The Pillow Book was written over a thousand years ago by Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting for the Japanese Empress. It’s become famous for the lists it contains. I was intrigued by a list of forty items titled Deeply Irritating Things and one called Things That Make My Heart Beat Faster. But my favourite Sei Shonagon list is Elegant Things. Included on her list are snow on plum blossoms and a perfect duck’s egg.
Sei Shonagon inspired me to make a list of elegant things.
As I studied the impressionist artists of the late 1800s to prepare to give tours of the current French Moderns exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, one of the things that fascinated me was how many of the impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese art. In 1854 Japanese ports opened to trade with the west and Japanese items began coming into France. A shop near the Louvre called Le Porte Chinoise sold all kinds of Japanese items. In 1867 Japan held an art exhibition in Paris and Japanese woodblock prints became all the rage. Two pieces in the current French moderns exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery illustrate this Japanese influence. This is The Wave by Gustave Courbet. Many argue that Courbet was directly influenced by the print below.
The Wave – a woodcut by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai
The Letter by Mary Cassatt- 1890
Another artwork where the Japanese influence is clear is this one by Mary Cassatt. After Mary had seen the exhibition of Japanese color woodcuts in Paris in 1890 she was inspired to make ten prints of her own using the aquatint technique. The Letter was one of them.
Many other French painters were also influenced by the Japanese printmakers, including Monet, Manet and Degas.
I honestly couldn’t put the book Pachinko down. I really admired the main character Sunja, a Korean woman living in Japan. I read for hours on end I was so eager to find out what was going to happen to Sunja and her family.
I had no idea about the discrimination experienced by Koreans living in Japan, even those who have been there for generations. In her book Pachinko author Min Jin Lee illustrates how that discrimination impacts four generations of Sunja’s family. I have visited both Korea and Japan. I had many Korean students when I was a teacher in Hong Kong. I wished I had read this book prior to those experiences, but since it was just published lastyear that wouldn’t have been possible anyway. With Korea in the news so much today I appreciated the added insight the novel gave me into Korean history.
I photographed this statue of a family in Seoul
The only criticism I would have of the novel is that because I grew to really like and care for so many characters I might have chosen to resolve the conflicts in some of their lives in different and often less dramatic ways than the author did. If you are looking for a riveting read I can highly recommend Pachinko.
Note: Pachinko is a recreational arcade game in Japan that can be used for gambling.
This past week President Obama visited Hiroshima, the first American president to do so since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city in 1945. The many photos of Hiroshima in the media reminded me of our own visit to the city.
This cenotaph holds the names of all the people killed when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The arch shape represents a shelter for the souls of the victims.
The epitaph on the cenotaph says “Let all souls rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil of war.”
I’m ringing the Peace Bell in the Hiroshima Peace Park. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell as a symbol of their desire for peace in the world. The surface of the bell is a map of the world without country boundaries and the inscription on the bell says “Know yourself.”
The Yesterday Coffee House in Hiroshima featured many varieties of coffee to be enjoyed while listening to Beatles music.
At a bakery we discovered bread baked with the city of Hiroshima’s name in the crust.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial or Atomic Bomb Dome was named a World Heritage Site in 1996.
The ruin serves as a memorial to the 70,000 people who were killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as well as another 70,000 who suffered fatal injuries from the radiation.
These kind of artistic sewer access covers can be found in cities throughout Japan.
The cherry trees were just starting to bloom in Hiroshima during our visit. Dave watches okonomiyaki or Japanese pancakes being made for us in a Hiroshima restaurant.
We listened to a singer on the streets of Hiroshima. In the Hiroshima Peace Museum Dave learns more about the factors that led to the bombing of Hiroshima.
The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb.
My husband Dave sometimes has trouble sleeping. It makes me wish we could set up a ryokan in our house. When we were in Japan we spent four nights in a ryokan and Dave says those were the best nights of sleep he’s ever had.
In the one hundred and thirty year old Matsubaya Ryokan in Kyoto we slept on the floor on a futon. Rooms in a ryokan are like those in a traditional Japanese house. Doors are made of rice paper and the polished wood floors are covered with tatami mats woven from rice straw. The main room of a ryokan suite effectively serves as the living room, bedroom, dining room and study. Our room had a little alcove called a tokonoma. The floor was slightly raised and there was a scroll with some Japanese calligraphy hanging on the wall. A simple flower arrangement was set in a vase on the floor of the alcove. The alcove was an area for quiet meditation.
In the centre of the room was a low table with cushions for sitting. We had tea or wine there in the evenings with our friends who had the room next to ours in the ryokan. On a tray in the centre of the table were a teapot, teacups, a box of tea and a metal container called a koboshi where we could put our used tea leaves.
Another tray on the floor held our towels, a copy of the Buddhist scriptures and our kimonos. Each day after the maids cleaned our room, freshly laundered, neatly folded kimonos and kimono sashes, were laid out on our tray. We could wear our kimonos around the ryokan, including down to the compact dining room for breakfast. The eating area looked out onto a beautifully kept Japanese garden that featured ferns, bamboo and palm trees and a pool with gold fish.
You couldn’t wear shoes in our ryokan. These had to be left at the front door along with those of all the other guests. We went to our rooms in stocking feet. Special blue rubber slippers labeled Toilet and sporting pictures of little white ducks were carefully placed at our washroom entrance. The floor in the bathroom could be cold and wet so the rubber shoes came in handy. A unique sign on our toilet door made it easy to locate.
Hundreds of years ago a powerful Japanese shogun named Tokugawa created peace by forcing each of his lords to come to Edo (modern day Tokyo) the country’s capital twice every year. The lords were so busy traveling back and forth to Edo they had no time to fight with each other. These lords needed nice places to stay as they traveled. That’s why ryokans were begun.
Ryokans are great. I wonder if we could re-create one here in our condo in Winnipeg. Anyone looking for a king sized bed? Maybe we should replace ours with some tatami mats and a futon so Dave could get a good night’s sleep.
We saw the movie Kumiko The Treasure Hunter last night. A delusional girl from Japan goes to Minnesota in search of a treasure she mistakenly thinks is buried there. She has watched the movie Fargo and sees a character in the film bury a suitcase of money in the snow. She is determined to find it.As Kumiko walks down the Minnesota highway a police officer picks her up. She shows him her DVD of Fargo and tries to explain her quest. The police officer wants her to understand the treasure isn’t real so he takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant and asks the owner to translate for him. He seems surprised the restaurant owner doesn’t speak the same language as Kumiko. “I speak Mandarin,” she says. “Not Japanese.”This reminded me of the years we spent teaching in the Chinese city of Hong Kong. During our summer trips home we would meet people and tell them we worked in Hong Kong. “Oh! How do you like living in Japan?” they would say or “We know someone who teaches in Japan.” It made me realize how little many North Americans know about Asia, its geography or the many different countries within the continent. Other posts…..
Reading a couple novels and seeing some movies set during World War II recently reminded me of our visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima Japan. I noticed that all through the museum people whispered or spoke in soft tones. The space seemed almost sacred. The museum tells the story of the horror visited on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 when the United States dropped the atom bomb on that city to end World War II.
The museum’s exhibits explain why the United States felt it needed to take the drastic action it did. They also include acknowledgement by the Japanese people that their own war record was brutal. They admit they committed atrocities in many countries they conquered. “The Japanese were not blameless victims,” says one museum display board. I learned many new things at the museum but I think what will remain with me the longest are some unforgettable visual images.
A rusty tricycle sits in one display case. It belonged to a three-year-old boy who was riding it when he died. His father buried the tricycle with his son in his family’s front yard on August 6. Because there were so many dead people in Hiroshima there was no time for proper funerals or burials. I took a photograph of a pair of gold wire frame glasses and a textbook bag that belonged to an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Koharu Hirakawa. She was on her way to work the morning the bomb dropped. The glasses and tattered school bag were found with her body.
There are depictions of people walking the streets of Hiroshima, right after the bombing, their bodies burned and black. Shredding skin is hanging down from their hands and arms. Photographer Yoshito Matsushiga who took many of the pictures is quoted as saying, “ I fought with myself for thirty minutes before taking the first photo. After that I grew strangely calm and could take one picture after another. The only problem was my viewfinder kept clouding up from my tears.”
People who were living in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 were invited to submit pictorial renditions of their experience in 1974, the 30th anniversary of the bombing. Nearly 4000 art works were collected. One currently on display at the museum is a colorful painting by a woman named Yasuk Onishi who was 13 in 1945. Her painting shows her sitting on a riverbank her head in her hands. She was at school when the bomb fell and ran as quickly as she could to her home. Her house stood over a bridge across a river. Her painting shows the bridge burned and broken. Her house has simply disappeared. Yasuk realizes her parents and her two little sisters must be dead so she sits down at the water’s edge and begins to weep.
In the museum’s Memorial Hall a huge screen shows photographs of many of the 100,000 victims of the bombing. The photographs fade in and out on the screen so eventually you see them all. It is sobering to stand there as face after face emerges and then disappears.
Outside the Hiroshima museum is a river walkway called The Peace Promenade. It is lined with various monuments and memorials. One is called The Bell For Peace. Beside a huge metal bell a sign says, “May this bell ring to all the corners of the earth and make every person long for peace. Step forward friend and ring the bell for peace.” As one visitor after another steps up to pull the rope and make the bell ring it provides a clear, loud and hopeful background sound that contrasts fittingly with the somber hush inside the Hiroshima Peace Museum.
Dave and I attended a baseball game in Osaka with our friends
Take Me Out to the Ball Game. You won’t hear that classic 7th inning stretch song at a Japanese professional baseball game.
Cheering fans and their balloons
Instead, when the 7th inning rolls around, everyone in the crowd blows up huge colourful balloons and on a signal releases them into the air. That’s just one of the differences I noticed between attending a ball game in North America and at the Kyocera Baseball Dome in Osaka Japan. We watched the Orix Buffalos play the Hanshin Tigers in Osaka.
Dave with our friends Rudy and Sue and Jon and Yolanda at a baseball game in Osaka
Another difference was the noise. I’ve never heard anything like it at a game in the United States or Canada. We sat in the Hanshin Tigers section of the ball park, and their thousands of fans kept up an incessant barrage of noise when their team was up to bat. Men in immaculate gold and black uniforms, wearing spotless white gloves directed the crowd in a rich variety of chants. A dozen trombone and trumpet players accompanied a recital of Japanese baseball tunes sung in rousing unison.
Young fans with their black and gold bats
All of the fans had small black and gold plastic baseball bats they beat together in rhythm to the songs. Four men balanced enormous Tiger flags in their hands and swooshed them through the air in dizzy patterns as the crowd sang. It was a visual and audio spectacle.
I had my first opportunity to try okonomiyaki or Japanese pancakes in Hiroshima. Although these pancakes are served all over Japan, the chefs in Hiroshima are famous for the number of layers their okonomiyaki have -and their ability to keep their many-layered pancakes intact till they serve them. We went to a place called Okonomi- Mura which literally translated means Pancake- Village and that’s what it was- a tall building with floor after floor of restaurants- each one serving okonomiyaki.
Our tiny- kerchiefed chef was a true artist. She created the base shape of our pancakes on her piping hot grill with her spatula- fashioning each dollop of batter into a perfect circle. After the batter had cooked she added layers of crisp shredded cabbage, crunchy bean sprouts, baked fish croutons and meaty bacon. She was cooking noodles in a wok at the same time and when they were done she added them as layer number six. She broke eggs onto the griddle and twirled and swirled them creating a scrambled egg mixture. Shrimp were dumped on the grill next and after they were sizzling our chef chopped them deftly with a razor sharp knife and then attacked an onion and green pepper with the same blade. The shrimp, onion and pepper bits were mixed together with the egg and placed on top of the pancake to form layer number seven.
Our imminently skilled chef then took that seven -layer pancake and flipped the entire thing upside down intact and after it had cooked for a few minutes she flipped it once again. What talent!
The pancakes were huge and I wish my husband Dave and I had shared one. We could only eat about half of our enormous meal.
We spent Easter in 2009 in Kyoto, Japan. The cherry blossoms were just breaking out, particularly along Philosopher’s Walk.
We visited the Golden Temple in Kyoto. I am throwing a coin into a gold bowl on the ground. I was shocked when my coin landed right in the golden bowl with a resounding ringing sound. Dave who had been making up little poems he called haikus all through our Japan trip (although none of his poems were really haikus,) made a poem up to mark my lucky throw- “When the coin rings- luck springs. “
Hoping this Easter weekend is a time of good fortune and happiness for all my readers.