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Archive for the ‘January In Japan’ Category

I discovered ‘Citrus‘ by Saburouta recently and read it today. Yuzu moves to a new place and to a new school. She is odd at the new school, because she is an outsider, as nearly everyone there has been in the school since kindergarten. The only exception is Harumin, who becomes Yuzu’s best friend and tells her how things are. The new school is an all-girls school and is strict with rules for everything including what colour one’s hair should be, and how one should dress. Yuzu is a fun person and loves expressing herself and finds these conservative rules extremely hard to follow. On the first day at school she gets into a tiff with the student council president over dress code. She comes back home frustrated and when she tries to talk to her mom about her first day at the new school, her mom tells her that she has a surprise for her. Her mom then tells Yuzu that she has a step-sister and introduces her to Yuzu. Yuzu is shocked to find that it is her biggest nemesis from school. When they are later alone, and Yuzu tries having a conversation with her new sister, her ‘sister’ kisses her. Yuzu is shocked, of course. What happens after that – lots of fascinating and beautiful things, I can promise you that 😊 You have to read the book to find out more.

Citrus‘ belongs to a genre of manga called ‘Yuri manga’ which focuses on female relationships, sometimes romantic, sometimes close friendships. I love the idea of a whole genre of manga dedicated to close female relationships. I didn’t know about this before. It is fascinating and beautiful.

I loved ‘Citrus‘. The story is beautiful and the characters are interesting.  Yuzu is charming and is filled with energy and is fearless and is a big extrovert and her passion for life and having fun is contagious and we love her from the first instant. Mei, Yuzu’s new ‘sister’, is tall, stately, dignified, mysterious and is also likeable but in a different way. Yuzu’s best friend Harumin is very likeable. I loved them all. The first volume ends in an interesting situation, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and how the attraction between Mei and Yuzu grows and deepens.

Have you read ‘Citrus‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Yuri manga?

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I was in a distracted mood today and so I decided to read a manga comic – ‘The Garden of Words‘ by Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi.

A teenager who is in high school has a challenging life. His mom is not around at home most of the time. His siblings don’t help much. So, he has to take care of the house, in addition to going to school. Everyday after he finishes the house chores in the night, he sits in his corner, puts the table lamp on, and designs shoes. That is his thing, designing women’s shoes. He hopes to pursue training in that and have a career in that, after high school. Our teenager has an interesting eccentric quirk. When it rains in the morning, he misses the first period at school, goes to a place which is kind of his sanctuary, and sits there watching the rain fall around, and takes his notebook out and gets back to designing shoes. One day, when he gets to this place, he finds a woman here – a young woman, but older than him. They spend their time in companionable silence, but these rainy days come one after another, and the companionable silence leads to conversation and magic happens. You have to read the book to find out what happens next 😊

I loved ‘The Garden of Words‘. How can we not like a book with this title? 😊 Also, there is a tanka poem in the story, and references to the the classic Japanese poetry collection Manyoshu, and Lady Sarashina’s diary. More reasons to love the book 😊 Also, the story is beautiful and the artwork is exquisite. The rainy scenes were beautiful and evocative. The first few pages were in colour and they were breathtaking. I wish the whole book was in colour. I’ve shared the first few pages below for your reading and viewing pleasure.

Have you read ‘The Garden of Words‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Akira Yoshimura’sShipwrecks‘ for a while. I finally got to read it today.

The story is set in medieval Japan. Isaku lives in a coastal village with his family. The village is mostly cut off from the outside world. So the people in the village are mostly fishermen and get most of the things they want from the sea. For clothes, they get bark from the trees in the forest, and get the fibre from it and use it to make yarn and weave clothes. Life is hard, it involves work throughout the year, and whether life is manageable or filled with suffering, depends on nature, the vagaries of the seasons and the bounties from the sea. When things get too hard, parents sell their kids to a labour contractor in the neighbouring village as indentured labour, for many years. Sometimes, parents sell themselves, if they don’t want to inflict it on their kids. At the beginning of the story Isaku’s father sells himself and goes away for three years. What happens during this period, when nine year old Isaku has to learn the skills required to survive and take care of his family with his mother’s help, and how he has to bypass childhood and quickly become an adult at this young age, is depicted in the rest of the book.

One of the things which the book describes is the gifts bestowed by the sea. One of the gifts bestowed is a ship which is wrecked when it dashes against the reefs. This happens once in many years. When this happens, the people in the village are happy, because the supplies and provisions in the ship and the parts of the ship itself will alleviate their poverty for a few years and they don’t need to send anyone on indentured labour for a while. So the inhabitants of the village pray for a shipwreck. This, of course, leads to a moral conundrum – not for the villagers, but for us readers. A shipwreck helps the villagers, but it definitely doesn’t help the ship’s crew. So are we going to rejoice because the villagers have a windfall because of a shipwreck, or are we going to be critical of them for praying for a disaster which will afflict sailors and for doing questionable things when it happens? Or are we going to contemplate on what David Mitchell says in his introduction to the book – “That we are here at all in the twenty-first century, reading about Isaku’s life, is due to our own forefathers – and foremothers – taking whatever measures they had to take to survive”? It is a fascinating moral dilemma to ponder on.

The story is mostly about how life is a struggle, but it is not all doom and gloom though. There are some beautiful scenes, for example when Isaku’s mother takes the bark he brings and weaves fabric out of it, and when Isaku himself after multiple failed attempts, finally catches a saury fish, and we cheer for him. These and other small beautiful victories in everyday life, bring a ray of sunlight to the story.

I loved ‘Shipwrecks‘. Most of it is stark and bleak, of course, but it is realistic, it takes us across time to medieval Japan, where a small people in a tiny village, fight everyday against the odds to survive, and inspite of all the disasters that the world and nature throws at them, they are still standing at the end. It is stirring stuff.

Have you read ‘Shipwrecks‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Yuko Tsushima’s slim gem ‘Territory of Light‘, for a while now. I finally got around to reading it today.

The narrator of the story is a single mom who has recently separated from her husband. She moves into a new apartment. The rest of the story depicts her life during the course of a year, during which she struggles with the challenges of being a single mom, tries to love her young daughter and care for her in the best way she can, while handling social pressure and her own need for companionship and friendship.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. It is beautiful, realistic, sometimes filled with travails for our narrator, sometimes filled with joy. The relationship between the narrator and the people in her life is very beautifully depicted. I loved the way her relationship with her daughter evolves over time, culminating in a beautiful scene at the end of the book. There is also a beautiful friendship between the narrator and a college student, a friendship which is hard to classify or describe but which is beautiful nevertheless, that is depicted so beautifully in the book. It was one of my favourite parts of the book.

The blurb says this about the book – “In this short, powerful novel lurk the joy and guilt of single parents everywhere.” It is a perfect description of the book. I couldn’t have put it any better.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. I’m glad I read it. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“To my daughter, flowers were a beautiful and strange life-form that, with each plucking, sprang up in greater abundance. She ran about like mad inside this life-form, and on walks with her I too found their profusion overwhelming. The cherries were blossoming, as were the azaleas; the spiraeas were snowy with flowers. My daughter would gather the cherry blossom petals that lay at her feet, and more would flutter down as she did so, alighting in her hair and on her body.”

Have you read ‘Territory of Light‘? What do you think about it?

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘ is a collection of travel essays by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who invented the Haiku poetic form. This book has five essays recounting travels that Basho did at different times. All the essays have prose interspersed with poems. Sometimes the poems describe the poet’s impression of a particular scene, sometimes they delve on past events and fascinating personalities, sometimes they take the story forward.

In her introduction to the anthology of classic Japanese travel writing, ‘Travels with a Writing Brush‘, translator Meredith McKinney says this –

“The greatest pleasure a literary traveller could experience was the pleasure of arriving in person at a place hallowed in poetry. The brief scene in the early Ise Tales in which the man (traditionally identified as the poet Ariwara no Narihira) sends a poem to his beloved from distant Mount Utsu echoes down the centuries in the journals of travellers along the Tōkaidō, who continued to search out the place identified with this scene…it was not the characteristics of the place itself so much as the presence of its name in literature (and sometimes in history) that lent it special power. The term for such place names, and by extension for the places that bore those names, was utamakura (poem-pillow), and their central role in travel literature was one of its defining features. Utamakura places were in a sense sites of literary worship in a manner similar to holy places on a pilgrimage route, places where the traveller would pause in awe, perhaps recite the poem or poems associated with the site, and compose a poem in turn, often incorporating some allusive reference to that earlier poetry, almost as a pilgrim will offer up a prayer…A traveller who was moved by an utamakura site, or by seeing far overhead a flight of wild geese in an autumn evening, was moved the more deeply by partaking in an experience shared with so many others, and thereby drawn into the force field of a greater tradition that imbued his or her own insignificant and contingent experience with far richer meaning.”

This passage describes Basho’s travels and his essays in this book perfectly, far better than I ever can.

While we read the essays we can feel Basho’s style evolving across time, till it all comes together perfectly in the title essay which is also the longest essay in the book, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘, which is a perfect blend of prose and poetry. It starts with these famous lines – “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by” – and from there onwards proceeds to reach sublime heights. Basho’s prose is beautiful and poetic, and he delves into deep ideas while also displaying a fine sense of humour, occasionally mocking himself gently, which makes us smile.

The book has an insightful introduction by the translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, in which he gives a short history of the Haiku poetic form and Basho’s contribution to it. At one point, Yuasa quotes Basho’s most famous haiku poem –

“Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.”

And then he proceeds to give a two page commentary on it which is brilliant.

Yuasa also gives a brief introduction to Basho’s life and work, and looks at the essays in this book in detail, on the travel experiences which shaped these essays and how Basho’s prose style evolves across time.

I loved ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I can’t wait to read more of the Master’s poetry now.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from the essay ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village‘.

“Above my head, mountains rose over mountains, and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river, leaving not a tiny square of flat land in between, so that, perched on the high saddle, I felt stricken with terror every time my horse gave a jerk. We passed through many a dangerous place…the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds. I abandoned my horse and staggered on my own legs, for I was dizzy with the height and unable to maintain my mental balance from fear. The servant, on the other hand, mounted the horse, and seemed to give not even the slightest thought to the danger. He often nodded in a doze and seemed about to fall headlong over the precipice. Every time I saw him drop his head, I was terrified out of my wits. Upon second thoughts, however, it occurred to me that every one of us was like this servant, wading through the ever-changing reefs of this world in stormy weather, totally blind to the hidden dangers, and that the Buddha surveying us from on high, would surely feel the same misgivings about our fortune as I did about the servant.”

Have you read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon’sThe Pillow Book‘ ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different topics. The book is like a diary and shows a detailed description of court life of those times. In addition to anecdotes and experiences and stories, the book has lists. Lots of lists. There are different kinds of lists in the book. Some are simple, like lists of mountains, rivers, gardens, forests. They are deceptively simple though. Because they all have poetic associations to classical Japanese and Chinese poetry or famous stories. The second kind of list is descriptive. In those lists, Shōnagon shares things that bring joy, that are beautiful, that are annoying. These lists are charming and make us smile and we can relate to them even after a thousand years from the time they were written. Some of the lists describe beautiful experiences and images and scenes. These lists are beautiful, and they bring a lot of joy and delight if we read them slowly and linger on. This third kind of list was my favourite. I will share some excerpts here from this kind of list.

“A beautifully arranged brazier with fire burning, its rim swept clean of ash, the firelight revealing the painting on its inner surface, is a most delightful sight.”

“Delightful too to hear the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier, and sense from this the presence of someone who isn’t yet asleep.”

“It’s also very elegant the way, when the gentlewomen are gathered seated here and there in the room talking, you hear the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be.”

“Late that night, I woke and was deeply moved at the sight of the moonlight shining in through a window and casting its white light over the bedclothes of the sleeping forms around me. This is precisely the sort of moment when people compose poems.”

“The setting sun. Just after it’s set, it’s very moving to see how a reddish light lingers along the rim of the mountains, with pale yellow clouds trailing in the sky above.”

“Endearingly lovely things – A sparrow coming fluttering down to the nest when her babies are cheeping for her.”

There are pages and pages of these beautiful, soft, delicate images and they give us a lot of pleasure. I loved reading them and dreaming about them.

You can find more of these charming images in my previous post here.

Sei Shōnagon lived at around the same time as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji‘. There seems to be some kind of rivalry between the admirers of Shōnagon and Shikibu since the old times. I am not sure why. They served rival empresses and maybe that was one reason. Shikibu appears to have criticized Shōnagon in her own diary – unfairly, in my opinion. Having attempted to read ‘The Tale of Genji‘ earlier, and now having read ‘The Pillow Book‘, I can now say that I am firmly on Team Shōnagon 😊

When I read Sei Shōnagon’s book, I remembered one of my favourite lines by one of my favourite writers Yoshida Kenko – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” It was wonderful to meet Sei Shōnagon who lived a thousand years back, and hear her voice through this delightful book. When I read the last line – “That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written” – I felt sad that our conversation was over.

Have you read ‘The Pillow Book‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Haiku poems years back and have been reading them off and on. One of the great things about haiku is its short length, its brevity. No long meanderings, it is over before we know it. This feature of the haiku has also made it challenging for readers like me. Because there is so much packed in those short three lines, most of the meaning and beauty is lost if one is not aware of what the poet is referring to, whether it is Japanese culture or history or geography. Also, typically the last line or the last word in the haiku summarizes the whole poem or elevates it to a new plane by adding a whole new dimension to the meaning. If we can’t recognize what that last line or word says, we can’t experience the beauty and the profound insight of the haiku. For something which is so short and looks deceptively simple, the haiku turns out to have a lot of hidden depth. And the reason for all this complexity lies in its short length, its brevity. So in a sense this short length is a double-edged sword. It is like packing too many things in a small suitcase which makes it difficult to close. In the haiku’s case, the suitcase is beautifully and elegantly closed by the poet, but it resists the reader’s attempt to open it and it refuses to reveal its secrets. I have always wondered since whether there were longer forms of Japanese poetry. I love the beauty of Japanese literature and the Japanese style of literary aesthetics and I wanted to experience the beauty and joy of Japanese poetry in a more accessible way. Then I discovered that there was a longer poetic form called Tanka. I hoped to explore Tanka poetry some day and see whether I’ll have better luck here.

Why all this rambling about Japanese poetic forms? I’ll come to it now.

I discovered ‘The Ink Dark Moon : Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu‘ recently. It featured two women poets from the Heian era (around 1000 years back) and I wanted to read it. When I got it yesterday and started reading the introduction, I discovered that the poems featured were written in the tanka style. I was so excited! I was finally going to read some tanka poetry!

The Heian era saw an explosion of literary creativity in Japan. It was the time when many women poets and writers burst out on the literary scene. Some people say that it was the era which saw the greatest concentration of women poets and writers in ancient or medieval times, anywhere in the world. It was the time the world’s first novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written by the great Murasaki Shikibu. It was also the time when the two great poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu wrote their poems.

This book has around 160 poems. Around one-fourth of them are by Ono no Komachi. The rest are by Izumi Shikibu. Most of the poems are about love, longing, desire, loss. Some of them are about other topics.

The poems in the book are written in tanka style. How does it differ from the haiku? I am sure there are poetic and technical differences between the two forms, like the number of syllables in the poem and the poetic form and meter used. But these don’t really matter to us much. The thing which is easily visible to lay-readers like me is this. While the haiku has three lines, the tanka has five. This isn’t much, as I was expecting a sonnet-style fourteen lines. But those two extra lines, though they don’t seem to be much, change the poem in a fundamental way. They add a lot of breathing space, in which the poem can stretch itself, relax, and reveal its glorious beauty to us. And it happens in page after page, poem after poem. The poems are beautiful, sad, poignant, heartbreaking, insightful, philosophical. The words are soft, the images are delicate. I read them and I laughed and I cried. Mostly cried, because of what the poem said. I think tanka is my Japanese poetic form, my precious. I love it.

I loved the poems of both Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. At one point, I thought that I could differentiate between their styles, and then I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. They are both wonderful poets. The book has an informative introduction to the life and work of the two poets. It also has an essay at the end, ‘On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation‘, by one of the translators, Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s essay reveals a deep scholarship, a passion for Japanese poetry, a delicate poetic sensibility, a lightness of touch. It is one of the most beautiful essays on poetry and translation that I have ever read. I fell in love with Jane Hirshfield after I read that. I discovered that she was a poet herself (who else but a poet can write so beautifully?) and I went and ordered two of her books. I can’t wait to read them. I already know that she is going to become one of my favourite writers and poets.

This is early days yet, but I think I can safely say that this is one of my favourite books of the year and one of my favourite poetry collections ever. It is a beautiful book to read on a winter evening, sitting in front of the fire, with your beloved sitting next to you, with both of you taking turns to read the poems aloud to each other and taking pleasure in listening to each other’s voice, while experiencing the beauty of the poems. And if your beloved is not around and is away, you can read a poem, close your eyes, let the poem wash over you and dream of your beloved.

I’m sharing some of my favourite poems from the book so that you can experience their beauty yourself.

Poems by Ono no Komachi

Poems by Izumi Shikibu

Have you read ‘The Ink Dark Moon‘? What do you think about it? Did you like the poems above? Which of the above poems is your favourite?

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I started reading Sei Shōnagon’s classic ‘The Pillow Book‘. Wanted to share some of my favourite excerpts from the little I read. They are so charming that I couldn’t resist 😊

Sei Shōnagon includes descriptive lists in her book.

Under ‘Infuriating Things’, she includes these –

• A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.

• You’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying around your face. It’s horrible how you can feel the soft wind of its tiny wings.

• Someone who butts in when you’re talking and smugly provides the ending herself.

• I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.

• And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out.

This made me laugh 😁

Under ‘Things that make your heart beat fast’, she includes this –

• To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

In ‘Things that make me feel nostalgic’, she includes these –

• Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.

• On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.

I found the last one very beautiful.

Loving these lists!

Did you like them?

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