On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 2, Kanazawa and Kyoto

Isabella Bird (Unbeaten tracks in Japan, 1880) doesn’t appear to have visited Kyoto or Kanazawa, which is a shame as I would have enjoyed reading her comments. However, I thought I’d quote from her anyhow, from Letter I. It covers her arrival in Yokohama harbour on May 21 which is close in time of year to now:

The day was soft and grey with a little faint blue sky, and, though the coast of Japan is much more prepossessing than most coasts, there were no startling surprises of colour or form.

She’s right. Japan is a subtle country. When I, an Australian, see a weather forecast for a fine day, I expect bright blue skies, but in fact that’s pretty rare in Japan. Even when there are blue skies they aren’t particularly bright. I am gradually getting used to it … and this softness goes, as Bird says, for colour in general here. It’s mostly muted, subtle … variations of green in the countryside, and beige and grey in the cities and towns. It’s quite a shock to see bright colours (in anything but flowers, which are of course blooming now that it’s late spring).

Anyhow, onto the subjects of this post, Kanazawa and Kyoto. By the end of this trip, our third in Japan, there will be three cities that we have visited every time: Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. Tokyo, primarily because we pass through it; Kanazawa because we fell in love with it on our first visit; and Kyoto because who doesn’t love Kyoto?


Plaque in Kenrokuen containing Basho's Haiku

Sign containing Basho’s Haiku in Kenrokuen

Haiku by Basho. In my first post I quoted a haiku by Issa, one of Japan’s four haiku masters, so this time I’ll quote one from Basho, another of the four. A major reason people visit Kanazawa is to see its famous garden, Kenrokuen. In the garden is a stone monument engraved with a Matsuo Basho haiku in 1689. I had a tricky time trying to find the actual haiku because it is, of course, written in Kanji (on the stone and the wooden sign). But after some googling I found haikugirl who has kindly agreed to my copying from her post the translation given to her. Here ’tis:

Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu

This roughly translates to “How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind”, which sounds pretty appropriate to me, regardless of the accuracy of the translation. So thankyou haikugirl.

Carson McCullers in Japan. It took three trips to Kanazawa for us to finally visit its impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. They were running two excellent exhibitions, but I’ll just mention one, “Silent echoes”. The curator’s notes start with the following quote from Carson McCullers’s The heart is a lonely hunter:

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. The music was her – the real plain her.

Murata Daisuke, the curator, goes on to explain that the centrepiece of the exhibition is “L’echo” by Tse Su-Mei, a Luxembourg artist whose work “resonates deeply with the world of music and human life conveyed by the above quote”. The aim of the exhibition, Daisuke writes, is to highlight “an artistic world created through a complete fusion of self, technique and the world”.

We found the exhibition appealing and accessible, and demanding engagement. It occupies 8 galleries/spaces, with each space containing only one or two works of art. This gives the viewer a wonderful opportunity to engage with the work, to contemplate its meaning for herself without being overwhelmed by surrounding works. The pieces range from three-dimensional sculptures and installations to two-dimensional pictures. One, for example, by Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, is a cibachrome print of an image of a (sky)diver he’d created using chocolate sauce. It’s two-dimensional but is tactile and free-spirited. It’s titled “Picture of Chocolate: Diver (After Siskind)”. Most of the works are monochromatic or use minimal colour, which also forces us to engage more deeply with the work I think.

But the exception to this muted colour use, and also the highlight for me, was “L’echo”. It’s a video projection showing a rear view of the artist playing a cello in a mountain landscape. She wears a red vest, while sitting on a stool on bright green grass and facing a very high dark green/blue forested mountain. She plays short simple sequences on the cello and pauses while the echo comes back. Sometimes she starts playing again before the echo finishes, so it sounds almost like a round. Sometimes the echo doesn’t quite replicate what she has just played. It’s mesmerising and beautifully evocative of the way humans and nature/landscape can engage on a level beyond reason and logic. I found it moving, and hard to leave.

Other works in the exhibition work at a similar level, and generally complement each other well, but I’ve not the time to dwell more on this now.


Our main reason for revisiting Kyoto this trip was to see Ginkaku-ji again and re-walk the Philosopher’s Walk because last time we’d done these it was late in the day and we had not “done” them justice. It was worth the effort. Ginkaku-ji is a lovely comparatively subdued temple with smallish but beautiful grounds which incorporate a dry landscape garden as well as “strolling garden” of paths, trees and shrubs.

In the grounds of the Honen-In, Kyoto

In the grounds of the Honen-in, Kyoto

The literary connection I want to refer to was not here though, but along the Philosopher’s Walk from which you can detour to visit a number of other temples. One of these is Honen-in and I was rather thrilled to discover that Junichiro Tanizaki is buried in the grounds here. We visited the cemetery but of course couldn’t read the tombstones. However, I rather liked knowing he was there, since this sort of literature-spotting is not such an easy thing to do in Japan (though I’m sure I could do more if I put my mind to it!). I read Tanizaki’s The Makioka sisters about 20 years ago, and found it a real eye-opener. It introduced me to a more multi-cultural Japan than I was aware of, while also conveying the challenges of maintaining traditions in a changing world. Max of Pechorin’s Journal recently wrote a post on a book by Tanizaki on reconciling tradition and modernisation in Japan. Do read his post – and the following discussion.

A little more Japlish

And just for fun, I’ll conclude with one bit of Japlish. It comes from some instructions for hotel guests:

Washing machine: 300 yen
Desiccator: 30 yen for 10 minutes.

I decided not to find out how long it would take to desiccate our clothes, and so left the washing for another day and hotel. Funnily enough, the “desiccator” itself was well labelled by the manufacturer as “dryer”. Clearly though the translator chose a dictionary over the object itself … and I’m rather glad s/he did.

18 thoughts on “On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 2, Kanazawa and Kyoto

    • Why thanks haikugirl, that was quick! It’s a bit bitsy piecy but there’s so much to say about Japan isn’t there, so I’ve just done a bit of picking and choosing. I hope people do click through to your Kanazawa post because I loved it!

    • Oh, I should have done a link to Kenrokuen as well … twas late when I finished the post and ran out of oomph. We’ve been to it three times now … and just love it even though we seem to just miss the best of whatever season we are visiting in. It is simply beautiful whether you are too early for real autumn or too late for real spring! This trip we’ve visted more of the major gardens and fewer temples and shrines.

  1. You are so incredibly fortunate to be able to take such an interesting exploratory trip in Japan. Its not a country I’ve ever wanted to visit but perhaps I’ve been thinking more of the incredible distance we would have to travel. No doubt its fascinating if you know what you are looking for. A fascinating post

    • Hi Tom, the funny thing is that the flight from London to Tokyo takes about 11hrs 30mins. From Sydney to Tokyo is about 9hrs 30 mins, but we have to add the flight from Canberra to Sydney which takes 30-45mins depending on which plane. You of course also have to get to London. From an Australian’s point of view, London to Tokyo seems like a pretty short flight as, except for Asia, most flights for us are well over 11 hours. (It takes us 5 hours or so just to corss Australia after all!). The great thing about flying to Japan for us though is that there’s no jetlag as the time difference is minimal. That’s a huge bonus.

      Japan is fascinating but it is harder to travel in, language wise, than most European countries. Japanese people are very helpful and the trains are pretty easy to manage but eating can require a little ingenuity, and travelling away from the beaten tracks of Tokyo, Kyoto, et al can be a little more exciting, shall we say. (Anyhow, I’ll post a few photos on flickr when we return…)

  2. It makes me sa to this of all the poets in this world that I’ll never be able to truly experience in their original form – even my beloved Pablo Neruda, I have to read through the lens of a translator. I do like the Basho translation, though!

  3. Tanizaki is an excellent writer, and Makioka Sisters is a terrific book, very subtle, very strong, and funny as well. One literary thing I remember, from my time in Japan, was the reaction every time I mentioned Yukio Mishima. People would look embarrassed and say, What would anyone read him for? He was mad.

    • Ah yes, I can see that reaction would be likely from what little I’ve seen of ” culture ” here.. I must say I haven’t talked a lot of literature here, mainly because we haven’t met enough Japanese with that level of English on occasions when there’s been time to talk. But over breakfast this morning in our ryokan I might because I see books in the kitchen. Not Japanese authors though but Mantel’s Wolf Hall is there. Might have been left by previous guests but I guess I’ll find out.

      • I think (and I’m going to stress “I think,” because this is conjecture) that it was his showboat side that embarrassed them. It was the Steve Irwin syndrome; there were Australians who worried that foreigners would see this man on television and believe that the entire country was stocked with nothing but rural snake enthusiasts who spent their time biting wallabies and shouting Crikey. And I think the people I spoke to were worried that foreigners would hear about Mishima and believe that Japan was stocked with aesthetic lunatics who liked to make speeches and cut their stomachs open and have their heads chopped off, instead of doing what they actually do, which is quietly and decently hurl themselves under trains or into the woods of Aokigahara.

        I would love to know the ryokan staff’s opinion of Wolf Hall, if any.

        • Ah yes that makes sense re Mishima. Unfortunately ryokan owner said it was left by another guest …mwhich I feared might be the case. When I asked nhim about writers he said his wife would be the better one to answer that but unfortunately we didn’t see hide nor hair of her. The family – husband, wife and daughter – lived upstairs but he runs the ryokan it seems and we didn’t see them in our 2 days there. He just mentioned Murakami – indicating that Murakami is of course well known in the west because he has been able to be translated and published there. He also mentioned Mishima! But this was over our second morning breakfast and there was another guest there that morning so we didn’t really continue the conversation. (Interesting family. They are documentary filmmakers and had lived in New York for a decade or so.)

  4. Thanks for this wonderful post, WG. I’ve been to Japan a couple of times but have never visited Kanazawa or Kyoto. Now they are must-see for me. I’ve appreciated your bringing out the cultural depth of the country, shown by the contemplative gardens, the integration of poetry and everyday beauty, and the museum, its Carson McCuller quote, and its exhibits. I’m curious about this Luxembourg artist with the Chinese name Tse Su-Mei. I’ve Googled her and learned how multi-talented she is… an award-winning cellist before excelling in visual arts. Just fascinating… everything you observed and wrote about. And, I must include Tanizaki’s The Makioka sisters in my TBR pile. Thanks again for sharing with us your travel and insights. (P.S. I trust you must have found quite a difference in your trips to Japan and HK. I regret to say that cultural depth was what I’d missed as someone who’d grown up in the latter.)

    • Thanks Arti. Really glad you liked the post. Thanks for sharing about the artist. I planned to look her up when I got back home. Her work certainly confirms what you found out.

      As for HK, yes I’ve been thinking what a difference but this is our third trip to Japan, each lasting three weeks so we have gradually been seeing more whereas we only had a week in HK and didn’t really get a good grasp I think. HK is much noisier though…and you get more accosted by people wanting to sell you things. Japan is such a relatively quiet country.

      I’m now pondering my next post which will probably be the last one… Oh, and do put Kanazawa on your next itinerary.

  5. Thanks for the info in your reply. Who’d have thought it? (I am not much travelled when it comes to beyond Europe!).

    The Philosphers Walk sounds really interesting.

    • Glad to be of service. The world is an amazing place. Hubby and I enjoy looking at maps and seeing the connections between places. It can be rather surprising at times, we’ve found.

  6. A great post. I’ve been to Japan twice on holiday and I think it’s a hugely underrated destination. I loved Kanazawa and Kyoto both.

    I missed that museum. A Carson McCullers quote! How marvellous. I loved The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (I’d love it for the title alone, but the text lives up to it).

    Our trips were each for three weeks too. I think that’s a good period for a break there. I definitely hope to return at some point.

    • Oh good, glad to find someone else who shares our fascination. We’ve visited some new great places this trip but the two Ks are still high in our Japanese cannon. I hope to write one more post on some of the new places we’ve visited and some very interesting literary connections (one with an English connection but you’ll have to wait for that!)

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