Thursday, April 16, 2015

Cherry Blossoms and Memories

In Cincinnati with warm weather and under spectacular blue skies, the cherry blossoms graced our parks and hillsides this past weekend.  The Japan America Society of Greater Cincinnati held an Ohanami, Cherry Blossom Festival, in the grove of cherry trees in Ault Park.  We’ve never been in Japan for April, but our home stay students have sent us many photos of their Ohanami parties.  Here it looked just the same - families gathered under the trees with their picnic baskets on gaily colored blankets.  Children played as parents visited one group of friends after another.  It was a lovely afternoon.

This post connects again to the Masterpieces of Japanese Art exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Two artworks were donated by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto.  Ms. Sugimoto wrote A Daughter of the Samurai and my husband found a 1934 edition of the autobiography for me.  It’s a fascinating book, as Etsu was born in 1874 and lived in Echigo, a province far from the Western influences flooding Japan at that time.  Reading about her childhood, I’m gathering more research for my Tokaidō stories.

Through an arranged marriage, Etsu arrived here in Cincinnati in 1898.  Her new husband managed a store that sold Japanese goods.  My mother was quite proud that the Sugimotos had lived in our neighborhood, College Hill, until Mr. Sugimoto died and Etsu went back to Japan with their two daughters.  She eventually returned to America so that her daughters could complete their education here.  Etsu taught Japanese literature and history at Columbia University while also writing novels and newspaper stories.  She died in 1950.

The cover of my copy of A Daughter of the Samurai is a delicate watercolor of an old cherry blossom tradition inspired by Etsu’s introduction. 

“Our cherry blossoms never wither.  They fall while still fresh and fragrant.  Because of this, centuries ago the cherry blossom was chosen as the symbol of samurai spirit – willing to die while young and vigorous, rather than to live and fade.  The uniforms of both Army and Navy have a conventional cherry blossom on the badge.

In the spring-time, a favorite game of Japanese girls is to gather the fragrant petals and weave them into chains; and the little girl on the cover, in trying to make a frail, floral chain with the fallen petals, is emblematic of little Etsu-bo who gathered fragments of samurai spirit and wove them into a tale for the readers of today.

It was a daring thing for her to do, but in these later years, the petals of samurai memories are falling fast and the twilight is gathering. It ached me that they should be lost forever in the darkness of the past.”

Thank you, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, for shining your light on the samurai spirit while helping us understand the life of a samurai girl who became a modern woman.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Imperial Court Poetess

Ono no Komachi by Kano Tan'yu, 1648

Ono no Komachi by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, 1886

Masterpieces of Japanese Art opened at the Cincinnati Art Museum this month.  It’s a fabulous exhibit with over 100 artworks from the tenth to the twentieth centuries, including hanging scrolls, folding screens, ceramics, metal works, armor and a spectacular Friendship Doll.

On March 18 Dr. Gergana Ivanova and I will present a program at the museum, Art and Japanese Court Life.  We’ll illustrate our talk with the fifteen artworks from the exhibit that are based on the imperial court life of the Heian Period (794-1185).  Courtiers were expected to be excellent poets.

Translations from a foreign language are always a challenge.  One poem of Ono no Komachi (843-880) is a perfect example.  She was renowned for her beauty and is counted as one of the “Six Great Poets,” the only woman among them.  Below I quote from Hokusai One Hundred Poets (Hokusai created prints to illustrate the great poets) by Peter Morse, George Braziller, Inc. Publishers, 1989.

Color of the flower                             Hana no iro wa
Has already passed away                Utsuri ni keri ni
While on trivial things                         Itazawa ni
Vainly I have set my gaze,                 Waga mi yo ni furu
In my journey in the world.                  Nagame seshi ma ni
Ono no Komachi                                 (translated by MacCauley 1917)

“This is among the most famous poems of all times.  A great deal of its meaning comes from wordplay, which renders it difficult to translate.  No fewer than thirty-six English translations have been found. (Below are two of those thirty-six from the book’s appendix.)  This totals perhaps more different translations of a text from another language into English than any work except the Bible.  It provides poetry lovers with an unparalleled chance to understand a poem better by seeing it through different eyes.”

“The poet sets her scene in early summer, the time of rains.  Iro means not only “color,” as in flowers, but also a woman’s facial beauty.  Furu means “passing through,” but also “to fall” or “to grow old.”  Nagame means “to gaze for a long time” but also “long rains.”  This whole poem is an intricate comparison of fading flowers’ color in the rains and the poet’s sense of her own fading beauty in old age.”  Another translator, Noguchi, suggests a lament for a lost love.  Ono no Komachi continues to be a frequent subject for Japanese artists.

The flowers and my love                         As the constant rain
Passed away under the rain,                  Fades the color of the cherry blossoms
While I idly looked upon them;                I reflect time’s beating
Where is my yester-love?                       On my beauty.
                  Noguchi (1914)                                   Myerscough (1984)

For more information:

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Selected Japanese Poems

While compiling the research for my Tokaidō stories, I’ve developed a deep appreciation and love of Japanese poetry.  This month I finished the forty-first of the fifty-seven stories that I’ve planned.  All are historical fiction based on events and politics of 1830s Japan.  Most open with a poem that captures the spirit of the story or the main character.  A few open with lyrics from a popular song, a Shinto prayer or in one case, a speech from a Kabuki play.

For the past week we have been nursing, Yuki, our very sick older cat.  Last night I relaxed in great-grandmother Mary’s rocking chair while Mariko, our younger cat, curled up in my lap for some snuggle time.  My choice of reading?  The Poetry of Zen translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton.  Let me share with you a few of the poems which brought me comfort.

            How mysterious!
            The lotus remains unstained
by its muddy roots,
delivering shimmering
bright jewels from common dew.
                        Sojo Henjo (816-890)

            I’d like to divide
myself in order to see,
            among these mountains,
            each and every flower
            of every cherry tree.
                        Saigyo (1118-1190)

            Quite the contrary
to what I’d thought, passing clouds
are sometimes simply
the moon’s entertainment,
its lovely decoration.
                        Saigyo (1118-1190)

            Culture’s beginnings:
from the heart of the country
rice-planting songs.
                        Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

            The distant mountains
are reflected in the eye
of the dragonfly
            Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy New Year 2015!

December 29, 2014

It’s late December and as usual I wish we were in Japan for the New Year’s festivities.  We’ve celebrated with our home stay students and their families twice and it was great fun. 

All temples and shrines are selling the traditional decorations – endless combinations of pine branches (for longevity), bamboo stalks (for strength and flexibility) and plum blossoms (the first flower to bloom in late winter).  They can be as tiny as two inches and as tall as seven feet.  There are also numerous displays of mochi (rice cakes) and oranges, both real and artificial.  Sake sales are high.  Every housewife is busy cooking osechiryori, the traditional New Year’s feast or has ordered it from a trendy department store. No one cooks on New Year’s Day – it’s a time of rest and relaxation with your family.

One of my favorite traditions at this time of year is the practice of welcoming the Seven Lucky Gods and their treasure boat.  The photo is of an ema, a votive plaque of the Seven Lucky Gods from Chorakuji Temple, established in 803 AD in Kyoto.  From left to right the gods are: Fukurokuju (with large head, God of Longevity and Virility), Daikokuten (with magic mallet, god of Wealth and the kitchen), Jurojin (with white beard, God of Wisdom), Ebisu (with red fish, God of Honest Labor and Commerce), Bishimonten (in helmet, Scourge of Evil Doers), Benten (with lute, Goddess of Beauty and the Arts), and Hotei (with treasure sack, God of Happiness).

In one popular Japanese tradition, they travel together on their treasure ship (Takarabune 宝船) and visit human ports on New Year’s Eve to dispense happiness to believers.  Children are told to place a picture of this ship under their pillows on the evening of January first. Local custom says if they have a good dream that night, they will be lucky for the whole year.

And attention Harry Potter fans!  One of the treasures of the Seven Lucky Gods is an invisibility cloak!  It allows a person to do good deeds without being seen.  That tradition goes back over 300 years!  The other treasures are: a robe of feathers that gives the gift of flight, a magic mallet that when shaken brings forth wealth, a never empty purse and scrolls of wisdom.  There are some political leaders around the world I’d like to give the scrolls of wisdom.

Happy New Year of the Sheep 2015!

For more about the Seven Lucky Gods:

For information about Japanese New Year’s foods:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sanja Matsuri – A Joyful Festival

We’d never been to a festival so huge – over one and a half million people attend over the three days.  Of course we were nervous.  Together with Miho, our Japanese “daughter-in-law” and Kanato, our four-year old “grandson” in a stroller, we were swept out of the subway station by a happy crowd into Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood.  The streets were closed to traffic and instead were packed wall-to-wall with people, from locals of all ages to tourists from around the globe.  In just a few minutes we were caught up in the enthusiastic celebration and all fears disappeared.

We made our way through the crowd and before too long, we heard taiko drumming and enjoyed a very skillful children’s group perform.  Thanks to an adult member of the group who knew English, I had a chance to talk with their 80 year-old teacher.  Suddenly we heard flutes, whistles and chanting.   There bouncing above the crowd was a sparkling gold sculpture of a phoenix, its wings over 4 feet wide.  As we got closer we could see the mikoshi it adorned, an elaborate portable shrine carried on the shoulders of over 40 singing and chanting men.

We were there on Sunday, the last day of the festival, and the highlight is the parade of elaborate mikoshi.  They “swim” through the crowds, about every twenty minutes, on their way to Senso-ji Temple.  There are three large mikoshi plus one hundred others from the neighborhood associations.  Parading the mikoshi honors the local kami (gods) and bestows good luck upon their respective neighborhoods.  Most of the one-ton mikoshi are carried by men, but there are now women’s associations with their own mikoshi.  Miniature versions are carried by children – and mobbed by photographers. 

Miho took us back to one of the side streets.  There a mikoshi stood on sawhorses while the men rested, ate and enjoyed sake with their families.  They proudly showed off their treasure (estimated to cost $390,760 in 2008) and suggested that we take a photo with them.  It’s one of our favorites from the festival.  

Back out on the main street, I waded into the crowd to take photos and capture the energy of the people carrying the mikoshi.  As long as I kept pace with the celebrants, I was fine.  But it was tough to keep other photographers out of my pictures.   Later we enjoyed some of our favorite festival foods before returning to our hotel exhilarated but exhausted.  We've been back three times with our students and hope to enjoy the celebration again.

Sanja Matsuri (literally “Three Shrine Festival”) is one of the three great Shinto religious festivals in Tokyo.  It honors three men who founded Senso-ji Temple and is held on the third weekend of every May.  The festival dates back to the 7th century but reached its present high status in 1649 when Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu commissioned the construction of Asakusa Shinto shrine dedicated to the three founders.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Daruma, Symbol of Perseverance

Please let me introduce you to Daruma, a favorite good luck charm in Japan.  This squat little red doll represents Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.  Most information about him and his teachings are legends.  He was an Indian sage who lived in the fifth or sixth century AD and introduced Chan or Zen Buddhism to China.  It was said that he was a pious monk who introduced a form of meditation that involved “gazing at cave walls.”  Some legends say that he meditated for nine long years in China and his arms and legs atrophied and fell off.   That is why in Japan Daruma dolls are simple round figures like this.

Daruma dolls are sold everywhere in Japan in sizes from less than an inch to over three feet tall.  Mine is three inches tall.  Darumas are sold without the eyes painted in.  When starting new ventures in life, such as getting married, starting a new job, or at New Year’s, people buy a doll, make a wish and paint in the left eye.  The doll is then placed on the home altar or on a shelf where you will see it and remember your wish.  When your wish comes true, you paint in the right eye while giving thanks.  That is called “Me ga deru” or “both eyes pop open,” a Japanese phrase meaning victory, success or attainment of a goal or wish.

I painted in the left eye of my Daruma when I began teaching my first college course in 2006.  Even after teaching for 33 years I was nervous about moving up from the secondary level.  I happily painted in the right eye when my students’ evaluations gave me high ratings.  Two of those students later went to Japan with us and they are still our friends.

Daruma dolls were first developed in Japan in the sixteenth century and used through the ninetenth century as a charm to ward off smallpox.  In those days, the smallpox god was said to like the color red, so the common folk tried to please the deity in hopes of averting illness or being granted a speedy recovery.  Smallpox disappeared after vaccination was introduced to Japan in the late nineteenth century.  But the bright red Daruma dolls remain popular as one of Japan’s most popular talismans of good luck.

The Daruma eye-painting custom is probably based on a much earlier Buddhist ritual called Kaigan Kuyo (eye-opening ceremony) in which a newly made Buddhist statue was consecrated by an officiating priest who would paint in the pupils of the statue’s eyes.  It was believed that at that time the essence or soul of the deity would enter the statue.  When the Great Buddha of Todaiji was dedicated in 752 AD 10,000 people celebrated the eye-opening ceremony conducted by Bodhisena, a priest from India.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Shichi Go San Festival

February 27, 2014 

Towards the end of my first visit to Japan in 1984, I experienced my first Shichi Go San Matsuri.   The Seven Five Three Festival is a joyous celebration of children at Shinto Shrines.  Parents proudly bring their children, dressed in bright colorful kimono and hakama, to their local shrine to be blessed and to give thanks for their health.

In November 2013 we were honored to celebrate Shichi Go San with our five year old “grandson” Kotaro Ohta and his parents in Gifu, Japan.  His mother, Aiko, is one of our “daughters,” a former home stay student.  We started the day at a photography studio where Kotaro and Aiko were dressed in their traditional Japanese clothes.  What a transformation from a five year old crazy about Spiderman to a proud samurai in hakama.  He was delighted.  Amazingly it was Aiko’s first time to wear a kimono and she chose one from her mother’s collection.  After formal photos at the studio we traveled to a local Shinto Shrine.  It’s a bit of a challenge to get a little samurai into a car seat.

At the shrine we joined happy crowds of parents, grandparents and gaily dressed children.  Red and pink for girls and black and gold for boys were predominate.  On the hike up the shrine stairs, Kota’s zori (footwear) would fall off or his fan would drop out of his obi.  But Kaku, his dad, patiently righted the costume each time.  At the top of the stairs we entered the lovely wooden hall and sat on stools during the blessing ceremony.  The priest and shrine attendant intoned prayers that were solemn and short.

On the way out of the shrine, Aiko stopped at a special booth to pick up Kotaro’s present.  It is chitose ame, literally "thousand year candy," given to children at Shichi-Go-San.  Chitose ame is long, thin, red and white candy, which symbolizes healthy growth and longevity.  It is given in a bag decorated with a crane and a turtle, which represent long life in Japan.   Later we celebrated with a lunch at a udon restaurant..

For those who are curious, Shichi-Go-San is said to have originated in the Heian Period (794-1188 AD) amongst court nobles who would celebrate the passage of their children into middle childhood. The ages 3, 5 and 7 are consistent with East Asian numerology, which claims that odd numbers are lucky.

Over time, this tradition passed to the samurai class who added a number of rituals. Boys of age five could wear hakama (split trousers) for the first time, while girls of age seven replaced the simple cords they used to tie their kimono with the traditional obi.  By the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the practice was adopted amongst commoners as well and included the modern ritual of visiting a shrine to drive out evil spirits, wish for a long healthy life and to celebrate the growth and well-being of young children.