Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tokyo's Mountain Shrine - Mitake Shrine (Tokyo, Shrines)

The Mitake Shrine which sits on the top of Mt Mitake (929 m) west of Tokyo, just inside the Chichibu and Tama National Park, traces its origins to an unbelievable antiquity that never was, except in myths. The mythical hero Yamato Takeru visited here and buried a cache of arms. The country around it was therefore called Musashi (written with characters meaning "military storehouse"). The next visitor was not mythical, but highly legendary: the peripatetic priest Gyoki, who is credited with setting up a statue of Zao Gongen here in 736. What this shows is that the shrine was a syncretic establishment (both Shinto and Buddhist, with the latter element perhaps even stronger) of the shugendo priests, ascetic priests who practiced in the mountains.

[Lion-dog statue watching out over the Musashi plain]

This shrine of the mountain cult was supported with gifts by various shoguns. Later, the shrine came to be regarded as a patron deity of the Edo/Tokyo area. In Meiji, when gods and Buddhas were split by the new government, the syncretic establishment was turned into a Shinto shrine. The Haiden (Prayer Hall) was donated in 1700 by the Tokugawa shogunate and is in the ornate Gongen-style of the Nikko shrines.

[The Shrine Hall on the mountain top]

That the shrine was highly regarded by those in power is attested to by the many gifts they donated. Part of these are on view in the two-story Treasure Hall. The shrine owns two national treasures: a piece of gorgeous armor (yoroi) with lacing of red thread (12th c.) and a saddle decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay with a design of circles (13th c.). The armor is counted among the three best pieces of armor in Japan and was donated to the shrine in 1191 by the military man sitting on horseback (and in bronze) in front of the museum: Hatakeyama Shigetada. The saddle is regarded as an exemplary item of horse gear from the Kamakura period.

Other items in the museum include a portable shrine (mikoshi) from 1700; a metal plate with an effigy of Zao Gongen on it (these plates called kakebotoke were hung on the walls of temples); and a set of large cups to toast with before going into battle. In short, this is a cache of armor and Buddhist art worth to climb the mountain for.

[Shrine Museum with statue of Hatakeyama Shigetada]

The most interesting way to visit is to hike from Mitake Station. Cross the bridge over the river and go up a steep road under a red torii. Skip the cable car and instead take the footpath leading away to the left. This is the original pilgrim's path and recommended if you want to get a taste of the ancient atmosphere. The wide path zigzags up the mountain slope under enormous cedar trees. It will be quiet - almost all other people take the cable car. After about an hour the path merges with a paved road and you will suddenly be joined by the crowds who have been carried up by cable car.
Where: Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku and transfer 
in Tachikawa to the Ome Line to Mitake Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). If you don't feel like walking, take a bus from the car park opposite Mitake Station to Takimoto at the foot of Mt. Mitake, where the cable car starts. 
How much: Grounds free. Museum small fee, 9:30-16:00.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Quietude of Zen - Myoshinji Temple (Temples, Kyoto)

Myoshinji ("Temple of the Wondrous Mind") is one Kyoto's major Zen temples. Its 13.5 hectare large grounds lie in the northern part of the city, and like those of Daitokuji, are always open to residents who want to take a pleasant shortcut home. The area is called Hanazono or "Flower Garden," and was the country residence of the abdicated Emperor of the same name. In 1337 the Emperor wanted to turn his villa into a temple and asked his teacher, the Zen master Shuho Myocho (1282-1337), to suggest a suitable first abbot. Shuho recommended his disciple Kanzan Egen (1277–1360). After Shuho's death, the Emperor continued his Zen practice under Kanzan.

[Curtains under the roof of the Hojo - colors of Buddhism]

After Kanzan's death, the temple went into decline, and in 1467, during the Onin Wars, nearly all buildings were destroyed. The temple was rebuilt by the 6th head, Sekko-Soshin Zenji (1408-86) and received the patronage of the powerful Hosokawa family and later also from the Toyotomi and Tokugawa, ensuring its continued prosperity. Most buildings we see today were built from the late 15th through early 17th centuries. The temple expanded over the centuries into a labyrinth of sub temples, of which there are now 47, concealed behind their earthen walls.

[The quiet precincts]

The first abbot Kanzan was renowned for the simplicity and austerity of his lifestyle, and that is perhaps the reason that unlike Daitokuji, Myoshinji does not recognize worldly pursuits as the tea ceremony. It also stood outside the Gozan system. As a consequence, it does not possess the many exquisite tea houses and roji gardens found at Daitokuji. All the same, there are many paintings, hanging scrolls, sliding screens and other art treasures in the possession of Myoshinji and its sub temples. Myoshinji belongs to the Rinzai Zen school, of which it is the largest branch, as big as all others together - nationwide it has more than 3,000 affiliated temples and 19 monasteries. It also operates Hanazono University, set up in 1872.

[Zen in the sand (from the dry garden of Taizoin)]

The garan with its formal array of seven buildings on a north-south axis is found at the southern end of the precincts. Starting from the south, these are the Sanmon (Mountain Gate), Butsuden (Buddha Hall), Hatto (Dharma Hall), and Hojo (Abbot’s Quarters); to the east of this axis stand the Yokushitsu (Bath House) and the Kyozo (Sutra Library) and to the west the Sodo (Monk's Hall). Many of the buildings in Myoshin-ji are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Near the main temple one also finds some gorgeous black pines (kuromatsu).

The ceiling of the Lecture Hall (Hatto) boasts a painting of a dragon by Kano Tan'yu, whose eyes follow you all around the hall. It is one of the best dragon paintings in the country, made around 1661. The dragon is not only a symbol of the life force of nature, but also as a water animal a magical protection against fire. The temple bell preserved here dates from 698, making it the oldest documented one in Japan and a National Treasure. Obviously, originally it belonged to another temple. It won't ring anymore - it has been fatally cracked, but it possessed a beautiful tone, as old records tell us, the sound of impermanence itself. Of interest is also the Bath House (Yokushitsu), a steam bath built in 1656 by the uncle of Nobunaga's assassin Akechi Mitsuhide. It was not so bad to be a monk here!

[Myoshinji's bath house]

Visitors find the sub temples by venturing into the warren of winding paths. The major one is Taizoin (founded in 1404), standing conveniently west of the Sanmon Gate, famous for its two gardens: a traditional dry garden attributed to the painter Kano Motonobu, who once lived here, depicting a stream flowing between cliffs, and a modern garden with a pond, rocks and luxurious plantings such as azaleas blooming gorgeously in May, designed by renowned garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the mid-1960s.

[The modern garden of Taizoin]

Keishunin was founded in 1632 and contains three small gardens, including a rare tea arbor; Daishinin (1492) has a modern garden again designed by Nakane Kinsaku. This finishes the list of sub temples that are normally open to visitors. Three more are of interest, but usually closed - you have to wait for a special opening around Culture Day etc. These are: Shunkoin, which owns the church bell of a Jesuit church built in the 16th c. in Kyoto and a garden of boulders based on the Ise Shrine (Shunkoin also hosts meditation classes); Reiunin featuring the oldest shoin structure in Japan, an Imperial Visit Room (Goko no Ma) dating from around 1543, as well as a fine dry garden; and Tenkyuin possessing rooms decorated with gorgeous screens by Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu.
Where: Myoshinji's South Gate (Sanmon) is a short walk north of Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano line; the North Gate is a short walk from Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Kitano line. 
When: From 9:00 to 15:40 there are tours of the Garan (Hatto and Yokushitsu) with 20 min intervals, except around lunch time. Closed April 1 and April 8-12. 500 yen. 
Taizoin: 9:00-17:00, 500 yen. 
Daishinin: 9:00-17:00, 300 yen. 
Keishunin: 9:00-16:30, 400 yen.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"The Great Gatsby" (1922) by F. Scott-Fitzgerald (Book Review)

No, I haven't seen the latest Gatsby film (which doesn't seem such a big deal anyway if the first reviews got it right), but all the GG noise in the ether motivated me to try the novel, which I hadn't read before. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott-Fitzgerald (1896-1940) of course is a constant bestseller of which millions of copies have been sold, although I guess that most American readers have forcibly encountered it on their reading list at school. It also sits high on lists of the best books of the 20th century, but then again, such lists are usually uncannily similar to those school reading lists.

But enough of this introduction, what did I think about The Great Gatsby?

In a few words: a medium quality, fast read; well-written and attractive for its image of the decadent Jazz Age of the 1920s, but also seriously flawed in several respects.

There are two major flaws:
(1) the sodden melodrama (though hidden under the narrator's lightness of touch) - The Great Gatsby is the story of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby who owns a lavish mansion on Long Island where he hosts extravagant parties. As later becomes clear, his only purpose is to come into contact again with his former flame Daisy, who lives across the Bay, exactly opposite him, and who is now married to another very rich man, Tom Buchanan. This Tom, by the way, is an ugly fascistoid white supremacist; he also has a mistress, Myrtle, the disgruntled wife of a garage owner on the outskirts of New York. Although Daisy is a vapid and spiritual empty shell who only floats where the money is (she was brought up in a rich household herself, how could it be otherwise), we have to believe that Gatsby has been madly in love with her, even though she jilted him for $$ five years ago when he was still poor. The present fortune of Gatsby, by the way, has been obtained through bootlegging and other illegal pursuits - he is hand in glove with several gangsters. The crisis comes when Gatsby openly professes his love and tries to pry Daisy loose from Tom. Then Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, inadvertently runs over and kills Myrtle in a hit-and-run traffic accident (a plot twist that is rather too coincidental to be believable); the garage owning husband, who knows the car, goes after Gatsby - thinking that he was the driver - and kills him in his swimming pool to take revenge for the traffic accident before committing suicide - and yes, he also confused Gatsby with Tom Buchanan as the lover of his wife. Final curtain. Isn't this a cheap soap opera? Of course, Gatsby's funeral is a very lonely affair as all the partying people have already forgotten about him and anyway, they hate contact with death. The Great Gatsby is, if anything, aesthetically overrated, with a plot that is just silly. (Between brackets: that is why the plotless stories of, for example, Chekhov are so great - too much plot is just ridiculous. Life doesn't have a plot, either).

(2) the unnatural characterization - this is not a realistic novel, but a fable. The love of Gatsby for Daisy is not made plausible in the book, probably also because Daisy is only a piece of fluff. It is Scott-Fitzgerald's fault that he does not fill in the attraction or the psychological motivation between these two main players. It now seems that Daisy doesn't really return Gatsby's feelings but only plays along with him out of boredom, or to take avenge on her philandering husband - the novel certainly is not a "love story" as many people seem to believe (again due to reading the book as a teenager, I guess). When coming to Gatsby, I had just read John Updike's Couples and kept comparing both books - after all, both novels tell stories of adultery and love for a married woman. I found Updike vastly superior. His characters are just as ugly - in different ways - as those in The Great Gatsby, but they are real. His protagonists also behave like grown-ups do in the real world - no coincidental deadly traffic accidents, no convenient murders and no suicides here. But the attraction people may feel for the partner of another and the complex emotional problems such behavior engenders, are only properly addressed in Couples, while The Great Gatsby skims the surface by opting for cheap melodrama. In the end, neither Gatsby nor Daisy are believable characters. I don't mind that the characters are not likeable (unlikeable characters populate the greatest novels of the world) but I object to their being not real. The book is psychologically vacant.

There is also one plus point:
Not everything is bad in The Great Gatsby, and I probably would like the book better if it was not so overhyped. The descriptions of the parties Gatsby hosts are immaculate, Scott-Fitzgerald here demonstrates clearly the decadent, empty spirit of those times - in a most enjoyable way. And the style is beautifully polished, without calling too much attention to itself.

My final judgement:
But, when we make up the final reckoning, the positives are by far not enough to save this book as a superb novel, let alone the Great American Novel it has been made out to be. It can't compare with anything Henry James has written (surely, The Wings of the Dove is much better!), nor with Moby Dick, or Huckleberry Finn, or The Adventures of Augie MarchRabbit RunGravity's RainbowAmerican Pastoral, and many others. Perhaps it is so popular because it is short and easy to consume.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Gardens of Jonangu (Kyoto, Gardens, Shrines)

The site of the Jonangu Shrine, one the east bank of the Kamo River in what is now the southern part of Kyoto, once was the extensive Detached Palace Emperor Shirakawa and his successors. When the palace was built in the 11th century, it stood in a pastoral river landscape south of the capital. The name, "Jo-nan" points at the shrine's location as it simply means "South of the Capital."

[Haru no Yama Garden]

It is not clear how old the shrine is. The shrine's own history makes a link with the myth of Empress Jingu and her just as mythical conquest of Korea, and also mentions that the shrine guarded the southern direction when Emperor Kammu set up the capital here. But the shrine is not mentioned in the 10th century Engishiki, which covers all important shrines of the country, so it seems logical to assume it was founded later than the 10th c. Indeed, its first mention in a reliable historical text is in connection with the Toba detached palace of the 11th c. The shrine apparently formed part of a temple-shrine complex inside the palace, and was called the "Myojin of Jonan Temple." The shrine's deity may have been seen as a protector of the detached palace.

[Heian Garden - the pond]

The shrine shared the fate of the tragic destruction of said palace, but was later reconstructed. It seems to have been a fairly small and insignificant facility, a pious reminder of the imperial villas that once stood in this area. The last Kyoto emperor, Komei, visited the shrine and like all things imperial it rose in standing in the Meiji Period. The present buildings date from the late 1970s, when the shrine was rebuilt after a fire. It is in pleasant and simple State-Shinto style, with unpainted wood and cedar bark roofs, what again points at its modern origins.

There are five gardens at Jonangu, and they are all new just like those the Heian Shrine. They were designed in the late seventies by the famous landscape architect Nakane Kinsaku (1917-1995).

[Heian Garden - the meandering stream for Kyokusui no Utage]

The first garden is called Haru no Yama or Spring Hill. There is man made hill from which a brook flows, there are plum trees, camellias, azalea bushes and a bamboo grove. The stream is the location for a purification ceremony, Hitogata Nagashi, held between June 25 and 30 (people transfer their pain and sorrow to the cut-out figure of a human and let that flow away in the stream). You will also find plantings of flowers mentioned in the Genji Monogatari.

The second garden is the centerpiece at Jonangu and is called Heian Garden. It's main element is a large pond with an artificial hill at the back, many solitary stones simulating islands in the pond and again a stream leading out of the pond into the garden. This is a very attractive and well composed garden, with lots of details. The plantings add color in all seasons.

[Muromachi Garden]

The meandering stream leading out of the pond is the location for the twice-annual "Kyokusui no Utage" poetry festival. Held in April and November, people in Heian-period court costumes float cups with sake in the stream and have to compose a waka poem when the cup reaches them. A colorful spectacle that is worth visiting.

The next garden is called Muromachi Garden. This garden is again dominated by a pond, divided in half by a stone bridge. At the edge stands a tea house (where you can have matcha). There is again a lot of interesting rock work. Plantings include azaleas and small pine trees. At the back of the pond you will see a stone torii gate.

[Momoyama Garden]

The fourth garden (connected with the third) is the Momoyama Garden. This time we find a wide lawn with a rock garden and trees and neatly clipped hedges at the back. This a garden that feels very modern in spirit. It is a sort of re-interpretation of real Momoyama rock gardens. The lawn is a European influence and replaces the raked sand. There is a good balance between all elements. This is perhaps the most interesting garden at Jonangu.

Finally, the fifth garden is called Jonan Rikyu Garden. This one is smaller than the previous ones. It consist of areas of monkey grass and white gravel, a nice contrast. In the green grass stands various rocks. It is an abstract garden, but also symbolizes the arrangement of the various palaces in green gardens at the banks of a large lake (the sand).

[Jonan Rikyu Garden]

A 15-min walk south-west of Takeda Station on the subway and Kintetsu lines. Walk south along the line and turn west at a sake shop where you also see the pagoda of the Konoe Tomb. Turn south to the large road with traffic lights and follow this road in a western direction. Pass under the ramp of the expressway. After seeing the area with love hotels on your right, you will find the white walls of Jonangu on your left. Go around to find the entrance. Gardens open 9:00-16:30 (last entry 16:00). 500 yen. Shrine grounds free. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Couples" (1968) by John Updike (Book Review)

John Updike (1932-2009) was the chronicler of American small town life among middle-class WASPs, most famously in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy (Rabbit Run, 1960; Rabbit Redux, 1971; Rabbit is Rich, 1981; and Rabbit at Rest, 1990), but not less incisively in the 1968 novel Couples. This last book was even a succès de scandale because of the for that time explicit love scenes. Due to its frankness, the novel is often paired with two other literary landmarks of the sexual revolution, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge.

Couples tells the stories of ten young married couples living in the "post-pill paradise" (two decades of promiscuity, until the AIDS scare put an end to it) and sleeping with each other in various combinations. Discreetly swapping partners, coming together for parties, sports and outings, they use adultery as a tool to relieve the boredom of small-town life. Sex seems their only refuge, almost like an emergent religion.

We could also turn things around and say that all these vigorous and constant couplings are a means to hide a state of inner emptiness, where the cure proves worse than the disease because nothing is as vapid as such mindless rituals. The newly won physical ease and freedom of the 1960s seem to make the couples forget that we remain always responsible for our actions. Great social change brings new moral choices with it.

That is brought home to Piet Hanema, a home remodeler with Dutch ancestry and a rather rough type who seems to "know" all the women of the town, and the tall and winsome Foxy Whitman, the wife of a stiff academic researcher and newcomer to the community. Piet is married to the sublime but unapproachable Angela. The old home of the Whitmans requires extensive remodeling, giving Piet and Foxy the opportunity to start a complicated relationship. When Piet and Foxy reject caution in their affair, which has some grotesque aspects (Foxy is pregnant with a child from her husband), they manage to shock the other couples and are finally ostracized. Decayed from within, the community then also falls apart. Piet is described as a regular churchgoer, but he proves himself totally lacking in moral consciousness, like most of the characters in the book. They just float like flotsam on the surface of life. It is Updike's greatness that he never resorts to preaching, but tellingly, in the last pages of the novel, the local church is hit by lightning and burns down.

The plot evolves against the background of historical events, such as the Kennedy assassination, in the years 1962-64. The book is rich in social and historical detail and has been called a time-capsule of the era. There are detailed descriptions of the homes and the furniture, of party games and party talk. John Updike writes a beautiful, even poetical prose, his lyricism stands in sharp contrast to the banality of the characters and the goings-on.

But it is not a grim book, on the contrary. Despite snaps of stream of consciousness prose, it reads as fast as a soap opera and contains much humor, not only in some situations such as when Piet and Foxy are almost caught in the bathroom by Angela, and Piet has to escape via a narrow window, but also in the larger story. It is possible to read the final events as irony, by interpreting Foxy's breaking of the news of her affair to her husband as a willful act, so that she can get a divorce from the man she abhors and at the same time wreck Piet's marriage in the hope that he will marry her. She succeeds and in this way, the serial adulterer is caught and finally tamed.

John Updike was born in Pennsylvania, went to Harvard and spent most of his life in Ipswitch, a small town in Massachusetts - like the fictional Tarbox in Couples, within commuting distance from Boston's academia. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and wrote more than fifty books, among which over twenty novels. He was one of the greatest American fiction writers, a true man of letters with a far-reaching influence, generally praised for his intellectual vigor and the excellence of his powerful prose style, a writer also who was at home in many genres. Like Chekhov for Russia, he was the realistic chronicler of American life in the broadest sense, as he expressed it himself: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due."