the sake year ends and a new year comes along. Compared to the Shiboritate sake mentioned above, Hiya-oroshi is milder and rounder, thanks to the maturing process, but still keeps a greater freshness because of skipping the second pasteurization. Kampai!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Waiting on the Weather by Nogami Teruyo

Nogami Teruyo was the script supervisor and loyal assistant of Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998). This extraordinary women was at his side from the filming of Rashomon on to the very last. She wrote some of her personal memories down after Kurosawa's death for the Japanese magazine Cinema Club - she could not have done this while Kurosawa was still alive, as he would have told her, she says, "You've got it all wrong!"

That was in the mid-nineties, and the Japanese pieces were published in book form in 2000. Thanks to an initiative of Donald Richie (who also wrote an introduction) this English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter was published two years ago by Stone Bridge Press. As is usual for Stone Bridge, it is a beautiful book, with illustrations by the author.

[Kurosawa in 1953]

To be sure, this is not a biography or a full analysis of Kurosawa's films. It is an intimate human record in which we get glimpses of the genius director and the way he worked. After a first chapter on Itami Mansaku, a director Nogami Teruyo never met but corresponded with as a schoolgirl and who inspired love for film in her (later Ms Nogami would take care of one the sons, Itami Juzo, when he was a young boy) and a chapter on the Daiei Kyoto studios where she started working just after the war, the story about Kurosawa kicks in with Rashomon (1951).

We see the then 40-year old director energetically working with his team. At that time, he was already the perfectionist he would always be. The most interesting episode is how they used to carry around mirrors to reflect the sun while filming in the woods - indeed, the contrasts between black and white in Rashomon are perfect. Fascinating is also the episode about the sudden fire in the Daiei studios where quick action miraculously saved the negatives of Rashomon.

What we get from this book is how different film making was before the invention of CGI. That was "waiting for the weather" - not only waiting hours and hours for sunshine, but also waiting for a particular cloud to move into just the right spot above the roof of a building. When filming the village in The Seven Samurai in the setting sun with the seven samurai in profile in the foreground, the cameraman waited just a few seconds too long, so they had to do it all over again the next day. The ants marching in formation over the ground in Rhapsody in August were real ants and a lot of "ant study" went into that scene. The same is true for the crows that fly up at the end of the Van Gogh episode in Dreams. The film team had to catch actual crows, put them in small cages and open the cages at just the right moment. No wonder Kurosawa took months, and even years, making his films, while Miike Takashi finishes off one flick a week...

Kurosawa ruled his team like an "emperor," and could have fits of terrible anger. He and the people around him had an especially hard time when filming Dersu Urzala under the most primitive circumstances in Siberia. In the course of the filming, Kurosawa went from one bottle of vodka a day, to two bottles. Kurosawa worked well with people who had lesser egos, such as Mifune Toshiro, who despite his macho roles was a rather shy man - a pity Kurosawa dropped him after filming Red Beard, just because he had enough of his style of acting.

Katsu Shintaro originally was to be the lead actor in Kagemusha, but the swaggering, rough-and ready actor immediately clashed with the precise and perfectionist Kurosawa - their relation just lasted one day, the second morning Katsu left in a huff and was replaced with Nakadai Tatsuya. This episode reads like slapstick, but the quarrels with Takemitsu Toru were more serious. Takemitsu, who wrote the music for Ran, was Japan's most important composer of the twentieth century and of course had a great sense of artistic integrity. He did not allow Kurosawa (who, as "emperor" wanted to have his say in every small detail!) to meddle with the music he made. Takemitsu got his way but with much difficulty and never worked with Kurosawa again. On the contrary, he made a pointed remark about the group around Kurosawa who just acted as yes-men and never dared to differ in opinion (in this, he also included Nogami Teruyo): "It's all the fault of the people around Kurosawa!"

But Nogami certainly is no flatterer, she openly shows us the great director in his many moods, also the nasty ones. Her book is a treasure of stories and in the end we only would like to have had more.

Kurosawa left a great number of perfect fims behind. The result of reading this book is that I want to see those films again... perhaps I will start with Rashomon...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kaleidoscope, selected tanka of Shuji Terayama

Terayama Shuji (1935-1983) was Japan's infant-terrible of the sixties of the last century. Genius, avant-gardist, iconoclast, photographer, director, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, cultural critic and poet. In his time, his work incited scandal and outrage. Today, he is a cult hero. In his all-too short life, he wrote 200 literary works and made 20 short and long experimental films (the most famous is Denen ni shinisu or "Pastoral: To die in the country"). Terayama was obsessed with the borders between fiction and reality.

Although best known as a playwright (see for some translations and an analysis Unspeakable Acts listed below), Terayama was also an excellent poet. He started writing tanka in his teens and even won an award for emerging tanka poets. His tanka are unique in that they are not based on his own experience, but should be seen as fiction, as scenes from a play or a film. He did have complex emotions, however, as he was an only child whose father had not returned from the war, and whose mother - he claimed - had abandoned him. He grew up with family in Aomori and as his uncle owned a movie theater, he saw countless films until he moved to Tokyo in 1954.

Terayama's first tanka collection was published in 1958, when he was 22. After his third collection, published in 1964, he switched definitively to the theater - in 1967 he set up his own experimental theater company. His films and theater productions went on to win several international prizes.

The Hokuseido Press has published a beautiful book with 201 translations of Terayama's tanka poems. They have been expertly translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden and both Japanese and English versions are included in the book. It is a lavishly illustrated publication. (The Hokuseido Press is a publisher of language text books. In the past, they have also published the haiku books by R.H. Blyth, a series I would like to see in print again!).

To give an impression of Terayama's haiku, here are a few characteristic ones from Kaleidoscope:
I come to believe after all
I look like
my dead father,
shaving my face
on the day swallows appear

[naki chichi ni | kakute nite-yuku | ware naran ka | tsubame kuru hi mo | hige sorinagara]

let's sever
my stinky blood relationship
the winter axe is placed
upside down
in a sunny spot

[namagusaki | ketsuen tatan | hiatari ni | sakasa ni tatete aru | fuyu no ono]

on my wall I stick
the corpse of a winter butterfly -
this should be
the family crest
of a deserted child

[waga hei ni | fuyu-choo no kabane wo | haritsukete | sutego-kakei no | mon to suru beshi]

Kaleidoscope was published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Terayama's death. These forceful tanka are warmly recommended to all poetry lovers.
Kaleidoscope, Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama, selected by Kozue Uzawa, translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden (The Hokuseido Press, 3-32-4 Honkomagome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 2008). Unfortunately, the book is not listed on Amazon, so I give full contact details for the publisher. I found  my copy in the foreign books section of Junkudo in Temmabashi, Osaka.

Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji And Postwar Japan by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei (Hawaii University Press, 2005)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Inoue Yasushi

When I studied at Nanjing University in 1979-80, at one time the university organized a trip to a nearby city, Yangzhou. I think it was in the early spring of 1980. Especially the Japanese students (three "Mitsubishi boys", young salarymen from the large trading company studying Chinese for a posting to China) were told to join as this was supposed to be a special China-Japan friendship event. Interested foreign students were herded into a white minibus and off we were, transported to Yangzhou over an only partially finished highway. We stopped at the Damingsi Temple and joined the huge crowd of Chinese streaming inside. Finally, we reached a Memorial Hall, and inside we found a small but very fine statue of a blind monk, Jianzhen... and then we were pushed outside again by the surging crowd. The statue was on loan from a  temple in Japan.

[Toshodaiji temple in Nara]

It was only a few years later, after coming to Japan and visiting Toshodaiji in Nara, the temple of the statue, that I realized the importance of this event. Jianzhen (688-763), called Ganjin in Japan, was a Chinese priest who after many hardships had managed to journey to Japan to establish an orthodox Buddhist lineage in that country and introduce the correct monastic rules. Toshodaiji was the temple the Japanese government built for him, and the statue I saw in China was a life-like image, made just after his death (in Toshodaiji, it is not normally on view). One can also visit Jianzhen's grave in Toshodaiji. Since then, I have repeatedly visited Toshodaiji, which is one of the most beautiful temples of Nara. The original 8th c. Golden Hall still exists, as does the wonderful set of wooden statues carved by the Chinese artisans who followed Ganjin to Japan.

It was again a year or five later that I first read The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Inoue Yasushi. This historical novel, written in 1958, is a faithful account of Ganjin's tribulations, based on the The Record of the Eastward Journey of the Great Monk of Tang by one of Ganjin's disciples. There is little plot and no drama in this understated novel, but it is imbued with a sense of Buddhist serenity and resignation. Although emotions are kept in check, there is a strong sense of determination in the hearts of the protagonists, both the young monks from Japan who come to China for study and the venerable master Ganjin, who does not give up his endeavor to reach Japan and spread orthodoxy.

The “Tempyo” in the title is the name for an era (729-749) when Japan was engaged in her first attempt to acquire the culture of a more advanced civilization, the Tang empire of China. The young monks who make the dangerous journey to China with one of the Japanese embassies sent in that period, experience this first hand. Some “go native,” others long so much for Japan that they are of no use anymore, but most of them, especially Fusho and Yoei, try to do something that will benefit their country – in this case, bringing back a Vinaya master like Ganjin. Another one, Gogyo, devotes his life to copying a whole library of books still unknown in Japan. The only pathos in the novel is that these scrolls are eventually lost at sea, showing the futility of individual human endeavors.

Why was it important to bring “Vinaya-master” Ganjin to Japan? Because the orthodox transmission of the Law in Buddhism is from master to disciple. That disciple, after passing his tests, is then officially ordinated on an ordination platform, where a certain number of officially ordinated elder priests (three masters and seven attestors) has to be present. By bringing Ganjin with a number of his already ordained followers to Japan, the “orthodox transmission” of Buddhism was finally established on Japanese soil.

[Ganjin's grave in Toshodaiji]

The determination Ganjin shows is most impressive. In the eleven years from 743 to 754, Ganjin attempted some six times to travel to Japan. Five times, he is thwarted by unfavorable weather conditions and government intervention (the Chinese at first did not want this important monk to leave). In 748, during the fifth attempt, the ship is blown so far off course that Ganjin lands in Hainan. This journey alone, including the long trek back to Yangzhou, takes a full three years and costs Ganjin his eyesight due to an infection.

In 753 at long last an official Japanese embassy again visits China, and Ganjin now can travel with this group. They land in Kyushu and in 754 arrive in the Japanese capital of Nara, where they are welcomed by the Emperor. A large ordination platform is built at Todaiji and thus, finally, takes place the orthodox transmission of Buddhism to Japan.

Through skillful linking Inoue brings many of the renowned figures of the age on the stage. These are, for example, Abe no Nakamaro, the Japanese poet and scholar who lived most of his life at the court of the Chinese emperor, and Yang Guifei, the most celebrated beauty in Chinese history, who met a tragic fate.

By the way, the "roof tile" of the title is a shibi, an end tile in the form of a mythical sea monster. This tile is sent from China to Fusho after his return - he does not even know by whom. He has the tile installed on Toshodaiji and so it becomes a symbol of the spread of Buddhism from China to Japan.

Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991) was a prolific writer active in many genres: short stories, novels both modern and historical, essays, travel writing and poetry. He wrote more historical fiction about China, such as Confucius and Dunhuang. The Blue Wolf is about Kublai Khan. Fine are also short stories as Loulan. He started his career by winning the Akutagawa prize in 1950 with The Bull Fight.

I feel close to this story because I am interested in both China and Japan, so I like to see cultural bridges built as this novel by Inoue Yasushi has done. And I was once a student too in China, although only for one year and under very different circumstances, but it is easy for me to imagine the wonder with which Fusho and the other Japanese beheld this vast and wonderful country...

P.S. By the way, the first account by a Japanese about China was The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law by Ennin, a Japanese priest from Enryakuji on Mt Hiei who traveled through China from 838 to 847. His travel diary has been translated by Edwin O. Reischauer under the title Ennin's Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law (Ronald Press, New York: 1955). Ennin did not write about his personal impressions, but rather gives a factual account of religious matters and Chinese life under the later Tang Dynasty. His diary has been called a good source on the practice of popular Buddhism in China.
The Roof Tile of Tempyo by Yasushi Inoue, translated by James T. Araki (University of Tokyo Press, 1981)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ten ways to beat natsubate, summer fatigue

When you have noticed my slow speed of posting these days, you may also have guessed what is the matter: I am fighting Natsubate, "summer fatigue"... My body feels like a piece of lead, and my head is troubled by a persistent cloud of sleepiness...


I am therefore employing several shrewd tricks from the Japanese summer fatigue trick book, and below I would like to share a few that are actually quite effective:

  1. Avoid large temperature changes. Stepping out of a coldly air conditioned room or car into the sweltering summer heat, hits you like a hammer. Such sudden temperature changes are very tiring, as your body needs all energy to adjust. Put the aircon a few degrees lower (in Japan, 28 degrees is now quite common), so that the temperature difference ideally is not more than five degrees...
  2. Sleep cool. The heat makes it difficult to enjoy a good, refreshing sleep. Turn on the aircon before you go to bed to chill your room, and use the timer to stop it after an hour or so.
    Why? Sleeping with a strong aircon on can give you a severe cold - I got one during my first airconditioned summer in Japan, and it took me three weeks to recover.
  3. Drink cool (and frequently). The traditional Japanese summer drink is cold roasted barley tea (mugi-cha), and it is one of my favorites. But there many other types of cold teas as well: cold green tea, cold oolong... the most economical (and tasty) way is to make them yourself in a glass or plastic container in your refrigerator. Another refreshing summer drink is cold sake, especially of the type called nama genshu (undilutued, unblended, rather raw sake which explodes in your mouth like a fireworks). You can also try sake ice!
  4. Eat cool and light. Cold noodles are always excellent in Japanese summers (somen, zaru-soba or reimen), or try the age-old fatigue-killer, the mighty eel (unagi).
    Eel is expensive nowadays, but you don't have to make a full meal of it, a small piece of unagi is a delicious side-dish with cold noodles.
    That being said, king of summer vegetables is the Okinawan bitter gourd goya, full of vitamin C, usually eaten as goya champuru, a stir-fry consisting of slices of the bitter gourd with tofu, egg, pork, and other ingredients.
  5. Enjoy cool fruit. The king of summer fruit in japan is the the juicy suika, water melon. When asked what they like best about summer, many Japanese will mention this fresh fruit. It is also healthy thanks to the minerals it contains. Some special types of melons fetch unbelievable prices, but the normal supermarket variety is exquisitely affordable. My personal fruity favorites, by the way, are the small and sweet Japanese grapes, which in summer become available for a reasonable price.
  6. Dress cool. Do as the Japanese: keep your suit and tie in the office and commute in your shirt. When I give a lecture or training, I must wear a suit, but I carry the jacket and tie in a special bag and only put them on after I arrive.
    At home and in your neighborhood, try a yukata or "retro-chic" Buddhist samue work clothes - they also come with short pants. And don't forget to carry a fan!
  7. Listen to coolness. The sound of coolness is the furin, the windbell made of either metal or glass. Hang it in a window or on your balcony and enjoy its tinkling sound when struck by the slightest breeze.
    Of course, you have to open the window and stop the aircon - which also enables you to enjoy another Japanese summer phenomenon, the semi or cicadas and their all-penetrating, shrieking sound... For me, cicadas are symbolic for summer in Japan. 
  8. Smell coolness. The Japanese burn spiral-shaped incense coils (katori-senko) in summer to chase away the mosquitoes. It is a very nostalgic smell. Buy a nice stand for your green coil and put it in a corner of your room or on the veranda (it is quite strong, so take care not to inhale too much - you can also extinguish it now and then). By the way, I prefer temple incense for a nice fragrance in my room.
  9. Get the shivers. Traditionally, August is the month to see a ghostly Kabuki play, or watch horror movies. Select a real good shocker that gives you literally the shivers - this is more effective than the strongest aircon! Kwaidan is a good one, as is Yotsuya kaidan - see my post about the Best Japanese Horror Films!
  10. Take it easy. The speed in Japan can sometimes be frenetic, but in summer everyone changes to a lower gear. Is that why I sometimes even like Japanese summers?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Climbing Skull Mountain (A Fragment by Lafcadio Hearn)

Recently, I came across this short story Lafcadio Hearn which he calls "A Fragment" (from In Ghostly Japan). As a Buddhist look at life, it is worth quoting in full:
And it was at the hour of sunset that they came to the foot of the mountain. There was in that place no sign of life,--neither token of water, nor trace of plant, nor shadow of flying bird,-- nothing but desolation rising to desolation. And the summit was lost in heaven.

Then the Bodhisattva said to his young companion:--"What you have asked to see will be shown to you. But the place of the Vision is far; and the way is rude. Follow after me, and do not fear: strength will be given you."

Twilight gloomed about them as they climbed. There was no beaten path, nor any mark of former human visitation; and the way was over an endless heaping of tumbled fragments that rolled or turned beneath the foot. Sometimes a mass dislodged would clatter down with hollow echoings; --sometimes the substance trodden would burst like an empty shell.... Stars pointed and thrilled; and the darkness deepened.

"Do not fear, my son," said the Bodhisattva, guiding: "danger there is none, though the way be grim."

Under the stars they climbed,--fast, fast,--mounting by help of power superhuman. High zones of mist they passed; and they saw below them, ever widening as they climbed, a soundless flood of cloud, like the tide of a milky sea.

Hour after hour they climbed;--and forms invisible yielded to their tread with dull soft crashings;--and faint cold fires lighted and died at every breaking.

And once the pilgrim-youth laid hand on a something smooth that was not stone,--and lifted it,--and dimly saw the cheekless gibe of death.

"Linger not thus, my son!" urged the voice of the teacher;--"the summit that we must gain is very far away!"

On through the dark they climbed,--and felt continually beneath them the soft strange reakings,--and saw the icy fires worm and die,--till the rim of the night turned grey, and the stars began to fail, and the east began to bloom.

Yet still they climbed,--fast, fast,--mounting by help of power superhuman. About them now was frigidness of death,--and silence tremendous....A gold flame kindled in the east.

Then first to the pilgrim's gaze the steeps revealed their nakedness;--and a trembling seized him,--and a ghastly fear. For there was not any ground,--neither beneath him nor about him nor above him,--but a heaping only, monstrous and measureless, of skulls and fragments of skulls and dust of bone,--with a shimmer of shed teeth strown through the drift of it, like the shimmer of scrags of shell in the wrack of a tide.

"Do not fear, my son!" cried the voice of the Bodhisattva;--"only the strong of heart can win to the place of the Vision!"

Behind them the world had vanished. Nothing remained but the clouds beneath, and the sky above, and the heaping of skulls between,--up-slanting out of sight.

Then the sun climbed with the climbers; and there was no warmth in the light of him, but coldness sharp as a sword. And the horror of stupendous height, and the nightmare of stupendous depth, and the terror of silence, ever grew and grew, and weighed upon the pilgrim, and held his feet,--so that suddenly all power departed from him, and he moaned like a sleeper in dreams.

"Hasten, hasten, my son!" cried the Bodhisattva: "the day is brief, and the summit is very far away."

But the pilgrim shrieked,--"I fear! I fear unspeakably!--and the power has departed from me!"

"The power will return, my son," made answer the Bodhisattva.... "Look now below you and above you and about you, and tell me what you see."

"I cannot," cried the pilgrim, trembling and clinging; "I dare not look beneath! Before me and about me there is nothing but skulls of men."

"And yet, my son," said the Bodhisattva, laughing softly,--"and yet you do not know of what this mountain is made."

The other, shuddering, repeated:--"I fear!--unutterably I fear!...there is nothing but skulls of men!"

[Skull from The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein]

"A mountain of skulls it is," responded the Bodhisattva. "But know, my son, that all of them ARE YOUR OWN! Each has at some time been the nest of your dreams and delusions and desires. Not even one of them is the skull of any other being. All,--all without exception,--have been yours, in the billions of your former lives."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Inland Sea by Donald Richie

My copy of The Inland Sea, the great travel book by Donald Richie, is dated 1978 (the book was originally published in 1971), a big, sturdy paperback by Weatherhill, a small and excellent publishing firm that unfortunately went under - it was taken over by Shambala in 2004. So I must have bought the book when I was studying in Kyoto in the early eighties. I first read it after my return to Holland a few years later and it filled me with an immense desire to go back to Japan again. I wanted to make the same trip as Richie, like him, I wanted to live and work in Japan.

Happily, I managed to return to Japan very soon after that, and I did indeed visit many of the places on the beautiful Inland Sea Richie describes so masterfully, although I never had the time to make the whole tour.


Richie toured "The Inland Sea" already way back in 1962, as he tells in an informative afterword (unfortunately not included in the latest edition by Stone Bridge Press). Rather than a step-by-step account of a real trip, the book is an amalgam of elements from various trips, some also not Inland Sea related (although it is not possible to tell which these are). Besides that, Richie reflects on Japanese culture, in which he sees himself as an perennial outsider, and on his own life (a marriage on the verge of breaking up).
“Wherever one turns there is a wide and restful view, one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next until the last dim outline is lost in the distance.”
Richie therefore speaks about "travel fiction," but are not all great travel books like that? A day to day account would only be boring - a great story is a summary of various experiences, a writer has the license to change small details in the pursuit of a greater truth.

[Ferry between Takamatsu and Naoshima]

What strikes is that even at this early time (seen from my perspective) Richie already laments the loss of the beauty of the Japanese landscape due to modernization. And that, while I always felt jealous of people like Richie who could live in Japan in 1950 or 1960 instead of the 1980s!
"New Japan does not like trees. Its totem is the bulldozer."
On the other hand, isn't this nostalgia for a pristine Japan, both landscape and man unsullied by modernity, typical of us, Westerners? Is it because even unconsciously we have an image of an exotic East on our retina? Or is it that Japan, like a great mirror (as Richie concludes), forces us to question our own culture and ourselves in this way?

Richie travels from Himeji to Hiroshima, crisscrossing the Inland sea and landing at Uno, Onomichi and Kure on Honshu, and Takamatsu, Sakaide and Imabari/Matsuyama on Shikoku. The islands he visits include Iejima, Shodoshima, Naoshima, Omishima, and many smaller ones. His means of transport is the ferryboat, slowly weaving its way between the islands and the port cities.
"I hear they are building a bridge
To the island of Tsu.
To what now
Shall I compare myself?"
(old Japanese poem, cited at the start of The Inland Sea)

No, modernity certainly has not passed the Inland Sea by. There are today three bridges linking Shikoku with Honshu via the Inland Sea (happily the ferries also still exist, as they are much cheaper than the toll bridges). Shikoku is no longer far away, Sakaide and Takamatsu, and also Matsuyama are now only a short train or bus trip from Kobe, Okayama or Hiroshima. The islands have been domesticated. And alas, more than in Richie's time, the shores of the sea have been plastered with heavy industry. The area now also shares in the general problem of Japan's countryside: the graying of the population, and the exodus of what remains of young people to the big cities.

And despite all that, the Inland Sea remains one of the most beautiful parts of Japan! Some of these places have become my firm favorites. Onomichi for example, of which Richie only describes the seamy and the touristy aspects. In fact, there is a beautiful temple town, stretching from "National Treasure" temple Jodoji to Senkoji. Onomichi with its many staircases and narrow alleys has a real old-time fascination. I also love Naoshima, where Richie met a beautiful local girl, fantasizing about what the future will have in store for her. Well, perhaps she is now working for the Benesse Group, which has asked Ando Tadao to build two avant-garde art museums on the island. The old village, too, as been transformed - old houses have become art house projects - things can also change for the better in Japan!
"A journey is always something of a flight."
[Onomichi (Mukojima)]

Takamatsu is another favorite, with its spacious parks, broad shopping arcades and the sight of beautiful, green Yashima from over the port. Or Tomonoura, which probably still looks as quaint as when Richie visited it. Or Omishima, with its shrine museum, the largest dump of classical arms and armor in Japan, where old suits of armor sit in bleak light, like so many ghostly apparitions...

Richie is the ideal observer, the favorite guide: knowledgeable about Japan (he has already lived there for a long time when he makes the trip), but still curious. He is detached, but also romantically involved, sometimes irritated and lonely, but always honest about himself. When he visits a leper colony on one of the islands he writes with compassion about a girl who has been cured but can never return to cruel Japanese society, because of the stigma that will always cling to her, ruining prospects for her brother's career and marriage, making her an outcast from her own family. And the next moment he will be off on long ruminations about such esoteric subjects as the art of belt buckles or the particular beauty of Japanese skin.
"The mist rose like a curtain, obscured the mountain, revealed the beach, the pier, the three girls. They looked like small children, small on the black pier, the black mountains behind them. The sun lifted itself above the mountains, flying. The rising mist turned gold. The entire island floated large on the sea like a mirror. The girls were gone, swallowed into the morning."
[View from Yashima, Takamatsu]

Richie's travels do confirm his love for Japan - the landscape, the people. That last facet can even be taken literally, for Richie writes openly about his erotic adventures in this travelogue - such as with a prostitute in Onomichi who keeps reciting Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In this port town he also visits a strip show, but - despite being a historian of Japanese film - writes no word on Ozu, whose Tokyo Story starts and ends here, with beautiful nostalgic shots.

By the way, my edition of the book carries equally nostalgic shots in the form of the black-and-white photography of Midorikawa Yoichi. These pictures somehow reminded me of the film Naked Island by Kaneto Shindo...
"I don't care if I never go home." (Donald Richie, The Inland Sea)
Richie has written many other books on Japan: his Hundred Years of Japanese Film; The Films of Akira Kurosawa; Ozu, His Life and Films; Japanese Portraits; The Image Factory; his collected reviews of Japanese literature; and his Japan Journals... but The Inland Sea stands out as his sublime masterwork, a pinnacle of travel fiction, a book readers who love Japan will always be coming back to.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide by Gouverneur Mosher

It seems to be out of print now, but perhaps it will bounce back as it has done so many times since it was first published in 1964: Gouverneur Mosher's Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide. This was my first guide to Kyoto when I arrived there as foreign exchange student of Kyoto University in 1982. There were very few guidebooks at that time (no Lonely Planet, no Rough Guide, no Gateway to Japan!) and Mosher's book stood out because of its high quality. I devoured the book and enthusiastically visited all the places he describes, even little Shinsen-en, the pond that is a small remnant of the original Heian palace gardens. I fell in love with Kyoto.
"I first came to Sakamoto on a quiet, mid-winter morning whose low sun was badly weakened by the haze over Lake Biwa." (Mosher on Enryakuji)

Since then, I have read the book several times from cover to cover, for it is more than a guide: the first half of the book is a short history of Kyoto, told imaginatively around the temples Mosher wants to introduce (and although there are now other popular histories of Kyoto that reflect recent scholarship, as John Dougill's excellent Kyoto, A Cultural History, I remain fond of Mosher's Kyoto). The second part contains detailed descriptions of these temples, with loving attention to art works; and the (shortest) third part is a travel guide, the only part of the book now outdated as Kyoto has changed much and tourism also. One nice point here is Mosher's advocacy of Kyoto's streetcar system, an elegant traffic solution much better than the stinking cars and buses that now clog the streets of the Old Capital.
"Here, in the depths of the mountaintop, is Saicho's tomb, standing alone with graceful dignity in a quiet, hidden hollow." (Mosher on Enryakuji)
Mosher delves into Kyoto's rich history, not only with contemplation, but also a sense of sadness at the list of cruelties and follies that human history inevitably is. He writes about the mighty monastery that Enryakuji on Mt Hiei once was, before Nobunaga crushed the power of the monks, and also about the rise of Amida Buddhism in Sanzenin in Ohara. The great Fujiwara clan is treated in the chapter on Byodoin, the Phoenix Hall in Uji.
"Truly, this is a building with wings, lighter than the air in which it floats [...] He (the Buddha Amida) is there inside this magical, floating building, looking in upon himself." (Mosher on Byodoin)
In Jakkoin, also in Ohara, he meditates on the fall of the Taira family. Chapter Seven, Anrakuji and Honenin, tells about the early persecution of Pure Land Buddhism. The Zen sect is treated in the chapter in Daitokuji. Ginkakuji serves to highlight the (mis-)rule of the Ashikaga clan, in Ryoanji he meditates upon the terrible Onin war and the destruction of virtually the whole of Kyoto. In Daigoji and Sanboin Mosher tells about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nijo Castle serves as a stage for the story of the Tokugawa.
"It is said that Nijo's garden was originally laid out without trees so that the shogun would not be saddened by the sight of the passing seasons." (Mosher on Nijo Castle)
Nice is also the inclusion of Nijo Jinya, an inn with anti-ninja trappings for feudal lords, south of Nijo castle. He rounds off with Kiyomizudera, as the "All-Time Temple", although historically it should have come at the beginning of the book, for it preceded the founding of Kyoto.
"A deep ravine that works in through densely overgrown hills crowding close on all sides. On the slope... sits the little Tendai nunnery called Jakko-in." (Mosher on Jakko-in)
As Mosher admits in his preface, he had to leave out many great temples for reasons of space: Nishi-Honganji, Chionin, Nanzenin, Tenryuji... He also leaves out the Shinto shrines, something he justifies by saying that Kyoto was a city dominated by Buddhism. That may be true, but Shinto (either allied with Buddhism in joint facilities like Gion/Yasaka or not) still played an important role - read the Genji Monogatari and you realize the popularity of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines and their festival. The Matsuo shrine played an important role in sake brewing, the Inari shrine predated the founding of the city.
"The old housekeeper at Anrakuji welcomes the rare visitor to her temple enthusiastically, for she has a fine story to tell, and the opportunity to tell it comes seldom indeed." (Mosher on Anrakuji)
The better the book, the more you miss temples that have not been included. I miss my favorite Shisendo, which Mosher calls "too special", but it could have been used to write about the life of Sinified intellectuals in the 17th century. Rakushisha in Sagano could have served as the pillar for an essay about haiku culture in Kyoto. Rokuharamitsuji would have made a great chapter about Taira Kiyomori (whose statue stands in the temple)... Kyoto's history is rich indeed; I very much would have liked to read what Mosher has to say about these and other interesting places. He should have written a second volume...

P.S. My edition carries a reproduction of a beautiful woodblock print by the late Clifton Karhu on the cover.

Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide by Gouverneur Mosher, 14th printing, Charles E. Tuttle, 1992 (1st printing 1964, I have the 5th printing of 1982)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami Haruki

It is time for a modern writer and we start with Murakami Haruki. I have been reading his books since the early eighties, from the first novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 73. I bought the Japanese pocketbook-size Kodansha translations by Alfred Birnbaum (for Japanese learners of English), and at the same time read both novels in Japanese as well. That was not too difficult, as Murakami especially in his early work does not use too many literary expressions or esoteric vocabulary. Next I went on to the early stories, several of which have been included in The Elephant Vanishes, and the novel A Wild Sheep Chase.

This "early Murakami" is still my favorite Murakami. There is a naturalness and spontaneity that (in my view) has been lost in the later novels. I don't mind the loose ends and open endings of these early works, on the contrary, that is what makes them so interesting. Plus of course the humor! Murakami has a very particular style, which is impossible to translate literally. All three translators (Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) have their own way of rendering Murakami in English, but nothing is better than the real stuff in Japanese. When you are studying Japanese, I suggest that you have a try - these early works form an excellent start.

The Elephant Vanishes contains stories that were originally published in several early collections (and before collection, often in magazines). Murakami’s first collection of stories in Japanese was Slow Boat to China (1983), of which the following stories were included:

- "A slow Boat to China." The narrator ("Boku, "I") has three meetings with different Chinese, which all leave him with a certain feeling of guilt, especially when he puts a Chinese girlfriend on the wrong train (she will think he did it on purpose). By the way, Murakami is very popular in China.

- "The Kangaroo Communique." A weird story about a young man in the claims department of a department store, who starts writing a sort of love letter to a woman who has complained.

- "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon" The narrator has been mowing people's lawns during his summer holidays. When mowing his last lawn at the end of the vacation, he meets a mysterious woman who shows him the empty room of her daughter.

The second Japanese collection was A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (1983). The title story would be included in the later collection of translations Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In The Elephant Vanishes we have:

- "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" A perfect small fantasy about what you will (not?) do when you happen to meet the perfect girl...

- "A Window". A writing teacher from a correspondence school visits one of his pupils, a married woman in her early 30's, but they realize they cannot connect and end up only listening to Burt Bacharach.

The third collection in Japanese is Firefly, Barn Burning and Other Stories (1984). The Elephant Vanishes contains:

- "Barn Burning" The narrator loses his girlfriend to a cool guy whose hobby is burning barns.

- "The Dancing Dwarf" Features a dancing dwarf who takes over your soul, but also describes a very efficient elephant factory (yes, a factory where real living elephants are manufactured).

Next comes Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round (1985), of which was included the story

- "Lederhosen" When a Japanese middle-aged woman on a trip to Europe decides to buy a pair of "Lederhosen" for her husband at home, and has somebody who resembles him (fat, white skin) try them on, she suddenly realizes how much she hates her husband.

In 1986 the collection The Second Bakery Attack was published, of which the following stories were included in The Elephant Vanishes:

- "The Second Bakery Attack" A young married couple robs a McDonald's of 30 Big Macs because the man once failed in a bakery attack and the newly-wed wife feels this loose end can not be left dangling - that would put a curse on their marriage.

- "The Elephant Vanishes" An old elephant disappears, together with his keeper, from a small local zoo; the narrator wants to connect with a new girlfriend, but the memory of the vanished elephant pulls them apart.

- "A Family Affair" The narrator lives together with his sister, and is troubled when she brings home a boyfriend.

- "The Fall of the Roman Empire, the 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds" The narrator uses world events to note down bland daily events in his diary.

- "The Wind-up Bird And Tuesday's Women" The narrator searches for a missing cat and after passing through a closed-off alley between backyards, encounters a sunbathing girl. After a lazy conversation he dreams off and when he awakes, she has disappeared. Became the first chapter of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but is also perfect as a stand-alone story.

In 1989 TV People was published, of which the following stories were included in The Elephant Vanishes:

- "TV People" A man's apartment is taken over by TV characters, as the homes of us all are invaded by the media.

- "Sleep" One of MurakamI's darkest stories. A young mother cannot sleep anymore after she has dreamed that a shadowy man has poured water over her legs. Sitting up reading every night, she rediscovers herself and begins to question her marriage. But death is not far away, as she notices when she starts making nightly excursions in her car...

From the 1996 collection Lexington Ghosts, finally, were translated:

- "The Little Green Monster" A housewife is horrified when a little green monster enters her home, reads her mind, and declares his love. She promptly kills it.

- "The Silence" A friend of the narrator, who is a boxer, only once had to use violence...

Western reviewers have (a bit stupidly) complained that Murakami is "too Western." Some would rather have sushi than hamburgers, not to speak about other exotisms. They are wrong, because the Japan that Murakami's stories describe, is the real Japan of today, where people eat more hamburgers than sushi!

I like the stillness (ordinariness?) of these stories - also when seemingly nothing happens, still something important shifts inside the narrator. Or he realizes there is something more below the surface of daily life, like the undersea volcano in The Second Bakery Attack.

Most of the stories are realistic. When fantasy elements intrude, one doesn't mind as it is only for the time of a story. That is better than in Murakami's recent "magic-realistic" novels as Kafka on the Shore, where the piled-on magic elements become unbelievable. (I would have liked a short story about those fish raining from the sky!) On the other hand it is true that there is personal preference involved here - I prefer lyrical poetry to epics, haiku to tanka and concise short stories, like the world caught reflected in a diamond, to bulky, meandering novels.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bai Juyi on the Daodejing

The Chinese Tang-poet Bai Juyi wrote the following tongue-in-cheek poem about the Daodejing, the Daoist wisdom book that claims that "those who know, don't speak":
Reading Laozi

Those who speak do not know, those who know are silent,
I heard this saying from the old gentleman.
If the old gentleman was one who knew the way,
Why did he feel able to write five thousand words?

(from Chinese Poems)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Art of the Cook in Zhuangzi

In previous posts about Japanese cuisine and sake-making I have talked about the obsession with ultimate quality in cooking (and in cutting, which is very important in Asian cuisine as the diners themselves do not have a knife!), as well as of sake brewing as a handicraft that in the end is practiced on a spiritual level...

Reading the Zhuangzi again, the great Chinese Daoist wisdom book from around 300 BCE, I found this passage that expresses this perfect spiritual art in very clear terms (I cite from the old translation by James Legge, which is open source):
His cook was cutting up an ox for the ruler Wen Hui. Whenever he applied his hand, leaned forward with his shoulder, planted his foot, and employed the pressure of his knee, in the audible ripping off of the skin, and slicing operation of the knife, the sounds were all in regular cadence. Movements and sounds proceeded as in the dance of 'the Mulberry Forest' and the blended notes of the King Shou.'

The ruler said, 'Ah! Admirable! That your art should have become so perfect!' (Having finished his operation), the cook laid down his knife, and replied to the remark, 'What your servant loves is the method of the Dao, something in advance of any art. When I first began to cut up an ox, I saw nothing but the (entire) carcase. After three years I ceased to see it as a whole. Now I deal with it in a spirit-like manner, and do not look at it with my eyes. The use of my senses is discarded, and my spirit acts as it wills. Observing the natural lines, (my knife) slips through the great crevices and slides through the great cavities, taking advantage of the facilities thus presented. My art avoids the membranous ligatures, and much more the great bones.

A good cook changes his knife every year; (it may have been injured) in cutting - an ordinary cook changes his every month - (it may have been) broken. Now my knife has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it had newly come from the whetstone. There are the interstices of the joints, and the edge of the knife has no (appreciable) thickness; when that which is so thin enters where the interstice is, how easily it moves along! The blade has more than room enough.

Nevertheless, whenever I come to a complicated joint, and see that there will be some difficulty, I proceed anxiously and with caution, not allowing my eyes to wander from the place, and moving my hand slowly. Then by a very slight movement of the knife, the part is quickly separated, and drops like (a clod of) earth to the ground. Then standing up with the knife in my hand, I look all round, and in a leisurely manner, with an air of satisfaction, wipe it clean, and put it in its sheath.'

The ruler Wen Hui said, 'Excellent! I have heard the words of my cook, and learned from them the nourishment of (our) life.'

In other words: we are not talking about a mere technique here, a procedure that may be mastered, but about something that goes way beyond this. We might call it a "Dao," a "Way" or an "Art." Any activity, whether butchering a carcass, making sushi, or brewing the perfect sake, becomes a Dao when it is performed in a spiritual state of heightened awareness. (See Zhuangzi in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The No-Car Life

I was pleasantly surprised to find an article entitled "Japan auto sales plunge as young lose interest." It is about the phenomenon of “kuruma-banare,” or “demotorization“ among young people, who regard owning a car as more trouble than it’s worth.

[Mitsubishi 100 years ago]

I could not agree more, as Japan certainly is the country least suited to cars in the world. I owned a car once too, way back in Tokyo, but used it only infrequently and after a couple of years got rid of it. I have never looked back. Japan’s streets are clogged but trains are efficient and clean. There is no space to park, not near your house and not when you go somewhere - unless you pay through the nose. Car prices are not very high, seen internationally, but gasoline, taxes, insurance, mandatory shaken tests etc. are quite expensive. Driving on Japan's narrow roads is an extremely unpleasant experience. Now I live in central Kobe, and I can get to most places on foot, or else I take the train.

Only outside the big cities a car is still a necessity even in Japan - but that is the fault of planners: putting huge shopping malls in the middle of nowhere and letting the shotengai, the efficient shopping malls in the town centers, die a slow death.

The image of the car has also changed. It is just a thing that you use if you need it, but not anymore a status symbol. Many young people prefer to spend their money on a smartphone or other communication tools or services.

So it is not surprising that the carmakers in Japan are getting nervous. The population is already declining, due to "demotorization" sales will go down even more - we are already back at the level of 1980. I don' mind, as I feel there are still too many cars in this country... Perhaps Honda and Toyota can start making household robots instead of cars?

P.S. Self-driving cars will make the problem more serious. In the future, nobody has to own a car but you can just call a self-driving car whenever you need one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Solitary Gourmet (Kodoku no Gurume)

Food manga are not always about gourmet food, even when they are called The Solitary Gourmet (Kodoku no Gurume). For there is not a shred of fancy food in all these stories. Instead, they introduce us to the daily dishes and common eateries of the ordinary Japanese, and that is all the more interesting.

[Kitsune udon]

The setting is that of a middle-aged businessman, an importer who owns his own small company, always neatly dressed in suit and tie, going on foot about his business in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities. There must be millions of persons like him in Japan. When tramping around in downtown areas he gets hungry and then he picks the first restaurant that looks inviting enough to still his hunger. Entering a restaurant alone, especially in a strange neighborhood, is sometimes difficult, and as readers we share the self-consciousness of the Solitary Gourmand.

The name of this businessman is Inogashira Goro. We almost know nothing about him. There is not much of a story, either, we just get Inogashira's interior monologue while he sits in the restaurant, observing the other guests, the owner, and the type of food.

Inogashira likes to eat alone so that he can concentrate on his food - he dislikes business lunches. The food awakes all kinds of thoughts and memories in him.

What he eats are typical Japanese dishes as kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi), udon noodles, gyoza, takoyaki, and yakiniku (Korean barbecue). The manga renders the atmosphere of these small restaurants and their simple food so well, that you almost feel like slipping inside and taking a seat next to the Solitary Gourmand and, of course silently, enjoy the same kind of dish...

The manga was written by Kusumi Masayuki and drawn by Taniguchi Jiro. There is just one slim volume with 18 stories, but it became quite a "cult" manga in Japan and has also been translated, for example in French (Le Gourmet Solitaire).

The drawings are very detailed and magically transport us to downtown Tokyo and its small eateries.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Plum Blossoms in Osaka Castle Plum Garden

This year I have been writing about various plum blossom viewing possibilities in Tokyo, but until yesterday I did not yet have a chance to see the plum blossoms of Osaka.

Yesterday in balmy weather I grasped my lunch-break chance to see the plum blossoms in the park of Osaka Castle. A special section has been set aside as "baien", plum park, and there are in fact lots of plum trees here - about 1,250.

Some trees were already past their prime, but others were just in full bloom. A faint sweet scent wafted through the air.

A pink riot on this tree which just was in full bloom!

Blossoms silhouetted against the blue sky.

People were picnicking under the trees. As real "Osakaens" these women of course carry bags with the "Hanshin Tigers" logo, the local baseball club that is the more popular, the more it loses in the national competition.

Seen through the haze of plum blossoms, even the concrete castle looks good!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hideyoshi, Osaka Castle and the Toyokuni Shrine

Toyotomi Hideyoshi built Osaka castle in 1585, five years before he completed the reunification of Japan. The donjon was five stories high on the outside and eight on the inside, making it a fitting symbol of the generalissimo's rule.

[Osaka Castle - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

After his death in 1598 Hideyoshi had himself deified and a shrine, Toyokuni Jinja, was established near his grave in Kyoto. His successors, the Tokugawa, were not happy about having Hideyoshi as a deity in their political heaven (Tokugawa Ieyasu in fact copied Hideyoshi's deification for himself in Nikko) and destroyed all vestiges of the cult. But in the Meiji-period, local governments in Kyoto and Osaka started honoring the achievements of Hideyoshi again and also built new Toyokuni shrines for him as an expression of State Shinto.

[Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

One such shrine stands next to Osaka Castle. It is a concrete and rather tasteless affair, aiming at empty grandeur. The best thing to see here lies in a forgotten corner to the right of the shrine hall. It is a fenced in garden designed by great 20th c. garden architect Shigemori Mirei. Characteristic are the huge boulders and the use of tiles and patches of asphalt. Why is this garden not better advertised and open to the public?

[Garden by Shigemori Mirei in Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hideyoshi's statue also graces the grounds. He was a shrewd politician and brilliant general, and also seems to have been aware of the many social and economic problems of his age. In his later years, he developed a regrettable megalomania, leading him to invade Korea and even toy with plans to conquer China. Although originally he seems to have been a genial and affable man, he was negatively transformed by his lust for power - a not uncommon story.

[Hideyoshi statue in Toyokuni Shrine - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

After he died and the Tokugawa clan took over the reigns of government, his descendants were seen as a danger to the new authority and exterminated in two campaigns, directed against Osaka Castle where they were holed up. The castle withstood the first siege, but the second campaign, in the summer of 1615, led to its total destruction.

[Lion dog, Toyokuni Shrine, Osaka - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Subsequently, the victoriuous Tokugawa built their own castle here, but already in the 17th c. the donjon was hit by lightning and destroyed. It was never rebuilt.

The present concrete reincarnation, complete with elevator, was built by Osaka City in 1928 to celebrate the coronation of the Showa Emperor. As a castle it is worthless (I wonder why all the tourists flock here? Better to visit the real castle in Himeji!), as a historical museum exhibiting some items related to Hideyoshi it is worth a look.

[Osaka Business Park seen from Osaka Castle - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Moyashimon, or An Eye for Bacteria

In my search for food-related manga, I came across a very interesting specimen: Moyashimon, by Ishikawa Masayuki, which calls itself "Tales of Agriculture," but rather is about a hero with the unique ability to see and talk with bacteria and other micro-organisms.

Now this is a nice proposition, because Japanese food culture is after all a culture of micro organisms: take koji, a mold called officially Aspergillus Oryzae. This is used in the manufacture of sake, soy sauce, miso and mirin and Japanese cuisine has been rightly called a "Koji Cuisine."

The protagonist of the story, Sawaki Tadayasu, is the son of a tane-koji-ya, a producer of such koji spores. Since his youth, he can see koji and other micro-organisms much larger than they appear under a microscope and even communicate with them, a weird faculty...

Sawaki has become freshman at an agricultural university in Tokyo. He attends the opening ceremony together with his childhood friend and fellow-freshman Yuki Kei, whose parents run a sake brewery (making them customers for koji spores of Sawaki's parents).

They become students of Itsuki Keizo, an aged professor with a mania for fermented foods who is an acquaintance of Sawaki's family and already knows about his amazing ability. At their first meeting, he shocks both freshmen by setting his teeth in Kiviak, a weird dish from Greenland made from the raw flesh of an auk which has been buried under a stone inside a sealskin (!) until reaching an advanced stage of decomposition. (Yuk!) Talking about fermented foods...

The most impressive member of the study group of the professor is postgraduate student Hasegawa Haruka, a young women who for personal reasons always wears sexy bondage-style clothing under her lab coat. She is rather violent and likes to swing her little whip around. In the beginning, she has some difficulty believing Sawaki's microbe-spotting faculties are real.

Other characters include Oikawa Hazuki, a woman with an obsession against bacteria (she always carries a spray) and two fellow students Misato and Kawahama, who try to make easy money out of Sawaki's abilities.

But the real protagonists are of course the micro-organisms, who appear with faces and in animated form. The most important is the above-mentioned Aspergillus Oryzea or koji mold; others are Baccillus Natto used to make the fermented beans so popular among foreigners, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus used to make yoghurt, Trichophyton Rubrum which causes Miss Hasegawa to suffer athlete's foot, the common green mold Penicillium Chrysogenum and the bad boy of the story, Lactobacillus Fructivorans or Hiochi-kin which causes sake to go bad.

The manga has been running in Kodansha's Evening magazine since August 2004. In 2007, eleven installments of an anime television series were aired by Fuji TV. I have enjoyed it very much, as well as the anime version (based closely on the manga) - it is a great lesson about all the micro-organisms that surround us daily here in Japan!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dead Wet Girls - Review of David Kalat's J-Horror

Why do I watch horror films? I do not even believe in the supernatural, let alone ghosts. Probably some childhood fear of darkness stays lodged in our minds, providing even those who consider themselves enlightened with a bridge to horror. And the atmosphere of horror films grabs you: the slow threat, the sure sense that something is about to happen...

[J-Horror poster for Kansen (Infection)]

J-Horror is a genre of Japanese film that originated somewhere in the middle of the nineties of the last century, culminated in films as Ringu and The Grudge, and now still leads a ghostly existence. It is a type of horror film that does away with baroque effects, has little or no CGI and seeks to shock with quiet understatement. This all in part, because the directors had only small budgets - most films were initially made for the direct-to-video market. As so often happens, compelling circumstances gave birth to a new genre.

Although J-Horror uses certain elements that are common to Japanese horror in general (whether film, Kabuki, drama etc.), such as female ghosts without feet but with grudges, it is a sub-genre and not representative of all Japanese horror. For example, in the sixties, much more lavish horror films were made and in 19th c. Kabuki grande-guignol was popular. (For a wider view of horror films in Japan and Asia see my review of Galloway's Asia Shock)

In most J-Horror a dead girl appears, often with the long black hair hanging down in front of her face. That not only makes her spookish, it also signifies that she is loose from all moral bearings and following her own desires - loose hair is traditionally an indication of wantonness in women.

Water also plays a large role, many of the girls have been involuntary exposed to the wet element (drowned in an old well, to mention something) and are therefore both wet and dead. Ask Freud whether he thinks this signifies anything special.

With J-Horror, the Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, David Kalat has written a history of J-Horror and done a very fine job. He dedicates whole chapters to the large franchises as Ringu, The Grudge and Tomie, listing the numerous films and their differences. He is a great help for navigating the dark landscape of J-Horror. And he does not confine himself to Japan, but also unravels the ramifications of J-Horror in Korea, Hong Kong and the United States.

In "J-Horror has Two Daddies" he detailes the history of the huge Ringu franchise and its founders, author Suzuki Koji and helmer Nakata Hideo. The surprising thing is that neither is really interested in horror: Suzuki seems more interested in how to be the perfect pappa for his children and Nakata has since switched to samurai movies. But perhaps for that very reason they created the first peak of J-Horror and put the new genre firmly on the ghostly map. I'll never forget how the ghost of Sadako crawls out of the old well, a bit further each time we see her, long black hair in front of her face, and finally comes slithering out of the TV...

"The Haunted School" is about scared kids, for scared kids - demonstrating the strong roots of the genre in young heroes/heroines and juvenile audiences - no other than the American slasher films. The nineties saw an avalanche of movies about haunted schools, among which Hanako, Phantom of the Toilet is my favorite, if only for the title.

"Junji Ito will not die" delves into the macabre manga of Ito Junji (strongly recommended to those with strong stomachs) and the films based upon them, in the first place the Tomie franchise about a girl who is killed but refuses to die, her voracious appetite for love time and again bringing her back to life again. She seduces legions of young guys with only one objective: to kill them and then get herself killed...

While the Tomie films are not as good as the original manga, another work based on Ito's nightmarish stories, Uzumaki (The Spiral), made by (despite the name, Japanese director) Higuchinsky, is a great art film. Higuchinsky wonderfully captures the madness of Ito's universe in its total obsession with killing spirals.

In "You are the disease and Kiyoshi Kurokawa is the cure" another art director is introduced: Kurosawa Kiyoshi who far transcends the horror genre and often only plays with its conventions. The only pure J-Horror film he made is Pulse, the rest does not fit in any genre - Cure, for example, is more a dark thriller in the vein of Seven.

"A Ghost is Born" introduces the other great franchise of Ju-On, The Grudge, and its director Shimizu Takashi. At first sight a normal haunted house story, the terrible grudge these Japanese ghosts bear becomes a virus that threatens society. And that little boy with his white face and empty stare is really frightening, even more than his ghostly mother crawling down the stairs.

In "The Unquiet Dead" Kalat provides a round-up of the countless other J-Horror movies from this ten-year period. Some flicks worth watching are Shikoku, Inugami, Trick, Parasite Eve, Suicide Club... although none of these really fits the genre. It was all-round indie Miike Takashi who hit the bull's eye with One Missed Call. The film became famous because of its "ringtone of death," and I can assure you, you will look very differently at your cell phone after watching this movie.

"Whispering Corridors" takes us to Korea and K-Horror, a substantial amount of atmospheric, supernatural shockers. Whispering Corridors is one of them, as is Memento Mori, both in the haunted school tradition, but for me the strongest by far is A Tale of Two Sisters by Kim Ji-Woon. It is a creepy psychological horror tale with a convoluted plot that will leave you speechless.

We next travel to Hong Kong for the Chinese take on nightmares and ghouls, in the sophisticated The Eye of the Pang Brothers (what if your eyes become unreliable and in fact belong to someone else?) and the final chapter brings on the American remakes, which - although they cannot touch the originals and I do not see the reason for such remakes as everyone can watch the original films with subtitles - at least had the effect of bringing people to the original J-Horror films - including David Kalat as he tells in the opening of the book.

The book closes with a useful filmography running from 1990 to Kurosawa's recent Retribution. I only missed an index, which would have been useful in a book with so many names. On a positive note, the notes at the end of the individual chapters also have many pointers to articles on the web.

Kalat's prose is a pleasure to read. How "definitive" the book is, time will tell, but it certainly is a very detailed and balanced account, and warmly recommended to all film fans.
See my post on Japanese Horror Films.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oishinbo or Taste Quest

In a previous post I wrote about the food-addiction of the Japanese. With the culinary passion here running as high as it does, it is not surprising that also among manga comics there is a category of "gourmet manga." Here is my take on the most famous one: Oishinbo.

Oishinbo (usually translated as "The Gourmet" or "Taste Quest"), serialized since 1983 in Big Comic Spirits, is about the search for the ultimate menu. Writer is Kariya Tetsu, and the manga is drawn by Hanasaki Akira. The comic has not run continuously since it started, as the creators regularly take time off to do food research. In 1987 they won the Shogakkan Manga prize.

The Oishinbo series is published in book form by Shogakkan and has enormous print runs: individual titles often break the one million barrier and the whole series has crashed the hundred million gates... a whole lot of paper and a cash cow for the authors and publisher. Of course the manga has spawned all possible kinds of off-spring: anime-films (1988-92, 136 episodes), a live-action film (with Mikuni Rentaro as the stern father, 1996), TV drama, TV shows, recipe collections and games.

Two reporters of the Tozai Newspaper, young dog Yamaoka Shiro and female sidekick Kurita Yuko, go in search of the “Ultimate Menu” for the celebration of their newspaper's hundredth anniversary. But at the same time, the rival Teito Newspaper has entrusted a plan for a “Supreme Menu” to the older, experienced Kaibara Yuzan of the Gourmet Club. Yamaoka Shiro is in fact the cast-out son of Kaibara Yuzan (he has received his mother's name). So the stage is set for a dramatic struggle between the son's “Ultimate Menu” and the father's “Supreme Menu.”

Yamaoka is wild and sometimes arrogant, but possesses an extensive knowledge of haute-cuisine and the necessary developed palate. Kurita fully shares his culinary obsession. There is a degree of attraction between them, and later in the story they marry, but it is not their relationship that is central to the manga. That is rather the drama between Yamaoka and his father, a stern figure who is also calligrapher and ceramic artist and who seems modeled on the 20th c. potter/gourmet Kitaoji Rosanjin.

In the whole series, much care is given to the depiction of food, of the widest variety, both from Japan and other cultures. In fact, every imaginable type of food availabe in Japan is present, from sashimi and sushi to exquisite French, from sake to wine, from American sandwiches to curry rice...

Of course, this would not be a Japanese manga if the obsession with ultimate quality was not very prominent again: the best way to make a certain dish, how to tweak a recipe to perfection, how to find the ultimate sharp knife to cut blowfish, the most superb use of a dripping glass to make coffee... etc. etc.

In short, the Oishinbo series is fun to read, and on top of that not only a perfect introduction to Japanese cuisine, but to Japanese culture in general.