Lafcadio Hearn, Yuki-Onna (#Review)

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week. I usually “do” a few a year, but this is the first for 2019, even though I’ve identified several that I’ve wanted to do. However, when Lafcadio Hearn popped up last week – and with a Japanese story – I knew I really had to break the drought.

Image of Lafcadio Hearn's houseLafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) has appeared in this blog a couple of times before, the main time being in a Literary Road post from our 2011 trip to Japan when we visited Matsue. Hearn only lived there briefly but he met his Japanese wife there and it has a museum dedicated to him. Hearn is a fascinating man. Greek-born to a Greek mother and Irish father, he spent childhood years in Ireland before moving to the USA in 1869, where he then lived for two decades. Here he married a former slave who worked in his boardinghouse kitchen, and built his career as a journalist. In 1890 he went to Japan on a publisher’s commission. He married again, and lived out the rest of his life here, taking the name of Koizumi Yakumo. He became chair of English Language and Literature at the Tokyo Imperial University.

In their usual introduction, the Library of America quotes an article by another writer who appeared here only recently, Roger Pulvers. The article, in Japan Times, is titled “Lafcadio Hearn: ‘Japanese thru and tru'”. Pulvers provides a thoughtful, clear-eyed run-down of Hearn’s life, of his attitude to Japan, and particularly of his achievements as a writer. He says that Hearn:

was the shadow-maker, the illusionist who conjured up his own visions of Japan and gladly lost himself in them. He strove to leave Japan and return to the United States. Perhaps he realized that it was there that he had created his most accomplished work, attaining something he savored: notoriety. Again an ironical paradox emerges: He is remembered now in United States, if at all, not for his superb reportage on modern America but for his adoration of a long-gone Japan.

Pulvers says that Hearn loved “old” Japan –

He worshipped the static and wanted to see his beloved quaint Japan remain as sweet as it always was in his eye and the eyes of the world, bemoaning all progress: “What, what can come out of all this artificial fluidity!”

– but

loathed the modern Japanese male and what he stood for, and in this he recognized the futility of his task, a futility keenly felt toward the end of his years, where he heard “nothing but soldiers and the noise of bugles”.

Remember, when he died in 1904, Japan’s imperialism was at its height.

Hearn published roughly a book a year for the fourteen years he lived in Japan, but is best known for two of them, Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things (from which this post’s story comes) and Japan: An attempt at interpretation. Kwaidan comprises a number of ghost stories plus a non-fiction study of insects. Intriguing, eh?

Yuki-Onna, says the Library of America, means “snow woman”, and is “an ancient spirit who appears often in Japanese fiction, plays, and movies”. Hearn explains in the Introduction to Kwaidan that he’d heard this story from a farmer as a legend from his village. He says that he doesn’t know “whether it has ever been written in Japanese” but that “the extraordinary belief which it records used certainly to exist in most parts of Japan, and in many curious forms.” Wikipedia confirms in an article about this spirit that it dates back to the 14th to 16th centuries, and can be found in many Japanese prefectures including Aomori, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime. If you know your Japan, you’ll know that these take us from northern Honshu down through the island and across to Shikoku.

The story is pretty simple, plot-wise, and given it’s just 4 pages long I’m not going to describe it here, except to say that it is about a vengeful snow spirit. Why she is vengeful is not made clear in Hearn’s story, but Wikipedia says that some legends believe she is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. The legends vary over place and time, particularly in terms of how evil or aggressive she is.

I suggest you read it at the link below, as it will only take a few minutes. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have had this opportunity to remind myself of this intriguing 19th century character. Next, I’d love to read some of those American articles of his that Pulvers praises.

Lafcadio Hearn
First published: Kwaidan: Stories and studies of strange things, 1904.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels in Japan

Here is my second Monday Musings inspired by my current Japanese travels. It is, loosely, a companion piece to one I wrote three years ago on Australian literature in China. That was inspired by an article I found in Trove. This one, however, was been inspired by a program I discovered via Google, called The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature.

The website describes the series as follows:

The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature Series was established by Gendai Kikakushitsu Publishing in 2012. With the support of the Australia-Japan Foundation, the program aims to increase the recognition of contemporary Australian literature by translating and publishing Australian novels in Japan. Not only showcasing the excellence of Australian literature, the series looks to reveal ‘Contemporary Australia’ and share with the Japanese audience the diversity of its culture and society.

ABC RN Books and Arts Daily discussed the project after the launch of the first book. The Australian ambassador to Japan at the time, Bruce Miller, comments that Japanese interest in Australian Aboriginal culture comes from their interest in ancient cultures, and because it’s unique. He also talks about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is supporting the project, being comfortable with sharing the positive and negative aspects of our culture. Professor Kate Darian-Smith from the University of Melbourne says that part of the project is to support and foster the teaching and discussion of Australian literature in universities and by the public.

So far, apparently, six books have been so translated and published – and here they are in the order they were done (with the date they were launched, and links to my post on that book, if any!)

  • David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, trans. by Rumi Musha (2012)
  • Tim Winton’s Breath, trans. by Keiji Sawada (2013, my review): the launch included a discussion between Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa and Kate Darian-Smith.
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, trans. by Keiji Minato (2014, my review): Tsiolkas attended the launch and took part in a symposium.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river, trans. by Tomoko Ichitani (2015): Grenville attended the launch, along with “Ms Yukiko Konosu, a well-known translator of foreign literature”.
  • Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, trans. by Masaya Shimokusu (2017, my review): Scott attended the launch, along with two prominent Japanese writers, Ms Akiko Shimoju and Mr Masaaki Nishiki, to talk about “Australian culture and literature, and the role literature plays in multicultural societies”.
  • Helen Garner’s This house of grief: The story of a murder trial, trans. by Megumi Kato (2018, my review): Garner attended the launch, and took part in a panel discussion with Japanese author Kyoko Nakajima discussion Australian and Japanese perspectives on “the non-fiction novel”. You can read a report of the launch event here.

I’m thrilled that I have read, and liked (in different ways and for different reasons) every one of these six books, some, of course, before blogging. I wonder what the next book will be?

Kim Scott That Deadman DanceAll these books have won major awards and/or been bestsellers (by Australian terms, anyhow). None are simple or easy books, and none present Australia at its best. In this sense they represent “true” literature that grapples with real issues, and clearly meet the goal of revealing ‘Contemporary Australia’ (in all its messiness.) Clearly, they appreciate that historical novels also say something about “contemporary” Australia. It’s encouraging that the program is still going, and is supported, it seems, by quality launch events. So many visionary programs like this seem to flounder.

Oh, and by-the-by, I discovered that in July this year, Monash University held a Translation in transition: Australian literature in Japan. It was to focus in particular on this Masterpieces program, which they describe as a 10-year project. The seminar was being given by Tomoko Ichitani who translated Grenville’s book for the project. She is apparently working on a “collaborative translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria“. I wonder if that’s for this program?

Anyhow, what book would you choose next? (I have a few ideas.) And do you have any comments on those chosen to date?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in Japan

Given I’m currently travelling in Japan, I thought I’d write a couple of Japanese-oriented posts. My first one – introductory, rather than in-depth – is about Australian writers who live or have lived (loosely defined) in Japan.

An early Australian writer who went to Japan was Rosa Praed who visited Japan around 1894–95 on her return to Australia from England. Resulting from this visit was her novel Madame Izàn: A tourist story (1899) in which, writes Clarke (see below), she “raised the then daring subject of an interracial marriage between a Japanese man and an Irish woman”. This novel is available online, but I’ll just share this little description of the characters’ arrival in Japan:

And now they were in the harbour, where among the native craft and merchantmen were French and English and American men-of-war and a fierce Russian battleship, which looked as though it could, with its big guns, gobble up, as easily at the wolf gobbled up Red Riding Hood, pretty, harmless Nagasaki, lying so peacefully at the foot of her green hills.

Praed visited at an interesting time!

Ogai Mori, The Wild GooseA different sort of Australian writer who lived in Japan, in Kyoto, for twenty years, is Meredith McKinney (who also happens to be poet Judith Wright’s daughter). She is best known as a translator of Japanese literature. Back in Australia, since 1988, and living near Canberra, she’s an associate professor at the Australian National University’s Japan Centre, and writes on Japanese related topics. An example is her analysis in Griffith Review of atomic power and Japan after the Fukushima meltdown, “Continuing fallout”. She continues to translate, her books including Penguin Classics editions of Sei Shonagon’s The pillow book and Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, and Finlay Lloyd’s edition of Ogai Mori’s The wild goose (on my TBR).

American-born Australian writer Roger Pulvers has also lived in Japan, mainly Kyoto and Tokyo, for many years. (He is also now based in Canberra I believe.) He’s a playwright, novelist, scriptwriter and, like McKinney, a translator and a writer on Japanese topics. This year he was awarded the Order of Australia for his service to Japanese literature and culture. There’s an extensive article on him in Wikipedia. Broinowski says of his writing:

Always evenhandedly satirical of Australians and Japanese, Roger Pulvers has returned repeatedly in his fiction, drama, and filmscripts to the Pacific war, its consequences, and the moral dilemmas it raised.

Book coverAn Australian writer who seems to have disappeared from view is Andrew O’Connor, who lived in Tokyo and Nagano for a few years in the early 2000s. His novel Tuvalu won the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscript in 2005. I read it back then, before blogging. You might think from the title that the novel is about Tuvalu, but you’d be wrong. It is set primarily in Tokyo, with Tuvalu representing an escape-fantasy. (Hmm, not now!) O’Connor captured well the life of young expats in Japan, and that strange, black, other-worldly tone you find in some modern Japanese literature.

Around the same time, some may remember, Peter Carey published a travel book, Wrong about Japan, which chronicled a trip he made to Japan with his son. It was pretty controversial at the time, because of the approach Carey took. However, Wikipedia quotes Stephen Mansfield of The Japan Times who wrote in 2018 that Wrong About Japan was “not universally appreciated when it was first published in 2005, but time has proven it to be a small, highly original contribution to books on this country.”

It seems that in this book Carey begins by appearing to be a naive tourist in Japan, but Broinkowski writes that:

Gradually however, he allows it to emerge that he has been in Japan more than once before, has done considerable research, and has excellent contacts. When in Japan, Carey doesn’t do as the Japanese do, but he respects the ascendancy of Japanese civilization, and unusually among male writers, doesn’t make a contest out of it.

Book coverAll these writers I knew about when I conceived this post, but one I didn’t know who had spent significant time in Japan is novelist and short story writer, Paddy O’Reilly. According to her website, not only has she been an Asialink writer-in-residence in Japan, but she spent “several years working as a copywriter and translator” there. The knowledge she gleaned as a result has informed several of her stories (including two in The end of the world, 2007) and a novel, The factory (2005).

And then there’s Tara June Winch who popped up serendipitously in this month’s Qantas magazine with an article titled “The journey” in the QSpirit section. She talks about having an idea for a novel set in Japan, inspired by the Japanese word hakanai, which she understands to mean “something that is beautiful or precious” because it doesn’t last long. She envisaged her character approaching Mt Fuji, but then became stuck. She writes:

I was adamant that if I could only walk up the side of the mountain myself, the story would be waiting for me in the still quiet, in the pine forests.

So what do you do? You find an artist residency, that’s what! She went to Japan with her daughter. They slept on futons on tatami mats, gradually made friends, and joined in the culture. She never did write the novel, but, she says, hakanai was “the essence of the the entire trip. Hakanai was my daughter’s childhood – beautiful and precious, just because”. We know what she means.

There’s actually quite a lot of academic writing out there on the topic, analysing interpretations, but I hope this has provided a little intro to some Aussie literary connections with Japan. I’d love to hear what you know or have read.


Alison E. Broinowski (2101). The honbako is bare: what’s become of Japan/ Australia fiction? (University of Wollongong Research Online)

Clarke, Patricia (2003). “Two colonials in London’s Bohemia” in National Library of Australia News, XIII(12): 14–17, September 2003 (A source I used to add information about Praed to Wikipedia, a decade ago!)


Richard Lloyd Parry, People who eat darkness (Review)

ParryDarknessCapeCommenting on my review of Helen Garner’s This house of grief, Ian Darling recommended Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows. I’m ashamed that I rarely follow up the great recommendations I receive here, and I admit that it’s odd that when I did this time it was for a genre I rarely read, true crime. But, I was intrigued because it’s about a crime in Japan, and Japan is a country that I love to visit. Fortunately, Ian didn’t lead me astray. It’s a fascinating book.

I’m not a big reader of crime, in fiction or non-fiction form, but I have read a small number of true crime books over the years, starting, long ago, with Truman Capote’s In cold blood. True crime books vary in emphasis, but the ones that attract me are those that throw light on character and society. This is certainly the case with Parry’s People who eat darkness which tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old English woman who went missing in Tokyo in the summer of 2000 and whose remains were found that winter. Parry writes early in the book that “the story was familiar enough – girl missing: body found: man charged – but … it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments, that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell”.

And so Parry attempts to answer these questions. In so doing he covers a lot of ground. He gives us biographies of both Lucie and the man convicted of killing her, Joji Obara; he exposes Japanese discrimination against Koreans; he explains the role of “hostesses” in modern Japanese culture; he explores Japanese policing and the wider justice system; he looks at the media; and he tells the story of the devastating impact of the murder on Lucie’s family. He’s a good writer and tells it well, but I felt we didn’t need as much of Lucie’s biography as he gave. We needed to know a little about her, of course – including why she was in Japan working as a hostess in Roppongi – but, while it was relevant to delve into Obara’s life, I did wonder about the relevance of telling us about, for example, Lucie’s various friends and earlier boyfriends. Did he include all this to balance out the space he was giving to the perpetrator? Why should Obara get more airplay, after all? The victim is often invisible enough. Still, it’s a long book and could have been tightened a little in this area.

However, this is a minor niggle, because Parry has written a compelling story. I must say that I feel uncomfortable using the word “story” for such a devastating event, and even more uncomfortable calling it “compelling”, but I can’t think of any alternative language, so will just have to continue. What makes it compelling is that this is a crime story that departed the usual scripts. Parry analyses the hows and whys of these departures.

“conquest play”

The first “script relates to the murder: it was not, it seems, premeditated but a date-rape (or, “conquest play” as the perpetrator so chillingly called it) that went terribly wrong. Obara had been practising for many years his perverted idea of “conquest play” in which he invited (or lured) women to spend time with him, during which he would sedate them with chloroform or date-rape drugs to enable him to carry out sexual acts. His behaviour had resulted in the death, in 1992, of an Australian woman Carita Ridgeway, but her death had not been recognised as a “murder”. This, together with the failure of the police to follow up a number of complaints about Obara, meant that Lucie was the next unlucky one to not survive Obara’s gruesome idea of “play”. Obara, though, argued to the end that she died of a self-administered overdose.

“not Japanese”

The next “script” is the trial, which did not run the typical Japanese course. Trials in Japan, Parry tells us, “do not resemble fights, battles or sporting events, as the adversarial logic of its laws seems to prescribe, but rather ‘ceremonies’ or ’empty shells’, devoid of even minor disagreements.” However, Obara fought his case vigorously. Parry describes in great detail Japan’s justice system, from policing to the trial and appeals. In Japan, he says, “you are not innocent until proven guilty”. He quotes sociologist David Johnson’s statement that “Prosecutors, like just about everyone in Japan, believe that only the guilty should be charged and that the charged are almost certainly guilty”. Consequently, in Japan, over 90% of those committed to trial are convicted – and a confession is expected. Parry writes:

‘The police are experienced in persuading people to confess,’ a senior detective told me. ‘We make efforts to let the criminal understand the consequences of their actions. We say things like “The sorrow of the victims is truly deep” and “Have you no sense of reflection on what you have done?” But he was not that kind of person. With him those tactics would never work.’ The detective had no difficulty in explaining this quirk in Obara’s character, although he hesitated a little in spelling it out to a foreigner. ‘It is hard for you to understand, perhaps. But it’s because he is . . . not Japanese.’

Obara was of Korean background, you see, and, as Parry details, Japan does not treat its Korean citizens well. Why Obara was the way he was is too complex to discuss here – though Parry makes a good attempt in the book – but from the police point of view, he was “not Japanese” and, once arrested, did not follow the expected path of a charged man.

“the most terrible, terrible event”

Finally, Lucie’s family, rather than presenting “a tight-knit” unit as is so often presented in post-tragedy media reporting, was bitterly divided. Her parents had been divorced many years before her murder, but it was not amicable. Lucie and her two younger siblings, Sophie and Rupert, lived with their mother Jane, while father Tim lived on the Isle of Wight. Lucie was close to her mother, and often kept the peace between her sister and mother. If all this was a sad situation before Lucie died, it was devastating after. The parents could agree on nothing, from how they responded to the media to how they would inter Lucie.

Jane is a more shadowy figure, because she largely kept to herself. Tim though, with Sophie, was active in the search for Lucie, using whatever resources he could garner. Parry clearly got to know him well, and presents to us an intriguing, sometimes contradictory, man, one who said that the death of his daughter was “the most terrible, terrible event of my life” and yet who could say he felt sorry for Obara. Parry writes of this that:

Nothing better caught the complexity of Tim’s own character, his stubborn unorthodoxy, which to me was so likeable and admirable, but which to many people was repellent. Almost on principle, he refused the obvious point of view and the temptations of conventional morality. The high ground was his for the taking, but instead of marching ahead to claim it, he dawdled and skirted around it, finding shades of pathos and ambiguity where others could see only black and white. Onlookers were not merely puzzled by this – they were appalled.

Parry’s portrait of Tim is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, but his picture of a family destroyed is heart-wrenching. Here is Sophie on the day Lucie’s remains were interred:

What was most glaringly obvious was how Lucie’s death had changed the relationships between all of us, and how as a brother and a sister, and a mum and a dad, we were just four strangers sitting round a table.

It’s a desperately sad story, which had longterm ramifications for Lucie’s siblings.

“the drive to pass judgement”

Parry, an English journalist based in Tokyo, spent around ten years researching this book. He attended the very lengthy trial, spoke to family, friends, police and others involved, and read a lot of written material including letters, diaries and emails. He tells the story from a first person point of view, sharing his research process along the way. He is not actively “in” the story like, say, a Helen Garner, but we can discern his hand.

Humans, he writes

are conditioned to look for truth which is singular and focused, hanging for all to see, like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut; but the surface of the shell turned out to be fascinating in itself.

Near the end, he suggests that the “drive to pass judgement was one of the extraordinary effects of the case”. It is to his credit that he manages to steer an astutely observed but even course through unexpected scripts to capture the complexity of its “actors”, and thus of humanity. There is value in reading a book like this.

Richard Lloyd Parry
People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows
London: Jonathan Cape, [2011]
404p. (in print ends.)
ISBN: 9781448155613 (ePub)

Irma Gold and Craig Phillips, Megumi and the bear (Review)

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book cover

Courtesy: Walker Books Australia

Now here’s something different at the Gums! I don’t, as you’d know, make a practice of reviewing children’s literature, though I have done a few cross-over adult-young adult novels. So, when Irma Gold and Craig Phillips’ children’s picture book, Megumi and the bear, landed in my letterbox a week or so ago I was challenged. Not only is it a picture book, but its cover – featuring a child and a bear making snow angels – suggest that it has little to do with Australia. Why should Whispering Gums make an exception for this book?

Well, the reasons are twofold. Firstly, I’ve reviewed two works by Irma Gold before (her short story collection, Two steps forward, and the anthology she edited, The invisible thread) and so was intrigued to read something different again by her. She’s one hard-working, versatile author, which I think you have to be if you want to make writing your career. Secondly, while it’s not set in Australia – usually something has to be Australian for me to make an exception – it is set in Japan. At least, Craig Phillips’ illustrations were inspired by his observing a little girl playing in the snow in Hokkaido. I love Japan – and have been to Hokkaido. Exception made!

Now, with two mid-late twenty-something children, I’ve not read a picture book for a long time but, as I picked this up and read it, a whole pile of memories of loved books came back, but first, the story. Like most picture books, its narrative line is simple – a young girl, Megumi, meets a young bear in a forest and they become good friends, playing together again and again until one day the bear doesn’t appear. Megumi is sad, and goes into the forest every day, to wait … until eventually she starts to forget and goes into the forest with her friends … It’s a lovely story about friendship, loss, time and memory.

Craig Phillips’ water colour illustrations are delightful – clear, uncluttered and colourful within a restrained palette. The bear and Megumi’s feelings are nicely conveyed through their facial expression and movement. Irma Gold’s text is also clear and simple, but not simplistic, with a nice use of repetition, “But the bear doesn’t come”, in the central section. The narrative is well-paced, keeping the story moving while providing time to consider (and feel) what is happening. The text is visually appealing. The topic sentence on each double-page spread is presented as a wavy line using an italicised font, with the following sentences in straight-lined plain text. This adds a lovely touch of whimsy to the presentation – and, I suspect, could help the out-loud reader get into a rhythm.

All this made it an enjoyable read – but what I enjoyed most was how it reminded me of other childhood loves, my own or ones made with my kids. The idea of a child playing with a bear brings to mind, of course, Winnie the Pooh. This is not at all a Christopher Robin and Pooh-like story but it plays into that notion of a friendship between children and bears. Going into the forest to play with a wild creature recalls Sendak’s Where the wild things are. Our bear here is not a wild thing – he’s sweet and small – and Megumi and the bear may not engage in wild rumpus, but they do have fun in the forest away from adults. And, this next probably sounds even less likely, but I was also reminded of the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon“. Again a completely different story and theme – and in fact quite the reverse in that here it’s the animal which goes missing – but both explore a friendship with “other” that is made and then lost. Hmm, now I think about it, these connections are pretty loose, but isn’t this partly what reading is about? Enjoying, remembering, connecting, making our own paths through literature and its meanings for us?

The thing is, whatever you make of it, Megumi and the bear is a gorgeous book that I can imagine loving to share with a grandchild, if I had one!

Irma Gold and Craig Phillips (illus)
Megumi and the bear
Newtown: Walker Books Australia, 2013
ISBN: 9781921977909

(Review copy courtesy Walker Books Australia)

Delicious descriptions from Downunder: Isabella Bird on Nikkō in Japan

Woodwork on temple in Nikko, Japan

Carved birds and animals at Toshō-gū Shrine, Nikkō, Japan

This is one of those Delicious Descriptions that is from Downunder but is not of Downunder, if you know what I mean. It’s actually of Japan – as you observant readers will already know given the title of this post – and it comes from Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan to which I referred in my first Japan trip post in May.

One of Bird’s first stops after leaving Tokyo was Nikkō, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its astonishing complex of shrines and temples. It was, it appears, no less astonishing in the late 19th century than it was for us when we visited it in 2006. Bird spends quite a few pages describing it, but I thought I’d share this one for now:

The shrines are the most wonderful work of their kind in Japan. In their stately setting of cryptomeria, few of which are less than 20 feet in girth at 3 feet from the ground, they take one prisoner by their beauty, in defiance of all rules of western art, and compel one to acknowledge the beauty of forms and combinations of colour hitherto unknown, and that lacquered wood is capable of lending itself to the expression of a very high idea in art. Gold has been used in profusion, and black, dull red, and white, with a breadth and lavishness quite unique. The bronze fret-work alone is a study, and the wood-carving needs weeks of earnest work for the mastery of its ideas and details. One screen or railing only has sixty panels, each 4 feet long, carved with marvellous boldness and depth in open work, representing peacocks, pheasants, storks, lotuses, peonies, bamboos, and foliage. The fidelity to form and colour in the birds, and the reproduction of the glory in motion, could not be excelled. (Letter VIII)

It is, as Bird says, simply marvellous, full of wonderful details that you can spend hours wandering around. However, during Bird’s stay:

there were two shocks of earthquake; all the golden wind-bells which fringe the roofs rang softly, and a number of priests ran into the temple and beat various kinds of drums for the space of half an hour.

Nikkō apparently means “sunny splendour”, and it sure is that – but how vulnerable it is.

Whispering Gums on Deformed Pines

Black Pine overhanging pond, Korakuen, Okayama

Black Pine over hanging pond, Korakuen, Okayama

I am slowly but surely working my way through Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan. While we were still in Japan, and enjoying its wonderful gardens, I came across the following passage from early in Bird’s travels:

After running cheerily for several miles my men bowled me into a tea-house, where they ate and smoked while I sat in the garden, which consisted of baked mud, smooth stepping-stones, a little pond with some goldfish, a deformed pine, and a stone lantern. (From Unbeaten tracks in Japan, 1880, Letter VI)

Hmm, I thought, was the pine really “deformed” or is this a case of Bird’s anglocentric eyes missing the beauty of Japanese pines? Because for me, besides of course the overall design, the three things I love about Japanese gardens are the stones, the lanterns and the pines. I cannot resist photographing these “objects”, particularly if I see them in combination. The stones, though, are stones, albeit beautifully chosen and carefully placed. And the lanterns – usually made of stone – come in a range of sizes and forms but are recognisably lanterns. The pines, however, are something else. They come in two main varieties – Red and Black. They are often supported by poles tied to the tree with rope, and their trunks may be protected by a bamboo “coat”. And, they are very particularly pruned, to shapes that I suppose could be described as “deformed” if you didn’t realise there was a plan and a purpose.

Korakuen scene, Okayama

Lantern, stones, pine and water at Korakuen, Okayama

Water, stones and pines are the critical elements of Japanese gardens. And each has its meaning. For now though I’ll just focus on the pine. Pines, we were told by our Korakuen guide, represent longevity. My research for this post confirmed this but added that they also express happiness. I suppose happiness goes with long life? (At least it would be nice to think so!). I also discovered that Japanese red and black pines represent in and yo, “the soft, tranquil female forces and the firm, active male forces in the universe” (From the UCLA Hannah Garden Center). I would have expected from this that red and black pines would usually be found (more or less) together in Japanese gardens, but while we certainly saw both types of pines I wasn’t aware of their being in any obvious relationship with each other or even of regularly being in the same garden. Perhaps I’m reading this symbolism a little too literally. I will do some more research on this one … but, if any of you readers out there are experts in Japanese pines I’d love to know more.

Alex Kerr, in his award-winning book Lost Japan, has some critical things to say about modern Japanese gardens, but as I haven’t finished that book  (either) I will reserve comments for now. Meanwhile, though, I hope you have enjoyed this admittedly little foray away from gums into the world of the Japanese pine!

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.