Friday, January 29, 2016

The Japanese Seasons: February

The ancient name for February (Nigatsu) is Kisaragi, meaning "to wear more clothes due to the cold." As it also is the month of plum blossoms which are considered as a harbinger of spring, other names are Ume-zuki (Plum Month), Umemi-zuki (Plum Viewing Month) and Hatsuhana-zuki (First Blossom Month).

[Setsubun in Shogoin Temple, Kyoto]

The most important festival in February is Setsubun, on either February 3 or 4, although this is not a public holiday. The word "Setsubun" literally means "seasonal division" and used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring (risshun), summer (rikka)  autumn (risshu) and winter (ritto) in the lunar calendar. Today, however, it is only employed to refer to the festival held on the day prior to risshun, because this day is the most important one as it marks a new start. In that respect, it is comparable to New Year's Eve - as a kind of "Spring's Eve."

[Tsuina in the Nagata Shrine Kobe] 

Rituals on Setsubun have to do with chasing out evil influences as a sort of spiritual or ritual house cleaning (or better "soul cleaning") before the start of spring. They are:
  • Tsuina or oni-yarai. Originally held on New Year's Eve and introduced from Tang-China, this is an exorcism rite. Participants carry bows and clubs made from peach wood and symbolically chase away figures wearing demon masks.
  • Mame-maki. Bean-scattering ceremony. The scattering of roasted soy beans to expel evil spirits began in the 15-16th centuries and in popular folklore became linked with the above Tsuina ceremony. Participants shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons and in with good luck"). The bean scattering is done by a toshi otoko, a male family member born in the same Zodiac year (nowadays, happily, toshi onna also can take part). Afterwards one should eat the same number of beans as one's age to spend the year free from problems. 
  • Yaikagashi. Smelly heads of sardines are stuck on thorny holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons.
On this day, many shrines and temples hold Setsubun events. Often famous persons from TV, show business or sports (sumo) will take part, and in Kyoto there are even bean-throwing maiko!

The typical food for Setsubun are ehomaki, "Lucky Direction Sushi Rolls," thick uncut sushi rolls in which any combination of ingredients goes.


As stated above, Setsubun is the day before Risshun (February 4 or 5), literally (and rather ironically as this is the coldest time of the year) "the Beginning of Spring (Spring Rises)," the time when the increase in life-giving sunlight becomes noticeable. Traditionally, on this day amulets or lucky couplets (daikichi, good luck) would be hung at the door to avert evil. The period of about a month from risshun is called soshun, "early spring."

February is also the month of various winter festivals. The most famous (and modern) one is probably Sapporo's Snow Festival (Sapporo Yukimatsuri, Feb. 1 to 5), when giant snow sculptures are created in the city's Odori Park. More traditional is the Kamakura Festival in Yokote, a city in Akita Pref., when in several spots in the city igloo-like snow houses (kamakura) are built where children play house (Feb. 15-17). The kamakura feature altars dedicated to the Deity of Water (Suijin-sama) and in the evening rice cakes (mochi) are grilled over charcoals braziers and amazake (a sweet rice drink, not sake!) is served.

Although not Setsubun, there is a national holiday in February and that is National Founding Day (Kenkoku kinen no hi) on February 11. This holiday was first designed in the early Meiji period, in 1872 to be precise, when it was called kigensetsu. It was seen as the date that the (entirely mythical) emperor Jimmu ascended the throne in Kashihara in 660 BCE, after traveling from southern Kyushu to Nara. After WWII this holiday was discontinued, but it was brought back in the mid-sixties under the guise of "national founding day," and meant to serve as an appeal to people to respect their country and to cooperate to make it a better place to live.

A rather tricky day in February is Valentine's Day (as elsewhere February 14), which is being lustily exploited by the Japan Chocolate and Cocoa Association and its members. Although Japan is not a Christian nation and couldn't care less about a saint called Valentine, it has become a "Day of Chocolates" on which women give a box of chocolates to their boyfriend as an expression of love. OLs and other female office staff may also give chocolates to their bosses or other male colleagues, but these are called giri-choko or "obligatory chocolates" and are far removed from any idea of tenderness. Commercial exploitation in Japan has even gone so far that March 14 has been set up as "White Day" on which men have to return the sweet gift.

A more serious matter is that mid-February is also the time of the Entrance Examination Season (Juken shizun), as the new school year starts on April 1. In Japan, it is necessary to do an examination in order to go to a high school (after three years of middle school) or university / college. (In the case of private schools, there are always entrance examinations, starting with kindergarten!). But the heaviest and most stressful entrance examinations are those for prestigious universities, such as Tokyo University or Kyoto University, or among private establishments, Keio, Waseda and Doshisha. It is important for students to join a top-ranking university, as that will make it possible four years later to get a good job with a prestigious company or ministry. So this is a nervous time for hopeful students and you can often see them with their mothers in the Tenmangu Shrines, earnestly praying for some divine assistance from the God of Learning, or writing their wishes on wooden votive tablets.

The food of the season is called nabemono, one pot dishes cooked at the table and served directly out of the cooking pot - the diners can pick the ingredients they want directly from the pot. Further ingredients can also be successively added. It is either eaten with the broth (usually in case of strongly flavored stock) or with a dipping sauce (lightly flavored stock). It is a dish that warms both body and heart - it is after all the most sociable way to eat with family and friends.

[Ume in Kyoto Gyoen]

The flower of the season is in the first place the ume or plum blossom (early February through mid-March). Before sakura (cherry blossoms) became popular in medieval times, the ume ruled supreme in Japan's flowery firmament, as it did and still does in China, from where it was brought to Japan in the 7th c. The ume is in fact not really a plum (the official name is prunus mume), but a tree (and fruit) between plum and apricot, so it seems reasonable to use the Japanese word "ume." The ume is the flower of the perfect Confucian gentleman, the junzi (kunshi in Japanese): that it braves the cold to put out its flowers signifies its strength and endurance, while its subtle aroma stands for its virtue that unobtrusively transforms society. The ume trees can grow very old, sometimes even a few centuries, making them with their gnarled trunks a symbol of longevity and happiness.

The ume also has various practical uses: as pickled plums (umeboshi, one of my favorite delicacies) or as umeshu, a liqueur made from ume and either shochu or sake (often called wrongly "plum wine"). Finally, as the ume was the favorite flower of Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth c. statesman, scholar and Sinologist, who was deified after he died in exile, you will find it prominently in the many Tenmangu shrines dedicated to him all over Japan. 

[Fallen camellias (tsubaki) in Honenin, Kyoto]

The other important flower of February is the camellia or tsubaki, adding a touch of color to gardens in the heart of winter. The Japanese camellia has red, five-petaled flowers. Indigenous to Japan, it has been cultivated for centuries. It is also a useful plant for in traditional times oil obtained from tsubaki seeds was used as hair oil, both for the top-knots of men as for the high coiffure of women. The camellia was also treasured for its hard wood. The notion that samurai hated tsubaki as the flower drops off whole, like a human head falling, is not based on any fact. In reality, both samurai and courtiers loved to grow rare and ornamental varieties of tsubaki. The flowers were also popular as chabana, flowers in the tea room.

Although February is so cold that all you want to do is take shelter with your legs under your kotatsu, its electric heating element going at full blast, your lower body snugly under the futon draped over the table frame, late February (around the 25th) finally is also the time the Haru Ichiban or "First of the Spring Heralding Winds" blows. This is a strong south wind which drives the temperature up, and although it is only temporary (the temperature soon drops again), it provides a welcome foretaste of the approach of spring...

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each), Poem 6 (Otomo no Yakamochi)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 6

kasasagi no
wataseru hashi ni
oku shimo no
shiroki wo mireba
yo zo fukenikeru


when I see the white
of frost covering
Magpie's Bridge
then I know
the night has deepened

Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785)

[Shinshinden Palace, Gosho, Kyoto -
showing the "Magpie Bridge,"
the stairs leading up to the palace]

A poem based on the well-known Tanabata legend, an important theme in japanese poetry.
  • oku shimo no: refers to the ripe that has fallen.
  • yo zo fukenikeru: zo is an intensifier, and always followed by a verb in the rentaikei. -keru is a past tense or recollection suffix.


A fantasy on a cold winter night, while the poet waits in vain for his beloved in the palace.

As modern research has shown, in the Heian-period "Magpie's Bridge" referred to bridges or stairs leading up to palace buildings. So the poet is waiting for his beloved inside the palace grounds and sees actual frost on the actual bridge or staircase that leads to her chambers while she keeps him waiting. It is however the question, whether this naming of palace staircases already existed in the Nara period when the poem was written.

The second - and more important - interpretation reads this poem in the light of the Tanabata legend of the Ox Herd (Hikoboshi) and Weaver Maid (Orihime), two constellations in the sky (Vega and Altair) and also lovers, who could only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when magpies would form a bridge across the River of Heaven with their wings so that they could cross (see my post on Tanabata). This is such a famous legend that most critics since Teika have read the poem as referring to this beautiful legend. The whole poem should then be interpreted as composed when the poet gazed at the stars in the winter sky which was filled with frost, which he then associated with a frost-covered magpie bridge in the heavens. The silent assumption is, that, like the Ox Herd, he was hoping for a rendez-vous with his beloved, but that the night deepened without her coming.

In waka, magpies are often associated with "frost" (shimo) - the reason being the white spots on their black breasts and wingtips.

[The Cow Herd and the Weaver Maiden 
by Tsukioka Hitoshi]

The legend of the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden had already come from China (where it still exists as the Qixi Festival) in the Nara period (it was introduced under Empress Koken in 755) and was very popular in Yakamochi's time - one section in the Manyoshu contains 128 tanka and 5 choka dedicated to the legend. The Tanabata festival was made popular by Yamanoue no Okura, who had studied in China and wrote many Tanabata poems after his return to Japan. It originated from "The Festival to Plead for Skills" (Kikkoden), which was celebrated in China and also was adopted in the Kyoto Imperial Palace from the Heian period. In Japan, the story was merged with the legend about a celestial weaver maiden, Tanabatahime. Tanabata in later centuries gained widespread popularity among the general public, and developed into the modern Tanabata festival. A popular custom associated with the festival is for girls to wish for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys for better handwriting by writing wishes on narrow strips of colored paper, which were tied on bamboo branches. Considering the Tanabata legend, poems with romantic aspirations were also popular. According to legend, when the ink for these poems was made of dew gathered from the leaves of the taro plant (satoimo) on the morning of Tanabata, the writer’s calligraphy would improve - but that was all in the future at the time that our poem was written.

[Modern Tanabata festival in Fukushima]

An interesting point is that the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) was unknown in Japan until it was brought from Korea in the 16th c. In China, where the legend originated, magpies were common birds, so the Japanese learned the name without knowing the bird (they probably thought the "kasasagi" was a kind of "sagi," a heron). In China the folk story about the Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden already occurs in a book written in the 2nd century.

And of course, we don't have to make a choice: it is quite possible to read this simultaneously in both interpretations, for while gazing at the staircase leading up to the palace, the name "Magpie's Bridge" will have reminded the poet of that other pair of lovers, Ox Herd and Weaver Maiden, who also had such trouble meeting...

[Otomo no Yakamochi, statue in front of
Takaoka Station, Toyama Pref.]

The Poet
Otomo no Yakamochi (718?-780) is famous as the compiler of the Manyoshu and the last major poet included, with the substantial number of 479 poems, making up 10% of the total Manyoshu volume as a sort of "poem diary." Yakamochi, the scion of an influential family, grew up as a fashionable young man in literary court circles and exchanged love poems with innumerable woman. At age 30 Yakamochi served as governor of Etchu (now Toyama Pref.) where he diverted himself with excursions to scenic spots and parties with other officials, catching everything in his unique poetry, known for its delicate depictions of nature. Unfortunately, after his return to the capital Nara in 751 he was so busy furthering his career and at the same time embroiled in political intrigue, that he wrote little or no poetry anymore. He is a member of the Thirty-six Poetic Geniuses. As Donald Keene says in Seeds in the Heart, his poetry lacks the grandeur of Hitomaro, but his voice is distinctive. "Anticipating the Kokinshu, his poetry is often melancholy rather than tragic, exquisitely phrased rather than explosively intense." Yakamochi wrote in almost every mode, from highly personal lyrics to public poems composed to a command from the court.

To commemorate Otomo no Yakamochi's sojourn in Toyama, the city of Takaoka has set up a museum dedicated to Yakamochi and the Manyoshu, the Takaoka-shi Manyo Rekishikan. There is even a "Yakamochi Theater" where the poet's life is introduced by way of computerized life-sized dolls, as well as a garden with 70 plants and flowers mentioned in the Manyoshu. See here for more information. When you visit Takaoka, don't miss seeing Zuiryuji which is truly one of the great Zen temples of Japan.

Cities famous for their Tanabata Festivals are Sendai (taking place around August 7) and Hiratsuka (around July 7), but you'll find the bamboo branches adorned with tanzaku on which wishes have been written all over Japan.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Staford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). Seeds in the Heart, Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century by Donald Keene (Henry Holt and Company, 1993).

[The photos in this post are my own]

Monday, January 25, 2016

Nimono (Ways of Food Preparation)

Nimono are simmered foods, one of the basic cooking techniques in Japan.

Simmered food is part of every meal except breakfast. It is the principal way of serving vegetables and also one of the popular ways for serving fish. The ingredients are simmered in stock over a long period of time, until the liquid has been absorbed by the ingredients or evaporated. The stock used is a general dashi plus soy sauce, and it can be further flavored with sake, mirin, sugar and other condiments.

[Tai no kabutoni - Simmered head of sea bream]

The simmering is done in a pan with straight sides. A wooden drop-lid called otoshibuta is used in order to spread the heat evenly throughout the ingredients during the simmering process.

Before simmering, there is often a preliminary step in the form of parboiling (blanching), which is done in water.

Depending on the seasoning used, the sort of flavored stock, various types of simmering are recognized. Some important ones are:
    • Misoni, also misodaki: fish, but sometimes vegetables, simmered in a mixture of miso and dashi, with soy sauce and freshly chopped ginger. Masks the fishy smell of mackerel and other fish.
    • Nitsuke: A mixture of sake, mirin (or sugar) and soy sauce. Also called "sake simmered." Mainly used for simmering fish. 
    • Shigureni: simmered in dashi heavily seasoned with soy sauce. 
    • Karani: simmered in sake and soy sauce.
    As dashi, top restaurants use ichiban dashi, but at home often niban dashi or even instant dashi is used. Seasonings are added to the stock in the following order: sake, mirin (or sugar), salt, soy sauce, miso.

    Here are some examples from the huge repertory of simmered dishes:
    • Saba no misoni: simmered mackerel in miso.
    • Nishin no nitsuke: sake-simmered herring.
    • Buri daikon: simmered yellowtail and rettich.
    • Furofuki daikon: rettich with white miso sauce.
    • Buta no kakuni: braised pork.
    • Satoimo no nimono: simmered taro.
    • Kabocha no nimono: simmered pumpkin.
    • Nikujaga: braised meat and potatoes.
    • Oden.

      Saturday, January 23, 2016

      Best 20th c. Violin Concertos

      The instrumental concerto emerged as an independent form towards the end of the seventeenth century and soon evolved into a genre in which virtuosity was a significant ingredient. The violin was initially the most important solo instrument, although in the second half of the eighteenth century it was superseded by the piano. The nineteenth century was the age of the virtuoso with empty display leading to the debasement of the genre, although in the hands of serious composers the "symphonic concerto" (sometimes almost a symphony with obbligato violin) also flourished. In the twentieth century, the virtuoso concerto lost in importance and the symphonic concerto grew in complexity.

      As you will see below (and in my other posts about classical music) I believe that 20th c. musical history is broader than only atonality or the twelve-tone technique. What counts is whether a given work is convincing as a statement in his own language by the composer. So below you'll find Schoenberg and Ligeti brotherly side by side with Barber and Walton... And why not - this is all beautiful music.

      1. Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 33 (1911)
      Carl Nielsen wrote concertos for flute, clarinet and violin. That last concerto dates from around the time of his Third Symphony and is a bridge to the composer's leaner style and also to the 20th c. concerto in general. It has an unusual shape, being in two movements which both start with extensive slow introductions. While the first movement with its violin cadenza full of pyrotechnics and expansive sonata movement still reminds listeners of the virtuoso concerto of the 19th century, the second and last movement - a calm prelude followed by a rondo scherzando, built on a capricious staccato tune, renounces everything that might dazzle or impress and therefore sounds utterly modern.
      Recording listened to: Cho-Liang Lin with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on CBS Records (with Sibelius concerto). 

      2. Frederick Delius, Violin Concerto (1916)
      Written in 1916, immediately after the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, but only premiered in 1919 due to the delay by the war. The Violin Concerto shares a continuous flow of lyricism and melodic invention unique in 20th-c. orchestral music with Delius' other concertos, the one for cello and the double concerto. It is a rhapsodic work in one movement, a soliloquy for the violin. The whole work springs from several musical cells introduced at the beginning by orchestra and soloist and seems like a wonderful improvisation although it is of course tightly controlled. It is not a bravura piece and even ends pianissimo, which may be the reason for the surprising obscurity of this beautiful music.
      Recording listened to: Tasmin Little with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis on Chandos (with cello Concerto and Double Concerto).

      3. Karol Szymanowski, Violin Concerto No 1 (1916, premiere 1922)
      Again a violin concerto that rejects the 19th c. tradition. The one-movement concerto, which was contemporaneous with Szymanowski's monumental Third Symphony introduces a new musical language full of ecstatic raptures and tension. The euphoric music is based on Noc Majowa ("May Night"), a poem by Tadeusz Miciński: "And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, / burning in amorous conflagration." While the violin sings its lyrical song it is surrounded by a fascinating landscape of ever changing, cascading sound waves. A concerto with a marked Oriental flavor.
      Recording listened to: Konstanty Andrzej Kulka with the Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karol Stryja on Naxos (with Second Violin Concerto). 

      4. Sergey Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No 1 (1917, premiere 1923)
      The First Violin Concerto was written while Prokofiev worked on his Dostoevsky opera, The Gambler, and the Classical Symphony. The premiere of 1917 was overtaken by the October Revolution and was finally given in 1923 in Paris. It is a lyrical work without overtly virtuoso effects, starting with a quietly rapturous opening theme. The second movement is interestingly a sardonic scherzo, with typical Prokofievian motor rhythms and the violin partly playing sul ponticello (near the bridge). The songful finale resumes the mood of the opening movement, finally to return to the dreamy tune from the start of the concerto.
      Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi on Chandos (with Second Violin Concerto).

      5. Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No 4 Op 36 No 3 "Violin Concerto" (1925)
      Hindemith revived the spirit of the Baroque concerto grosso in his set of seven Kammermusiken, using ensembles inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. The fourth Kammermusik is a violin concerto, written for Licco Amar, Hindemith's friend and leader of the Amar Quartett. The accompanying ensemble is heavily weighted towards the wind instruments, especially the brass, plus as set of small drums. While the fast movements are hard-driven, the slow third movement is a "night piece," with an intense mood of troubled meditation. The two finale movements are a march and a piece with a strange, surrealistic moto perpetuo figuration in the solo violin.
      Recording listened to: Konstanty Kulka with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly on Decca (complete Kammermusik).

      6. Igor Stravinsky, Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra (1931)
      A masterly example of neoclassicism, not a superficial stylistic copy, but a wholly new creation as the result of an affectionate approach to models from the past - with the spice of some fine parodic distortion added to the new mix. The four movements have Baroque titles as Toccata and Aria, and at the beginning of each movement the violin plays the same motto-like chord. The music is like a colorful collage, refreshingly serene, avoiding all subjective moods and feelings. It is music completely without a "message" or "idea."
      Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Berg concerto)

      7. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto "To the Memory of an Angel" (1935)
      Berg dedicated his violin concerto to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius, who had been suffering from polio and died at the age of eighteen. They were family friends of Berg who felt like a second father to the girl. It is a twelve-tone concerto meant to gain acceptance for that style of composition, but it also includes tonal elements such as a Carinthian folk song and Bach's chorale Est is Genug. The opening pitches of the Bach chorale form the first four notes of the twelve-tone series on which the whole work is based. The first movement describes the girl in happy circumstances, the second one is about her struggle with death and her transfiguration. The work ends with a vision of the "angel." One of the most impressive of all 20th c. concertos.
      Recording listened to: Itzak Perlman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa on Deutsche Grammaphon (with the Stravinsky concerto)

      8. Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 36 (1936)
      Written in 1936 in the United States, where Schoenberg had moved in 1933 to escape the Nazis, at the same time as the String Quartet No. 4. The Expressionistic concerto is in neoclassical form and in the traditional three movements. It opens with an expansive sonata movement with waltz-like central development section, succeeded in turn by a reflective Andante and a march-like finale. Based on a single twelve-tone row, the concerto is entirely dodecaphonic. The basic row of the concerto is very much in the foreground and helps to gain a better understanding of the music. The concerto is very difficult to play, needing a "six-fingered" hand, but anno 2016 there should be no difficulty anymore in understanding this music. Just undergo it.
      Recording listened to: Hillary Hahn with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Deutsche Grammophon (with the Sibelius concerto).

      9. Bela Bartók, Violin Concerto No 2 (1938)
      Composed by Bartók just after the Second Piano Concerto and while he worked on the chamber piece Contrasts. Bartók initially planned to write a single-movement concerto like a set of variations, but at the request of the dedicatee, the violinist Zoltán Székely, he ended up writing a standard three-movement concerto - with the set of six variations on a Magyar folk theme as the second movement and the third movement being a variation on material from the first. The dramatic music may well reflect the difficult life of the composer in Hungary in 1938 when as a democrat he was the target of various attacks by Fascists. Soon afterwards, he emigrated to the United States.
      Recording listened to: Kyung Wha Chung with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti on Decca (with violin concerto op. posth.)

      10. Samuel Barber, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14 (1939).
      One of the most magically lyric and romantic concertos ever written. In Barber's own words: "The first movement (allegro molto moderato) begins with a lyrical first subject announced at once by the solo violin, without any orchestral introduction. This movement as a whole has perhaps more the character of a sonata than concerto form. The second movement (andante sostenuto) is introduced by an extended oboe solo. The violin enters with a contrasting and rhapsodic theme, after which it repeats the oboe melody of the beginning. The last movement, a perpetuum mobile, exploits the more brilliant and virtuosic character of the violin."
      Recording listened to: Elmar Oliveira with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin on EMI (with Symphony No 2 by Hanson).

      11. Benjamin Britten, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 15 (1939, rev. 1950)
      Written four months after Britten sailed for the United States in 1939, and first performed in New York. The concerto combines virtuosic brilliance with elegiac lyricism, reflecting Britten's growing concern with the escalation of hostilities around the world that year. The three movements are linked by a motto-rhythm (timpani, which also open the concerto in Beethoven-style), which pervades the opening movement and is recalled in the wild second-movement scherzo (a motoric scherzo as in Prokofiev's concerto). The last movement is Britten's first essay in the passacaglia form (later also used in his Second String Quartet), a set of variations on a ground bass, in the tradition of the Baroque chaconnes by Purcell and Bach. The variations include sections of song, dance, capriccio and march. By the end, the ground bass is reduced to a chant-like memory. Britten is in the first place regarded as an opera composer, but happily this wonderful concerto is enjoying a notable revival of interest in recent years.
      Recording listened to: Mark Lubotsky with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten on London (wit piano concerto).

      12. William Walton, Violin Concerto (1939)
      An unashamedly romantic, symphonic concerto, written for Jascha Heifetz, who commissioned it in 1936. There is a kaleidoscopic succession of moods in the first movement: from the dreamy opening and rapture, to the central section’s jazz-inspired inflections. The second movement features a sensual Mediterranean ambiance, as well as an unexpectedly jaunty waltz episode. The third movement is even more lyrical and ends with an exquisite cadenza. The previous decade had already seen the emergence of three large-scale masterpieces by Walton - the Viola Concerto, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Symphony No. 1 - to which the present Violin Concerto can be added as one of those works on which Walton's reputation securely rests.
      Recording listened to: Nigel Kennedy with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on EMI Records (with Viola Concerto).

      13. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Concerto funebre for solo violin and string orchestra (1939)
      In this "funeral concerto" the German composer Hartmann, a sincere anti-Fascist, laments the catastrophe he saw coming, while many contemporaries jumped on the bandwagon of the Nazis that was to drive them to their perdition. The four movement concerto is played without a break and starts and ends with a chorale. The second movement is a lament interrupted by march-like episodes, the Allegro unleashes considerable rhythmic and dynamic forces, with hammering quavers. The final chorale has the character of a slow-moving procession, with a songful melody. The chorales are signs of hope against the background of the desperate situation of intellectuals under the Nazi regime. After the Nazis took full power, Hartmann forbade the performance of his music in Germany.  
      Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Zimmermann and Egk).

      14. Eduard Tubin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1942)
      Eduard Tubin was born in Estonia and studied at the Tartu College of Music, where he attended Heino Eller's composition class. When the Soviets invaded his country in September 1944 Tubin fled to Sweden, subsequently living in Stockholm for the rest of his life. Tubin composed 10 symphonies, an orchestral suite and a sinfonietta, 2 operas, a ballet, chamber music and concertos for solo instruments as the present violin concerto. Despite advocacy of the famous Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, and in contrast to other Baltic composers as Pärt, Tubin remains in obscurity - although he was a masterful symphonist. The first Violin Concerto was written during the war years when Tubin still lived in Tartu and shows the influence of the study the composer undertook in the 1930s of Estonian folk music. After an energetic first movement follows an intimate Andante that is like a painful confession. The final movement has something of a tarantella-like chase.
      Recording listened to: Mark Lubotschky with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Suite on Estonian dances etc.).

      15. Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor Op 99 (1948)
      A truly symphonic concerto in four movements on a grand scale, with a musical plan that looks towards the Tenth Symphony. The brooding and mysterious slow movement is set against a manic scherzo containing the composer's monogram "DSCH." The intense third movement is a reflective passacaglia out of which a long solo cadenza emerges which leads into the vigorous, folk-style finale. Originally written for David Oistrakh, this wonderful concerto had to wait more than seven years before it could be performed, due to the anti-artistic climate of the late Stalin years.
      Recording listened to: Lydia Mordkovitch with the Scottish National orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (with Second Violin Concerto).

      16. Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Concerto for Violin and large orchestra (1950)
      A musical commentary on the war and atrocities the composer lived through as a young man in Germany. This is especially clear in the second movement, a long Fantasia that contains an echo of the Apocalypse through quotes of the Dies Irae - after Hiroshima, humans now had the power to destroy the whole planet in their hands. The movement juxtaposes broad, expressive gestures, explosive outbursts and moments of the utmost lyrical intensity.
      Recording listened to: Hans Maile with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Alexander Sander on Koch-Schwann (with violin concertos by Hartmann and Egk).

      14. Frank Martin, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1951)
      Frank Martin's expressive violin concerto has a mysterious, fairytale-like mood, in part inspired by the Swiss composer's fascination with Shakespeare's The Tempest. It is a beautiful lyrical work. The opening orchestral tutti instantly establishes a magical atmosphere, "an amalgam of impressionism, jazz, modal harmony, and a touch of twelve-tone technique." This movement, Allegro tranquillo, leads to a brilliant orchestral climax after which the unaccompanied violin plays a soliloquy. The Andante molto moderato is songful, but with much darker tonal colors. At the end the soloist floats serenely aloft. The concluding Presto is an exuberant display of high-tensioned energy, swept on by a hard-driven soloist.
      Recording listened to: Wolfgang Schneiderhan with Orchester Symphonique de la Radio Luxembourg conducted by Frank Martin on Jecklin (with piano concerto).

      15. Mieczysław Weinberg, Violin Concerto in G Minor Op 67 (1960)
      A massive work in which the soloist plays almost non-stop, more like an orchestral work with obbligato violin. The opening Allegro with its rhythmically obsessive theme is in sonata form. The second theme has a refined accompaniment from celesta and harp. The Allegretto is the only movement where the soloist is initially silent. The Adagio has a dreamy melodiousness and the Allegro risoluto has the character of a dance. It ends by quoting from the first movement and then sinks away in pianissimo. A little-known, but fabulous concerto.
      Recording listened to: Leonid Kogan with Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin on Olympia (with Fourth Symphony).

      16. Alfred Schnittke, Violin Concerto No 3 for violin and chamber orchestra(1978)
      Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) challenged audiences with his music, which ranges in influences from Russian Orthodox church music to uncompromising atonality. The Third Violin Concerto starts with a cadenza by the soloist. In the first and second movements Schnittke only uses the thirteen wind instruments of the chamber orchestra; the strings only start playing in the third movement and then gradually replace the wind instruments. There are different influences at work in the concerto: Russian Orthodox church music in the closing chorale of the first and third movements and German Romanticism in the forest music at the start of the third, music which directly quotes Schubert and Mahler. There is also the atonal idiom of the chromatic intervals that sometimes produce twelve-note themes but never twelve-note rows. The interaction between these musical worlds is not subjected to any structural principle - Schnittke just follows his ear. He has, he says, been long interested in the interplay between tonality and atonality. The three movements of the concerto (slow-fast-slow) are played without a break.
      Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Chamber Orchetra of Europe on Teldec (complete violin concertos).

      17. Sofia Gubaidulina, Offertorium, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1980)
      This concerto was dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who in touring with it around the world brought the Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina first to international attention. The title has a double meaning. In the first place the concerto is based on the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering, BWV 1079), via the "Klangfarbenmelodie" orchestration of the six-part ricercar of that work by Anton Webern. The introduction presents the theme almost whole, after which the soloist deconstructs it, taking away note after note from it. At the end of the concerto, the theme is again reconstructed resulting in a complete statement by the violin at the very end. The second meaning of the title is a religious one: a reference to the section of the Mass when the priest offers up bread and wine as a symbol for the sacrifice of Christ during the Crucifixion, the Christian symbolism "death" and "resurrection" which is also mirrored in the deconstruction and reconstruction of the theme of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer. The final section of the concerto consists of a slow string chorale that resembles a Russian Orthodox hymn.
      Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit on Deutsche Grammophon (with Hommage to T.S. Eliot).

      18. Henri Dutilleux, L'Arbre des songes, concerto for violin and orchestra (1985)
      This violin concerto was written for Issac Stern and based by Dutilleux on the idea of continuous growth and renewal, symbolized by the "tree of dreams" mentioned in the title. There are four movements linked by three interludes, all played without a break. "All in all the piece grows somewhat like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the notion of a seasonal cycle, inspired my choice of 'L'arbre des songes' as the title of the piece." But it is important to realize that Dutilleux never literally restates his themes - there always is a difference defined by the intervening transformations. The transformations themselves are such that it is difficult to hear the initial theme in them - like hearing a set of variations without first having heard the initial statement of the theme. One of Dutilleux's greatest works, on a par with the Cello Concerto "Tout un monde lointain..." and the string quartet "Ainsi la nuit."
      Recording listened to: Isaac Stern with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn on CBS (with violin concerto by Maxwell Davies).

      19. Philip Glass, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No 1 (1987)
      In 1987, Philip Glass turned from electronic music to symphonic music in a more traditional and lyrical style. The first fruit of this new style was the Violin Concerto No 1, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for soloist Paul Zukofsky. It quickly became one of Glass' most popular works, not surprisingly, as it is really vintage Glass, reminding one of such works as the Dance Pieces. It is in conventional three-movement format. Both the first and last movements have a strong dance-like feel. In both a theatrical and personal way, the violin strews it fast arpeggios upon the pulsing background chords, or soars over them with arching, cantabile lines. The success of the concerto inspired Glass to branch out into more orchestral works.
      Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Adams).

      20. György Ligeti, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1992)
      György Ligeti has been called one of the most important avant-garde composers of the latter half of the 20th c. Born in Romania in 1923, he lived in Hungary before emigrating to Austria in 1956, where he became a naturalized citizen. In 1973 he became professor of composition at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater until his retirement in 1989. He died in Vienna in 2006. Ligeti uses both polyrhythm and micropolyphony (a similar technique to polyphony but with the polyphony hidden under a dense and rich stack of pitches). This leads to slowly evolving, static music. Ligeti completed his Violin Concerto in 1993 after four years of work. Like the Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto uses the wide range of techniques he had developed up until that point. Among other techniques, it uses "microtonality, rapidly changing textures, comic juxtapositions... Hungarian folk melodies, Bulgarian dance rhythms, references to Medieval and Renaissance music and solo violin writing that ranges from the slow-paced and sweet-toned to the angular and fiery."
      Recording listened to: Saschko Gawriloff with Ensemble InterContemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon (with cello and piano concertos).

      21. John Adams, Violin Concerto No 1 (1993)
      The violin concerto was commissioned as both a concert work and music for the dance stage, so that the underlying grid of rhythmic equality is never obscured. As John Adams has stated: "Formally, the concerto embraces a long, rhapsodic first movement, a slow, stately chaconne and a driving, extroverted toccata. The solo voice is almost never ending, the orchestra remaining either behind it or below it..." In other words, there is no contest between soloist and orchestra, to which also the title of the second movement refers, "Body through which the dream flows:" "the orchestra as the organized, delicately articulated mass of blood, tissues and bones; the violin as the dream that flows through it."
      Recording listened to: Robert McDuffie with the Houston Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach on Telarc (with violin concerto by Glass).

      Classical Music Index

      Friday, January 22, 2016

      Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each), Poem 5 (Sarumaru)

      Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 5

      okuyama ni
      momiji fumiwake
      naku shika no
      koe kiku toki zo
      aki wa kanashiki


      when I hear the voice
      of a crying stag 
      stepping through red leaves
      deep back in the hills -
      then I feel the desolation of autumn

      Sarumaru (late 9th c.?)

      [Deer in the Kasuga Shrine, Nara]


      • zo is an intensifier.
      • The situation of the deer crying for his mate as a symbol for the poet calling for his beloved occurs often in poetry since the Manyoshu.
      This poem presents a combination (kumiawase) of two natural images of the autumnal season: maple leaves (momiji) and deer (shika). It is a straightforward poem, without any kakekotoba etc., but there are nevertheless some difficulties in interpretation. The first point is: who is stepping through the autumn leaves? Modern commentators of the poem take this to be the poet, and that also seems to be the meaning in the Shinsen Manyoshu (and Kokinshu) in which it is first collected, but the traditional interpretation (also of Teika) is that it is the deer - and that is the one I have followed in my translation.

      The second point is: what type of autumn leaves? As Mostow remarks, in another edition of this poem, "momiji" is written with characters that mean "yellow leaves" rather than "scarlet leaves," so originally the yellow leaves of the bushclover may have been meant. But in the medieval and early modern period, it was believed to be set in late autumn and the momiji to refer to fallen (red) maple leaves.

      It should be noted that the view that autumn is a season of sadness is a typical view of city dwellers. For peasants it is a season of harvest and gladness; one has to live at a remove from the agricultural cycle to be able to see autumn as a season of decay and so as a symbol of the transitoriness of human existence.

      There are 18 poems containing names of plants and trees in the Hyakunin Isshu. 6 about momiji (red autumn leaves, poems 5, 17, 24, 26, 32 and 69); 6 about cherry blossoms (poems 9, 33, 61, 66, 73 and 96); 2 about pine trees (16 and 34); and one each about juniper (maki, 87), oak (nara, 98), chrysanthemums (29) and plum blossoms (35). Momiji are often compared to rich brocade. The interest in cherry blossoms is new since the Kokinshu, before that plum blossoms were more popular.

      Talking about the seasons, the Hyakunin Isshu contains (among 32 seasonal poems) 16 poems about autumn (by far the most popular season for poets), 6 about spring, 6 about winter and 4 about summer. However, the category love poems without specific season is largest: it contains 43 poems. Besides that, we have 20 mixed poems, four poems about travel and one about parting.

      The Poet
      About the poet, Sarumaru Dayu (Dayu is an official title, "Senior Assistant Minister") nothing further is known and he is probably a fantasy figure, although counted as one of the Thirty-six Poetic Geniuses. Some believe him to have been the son of Prince Yamashiro (who was the son of Prince Shotoku) but there is nothing to substantiate this, and there are also other hypotheses, which are just as unfounded. Philosopher Umehara Takeshi has speculated that Sarumaru and Hiromaro were the same person, but that is just another wild idea without basis. Significant is that the present poem is included in the Kokinshu as an anonymous poem. Also, no other poems have been ascribed to Sarumaru. From the headnote in the Kokinshu we know that this poem in fact was written "at the poetry contest at Prince Koresada's house," which puts it in the late 9th c. At that poetry contest many conventions of what became the "Kokinshu-style" wete establshed.

      [Sarumaru Shrine]

      Despite Darumaru's unreality, he, too, has a shrine to his name: Sarumaru Jinja in Ujitawaracho (in Uji near Kyoto). The origins of this small, hidden shrine are unknown - it was probably set up by literary admirers of Sarumaru, at a not too long gone time. The shrine is usually closed and stands far away in a lonely forest; it only comes to life on its monthly festival day (the 13th), and especially when it has its matsuri on April 13 and September 13. On these days a temporary Keihan bus runs from Keihan Uji Station to Ichu-mae bus stop (Google maps).

      The most famous deer in Japan are those in Nara Park neat Todaiji temple and the Kasuga shrine (deer are also the messengers of the Kasuga deity). The deer roam free and are so much used to tourists that they can be quite agressive, such as snatching handbags. The best way to see them is during the Deer-Antler-Cutting Ceremony, held around the 2nd Week in October, in Rokuen near the Kasuga Shrine. See the Visit Nara website.

      References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, by Peter MacMIllan (Penguin Classics); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Chishiki Zero kara no Hyakunin Isshu, by Ariyoshi Tamotsu (Gentosha); Hyakunin Isshu Kaibo Zukan, by Tani Tomoko (X-Knowledge);  Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).

      Photo at the top of the page is my own.
      Sarumaru Shrine: Wikiwikiyarou, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

      Thursday, January 21, 2016



      Condiment, seasoning. 調味料。

      The Japanese have a wordplay (goro-awase) or mnemonic technique to remember the main seasonings and in which order they should be used during the preparation of the meal: sa-shi-su-se-so, or:  sato (sugar) - shio (salt) - su (vinegar) - shoyu (soy sauce) - miso. The traditional sweetener, by the way, is not sugar (the use of which is relatively restricted in the Japanese kitchen), but mirin. This is a sweet liquid flavoring, made by mixing steamed rice on which a koji-culture has been developed, with shochu (distilled spirits). Of the above list, sugar is modern, salt is used relatively little, and rice vinegar, miso paste and soy sauce are the major condiments of the traditional cuisine.

      [Traditional soy sauce brewing vat in Yuasa, Wakayama Pref.]

      That leaves out the major flavor enhancer in the Japanese kitchen, the basic stock called dashi. Dashi is not seen as a separate seasoning, but is the stock that forms of the basis of countless dishes and soups and that enhances the original flavors. It is typical for the umami concept in the Japanese kitchen.

      One more traditional flavoring that should be mentioned here is sake (nihonshu). Sake is often used to give a "hidden flavor" to a particular dish.

      Then there are some other flavorings which are only used in specific dishes, for example:
      • wasabi - mainly used in the dip for sashimi, or on nigirizushi.
      • karashi mustard - mainly used as condiment for oden.
      • Worcester sauce (usuta sosu) - mainly used for yoshoku dishes as tonkatsu.
      • sansho (Japanese pepper) - mainly used with grilled eel (unagi) to counteract the flavor and smell of fat. Important ingredient in shichimi-togarashi, Japan's "seven spice chili mix."

      Wednesday, January 20, 2016

      Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto's Sake Brewer's Shrine

      Matsuo Taisha (also called Matsuonoo Taisha) is one of the oldest shrines of Kyoto. It now is in the first place the tutelary shrine of sake brewers, but that has not always been the case. It was established in 701 by the immigrant Hata clan. The shrine stands facing the Katsura River, with its back to a hill (Mt Matsuo) on which an iwakura can be found: a grouping of large sacred rocks. Such stones were believed to be places where the kami (deities) would take their abode. This was the original cult place and it is still intact; later, the shrine was built at the foot of the hill.

      [Tsuridono Hall in front of the Main Hall,
      from where prayers are offered]

      The deities honored in Matsuo Taisha are Oyamakui no kami and his consort Nakatsushimahime no mikoto (a third deity, Tsukiyomi no mikoto, the kami of the moon and brother of the Sun Goddess, is housed in a separate shrine a short distance away). Oyamakui was a kami revered by immigrant clans such as the Hata. The Hata probably came to Japan from Korea in the 4th or 5th century. They settled in what is now the Kyoto area and are also connected with the Fushimi Inari Shrine and with Koryuji Temple. They were welcomed in Japan because they brought advanced technologies, such as sericulture, weaving and water control. In the mid-sixth c. the clan comprised more than 7,000 families.

      [Kyokusui Garden, by Shigemori Mirei]

      The Hata developed this area and later helped the court to establish the capital here in 794. Oyamakui has been called a mountain god, although that term may obscure his real identity: he is rather the deification of the pure and life-giving water that streams down from the mountain. That is evident from the Reiki no taki ("the Falls of the Holy Turtle"), a waterfall in the grounds behind the main hall, and also from the Kame no i ("Well of the Turtle"), a natural well also on the mountainside. The turtle is the messenger of the kami of Matsuo. After the foundation of Heiankyo, together with the kami of the Kamo Shrines, Matsuo-san was promoted to become one of the protectors of the capital.

      [Shinyoko, with stacked sake barrels]

      The link with sake is much more recent. It only comes from the Muromachi period (when sake brewing became an industry) and was connected again with water, in the form of the belief that sake of which the brewing water contained some water from the Turtle Well in the grounds of the shrine, would never turn sour (sourness due to hiochi bacteria was a big problem for early brewers). So Matsuo-san became a protector of the craft of sake brewing, something which is still his most important function today. Sake breweries often have a small Shinto altar (kamidana) dedicated to Matsuo-san in the brewery, near where the actual brewing takes place, and at certain important times such as the beginning of the brewing year, the brewers will worship there together. Every year new amulets from the shrine are received as well and brewers often visit the Matsuo Shrine for the Jo-u Festival in November, when prayers are said for successful brewing.

      But the link of sake is not with the actual founding history of the shrine (the Hata brought several new technologies to Japan, but sake brewing was not among them) - this in contrast to the other major "sake shrine," the Miwa Shrine to the south of Nara (in Sakurai), which has a deeper connection with sake, in the sense that sake figures in its foundation legend, where it is presented as a gift to mankind from the gods.

      [The torii gate. At the back the Romon gate.]

      The Matsuo Shrine stands immediately next to Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line (running between Katsura and Arashiyama), and the approach to the shrine is brief. The main hall dates from 1397 (with repairs in 1542). An "important cultural property," it has a roof of shingles from cypress bark and long overhanging eaves in the front and back (called ryonagare-zukuri). A stream, the Ichinoigawa ("First Well River") runs through the grounds and has beautiful Japanese rose bushes (yamabuki) from mid April to early May. Two of the wooden statues of male deities the shrine owns are now "national treasures," and one female deity has been declared an "important cultural property." These kami images date from the 9th c. and are among the earliest statues of Shinto gods. They are well worth seeing.

      [Iwakura no niwa, garden with huge rocks like the iwakura
      on top of Mt Matsuo, by Shigemori Mirei]

      The shrine gardens have been beautifully laid out by one of the most famous 20th c. garden architects and garden historians of Japan, Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975). The first garden lies in front of the small shrine museum housing the kami statues and is called Kyokusui no niwa (Garden of the Winding Stream - in Heian japan such streams were used to float down sake cups and compose poetry) - it features the big upright rocks Shigemori Mirei became famous for, as well as his modern use of concrete; the second garden, Iwakura no niwa ("Garden of the Sacred Rocks"), lies next to the shrine museum and imitates the iwakura on top of Mt Matsuo, the original cult place of the shrine; the third garden (Horai no niwa or "Paradise Garden") lies to the right between the large torii and the Romon gate, behind a restaurant. It is a pond garden with standing stones, perhaps a bit less typical of Shigemori Mirei's work because of the large pond, but nonetheless beautiful; it was finished by the son of the garden architect, as Shigemori Mirei unfortunately died in the period he was working on this garden.

      [The Turtle Well]

      The three gardens plus the shrine museum, the waterfall Reiki no taki and the Turtle Well can all be seen together for a small fee. There is another fee to climb Mt Matsuo to view the iwakura. Thanks to its sake connection, the shrine also has a a small sake museum which in recent years has been nicely refurbished. There are old tools, cups and other implements, old labels and advertisements, etc. Entry here is free. It is to the left of the Romon, in the same building as a Mori tsukemono shop - interestingly, they have some pickles made with sakekasu (sake lees) which are only sold here.

      The biggest festival of the shrine is the Shinkosai, which is held the first Sunday after April 20; it includes a mikoshi procession where one mikoshi will be boarded on a boat on the Katsura River (it will return three weeks later in a second festival called Kankosai). Other important festivals are Hatsumode (the first shrine visit at New Year), Setsubun on February 3 or 4, the Kerria (Japanese rose bush) Festival (April 10 to May 5), Oharae (Great Purification) on June 30, Ontasai (Rice Planting Festival) on the 3rd Sunday of July, Hassakusai (Harvest Festival) on the first Sunday of September, and the above-mentioned sake brewing prayers on the Jo-u day (old calendar) in November (thanksgiving for successful brewing is likewise held on the Chu-yu day in April).

      Immediately next to Matsuo Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line. Or take bus 28 or 73 from Kyoto Station; bus 63 from Sanjo Keihan Station.
      Read more about this and other Shinto shrines in: Shinto Shrines, A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (University of Hawai'i Press).  
      Japanese materials: Nihon no Kamigami, Jinja to Seichi edited by Tanikawa Kenichi (13 vols, Hyakusuisha). Shukan Jinja Kiko (50 vols, Gakken). Kyoto Yamashiro Jiin Jinja Daijiten (Heibonsha).

      Tuesday, January 19, 2016

      The Monkeys of Jigokudani

      On of the best places to enjoy the sight of wild monkeys in Japan in this Year of the Monkey is Jigokudani Onsen in Nagano Prefecture.

      "Jigokudani" or "Hell's Valley" is in fact a name also given to other places in Japan with a lot of volcanic activity such as steam rising from between the cliffs - leading to good onsen (hot springs). Jigokudani in Yamanouchi is located 850 meters above sea level, in the mountains of northern Nagano, so there is a lot of snow here in winter. In fact, the area is buried in one meter of snow for a third of the year.

      The troupe of about 200 "snow monkeys" you find living here despite the harsh conditions are Japanese macaques, who have adjusted to the cold and the snow. The place is unique as it is the only place in the world where wild monkeys bath in hot springs (but then, they are Japanese monkeys, so they just love hot baths!).

      The bath, by the way, is man-made and the area is a park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen), but left undeveloped thanks to the fact that it is part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Another reason must be that it is relatively hard to reach, cars and buses have to remain at a far distance and a 30 min. trek through the snow is necessary. The park is open throughout the year.

      The above pictures are from a visit we made to Jigokudani in a previous Year of the Monkey. The monkeys are quite photogenic and they have a positively blissful look on their faces when they sit soaking in the warm water!

      How to get here: Take the Nagano Dentetsu line from Nagano to Yudanaka Onsen (45 min.). From there, take a bus to the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (10-15 min, 1 to 2 buses per hour) and then hike for 30-40 min to the monkey park. Near the park is also the rustic Korakukan ryokan, where you can stay the night and take an onsen bath indoors yourself. There is a small fee for entrance to the park. 
      [Live camera of the Monkey Park]

      Monday, January 18, 2016

      The Year of the Monkey

      2016 is the Year of the Monkey (sarudoshi) in Japan, the ninth year in the cycle of 12 signs from the Japanese (and originally Chinese) zodiac.

      [Huge Ema for Year of the Monkey in Matsuo Taisha, Kyoto]

      Monkeys are indigenous to Japan in the shape of the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), a medium-sized wild monkey with a short tail, which gets about 60 cm tall. Wild monkeys are relatively common, a number of decades ago when they were counted they numbered 30,000. Wild monkeys are found in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but not in Hokkaido which is too cold (the Shimokita Peninsula at the northern tip of Honshu, where about 100 monkeys live, is the northernmost habitat of any primate in the world). Japanese monkeys live in troops of 20 to 150 individuals organized in strict hierarchy.

      The monkey plays an important role in Japanese folklore. Japanese myth makes mention of a monkey deity, Sarutahiko, and some shrines like the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Otsu treat the monkey as a divine messenger. Until early modern times it was believed that keeping a monkey tied to a post in stables would keep disease away from the horses (going back to the Chinese belief that monkeys could in general drive illness away). Monkey shows (sarumawashi) were once a common street entertainment (happily, not anymore).

      In contrast to China, where the monkey is regarded as an emblem of ugliness, lust and trickery, in Japan it is an animal of good standing. It is a fortunate birth year as Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was born in a monkey year: he is a singular case in traditional Japan of a man raising himself from a low-born station to the highest rank and power in the country (on top of that, he was said to be "monkey-faced"). But monkey years are considered unlucky for marriage, for "saru," "monkey," is a homonym with "saru," "to leave," suggesting divorce.

      [Gibbon reaching for the moon's reflection 
      by Ohara Koson]

      Monkeys play a large role in Japanese fairy tales, such as the story of Momotaro or Little Peachling. The animal also figures in many proverbs: "Even a monkey falls sometimes from a tree" ("Anybody can make a mistake"), "To teach a monkey to climb a tree" ("To do something superfluous"), and "The monkey seizes the moon" (an example of delusion: long-armed monkeys made a chain hanging down from a branch in a tree, until the branch broke and they were drowned). "A dog and a monkey" points at the same unfriendly relations as our "a cat and a dog."

      [Ukiyoe of Sun Wukong fighting a wind demon]

      The most famous Chinese monkey is the monkey king Sun Wukong from the novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji). an extended account of the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled via Central Asia to India to obtain sacred texts (sutras) and statues. In the fantasy novel, he has several supernatural protectors, the most important one being the monkey Sun Wukong, who is also his disciple.

      [Wild monkey in onsen bath, Jigokudani, Nagano]

      The most famous Japanese wild monkeys live in the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Pref., called "Hell's Valley" after the boiling water that naturally bubbles up in this volcanic area. This results in a good onsen (hot springs), one inside the rustic hotel for humans, and one outside in the snow for the monkeys. Called "Snow Monkeys," the macaques descend from the steep cliffs and forest to sit in the warm waters of the onsen, looking almost human, and return to the forest in the evenings.

      ["See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" monkey carving in Toshogu Shrine, Nikko]

      The most famous representation of monkeys in Japan is the carving on the Nikko shrine: one covers his eyes with his hands, another his ears and the third one his mouth. With a pun on "saru," they represent mizaru "seeing-not", kikazaru "hearing not" and iwazaru "speaking-not." Such monkeys are also often found as stone statues by the roadside and they are associated with the Koshin cult and the God of the Road. They continue teaching us the moral lesson of "seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil."

      [Written with information from Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Kodansha) and We Japanese (an old publication of the Fujiya Hotel)]

      Sunday, January 17, 2016

      Nihonshu (flavoring)


      Sake 酒.

      Besides its use as a delicious beverage, sake (nihonshu) is used as a flavoring in the Japanese kitchen to add some "hidden flavor" to a particular dish, to bring out the aroma or, in the case of fish, the cover up the fishy smell. In simmering fish and poultry it also acts as a tenderizing agent.

      In Japan, also special cooking sake (ryorishu) is sold. This is usually very cheap, because it has been made unfit for consumption as a beverage by adding salt and vinegar. It therefore is not subject to tax on alcoholic beverages. In other cases umami elements and sugar may have been added. This cooking sake invariably has a rather chemical constitution and I advise not to use it.

      It is much nicer to use real sake. I often put the left-overs (the last bit in the bottle) of sake away to use in cooking. For example, Junmai-shu is very suitable for this and gives a wonderful "hidden taste" to your dishes!

      Saturday, January 16, 2016



      Salt. しお、塩。

      All salt produced in Japan comes from sea water, there are no salt deposits in the country. The old method starts by first producing a heavily condensed saline solution (brine) from sea water through the use of so-called salt-terraces on the beach (located around the Inland Sea or on the Noto Peninsula), and then by boiling down this solution to yield a residue of edible sea salt (evaporation is not sufficient as Japan is too humid: the brine has to be boiled). Nowadays, salt is extracted from sea water via electrolysis (ion-exchange system).

      Until 1985 salt was exclusively sold in Japan under a government monopoly. Since 2002 it has been completely liberalized. Most salt produced in Japan is used as table salt. The much greater demand for industrial salt (80% of the total) is filled with imports.

      The Japanese intake of salt is high, but this is mainly via soy sauce, miso paste and tsukemono. You won't find table salt on the table in Japanese-style restaurants! Salt is sometimes used with tempura (instead of the dipping sauce) as well as with yakitoriShioyaki is a way of grilling fish by covering it in thick salt to avoid charring.

      Salt plays a ritual use for purification and protection from evil in Japanese culture (kiyome no shio). Take for example the scattering of salt at the start of a sumo match. Another interesting way of using salt can be seen in the small heaps of salt (morijio) placed at the entrance to bars in entertainment districts. Salt for use in rituals in the Ise Shrine is still produced in the traditional way, with salt terraces.

      Friday, January 15, 2016



      Sugar. さとう、砂糖。

      Japanese sugar is made both from sugar cane (sato-kibi, good for 20%), grown in Kagoshima Pref. and in Okinawa, and from sugar beets, grown in Hokkaido (tensai, good for 80%). Pure white sugar is the norm.

      Sugar consumption was 16.4 kg p.p. in 2010, down more than 5 kilos compared to 1985. Daily consumption per person is also rather low in comparison with other countries: Japan stands at just 45 gram, against 172 g. for Brazil, 167 for Australia, 127 for Germany and 89 for the U.S. (figures from Japanese Wikipedia).

      One reason is that in the traditional Japanese kitchen sugar is only relatively little used - there are after all also other sweeteners, such as mirin. Sugar is mainly used in nimono consisting of vegetables or fish which are simmered in soy sauce and sugar. In contrast, the use of sugar in the Western and Chinese cuisines is much more extensive. In Japan, sugar is of course often found in Western-style prepared foods.

      Wednesday, January 13, 2016

      Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each), Poem 4 (Yamabe no Akahito)

      Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 4

      Tago no ura ni
      uchi-idete mireba
      shirotae no
      Fuji no takane ni
      yuki wa furitsutsu


       setting out on
      Tago beach, I look
      to see snow falling
      on Fuji's lofty peak
      white as mulberry cloth

      Yamabe no Akahito (fl 724-737)

      [Tago Bay near Ejiri on the Tokaido, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai (ca. 1830–32)]

      • Tago no ura is a coastal area near the mouth of the river Fujikawa, on the west coast of Suruga Bay (Shizuoka Pref.). The coast here offers a beautiful view of Mt Fuji.
      • uchi-idete: uchi- has little or no semantic function (it can give stress, or mean "a little"); here "setting out on."
      • shirotae is a pillow word meaning pure whiteness (lit. white cloth made out of a kind of paper mulberry) - we already came across it in Poem No 2.
      • furitsutsu: -tsutsu indicates that it keeps snowing.

      This poem gives a picture postcard view of the snowy peak of Mt Fuji. In the 20th c. this poem was often criticized as not being realistic. After all, it is impossible to see snow falling on Mt Fuji from far away Tago Bay (and anyway, when snow falls on a mountain it is covered by such heavy clouds, that you can't even see the mountain). The intention of the poet is of course just to emphasize the snowy whiteness of Fuji's peak. By the way, the poem was copied by Teika from the Shinkokinshu, but it also occurs in the Manyoshu, where the furitsutsu (of snow that is falling) has been replaced by furikeri (snow that has fallen), so that solves the conuncrum.

      The poem is an early example of landscape poetry (jokeika) and both Mt Fuji and Tago Bay are famous utamakura.

      [Tago no ura photographed by Adolfo Farsari (1841 - 1898)]

      Mt Fuji
      In the Heian period, Mt Fuji was well known to the courtiers in the capital of Heiankyo, if only by reputation. It was an active volcano at that time and it was usually ejecting a plum of smoke. For that smoke, by the way, an interesting explanation is given in Japan's oldest tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter - which is not really about a bamboo cutter, but about miraculous Princess Kaguyahime who refuses all suitors, including the emperor himself, and finally returns to the moon where she originally came from. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter ends with the emperor ordering his army to take the keepsakes left him by Kaguyahime to the summit of Mount Fuji and burn them. After all, Mt Fuji is closest to heaven and the emperor hopes that the smoke will reach the distant princess. This incident provides a folk etymology for the name "Fuji," which is said to derive from the abundance (fu) of warriors (shi) sent to carry out the emperor's command. In addition, the burning of the keepsakes was given as the reason why smoke continued to rise from the peak of Mt Fuji.

      In 864 there was a major eruption (Jogan Eruption), which lasted for 10 days; an immense quantity of cinders and ash rained down as far away as Edo bay.

      [Yamabe no Akahito by Utagawa Kuniyoshi]

      The Poet
      The poet is Yamabe no Akahito (early 8th c.), who lived somewhat later than the previous poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, and is also regarded as one of the Thirty-six Poetic Geniuses. In Ki no Tsurayuki's preface to the Kokinshu, both Kakinomoto no Hitomaru and Yamabe no Akahito were singled out as Uta no Hijiri ("Saints of Poetry"). He is considered as one of the most important poets of the Manyoshu ("The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves," which was compiled ca 759), which contains 37 tanka and 13 choka by him. Akahito excelled at the tanka rather than choka. A court official, he was one of the last "poets laureate" who composed poetry commemorating events in the imperial house and excursions of the sovereign. All his surviving poems were written during the reign of Emperor Shomu (701-756; r. 724-749). He evidently made several long journeys, as he composed poems on various famous sites, as in the present case on Mt Fuji. He is therefore considered as the great nature poet of the Manyoshu. In contrast to Hitomaro who possesses elusive depths, Akahito's poetry is clarity itself (reason why Hitomaro is nowadays higher evaluated).

      [The beach with pine trees at Yoshiwara was famous,
      as is shown in this ukiyo-e by Hiroshige
      (The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido)]

      Tago no Ura is the beach which runs from the mouth of the Kano River in Numazu to the mouth of the Fuji River in Fuji City. It is typical for the smooth coastline in the back part of the Bay of Suruga. It used to be beautiful scenery thanks to its sand dunes, beaches with pines trees and the view of Mt Fuji. But these have been  destroyed by the joint onslaught of several tsunami in past centuries as well as modern industrial development. Where the port of Yoshiwara which was famous for its "view to the left" of Mt Fuji (normally, traveling from Edo, one would have Mt Fuji on the right side) used to be at the mouth of the Urui River, in 1966 the modern industrial port of Tagonoura (Fuji City) was built. Anyway, the Tagonoura mentioned in Akahito's poem seems to have been closer to Kanbara.

      These are now all stations on the Tokaido as the JR Tokaido Main Line more or less follows the old Tokaido. Coming from the direction of Tokyo, two stations from Numazu we have Higashi Tagonoura (no connection to our poem, this is just a commuter station serving workers for nearby heavy industry), Yoshiwara (named after Yoshiwara-juku, and doubling as a terminal station for the Gakunan Railway, orginally set up to serve Nissan factories in the area; Mt Fuji can be seen from each station on this 9 km short line), Fuji (opened to serve the Oji Paper Mills in the area, and doubling as the southern terminus of the Minobu Line), Fujikawa, Shinkanbara (set up as Kanbara Station was too far from the town of Kanbara), Kanbara (near the old Kanbara-juku) and Yui (also a Tokaido post station).

      Tagonoura Port is not the ancient Tagonoura, as stated above, but one has an excellent view of the snow-covered peak and gently sloping sides of Mt Fuji from here. The port serves fishers, leisure boats and the paper industry. In fact, a visit here is a good stand-in for the old Tagonoura. There also seems to be spot where one can take pictures of Mt Fuji together with passing trains on the Shinkansen line, a scene often advertised in the past by JR. The port is only a 10 min walk from Yoshiwara Station.

      The Wakamiya Shrine is dedicated to waka and not surprisingly, its deity is Yamabe no Akahito. It is not clear when this shrine was founded, but it is mentioned in a historical work from the 16th c. The shrine is a 10-min walk from Shinkanbara Station, but there is not really much to see.

      Better is the Shizuoka City Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art in Yui, which owns a large collection of ukiyo-e and also organizes other exhibitions about Edo-period art. The small but fine museum is a 20 min walk from Yui Station, in an eastern direction (towards Tokyo), which will also lead you right through the old post town of Yui. The museum is part of Yui Honjin Park.

      [Wakamiya Shrine]

      References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, by Peter MacMIllan (Penguin Classics); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Chishiki Zero kara no Hyakunin Isshu, by Ariyoshi Tamotsu (Gentosha); Hyakunin Isshu Kaibo Zukan, by Tani Tomoko (X-Knowledge);  Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).

      Wakamiya Shrine: Sablier de Verrie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
      Other illustrations all public domain, via Wikimedia Commons