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Sunday, 13 April 2014

There are no happy endings in Japan

She pined for the beauty of her lover, who was fair to look upon as the flowers; now beneath the moss of this old tomb stone all has perished of her save her name. Amid the changes of a fitful world, this tomb is decaying under the dew and rain; gradually crumbling beneath its own dust; its outline alone remains. Stranger, bestow an alm to preserve this stone; and we, sparing neither pain nor labour, will second you with all our hearts. Erecting it again, let us preserve it from decay for future generations, and let us write the following verse upon it: "These two birds, beautiful as the cherry blossoms, perished before their time like flowers blown down by the wind before they have borne seed."
Two lovers, immortalized as the legendary bird hiyokudori (比翼鳥). It has only one eye and one wing, and is therefore helpless until it finds its mate and becomes a complete bird that can see, fly and be happy. The bird is a symbol of lovers who can only find happiness when they are united as one.¹

Painting of a hiyokudori.

Unfortunately, this is Japan, and Japan doesn’t have happy endings. No. If it's a Japanese love story, it must perforce end in tragedy, the triumph of giri (obligations) over ninjō (human emotion), and preferably a dramatic double death or, for extra bonus points, a double suicide.² As soul sister Cecilia says, "Can't have a happy ending. Misery is catharsis. Suffering gives death meaning, especially when avoidable."

Lovers who committed suicide to be united in "the other world" were usually buried together so that they could at least enjoy each other's company in death. Their tombs are called hiyokuzuka (比翼塚), and can be found in various parts of the country.

One of the most famous is the hiyokuzuka that stands at Ryūsenji (瀧泉寺), popularly known as Meguro Fudōson (目黒不動尊), where Hirai Gonpachi (平井権八) and Komurasaki (小紫) are united in love.

Gonpachi and Komurasaki, illustrated by Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770)

Gonpachi. When you hear that name, you may be reminded of the Roppongi restaurant that allegedly served as a model for the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill, or perhaps you recall that former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi took George W. Bush and Laura Bush to this restaurant for an informal dinner (link).

Yes, all of that is correct, but the restaurant was named after the samurai who’s now buried in Meguro.

Gonpachi was a samurai of the 17th century and a great fencer who by misadventure killed one of his clansmen and had to flee from home. He became a rōnin and travelled towards Edo. One night, when he lodged at an inn, a young girl told him it was a robbers' den and that she was kept a captive. Gonpachi killed the robbers, freed the girl, who was called Komurasaki, and returned her to her parents' home. They became engaged to be married, but the restless rōnin couldn’t resist the temptation of the road. He returned to Edo, where he led a life of dissolution.

During a visit to the red light district Yoshiwara, he recognized one of the prostitutes: it was Komurasaki, whose parents had been forced to sell her due to poverty.

(Don’t you love it that parents are always "forced" to sell their daughters? Ho-hum.)

To get enough money for her release, Gonpachi became a robber, but of course he was killed, and equally of course Komurasaki went to his grave, and do I really have to tell you that she then killed herself? Their tragic tale was turned into a kabuki drama and immortalized in numerous prints.

My summary is based on a story in the book The Animal in Far Eastern Art by T. Volker, but you can read a complete version in Tales of Old Japan by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, which you can find at the Project Gutenberg website (link). The quote with which I started this post comes from Mitford's book.

I was standing next to the graves of Gonpachi and Komurasaki, looking towards the main gate at
Meguro Fudōson.

The modest graves of Gonpachi and Komurasaki

The temple where the grave is, Meguro Fudōson, deserves a bit of attention as well. It's a beautiful temple with a small waterfall, a pond and spacious grounds with several sub-temples. It's dedicated to Fudō Myōō (不動明王), the "immovable wisdom king". That "immovable" refers to his ability to remain unmoved by temptation, and his role is to teach self-control. He's also called the destroyer of delusion. He usually holds a sword, and has one fang pointing up and another pointing down. His statues are generally placed near waterfalls or deep in the mountains.³

He's supposed to be scary and intimidating, but when you see the guy against a backdrop of fluffy pink cherry blossoms, you can't help but think that he's a softy in disguise.

The temple was one of the five protectors of Edo and was included in all travel guides of that period. It remains well-known to this day for its fire ritual, called goma (護摩), which is performed in esoteric Buddhism and is supposed to protect you against accidents and evil.

Incidentally, when I Googled for more information about Fudōson temples, I realized with a skrik that my blog posts (with that particular ō spelling) pop up in the search results, and that not much else is available in English. Oh. OK. Then I guess I'll have to continue to find information in books rather than on the interwebs. Fortunately that won't be too much of a sacrifice.

I could carry on for another 71 pages, but let's focus on love rather than religion in this post, shall we?

Also, photos. I might as well exploit my blog's newish layout and bigger photos.

The difference that a  few months make: above the temple in winter, below spring.


1) It's based on the Chinese mythological bird called a jiān ().

2) When I'm at my most cynical, I think this is why some (originally I said so many, but let's be fair) Japanese women are so besotted with white men. White = Western = chivalry = fairytale with a prince kissing a princess awake = live happily ever after. View that from the male perspective, and you get Japanese woman = cute, childlike, feminine, submissive, exotic = the ideal woman = live happily ever after. Oh, people, you deserve one another. (You're welcome to disagree with me, but there are many reasons why so many white/Japanese marriages end in divorce, and unrealistic expectations feature prominently.)

3) He's called Ācalanātha in Sanskrit.

Remember this plant in its winter clothes? Want to see a nude shot? Look below.

Smaug the dragon

Horse ema

Small Inari shrine on the premises

This Buddha statue is at the back of the temple. You can't see it right now, since
access isn't allowed anymore. I'm not sure why, but they might be doing renovations.
I took this photo a few years ago.
Edit added on 14 April after Guilhem's comment (see below): Access isn't always denied!

The main gate seen from the steps leading to the main temple

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The best cherry blossom path ever

I did it!

Damn, when you're good, you're good.

And when you have no modesty, you have no modesty.

One of my numerous little obsessions is to discover a new cherry blossom spot every year. This year I thought it was not to be, due to a combination of workload and bad weather, but fortunately I was wrong. When you're damn good but you get it wrong, you get it very wrong, and then it's very good. How's that for logic?

This year's best discovery isn't 100% new. I've been meaning to go there for a long time, but it never worked out. Then I woke up to a perfect day – that was Wednesday – and impulsively decided that if I moved my butt, I could finish this walkpedition before my afternoon lessons.

Awe and wonder

Yonks ago Sarah told me about a river in Saitama where she drinks umeshu donated by her father-in-law under the cherry blossoms. Some months later I tried to find a Kannon statue, aborted my mission halfway, walked through Saitama in a sulk, talked to staff at various temples, got given various maps, observed said maps and noticed pink spots.

"Look," I said to Sarah, "pink spots."
"That's my river!" said Sarah.
"Oh. It is?"
"Oh. It's near Kōkūkōen?"
"Oh. Why didn't you say so?"
"I did!"

The river in question is the Azumagawa that runs between Kōkūkōen and Higashi-Tokorozawa, a distance of roughly 5 km. It's a small suburban river that's lined by cherry trees on both sides, and it's the best cherry blossom path I've yet discovered in Japan.

It's impossible to capture the beauty of Japan's cherry blossoms in a photo.
Well, not if you're an amateur. I give up. I can't. 

If I say it's the best, it's because I can tick all my personal preferences:

1) suburban or countryside
2) different varieties of cherry trees that provide a multi-coloured effect
4) no chichi restaurants with precious fashionistas (I didn't spot one high heel during my entire walk)
5) relatively uncrowded (on a weekday morning)

Unexpected extras:

1) It's near Iruma Air Base, which means you occasionally hear a powerful fighter jet. I'm besotted with jet aircraft, and that roar? Ooo. Give me moar!
2) You encounter cheerful old-timers and groups of kindergarten kids. Normally the latter would instill the fear of God in me, but on a spring morning pink blossoms and cute albeit noisy kids combine very nicely, and anyway, they're not half as noisy as obaasan going so so so ne ne ne kireeeiii!
3) Saitama's drivers impressed me. It must be taxing to drive along these roads in spring, because you've got people stumbling along in the middle of the street with their eyes lifted towards pink bliss, but I encountered nothing but patience and politeness from motorists.
4) Daffodils! Everywhere along the river, daffodils. It's my considered opinion that it's utterly impossible to be unhappy while looking at daffodils. Forget about Valium and Prozac: just look at daffodils. If you're not unhappy to start with, you're positively doolally by the time you've finished your walk.

Oh, don't listen to my waffling. Just look. It was impossible to choose a few photos from the hundreds I took; eventually I arbitrarily selected every tenth one.

How to get there
Start at Kōkūkōen Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line. (It takes about half an hour by train from Shinjuku or Takadanobaba.) If you look at Google Maps, you can clearly see the river that runs just east of the station all the way to Higashi-Tokorozawa.

I've just reached one hundred followers. Yikes. My deepest humblest politest bow to every one of you. I hope you'll enjoy our walkpeditions together!

Interesting straw rope on a torii at a shrine along the way

Can you see the daffodils?

Hanami in Kōkūkōen


Airplanes on a manhole, because Kōkūkōen is associated with
the history of flight in Japan. Also: trusted beloved hiking boot!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A portrait of Ru

Look! An artist drew my portrait! Ekaterina's interpretation is 100% correct: "Please welcome the Barbarian Cat (of course it's a cat) who stalks trees, hisses at slowly moving obaasans and eats chocolate instead of mice."

You're always nagging me for a photo. Well, here you go. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Ru.

Thank you, Ekaterina! I'm SO chuffed! ♪☆0(^^0)*^^*(0^^)0☆♪

PS: I hope you noticed my necklace of leopard teeth ...

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A quest for people-free cherry blossoms

The truest truth ever spoken was this wisdom by Jean-Paul Sartre: hell is other people. This is particularly intense in Tokyo, the world's biggest metropolis. Especially if you're a savage from Africa's wide open plains.

That's why I avoid festivals, choose to go to work an hour early rather than face peak time on commuter trains, refuse to go on a shopping spree even for books on the weekend before Japan increases its sales tax. Too many people.

It's also why every spring is a quest to find that most elusive of locations in Tokyo: people-free cherry blossom paths. It helps that I go very early – if I say very early, I mean I leave at 5 am – on weekday mornings.

This year I have very limited cherrypedition opportunities due to a combination of workload plus predicted cloudy weather, and that's made me decide to focus on old favourites rather than go larking about. This particular road isn't as beautiful as Kandagawa or, reportedly, Megurogawa, but it's in a quiet suburban area and you can walk along almost entirely alone. There's a more beautiful section a bit further east, but that was too far for my limited time.

Ladies and gentlemen, from Ru the happy hermit, Sarue Onshi Park and the footpath next to Sendaiborigawa in Kōtō-ku.

The main attraction of Sarue Onshi Park is, of course, the cherry blossoms. Why are you laughing?

It's so difficult to show you the full impact of cherry blossoms in a photo, but ....
imagine a room where your ceiling and walls are pink and blue.

Normally a sight that strikes fear into the heart of a true hermit, but what the heck,
blossoms and cute kids go together.


Well, almost ...


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