In a world of ever tightening security the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo here in Ueno is pulling down their fences and replacing them with greens.
What a country, Japan.
In a world of ever tightening security the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo here in Ueno is pulling down their fences and replacing them with greens.
What a country, Japan.
Yanaka has two red gates, three if you widen the area to Yanesen. a red gate was allowed in the Edo Era to a family that had married into the Tokugawa, shoguns, family. People that sent a daughter to marry a Tokugawa got to paint their gate red. the most famous red gate is on the next hill in Hongo, the Akamon, former of the Maeda estate, the Kanagawa lord’s main residence in Edo. Now it is the entrance to the Tokyo University main campus.
The Yanaka red gates belong to temples, one over by the famous tree, the other at the end of my favorite little street, near the great wall. the one by the big tree was done right. I watched them repainting it years ago, craftsmen working with Japanese urushi. the one they are repainting now was just painted red. I expect they will be doing the same again. I noticed them sprucing it up for the new year, got an under-painting done last week.
OHigon does not last long.
On with we get.
This little yellow bicycle disturbs me.
It is old and abandoned. The lock has been broken. Someone obviously stole it from a train station after the last train had sailed. It is common practice in Tokyo for drunken businessmen to beat the taxi fare home this way, no surprise, except where it stands.
This stolen bicycle is in the middle of Yanaka. Every direction you walk from this little bicycle is a temple. A temple on every corner, temples in between, temples and gravestone cutters, that’s all. Who stole this bicycle? Who rode it home?
We got Golden Week in Japan, a punctuation and a vacation a month after the new school and business years begin. It gives us a chance to reflect, think about the new year, and our new situation.
We brace ourselves for the coming train delays as people decide to hurl themselves onto the tracks.
Why is train jumping so popular here? I guess because we aren't allowed guns.
Today is Boy's Day, a national holiday that's name was changed to "Children's Day". We put iris leaves in the bath today. I still don't get that. I get the citrus in the bath at the winter solstice and the lavender to promote the baths October tenth, 10-10, Sento Day. But I don't get the boys day leaves.
The end of another season. The final blossoms have fallen. We have all composed our poems about a short beautiful life. What next are we to do, but move on?
I was taking a morning constitutional thru the graveyard this morning. It a familiar path. It is the way I travel when I go to teach. It is the way I walk when I come home.
Having planted a few good friends lately these stones become more personal.
The cherry trees in the graveyard are about to bloom. Soon we will write our haiku about a short and beautiful life. But what comes next? I begn to wonder, what sort of grave do you crave?
My taste goes to the natural, like the grave for Oden San. She still gets flowers from the Grand Kabuki. A shame they put her next to a public toilet. Rather they put the toilet beside her. She was here first.
Some people merit fancy cuts of stones, rounded, or like a pagoda. Perhaps they were priests.
What started me thinking about stones this morning, got me snapping photographs was the discovery of a new innovation, the subdivision of a grave very much like my first apartment in Manhattan. My first Manhattan apartment was in a grand old building on the Upper West Side. You could see that when it was constructed there was one or at most two apartments per floor. But the time I got there these great old apartments had been subdivided, the two split into ten, leaveing a rabbit hutch for my young wife and my young self to reside in.
By the time I get there it seems that subdivisions are all that is left.
Hatsuyume (初夢) The first dream, in Japan was supposed to be of great portent. Your first dream of the new year was supposed to give you an idea of what was to come.
Like everything in the great bureaucracy that was Edo it was quantified, discussed, listed, and written down.
It goes like this, the most auspicious dream was Fuji-san, after that a hawk, after that an eggplant.
Sitting with in-laws eating osetchi, traditional New Years food, on New Year's Day there is a great requirement for subjects of conversation. I realized that partly is why such lists are made, something to talk about, for example, "Why an eggplant?“
Over the years I have heard a dozen different explinations.
Miya said, “That's why it is bullshit. It is just talk and has no meaning.“
I take another view. People's communication, the origin of such things, and the talk that goes on around them are infinitely more valuable than the bullshit at passes for entertainment on Japanese new year TV.
OK, I set the bar a little low. But still I value people talking, and origin myths. They tell us about ourselves and our cultures.
Tonight I wish you dreams of Fujis, hawks and eggplants. Drawn today by my brand new sisters ram's plucked winter hair fresh made brush.
A technical note, your first dream is the dream you have at the finish of your first day, between January first and second.
7-5-3, Shichi-go-san is celebrated in November. You see little girls dressed bright as Easter eggs in kimono in shrines around Tokyo, and around the country. Little boys as well, in suits or kimono.
Girls are celebrated twice, at age three and seven. Boys at age five. They dress up with their family and visit the shrine. The local priest gives them a blessing, waves his wand of paper, gives them a little sake too I think. They buy long hard candies in colorfull sacks for themselves and their friends, though nobody seems to like that candy anymore. Like many things traditional, it has steeper competition for the children's favor.
Putting on a kimono is not a simple thing. Some touriss come to Asakusa and buy a chinese bathrobe and think its a kimono. Its not the same thing at all. There are layers and belts and belts and belts and an obi, the big wide top belt, to tie. It takes some skill, some practice.
My wife didn't feel up to the task when our first daughter turned three, so we went next door to Mrs. Seki, who wrapped and tied her up. We all walked cross Yanaka to Suwa temple. It was a long walk, especially for a little girl in tabi and zori, the traditional footwear. We moved slowly.
There were more of the kimono grandmothers then, short gray old women in gray kimono with full white housewife aprons on top. Every old lady we encountered stopped up and retied Yuki's kimono. I began to wonder what was going on. The first one that did it confused me as I was pretty sure that Mrs. Seki had done it right. Then ten steps further along the second one made me wonder because I was pretty sure that if Mrs. Seki hadn't done a proper job, the old gal ten steps back must have set it right. After the fifth or sixth old lady stopped us to insist a retie I realized that there was nothing wrong with the way it had been tied. They just all wanted to get their heads on my cute little daughter and give her a squeeze.
Japan has three New Year's Days, and two Obon.
Obon is the Festival for the Dead.
The first Obon happened in Tokyo a couple weeks ago. The second is for out of town, celebrated in mid August. Companies lets people free. Every highway, every train, every hotel in Japan is full.
Obon is a time to visit grandparents and family graves. People welcome the spirits of the dead by making little fires in front of their doors to light the way. Some people make vegetable animals for the dead to ride, toothpick legs in eggplants and cucumbers.
White lanterns are hung at the front of temples. People use white lanterns in their homes.
Communities sponsor festivals and dances, in large circles around the high taiko drum.
Mexico has a famous festival for their dead. Other countries as well. America honors veterans and laborers, but has no festival, no day, for the dead.
On hot days after rainy season in Tokyo we like to send our young into shallow pools of water to catch loach. An unfortunate word in English when the locals say it, given the confusion of the R and L sounds. The Japanese word is easier on the ears, “Dojo.”
Dojo are small freshwater eel. Teachers throw a teaming bucket of the slippery squiggly loach into a wading pool and the parents throw in the children. The kids do their best to scoop up the swimming dojo.
It may be a Japanese version of a greased pig contest staged in the states. Dojo catching is a cleaner, bonsai sized version of the greased pig event.
The kids enjoy the heck out of it.
In my daughters' kindergarten the kids caught the squiggly things then the teachers gathered them up again and threw all the dojo back into the pool again. It was too much fun to only do once. The kids all caught them again.
In the larger community version I just attended with my son there were four giant pools made of giant blue tarps draped over stiff and circled fire hoses, set up by the local fire department, who filled them with other hoses, pointed straight up in the air to shower the kids and parents as the water worked its way down to the pools.
Then came the dojo, teaming buckets of them. Dumped into the pools for parents and kids to try and scoop up.
It was fun, mixed with lots of cool water on a burning hot day. It is fun for all, for all but the dojo, who will, after being caught, be admired by young children in their colorful plastic buckets then cooked by young mothers for dinner, rarely eaten alive anymore, more often they find their way into soup. The traditional way is to throw the live dojo into a pot of water along with a nice soft, cool block of tofu. As the water becomes hotter and hotter the dojo wiggle their way into the cool of the tofu where they eventually boil to death and ready for the table.
An acquired taste.
Riding bicycles together was about the best thing we did.
Riding bicycles in the Low City, gliding through culture and history. One unusually cool July 6th evening we went out to find the world fully covered by fog, peas soup, the thick sort of fog that happens in my home town in evening in low spots. Drivers slow to a crawl and hope the driver behind them has the sense to do the same. I had never seen this fog in Tokyo.
When turned together onto Kapabashi Dori.
Kappabashi Dori, the Kappa bridge road. A kappa is a magic river creature, not nice. It can carry off children, likes to eat cucumbers. You know a kapa when you see it because it must keep the very top if its head wet at all times. Out of the water you will notice a moist towel.
Appearing before us from the fog were giant bamboo poles, holding brightly colored shapes trailing ribbons, red, yellow, green, purple ones as well. One after another, an unending string of finishing lines we rode through, ribbons tickling our shoulders and heads. The decorations hadn't been there the day before. It seemed like magic, as did the fog.
July sixth, just before the seventh day of the seventh month, Tanabata, the star festival, from China - A woman, a princess, alone on a star, and her lover, alone, on a distant star, banished by the emperor. If the sky is clear they may cross the Milky Way to be together. On the seventh day of the seventh month they may meet. Children hear the story and write wishes on colorful strips of paper to hang from freshly cut bamboo trees.
On Kapabashi Dori at Tanabata there is a festival - sound, food, bands of children admiring the giant bamboo with streamers hanging down. The night before the celebration that particular year was magic, silent specters of color, one after another from the fog. It was a fantasy I couldn't understand as it was happening. One of my favorite memories in Japan, before I knew what Tanabata was, before I knew anything at all.
In the evening gliding with my new wife on our new bicycles. Pretty new wife, now divorced and gone, kids grown and gone as well.
So much I didn't know that fine summer evening in that magical fog.
May 5th, Boy's Day, reborn as “Children's day,” a national holiday in Japan. Girl's day is still the third day of the third month, not a holiday.
Childrens's Day marks the end of, “Golden Week,“ a string of national holidays. Families with sons, schools, and communities fly colorful carp kites. People decorate their tokonoma with samurai parifinalia, models of armor, helmets, swords.
In homes and in the public baths people soak with iris leaves floating in the water.
After Golden Week we will return to work. Some of us come down with May Disease.
I ask my students to translate, “Go Gotsu Biyo,“ into English. Students freeze, then put together, "May Disease." I tell them it was a trick. It can't be translated. English hasn't the concept.
May Disease is connected with the Golden Week and the Japanese Calender.
Japan has three new years, the newest and biggest falls on January first, the older is on the first day of the first moon. It is the same day as Chinese New Year, and the final new year’s day is April first, the beginning the fiscal and academic year. New company recruits report on mass to the first real job of their life. Students begin at a new school.
Students begin university life, that thing their parents have been calling the most important attainment in their life, or the job they spent their senior year of university groveling for.
April begins. They have three or four weeks of new life, then the Golden Week, time to reflect, time to realize that the thing they have worked for all their life to get ain't quite what they had expected.
Mind the train delays.
Girl's Day 1992
My wife left me with the baby. For a month I had only been allowed to touch her with alcoholed and gloved hands thru the ports of an incubator box.
It seemed forever she was in that horrid plastic box. Now she was home.
It was the third day of the third month - Girl's Day! To celebrte Japanese decorate their houses, schools and department stores with beautiful dolls that girls can't touch.
I had a baby I could touch, and a brush, and a stone to grind ink. How could I not paint the baby?
I painted thick black eyebrows way up high on her little baby forehead, as was the fashion for court ladies in the Muromachi Era scrolls - high eyebrows, and pointed heads. I didn't rearrange the shape of Yuki's head. I just painted the high eyebrows on with sumi ink.
I thought she looked cute with the eyebrows. My wife was shocked and surprised.
"New rule. Don't paint my baby!"
Setsubun is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In America people watch ground hogs and predict the weather. In Japan people throw beans for luck. We do it at home, in public as well. At home it is often when the father gets home. He will put on a paper devil mask, given free when you buy the beans. Then the family throws beans at him, shouting, “bad luck out!” Then they will open windows, cold as the night may be, and throw more beans and shout, “good luck in!“
Listen in the evening on February 3rd, you will hear them.
It is also believed that people should eat one of these dried parched soy beans for each year they have been alive, also for luck in the coming year.
Shinto shrines, and temples hold events. Local community leaders, Sumo Wrestlers, Kabuki ot TVcelebrities will be recruited to throw beans, toys, candies, fresh fruit, all sorts of things, to the crowds that gather for free things and for luck. Entertainment in the form howling snarling devils, jugglers, or ancient ritual plays may also be offered.
I used to live near Shitaya Shrine. There were artisans and traditional crafts people. They would throw fine products. I first heard of of this from the old bent larmin man. He said with pride, “They throw scissors and knives!” I knew that there was a famous knife maker around the corner and also a company that hand forged scissors, but the image of a crowd, hands raised being showered with sharp metal objects was a surprise.
"Scissors! Knives! They throw scissors and knives?"
The old guy laughed. “They throw pieces of paper. You collect the scissors and knives later. Really good ones.”
That was twenty five years ago. I doubt they throws knives and scissors anymore. Those craftsmen must be dead and their children to wise to continue the father's hard work for such little money.
Where is culture going? Where is the money now?
Yesterday, Setsubun, in Yanaka I found culture and money both. The local Yanaka Beer Hall, a funny name, as the room of the, “beer hall,“ is not eight by ten foot (3x4 meters) wide. The beer hall is part of a new complex fitted into old buildings. It must have been a factory or business complex seventy years ago. It is a set of great old wooden buildings, not so much renovated as repaired. One holds a bakery, one a public rental space, one a rental gallery, one a, “beer hall.“
Some local business men saw a chance, invested some money fixing it up, and now tucked away, a block behind the police box, is a complex of little shops that seem to be making money.
I was there last night because they were throwing beans for preschoolers. It seems counter intuitive, an event after dark, on a cold night from a beer hall for preschoolers. It shows how times change. Kids used to go to the shrines with their mothers to catch beans in the afternoon while papa worked. But now mama is working as well. The kid is in preschool are left out of bean throwing luck, devils and fun.
With a single paper posted notice word spread thru the mamas. At 6:30 last night in the wide walkway in front of the beer hall was a gathering of mamas and preschoolers there for fun. The beer folks distributed beans to the kids to throw at the Oni, the devil. Then he emerged from the rattling old wooden door of the beer hall - a large man, bare feet, a wig and red pajamas, scaring the living shit out of my 2 year old. Some of the kids threw their beans, some left that to their mamas. A couple of the older kids, wise to the fact that he was actually just a guy in red pajamas and an animal skin sarong, began tugging at his clothes.
Then the main event, a little window on the second floor of the beer hall opened and young ladies that worked in the beer hall began throwing sweets and crackers in tiny plastic packages to kids and mothers below. Fun. Everybody got some. Half an hour after it had begun children were back on their mother's bicycles heading home for dinner.
This was not a money maker for the beer hall. I was the only that bought a beer, but it was not a great expense either. It spread good will, let local folks know the beer hall is there and open for business. It evolved a tradition and offered a service to mothers and children in a Japan where a lot more mamas work.
They used to be in everytown in Japan, little stone women and men along the road, said to protect children and travelers. Many are modeled in the image of a Buddhist saint, Ksitigarbha, said to have refused Buddahood until all the Buddhist hells were empty. Yanaka still has street Jizos to protect us.
I did a study of them, put on an exhibition in 1998, called, Stone Men, Stone Women, the 18 Jizos of Yanaka. I published a booklet with a map and words by the poet, Ko Sagae. The exhibition was a hit but it freaked me out. People were buying my paintings not for art but as religious items, something I had not expected or intended. I stoped painting them after that. Painting is a religion with me, but I am not a religious painter.
The exhibition was about the holy stone people that lived with us in Yanaka. It was also about the town changing. I noticed that parts of Tokyo had no jizos along thier roads. I wondered what had happened to them. I wondered what happens to a town that throws away its Jizos.
Who can resist a new year pilgrimage? The days directly following New Year’s Day are quiet in Tokyo. You can get exercise, fresh air and reflection traveling to the Seven Lucky Gods, housed in seven different temples in Yanaka. It is a mini pilgrimage set up by these temples in the Edo Era. It has became popular enough to have been copied all over Japan.
If you start from Ueno the first of the seven you encounter is Benten Sama, Benzaiten, the most dangerous and suspect of the seven. She is the only woman in the group and she is a foreigner, from India. She champions things that flow - water, time, words and music, no safety there.
Benten Sama is on a little island in the middle of Ueno Pond.
Edo suffered from Kyoto envy. The great Kaneiji Temple that was located where Ueno Park is now built a temple to imitate Kyoto’s famous Kyomizu Dera. It still stands up the hill. That temple looks down through a pine tree bent into a circle to Benten on her island, a tip of the hat to the Benten on the Chikubu Islands in Lake Biwa, northeast of Kyoto, just as Ueno is northeast of the Edo Castle.
Unlike the Edo Castle the Kyomizu imitaton and Benten still stand and are fun to visit at the start or the end of your pilgrimage.
The usual procedure to acquire luck, fresh air and elucidation on a sunny winter’s day is to get your paper signed and stamped at the first temple then walk from temple to temple and collect the stamps. It will take 3 or 4 hours depending upon how often you get lost and what you stop to do along the way.
The stamps and signatures of the temples used to cost 500 yen each and are remarkable in themselves some may require time in line as this is a popular pilgrimage. The popularity may keep you from getting lost, as people generally move in the same direction.
The pilgrimage is practiced during the first half of January. I would start with Toukakuji Temple 東覚寺 - Fukurokuju, near Tabata JR station. It is the usual course and leaves you at Benten in Ueno at the end, close to shopping, food and drink.
Start early in the day and if you get lost, enjoy that too.
Properly named, “Seven Dragons Water," is the great old public bath down the hill. The black bath’s water is the hottest of all the baths in Tokyo.
There are two large baths on the men's side. One is very hot, the other is even hotter. About a year ago I found a thin young Italian man sitting in the hotter of the two baths. I marked him for a sento professional.
The larger bath is so hot that it tricks your skin. When you enter it actually feels cold for a second, then shockingly hot. The larger bath has a few pumped in bubbles that move the water. The smaller bath has no bubbler. Instead there is a large wooden paddle beside the tub so the visitors can stir before entering. If the bath is allowed to sit quiet the hottest water rises to the top in layers. I believe it would become lethal in a very short while. It was in this smaller, hotter, bath that I found the Italian.
I could not see his lower skin because Seven Dragons Water is black as Coke a Cola. It is natural mineral water from deep in the earth below Tokyo. It was reported to be radioactive. A radon bath. There was a time that radioactive was a plus, the modern thing like electricity, magic.
When the young man stood to leave the bath I saw how far the water had reached on his body because his skin was lobster red from mid chest down.
I spoke to him, “You must have a lot of sento experience!”
Moving closer I could see his pain. He said, no, that his girlfriend had recommended he try this bath for his health, but he feared it had nearly killed himself with it. I told him it was permissible to add water to the larger of the two baths, to cool it. I showed him how.
The smaller bath was kept near boiling for heat shock value, the reason regular patrons have such young skin and muscle tone. I have never visited the ladies side, but a female friend said that the regular patrons have youthful skin and their bosoms stick straight out despite their age. She says it is due to the magic of heat shock the black bath offers.
The young man from Italy thanked me graciously for showing him the cold water tap and assured me that if he summoned the courage to ever enter a Japanese bath again it would be the larger of the two with cold water added.
The seven dragons water bath is in Ike no Hatta, not so very far from Ueno Pond. It can be a hard to find. It is at the end of a narrow alley off a small street. In Tokyo style, neither the alley nor the street are marked or named.
It surprised me the way the whole festival pops up and disappears again in a single day. The bird days, 12 days apart. The festival appears and disappears two or three times depending upon how many chicken days, sorry, bird days, are in this year’s November. The superstition among old timers is that a year with three bird days is a dangerous year. It means fires are coming, a year troubled by fire.
Fire was the bane of Edo’s Low City. The Low City seemed to pretty much burn down every eight years or so, houses being dry wood and so close together they were touching.
Fires and mosquitoes, but in November you are safe from the mosquitoes
The Kumade Festival takes place on the tori days of the eleventh month. The old Japanese calendar was lunar. Each month was broken up into days identified by animals of the Chinese zodiac. Every twelfth day is a tori day, a bird day. If you are talking about yakitori you are talking chickens. It you are talking OTori you are talking about a greater bird. The Otori Jinja, (shrine) is located just behind the Yoshiwara’s back door, ten minutes walk north of Asakusa.
That is ten minutes on a regular day. On tori days in November it will take considerably longer. The crowds are remarkable. And even more remarkable is their purpose.
They are waiting, jostling and creeping along in a line to pay good money for decorated rakes to hang in the corner of their shops. Kumade, bear paws, rakes that have been decorated with coins of plastic gold, bright red saints, gods, and the pretty face of Otafuko, a fat cheeked woman, smiling to you bring luck.
Some people believe January first begins the new year. But in the Low City the new year starts in November, when you put your old Kumade in the bin to be burned and get yourself a new one.
It is a merchant's festival, and it is unique in Japan in a couple of ways. The sole purpose is to buy decorated rakes. Before the purchase, people stand in line to throw a little money into the box in front of the shrine, rattle the thick rope connected to a sort of bell that rattles more than rings, to beseech the Otori god for success in business in the coming year.
They used to be in every part of town, and in the countryside of Japan, little stone men and women beside the road, to protect children and travelers. They are modeled in the image of a Buddhist saint that is said to have refused Buddahhood until all the rest of us sinners was able to get there, not wanting to leave us behind.
Yanaka still has some of its street Jizos to protect us. My question is, what happened to them in the other parts of town? And what happens to a town that throws away its jizos?