The Sound of Summer

August 4, 2009

Summer in Japan is a sweaty, sweaty affair.  It’s hot and oppressively humid, and many homes – like the apartment I lived in – don’t have air conditioning (nor do most classrooms).

And yet, I feel a certain nostalgia for the Japanese summer.  In particular, I remember the sound of summer quite fondly.  Take this commercial for watermelons.

A bit overdone and saccharine, but still evocative, and the little girl is a cutie.  This is what they’re saying, by the way:

Girl:  “Not yet?”
Father:  “Not yet.”
Girl:  “Not yet?”
Father:  “Not yet”
<tock>
Father:  “Now!”
Father:  “Summer is delicious, isn’t it?”
Girl:  “Summer is delicious, isn’t it?”

But the dialogue is beside the point. Well, it’s beside my point anyway.  The scene is established as taking place in summer before anyone speaks and before visual cues are provided.  How?  In the background, we can hear cicadas.

Every summer, Japan abounds with cicadas.  Lots and lots of astoundingly noisy cicadas.  More than 30 species inhabit the archipelago, and each has a unique call.  But the cicada that is most strongly associated with summer is the one you can hear in the commercial, the minmin-zemi.

Its call is distinctive and it’s most active during the hottest weather, so the minmin-zemi is the unchallenged icon of summer in Japan.  Still, it’s only one part of the chorus.

The tsukutsukubōshi also has a distinctive song.

Its name is onomatopoeic, as is minmin. Semi (“seh mee”) means cicada.

Meanwhile, many varieties have more monotonous calls, as with the kuma-zemi (“bear cicada”).

But while these three types of cicada blare away during the day, twilight belongs to the higurashi.

I have vivid memories of summer evenings at my apartment in the mountains north of Kobe.  As the heat of the day softened, the breeze through my windows would carry the quiet sounds of neighbors preparing dinner or listening to the evening news.  And as the sun sank in the sky, the higurashis’ haunting cries would begin to echo in the warm air.

“Eco-cycle”

July 23, 2009

Automated, underground,  bicycle-parking cylinders!

In Tokyo, naturally. This made the rounds online about a year ago, but it’s really cool, so if you haven’t seen it yet, check out the great rundown at dannychoo.com.

Danny Choo, by the way, is a British expat living in Tokyo, and his website covers life in Japan and Japanese nerd subculture, with an emphasis on figures (as in action figures…sort of).  I have zero interest in figures, but I really enjoy Danny’s Week in Tokyo posts, which are always filled with great photos.

Nara Revisited: Day 2

June 25, 2009

I spent the second day outside the city, to the southwest.  My primary destination and first stop for the day was Hōryū-ji, a temple founded in 607.

Nara Houryuu-ji Central Gate

Hōryū-ji was built at the command of the imperial regent, Prince Shōtoku, who was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Japan.  Prince Shōtoku also ordered the adoption of the Chinese calendar and carried out significant governmental reforms.  But while he actively sought out and implemented the best aspects of Chinese culture, he also asserted Japan as being equal to China, putting an end to the previous subordinate relationship.  (He famously addressed a letter, “From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Setting Sun.”  The Chinese emperor was not pleased.)

A fire is said to have leveled Hōryū-ji in 670, but even so, the complex contains the longest-standing wooden buildings in the world.  And while they’re around a century younger than the temple itself, the gate guardians are the oldest in Japan.

Nara Houryuu-ji Niou Left Nara Houryuu-ji Niou Right

From Hōryū-ji, I moved on to Yakushi-ji, a temple located just within Nara’s city limits, which is still a mile or two outside of the city proper.

Nara Yakushi-ji

Yakushi-ji was established in 680 and moved to its present location in 718.  Over the years, nearly all of its buildings have burned down and been rebuilt. The eastern pagoda, built in 730, is the sole remaining original construction.

Nara Yakushi-ji From North

This round hall, meanwhile, is a totally new addition.

Nara Yakushi-ji Genjoudou

It was built in 1991 to hold a portion of the cremated remains of the famous 7th century Chinese monk, Xuanzang (Jp: Genjō Sanzō).  Another portion exists in a museum in India.  That one was a gift from the Chinese government, but the remains at Yakushi-ji were taken by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

I wonder how much that bothers China.  On the one hand, the Party holds religion in contempt, but on the other hand, Journey to the West, the novel loosely based on Xuanzang’s travels, is a beloved classic.  I guess it’s likely that most people simply don’t know about the remains being kept in Japan.  I certainly had no idea.


After poking around Yakushi-ji, I had  lunch at a small restaurant called Shūraku Ichihashi.

Nara Shuuraku Ichihashi Restaurant

I can’t remember exactly what I had, but I do remember being struck by how low the price was for such good food.  I’ve had better meals and I’ve had cheaper meals, but their ¥1,000 (~$10) lunch set was an outstanding bargain for the quality.

Here’s a map.  I should note that their dinner prices seemed much higher, so the restaurant is probably best for lunch.


After my somewhat late lunch, my last stop before heading home to Kobe was at Tōshōdai-ji, a short walk north of Yakushi-ji.  The main hall was completely walled off due to repair work, but this is the grave of Ganjin, the Chinese monk who founded the temple in 759.

Nara Toushoudai-ji Grave

Ganjin (Ch: Jianzhen) was invited to come to Japan to share his knowledge of Buddhism.  It took him six tries over the course of a dozen years before he finally made it across the ocean, and he had gone completely blind in the meantime.  When Ganjin at last made it to the capital, Nara, he served for five years as the abbot of Tōdai-ji (the temple with the giant statue of Buddha), before retiring to a plot of land granted by the emperor. Ganjin then used the land to build Tōshōdai-ji.  He died four years later.

There’s a beautiful mossy grove between the grave and the rest of the temple.

Nara Toushoudai-ji Moss

Even disregarding their cultural and historical value, Japan’s many temples and shrines are priceless just for all the green space they protect from encroaching concrete.

Not that there’s no countryside left in Japan.  The walk to the nearest train station was quite nice.

Nara Grass

It was harvest time in the rice fields.

Nara Fields

Houses pressed in at points…

Nara Rice Roofs

…but then I came upon a particularly novel bit of protected greenery.

Nara Kofun

This island is a giant, key-shaped burial mound.  Scores of these were built as tombs for nobility from the 3rd century to the early 7th century.

This one is officially designated as the tomb of Emperor Suinin, but I don’t know if there’s any evidence supporting that claim.  Japan’s Imperial Household Agency lists some 740 burial mounds as being imperial tombs, but excavations are forbidden and it’s widely thought that most of the designations – made in the 19th century – are spurious.  A few actually are supported by historical and archeological evidence though, so they aren’t all made up.

In any case, the mound is a literal island of greenery, and a sacrosanct one at that.  So rather than being all for the sake of one dead man, the enormous labor that must have been expended to build the tomb ended up producing something that will benefit a great many people for a long, long time.

Nara Revisited: Day 1

June 3, 2009

When I first visited Nara, I only had enough time to see a fraction of what I wanted to.  I resolved to make another trip, and so I did.  I revisited Nara at the end of October 2007, and this time I stayed at a hotel and made two days of it.

On the first day, I visited two sub-temples of Tōdai-ji – the temple with the giant statue of Buddha – as well as a major shrine and Nara National Museum.


From the northeast corner of the Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji, a path leads up the hillside to Nigatsu-dō, the larger of the two sub-temples.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Path

Nigatsu-dō means “Hall of the 2nd Month,” and while there are several buildings in the complex, only the eponymous hall itself is open to the public.

Nara Nigatsu-dou

Nigatsu-dō dates from the 8th century, like the rest of Tōdai-ji, but the hall was reconstructed in 1669 after being destroyed in a fire. “2nd Month,” refers to a group of ceremonies held here during the 2nd month of the old lunar calendar, which equates to around March.  These ceremonies have been held every year since 752.

Along the stairs to the hall, there is a fountain for ritually purifying yourself by rinsing your hands.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Fountain

That’s a Shinto tradition, not a Buddhist one, but it sometimes shows up at Japanese Buddhist temples.

Up at the hall, you can’t actually enter the building, but you can walk along the terrace.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Terrace

In addition to lanterns in a variety of shapes and sizes, there are placards mounted all along the eaves.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Pictures

Some have writing and others have pictures, and some are fairly new while others are very old.  These two are nameplates (Nigatsu-dō is written “二月堂“), but as you can see, only the one on the left is still legible.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Nameplate

On two neighboring buildings:  Gargoyle tiles!

Nara Nigatsu-dou Onigawara

They’re called onigawara (鬼瓦) in Japanese.  I love these things.

Back on the ground, I encountered one of Nara’s many free-roaming sacred deer.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Deer

They get rounded up every October to have their antlers removed, but this guy must have evaded capture.

From Nigatsu-dō, I headed south along the hillside.  A short distance away is a modest building known as Sangatsu-dō, meaning “Hall of the 3rd Month.”

Nara Sangatsu-dou

It’s name comes from a ceremony held here during the 3rd lunar month. Sangatsu-dō isn’t as as well known as its neighbor, but it is said to be the oldest building at Tōdai-ji. It houses 16 statues, 14 of which date from between 729 and 749.  The statues are in very good condition given their age, and 12 are designated national treasures.  No photography allowed, alas.  After taking a look, I continued south.

The hillside is wooded, but some spots allow for views over Nara.  This is the Great Buddha Hall.

Nara Toudai-ji Distant

And here you can see the pagoda at Kōfuku-ji, the other temple I stopped by on my first visit.

Nara Koufuku-ji Distant

About 15 minutes farther south, in denser forest, is Kasuga Grand Shrine.  This is a side entrance.

Nara Kasuga Side Entrance

Kasuga Grand Shrine was founded in 768 as the tutelary shrine of the powerful Fujiwara clan.  It’s home to some 3,000 lanterns.  You can buy a paper to write your name and a wish, and then put it in one of the stone lanterns.

Nara Kasuga Stone Lantern

This person is praying for the well-being of his family.

For a more permanent prayer object, you can have a bronze lantern made.

Nara Kasuga Big Lantern

Here’s a close look at one.

Nara Kasuga New Lantern

These aren’t cheap, I’d imagine, but they’re hanging everywhere inside the shrine.

Nara Kasuga Lanterns

At least they’re probably more affordable than a torii gate at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

And hey, here’s a wooden lantern.

Nara Kasuga Buckets

On the left.  I didn’t see any writing on it, so it probably wasn’t a prayer lantern.  I wonder if there’s always a wooden lantern there or if it was filling the spot for a bronze prayer lantern.  Hmm.

At any rate, as for the shrine itself, this inner gate is as far as the public is allowed to go.

Nara Kasuga Shrine

You can, however, see a picture of the inner sanctuary at the shrine’s website, here.  There are four kami enshrined in the sanctuary, hence four shrines.

I left Kasuga Grand Shrine from its south gate and headed back into town.  On the way, I happened upon the shrine’s Treasure Hall, a small museum that truly deserves its name.  They had some outstanding artifacts.  There are a few pictures here (click on the images for a better view).

Back in town, my last stop for the day was at Nara National Museum, which was holding its annual exhibition of treasures from Shōsō-in, a storehouse belonging to Tōdai-ji (although the treasures are now administered by the Imperial Household Agency). The dedication of the giant statue of Buddha at Tōdai-ji was attended by monks and dignitaries from as far away as India, and the collection includes some fascinating Silk Road artifacts in addition to Japanese works. You can see a handful of the repository’s 8,874 items here.


Dinner was noteworthy.

I ate at Miyako Kozuchi (京小づち), a restaurant that serves Japanese style Chinese medicinal cuisine, made from organic and mostly locally grown ingredients.  The restaurant doesn’t have a standard website, but they do have a blog.  This post shows what I ordered.

The soup is made from the traditional Japanese stock based on kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, and katsuobushi.  To this is added egg, shredded nori (the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi), and green onion, as well as the very unusual ingredients of red rice and Silkie chicken.  The chicken is called “crow-bone chicken” in Japanese (烏骨鶏, “ukokkei”), due to the inky color of its skin, flesh, and bones.  To the right of the soup is, I believe, sesame pudding with wolfberries on top.  Next is an assortment of Japanese pickles.  Below that is a row of medicinal food to add to the soup – mostly seeds and berries, with pickled garlic and shiso leaf being the only things I could identify.  The contents of the large plate may have been a little different for my meal, but as far as what is pictured, on the right is egg, green beans, taro root, and wheat gluten (the pink and green thing); in the middle is fish with citrus-doused sweet potato; and on the left is a lightly sweetened mix of soy beans, seaweed, shiitake, and konnyaku.

The meal was delicious, satisfying, healthy, and novel.  You can’t ask for much more.

Miyako Kozuchi is located in a shopping arcade near the Nara-machi neighborhood.  From the southwest corner of Sarusawa Pond (south of Kōfuku-ji), head south one block and then west one block.  (The streets in this area are all narrow and there are many side streets, but I’m defining a block as ending at a four-way intersection.  And if you’ve left the narrow streets and hit a main road, you’ve gone too far.) You should be at the shopping arcade.  Head south and the restaurant will be on your right, just a few doors down.  You can recognize it by the picture of a short-handled mallet on the shop curtain.

Ōtone Mujō

May 22, 2009

Translating songs is hard!


When I visited Ise Shrine, I bought a CD with a few songs related to the shrine.  You can listen to the first 45 seconds of each of the three songs at the CD’s page on Amazon.com’s Japanese site.  Click on the picture below to go to the CD’s page and scroll down a little to find “Listen to Samples.”

Nihon no Inori

The first song extols Ise Shrine as the spiritual heart of Japan, the second track is a karaoke version, and the third track is a festival parade song for the Okihiki festival, in which logs for the shrine’s reconstruction (conducted every 20 years) are carried through town and to the shrine.

The CD is a reissue of a 1967 release by Haruo Minami (三波春夫, Minami Haruo), who was a giant of enka music.  Minami, whose real name was Bunji Kitazume, was born in 1923.  He fought in Manchuria during World War II and spent four years as a POW in Russia before returning to Japan and resuming his career as a singer.  His talent made him very successful and he remains particularly famous for performing the theme song for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for the phrase “Customers are gods,” and for always performing in a kimono.  He died in 2001.

YouTube has a number of old videos of Haruo Minami and I thought I’d share one.  It’s from the 1969 episode of the annual New Year’s Eve “Red and White Song Battle” on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting station.  The song battle is a competition between two teams of musicians, a red team and a white team, in which the musicians perform songs one by one and are scored on their performances, with the winner being – of course – the team with the most points.

The song is “Ōtone Mujō” (大利根無情), which means something like “The Great, Heartless Tone.”  The Tone (“toh nay”) is a river to the northeast of Tokyo.

The song is sung from the perspective of Hirate Miki, a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century.  Hirate was apprenticed to a master swordsman in Edo (Tokyo), but was expelled from the dojo for drunken violence.  As he wandered to the northeast, his heavy drinking ruined his health.  He was eventually taken in by a yakuza boss, receiving food, medical care, and a home in return for training yakuza in swordsmanship and serving as the boss’s bodyguard. Hirate planned to cut his ties with the gang and return to Edo as soon as his health was restored, but before that could happen, he died in a battle with a rival gang, alongside the Tone River.

The song, with its two spoken-word verses, recalls enka’s roots in traditional narrative music, although the instrumentation is in pure enka style.  This is my attempt at a translation.

Announcer: “To speak of 1959 is to think of the marriage of Her Imperial Highness (to the emperor, who was then the crown prince), the welcome beginning of economic recovery, and the song first sung that year, ‘Ōtone Mujō’!”

The Tone, the Tone River’s breeze,
and the reed warbler’s voice
coldly assail my body
So this is the “Floating World”
If I look where I mustn’t look, to the western sky,
To Edo, to Edo – a rose madder brush stroke of clouds

“I can hear the Sawara festival music
It really takes me back…Chiba Dojo, by Jewel Pond, eh?
Heh…and now I, Hirate Miki, am a yakuza bodyguard
A dead leaf in the back alley of life, eh?”

Duty, exposed to the night wind of duty
Moon, I bet you want to cry too
My heart in disarray,
plucked pampas grass clenched between my molars,
A man’s, a man’s tears – my sword hanging limply at my side

“Stop me not, Master Myōshin
No matter how low I have fallen,
I, Hirate, am still a warrior
I know when my end is near
I must go.  I must go!”

My eyelids, wetting my eyelids
So many dreams washed away in the Great Tone
If I hold my breath
And drink cold sake to speed myself to hell,
The bells, the temple bells ring, ring – at Myōen-ji


There are all sorts of tricky passages in this song.

The Floating World (“ukiyo,” like in ukiyo-e) refers to the urban lifestyle that grew out of the political stability and burgeoning cash-based economy of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).  In particular, it refers to the red-light and theater districts, with their pleasure-seeking detachment from daily cares (hence “floating” world).

Sawara festival music refers to a style of festival music that was born in the region where Hirate died, but that had spread as far as Edo.  So even though Hirate hears the music at its birthplace, it must have been common back home, thus it makes him nostalgic for Edo.

“My sword hanging limply at my side” is a loose translation of a single word, otoshizashi (落し差し), which my dictionary defines as “wearing a katana improperly, with the end pointing straight down.”  Apparently, a katana should be worn horizontally, so that one can unsheathe it and strike a blow in one movement.  The song is saying that otoshizashi is a man’s tears.

For “I know when my end is near,” the song actually says “I know man’s chirigiwa.”  Chirigiwa (散りぎわ) is when a flower’s petals are just about to fall.


Alright, enough talk.  Here’s the song.

Uji Continued

April 24, 2009

From Byōdō-in, I crossed the Uji River and made a brief stop at Ujigami Shrine.  It’s small and there isn’t much to see, but Ujigami has the oldest shrine buildings in Japan.  Inside this shelter are three shrines that have been dated through dendrochronology to around the year 1060.

Uji Ujigami Shelter

They look a bit like this secondary shrine.

Uji Ujigami Shrine

Of course in terms of its date of foundation, Ujigami Shrine isn’t even close to being the oldest shrine in Japan, it just has the longest standing  buildings.  I think no one knows which shrine is the oldest, institutionally speaking, since the really old ones were built before writing was imported from China.

After dropping by Ujigami Shrine, I headed back to the train station and took a train a few stops north to Mampuku-ji, my last site for the day.

Uji Mampuku-ji Map

Mampuku-ji is the head temple of the Ōbaku branch of Zen.  It was founded in 1661 by a Chinese monk, and the Ming Chinese influence is readily visible.

Not so much at the front gate . . .

Uji Mampuku-ji Gate

. . . but this alcove, for example, screams “Chinese.”

Uji Mampuku-ji Altar

My visit was a bit rushed, because the temple was closing early.  The reason was that Mampuku-ji was the 2007 host for the annual “Nippon to Asobō” event.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but Nippon to Asobō (“Let’s Play with Japan”) is a night of art and entertainment with the aim of celebrating Kyoto and keeping traditional Japanese art and culture fresh and relevant.

The theme for 2007 was ties with China.  They aren’t pictured here, but musicians playing erhu and other traditional Chinese instruments were warming up while the venue was being prepared.

Uji Mampuku-ji Event

As it came time for the general public to be kicked out, guests started arriving.  They were all dressed nicely – the men in suits and most of the women in kimonos.

Uji Mampuku-ji Couple

I saw some very pretty women in incredible kimonos, but I didn’t want to be rude, creepy, or otherwise paparazzi-like, so I don’t have any pictures of them.  Alas.

Uji

April 18, 2009

Just southeast of Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward lies the town of Uji, known for the tea it grows and for Byōdō-in, a temple whose image graces the 10-yen coin.

10-yen Coin

[Picture from Wikipedia]

I visited Uji in October of 2007, and the temple was my first stop there.

Byōdō-in was originally a villa built in 998 for the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaga.  The Fujiwara clan controlled the government for centuries by marrying its women into the imperial family.  Michinaga was the uncle of two emperors and the grandfather of three more, and he was effectively the ruler of Japan.

In 1052 the villa became a temple and the next year its famous Phoenix Hall was built.

Uji Byoudou-in

The name comes from the building’s appearance, with wing and tail corridors extending from the main structure.  The Phoenix Hall is the only original building remaining at the temple and is a designated national treasure.

Here’s a view from the side.

Uji Byoudou-in Bridge

Byōdō-in was built by the Fujiwara, but indirectly, they nearly destroyed it.

During the 10th century, the Fujiwara and other high ranking nobility made themselves exempt from the land tax. The lesser nobility then began transferring their land deeds to the exempt nobles.  The lesser nobles thus acquired tax exemption, and in return they paid a much smaller tithe to their new landlords.  Farmers soon did the same thing, until eventually all land fell under this arrangement. The emperor and the institution of government were crippled and made completely dependent on the noble families, and the nobles’ effective power became tied more to their holdings than to their offices.

The three most powerful clans, the Fujiwara, the Minamoto, and the Taira, jockeyed for control of this new fuedal system, and the samurai class began to form.  A succession dispute led to wars in 1156 and 1160 which resulted in the Fujiwara’s defeat.  The Minamoto and the Taira vied to become the next power behind the throne, and in 1180 a succession dispute again led to war.  However, this time it was a full-blown, nationwide civil war, and when the Minamoto emerged victorious five years later, they didn’t try to go back to the old way of doing things.  Instead, the head of the Minamoto became the first shogun, and the age of nobility gave way to the age of the samurai.

What does this have to do with Byōdō-in?

The civil war began with the Battle of Uji, which took place on the grounds of the temple.  The imperial claimant supported by the Minamoto was attacked by the Taira and fled Kyoto under the guard of a small army led by the 77-year-old Minamoto no Yorimasa.  A much larger Taira army cornered them at Byōdō-in, and the Minamoto were defeated.  To atone for his failure, and to deprive the Taira of the satisfaction of capturing or killing him, Minamoto no Yorimasa committed seppuku on this “fan-shaped lawn.”

Uji Byoudou-in Fan-Shaped Lawn

He wrote a death poem –
埋もれ木の/花咲く事も/なかりしに/身のなる果てぞ/悲しかりける
– which means something like this:

A buried tree
whose flowers
never blossomed.
What a sad end.

But more than 800 years later, fresh flowers still adorn his grave.

Uji Byoudou-in Grave

I imagine he would have been heartened to know that.

Tokyo Fashion Map

April 9, 2009

Uniqlo, Japan’s biggest casual wear retailer, has created a neat online advertisement called Tokyo Fashion Map.

The main part of the ad is an endlessly looping series of videos of people putting on Uniqlo parkas.  The loop cycles through 17 Tokyo neighborhoods, presenting a randomly chosen video for each location.  Clicking on MAP in the lower right corner brings up a map that points out each neighborhood as it comes up in the cycle.  Clicking on the video brings up a series of still pictures.  The stills are grouped by neighborhood, each of which has a description at the beginning of its section (which you can jump to using the double-arrow buttons).  Loose English translations are included for these descriptions – note that you have to minimize the map to see them.

I couldn’t care less about the parkas, but as a peek at current casual fashion of average Tokyoites, Uniqlo’s Tokyo Fashion Map is pretty cool.  Check it out.

Kurumaya-san

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.

Sakura

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.