Posts Tagged ‘books’

Book Review: Japanese Society by Chie Nakane

Japanese Society by Professor Chie Nakane was a ground breaking book when first published in 1972, and has been cited in many books that followed it. It needs updating to take into account the changes in Japan that have happened over the past 40+ years, but its scope and anthropological investigative style means it’s still worth reading today.

I read the Pelican edition, which came out in 1973. I picked it up because I was interested in the perception that the Japanese are different to Westerners, and in how popular Western tropes of Japanese people being hard working, company loyal, and socially rigid in behaviour and levels of language had become so entrenched in Western thinking. I found the book to be full of interesting background to the development of Japanese society and why the Japanese behave the way they do in comparison to other nations, and found the social anthropology particularly interesting.

Professor Nakane applies a Western anthropological approach to her study of Japanese behaviour, instead of the more typical psychological approach taken by other writers. Starting with an exploration of the way in which two individual Japanese people might view each other and moving out and up to the vertical hierarchy that existed within Japanese companies at the time and the effect of company loyalty on wider society, particularly the family unit, she examines the history behind the social structure in Japan to find out why. I was reminded of Nakane’s approach recently, as I’m currently reading Marius B Jansen’s book, The Making of Modern Japan. Jansen provides a more indepth history of the development of social hierarchies in Japan since the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, but so far hasn’t done anything similar to Nakane’s study of why Japanese people behave the way they do socially.

I learnt a lot from Nakane’s book about why Japanese society is so different to Western society in its structure and its interactions between people. My observation, based on what I’ve seen on holidays to Japan and Japanese friends I have who live in the UK, is that Japanese society is changing, slowly – maybe because of the bubble bursting, maybe because there are more tourists visiting, maybe because the Japanese equate modernisation with being more Western, which is why an updated edition would be useful.

In summary: Japanese Society is worth reading for anyone intrigued by Japanese social etiquette.

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!

Book Review: In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians


Disclaimer: because I only have this book in e-book form, the image of the book cover above is from If the publishers or the website I took the image from object to this usage, please let me know, and I will remove it from this post.

Because I haven’t yet visited any of the places mentioned in the book, I have none of my own images to share.

When we were planning our trip to Aomori prefecture, my husband found a link to a story on the Japan Times website about a legend that says Jesus of Nazareth once lived and died in the Tohoku region. How intriguing, I thought, but how incredibly unlikely.

After I read John Dougill’s walk in Deep Kyoto: Walks, with its reference to Christians being executed for their faith in Kyoto, and discovered that Professor Dougill had written a book about Japan’s Hidden Christians, I wondered whether there had been a Christian enclave near Lake Towada in Aomori prefecture. Perhaps, if Japanese Christians went underground because of persecution and lost contact with the rest of the Christian world because of Japan’s isolationist policy, a story like this one was the result of local folklore mixing with a forbidden religion to explain a local landmark.

Recently, I read Professor Dougill’s book, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy and Survival, wondering whether his research would reveal a connection between the Hidden Christians of Kyushu and the Tohoku legend that Jesus Christ lived in Shingo Town, but it seems the Jesuits didn’t get further than Kyoto before they were forced out of Japan on pain of death. So that snippet of folklore remains a mystery!

I enjoyed the book. Professor Dougill’s writing style feels like a conversation rather than a lecture. The book was easy to read and a good popular history clearly backed up with academic research and oral testimony from local people. My kind of historian! The author’s personal insights were interesting, particularly on comparisons between religions. The tone was non-judgemental, questioning rather than didactic, and I thought that the travelogue style suited the story well, visiting the locations where the story unfurled, talking to local people, trying to find the remains of sites, seeing modern day memorials to the West’s attempts to convert Japan to a different religion.

The preface made a good comparison between Pauline missionary activity at the start of the Christian church and missionary activity in Japan in 16th cent. I was taken with the parallels the author drew between the two eras, especially his perspective on the offer of equality through spirituality to the dispossessed and downtrodden, and the threat perceived by the ruling classes in both the Roman empire and Shogunate Japan. The idea that the lack of a figure like Constantine in Japan meant eradication of the faith was easier was an interesting one.

Professor Dougill also provides a useful timeline and breakdown of Japanese eras at the beginning, which helped put the story into a historical and political context.

I especially liked the context of what was going on in Japan politically – how the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuits was seized on by the shogun and daimyos as an opportunity to increase trade, and how the Jesuits used the offer of trade to make converts. The subsequent persecution under the Hideyoshi and Tokugawa regimes was also set within the context of political power and the shoguns’ desire to maintain absolute power over a unified Japan, leading ultimately to the policy of isolationism.

There were some interesting thoughts on the feminine qualities of Japanese religion and culture (the sanctification of the mother, the adoption of the Virgin Mary as another version of Kannon), allied with social character of Japan (infantilisation of Japanese men, kawaii culture), with a link made to the nature of the Hidden Christian sub-religion and why the Virgin Mary became the focus of worship, not God or Christ.

My question about the story of Christ dying in Japan might have been left unanswered, but I hadn’t seriously expected it to be answered. I read the book to learn more about a curious aspect of Japan’s history. I learnt a lot about those early years of trade with the Portuguese and why they were the dominant Western influence on Japan at that time (the loan words for bread and trousers, パン and ズボン, have Portuguese origins, and two cakes I’ve had in Japan are Portuguese), plus one reason behind why Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to close Japan off to the rest of the world. As someone with a vague interest in spirituality and why some people feel the need to connect with a higher power or powers, but who lacks in depth knowledge, I found the discussion of the different religions in Japan helpful in understanding how Buddhism and Shinto co-exist without apparently dominating Japanese society in the way Judaism, Christianity and Islam do their cultures/societies. The Japanese ability to assimilate different belief systems is very different to Western Christianity! I even learnt a little about the character of some Japanese through Professor Dougill’s encounters with people on Kyushu and the surrounding islands where Christianity took its own peculiar hold.

Over all, I thought the book was an accessible way to understand Japanese history quickly. To my shame, my copy of Jansen’s modern history of Japan is still unread on my bookshelves. The story of Japan’s Hidden Christians, I expect, won’t be covered in that book anyway. It’s sad to think of the traditions dying out, after 400 years of upholding the way of life of those who were persecuted for their faith. As happens often in our global, capitalist, connected times, tradition is losing its relevance and the current generations are losing interest in the beliefs of their parents and grandparents. They are creating their own way of living that carries them through daily life. John Dougill wrote a good book that documents the history of this faith and the families that carried it across centuries just in time before it could disappear completely.

Even if you’re not that interested in the spiritual side of life, it’s a book worth reading for its insights into Japan’s political history.

Walking Teramachi

At the end of the 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi reorganised Kyoto’s streets. During the earlier Heian era, there was a wide street in the east of the city, known as Higashikyogoku-oji. It was a place where the well-off lived. Hideyoshi, while remodelling the city, moved most of the temples east to this area and renamed the street Teramachi, which translates as Temple Town. When the area was revitalised as a shopping area in the Meiji period, two shopping streets were created with the eastern side of Teramachi becoming Shinkyogoku Dori between Sanjo Dori and Shijo Dori.

In October 2010, we decided to explore the Temple Town area of Kyoto, following a walk in Judith Clancy‘s book Exploring Kyoto. We took a subway train north from the station close to our apartment and got off at Kuramaguchi station. It’s a short walk east from the station along Kuramaguchi Dori  to the first temple on the walk, Kanga’an. Kanga’an means Restful Retreat and is built in a style similar to the architecture of Ming dynasty China. The small entrance gate is lovely, and peeping inside we saw a group of statues in a gravelled courtyard.

Kanga-an Teramachi dori

Further along the road was the next temple, one of those moved during Hideyoshi’s remodelling of Kyoto. We found this temple, Jozenji, to be a very restful place.

Jozenji main hall Jozenji tree

Jozenji stands at the top of Teramachi Dori. This was the beginning of our long walk.


We popped into Tenneiji to see the view of Mount Hiei.

Mt Hiei from Tenneiji


Also in the temple grounds is a small Inari shrine, illustrating the mix of Buddhism and Shinto in the lives of Japanese people.

Tenneiji Inari shrine

The next temple that we recognised from the walk in Judith Clancy’s book was Amidaiji. As promised in the book, it looked closed! There was a 7-Eleven across the street, so we popped in for some refreshment (plum onigiri – yum!) before continuing on our way.

I was taken by the architecture of Junenji, which looked a lot like the churches that were built in the UK during the late 50s and early 60s. I particularly like the circular main hall, with its splash of red door, and the very serene statue of Ojizo sitting in front.

Just after the next temple, opposite a sushi shop that looked very nice but that we didn’t risk, being vegetarians, we took a right turn along a long street that led to the huge temple complex of Shokokuji. We tried to go into the Hatto to see the ceiling painting of the dragon, but we couldn’t because the monks had their best robes on and were clearly in the middle of something important.

Shokokuji Hatto

Instead we wandered around the grounds, which used to contain forty six buildings, many of which were destroyed in fires shortly after the temple complex was completed. New buildings were added, but lots of these, too, were destroyed in the great Tenmei fire in 1788. Only a few buildings remain.

Shokokuji big hall

Shokokuji small hall

We headed back to the sushi restaurant on Teramachi Dori. We were hungry by this point, but still not hungry enough to eat fish, so we continued on our way. We made a detour along a covered shopping arcade, but this also was all about the fish. We couldn’t see anything resembling a cafe or udon bar.

Teramachi arcade

Our aching feet drove us down to the junction with Imadegawa Dori, past the stone post marking the north eastern corner of ancient Kyoto, further down Teramachi Dori. We weren’t really looking at the temples mentioned in the book by this point, because they were mainly closed to the public.

We were headed for Rozanji, which I wanted to see because I was reading The Tale of Genji. This temple is built on the site of Lady Murasaki’s father’s Kyoto residence and includes a roof tile from the house as well as a display of reproductions of the Genji chapter that Murasaki might have written at the house. When we got there, it was closed for building work. We hadn’t thought to check beforehand whether it would be open or not. We sat on a wall opposite the very closed doors and I had a little think about what we should do next. Disappointment and hunger are not happy bedfellows!

At the next available gateway, we turned into the Imperial Palace grounds. On our very first day in Kyoto, when our jet lag had rendered us incapable of rational thought, we had meandered around the grounds and eaten a fine bowl of kitsune udon at the visitor centre near the Palace. Our legs must have had some kind of muscle memory, because they marched us past teenagers playing softball, along gravel paths lined with trees in autumn foliage, back to the visitor centre.

Imperial Palace trees

After our steaming hot bowls of udon, we kind of abandoned the walk. We caught the subway south and made our way to Nishiki market to pick up ingredients for our evening meal. Maybe one day we’ll go back to Rozanji and pick up the walk again. There are lots of interesting places mentioned in the book that we haven’t really noticed on our shopping mooches up and down the covered arcades. One such is the memorial to another Heian era poet Izumi Shikibu.

We did wander up Teramachi Dori towards Oike Dori after we’d done our shopping, and saw the statue of Nichiren outside Honnoji temple, which was closed.

Honnoji Nichiren statue

Honnoji temple

We wandered back down to Shinkyogoku Dori, over the slope created by the mounds of earth left behind when Sanjo bridge was constructed, and past the temples we had intended to investigate if only we hadn’t grown so tired!

We passed Nishiki Tenmangu, of course. We’ve visited this shrine on a few occasions, always pausing to pat the bronze bull on our way in. Sometimes it is open later than other shrines or temples, but this time we were out of luck. This picture is from another visit.

The walk is one that I think we should finish. Judith Clancy’s background information is interesting. Most of the snippets in this post are gleaned from her more in depth descriptions. I think we bit off more than we could chew in trying to walk the whole length in half a day. At least without preparing a bento to take with us.

A review of Deep Kyoto: Walks


Yes, we have had our fifth trip to Japan and had a busy week in Tokyo and a relaxing week in Aomori. I will be updating this blog with more tales of our adventures when time allows. Since we’ve been back, I’ve been busy at work and busy with family. One thing I have managed to do is read a new walking guide to Kyoto.

Published by the folks behind the excellent Deep Kyoto blog, where you can find extracts from the book as a taster, it’s currently available in e-book format from Amazon.

Readers of this blog will know that my husband and I first went to Kyoto in 2009 on our honeymoon. The city had a deep impact on me. It was a place where I simultaneously felt like an outsider looking in and completely at home. We have been back four times, each time trying to dig deeper into the city’s history and, by extension, into the history of Japan. When I found out that the man behind the Deep Kyoto blog was putting out a book of walks written by people who have made Kyoto their home and properly tried to get beneath its surface, I was excited. The Deep Kyoto blog has given us tips on how to get more out of the city than would be possible if we just followed the standard tourist experience. More importantly, it has helped us, as vegetarians, find places to eat where we could still experience Japanese cuisine.

I’m pleased to say that my excited anticipation of the book was rewarded. It’s not a guide book in the traditional sense. It is a guide to how the city ticks and what it gives to those who move there. This review is more of a record of my thoughts as I read each chapter, and I’ve added in some photographs from our trips as memories of my own, triggered by the walks. My shorter review is on Amazon, Library Thing and Good Reads. (N.B. all three reviews are identical, choose whichever site you use most regularly.)

For those who prefer their guidebooks in printed and bound format, I understand that releasing the book as an e-book first is a way of testing the waters, and that if it sells well a crowd funded hardcopy might be released in the autumn. I haven’t got a major problem with the electronic format (I read it on a Kindle 3 in black & white, but also viewed it on the Kindle app on my Nexus 7 to compare – not much difference in format but the pictures are in colour and I could navigate from the maps in the book to Google maps and follow links to websites easily), but I would prefer a real book that I can flick through and see the maps more easily without having to navigate to a link at the end of the chapter, click it, then hit the back button until I’m back at the point I diverted from. I would definitely add a hardcopy to my growing gang of walking guides to Japanese cities.

What about the content, though?

From the foreword: “What better exercise than to stretch your legs? And when you feel burdened by life’s concerns, get outside and walk them off.”

The foreword introduces the tone of the book – walking as emotional therapy and trigger for memories. The calm, reflective tone sets this guidebook-that-isn’t-a-guidebook apart from other books in its genre. It is meditative, reflective, an insight into the city by people who arrived there as outsiders but now call it home.

From the introduction, this passage sums Kyoto up very well for me: “Kyoto rewards the walker through all five senses. In Hanamikōji at dusk, the glimpse of an apprentice geisha as she ducks into a taxi on her way to her next appointment. Along the Path of Philosophy, catching the scent of cinnamon from a shop specialising in Yatsuhashi, Kyoto’s traditional confectionary. Taking a break from the summer heat with a shaved ice on the slope leading up to Kiyomizudera. The clack of traditional looms from behind the bamboo sudare blinds in Nishijin. The cooling relief of Shimogamo’s thick forest.” All cities can be read using all five senses. Being in Kyoto, though, is sometimes akin to being in an ukiyo-e, it is so refined and elegant and retains so much of its history. Unlike Tokyo or Osaka, it is a city that encourages you to pause, take stock, reflect on the things you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Kyoto doesn’t demand your attention, but like the quiet person at a party, it can hold your attention in intriguing ways that sometimes change how you view the world.

Time Travelling on Gojō was particularly interesting to me because we have stayed in a machiya on a narrow street between Gojō-dori and Mimizuka, so have a little knowledge of the area.

The walk contained hidden gems that I want to seek out next time we are in Kyoto, and the humorous and gentle style of Jennifer Louise Teeter made me feel I was on the walk with her, sharing her experience. A good start to the book!

Red Brick and Sakura was another interesting read, as it covers, in a way that perhaps only someone from the industrial north of England will fully appreciate, an area of Kyoto we have yet to explore. There is something about Victorian/Edwardian/Meiji red brick that soothes the northern soul. For me, the child of an engineer, employee of a science & industry museum, Michael Lambe’s narrative about the creation of Kyoto’s canal system opened my mind to another aspect of the city, mixed in with the traditional view of the place as Japan’s Heian capital.

I have benefitted greatly from the guides on this writer’s Deep Kyoto blog as a visitor to the city, so walking with him in this book was an added bonus. I want to go to Yamatoya café now, and I have learned about the Shinshidō bakery chain (the branch on Kyoto station is a regular port of call for us when we’re in the city on holiday) and want to go to the café also established by the man who started the bakeries. Most of all, I want to explore the history of the canal and the engineer responsible for making it happen.

Ghosts, Monkeys and Other Neighbours is a very intimate, personal account of a favourite walk through more areas of Kyoto that are unfamiliar to me. Because I don’t know the places being described, I felt more of an outsider eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. My lack of familiarity meant I couldn’t get a handle on the space Bridget Scott was moving through, but there is enough in the account to make me want to do some more research.

Climbing Mount Daimonji is a perfectly formed meditation on the transience of life, its endless flow of unique moments, and how we relate to nature.

I have never climbed Daimonji. Perhaps now I will. Perhaps I will gain an appreciation, like Miki Matsumoto, of how precious each person is in their individuality.

Not Sure Which Way To Go is about doing away with conventional guidebooks and following your curiosity, with the idea that getting lost can be an effective way of really getting to know a place. Personally, I only like to get lost in a controlled way! I’ve been lost in Japan and it made me feel 6 years old, silently frightened while trying not to cry. But the idea of taking random turns and seeing what you encounter appeals to me. We have been ‘lost’ like that in Japan also, and happened upon things we would never have seen had we stuck to the prescribed tourist trail. The Philosopher’s Path is another area we haven’t explored fully.

We have been to Ginkakuji (pictured above), but now I have bookmarked a page in my e-reader that describes the area around the pavilion, which I’d like to go back to and explore further.

Into The Tumult didn’t really speak to me at first, perhaps because the walk part of the piece is raced through by the author, perhaps because I have done a similar walk many times in Kyoto.

I didn’t feel that my previous experiences were enriched by the narrative. The reflection on why Pico Iyer likes this particular walk was more engaging. I liked his reflections on how the modern and everyday aspects of Kyoto are just as special as its historic mien, and his reminiscence about moving there from his comfortable existence in Manhattan, when the area he takes us through was not the tourist hub it is now.

Old School Gaijin Kyoto is a portrait of a particular time and a particular type of person. Chris Rowthorn is refreshingly honest about his younger self. The piece is amusing, interesting in its depiction of what Kyoto was like for a foreigner in the early 90s, and in the author’s discovery of how things have changed 22 years on. I’ve been to some of the places that were his regular haunts, others I wouldn’t want to visit because I’m not a young man in my 20s! I have bookmarked the page about Ing, though. Ing sounds just my cup of tea.

John Dougill’s Kamogawa Musing is one of my favourite pieces in the book.

Here we meet the river that flows along the east side of the city, and bump into people who call it home, people who sojourn in quiet contemplation, and I meet Rai Sanyō, whose essays helped bring down the shōgunate but lost Kyoto its capital status. I learn why the Kamogawa is so astonishingly concrete in places, and the story behind the statue at Shijō bridge that we first saw two years ago, as we nibbled away at another edge of the city.

Gods, Monks, Secrets, Fish is a pilgrimage of sorts, a walk to discover the gastronomic thoughts of Dōgen by. The best part of this chapter for me, bluffness of Bradford born John Ashburne aside*, is the guided tour of the stores in Nishiki market and the history of its name. Each time we stay in Kyoto we make a pilgrimage of our own to Nishiki and have made blind purchases from many of the stars revealed here.

I wish my spoken Japanese was better than it is, I would love to quiz the vendors about their wares.

(*My best friend is from Shipley and I have Bradford weavers among my antecedents, so I loved seeing Kyoto through Yorkshire eyes.)

Across Purple Fields is a stroll through author Ted Taylor’s neighbourhood to buy a beer at the local sake shop. More reflection on the changes to Kyoto’s suburbs than true walking guide, it is nevertheless a charming insight into the hidden parts of the city where tourists rarely go, deliberately at least. It put me in mind of the settings for Sōseki’s novels. For all that traditional houses are making way for apartment blocks and car parks, there is still a sense of the old way of living in the structure of the blocks and the public/private world of houses crammed together.

Blue Sky and Hiking Mount Atago both explore the Saga-Arashiyama area north west of Kyoto. Blue Sky interested me because I have heard of the work being done to clear Mt. Ogura of rubbish, and because my husband and I have trodden the same route this piece follows, but in a daze because we had tried to do too much in one very hot day.

It was good to walk the route again virtually with a knowledgeable guide, and I learned why the bamboo groves are fenced in with brushwood.

Hiking Mount Atago revealed a ritual akin to the Kurama Hi no Matsuri we went to on the trip we took for my 40th birthday a few years ago, but a ritual less fraught with fire-related danger! I love these annual rites of passage, where communities follow ancient paths, physical and spiritual, up mountains and grow closer through the physicality of the experience. Both were engagingly written, humorous recollections of individual experiences.

In Praise of Uro Uro is a celebration of aimless wandering, seeing what you see and embracing Kyoto’s transience along with its longevity. Joel Stewart shares my love of the small expressions of individuality you can encounter by looking differently and wandering through back streets.

By choosing not to stay in hotels but renting apartments or machiya in Kyoto, we have seen some of the quirks of Kyoto and found small local shops and restaurants that we would otherwise have missed. I can recommend taking a diversion from the main streets. Kyoto’s grid pattern means you’re unlikely to get lost. Stewart’s is a walk through a part of the city I am unfamiliar with and will definitely explore more next time we are there.

Izumi Texidor Hirai takes us to the Kyoto Botanical Gardens.

When we visited, I had the sense that the gardens are a locals’ treasure, something that Hirai also alludes to. In this walk through her favourite spots, she reveals a lush green space, a place of different seasons and surprises. One surprise for me was that there is a library hidden inside carved mushrooms in a children’s playground. Hirai links stories to her favourite spots, the rose garden, the conservatory and the lawn, but also talks about the other things that can be seen. Her description of the zigzagging bridge brought back memories of my own, of a different zigzagging bridge, while one of the memories she shares made me laugh out loud!

Ted Taylor’s second piece, A Long March, is only 6 pages long and isn’t a walk like the rest in the book. It doesn’t explore the city, or point out places of interest. Instead, it reminds the reader of the ongoing effects of 2011’s earthquake and tsunami and the challenge to move away from nuclear power. I was unaware that there are 15 nuclear reactors north of Kyoto. The thousands of people who have made this march each year since the disaster are very aware.

I only needed to read a couple of pages of Up & Down the Ki’ to know that this walk would be invaluable. I’m going to make my husband read it. When we met, and discovered a shared love of music, we ran through all the gigs we had been at together and wondered why we hadn’t met sooner. One of our repeated regrets each time we visit Kyoto is that we didn’t see more of the nightlife. We have tried, but the places recommended by Rough Guide and Lonely Planet have proved oddly soulless. We have passed other bars and baulked at going in, aware of being foreign, wary of making a mistake. This walk could just be the ‘in’ we need. A love of music is a great leveller.

The first section of Perrin Lindelauf’s personal adaptation of the Kyoto Trail reminded me of the time we went to Fushimi Inari, got lost going up the mountain and ended up at Tofukuji! Perhaps, if we go again, we’ll use a map and do it properly.

I found Lindelauf’s voice very much that of a professional travel writer, honed from years of filing copy that has to be punchy and immediate. Personal taste, but I prefer the style of the other writers. Not that there’s nothing to be had from the piece. His description of the section of the trail that doesn’t fit with most tourists’ idea of a good time felt like I was discovering the trail with him and for me is the best part of this chapter. More of his humour shone through in the writing and he included some interesting snippets of the area’s history. By the end of the chapter, Lindelauf’s writing is more reflective and I warmed to him.

Judith Clancy wrote the epilogue. Her book of walks through Kyoto is one of the best walking guides I have ever bought. The warm tone of this epilogue explains why. She makes a poem of Kyoto life.

The bios of the authors at the end is a lovely inclusion, adding to the sense of who they are that has been garnered already from their walks. Chris Rowthorn’s bio in particular was a revelation – I would never have guessed his day job from his chapter in the book. I stand by what I said about Rough Guide and Lonely Planet above, though!

This is a great book for anyone who has been to Kyoto and would like another perspective on the city, as well as for anyone who is planning a visit and wants to do something a little out of the ordinary. I plan to pick individual places to explore further, rather than following entire walks. Although some of them that go to unfamiliar places are tempting.


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!

The Tale of Genji/源氏物語

Last night, after five long months, I finally finished reading The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部). It has been a long slog, but ultimately worth it, I think.

Statue of Murasaki Shikibu by the Uji River

Part of the problem was that I was reading the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of the book on my Kindle. The Kindle is great – it meant I didn’t have to carry around a 1,224-page paperback – but it has its frustrations, especially when you’re reading a book with 100s of footnotes in each chapter, a complicated Imperial court structure to keep track of, and characters who are rarely referred to by name and whose nicknames seem to change from page to page. If I’d been reading the paperback, I could have flipped easily from where I was in the novel to the chronology, character lists and family trees elsewhere in the book. As it was, trying to do the same on the Kindle became more trouble than it was worth, so I had to re-read parts of the book to try to keep track of what was going on. That sort of thing slows even the fastest reader down!

I read the book because I’d previously read (and re-read, it’s so good) The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Crihfield Dalby. This is an imagining of Murasaki’s life as she writes The Tale of Genji, based on Murasaki’s own diary, court records from her time at the Imperial court and Dalby’s expositions on what might have inspired the tales Murasaki included in her novel. The snippets of Genji that Dalby includes in the book made me want to read the whole thing.

I started, however, with a Dover Thrift edition, which covers only the first 9 chapters of the novel. Just enough to whet your appetite for the adventures of that charming Shining Lord. My next encounter with Genji was one of the Kodansha bilingual comics series, which I picked up in the International Manga Museum in Kyoto, thinking that I could practise some kanji and hiragana reading.

It was on our trips to Uji, though, that I realised there was much, much more to the story. As I’ve already blogged about, on our first trip, we visited the Tale of Genji Museum, which was more an art installation than a museum. Here we were guided along an audio trail that introduced the story and its context, seeing dioramas and video installations, culminating in a short film based on the ten “Uji Chapters” at the end of the novel. Walking through the city, too, we saw references to these later chapters, including a statue by the river at the point where one of the characters in the “Uji Chapters” tries to drown herself.

Statue of Niou no Miya stealing Ukifune away

And so it was that, as soon as I got my Kindle, I bought the Kindle version of the full and unabridged translation of the novel.

From an historical and cultural perspective, it’s a really interesting book. It is often referred to as the first novel, the first modern novel, and even the first psychological novel. For someone interested in Japanese history and the culture of the Heian era, it reveals a lot about hierarchy and attitudes to women. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman living in those times, rich or poor! By all accounts, Murasaki wasn’t that thrilled with her lot, either.

What comes through in the novel is that the court noblemen led a charmed existence. They had their pick of women. Marriages were arranged to strengthen alliances and garner court promotions and possibly even lead to one of the children of the marriage ultimately reigning as the Emperor or his consort. Women had little say in their fate, although some of the characters in the novel find ways of wresting some form of control from the system, whether through raising children to their own principles, withdrawing from society to become nuns, or ending their own lives.

The main male characters in the novel, Shining Genji and To no Chujo in the first 41 chapters, and Kaoru and Niou no Miya in the last 13, are supposed to be romantic heroes, looked upon by all who come into contact with them with awe and wonder. They are handsome, fragranced, cultured and desirable. They make strategic marriages, and then toy with the affections and blight the lives of numerous additional women. I found it difficult to warm to them, and this was possibly another reason it took me so long to read the novel. There were times when I became so angry with the lives the women were leading, and their treatment at the hands of men, that I had to put the book down.

The strongest female characters are probably Aoi (Genji’s first wife, who is portrayed as being cold and unforgiving of Genji’s “adventures”, when actually she had been forced to marry someone she did not know and quickly came to dislike because of his lack of interest in her), Murasaki (Genji’s second wife, chosen because she looked like his step-mother, with whom he had fallen in love at an early age and whose life he ruined by engineering a sexual encounter with her that left her pregnant), and Ukifune (the illegitimate and unrecognised daughter of a prince who became a monk, a lady who resembled Kaoru’s unrequited love and became the centre of a tug-of-passion between Kaoru and Niou no Miya, resulting in her suicide attempt in the waters of the Uji River).

There are other women in the supporting cast, gentlewomen who wait on the noblewomen who have to suffer the indignities foisted on them by ardent men. These gentlewomen sometimes work to protect their ladies, but more often than not they conspire with the men, badgering their mistresses not to be so foolish as to resist the advances of these prize catches. Many also have to put up with not-always-desired attentions from the same men.

There are also strange undercurrents of paedophilia running through the novel. On more than one occasion, one of the male characters comes across a young boy or a young girl who charms them with their beauty and innocence, and they are enticed to spend the night. There is nothing specifically said anywhere in the novel about sexual relations, but the veiled language used to describe nights spent with eligible young women and nights spent with children are sometimes disturbingly similar. Both Genji and Kaoru spend the night with the younger brothers of women they are not having much luck with, primarily because they resemble the women so much. Perhaps these passages made me feel uncomfortable because, quite rightly, in my culture sleeping with children because you are attracted to them is wrong.

From my 21st Century Western perspective, I became very tired of the patriarchal and misogynist ways of the Heian court. I know that you shouldn’t project the social mores of your own culture onto one that existed so long ago, in such a different society, but still – there was no romantic glow about Japanese culture from reading this book. Not for me, anyway.

It has, however, spurred me on to read Murasaki’s diary of her time at the Imperial court. But not just yet. I think I need some Swedish crime to leaven the impact of Murasaki’s novel on my psyche!

An achievement: Translating “The Peach Boy” (ももたろう/momo tarou)

Yesterday, armed with my Kanji dictionary, my furigana dictionary, my romaji dictionary and my electronic dictionary, I decided to have a go at translating one of the children’s books we bought last time we were in Japan.

We bought ももたろう/momo tarou and 天女のはごろも/tennyo no hagoromo. ももたろう, or Peach Boy, looked like the (slightly) easier option.

Both books are from the 子どもよむ日本の昔ばなし/kodomo yomu nihon no mukashi banashi (Children Read Japanese Folk Tales) series published by Kumon.

Even though the story is very abridged, it took me just over 2 hours to translate it – but I got there! There are a couple of idioms in the story that I couldn’t find translations for in my dictionaries or online, but I’ve got my last Japanese class before the summer holiday on Thursday, so I’m going to ask my teacher.

ももたろう is a traditional Japanese folk tale about a childless old couple who discover a baby boy inside a peach. They raise him as their son and, when he has grown big and strong, he sets off, with some of his mother’s millet dumplings in a bag at his hip, to defeat the 鬼/おに/oni (demons) who are laying Japan to waste. He befriends a green pheasant (きじ), a monkey (さる) and a dog (犬/いぬ) and, together, they fight the 鬼 on their island and defeat them.

As someone who has played Ōkami on the Wii, I had already encountered ももたろう without realising it – but now the dumplings make sense!

Getting around

I’m a big fan of guide books and phrase books. Before I go on a trip anywhere, I like to look up places worth visiting and mark the pages in the guide book I’m going to take. I also like to try to learn a few key phrases, but also have a phrase book to fall back on when my language memory fails me.

A selection of our guide books

On our first trip to Japan, we invested in a copy of the Rough Guide. We looked at the Lonely Planet Guide as well, but decided that we preferred the layout of the Rough Guide, which contains a lot of history of the country and its towns and cities and is organised by region and then by city/town. In each section there is a short history followed by orientation advice, key places to visit and places to stay and eat. The maps are clear and the index is pretty comprehensive (some of the out-of-the-way places, although mentioned in the Guide, don’t appear in the index). Because we weren’t back-packers, we felt that the hostel-hopping and nightlife/drinking culture that was the main focus of the Lonely Planet Guide wasn’t for us.

Our well-thumbed 2005 edition of the Rough Guide to Japan

The Rough Guide came in handy while we were travelling around and deciding on places to visit while we were in Japan. As well as the pre-marked pages, we had the option of reading about other places and expanding our itinerary or swapping some of the things we’d originally planned to do. Having a sense of context was also helpful, and much of the advice was spot on. It was a bit cumbersome to cart around with us, though, so for our third trip this year, I bought a new copy for my Kindle. I found this harder to use in relation to pre-marking places. One frustration with the Kindle’s bookmarking system is that when you come to revisit the pages you’ve marked, you don’t necessarily see the passage that you marked the page for. Quite often, I found that the information I wanted to access was halfway down a page, but the bookmark showed the first sentence of the page which wasn’t always directly relevant. I certainly missed being able to look in an index and then flip through the pages to the relevant section! Still, having the Kindle version saved on space in the suitcase.

One of my wedding presents from my best friend was a copy of the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook, which we used extensively while on Honeymoon. Because we hadn’t started to learn Japanese properly at college, but just used language tapes and my husband’s memory of the beginners’ class he’d done a couple of years earlier, this proved invaluable.

The book includes start out information, from the basics of pronunciation to the different number systems used in Japan, and is packed full of properly useful phrases in sections such as Accommodation, Money, Sight Seeing and Eating Out. The Japanese is in kanji and kana so that, if you have trouble with your pronunciation, you can always hand the book to the Japanese person you’re talking to and they can read what it is you’re trying to say! The most useful thing about this book that we found, as vegetarians, was the Culinary Reader, which describes ingredients and foodstuffs, so that you can avoid animal produce if you need to. It certainly helped us to navigate our way through the array of onigiri (おにぎり) in many a Kiosk/baiten (売店/ばいてん).

For our second trip to Japan, we invested in a couple of city-specific guides. We bought the Lonely Planet Tokyo Encounter guide mainly for its pull out map, which was better than any of the Tourist maps we’d picked up on our first visit. The book is a handy pocket size, which made it more useful when out and about in the capital than the Rough Guide, and we found plenty of places to eat as a result of using this guide book. It’s a punchy little guide, ideal for anyone who only has a few days in the capital and wants to maximise their experience.

Tokyo Encounter guide from Lonely Planet

My favourite city-specific guide book, but not my husband’s, is the wonderful Exploring Kyoto on Foot by Judith Clancy. Ms Clancy has lived in Kyoto and developed a good knowledge of different areas of the city, including places slightly off the tourist track.

We used this book to enhance our visits to places like Gion, Higashiyama and the Teramachi district of the city, as well as out of town places like Kurama and Fushimi Inari. The detail was perfect for me, as an historian, because I love to know about the history of places I am walking through, but I think the amount of walking we ended up doing was too much for my husband! Some of the maps are a little inaccurate – we ended up getting completely lost on Fushimi Inari because we took a wrong turn while following the map in the book instead of picking up a map at the temple – but others helped us make the most of places we would otherwise probably just have drifted through.

The last book in my pile is a new one, which my husband bought for me as an anniversary present this year. Unfortunately, our anniversary fell after we had returned home from our third trip, but I am looking forward to putting it into use next time we are in Kyoto. The book is called Old Kyoto and is a list of the traditional shops, restaurants and inns that have stood the test of time in the ancient capital. It’s a good book to read without actually visiting, because many of the stories of the families who run these establishments are charming.

So there we have my top 5 books to take to Japan. Enjoy!

Uji (宇治)

I forgot to mention one other Japanese author whose work I’ve read: The Lady Murasaki Shikibu.  I think I didn’t include her in my post about Japanese literature because I don’t feel that I’ve really read her work yet.  I’ve read a manga version of part of the story, and an abridged version of the first book in the Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – げんじものがたり – Genji Monogatari), but I haven’t yet read the entire novel.

I’m reminded of her today because I’m going to write about Uji (宇治).  We were inspired to go there on our honeymoon because part of the Tale of Genji is set there (the part I haven’t yet read!).

Uji is a short train ride from Kyoto (京都) on the JR Nara line.  We took a local train without any problem – no need to book tickets, and if you’re travelling with a JR Pass all you need to do is show your pass to the guard at the gate and he or she will wave you through.  On arrival, there is a Tourist Information office at the station where you can pick up a map of the area and leaflets for the main sights.  We wanted to see Byōdōin (平等院) with its Phoenix Hall, and the Uji City tea house Taihoan where we hoped to experience the tea ceremony for less money than tea houses in Kyoto charge.

We walked down towards the Uji Bridge, where we encountered a statue of Lady Murasaki – as imagined by the sculptor as no images of her are known to exist.

After we’d gazed on the bridge, the river and the statue, we headed off towards Byodoin down a street full of tea vendors.  Uji is famous for the high quality of its tea.  It supplied the royal court when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and the best green tea is still grown in Uji.  The street smelled fabulous, as it was a hot day and all of the shops had their frontages open, allowing the scent of green tea to waft over us as we walked.

We popped into one of the larger shops to smell and feel the tea leaves, and bought a packet of genmai cha, which is a roasted tea with rice grains.  We also discovered one of the best things we have ever eaten.  Green tea flavoured KitKats.  Unbelievably good, with the usual chocolate coating replaced by green tea flavoured white chocolate.

A little further along the street, just before the entrance to Byodoin, we discovered another of the best things we have ever eaten.  Green tea ice cream, with matcha powder sprinkled on top.  The colour is akin to pistachio ice cream, or mint choc chip, but the flavour is pure green tea – bitter but kind of sweet at the same time.

After we’d stuffed ourselves with sweet treats, we went into the grounds of Byodoin.  The temple dates from the 10th century and was originally built as a private residence, before being converted to a Pure Land Sect temple in the 11th century by a member of the Fujiwara clan.  Lady Murasaki was a member of this clan and the family feature strongly in the Tale of Genji as they were the de facto rulers of Japan in the Heian period.

We didn’t go into the Phoenix Hall as the queue for entry was pretty long.  Instead, we wandered around the edge of the lake and viewed the hall from across it.

We also strolled around the back of the hall and looked at some of the sub temples.  There is a really good view of the roof of the Phoenix Hall from the back.  We went into the small museum, where carvings and statuary taken from the hall are on display.  It was a relief to be inside the cool, dark building as the day outside was a scorcher.

Next up, we followed the map to try to find Taihoan.  There is a visitor centre and café across the way from the tea house where you need to buy tickets for the tea ceremony.  When we visited, the price was 500円 each, which is considerably cheaper than the prices we’d encountered in Kyoto.  Once you’ve bought your ticket, you cross over a small path and enter the grounds of the tea house.

Once you’re in the garden that leads up to the tea house, it’s like being in another world.  Uji isn’t such a busy place, in terms of traffic, but once in the cloistered garden, it becomes possible to imagine a world without cars and lorries and motorbikes.  We were invited to sit on a bench outside the house, where we removed our shoes, until the geisha had prepared the room for us.  When she came out to beckon us in, we walked up a short flight of steps and then entered the tatami room through a low doorway.  The geisha invited us to kneel and placed a plate with a Japanese sweet on it in front of us.  She then gestured for us to eat as she prepared the tea.  The room was light and airy and decorated with a simple ikebana display and scroll in an alcove behind where the geisha was preparing the tea.  I watched her as she went through the ritual cleaning and wiping of the implements, the measuring of the matcha powder, the pouring of the hot water and then the presentation of the tea to us.  The tea was delicious – hot and bitter and slightly grainy.  After we had drunk and admired the bowls, the geisha spoke to us in Japanese.  I didn’t understand what she said and apologised.  She didn’t speak much English, but managed to convey that she was very impressed with my kneeling position.  I didn’t mention that I didn’t think I would be able to walk when the time came to leave the tea house, judging by the tingling in my legs!

The whole thing probably took around half an hour, but the gentleness of the ceremony and the calmness of the room made it feel as though we had been transported away from the world for hours.  It was well worth the entrance fee and I would recommend it to anyone.  You can be there from Kyoto within half an hour.

We emerged from the tranquility of Taihoan onto the riverbank and walked towards the river.  We crossed at a point where two bridges connect a small central island with a stone pagoda on it to each of the river banks, and admired the views up the river.


This is the river where fishermen use cormorants to catch fish in the summer.  There are night time displays in the summer months, but we visited too early in the year to see anyone fishing.

Across the river we found another statue depicting characters from the later part of the Tale of Genji.  In the novel, Genji’s son and his friend are rivals for the love of the same woman.  Unable to cope with their rivalry, and unable to choose either way, the woman decides to drown herself in the river, and so begins a legend that the cause of the river’s turbulence at the point where she drowned is the turbulence of her spirit.

Across from the statue, vermilion torii lead the way up the mountain to a shrine which also features in the book.  We didn’t visit it while we were there, but instead walked further up the mountain to the Tale of Genji Museum.  This is more an exploration of the historical setting for the book than an actual museum, and contains dioramas depicting what Kyoto and Uji would have looked like at the time Murasaki wrote the book.  One of the dioramas is a model of Genji’s palace, with its four areas planted to represent the four seasons.  Visitors walk through the exhibits wearing headphones and listening to a narrative in their own language, or at least in a language they can understand.  The final part of the museum is a cinema where visitors watch a video based on the ten chapters of the Tale of Genji that are set in Uji.  It is an odd experience, to say the least, watching a video of a mystical quality while listening to someone narrating it through your headset.  I’d describe the whole museum as a concept piece, personally.  It’s an interesting idea, but not something that I would urge people to visit.

We left the museum as it was closing and made our way back towards Byodoin and the street of tea shops.  We were hungry by now, so popped into a noodle restaurant where I had my favourite Kitsune Udon and R branched out with some Zaru Soba.  When it arrived, we were both non-plussed, as we had never encountered it before and the noodles were cold, sitting on top of a bamboo box with some wakame, and there was a bowl of soy sauce on the side.  The waitress noticed that we were staring at the dish instead of eating it, and came over to explain how it is eaten.  Fortunately, R was able to report that it was delicious.

I love Uji.  I can imagine living there.  It struck me as the sort of place that has a life beyond its tourist status, somewhere that people actually live once all the tourists have gone home.  We are definitely going back on our next trip, and I have the complete Tale of Genji on my Kindle, ready for the flight.