Sunday, July 31, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (5)

Opus 67: Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1807–1808). One of the most popular compositions in classical music, and one of the most often played symphonies. The first movement with the all-too well-known fate-motive remains impressive in its conciseness. The symphony travels from the darkness of this first movement to the light of the exuberant finale, something that Beethoven repeated in the Ninth. First performed in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1808, the work achieved its prodigious reputation soon afterwards.

Opus 68: Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral") (1807–1808). The first movement sings of the joy of nature and is one of the most beautiful movements Beethoven wrote. The symphony was inspired again by Haydn, this time by the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons. Despite the programmatic elements as bird song and a storm, it is not a symphonic poem and all elements are well integrated in the symphonic structure. The journey here is not from fate to victory but from repose through high spirits and stormy weather to again repose.


Opus 69: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major (1808). A lyrical sonata, as other works from this period. At the start, the cello enters softly and unaccompanied like the piano in the fourth concerto. The middle movement is an extended scherzo; a slow cantabile introduction precedes the sunny finale.

Opus 70: Two Piano Trios (1808). The first piano trios again since 1802.
No. 1: Piano Trio No. 5 in D major ("Ghost"). The first movement is characterized by a long, relaxed tune, but the modulations are quite unexpected. The second movement has a melodramatic  quality and gave the trio its nickname (Macbeth's ghosts?). The piano part is full of trills and tremolando. The finale is humorous and springs some harmonic surprises in the coda.
No. 2: Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat major. This a sunny work with expansive themes, that has been somewhat unjustly overshadowed by its companion trio. There are four movements of which the third is a Landler.

Opus 71: Wind sextet in E-flat (1796). Again an older work, charming and delightful.

Opus 72: Fidelio, opera (c. 1803–05; Fidelio Overture composed 1814). Beethoven's only opera, on the theme of personal sacrifice and heroism. The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named "Fidelio", rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. The prisoner's chorus "O welcher Lust" embodies the ideals of the French Revolution of liberty and fraternity. In rescuing Florestan, Leonore shows what difference the bravery of one single person can make.
Synopsis.

Opus 72a: Leonore (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 2) (1805)
Opus 72b: Leonore (earlier version of Fidelio, with Leonore Overture No. 3) (1806)
The two overtures to the opera that Beethoven considered as too symphonic. The 3rd is generally regarded as the best and is nowadays often played between both acts of the opera.

Opus 73: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major ("Emperor") (1809). Beethoven's last piano concerto is fully in the heroic mode. It is Beethoven's most popular concerto, but more conventional in form than the Fourth. The slow melody of the first movement is rapturous, as is the whole Adagio that follows.

Opus 74: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major ("Harp") (1809). The nickname "Harp" refers to the characteristic pizzicato sections in the allegro and was not by Beethoven himself. The dramatic first movement is followed by an adagio with a principal theme of great beauty. After the c minor scherzo the quartet is concluded by a set of variations.

Opus 75: Six Songs (1809). These songs demonstrate Beethoven's growing mastery in the form. The second song, Neue Liebe, for example is through-composed and full of exuberance. The third one, Es war einmal ein König, is playful and has a very memorable melody.

Opus 76: Six variations on an original theme for piano in D major (1809). The "original theme" is the same one that Beethoven later used for the so-called "Turkish March" in The Ruins of Athens.

Opus 77: Piano Fantasia in G minor (1809). Improvisatory material leads to variations on a simple tune. The free character of the opening material suggests that its origins may go back to the composer’s own improvised performances.

Opus 78: Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major (1809). A delightful and sunny sonata consisting of only two movements. Dedicated "A Therese" (its nickname) to Countess Therese Brunsvik.

Opus 79: Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major (1809). This is a "Sonata Facile," starting with a German dance, after which follow a barcarolle-style andante and a carefree rondo.

Opus 80: "Choral Fantasy" (Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra) (1808). Usually considered as lesser Beethoven and decidedly in the popular mood. I saw a registration of the Proms where it was played to great effect. The piano starts with a fantasia, after which the orchestra joins and finally the chorus. The chorus about music as a symbol of beauty and joy also has similarities with the Finale of the Ninth Symphony.

Opus 81a: Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major ("Les Adieux") (1809). The only sonata with extra-musical inspiration: the flight from Vienna of Beethoven's patron the Archduke Rudolph because of the impending French invasion of the city. Rather straightforwardly, "Farewell" is followed by "Absence" and "Reunion." Beethoven detested the French title his publisher stuck on the sonata - originally it was called "Das Lebewohl."

Opus 81b: Sextet in E-flat major (1795). An older work, but very entertaining music.

Opus 82: Four Ariettas and a Duet (1809). Five vocal works in Italian. There is a possibility this song collection has roots going back to 1801 when Beethoven was exercising his skills in setting Italian text under the guidance of Salieri.

Opus 83: Three Songs (1810). Three German songs. No. 1: "Wonne der Wehmut" is a warm-hearted, understated setting. No. 2: "Sehnsucht" has many delightful touches, such as the constantly varying accompaniment.

Opus 84: Egmont, overture and incidental music (1810). Music for a play by Goethe about the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain. One of the leaders, Count Egmont, is beheaded but final victory is won. A very effective symphonic overture.

Opus 85: Oratorio: Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) (1803). Dramatic oratorio portraying the emotional turmoil of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion. It concludes at the point of Jesus personally accepting his fate, placing the emphasis on his own decision. First performed in 1803, but only published in 1811, therefore the high opus number. The most popular part is the "Welten singen..." finale chorus.

Japanese Gardens: Shinjuku Gyoen Park, Tokyo

English lawns, French roses and Japanese cherries, that is what you will find in Shinjuku Gyoen, making it a good example of an early 20th c. "multicultural garden."

With its 53 hectares, Shinjuku Gyoen is such a large oasis of green in the heart of the city that it is almost unbelievable. Although the high-rises are advancing, there are enough trees and shrubs to provide shade, and there is enough space to dim the distant traffic noise. Shinjuku Gyoen is the former site of the mansion of the Naitos, a daimyo family that controlled this strategic area, the first post station just out of Edo. The estate was made into an imperial garden in 1906 and became a public park after WWII.

[Sketching at the pond of Shinjuku Gyoen. Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

There are three different types of gardens in Shinjuku Gyoen. By far the largest is the Japanese garden, centered on a pond that runs through the whole breadth of the garden. There are tea houses here and stone lanterns, wooden bridges and small streams, as well as a Chinese-style pavilion, all items necessary in a Japanese garden. One also finds azalea bushes, irises and hydrangeas; in summer the pond is covered with lotus flowers. Then there is an English landscape garden, mainly consisting of grassy undulating hills popular with picnickers. And finally, there is a French formal garden with an avenue of plane trees and rose beds. This exotic, Western garden must have been the pride of the park when it carried the designation 'imperial' in the first half of the 20th century.

Among the flowers, I have not yet made mention of the cherry blossoms, of which there are many, both weeping cherries, flowering at the end of March, and a late-flowering variety. Thus, for many weeks the gardens are decked out in spring colors. Autumn shows with chrysanthemums are held in the first two weeks of November. And, to round things off, for winter visits there is a large greenhouse containing tropical and subtropical plants, especially famous for its orchids. It truly is an all-year garden.
Address: 11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Tel. 03-3350-0151

Access: Shinjuku Gate: 5-min. walk Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line; or same distance from Shinjuku Sanchome Station on the Shinjuku Subway Line; Okido Gate: also 5-min. from Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line; Sendagaya Gate: 5-min. walk from Sendagaya Station on the JR Line.

Hours: 9:00-16:30. CL Mondays (except when Monday is a National Holiday, then the garden is closed the next day), year-end and New Year period.

"Summertime" by J.M. Coetzee (Best Novels)

In Summertime, author J.M. Coetzee has addressed his biography in a postmodern, meta-fictional way by writing a fake life story that is the opposite of glorification, but that also hides the real Coetzee in an ingenious fashion. The setup of the book is that writer "John Coetzee" has died, after which a fictitious biographer, named Vincent, has interviews with five different persons to compile materials on his life. Vincent concentrates on the years 1971-77, after Coetzee returned from the United States to South Africa, as this supposedly was an important formative period in the late author’s life. Some fragments from Coetzee's “posthumously” opened notebooks are also given. Presumably, the book we have consists of rough drafts by this Vincent to be worked out later.
Four of the persons interviewed are women: two former lovers (Julia, a woman living in the same neighborhood in Capetown, with whom "John Coetzee" had a brief affair that led to the dissolution of her marriage; Sophie, a former French teacher and colleague at Capetown University), a married cousin, Margot, to whom John Coetzee felt close when they were both children — this time, after their car breaks down, they have to spend an uncomfortable and cold night in the desert together; and a suspicious Brazilian woman whose daughter was taught English by John Coetzee and who accuses John Coetzee of making overtures to both her and her teenage daughter, although he never existed for her “as a man.”

In fact, besides these small affairs, not much happens to John Coetzee in those years. He has returned to South Africa from a sojourn in the United States and lives with his elderly, ailing father in suburban Cape Town. Both men are isolated from each other. John has various part time teaching jobs while unsuccessfully trying to find a more permanent position at the university. He feels a sentimental attachment to the dry desert-like landscape of Karoo, where the family’s ancestral farm still stands. He publishes his first book, Dusklands.

A quick look at J.M. Coetzee’s biography soon learns, how fake this “auto/biography” is: in the said period, J.M. Coetzee already was employed at the University of Capetown, and far from living singly with his father, he lived with his own family, a wife and two teenage kids! This fictionalization has made critics aware that the two earlier volumes of J.M. Coetzee’s “autobiography,” Boyhood and Youth, can also not be taken at face value, although in Summertime the fictional elements are more deliberate.

What’s more, in Summertime J.M. Coetzee gives a very ironic and unflattering portrait of himself. Where an American would have taken the opportunity to embellish his life, to blow it up to gigantic proportions, J.M. Coetzee with his Dutch ancestry is not only modest but outright self-deprecatory. John Coetzee was too inhibited to show any enthusiasm and therefore was a bad teacher. He had a cold Calvinistic personality and didn’t like to reveal anything about himself. He felt no love for his father but only shame. He was unable to build a meaningful relationship with women — his former partners even call his lovemaking “autistic” (there is indeed a funny scene where he wants to make love to the rhythm of Schubert’s String Quintet, which of course completely puts off his partner). Although already in his thirties, he still behaved like a boy. And, finally, as a writer he had no special sensitivity or original insight in the human condition. He was just a man of his time, gifted, but not a giant. His work therefore lacks ambition and the control of the elements is too tight…

Why would J.M. Coetzee do this? Why would he blast himself as son, as teacher, as lover, and — most of all — as writer? Perhaps we can find the answer in Coetzee’s extreme reclusiveness, which is in a way comparable to that of Henry James. J.M. Coetzee doesn't see why readers should be at all interested in his private life. Isn't it, in fact, immoral to be interested in the life of one Coetzee, just because he is a famous writer? Without mentioning them, this novel is the great "anti" to our popular press with its paparazzi, reality TV shows where lives are publicly dissected and our tendency to seek everywhere for human interest and emotion (not to mention Facebook).

It is also post-modernism over the top. J.M. Coetzee imagines a fictional biographer, who has interviews with fictional persons, who give fictional information about a fictional writer John Coetzee — five layers of fiction! Far from being a bona fide auto/biography, this is an anti-auto/biography, bending the facts of Coetzee's life because he doesn’t want us to pry in it. Coetzee did the same sort of thing when, after he became famous and was often asked to give lectures, instead of divulging details about his life, he read fictional stories — even at the Nobel Prize lecture! A writer, after all, is a fictionalizer.

A remark about J.M. Coetzee’s self-deprecatory attitude: I believe in this way Coetzee also wants to make clear that writers are not in any way special people, or in a wider sense, that in our ordinary time there live only very ordinary people — those who seem like giants (sports heroes, film and rock stars, popular politicians) only do so because their lives have been blown up out of proportion by unreliable media. Special people simply don’t exist, at least not anymore today. It is good to be ordinary (although it helps to be a bit gifted), and, in a world that is already mad enough, it is also good to be cool and in control like Coetzee.

And a final word about Summertime: when the above discussion gives the impression that this is a dark or tough book, I have good news, for Summertime is the funniest and brightest book that Coetzee has written — with its merciless and humorous dissection of John Coetzee’s character and love life by four women, it is really a book full of summer sunshine and a good start for new readers of this author.

The writer:
J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee. born in 1940 in South Africa, is one of the most celebrated English-language authors of our time. Coetzee was born to Afrikaner parents (descended from early Dutch immigrants to South Africa in the 17th c.) who spoke English at home. He studied English literature and mathematics at the University of Cape Town and in the first half of the 1960s worked as computer programmer in the U.K. In 1965 he went to the University of Texas in Austin where he obtained his Ph.D. Subsequently, he taught English literature at the University of New York in Buffalo. Coetzee wanted to obtain American citizenship, but was ordered to leave the country after he was arrested for his involvement in anti-Vietnam-War protests. He then returned to South Africa to teach English literature at the University of Cape Town. Starting with Dusklands in 1974, Coetzee so far has written 16 novels, but he has also published short stories, literary essays, letters and translations. In 2003 Coetzee became recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature; he also twice won the Man Booker Prize, for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and for Disgrace in 1999 (Summertime was also nominated in 2009). Coetzee relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide; in 2006, he became an Australian citizen. For more work by this author, see Elizabeth Costello in “Animals” and Disgrace in “State of the World.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Matsutake (Mushrooms)

Matsutake fungus. (Tricholoma matsutake, "pine mushroom"). Also called "mattake." 松茸.

The "King of Mushrooms," both fragrant and delicious... if you can afford it, because this gourmet mushroom really breaks the bank. One mushroom can sell for hundreds of dollars. It is popular as a corporate gift.

Matsutake has the fragrance of the red pine woods where it grows - only in the wild as commercial cultivation is still impossible. Its season is limited to a few weeks in autumn. It has a thick, meaty stem and is best before the caps opens. Its color is dark brown.

In Japan itself, native supply is insufficient and most matsutake now come from China, Korea, the U.S. or Canada or other countries.

Matsutake is one of the most sought after delicacies. It seems to be prized in the first place for its fragrance.

It is often served in a dobin, a small teapot in which the mushroom has been steamed (dobinmushi). You enjoy the aroma, drink the juice from a small cup and finally eat the mushroom. Matsutake can also be grilled or eaten in rice as matsutake gohan (understandably, if you buy this in the supermarket the slices of matsutake or so minimal that there is no fragrance or taste at all).

Pickled plum (umeboshi)

Umeboshi

Pickled plum

梅干


[Umeboshi]

Although generally called "plums", ume (Prunus Mume) are in fact a seperate variety, just like plum and apricot (but for convenience sake we will keep up the plum tradition). The best name would in fact be "ume."

The plums are plucked in late May or June before they are completely ripe. While still green, ume are harvested and cured with sea salt for several months. The result: an extremely sour mouthful!

This is the same fruit that is used to make umeshu, so-called "plum wine" (but in fact a liqueur), made by steeping green plums in shochu or sake.

Umeboshi are usually colored red with red shiso leaves, a natural method.  The flavonoid pigment in shiso leaves gives them their distinctive color and a richer flavor.

The best (and largest) plums come from Nanko in Wakayama Prefecture. Nowadays, you find umeboshi with various additional flavorings as honey or even wine or mango.

Umeboshi are also used to make umeboshi paste (bainiku) and umeboshi vinegar.

Umeboshi are eaten as pickles on rice. A bento consisting only of rice and a red plum is called "Hinomaru (Japanese flag) Bento."


[Umeboshi Chazuke]

Kayu (rice gruel) is also usual served with a pickled plum, as is chazuke.

My start of the day consists of a cup of bitter green tea with one or two umeboshi on the side - I eat them with chopsticks, but other people put them in the tea. This is an excellent way to wake up, and also considered as healthy as the umeboshi cleans the body.

"An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away."



Yakisoba

Yakisoba

Fried noodles

やきそば


Despite the name, these are not soba or buckwheat noodles, but ramen-style noodles, made from wheat flour, salt, water and kansui (alkaline mineral water).

The noodles are stir-fried on an iron plate with slivers of pork or seafood and vegetables (usually cabbage, carrots and onions, but there is a lot of variation possible). The yakisoba can be flavored with yakisoba sauce, and in that case it is called sosu yakisoba. Garnishes are usually aonori (green seaweed powder), beni-shoga (pickled ginger) and sometimes also katsuobushi (bonito flakes).

Yakisoba is a very popular dish, often made at home, but also available in canteens, okonomiyaki restaurants, izakaya and street stalls during festivals.

Due the its popularity, yakisoba is also sold in instant form in Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores, such as long time favorite Sapporo Ichiban. You have to add vegetables and meat yourself. A complete instant meal is offered by Nisshin's UFO (and others), sold in a container to which only hot water has to be added.

Surprisingly, yakisoba is also eaten on buns as yakisoba-pan - these are again available in convenience stores. And, I hasten to add, they are surprisingly delicious as well. Yakisoba is also added to okonomiyaki "Hiroshima-style" and to Osaka's variant of these, modan-yaki.


Japanese Food Dictionary








Spaghetti Napolitan

Napolitan

Spaghetti "Napolitan"

ナポリタン



Spaghetti "Napolitan" is a purely Japanese dish, despite the exotic name. It is one of the most popular Japanese-Western dishes in Japan and an old-timer on canteen menus as well. Napolitan was invented in the years after WWII by the chef of a hotel in Yokohama after seeing the spaghetti eaten by the American occupation army. Ingredients are ketchup or a tomato-based sauce, onion, mushrooms, ham or bacon, Wiener sausages and green peppers. The dish on the photo has been sprinkled with seaweed flakes (aonori) to make it even more Japanese, but cheese is often used as well!

The dish is called "Napolitan" as tomato sauce is rumored to come from that city. The dish is also easy to make at home. The pasta is a far cry from al-dente and such soft spaghetti with tomato ketchup would give an Italian a big shock, but even though there are now many authentic Italian restaurants in Japan, the Japanese keep eating their Napolitan - it is sold as bento in convenience stores all over the country!

Takoyaki (Octopus balls)

Takoyaki

"Octopus balls"

たこ焼き、蛸焼

[Takoyaki from a street stall in Osaka] 

Octopus balls, literally "fried octopus," are balls of batter, about 3 cm in diameter, with a small piece of boiled octopus inside. Sometimes tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion are also included. As toppings okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes and shredded green seaweed are used.

Takoyaki are baked on a hot iron plate with indentations in the form of the balls. When the underside has been fried, they are quickly turned around. Eaten with a tooth pick.

[The original (ganso) takoyaki from Aizuya]

Takoyaki originated in Osaka with Aizuya in 1935. Now, they are not only eaten in Osaka but all over Japan. They are sold from street stalls, but there are also specialist shops. They can also be made at home with a takoyaki pan.

[Takoyaki pans (Doguyasuji, Osaka]




 

Mikan

Mikan

Japanese mandarins

みかん

Citrus unshiu


Japanese mandarins (Citrus unshiu) are officially called Onshu mikan ("Honey citrus of Wenzhou") or Satsuma (after one of the main production areas in southern Kyushu). Different from "our" mandarin oranges (clementines, tangerines), which in Japan are called ponkan (Citrus reticulata). Wenzhou in China was famous for its mikan, but the name seems to have been added in the Meiji-period more for literary reasons to the Japanese mikan than to indicate a real link with Wenzhou.


There was, however, a link with China. The mikan originates in S.E. Asia and came to Japan via China. In the 16th c. we find the Kishu mikan in Wakayama, an area which had trade relations with China. This type contains seeds and has since been superseded by the seedless Onshu mikan. The Onshu mikan was found in the early 17th c. in Nagashima in Kagoshima Prefecture ("Satsuma"), a domain which had trade relations with China via the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa). Samurai were not interested in mikan growing so it lasted until the late 19th century until mikan started to be grown in earnest - and then it took off with a vengeance.

Mikan are seedless and easy to peel as the skin is only lightly attached. Flesh is delicate and sweet. The fruit is soft and therefore easily bruised. It is the archetypal winter fruit (the first mikan appear in early October). Reminds Japanese of the kotatsu! Consumed in vast quantities. Three or four mikan a day provide all the necessary Vitamin C.

[Mikan in Wakayaama Pref.]

The mikan is very cold-tolerant and it is interesting when hiking through the fields in winter in Japan to see trees loaded with these small oranges!

Most important production centers: Wakayama (185,400 tonnes, 17% of total); Ehime (168,300 tonnes, 16% of total); and Shizuoka (146,200 tonnes, 14% of total).

Japanese Food Dictionary

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte (Book review)

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the novel of the intense passion between the foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw (later Linton), her betrayal of him and the vengeance he visits upon the next generation. It is a novel about people who incorporate the barren wildness of the nature of the Yorkshire moors, force pitted against force. The novel is full of violence, illness and death.

In its own times the book met with mixed reviews because of its unremitting darkness and weirdness, but in the 20th c. it became a hard and fast classic. In the Guardian it was even polled as the U.K.'s favorite love story - although I should say that the main theme is revenge and that it rather is a family novel (showing the decline of the Earnshaws and Lintons, and their fusion under the angry hand of Heathcliff) than a novel about love. Heathcliff and Catherine are at first more like brother and sister and Heathcliff's later passion seems to spring more from pride and self-love than a sweeter feeling.

It is not so strange that this novel with its violent acts and violent speech had to wait until the 20th c. to be loved. Heathcliff, too, is the kind of cruel beast without humaneness and compassion whom we know all too well from 20th c. history and fiction.

How come a pastor's daughter in a corner of England thought this all up in the mid 19th century?
Wuthering Heights is about large passions, but the style is rather bland and neutral. In contrast to Jane Eyre, the story is mainly told by bystanders and outsiders, like the long-time servant Nelly Dean and the tenant Mr Lockwood. The first three chapters do excellent work in setting the atmosphere and then we readers, too, are waiting for the story of Nelly Dean. But as it is difficult to feel sympathy for any of the characters in this family tragedy, you watch it like a storm on the heath, fascinated but strangely uninvolved.
I read Wuthering Heights in the Penguin edition. It is also available on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. 
Interesting website about Wuthering Heights.

Japanese Gardens: Sorakuen, Kobe

The best Japanese-style garden in Kobe is Sorakuen, established by a former mayor of the city, Mr Kodera. It is a typical stroll garden with a central pond, but characteristic and not wholly traditional are the huge sotetsu trees standing along the path that leads into the garden - sotetsu are tropical trees, in English called Sago Palms. There are also several large open spaces typical of Western gardens.

[Sorakuen, Kobe]

The Kodera Mansion was destroyed during the war, and now only the stables remain to give an impression of original grandeur.

To fill in the empty space, the Hassam House from 1902, the residence of an Anglo-Indian trader was moved here from Kitano-cho - a fine example of neo-colonial architecture. Note the huge chimney lying upside down in front of the house - this heavy piece of bricks came crashing down during the Kobe Quake of 1995.
[Sorakuen, Kobe]

Another building moved to the garden is the Funayakata, a houseboat originally belonging to the Himeji daimyo and built around 1700. It is impressive for its decorative lacquer.
Access: 10 min walk north of Sannomiya or Motomachi
Hours: 9:00-17:00. CL Thurs, NY
The park is especially known for its azaleas in early May and its chrysanthemums and red leaves in autumn. Unfortunately, there are no ume or sakura!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Temples: Sogo Memorial Hall (Narita, Chiba)

As temples and museum go, there is more in the vicinity of Narita than only jumbojets. After the museums in the grounds of the Narita temple, take the bus for a short ride to the Sogo Treasure Hall and Sogo Memorial Hall, both located in the grounds of a temple called Sogo Reido, standing in the outskirts of Narita. The Treasure Hall was already established in 1935, the memorial hall 32 years later.This temple and its museum are dedicated to the sad story of a village headman, Sogoro Kiuchi, who sacrificed his life for his people.

[Sogo Reido Temple]

In the middle of the 17th century, his village in the neighborhood of Narita was suffering under the heavy taxes imposed by the local daimyo, the Hottas from Sakura. Sogoro took a petition for relief directly to the shogun in Edo. Such an act was considered as insubordination in feudal Japan, something Sogoro knew very well. The shogun recognized his complaint and granted the farmers relief of the oppressive taxes, but he also ordered the execution of Sogoro according to the law of the times. In 1653, Sogoro was crucified and his four children were decapitated.

[Sogo Reido Temple]

The Treasure Hall preserves memento’s of Sogoro’s life, mixed with other historical stuff donated by people from the neighborhood, but unconnected with the tragedy at hand. That tragedy takes center stage in the Memorial Hall at the back of the temple grounds where the story is shown with life-sized mannequins, in thirteen scenes all the way from the frivolous life of the lord of Sakura to Sogoro’s end on the execution ground. The diorama may sound a bit tacky, but it provides an interesting window on this particular aspect of Edo history. The temple itself was later dedicated to Sogoro’s memory by the grateful villagers.
Tel: 0476-27-3131

Hrs: 8:30 – 16:00 (Sat & Sun: 16:30), no holiday

Access: 10 min. on foot from Keisei Sogo Sando Station (this station is 5 min. by Keisei local train from Keisei Narita). Walk straight ahead from the station along a quiet road with a footpath; turn right at the T-junction. This is Route 464, a very busy and also narrow road, where you are almost flattened against the houses by the passing trucks. The temple is on your left after passing a side road. There is also a bus from Keisei Narita, which drops you off right in front of the temple gate, and thus is a better option.

Japanese Gardens: Furukawa Gardens, Tokyo

The Furukawa Gardens were laid out in 1914 by the head of the Furukawa Zaibatsu, one of Japan's earliest business groups. The British architect, Josiah Conder (1852-1920), was asked to design a Western-style house and garden in front of it; the Japanese garden was designed by the prominent Kyoto garden architect Ogawa Jihei.

[Furukawa Gardens and Western-style Residence, Tokyo]

The house - a classic brick structure, with dark slate walls - seems to have been transplanted lock, stock and barrel from the English country side and looks strangely exotic in Tokyo. The same is true for the terrace garden with banks of roses in front of the mansion.

In fact, house and garden are is just as much culturally out of place as if an English businessman would have built a Japanese style house with tatami mats and tokonoma in London, featuring a Japanese pond garden in front of it!

That being said, Conder was an excellent architect who built many Western houses and halls (such as the defunct Rokumeikan) in Tokyo, and the present house still serves as a testimony to that bygone age.

A Japanese pond garden is also part of the Furukawa Gardens - occupying the lower part of the estate, behind a group of large azalea hedges that forms the border between the two gardens. The pond has a gracefully curving shoreline, a virtual waterfall (with stones) drops down into it, a large lantern and elegant tea house stand at its shore.

Unfortunately, the beauty of this garden is damaged by an apartment building standing right next to it. The people living in those flats have a nice view of the garden, but the integrity of the garden has been harmed by this ungainly construction. Going around the pond, one tries to keep the gaze low, in order not to see it. It is a pity, all the more because Ogawa Jihei was one of Japan's great gardeners - he was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine.
Address: 1-27-39 Nishigahara, Kita-ku, Tokyo. Tel. 03-3910-0394

Access: 7-min. walk from Nishigahara Station on the Nanboku Subway Line; 12-min. walk from Komagome Station on the JR Yamanote Line; 7-min. walk from Kami-Nakazato Station on the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line.

Hours: 9:00-17:00. CL Year-end and New Year period.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"A Pale View of Hills" by Kazuo Ishiguro (Book review)

Kazuo Ishiguro's haunting debut novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), is narrated by a Japanese widow, Etsuko, living in England, looking back over her life in post-war Nagasaki in the light of the recent suicide of one of her daughters.

She thinks back to one hot summer in Nagasaki just after the war, with cicadas droning in the trees. Etsuko has befriended Sachiko and her little daughter Mariko, living nearby in a sort of shack and fallen down from better times. When rumors of infanticide spread in the neighborhood, the pregnant Etsuko feels very disturbed. There are surprising similarities between Mariko and Etsuko's deceased daughter and the story eventually takes on a macabre shade. Etsuko's and Sachiko's lives seem to flow together. Past and present become fused, too.

The reminiscences are just as confused as a hazy, hot summer day. Everything flows together and we all are guilty, seems to be the message of this sad story on the theme of loss.

The narrative is subtle  and suggestive as we would expect from a Japanese author. But Kazuo Ishiguro is not Japanese, at least not anymore. He was born in 1954 in Nagasaki but grew up in England (since 1960) and now is a British citizen. Ishiguro writes a beautiful English style, concise and pared-down. Since this first novel, he has built up a small, but very fine oeuvre.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Museums: Basho Museum, Kurobane

Basho visited Kurobane in 1689 during the first stage of his trek to northern Japan. Two of his disciples - brothers - were living here (one of them was the steward of the feudal lord of the small castle town of Kurobane) and Basho stayed here for a full 14 days, the longest break on his journey. He must have been delighted with the town and its hospitality - although the long rains in those days may also have contributed to the length of his stopover. Basho wrote several haiku in Kurobane (four of them have been included in Oku no Hosomichi) and acted as referee during two renga (linked verse) sessions.

[Statues of Basho and Sora, Basho no Yakata Museum, Kurobane]

Basho no Yakata Museum was built in 1989 (from wood that still smells fresh and new!) as a 300 year memorial to Basho's sojourn in the town. In the entrance hall are panels and photo's celebrating utamakura (the poetic and geographical epithets that were the inspiration for Basho's travel); panels about Oku no Hosomichi, Basho and Kurobane, how Basho traveled and about Basho as a human being.

The exhibition room has items related to Oku no Hosomichi, such as texts, a copy of a scroll by Buson, paintings etc. The museum also houses the Ozeki Library, the collection of old documents, manuscripts, tools and clothes which belonged to the Ozekis, the lords of Kurobane. The Seizan Library is a book collection donated by Seizan Takase, a 20th c. scholar and honorary townsman. The special exhibition room, finally, exhibits some armor, such as a halberds and daggers belonging to the Ozekis and decorated with their emblem.

In front of the museum is a bronze statue of Basho on a horse, with Sora walking beside him. This was how he came to Kurobane and also how he left it - a very appropriate way to give shape to the fleeting past. Along the Basho no Michi (leading to the town center from here) stand several kuhi, or haiku stones.

The museum is set in a beautifully wooded spot, not far from the ruins of Kurobane Castle. Nearby is also Daioji, a rustic Zen temple as ever there was one. Kurobane is a great place, completely untouched by commercialism. One does not meet ordinary tourists, the only persons one comes across are haiku enthusiasts quietly mumbling lines from Oku no Hosomichi. The Basho no Yakata does not have a great collection, but it is a welcome rest spot on a tour along Kurobane's haiku stones. When we sat there, sipping the free green tea from the tea server, we felt that it still exists, Kurobane's hospitality that made Basho stay for two weeks.

For the haiku stones in Kurobane see my Basho in Kurobane.
Address: 980-1, Maeda, Kurobane-machi, Nasu-gun, Tochigi-ken. Tel: 0287-54-4151
Hours: 9:00 - 17:00. Closed Monday, New year season.
Access: 35 min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.

Kite Museum, Tokyo (Museums)

The Kite Museum in Tokyo is a small, quirky, but surprisingly interesting museum.

The former owner of the Taimeikan restaurant in Nihonbashi, the late Mr. Modegi Shingo, was a kite enthusiast who founded this museum on the 5th floor of the restaurant building. The rather confined space is literally crammed with kites of all sorts and descriptions, resulting in a riot of color. The total collection comprises 3,000 pieces. Rather than only children's toys, kites in Japan were often flown by young men in religious festivals and can be appreciated as an interesting folk craft. Japanese kites (tako) are made from paper painted in bold motifs and attached to a bamboo frame and come in all imaginable sizes.

The kite was invented in China and may originally have had a military purpose. In Japan, too, kites may have been used as military signals, but an added function was a religious one, as kites also served as prayers or offerings to Shinto deities. It was in the Edo-period that kite flying became a popular form of amusement. We often find kite flying festivals (and even kite battles) depicted in ukiyo-e prints, of which the museum has several on view. The most typical traditional kite, 'Nishiki-E Dako,' has something of an ukiyo-e in its brilliant colors, bold lines and characteristic motifs.

The same style and motifs have been continued without much change in modern kites. There are for example: warriors, as Minamoto no Yoshitsune, or legendary heroes as Kintaro or Oniwakamaru; folk images as Daruma dolls, the Seven Deities of Good Fortune and comic Okame masks; birds and insects, such as the centipede kites, formed of joint sections; and Chinese characters, as the giant kanji for Ryu, dragon. Besides Japanese kites, the museum also owns kites from other Asian countries, especially China; an example is a whole case full of kites in insect shapes. Besides the large kites, there is also a case filled with miniature ones. In a corner of the room, the workshop of Edo's last kite maker, Hashimoto Teizo, has been reproduced.

The cultural lesson of this museum: in Japan, kites were not toys for kids, but in the first place they had a ritual and military function. Even now, large kites during the kite festivals are flown by grown-ups.
Address: Taimeiken restaurant 5F, 1-12-10 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0027. Tel. 03-3271-2465

Access: 3-min on foot from the C5 exit of Nihonbashi St on the Ginza and Hanzomon subway lines, on the 5th floor of the Taimeikan Bldg.

Hours: 11:00-17:00. CL Sun, NH.

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (Best Novellas)

On Chesil Beach gives a detailed description of the wedding night of Florence and Edward, in a small hotel on the Dorset coast (Chesil Beach). The story is told in real-time (as in McEwan's Saturday), with two large flashbacks to fill in the background of the two protagonists.

It is 1962, still before the sexual revolution. Brought up in old-fashioned morality, Florence and Edward have so far barely touched each other.

They have very different backgrounds and come to this night with different expectations. She is from a wealthy and intellectual family - her father an industrialist, her mother a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford - , he is from a more sober background (his father is a schoolmaster) with a mentally disturbed mother and the family house run to seed. She is musically gifted and plays semi-professionally first violin in a string quartet, something she wants to continue after her marriage. He is a bit of a floater, rather inconsequential, although he has a certain interest in history.

On the wedding night they have dinner in their room and then quickly retire to the bedroom. Edward is almost too eager to finally sleep with his beloved Florence. He looks greatly forward to this Big Moment. But Florence is awkward and timid and would rather put things off. She feels repulsed by the idea of sexual intimacy, and is also afraid she can't satisfy Edward's rather obvious needs. She has read a terrible medical guidebook, which only makes her feel nauseous.

Of course, between the sheets things go utterly wrong. This is one wedding night that really becomes a life-changing experience! When they later quarrel on the deserted beach, each of them says exactly the wrong things and matters go from bad to worse. Edward doesn't stop Florence when she threatens to leave...

In the last pages we learn that Florence later becomes a famous professional violin player, but remains unmarried. Edwards drifts aimlessly through life, without any steadiness in his relations. He deeply regrets that he didn't show more patience and kindness, there on Chesil beach...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (4)

Opus 51: Two Rondos for Piano (1797). No. 1: Rondo in C major. No. 2: Rondo in G major. Again two earlier works, the first one Moderato e grazioso, offers a principal theme in characteristic singing style, the second one Andante cantabile e grazioso, contains an E major episode of some brilliance. This all shows how productive Beethoven was in the 1790s!

Opus 52: Eight Songs (1804–1805). These are uncomplicated "Lieder", ranging from the sentimental to the humorous. (No. 1: "Urians Reise um die Welt," No. 2: "Feuerfab," No. 3: "Das Liedchen von der Ruhe," No. 4: "Maigesang," No. 5: "Mollys Abschied," No. 6: "Die Liebe," No. 7: "Marmotte," No. 8: "Das Blümchen Wunderhold").

Opus 53: Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major ("Waldstein") (1803). Beethoven knew Count Waldstein from Bonn and the count helped Beethoven with his network in Vienna when the composer moved there in 1792. Eleven years later, Beethoven paid the count back with the dedication of his most revolutionary sonata to date. The sonata was the first written by Beethoven for the new Erard piano with its extended range. As the sonata was considered too long by contemporaries, Beethoven replaced the slow movement (now known as the Andante Faviori) with an introduction to the finale. The last movement has an unforgettable melody.

Opus 54: Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major (1804). A small work wedged in between the giants of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas. It is quite unconventional, in only two movements, neither of which is in sonata form. Called "bizar" by Beethoven's contemporaries, the sonata is cryptically concise, starting with a rondo in the tempo of a minuet and ending with a superfast molto perpetuo.

Opus 55: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major ("Eroica") (1805). Little need be said about this monumental work, one of the most superb creations in the whole of symphonic literature.
Website on the Eroica, Program Note NPR Music, A Symphonic Revolution (interactive website of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra), Beethoven's Eroica.

Opus 56: Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano in C major (1804–1805). Often considered one of Beethoven's lesser works, this is in fact a very pleasing concert, harking back to the Sinfonia Concertante as practiced by Stamitz, Salieri, Mozart and Haydn. The first movement is expansive but also has the clarity of chamber-music. The finale is a virtuoso Rondo alla Polacca.

Opus 57: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor ("Appassionata") (1805–1806). Beethoven's most violent musical utterance. The first movement is unrelenting in its onslaught. There are again startling changes in tone and dynamics. After a brief break in the andante, a set of four variations, follows the finale which gives us more passionate violence of the perpetuum mobile kind, ending in a gesture of defiance.
Here is an extended discussion of this sonata.

Opus 58: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major (1805–1806). A novelty at the start is the presentation of the theme by the solo piano, instead of the conventional purely orchestral introduction. On top of that, this is not a bravura opening, but a hushed statement which sets the mood for the whole movement. The andante is a dialogue between piano and orchestra, The cantabile piano is set against gruff string passages as if to to test the power of poetry to tame harsh reality. The rondo finale is cheerful and dancing. This concerto is special because its expressive depth and structural breadth are not created with grand gestures. It is all very soft-spoken, but determined, as if machismo has been transcended here. There are only few of the usual military elements (which would again play a large part in the fifth concerto) - as if Beethoven has met Mozart. My favorite Beethoven piano concerto.

Opus 59: Three String Quartets ("Rasumovsky," for their dedication to the Russian ambassador) (1806). These are real symphonic quartets, clocking in at about 45 minutes and at least one-third longer than the op. 18 quartets and technically very difficult.  To pay homage to his patron, who was a colorful figure in Viennese cultural life, Beethoven weaved a Russian theme into each quartet.
No. 1: String Quartet No. 7 in F major. Spacious and majestic, a strange blend of serenity and inner force. The middle of the first movement is a calm fugato. "Fate does not knock at the door here, but stares through the window." (Robert Simpson) The adventurous second movement is a scherzo that continually changes shape "as shadow and sunlight flickering over a vast plain." (Marx) This is followed by an elegiac andante and bright finale on the above-mentioned Russian melody.
No. 2: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor. The initial allegro in e-minor is fierce and strong. this is followed by a hymnlike slow movement. This time it is the scherzo that has the Russian theme, used rather harshly. the finale again ends in the minor key.
No. 3: String Quartet No. 9 in C major. An exercise in shape-shifting, with various melodies flitting through, but no stability of sonata-form.

Opus 60: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major (1806). A classical symphony in the Haydn mode, very different from its two neighbors, without tragedy, but fresh and spontaneous. The first movement starts with a slow introduction in which all themes can be heard and ends with a coda that is a real culmination. There is no tragedy, but rather classical pose in this symphony.

Opus 61: Violin Concerto in D major (1806). The meditative violin concerto is one of Beethoven's most beautiful musical utterances. I used to have an old mono record of Jascha Heifetz with Charles Munch and still think fondly about that interpretation. Like the fourth piano concerto this is a concerto without bravura, although the technical difficulties for the solo player are immense - reason the first performance wiht a soloist who had had no chance to rehearse, was a disaster. Therefore Beethoven also made a piano version.
(Opus 61a: Piano Transcription of Violin Concerto Opus 61).

Opus 62: Coriolan Overture (1807). Together with Egmont, Beethoven's best concert overture. The main theme represents Coriolanus' resolve to invade Rome, while a more tender theme stands for the pleadings of his mother to desist. Coriolan eventually gives in to his mother, but as there also is no way back for him, he commits suicide.

We skip two arrangements, Opus 63: Arrangement of String Quintet (Opus 4) for Piano Trio (1806) and Opus 64: Arrangement of String Trio (Opus 3) for Piano and Cello (1807).

Next is a single aria, dating from 10 years before: Opus 65: Aria: "Ah perfido!" (1796). Also Opus 66: 12 Variations for cello & piano in F major on Mozart's "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" (1796) is a ten year old work.

Conclusion:This is a great slice of Beethoven's oeuvre, containing the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas and the third symphony. It also covers 1806, a dark year as Vienna was occupied by the forces of Napoleon, but also the period that gave birth to meditative and for once non-militaristic music as the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony. Beethoven also continued writing string quartets, with the difficult and enigmatic Razumowsky quartets Op 59.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte (Book review)

The story of Jane Eyre, told in the first person, starts at Gateshead where she is a 9 year old orphan who fights the mistreatment by her heartless aunt. Next she is sent to Lowood, a charity school with a harsh regime under a hypocritical minister. The little rebel manages to survive on a starvation diet, but her friend Helen Burns dies in her arms of tuberculosis. This leads to reforms in the school regime and in the end Jane becomes one of the teachers. Her natural independence and spirit have been strengthened by these childhood experiences.

She then obtains a position as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she asserts her equality with her sardonic employer, the patrician Rochester. She loves and is loved by him, but at the wedding it is revealed that he is already married - he has locked up his lunatic wife in the attic of the Hall. Jane is forced to make a choice by the discovery of this secret - and flees from Thornfield.

Starving and reduced to begging, she is taken in at Moor House. The two young ladies and their brother, a vicar, who live there, even turn out to be family of Jane. Next Jane inherits a fortune, but shares it with her newly found family. Relations with her nephew, St John, turn bad when he wants to marry her and take her to India as a missionary's wife and assistant. Jane escapes this deadly marriage (St John is anyway already "married to his church") and returns to Thornfield which she finds as a burned-out ruin. Rochester, blinded and mutilated, lives at a nearby farm, Ferndean, and as his wife has perished in the fire she started, he now is a free man. "Reader, I married him."

You do not usually think of classics as page-turners and often read them more as duty than pleasure. Not so Jane Eyre. To my surprise it read like a piece of modern fiction, and an extremely well-written one at that. What a passion! No wonder this book caused a storm, even though being published under a pseudonym, to hide that the author was a woman. The book was subtitled "An autobiography," as if this were a real account of the burning passions hidden in the country houses of northern England. Most of all, people were scandalized: a young, plain governess falls in love with her Byronic employer, attracted by his dark mien, his violence and his power. He answers her feelings and they are even on the point of marrying, when the truth she was unaware of comes out: he already has a mad wife locked-up in the attic. That accounts for the ghostly shreaks and laughter she heard sometimes at night...

This is a sublime book because it is about freedom, equality and human dignity. Jane Eyre fights for equality, not only as a woman, but as a human being (the only black spot in the eye of Charlotte Bronte are the British colonies, which still have to wait a century for that same equality and freedom). Jane struggles successfully to find the place in the world that she deserves and does so with great passion. That is a message important in all times, for all people.
Librivox recording of the novel. Jane Eyre on Gutenberg. I read Jane Eyre in the Penguin edition.

"Vivement Dimanche" ("Confidentially Yours", 1983) by Truffaut (Film review)

One early morning real estate agent Julien Vercel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is duck hunting in the wetlands of Southern France when another hunter in the same area is shot point blank in the face. Vercel sees an abandoned car which he recognizes as belonging to one Claude Massoulier. He touches the car to put off the lights and that same morning the police visit his office. The authorities soon discover that Vercel's wife was Massoulier's mistress and so Vercel becomes the prime suspect - even the more so after his wife is that same evening battered to death in their bedroom. But one person believes Vercel is innocent: his secretary, Barbara Becker (Fanny Ardent), and she starts her own amateur investigation while Vercel hides in the cellar below his office...

This is Truffaut's last film before his untimely death at age 52. It is a conscious homage to Hitchcock, shot on purpose in black and white, and at the same time a vehicle for Fanny Ardent, the actress with whom he shared his life at that time. The story was taken from an American pulp thriller (The Long Saturday Night by Charles Williams) - Truffaut used more pulp stories in his films, for example in Shoot the Pianist and in The Bride Wore Black.

The story is fluffy and improbable, but the glamorous Fanny Ardent carries the film. She is a woman in a world of men, and dark-haired in a world where blondes are popular. There are several conscious references to Hitchcock, such as legs passing in the street seen from below through a cellar window. A diffidence with Hitchcock is that where the elder master disliked women and usually cast icy and mean blondes, Truffaut admired women.

The film is humorous rather than dark - I would not call this a film-noir, although it plays with some noir elements. It lacks the femme fatale, the hero does not fall into a trap which only gets worse, and the ending is optimistic. It is a fun film perfect in its genre.

Myoga (Japanese condiments)

Another wonderful mild Japanese condiment is myoga (zingiber mioga). Although also called "Japanese ginger," we will use the more correct name "myoga."

Myoga is the small young bud of a mountain plant, a member of the ginger family.

Myoga - From Wikipedia (Nesnad - Own work, GFDL License)] 

In contrast to ginger, only the buds and stem are used. Myoga has a delicate fragrance and is not hot like ginger.

Myoga originated in Japan and tropical Asia; in its wild form, it occurs in Japan from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Today, myoga is cultivated; by far the highest production of myoga is in Kochi Prefecture. Myoga is available throughout the year thanks to hothouse production. The best season used to be summer and early autumn.

Myoga is already mentioned in 10th century records such as the Engishiki.

The buds are thinly sliced and used as a garnish in soups (miso soup for example), sunomono and sashimi. Buds and stems can also be made into vinegar pickles.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Solar" by Ian McEwan (Book review)

Solar is the story of the middle-aged, rotund Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him and who now only lives to show off his pride, devour enormous quantities of food and drink, and make love to as many women as is humanly possible. Stealing the research papers of one of his post-docs, he next passes himself off as the savior of mankind from the global warming disaster, by planning to make solar energy cheaply available via "artificial photosynthesis." But at the moment of his greatest triumph, reality is about to catch up with him...

Talking about ecological issues, Beard is a living example of the greed of modern society. He devours mountains of expensive food and slobbers away whole rivers of wine and whiskey (this all shows of course in his figure). He is a serial adulterer. Besides Gluttony and Lust, he is guilty of all other cardinal sins one can think of.

But this mountain of greed is also strangely likable. Everything Beard does tends to go wrong in a funny way (and sometimes rights itself again like a Daruma-doll). Solar therefore is enormously entertaining. Strangely enough, that is what many reviewers seem to regard as a negative point (they talk about "set pieces"), as if the comic novel were not a genre, too.

But Solar is more than only a humorous novel. Although it is not politically motivated (and all the better for it!) and does not take sides in the discussion about global warming, it gives off a clear warning signal: not only is Beard typical of the greed of modern mankind, he is also self-destructive, and it remains to be seen whether his scientific powers will be enough to save him. So it is with the real world.

Solar makes you laugh, but also sets you thinking.

Museums: Currency Museum, Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but some good things are free. One of these is squarely connected with money…

Just north of Nihonbashi we find the solemn edifice of the Bank of Japan. The office building next to bank's main building houses the Currency Museum, which was set up by the Bank of Japan (its Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies, to be precise) and provides a very complete overview of money in Japan.

Most of the museum space is taken up by this historical display, the 'History of Japanese Currency.' Further, there is a small area for thematic displays and a special exhibition area where usually various types of currency from other countries are shown. It is a pity that the detailed Japanese explanations have not been translated, but the illustrated English pamphlet visitors receive at the entrance partly makes up for that deficiency.

[The Bank of Japan]

The display starts with 'commodity money' such as arrowheads or rice and the beginning of coinage in China in the 3rd c. BC. These earliest coins still had the shape of commodities such as spades and daggers, but soon the typical circular coins with a square hole in the middle appear.

Influenced by China, the Yamato court in Japan started producing coins of that shape in 708 (called Wado Kaichin).

In the 10th c., however, coinage by the government was suspended and from the 12th to the 17th c. imported Chinese coins would be widely used in Japan. On display is a pot from Kyushu in which 7,700 Chinese coins were found.

The unification of the country by Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu also brought a new currency system. In 1588, Hideyoshi ordered the minting of Tensho Oban gold coins - these are the largest gold coins ever produced in the world. In 1601 Ieyasu has Keicho gold and silver coins minted.

Around 1600 the first paper money was introduced by merchants from the Ise area, called Yamada Hagaki (China knew paper money since the 10th c. - when it was used in Sichuan - and used it widely since the Yuan Dynasty). Paper money was slow to take off, but in 1661 the Fukui fief issued 'feudal notes,' local paper money, and they were soon imitated by other domains as well.

In 1670 the Kanei Tsusho standardized copper coin was added to the silver and gold ones by the shogunate. This was a monetary system where the value of individual coins was based on the value and volume of the metal from which they were made. At the end of the century, however, the government debased gold and silver coins and this happened several times in the rest of the Edo period.

When the Meiji government took the reigns in 1868, there was monetary confusion at first, but soon a monetary system based on a Western model was introduced. Due to the New Currency Act of 1871, the denomination 'yen' was introduced.

1881 saw the issue of the Empress Jingu Note, the first one to feature a portrait. The Bank of Japan started its operations in 1882 and issued its first note called Daikokusatsu in 1885. In 1897 the gold standard was adopted.

The rest is modern history, with the various types of yen coins and notes issued from that time on display, also the ones from the war period.
Address: Bank of Japan Annex Building, Nihonbashi-Hongokucho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.

Tel. 03-3277-3037

Access: 1 min walk from Mitsukoshi-mae St on the Hanzomon Subway Line (B1 exit); 3 min walk from Mitsukoshi-mae St on the Ginza Subway Line (A5 exit)

Hours: 9:30-16:30. Cl. Mon, NH (except Sat & Sun), 12/29-1/4, between exhibitions. Entrance free.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Negi (Japanese condiments)

Negi

welsh onion

Allium fistulosum

ネギ

[Field of negi in Kyoto]

The most favorite onion in Japan is called negi (allium fistulosum), a delicious aromatic plant with a soft and sweet rather than a strong and spicy taste, grown for the leafy stems. "Negi" is usually translated as "welsh onion" but this should be written with a small "w" as the name has nothing to do with Wales. It is an old word, according to the Oxford Dictionary, in the 18th c. derived from the German "welsch" meaning "foreign." Other names are bunching onion (bunching refers to the way the plant grows, in bunches or clusters), scallion, spring onion or green onion. Some of these names are ambiguous (esp. the last two) as they are used loosely for any young green onion stalk of different varieties. Our negi is characterized by the facts (1) that it does not develop bulbs, and (2) that it possesses hollow leaves (fistulosum means "hollow") and scapes (scapes are long shafts or stems). Larger varieties of negi may visually resemble the leek (but negi are thinner and longer, and the taste is completely different), and smaller ones chives. Negi is a perennial and can multiply by forming clusters.

Negi originated more than 2,000 years ago in Western China. They came to Japan via Korea and are first mentioned in the Nihonshoki, which was compiled in 720 CE. The largest cultivation of negi takes places in the Kanto (Chiba, Saitama and Ibaraki, together good for about 40% of the national production). Japan is the second largest negi producer in the world; China is No. 1.

Negi are produced the year round, so there is no typical best season, although they are sweetest in winter, between late autumn and early spring.

There are many local varieties of negi in Japan, such as Kyoto's kujonegi. Naganegi ("naga" means "long") are a long variety of negi valued for its large amount of white. In contrast, negi are shorter and slimmer  and only have a short white part. It is the leafy, green part that is mainly used.

Some other related types are:
  • wakegi, called "autumn 'spring' onion" by Richard Hosking (A Dictionary of Japanese Food, p. 169) and "tree onion" by Wikipedia; it is a cross between negi and onion and has a small bulb. The green of the stem is however used in the same way as negi (see below). Mainly produced in Hiroshima Prefecture.
  • asatsuki, "asatsuki chive." Hosking says that asatsuki is similar to wakegi and mentions that the leaves are shallow-fried as a vegetable, used in nabemono (one pot dishes) or as a herb flavoring with sashimi. The stems of asatsuki are thinner than of negi. Traditionally grown in Yamagata and Fukushima.

[Finely chopped negi (plus katsuobushi shavings and a dab of wasabi), to be added to the dipping sauce for cold soba noodles] 

Negi are always used finely chopped (in that state, they are called sarashi-negi or kizami-negi):
  • Added to dips (for zaru-soba, zaru-udon, shabu-shabu etc) 
  • Added to (miso-) soups.
  • Also used as a garnish, for example for hiyayakko (a block of cold tofu).
Naganegi are used in negima, a type of yakitori. 


Monday, July 18, 2011

Shiso (Japanese condiments)

Shiso (perilla frutescens var. crispa) is a wonderful leaf that has now also been discovered by chefs elsewhere in the world. Thanks to that, the name "shiso" has been widely accepted outside Japan, and we can do away with old-fashioned quaint names like "beefsteak plant," or "perilla leaves" (ambiguous, as there are more varieties of perilla). In Japan, shiso is also called ooba ("big leaf," or contraction of "aoba," "green leaf").

[Green shiso leaves]

The large leaves (5x8cm) of this plant are used in Japanese cuisine. It is a member of the mint family (tasting somewhere between mint and basil) and has a very refreshing taste. Shiso improves the appetite.

Shiso originated in South-Western China, Myanmar and the Himalayas. It reached Japan very early: an archaeological find was made of a Jomon pot containing shiso seeds dating back 2,500 years. In the Heian period shiso was used a a medicine and also for pickles. 

There is a green (aojiso) and a red (akajiso) variety. The green variety is more common.

Shiso is available during the whole year thanks to hothouse cultivation. The natural season used to be from spring to early autumn. Most (more than 50%) of all shiso is produced in Aichi Prefecture (Toyohashi).

Shiso has the following uses in the Japanese kitchen:

Aojiso:
  • The whole leaf can be eaten raw, as a garnish with sashimi. Good for its antibacterial properties, so don't leave it on the plate! 
  • Also chopped fine and incorporated into rolled sushi.
  • Finely chopped, it can be added as a flavoring to hot rice and other dishes.
  • Can also be used in salads.
  • The whole leaf can be deep-fried as tempura.
Akajiso:
  • Used to give color to tsukemono, especially umeboshi (pickled plums) or shibazuke (pickled eggplant).
  • The sprouts (mejiso) are used as a garnish for sashimi.
  • The pods on the stalk (hana hojiso) are also used as a garnish for sashimi, or made into tempura. 
    • When used as a garnish with sashimi, the pods should be scraped off with your chopsticks and mixed into the dipping sauce. 
    • Aojiso can be used in the same way.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen (Book Review)

Where Emma is perhaps Jane Austen's most mature and wise novel, Pride and Prejudice is full of youthful sprightliness. It is carefree and witty and justifiably Austen's most popular creation. We follow the courtships of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters. The focus is on Lizzie's locking horns with Mr Darcy. Darcy is a proud and ancient landowner and he treats Elizabeth at first with the blind prejudice based on his status. But she can’t be impressed by such prejudices that are not based on the intrinsic value of human beings. Her sharp tongue and ironic repartees help her in the war of words which finally leads to mutual attraction. She also overcomes her own prejudice, which was based on a wrong first impression.

Pride and Prejudice is a book full of sunshine. Like everything Jane Austen wrote, it is very eighteenth century. The novel is infused with the optimism of the Enlightenment, with the rationalism of Locke and Hume. For the arch-romantic Charlotte Bronte it was all too neat, too well-ordered. But if you like the music of Joseph Haydn, you will also love Jane Austen's books. Just like Haydn, Austen is optimistic and bright, but there is a deeper thought hidden below the surface.

Being an earlier work, Pride and Prejudice is not perfect. Where all events in Emma are so natural that the book almost could have been a biography, in Pride and Prejudice novelistic coincidence still plays a role, for example when Elizabeth takes a holiday tour that by chance brings her to the area where Darcy has his castle. She visits that castle and of course, whom else does she meet but Mr Darcy – etc., etc. But the novel is so much fun that we gladly overlook such small defects.
Pride and Prejudice on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. I read the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice.

"Emma" by Jane Austen (Book Review)

Austen was the first novelist to put the reader via internal dialogues inside the head of her characters. Her heroines come to life in a most natural way and we share their longings, worries, and deliberations. Austen also makes us a little bit wiser than her characters, so that we can laugh at their follies. Emma, perhaps her most “human” novel, is a good example. The snobbish but sympathetic Emma is wrong about almost everything. She likes to meddle in other person's lives and tries to couple her youthful protegee Harriet Smith with a young clergyman. She fails miserably: the parson declares his highly unwelcome love for Emma herself.

Emma is not only wrong about others, she also doesn’t know her own feelings. In fact she is in love without knowing it. When Harriet Smith after several Emma-induced disappointments, lets her eye fall on Mr Knightley, Emma is suddenly aware that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself! This is one of the most beautiful recognitions of love in literature. Of course, after that Emma stumbles on to happiness. Harriet Smith returns to her first love – a gentleman farmer initially disapproved by Emma for her because his station in life was too low.

That puts the finger on one sore spot in Jane Austen: servants and other persons of a status lower than the small gentry to which she herself belonged, are about as important as the furniture and get the same treatment. They are never introduced as speaking characters in her novels. England was a harsh class society.

That is also true for Jane Austen herself, and women in a similar position. The lower gentry did not own land and the only occupations open to them were the clergy, medicine and the army. But these were closed to women. A woman like Jane Austen could only hope to make an advantageous marriage in order to secure her status and way of life. Otherwise she would be dependent on other family members (as Jane Austen indeed was). This explains the importance of courtship and marriage in Jane Austen's novels.
Emma on Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel. I read Emma in the Penguin edition.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"The Kelly's and the O'Kelly's" by Anthony Trollope (Book review)

Trollope's second novel - and again an Irish novel - The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1848) sold just 140 copies when first published. Yet this is real Trollope, with all the hallmarks of future greatness.

It is the story of two young men, Francis O'Kelly, Lord Ballindine, and his distant relation and tenant, Martin Kelly. Both are in love. Lord Ballindine's engagement to Fanny Wyndham, a wealthy heiress, has been broken off, because her guardian Lord Cashel is machinating to marry her to his dissipated son Lord Kilcullen, but the two have not given up on each other.

Martin Kelly plans to marry Anty Lynch, an old maid who is his neighbor, at first for her money (she is a bit weak-minded, it appears), but in the course of the story the two really fall in love. The problem is her worthless brother Barry who is in earnest after her money and tries to have her locked up in a mental asylum and even murder her.

Both suitors will of course be successful, but what is more interesting is Trollope's grasp of social relationships, human character, and the competing demands of desire and conscience. Trollope's Ireland is also perfectly sensed - a pity that readers in England were not very much interested at that time.

The description of character and social comedy is more important than the love stories. Lord Ballindine and Fanny Wyndham only meet again in the last chapter, and their whole conversation consists of "My own Fanny!" and "Dear Frank!"

Get the novel on Gutenberg. 
Also read this enthusiastic review in the Guardian.

"Hide and Seek" by Wilkie Collins (Book review)

Collins' third novel Hide and Seek (1854) is a big step down from his second, Basil. After that novel for and about adults, with deep psychological insights, Collins befriended Dickens and apparently came under the spell of the famous man. Dickens usually writes about children - mistreated children, poor children, or at the other end of the unrealistic scale, angelic children. It is the kind of manipulative Victorian literature that I can't stand. To make it palatable for the masses, the author (Dickens and in this case also Collins) pours a whole pot of treacle over it.

Hide and Seek is about Madonna (Mary) a deaf-mute (!) girl whose origin is a mystery (!) but who has been lovingly (!) taken into the house of struggling (!) minor painter Valentine and his wife Lavinia, who is an invalid (!) - both ladies are of course angels (!). The only clue to Madonna's original identity is a hair bracelet that Valentine keeps carefully hidden - he is not interested in discovering the truth about her as he doesn't want to be parted from her. Next we have Zack, a wild boy with a very religious sermonizing father (and of course a loving, angelic mother!) who is friends with Valentine and Madonna and wants to become a painter to get away from the office where his father has placed him. During a wild night on the town, Zack meets Mat Marksman, a trapper a la Fennimore Cooper, with a skull cap instead of his original scalp, just arrived back home from the wild Americas. Mat is looking for his sister who twenty-three years ago was ostracized and kicked out of the family (while he was already away across the ocean) because of an extra-marital pregnancy. Without coincidences we have no novels: of course Madonna is later revealed to be the daughter of Mat's dead sister. Mat searches for the guy who has the dishonor of that sister on his consciousness in order to take revenge and who else is the man in question... but the sermonizing father of Zack. Without coincidences we have no novels! Zack is therefore the half-brother of Madonna. Good they found this out in time, otherwise we would have had a story that would not have been fit for children.

In other words, this is the low-end of Victorian fiction. Like in Dickens, the writing is full of caricatures as well. One redeeming point is the description of Valentine's dedication to art, even with little talent, and his atelier - Collins' father had been a painter and also Collins himself had taken up the brush before the pen. The second attraction is that Collins hated preachers and their shamming and liked to make them into villains.

Get a copy on Gutenberg.

Listening to the complete Beethoven (3)

Opus 25: Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola in D major (1801), This seven part work again harks back to 18th c. serenade music, such as in the Entrata march and the two minuets. The emotional heart is the andante, a set of variations, but on the whole this is a rather slight work.

Something entirely different is Opus 26: the Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major (1801). The structure of the sonata is unconventional in that the piece opens with a slow movement in the format of a theme and variations. After a scherzo follows a funeral march (played by a brass band at Beethoven's own funeral). The sonata closes with a joyful rondo. Beethoven wrote this work out of a sense of competition when the piano virtuoso Cramer visited Vienna. It sets off a new phase of experimentation, now also with form. A memorable sonata.

Experiments with form continue in Opus 27: Two Piano Sonatas (1801) "in the form of a fantasia." The Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat major is the more conventional of the two, although all four movements are connected in one continuous flow. It is full of ideas and like its companion starts with simple and intimate music. The Piano Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor is the famous "Moonlight" - this time starting with a real slow movement, where the melody seems to rise up out of the chordal mass. This well-known movement is followed by an elfin dance and a volcanic eruption in the finale.

Opus 28: the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major (1801) reverts to the classical four-movement model. It has an easy-going manner. The emotional core is the andante, which sounds like a solitary walk. The rustic finale with a droning bass has given the sonata the nickname "Pastoral," but that was not a choice of Beethoven himself.

Opus 29: String Quintet in C major (1801). This Beethoven's only original contribution to the string quintet genre, an expansive work with lots of sonority, but in my view falling short of the string quartets op. 18. (String quintets were popular as arrangements of other works as well. Beethoven himself arranged his octet for wind and his third piano trio for this medium; others made string quintet versions of Beethoven's Septet and First Symphony).

Opus 30: Three Violin Sonatas (1803). The Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major is a gracious work, neatly sharing its elegant melodies between the two instruments.The finale is a theme with variations. The Violin Sonata No. 7 in c minor is the largest and most serious of the set, as already indicated by the key. It is in four movements and starts with a mysterious, questioning theme followed by militaristic rumblings. The next adagio possesses great poise and beauty and the fine finale ends uncompromisingly in the minor. The Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major is charming, sturdy and deceptively simple.

Opus 31: Three Piano Sonatas (1802). Although these sonatas share the same opus number, they are very different in character. The Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major is a bright and serene piece. Interesting is the limping melody in the first movement. Sonata No. 17 in d minor with the nickname "Tempest" is indeed volatile and tempestuous, although there is no connection with Shakespeare's play. Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major ("Hunt" was not Beethoven's name) is a relaxed and sunny work, with a scherzo and a minuet as the two middle movements instead of a slow movement. The last movement has a swinging rhythm.

Opus 32: Song – An die Hoffnung (1805). First setting of Tiedge's "Urania," an appeal to hope not unlike Schiller's "Ode to Joy." This was the first vocal work in Beethoven's opus catalogue.

Opus 33: Seven Bagatelles for piano (1802). Beethoven's first larger work for amateurs and the first of three such groups he wrote. The name "bagatelle" originated with Couperin. These are indeed graceful little works.

Opus 34: Six variations on an original theme for piano in F major (1802). These variations are in "a new manner" as Beethoven himself indicated, being all in different keys. Opus 35: Fifteen variations and a fugue for piano on an original theme in E-flat major ("Eroica Variations") (1802). Here, too, we have different keys for all variations. The theme is more memorable than in op. 34 and the work more expansive, too.

Opus 36: Symphony No. 2 in D major (1803). Another symphony in the late-Haydn mold. In comparison with the first symphony, there is a striking brusqueness and almost grotesque humor. The first movement has a great nervous energy. The Larghetto is a relaxing interlude, the Scherzo is full of dynamic contrasts and the finale brings an explosive conclusion to the work.

Opus 37: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (1803). This concerto consolidates the achievements of the first two piano concertos. It is rather "classicizing," especially in the first movement with its orchestral introduction. It became the model for Hummel, Weber and others until Chopin. The most extraordinary movement is the Largo, played almost wholly with the dampers raised, and in character very much like a nocturne.

We skip opus 38: Piano Trio in E-flat major, as this is an arrangement of the Septet, Opus 20.

Opus 39: Two Preludes through all twelve major keys for piano (1789) - two fourteen year old student exercises that Beethoven managed to sell when he was in need for money.

Opus 40: Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G major (1802). Simple and sweet music. Begins with double stops for the solo violin and ends with an energetic tutti.

We can also skip Opus 41: Serenade for Piano and Flute or Violin in D major (1803), as this is an arrangement of the flute trio op 25, and Opus 42: Notturno for Viola and Piano in D major (1803), an arrangement of the serenade for string trio op. 8. It is even doubtful whether Beethoven made these arrangements himself.

Opus 43: The Creatures of Prometheus, overture and ballet music (1801). Theater music, consisting of an overture and 17 short pieces of ballet music. Beethoven considered Prometheus' self-sacrifice (the god stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans) as the highest form of heroic action and would reuse the melody from the last part of the ballet to greater effect in the Eroica Symphony. I found this ballet music rather down to earth.

Opus 44: Piano Trio No. 10 (Variations on an original theme in E-flat major) (1792). Again an old work sold when Beethoven needed money. In the early 90s Beethoven wrote many similar sets of variations.

Opus 45: Three Marches for Piano, 4 hands (1803). Light music as Beethoven wrote in the early 90s when he produced this type of music for wind band.

Opus 46: Song – Adelaide (1795). This second song with an opus number is a weighty work, both as regards the piano part that sometimes overbalances the text and the dramatic singing which reminds more of the opera house than the drawing room. Apparently, the poet, Friedrich Matthison, was not amused.

Opus 47: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major ("Kreutzer") (1802). A great sonata (also literally, as it last 40 minutes) with a very demanding violin part and broad emotional scope, from the furious first movement to the meditative second and exuberant third. It is almost like a violin concert.

Opus 48: Six Songs (1802). A series of sacred songs on texts by Gellert dating from 1757 and already set by C.P.E. Bach (No. 1: "Bitten," No. 2: "Die Liebe des Nächsten," No. 3: "Vom Tode," No. 4: "Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur," No. 5: "Gottes Macht und Vorsehung," No. 6: "Bußlied"). Beethoven was inspired by the unity of mankind that speaks from these songs. His renderings are remarkably contained.

Opus 49: Two Piano Sonatas (1792). Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor. Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major. Again two older works, written about the same time as the first piano sonatas op. 2. It is possible that Beethoven never wanted to publish these sweet and uncomplicated pieces, but apparently his brother offered them to a publisher without Beethoven's knowledge (to make money on the sly?).

Opus 50: Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major (1798). A simple and poetic Adagio Cantabile. More virtuoso and lyrical than the Romance Op. 40.

Conclusion: What struck me in this part of Beethoven's opus, related to the early 1800s, is the amount of recycling of older work (as in the piano sonatas op 49, the variations for piano trio, the two preludes etc.) and the composition of more popular works for a larger group of consumers (the flute trio, the bagatelles, the ballet music for Prometheus, the marches for piano) and the fact that we have also two arrangements of own work. Beethoven now was famous enough to be able to sell some old or inferior work for good money and who can blame him for it?

But there are lots of great works among these opus numbers, too, such as the third piano concerto, the second symphony, the Kreutzer Sonata and the many piano sonatas (except op 49) where Beethoven expands his experiments to include the form of the sonata.