Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
 ***
Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" by Mishima Yukio (Book review)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (in Japanese Kinkakuji) is a novel about beauty so perfect that its becomes unbearable and has to be destroyed.

The novel, written in 1956 by Mishima Yukio, is based on a real event. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 a.m. the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji Temple (official name: Rokuonji) in northwestern Kyoto was torched by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the hill behind the temple. He survived and was arrested. Later he was sentenced to seven years in prison, showing no contrition, but released because of mental illness (schizophrenia); he died of tuberculosis in 1956. The pavilion was a wonder of architecture, a marvelous wooden, three-storied structure, a national monument that many times through history had been spared destruction. It now burned to the ground, with the statues inside, and the loss of the precious, seven-centuries old architecture severely shocked Japan and the world.

[The new Golden Pavilion in light snow (2007) - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Of course, today the Golden Pavilion is again one of the top tourist attractions of Kyoto, but what all those tourist throngs don't know is that they are looking at a copy, a reconstruction vintage 1955. The present Golden pavilion looks even better than the real one, for while the old one was just a bare wooden structure without any gold on its outside walls, the new one has in the late 1980s - Japan's nouveau-riche period - been covered in an obscenely thick layer of gold. Yes, it looks good on photos, especially after it has been powdered by a thin layer of snow, but it is not the original national treasure anymore. And it is debatable whether the original pavilion really was ever covered in gold on the outside of the whole building, instead, as was usual, only on the inside.

Mishima regularly based his novels on real events - another example is After the Banquet, about machinations in the political world, based on the lives of the proprietress of a famous traditional restaurant and a well-known politician (who in fact successfully sued Mishima for violation of his privacy). Also for the present novel Mishima carefully studied the reports of the case, including the transcripts of the trial. But of course Mishima was a writer, not a journalist, so he changed events and characters to obtain an artistically satisfying story. The resulting novel is an imaginative reconstruction of the pathology of the perpetrator.

[The original Golden Pavilion in 1886 - isn't it without gold much more beautiful than the "new" one? - Photo Wikimedia]

In the novel, the arsonist-acolyte is called Mizoguchi, a person afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, who from his youth has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion (possibly as a symbol for the whole of Japanese traditional culture) that he gradually - especially after the war has been lost - starts feeling the urge to destroy it. His character defect has made him jealous of beauty, in his view true beauty is something that overpowers and finally destroys. He is prodded on by his friend and "bad angel" Kashiwagi, a cynic, who has a club-foot, and likes to hold long "philosophical" digressions.

Already during his childhood, on the coast of the Japan Sea in Maizuru, Mizoguchi was assured by his country-priest father that the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. But he is a friendless, stammering boy, who seeks compensation for his weakness in vengeful fantasies. At the height of the war, in 1944, his fate is sealed when he becomes a novice at the Rinzai Zen temple Rokuonji that in 1397 was set up to control the Golden Pavilion. At that time, it is almost deserted, as most monks have been drafted into the army. When American planes are destroying one Japanese city after another with their terrible firebombings (which took many more lives than the atomic bombs), Mizoguchi has an ecstatic vision that also the Golden Pavilion will be burnt to ashes. Unfortunately for him, the Americans have the decency to spare the cultural capital, Kyoto, and the war ends in bitter disappointment for Mizoguchi. There is the suggestion that he later destroys the Golden Pavilion because it survived the war.

[The Golden Pavilion after arson - photo Wikimedia]

The Pavilion has such a huge hold over Mizoguchi that it even makes him impotent - Kashiwagi (who is as little popular with women as Mizoguchi) has taught him a trick how to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him, but when Mizoguchi successfully puts this advice into practice, and is about to embrace his girlfriend, his mind is so filled with the image of the Golden Pavilion that his desire is blocked. It is as though the temple is shutting off Mizoguchi's access to the normal world. The Golden Pavilion in all its arrogance becomes his mortal enemy. And after Mizoguchi has finally set fire to the Pavilion, he feels properly relieved - instead of trying to commit suicide as the real arsonist did, he sits down on the hill above the temple and lights a cigarette, enjoying the view of the blaze.

Japanese tradition fares badly in this novel. The tea ceremony, flower arrangement and garden viewing - and not to forget Zen Buddhism - provide occasions for acts of sadism, arson and treachery. Beautiful traditional symbols are deliberately contrasted with the ugliest of actions and placed in a world of lost ethics and perverted values. The abbot of Kinkakuji Temple is caught by Mizoguchi when he secretly visits a geisha. At a tea ceremony, a woman who is taking leave of her lover who has been called into battle, squirts milk from her breast into the man's traditional tea bowl. An American soldier walking in the garden of the Golden Pavilion with his pregnant Japanese girlfriend, tempts Mizoguchi into kicking her in the belly, so that she has a miscarriage. The novel, a study in evil, has therefore been called "an expression of postwar nihilism." But the novel can also be understood from Mishima's (anti-) aesthetics: the Golden Pavilion simply is too beautiful, it has to be robbed of its arrogance and power. Mizoguchi - and also Mishima - seems to feel that he will only become free through its destruction.

***
[Mishima Yukio in 1956 - Photo from Wikipedia]

Mishima Yukio (Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) was one the major twentieth century Japanese authors, and also one of the most problematical. Highly talented, Mishima started writing at the end of the war and at high speed produced many acclaimed novels, short stories and literary essays, as well as modern plays for the Kabuki and Noh theater. He was originally inspired by such Western authors as Wilde, Rilke and Mauriac. His breakthrough novel, written at age 24, was Confessions of a Mask, about a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. This novel also introduced Mishima's masochistic fantasies, as well as his preoccupation with the beauty and decline of the (male) body, themes which recur in his later work as well. Many of his later short stories and novels deal with the themes of suicide and violent death. That preoccupation also influenced his extra-literary activities, as he for example posed in photographs of "St Sebastian shot through with arrows" (showing off his bodybuilding) or acted a doomed yakuza in a 1960s film, or played the officer who commits (a rather distasteful) seppuku in the film version of his own story Patriotism.

Mishima, who spoke fluent English, in the 1950-1960s befriended several American and British Japanologists in Tokyo, who later became translators of his novels, so the ratio of his work that was translated was higher than was the case with contemporaries. Other famous works are, for example, After the Banquet (1960), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963), Death in Midsummer (1963), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (1965-70). In the late 1960s, Mishima was several times nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he was passed over due to the extreme right-wing ideas and activities he had developed by that time (including a private militia of 100 radical youths). The Nobel Prize, rightly, went to Kawabata Yasunari in 1968.

While interest in his work declined in Japan in the course of the 1960s, Mishima gradually conceived a chaotic, extreme right-wing ideology, becoming an adherent of his own brand of bushido. That ideology formed the background for the terrorist attack with his militia on the head-quarters of the Self-Defense forces in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970. They took the commandant hostage and Mishima held a speech for the soldiers at the base, from the HQ balcony (giving occasion to an all-too famous press photo), trying to incite them to a coup d'état, and revive the ghosts of the nationalistic past that had been happily laid to rest in 1945. But the soldiers kept their heads cool and only laughed and jeered at Mishima, after which he went inside and committed ritual suicide (the seppuku was botched, so Mishima died a most painful death). In the view of most Japanese at the time, Mishima's deed was just as schizophrenic as the torching of the Golden Pavilion.

The English translation is by Ivan Morris and dates from 1959 (Vintage International).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.







Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kounji Temple and its Garden

Although lying next to the much trodden Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi) at the foot of the Higashiyama range in Shishigatani in Kyoto, Kounji is only open a few weeks each year and therefore happily free from tourist throngs. I had previously caught glimpses of its garden and also marveled at its huge tiled roof just below me when walking along the Philosopher's Path.

[Kounji Temple, Kyoto]

The temple in fact belongs to Nanzenji (as a outside subtemple), but originally came from Osaka where it was presumably founded in 1280 by Daimin Kokushi, the founder of Nanzenji. After it fell into disrepair due to various wars, in 1664 it was rebuilt and revived on the present site by the 280th abbot of Nanzenji, Eichu. The present main hall and belfry still date from that period, but most other buildings and land were lost in the mists of modern history.

Kounji was in fact re-established in 1664 as the family temple of Tofukumonin (Tokugawa Masako, 1607-1678), the daughter of the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada and consort of Emperor Gomizunoo. She was the mother of Empress Meisho (reigned from 1629-1643), the seventh out of only eight women to occupy the Chrysanthemum Throne. Empress Meisho dedicated the above mentioned belfry to the temple. Tofukumonin was an important patron of the arts and used her wealth to help restore many temples and other significant buildings that had been damaged or destroyed during the centuries of internal wars that had ended with the peace of the Tokugawas.

[Garden of Kounji Temple]

The main image of the temple is a serene Shaka statue with two disciples. There is also a very fine Sho Kannon statue that used to be the object of personal devotions of Tofukumonin. The high and spacious main hall also houses a statue of Tofukumonin herself, clad in imperial robes and with a golden crown on her head.

[Stepping stones - Garden of Kounji Temple]

The small but exquisite garden of Kounji already existed in the 18th century, as it is mentioned in travelogues of that period, but it only took its present shape under the hands of the famous modern garden master Ogawa Jihei VII (Ueji; 1860-1933). Ogawa Jihei was also responsible for the gardens of the Heian Shrine, the Murinan Garden and Maruyama Park, where he worked with water as he did in Kounji. He restored the Kounji garden in 1927. It is a pond stroll garden with the Higashiyama hills as borrowed scenery (visitors have to view the garden from the temple, it is not possible to enter it; but as it is quite small, that is in fact a wise arrangement).

Kounji serves as the Nanzenji Zen Center and also offers Zazen sessions (English website of the head priest, Tanaka Kanju). Kounji lies just west of the southern end of the Philosopher's Path, not far from the Eikando Temple. It is only open to general visitors for a few weeks in autumn, at the end of November.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: December

The twelfth month is traditionally called Shiwasu. This name is often explained as "Buddhist priests (shi) busily running around (hasu, wasu) to hold year-end Buddhist services in people's houses" - something which etymologically doesn't sound very convincing, but there seems to be no better explanation for the poetical name of the twelfth month. It is the season that the trees shed their leaves (ochiba), although - depending on the weather - the momiji can still be beautiful in early December. But winter inexorably deepens and the sunlight becomes weaker - although never as weak as in my native north-western Europe where it can remain almost dark the whole day. There are more winter showers and a cold north wind starts blowing.

One of the seasonal points is called Daisetsu, Great Snow, around the 7th or 8th of December, when winter is deemed to be starting in earnest. Fifteen days later, on the 22nd or 23rd of December falls Toji, the winter solstice, with the shortest day time and longest night time of the year. There is an old belief that taking a bath with yuzu citrus floating in it (yuzu-yu) will help one stay healthy through the cold winter. Another winter solstice custom is to eat kabocha squash.

[Yuzu]

After November with its enjoyment of nature by way of viewing the gorgeous autumn colors, December is a rather colorless and above all busy month. The 13th of December is called Kotohajime, the Start of Preparations for the New Year, a custom originating in Edo Castle in the Edo period. The first thing to do is housecleaning (soji), not only in order to start the new year with a spic-and-span dwelling, but also as a sort of ritual cleansing of the evil that may have accumulated in the house during the year. At Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto, Buddhist priests clean the dust away in the huge temple on December 20 in a ritual called Susuharai.

People may also be busy buying and sending out Seibo or Year-End Gifts. Oseibo are given to persons who have supported one personally or professionally during the past year and are generally of a higher value than the summer gifts (Ochugen). Usually expensive food items are bought, of course nicely packaged - many companies devise special gift sets for Oseibo. The busiest time of Oseibo shopping is from early through mid-December when the winter bonus is paid to workers of companies and government agencies.

In December, people are also kept busy with Bonenkai or Year-End Parties. These are held with colleagues or friends to forget the hardships of the past year, to thank each other and ask for continued support in the new year. Depending on the size of one's social network, some people have to attend many of these parties and as the drinking is usually quite heavy, there are a lot of people suffering from head-aches during the daytime.

[Kadomatsu]

At the end of December, but before the 28th, the New Year Decorations such as Kadomatsu have to be put up by the entrance to welcome the God of the New Year (Toshigami). This has to be done early so that the deity can be welcomed in a relaxed way. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs on both sides of entrances to homes, shops, offices, etc. These consist of three diagonally cut bamboo poles of varying length, symbolizing strength and growth, and pine branches which symbolize long life, bound with a newly woven straw rope and sitting on a straw mat at the bottom. As these are very expensive, ordinary homes instead may only put up Shimekazari: a small rope made from rice straw (shimenawa), with zigzag-shaped paper strips called shide, small pine branches and a citrus fruit as the daidai to add color - these are hung above doorways, both inside and outside the house, and serve to keep bad spirits away.

Also around the 28th of December (the exact date can become earlier when it happens to be in a weekend) falls Goyo Osame, "Concluding the Year's Work," by the employees of public organizations and government agencies. In companies, this is called shigoto osame. The work of the year is formally completed, so that one can make a fresh start in the new year. 

[Kera-mairi - lighting the rope with the sacred fire]

Then comes December 31 or New Year's Eve, in Japan called Omisoka. People stay up late and many visit a shrine or temple at midnight to make an auspicious start of the new year. One way to spend the long evening is to watch Kohaku Utagassen, the Red vs. White Song Competition, which is broadcast live by NHK since 1951.  In the four hour long show a red (female) and white (male) team each consisting of about 25 of the most popular artists of the year compete in acts that are often the highlights of a singer's career. New Year's Eve is also the time to eat Toshikoshi Soba, buckwheat noodles, something which originally started as a simple and quick dish for merchants who were still busy settling their books on this day, but which now continues because of the expression "to live long like a soba noodle." Finally, at midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times to eliminate the 108 delusions and false attachments to which human beings are subject. This is called Joya no kane. There are many temples where visitors can join in ringing the bell. A nice custom exists in the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, where on New Year's Eve watch fires and toro lanterns are lit using the roots of a medicinal herb called Okera, which is believed to help cast away evil influences from the past year. This festival is called Okera-Mairi. In the past, visitors used to take back embers from this fire to prepare the ozoni for New Year. Nowadays, visitors can buy a bamboo rope and kindle this symbolically with the herbal root fire. You have to keep swinging the rope to keep the fuse burning, and it is a nice sight to see people walking in the darkness with those small red flames - although it is now impractical to take these ropes home.

There are several other festivals in December. One, also in Kyoto, is the Kyoto Minamiza Kichirei Kaomise, or the annual Appearance of the All-Star Cast of Kabuki at the Minamiza Theater. It is a stage for actors from east and west Japan to meet each other and also a greeting by the cast to the audience, asking for their continued patronage.

December is also the month of Chushingura or the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. This tale of feudal loyalty, based on a historical incident, has inspired countless media, from kabuki and bunraku to film, theater, novels and manga. The Forty-seven Ronin refers to the 47 loyal retainers of Lord Asano of the Ako clan, led by Oishi Kuranosuke. As their revenge on Asano's rival, Kira Yoshinao, took place on a snowy night on December 14, this has become the day of the Gishisai or Festival of the Loyal Retainers at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo - Sengakuji is the temple where they and (some years earlier) Lord Asano himself were buried after committing seppuku. On December 14, many people visit their graves and also come to watch a parade of persons dressed up as these 47 loyal retainers. (in Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, the location of the castle of Lord Asano, a similar parade is held on the same date).

[Hagoita Market, Sensoji, Tokyo]

A more bright event are the Hagoita Markets (Hagoita Ichi) held throughout Japan from mid-December. A hagoita is a paddle used in the game called hanetsuki, a sort of badminton which in the past was a popular pastime at New Year. However, the hagoita sold at these markets today are purely ornamental - they are beautifully decorated with pasted pictures of Kabuki heroes, geisha, film/TV stars and anime characters. By far the largest and most famous Hagoita Market is held in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo from Dec. 17 through 19.

The flower of December is the tsubaki (sancha) or camellia, an evergreen shrub with flowers that range from white via pink to deep red. Depending on the sort, tsubaki can bloom either in winter or in spring. The winter type starts blooming in October, keeps blooming during winter, and looses it flowers in spring. The flower is indigenous in China and Japan and was brought to Europe by the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer, who called them "Japan Roses." In the 19th century it was a popular luxury flower in Europe, as appears from Dumas' La Dame aux camélias.

[Tsubaki]

A popular fruit of December is the yuzu, which was already mentioned above. Winter is also the time that enormous amounts of mikan, Japanese mandarins, are consumed. Typical vegetables of December are shungiku (kikuna), edible chrysanthemum leaves, which add a bitter note to stews and one-pot dishes, and of course the versatile daikon or giant white radish that is eaten boiled in various dishes. Several temples and shrines in Kyoto have days that they serve daikon-daki, boiled slices of daikon, often with abura-age, for example Daihoonji (also called Senbon Shakado, Dec. 7 & 8) or Ryotokuji (Dec. 9 & 10).

A popular fish of December, finally, is buri or yellowtail, This is an auspicious fish that has its name changed as it grows from infant to adult as though it were given a "promotion." It is also a must for the New year dinner in West Japan, and often used as a year-end gift.