Archive for the ‘manga’ Category

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)


I recently read Marcus Jansen’s history of modern Japan and learned that Kanda used to be a mountain, but it was levelled by Ieyasu in order to provide the earth needed to infill Tokyo Bay to create the modern port. We’ve wandered around Kanda and Jimbocho a couple of times on previous visits to Tokyo, and in 2014 our Akihabara apartment was a short walk from Kanda Myojin. The hill that the shrine stands on is still pretty steep.


We visited the shrine on a sunny Sunday during Golden Week. Before we headed up the steps in the photo above, we watched two lads race each other to the top. We walked up after them, and I think we were more out of breath when we got to the top than they were!

Kanda Shrine started its existence in the Otemachi area of Tokyo. It was originally built in 730AD, but ended up in the path of Ieyasu’s planned expansion of Edo Castle. So, in 1603, the shrine was moved to the Kanda ward. It moved again 13 years later to the top of the hill where it still resides. The current structures on the site aren’t original. It suffered extensive fire damage in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and was reconstructed in 1934.

I thought the shrine was beautiful, with its bright vermillion woodwork and its lion dogs, nestling on the hilltop amidst the urban sprawl.

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The frieze pictured above is on the Zuishin Mon, the copper-roofed main gate to the shrine. It depicts a blue dragon and a black turtle-snake, which are two of the four Shijin (Taoist gods) alongside the red phoenix and white tiger.

The shrine is home to three kami – Daikokuten and Ebisu, who are both members of the 7 Lucky Gods crew and considered to be particularly lucky for business people, and Taira no Masakado, a Heian-era samurai who led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto and whose head was brought to Tokyo. Local residents in the Shibaraki area, the destination for Masakado’s head, respected his defiance so much that they enshrined him at Kanda Myojin.

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.


Instead of Ebisu being depicted in his usual form as a fisherman, this statue refers to Ebisu’s childhood. Ebisu was the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the many islands that make up Japan. He was born without bones and, unable to walk, he was put into a boat of reeds and cast adrift on the sea. The statue shows Ebisu in his boat riding on the crest of a wave, surrounded by turtles and fish. He washed ashore in Hokkaido and was adopted by an Ainu fisherman. His bones grew and, aged three years old, he became a god. I didn’t know that story before I visited Kanda Myojin.

The shrine, perhaps because of its proximity to Akihabara, is also associated with IT and with manga. We saw a couple of lucky charms in sticker form on sale that you could affix to the back of your tech to ward off system failures, data loss and identity theft.

More spectacularly, though, the shrine is full of ema plaques decorated with manga.




In 2012, an anime/manga/idol project started, called Love Live! which is set around Akihabara and features Kanda Myojin as one of the key locations. It’s quite something to walk through the stands of ema and see the creativity of visitors to the shrine. Some of the ema are pre-printed, but the vast majority look hand drawn and coloured. It was one of my favourite things about the shrine.

My most favourite thing, though, was the miniature pony.


Because we love Parks and Recreation, we named this pony L’il Sebastian. It turns out she’s a girl pony called Akari, and she is the shrine’s sacred horse. She’s there to carry the gods if they want a trot out. I expect that Baby Ebisu is fine riding a miniature pony, but I’m concerned about Daikokuten. Let’s not even think about how the severed head of Taira no Masakado gets on the back of a miniature pony. Akari can’t be expected to carry him in a mikoshi, surely?

I bet she takes part in the Kanda Matsuri every May, though. We were in the wrong year for the big festival and also too early in the month. The big festival, which is one of the biggest shrine festivals in Japan, takes place in odd years, with a smaller festival in the even years. In the big festival, 100 mikoshi and 300 people parade through the streets of Tokyo, around Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Marunouchi.

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

More Japanese Literature

Since I last wrote about Japanese literature that I’ve been reading, I’ve added a few more authors to the list.

I catalogue my books using Library Thing, so all links to book titles will go to that website. I don’t want to recommend any one book seller above another, but you will find links to online retailers from each book page.

I borrowed a book that my husband picked up in a small independent book store. It’s called A Riot of Goldfish and it’s by Kanoko Otamoto.

Carp in the moat at Hiroshima Castle

The book holds two poignant stories that explore frustration, self-worth and trying to make your mark in the world. Set in Japan in the years between the two 20th century world wars, they show a nation caught between the old feudal way of life and the thrusting modernity brought in by the Meiji era. The men are largely frustrated and unsettled by their inability to grasp the opportunities modernity seems to offer them, while the women float serenely above them. I found them an interesting pair of stories.

My husband bought me my next selection, The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura. This novel, about a pickpocket in Tokyo who becomes embroiled with a gang that is manipulating the political process, had my heart racing. It’s quite short, 210 pages, but it packs a lot in. Tightly written, believable in its exploration of a thief’s psychology, sympathetic to its main character, I wanted it to go on for longer. I wanted to know what happened next.

I can’t recall why I decided to pick up Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, whether it was because we were planning to visit Ningyocho in Tokyo, where Tanizaki lived, or for some other reason. I’m glad I did, because I discovered another author whose style I like.

Shadows in the temple garden Tenryuji, Arashiyama

On the surface, the extended essay is an inconsequential set of ramblings about how Japan’s pursuit of Western illumination has ruined certain aesthetic traditions. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1930s, at a time when Western-style “progress” was eating away at centuries of tradition in Japan. Tanizaki posits some interesting theories about why Japanese architecture and notions of beauty developed the way they did, embracing shadows and focusing on single aspects of beauty to be highlighted by the existence of the surrounding shade. I’m one of the Westerners he’s perplexed by – I love light, and often throw open curtains, doors and windows to let it into a gloomy room. But I also understand his love of muted light, natural light, preferring it to the harsh glare of electric light as he does. Japan has changed too much over the past 80 years for me to ever experience the aesthetics Tanuzaki appreciated and mourned, so I won’t ever be able to fully understand this essay, but I enjoyed it all the same. Having read that book, I then also read The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles.

I found The Makioka Sisters to be an absorbing insight into the social niceties of early 20th century Japan. I enjoyed the humour and the tensions between the three sisters as they tried to navigate their way through society’s expectations and the changing times they lived in. The characterisations are beautiful, and I was immersed in the story completely. When we visited Aizen Kobo in Kyoto in May 2015, I was glad to have read this book so that I could converse about it with the lady of the shop. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki was a member of the same artistic group as the father of the current craftsman owner and gave Aizen Kobo its name.

Aizen Kobo

I didn’t enjoy Some Prefer Nettles quite as much. It lacked the spark of The Makioka Sisters, but some of the passages have remained with me, particularly the descriptions of attending a Bunraku performance.

I gave Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake a try. The book is a good character study of two people struggling with the extraordinary and the mundane, working out a way to fit together. It’s moody but satisfying. I’ll read some more of hers.

Another new author to me was Yoko Ogawa. I started with The Housekeeper and the Professor, which I found deeply moving. I recommended it to so many people after I finished it. I also read Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, which is a very different book but no less compelling.

I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain from the search results for Japanese authors on Amazon. This was a little depressing, but only because it was so well written. I felt a certain empathy for the central character and felt that Shūichi Yoshida made him a believable person. The book was an interesting exploration of alienation and the need to feel loved by someone, to feel that you belong. It wasn’t just a clichéd tale of an introverted loner turning out to be a serial killer. It was more an exploration of how life events mould us and can take us to extremes. I’ve now got Parade on my To Read pile.

After looking at the pictures Jacquie Hadel took on her visit to the titular dunes of Kobo Abe’s The Woman In The Dunes, I decided to read the book. It is a very strange book. The protagonist isn’t a pleasant character – dismissive of others, cold, aloof – and yet I found myself on his side. The book is quite dreamlike, with things happening off to the side of where you think you are. A simple trip to look for beetles turns into a living nightmare, full of frustration and anger. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop reading it, and I had to unpack what I had read in conversation with my husband to stop it circling around my brain. It put me in mind of the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil, in its surreal gentle horror.

My best friend bought me The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.

An opportunist proclaiming hunger to any passerby who would listen

This is a thoughtful, philosophical tale about the impact an animal can have on people, even when they don’t own the animal. It captures the aloof exploitative nature of a cat who charms a couple with its independence and seeming unavailability. When the cat disappears from their lives, it leaves them bereft and causes friction between them and their neighbour, the cat’s true owner. Set on the cusp of change, from Shōwa to Heisei, from economic bubble to slump, it inhabits a calm space bound by feline comings and goings. It also delivers a punch to the emotional solar plexus right in the middle of the story.

I saw a review of Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami which intrigued me, so I read it. It was a poignant, surreal and oddly touching book, about unrequited love changing to mutual love. The main character is adrift, moving through life aimlessly. A chance encounter with an old school teacher in a bar changes everything. At first, nobody knows where things are going, but then Tsukiko takes charge of a sort. The emotional remove between the two protagonists is at once frustrating and endearing. It made me think of Botchan at times, with the formality and hidden meanings and the way nobody seems to get to the point, of Murakami’s appreciation of loneliness at others.

A friend from Japanese class recommended that I try some Yasunari Kawabata, so I started with Snow Country. I absolutely loved this book. On the surface, nothing much seems to be going on. The two main characters lack energy, drifting along, reacting to events rather than controlling them, or controlling them through inaction. Beneath the surface is the potential for passion, but neither possesses the motivation to act. The book is dreamlike in the way it jumps around and seems to have meaning without saying anything clearly. The dysfunctional relationships across the piece intrigue and frustrate equally. The prose is beautiful, with rich descriptions of time and place, like an extended haiku. I found it quite cinematic. Kawabata is another author whose works I’m going to investigate further.

I also read a beautiful manga called The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi. The observations in the drawings are lovely, taking in the minutiae of Japanese suburban life. It made me think of times we have gone off the tourist trail to explore residential areas or visit small towns on the outskirts of big cities in Japan.

Arashiyama side street

Kanae Minato’s Confessions was made into a film which I saw at the cinema a couple of years ago. I decided to read the book because I wanted to see how it compared to the film, which I found a little inconsistent. The book is better, and the narration by the key characters is an interesting technique that was lost in the film version. There are inconsistencies in the story, contradictions that don’t boil down to different points of view, but it was an engaging read.

I was intrigued by the bizarrely named Edogawa Rampo (say it out loud, and it kind of sounds like the name of the American author he was trying to emulate), so I read a book of his short stories, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I enjoyed this collection of mystery stories. They made me think of Tales of the Unexpected, but less salacious. There are some grim bits in a couple of the stories, but as a whole the collection is more about mystery and human nature than it is about horror or spookiness.

Finally for new reading experiences, I read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I enjoyed The Tale of Genji and the Diary of Lady Murasaki so much that I wanted to see what another writer from the same era had to say. What a mistake. Sei Shōnagon was a terrible snob! I enjoyed the passages describing events at court, conversations, and love affairs. The lists of what is and isn’t good were dull. Shōnagon’s attitude to those of lower rank grated on me. She seems to embody all that is worst in the rich and vacuous. Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I didn’t see how she came to have a reputation as a wit. I preferred the Diary of Lady Murasaki for its observations on court life and for its intelligence.

Dressed in Heian Era costume in the Jidai Matsuri

And in among all of these new writers, I read more by some of my existing favourites. I loved Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I also read the whole Sea of Fertility Tetralogy spread over a six month period in 2015. Mishima is a hard writer to digest, but I love the clarity of his prose, even when I don’t like or agree with what he’s saying. Spring Snow was my favourite of the four. I also read Sanshiro and The Gate by Sōseki. The Gate is now one of my favourite books of all time. I need to read And Then to complete that trilogy. I also read I Am A Cat, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I expected to. I expanded my experience of Ryu Murakami’s oeuvre by reading two more of his books. Audition was fairly graphic but, after my husband played up its content, not as graphic as I was expecting. Sixty Nine was an interesting read in that I started out hating the main character for his immature obnoxious character but ended up warming to him as the story unfolded.

And a book by a non-Japanese author but set in Japan that I enjoyed is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It’s not a completely happy read, but it is a good story. Part of it is set in Tokyo, where one of the characters spends time in a Maid Café.

There are a few non-fiction books that I’ve read, as well. I’ve reviewed Deep Kyoto Walks and In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians separately. I’ll probably do separate reviews of the others I’ve read, too. Eventually!


I have discovered the joy of Yotsuba&!

Yotsuba&! is a Japanese manga by Kiyohiko Azuma (links to Azuma-san’s Japanese blog), featuring a strange little girl called Yotsuba. Yotsuba’s name literally mean four leaves – 四葉 – and her hair is coloured green, so she looks a little like a human four leaf clover. Yotusba is apparently an orphan who has been adopted by Koiwai, who works as a translator. Each of the stories revolves around Yotsuba’s encounters with the world around her. Other key characters are Koiwai’s gigantic friend Jumbo, his work colleague Yanda (whom my husband and I detest almost as strongly as Yotsuba does), and the family who live next door. Occasionally, Yotsuba encounters other characters on her adventures, too.

In Japan, the manga appears in the monthly magazine Dengeki Daioh. So far, the stories have been collected into 11 volumes, all of which have been translated and published in the west.

How did I come to discover Yotsuba? I had seen pictures of an articulated model called Danbo, or Danboard, usually emblazoned with the logo, on Flickr. I had looked on eBay to see what they were and how to get one, but at the time I thought they were pretty expensive. Then a few weeks ago, I bought a Kotobukiya model kit, and built my own.

I still didn’t really have any idea what this robot made from cardboard boxes was, but I had fun sticking decals on my model.

My husband became intrigued by this character I had introduced into our home, and we both started to research where it had come from. Armed with the name Kiyohiko Azuma from the model box, I discovered that he is a manga artist and Danboard is a character from the Yotsuba&! series.

The next thing I knew, my husband had started to buy the English translations of the manga compilations, and that was it. I fell in love.

The manga are beautifully drawn. The characters are very cartoon-like in appearance, but the backgrounds are incredibly detailed. I can’t imagine how long it must take Azuma-san to draw each frame. I think it’s a combination of that detail, that brings back to my mind the realities of Japan, and the believability of the characters that have made me fall in love with the story.

As an example, this is a blurry picture of a street view that I took from the shinkansen:

In it you can see loads of telecommunication cables stretching out from a pole, and a variety of styles of buildings, as well as the pavement-less street and a car. This is what Japan in the suburbs is like, away from the tourist trail. Cluttered, higgledy-piggledy and festooned with cables.

Azuma-san uses similar imagery as spacer frames in the manga. The first time I read one of the books, I felt like I was back in Japan, it was so precise in its detail.

The story is brilliantly executed as well. Yotsuba is a very believable 5-year old, innocent and quick to pick up on phrases her dad and his friends use, often repeating them at inopportune moments and causing him embarrassment. There are laugh out loud moments, but also moments of extreme pathos. There are a couple of stories in the series that I found quite upsetting. I won’t spoil it for anyone by talking about them here, but my reaction was purely down to the fact that I had read a good number of the compilation volumes and so was fully invested in the characters.

The great thing about the stories is that, through the eyes of Yotsuba, the reader learns all sorts of things about Japanese culture, traditions and society.

Danboard appears quite a way into the story. Again, I’m not going to spoil it, but here’s a panel I found on someone’s Tumblr account, where one of the girls next door, Ena, introduces Yotsuba to Danboard:

For my birthday this year, one of my presents from my husband was an amazing Revoltech Yotsuba model. It comes with two interchangeable heads and accessories, so you can bring Yotsuba to life.

First I introduced Yotsuba to my Danboard model:

They seemed to get on a treat.

Next she met my husband’s Zaku II Gundam:

She was less impressed with him:

As a birthday treat to myself, I decided that I would use some of my birthday money to buy a Revoltech Danboard model as well. I didn’t want an one, though. I wanted one that looked like Danboard in the manga. So I searched for one of the “taihen yoku dekimashita” models. When you read the manga, you’ll understand!

I found one being sold by a Japanese woman who lives in New York, and a week or so ago, the package arrived.


So now my Yotsuba&Danboard! family is complete!

All I need now is for Azuma-san to write/draw some more of the manga and get a 12th volume out there!

Or maybe the next step is to buy some of the Japanese compilation volumes next time we’re out there (which is only 132 days from today)…

If you’re into Japanese manga and haven’t read Yotsuba&! yet, I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you know what I’m on about, then you know what I’m on about!