On the literary road … in Melbourne and thereabouts

Once again we are visiting our first-born in Melbourne and taking the opportunity to visit places we haven’t yet explored in this city and state. I’ve managed on this trip to tick off a few more “bucket list” items.

Captain Cook’s cottage in Fitzroy Gardens.

IMG_0554I first learnt of this cottage in my childhood when my siblings and I would collect Golden Fleece service station swap cards on road trips. These cards introduced me to all sorts of sights around Australia but three particularly took my fancy – Jenolan Caves with those amazing formations; the John Flynn Memorial in central Australia, because of the HUGE rock on top of it; and Captain Cook’s cottage because, yes I admit it, it was cute. The picture showed it with ivy growing over the walls, and for someone living in outback Queensland, that was romantic. I’ve seen the first two sights long ago, but for some reason had not seen the cottage – until now. It’s as cute as I expected, and a wonderful example of preserving the home of a significant person – albeit thousands of miles from where it was built.

And, it has a literary reference because upstairs was a display of a selection of the sorts of books people read in the 18th century – and there wasn’t a novel amongst them as the sign confirmed! This reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey in which she argues that novels convey a “thorough knowledge of human nature” in the best language.

Harold Holt Memorial at Cheviot Beach.

Cheviot Beach

Cheviot Beach

Harold Holt was prime minister of Australia in December 1967 when he disappeared at Cheviot Beach while swimming. He was never found, leading, of course, to all sorts of conspiracy theories.

This is not particularly literary, except that the event did spawn much writing – journalistic, historical and biographical – including My Life and Harry written the year after his death by his flamboyant wife, Dame Zara Holt.

Immigration Museum, in the old Customs Building.

A more recent wishlist item, but a significant one, is Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. It tells the story of migration, primarily in Victoria, and so starts from around 1830s. I liked that it paralleled this story with that of the original inhabitants discussing how migration and migrants impacted them and their lives. This aspect of the story could be stronger, but I guess the main focus is the immigrants. I liked the way the museum incorporated historical/political facts, through a timeline and other displays, with personal stories of immigrants told in text, voice and visuals.

IMG_0552The extra treat for me here though was a little serendipitous find. Recently, I had a discussion, in some online forum or other, with the Resident Judge about different styles of museums. She talked about liking museums where you can discover little things for yourself. I was reminded of this discussion when, out of the blue, in a display about identity, I came across a statement by novelist Ouyang Yu. Born in China, he now lives primarily in Australia where he established his literary career. At least, I assume the statement is by the novelist as his identity wasn’t divulged. I rather liked discovering him in this place, but did wonder why he wasn’t further identified.

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.

On the literary road, in Ontario

I’m back from my North American trip and, as you can tell, didn’t find much time to post while I was there. It was a packed three and a half weeks, catching up with our daughter, sightseeing, and meeting people, many of whom I’d got to know via online reading groups. I didn’t find much time (or, indeed, energy) to read, but would like to share some literary tidbits from our trip.

Chapters Indigo Bookshop

Canadian authors stand, Chapters Indigo, Eaton Centre, Toronto

I had hoped to check out a local independent bookshop or two but things – including weather that didn’t encourage meandering – conspired against me, so the only bookshop I visited in the end was a chain, Chapters Indigo. I was intrigued to see how much it had diversified into all sorts of products, including personal and household goods. I guess this is how a bookshop survives these days. My main aim in visiting was, of course, to check out Canadian authors. Unfortunately the shop, while fine in its way, was just like a chain. The staff did their best but were not really able to provide the sort of advice I wanted, like, you know, the names of Canadian authors besides the well-known ones like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They had a lot of the latter’s books, the willing sales assistant said, since she’d just won the Pulitzer! I didn’t bother to correct him but simply smiled, because he had done his best –  and then I noticed that we were actually standing next to a little display stand of just what we were looking for, that is, a stand in which all the books were tagged “Canadian author” and were all new authors to me! I was attracted to Circus, a book of short stories by Claire Battershill, but didn’t buy it then. Instead, I bought a book by another author I know, Margaret Laurence, for Ma Gums.

Toronto Book Awards

photo 2 croppedAnd then, quite serendipitously on the same day, my daughter and I were walking down Queen Street West and walked right over plaques embedded in the pavement for the Toronto Book Awards Authors Walk of Fame. The awards were established by the City of Toronto in 1974 and are awarded each year for the year’s best fiction or non-fiction book or books “that are evocative of Toronto”. All shortlisted authors receive $1000, with the winning author receiving an extra $10000.

I was intrigued to see that one of the winners of the first award – in the early years there were often multiple winners – was William Kurelek whose art we’d come across at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the book he won for is called O Toronto which contained his series of paintings of Toronto. The other two inaugural winners were historian Desmond Morton’s Mayor Howland and novelist Richard Wright’s In the middle of a life. I have his best known work, Clara Callan, on my TBR pile.

William Campbell

We visited Toronto’s historic Campbell House, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell from 1822 until he died in 1834. His Georgian-style house is the oldest surviving building from the original town of York, but the reason I am including him here is that he presided in 1826 over the trial of the rioters who destroyed William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press on which he printed his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The house museum suggests the case is a significant early test for freedom of the press in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become a politician, and in 1834, the first mayor of the new city of Toronto (as York was renamed when it was incorporated).

Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival theatre, Stratford

This festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespearean and then Shakespeare Festival, is, according to Wikipedia, an internationally-recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to October in Stratford, which is about 2-hours drive west of Toronto. It’s a very pretty little town, on the Avon River, and has a replica Globe Theatre. I was intrigued to discover yet another Shakespeare based or inspired festival. They seem to abound, and Wikipedia has quite a list of them. Many, like this one, don’t  focus exclusively on Shakespeare but his works form their backbone. Daughter Gums has been a keen attendee over the last two years of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and several of my online reading group friends love the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But back to Stratford. I was given a beautiful coffee table book, Robert Cushman’s Fifty seasons at Stratford, by Emmy whom I met for the first time on this trip but have “known” for many years through online reading groups. The book is organised chronologically with each chapter named for that period’s artistic director. And, it has an introduction by another Canadian author I’ve read, Timothy Findley, who acted at the very first festival at Stratford in 1953. The first director was Tyrone Guthrie, and some of the actors Findley worked alongside were Alex Guinness, Irene Worth and Douglas Campbell. This was clearly no amateur undertaking! Cushman, in his preface, mentions that another Canadian novelist (I’ve read), Robertson Davies, had played a role in establishing the Festival, had been on its board, and had written about its early history. This is a gorgeously produced book, with an excellent index and a chronological list at the back of every play performed at the festival from 1953 to 2002.

… and now, with jet lag making its presence felt, that is about all I have for you tonight, but at least I have given you a taste of some of the things that have occupied my mind over the past three weeks or so.

On the literary road: Gundagai Redux

20130509-154945.jpgGundagai, a small country town only two hours drive from my home, was the first place featured in my first literary road post back in 2009. I didn’t on that occasion write about its early history.

The Gundagai area was home to the Wiradjuri people, and was settled by white people in the late 1820s. It was officially gazetted in 1840 despite repeated warnings by the Wiradjuri about the risk of large floods to this part of the Murrumbidgee River floodplain.

According to the Poet’s Recall Motel, Gundagai’s first streets were named for poets: Shakespeare Tce, Milton St, Pope St, Johnson St, Maturin St, Landon St., Hemans St, Sheridan St, Otway St, Byron St, Homer St, Virgil St, and Ovid St. However, believe it or not, the Wiradjuri knew their country and in 1852 a huge flood destroyed the town. Over one third of the 250 inhabitants and a number of travellers died, and 71 buildings were destroyed. The old mill is the only building still standing from the original town. As for the poets, when the town was rebuilt, on higher ground, the poet street names, according to the Motel’s notes, were not reused. However, looking at a modern street map of Gundagai, I did spy Sheridan, Homer, Byron Streets, plus a reference to Ovid Lane and the other poets. Presumably these have been returned to the town in more recent times.

Anyhow, this is where the Poet’s Recall Motel comes in. The owner – I’m not sure when – decided to revive Gundagai’s poetic history. Each motel room is named for a poet – the original 13 and then some. I was rather delighted to find that our room was Banjo Paterson, and the two rooms next to us were Henry Lawson and Breaker Morant. Fine room-mates for Whispering Gums! In addition, the historic bar in the motel’s restaurant is decorated with painted portraits – on local slate – of the original 13 poets.

Once again I’ve learnt that country towns can be surprising places … I don’t imagine I would ever have heard of Felicia Hemans, who was published in the early nineteenth century by John Murray, Jane Austen’s publisher, if I hadn’t stayed at the Poet’s Recall Motel.

On the literary road: Omeo, Omeo, wherefore art thou Omeo?

The Omeo Plains near Benambra from Mount Blowhard

Omeo Plains (Released into Public Domain, by John O’Neill, via Wikipedia)

Ok, that’s a pretty weak beginning I know, but hands up if you’ve ever heard of Omeo in Victoria, Australia? I must say that I hadn’t until recently when I started planning our latest foray into Victoria. We decided to  travel to Melbourne via the Great Alpine Road, in Victoria’s High Country … and in that gorgeous region we found a very pretty little town called  Omeo.

And so, I checked my literary guide* and I discovered some interesting literary connections for the town. It was part of the big Gold Rush of the 1850s, and the area features in novels by Rolf Boldrewood and Henry Kingsley. I’m a bit embarrassed that I really hadn’t been aware of Kingsley until a year or so ago, but Omeo features in his best-known novel, The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859), and in another of his novels The Hillyars and the Burtons (1865). This latter novel apparently incorporates a story inspired by the Omeo Disaster of 1854 in which a number of diggers rushed over the Great Dividing Range from Beechworth searching for gold. It was not successful, however, and some of the diggers did not survive their return trip.

Boldrewood is a better known writer, primarily for his novel, Robbery under arms. It is another novel of his, though, Nevermore (1892), that features this area, which he saw as wild and lawless. In this novel he recreates three real events that rather support his assessment – the murder of Cornelius Green, the Ned Kelly Gang cattle rustling, and the Tichborne Claimant affair. All of these had connections with Omeo. Cornelius Green was a gold-buyer who was hatchetted to death by two bushrangers in 1859. The Tichborne claimant, who made a fake claim on a fortune and a title in England, had worked around Omeo in the 1850s. It was a well-known case at the time in both England and Australia. And the Kellys, well, if you don’t know them, click the link to Wikipedia and all will be revealed!

By 1900 Omeo had become far more respectable and was recognised for the beauty that we saw on our visit. Poet Bill Wye wrote:

There’s a wild charm in the mountains that is not met elsewhere,
Free as the vagrant winds, and pure as snow
There are songs in fountains, bubbling in the hills up there,
That echo the name of ‘Omeo’…

Not great poetry perhaps, but you get the picture, as you do in the following which was included by one RH Croll in his 1928 book on bushwalking:

As I came over Livingstone
The day was like a flame,
But suddenly I saw below,
Far and far and far below,
The shining roofs of Omeo
And said its singing name.

Ah, Omeo, Omeo, methinks you deserve better poets than these!

*Peter Pierce (ed)
The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983 (rev ed)
ISBN: 0195536223

Monday musings on Australian literature: What value writers’ homes?

DKS, in a recent comment on this blog, and Lisa of ANZLitlovers, in a post last week, have brought to my attention the threat to Christina Stead‘s home, Boongarre, in Watsons Bay, Sydney. As a lover of the “literary road”, I’m concerned and so decided to explore it a little more.

The facts, as I understand them, are there is a draft heritage listing on the house, but there is also a development application currently before the Woollahra Council to add “modern extensions and excavate the historic garden” (Street Corner Staff, 6 June 2011). The house was a major inspiration for Stead’s novel, The man who loved children. The Watsons Bay Association has set up a petition to save the home. Their arguments are that the house:

  • will (do they know this?) be a heritage item “within months”;
  • represents 70 years of history of Christina, and her conservationist father and step-mother, David and Thistle Stead; and
  • is one of a “dwindling number of important historic houses in Watsons Bay”.

The Association provides strong supporting evidence for these arguments (which you can read via the link I privoded). They also say that the cause is being supported by such contemporary writers as Jonathan Franzen (who wrote an introduction for a recent edition of The man who loved children), Alex Miller and Nikki Gemmell.

Lake View House, Chiltern

Lake View House, Chiltern, in which Henry Handel Richardson lived (Courtesy Golden Wattle, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.5)

There are those, however, who aren’t so quick to leap to the defence of the house. Over at The Australian newspaper’s A pair of ragged claws litblog, the issue was discussed earlier this month by Stephen Romei and his commenters. Stephen posed this:

I’m leaning towards saying it doesn’t bother me, that Schwarzer spent $10 million to buy the place, which is a house not a museum, so he should be able to do some renovations if he wants, that swimming pools are great when you have kids, and that he’s not, as far as I know, also proposing to burn the last copy of The Man Who Loved Children.

But I’d like to hear other opinions on the matter. The fact that Alex Miller, for one, does care, is more than enough to give me pause. So, apparently, does Jonathan Franzen, who is Stead’s literary champion in the United States.

Romei goes on to suggest that seeing a writer’s house, say Hemingway’s, is interesting in a “touristy” way but that he wouldn’t care if it weren’t there the way he would if Hemingway’s books no longer existed. Several commenters agreed with him: it’s the books that matter, they said; and there must be other ways to remember and promote interest in Christina Stead. But, argued others, there is value in keeping and celebrating writers’ houses. My favourite arguments are:

  • When a home and/or museum is done well, it can provide wonderful insights into the writer’s life and serve as a repository for archives and artefacts, as well as a focus for dissemination of the writer’s work and a resource for scholarship. (Nathanael O’Reilly); and
  • Maintaining a house for prosperity is more than a gesture. It is an important anchor point for a culture which says “this is us, this is valuable.. see why”.  It speaks volumes to those coming on, even if they don’t visit.  A writer’s home may seem inconsequential, say compared with Monticello (tell me if that experience doesn’t impact, and last!*), and upkeep payments may seem misplaced or prohibitive, but little by little these things infuse society and enrich us here, and by overseas acknowledgement through visitation, in ways immeasurable.  We really do need to understand these values and to move away from the transigent [sic] “she’ll be right” approach to our “culture” and begin taking a more hands-on approach. (Lobster)

Wow! I didn’t need convincing, but Lobster has nailed it on the head as far as I’m concerned. What about you?

(* It sure does!)

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 3, Matsue and beyond

This will be my last post on our Japanese adventures (unless something specific inspires me to write again – always leave yourself an out is my motto) and I’m going to share a few particular experiences, so here goes.

Matsue and Lafcadio Hearn

Our prime reason for going to Matsue was to visit the Adachi Museum of Art, and its famous garden. However, Matsue is also famous for having one of Japan’s best original castles, so we visited that on the day we arrived – and then explored the castle environs. And here we found a house and museum devoted to Greek-born Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He only lived in Matsue for a short time, but he met his wife there and the town has taken him as their own. I have downloaded the eBook version of one of his best known books, Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1871) which was published just a little earlier than Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan.

For now though, I’ll just share two little tidbits that attracted my attention in the museum. The first is that Lafcadio Hearn was apparently the person who introduced the word “tsunami” to the rest of the world. He wrote, in 1897:

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at regular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves – tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese “tsunami”. The last one occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. (from “A living god”)

The second is another quote the museum included from Hearn, this one on Japanese gardens:

Now a Japanese garden is not a flower garden, neither is it made for cultivating plants. As a rule a Japanese garden is a landscape garden. Another fact of prime importance to remember is that, in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. (From “Glimpses …”)

He’s right, though I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but stones are a significant part of Japanese gardens and you can’t help but notice and ponder them when you stroll around gardens here. At Korakuen in Okayama, an English-speaking guide told us that stones represent “prosperity” and would often be given as gifts.

Okayama and folk tales

Okayama manhole cover featuring Momotaro, the Peach Boy

Momotaro and friends on Okayama manhole covers

Japan, like many countries, is rich in folktales, and we came across several during this trip. There was one particular story, though, Momotaro, the Peach Boy, that I think is somewhat known in the west – at least, I came across it when our children were young – so it was rather meaningful to meet him in his home, Okayama. The Momotaro story involves his fighting marauding demons with the help of a dog, monkey and pheasant. The demons may, according to Wikipedia, have been from the island of Megishima – and we did visit the demon cave there some days later (but that’s a whole other story). What I want to introduce here instead is the topic of Japanese manhole covers. Each town seems to have its own design (or two) – and if you search Flickr you will find a goodly number of them. They are appealing and are just one of those little details that make Japanese travel fun. Anyhow, for Okayama the design is based on the Momotaro story.

Ogishima and John Masefield

One of the most surprising literary experiences of the trip was finding, within sight of the lighthouse on the little island of Ogishima, a beautifully polished marble stone monument engraved with the three verses of John Masefield’s famous poem “Sea fever” . I haven’t been able to find out what Masefield has to do with Ogishima, and perhaps it’s simply that it’s an applicable poem for a little sea-focused island, but with Japan’s close relationship with the sea I would have thought it had its own famous sea poems to use in such a situation. Whatever the case, this westerner rather enjoyed coming across something familiar in an unfamiliar place.

Onomichi and the Path of Literature

Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Suiin Emi's stone on the Path of Literature

There is, as the Rough Guide to Japan will tell you, a long temple walk you can do in Onomichi, that takes you up and down the hillsides that line this little port town. We decided to follow the Rough guide’s advice and just do selected components of the walk, which happened to include the Path of Literature. According to an Onomichi Travel Guide the path was developed because Onomichi is known to have inspired many poets/writers because of its “beautiful scenery and quiet life style”. The walk contains 25 stones (stones, again), each inscribed with some words from a particular writer and each accompanied by an interpretative sign which includes the writer’s name in English. (Nothing else was in English, but the name’s a great help for later research.)

I have chosen the Suiin Emi stone to illustrate this post because he was born in nearby Okayama. Basho is, of course, represented … as he is also in the little fishing town of Tomo-no-ura.

An apparent incongruity

Japan is a country of contrasts, paradoxes even you could say, and so I thought I’d illustrate this with something from our second day in Japan when we visited the quiet little town of Obuse (which I mentioned in my first post for its Hokusai connection). We walked out of the station and across the rather empty little street to discover what appeared to be a restaurant (albeit closed at the time) with the following sign on its door:

We have NO relation with Yakuza.

We are still pondering that one …

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.

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 1, Central Honshu

Given this is primarily a litblog, I like my travel posts to have some literary or, at least, linguistic interest. And so in this first post about our current trip to Japan, literary and linguistic observations and thoughts will be my focus.

Linguistic challenges

Japanese language has a pitch-accent system which can provide particular challenges for English-speaking foreigners who try to use some Japanese words when communicating. For example:

  • Kaki: Oyster or Persimmon, depending on, to me, a very slight difference in intonation
  • Sake: Salmon or, well, Sake, with the same proviso as above
  • Hana: Flower, Nose or a Girl’s name with, I think, no variation in pronunciation. So, when you see a shop, as we did the other day, called Hana No Hana (‘no’ denoting ‘possession’), you wonder whether it means ‘Hana’s Flower’ or’ Hana’s Nose’ or ‘Flower’s Nose’ or, Flower’s Flower’, or … well, you can see where I’m going can’t you? You can have fun playing word games with Japanese people.


Sign in toilet, Japan

Sign in toilet, Japan

English-speaking foreigners, as you probably know, love to “catch” Japanese out in their English usage … and so for fun I’ll share just a couple that we’ve come across to date with you. But, please note that these are shared in a sense of fun not ridicule. After all, most Japanese know more English than I do Japanese, and at least they try.

  • On a special English menu in an izakaya that I shall leave unidentified to protect the innocent:

It is necessary to enjoy oneself over meal after it acknowledges though it is thought that the mistake of the word is somewhat found in the menu.

  • Inside a toilet door. For some reason, hotels and tourist venues often feel the need to tell you what to do with your used toilet paper. This one is particularly (unconsciously, we presume) entertaining:

(It is asked a favour to users by a manager)
Please divert toilet paper to a toilet stool. Let’s use a restroom neatly.


I like to read Japanese writers, and have reviewed a couple on this blog to date, but here I’ll share something different.

A little haiku written by the poet Koyabashi Issa (1763-1827), one of Japan’s four haiku masters. It was inspired by a frog mating battle at Gansho-in Temple in the lovely little town of Obuse, and was written to encourage his sickly son. (Unfortunately, his son died a month later. In fact, Issa was pre-deceased by all his children and his wife).

Makeru na! Issa,
Kore ni ari.

It roughly translates to:

Skinny Frog,
Don’t give up! Issa
Is here.

English traveller-explorer Isabella Lucy Bird‘s* letters, titled Unbeaten tracks in Japan, published in 1880 about her trip to Japan. I downloaded an eBook version and have been dipping into it during our trip. In Letter XVIII she talks about her travels in the alpine region of Central/Western Honshu through which we travelled a day or so ago. Here is an excerpt:

It is an enchanting region of beauty, industry, and comfort, mountain girdled, and watered by the bright Matsuka. Everywhere there are prosperous and beautiful farming villages, with large houses with carved beams and ponderous tiled roofs, each standing in its own grounds, buried among persimmons [kaki, remember!] and pomegranates, with flower-gardens under trellised vines, and privacy secured by high, closely-clipped screens of pomegranate and cryptomeria.

She then names a number of villages, including the gorgeous Takayama which we have now visited on two occasions. She describes the farms as “exquisitely trim and neat”, and nothing has changed today.

I was also struck by a comment on food from the same letter. When she asked her hosts whether they drank milk from their cow, she learnt that they didn’t, that they thought it was “most disgusting” the way foreigners put into their tea something “with such a strong smell and taste”. Tea is of course a significant part of Japanese culture, but from a country which eats the oddest things to our western minds – salmon nose anyone? – this did make me laugh. Each to her own, as they say!

And here ends, my first little travel piece. More to come (probably).

*In the interests of full disclosure, I must add that according to Wikipedia, her first adventure was to Australia but she apparently didn’t like it.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Victorian Literary Map

This week’s Monday Musings will be a brief one, partly because my time is tight (I really must finish Parrot and Olivier in America by tomorrow) and partly because I’m primarily going to post a link to a map: the online interactive Victorian Literary Map.

As you might have guessed from my various Literary Road postings, I am rather partial to maps, particularly when they are combined with a subject of interest to me. Consequently, I was rather thrilled when I came across the Victorian Literary Map. It is a project of the State Library of Victoria, and was part of the Library’s Independent Type: Books and Writing in Victoria exhibition which celebrated Melbourne’s establishment as a UNESCO city of literature. It has Flash (with a clickable map) and Text (with a clickable alphabetical listing of towns) versions. The introduction to the text version says, simply:

Victoria is a state of rich and diverse literary culture.
View the places where some of our greatest writing was created or set, and learn about our writers and their origins.

Clicking on a place (in the map or index) can retrieve:

  • the name/s of writer/s associated with the place. Click on an author and the little pop-up “card” contains an image of the writer, a brief biography, a list of references and, where they exist, related links to another writer in the map
  • work/s set in or about the place. Click on the work and the little pop-up comprises an excerpt from the work
  • events or other literary activities associated with the place, such as Clunes Booktown

The map seems a little limited though, because the text version introduction also contains the following:

NOTE: Only towns and places that have literary records will show in the index.

Lake View House, Chiltern

Lake View House, Chiltern (Courtesy Golden Wattle, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 2.5)

This must be why Chiltern does not appear in the map, because it certainly has literary associations. The Australian author Henry Handel Richardson lived in Lake View House for a short time, and set the early years of what is probably her most famous novel (trilogy), The fortunes of Richard Mahoney, in the town. It’s a pretty little town well worth visiting, and so it’s a shame it doesn’t appear on the map.

Anyhow, click on the map and have a look around. It’s a nice idea, though it could do with updating, in a technological sense (such as implementing some Web 2.o functionality), and expansion, in terms of content (as Victoria’s literary heritage is clearly richer than the map shows).

Oh, and I’d love to know if there are other web-based initiatives designed to help we literary travellers.