Archive for March, 2009


March 24, 2009

After the last post, I’d been considering doing an introduction to Japanese music, but if that ever happens – even if it’s only a very brief overview – it’ll be quite a while from now, as really, I’m not up to speed on the subject myself.

But in my efforts to become more informed, I’ve been digging around in YouTube, and I thought I’d share some songs I found.  Or rather, a song.

Hibari Misora was a very popular singer, from the time of her 1949 recording debut at age 12 to her death in 1989.  She sang enka, a genre of Japanese music that was born around World War II and is characterized by melodramatic ballads sung in a particular vibrato-heavy style, with orchestral accompaniment that includes rock and roll and jazz influences and flourishes of traditional Japanese sounds.

This is Hibari Misora singing “Kurumaya-san.”  The title means “Mr. Rickshaw Man” (as in someone who pulls rickshaws for a living).  She released the song in 1958, but I would guess that this video is from the ’80s.  I should also add that this song has much more of an early rock and roll bent than most enka.

My attempt at a translation:

Wait just a moment, Mr. Rickshaw Man
I have a favor to ask of you
This letter
Deliver it secretly
Get the reply secretly
And bring that back secretly
Could you do that for me?

Listen, as for the recipient’s name
It would be boorish to even ask
There’s a line from a song, isn’t there?
A cad who gets in the way of other people’s love
Finds even the moon through the window hateful
Do you understand, Mr. Rickshaw Man?

What happened, Mr. Rickshaw Man?
You are of absolutely no use
What a person
You delivered the letter secretly
Got the reply secretly
And brought that back secretly
But where did you deliver the letter?

I’m leaving out the last verse, because I’m uncertain about some phrases, but the gist is that the woman calls the rickshaw man a fool for delivering the letter to the wrong person (or maybe she’s saying that the unintended recipient has been made a fool), but then says that she herself is the greater fool for writing the letter in the first place.

So that’s the original version.  This is a  live cover from 2005, by a band called Tokyo Jihen.

Quit a contrast, eh?

Tokyo Jihen – or “Tokyo Incidents,” as the official translation goes – was formed in 2004 by its vocalist, Ringo Shiina, who started as a solo act in 1998.   “Ringo” means “apple” in Japanese, and isn’t Shiina’s actual given name.

I like how the vocals still use the enka style but are delivered with very un-enka-like aggression.   It’s like Shiina’s woman is a yakuza moll instead of Misora’s old-fashioned, well-to-do housewife.



March 22, 2009

Last Friday was, I think, the end of the school year in Japan, and graduation ceremonies would have been held the week before.  These are always emotional affairs, at junior high schools as much as at high schools.  In the US, graduating from junior high is a non-event, but in Japan it’s a big deal.  While enrollment at public elementary and junior high schools is determined simply by home address, high schools have competitive entry, such that getting into a “good” school requires a high score on entrance exams.  So students go to school with the same people up through 9th grade, and then they’re scattered.

Sakura – flowering cherry trees – bloom around spring break, and while they’re generally associated more with the beginning of the school year than with the end, there’s a Japanese pop song that likens their scattering blossoms to friends going their separate ways in life.  The song, “Sakura,” by Naotarō Moriyama, is often played at graduations.

This is Moriyama performing a version with piano accompaniment.

It’s a bit sappy, but not outright maudlin.


March 3, 2009

I may be back in the States, but I still have Japan travels to talk about, so without further ado, here’s one of them.  In May of 2008, I made a day trip to Fushimi.

Fushimi is now the southernmost ward in Kyoto city, but it used to be an entirely separate city and it has its own castle.

Fushimi Castle

As seen from a train station.  This is as close as I got.

Fushimi is the home of Gekkeikan, the world’s largest producer of sake.  Gekkeikan makes a lot of cheap sake – a lot of cheap sake – but it has some higher quality products, too.  It was the first brewery to sell sake in bottles instead of kegs and is still an innovator.

Gekkeikan was founded in 1637 and remains family owned.  The old brewery is now a museum.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Yard

The buildings, which I believe date from around 1900, are so much more attractive than the concrete box warehouses that prevail today, don’t you think?

Fushimi Gekkeikan Street

Of course, wooden buildings do make fires more of a danger.  The adjacent canal may have helped mitigate that.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Canal

More importantly for daily business (a hundred or more years ago, that is), the canal provides access to a major river that was used to ferry sake and all manner of other goods to and from Kyoto and Osaka.

After seeing the museum, I had yakitori for lunch, at a restaurant run by another sake brewery, and then I took a short train ride to Fushimi’s most famous feature, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

Fushimi Inari Gate

Established in the year 711, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine is the main shrine of Inari, the kami of agriculture and industry.  There are tens of thousands of minor shrines to Inari across Japan, often attached to temples or other shrines.  Inari is said to use foxes as messengers, and you can always identify an Inari shrine by its fox statues.

At Fushimi Inari, businesses and individuals donate (ie, buy) torii gates to wish for success, and these torii make a loop up the mountain behind the main shrine that takes several hours traverse.

At the beginning of the path are two rows of small torii.

Fushimi Inari Split

They practically form tunnels.

Fushimi Inari Tunnel

After a relatively short while, the small torii give way to large ones with more space between them.

Fushimi Inari Couple

Each torii has the name and address of its donor written on its uphill side.  It was interesting to read them (those that I could read, anyway), and occasionally I saw some well known companies, such as Sapporo Beer.

Fushimi Inari Sapporo

It’s the one with the big writing.

I also saw new torii being erected.

Fushimi Inari Raising

The number of gates is just crazy, and the path takes hours to walk, as I said, but it’s not monotonous.  At points, the torii stop for a while and there are other things along the trail.

Fushimi Inari Pathside

I’m not entirely sure what these piles are, but my best guess is that they’re private offerings like the gates, but in the form of small shrines.  In Japanese, they’re called tsuka (塚), which just means “mound.” The word tsuka also refers to burial mounds, but I don’t think these are graves.

Here’s a closer look at a mound.

Fushimi Inari Torii Mound

Each torii along the path has 奉納, “dedication” or “offering,” written at the joins on its front side. These torii have that, too, but they also have a bunch of other writing.  On the torii in front, there is the name of a kami on the cross piece – not Inari, but “Tamamitsu-ōkami,” who I don’t know anything about.  The left post says “Erected on New Year’s Day, 2008” and the right post has an address and some names.  “Jewel” (玉) is inscribed in the stone.  Hmm . . . I wish I had a picture of a different mound to compare with this one.  Oh well.  In any case, as far as I know, these mounds are peculiar to Inari shrines.

Along the path, there is also a large pond and the occasional building.

Fushimi Inari Pond

And this cool dragon fountain.

Fushimi Inari Dragon

And to abandon narrative entirely, in favor of the “Here’s a ___” blogging style, here’s a stage for ceremonial music and dance, back at the main shrine at the bottom of the trail.

Fushimi Inari Stage

That’s all for now.