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Monday, April 30, 2018

Kyoto, at Kinkaju-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji which means Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple located at the foot of the gently-sloping Kinugasa Hill, northern Kyoto, Japan. The Temple’s top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The image of the temple richly adorned in gold leaf reflects beautifully in the water of Kyokochi, the mirror pond.

The Pavilion, that constitutes of Kinkaku-ji, gardens and other buildings, is said to be designed to realize Buddhist paradise on the earth. The Pavilion's first purpose was to serve the retiring Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as a residence.  Yoshimitsu was a one of the most powerful persons during the Muromachi period of Japan. He created a solid political foundation of Muromachi shogunate and restored the relation between Japan and China. The Pavilion was turned into a Zen temple after Yoshimitsu’s death in 1408, and continues to function as a temple of sacred relics.

The first floor of the Pavilion is in the Japanese palace style and was used for Noh plays or Japanese classical dance drama. The second floor is in the samurai style and was used for composing poetry. This floor is built in the Bukke style used in samurai residences. Inside is a seated Kannon Bodhisattva, as the goddess of mercy Kannon helps people who are in distress. The third floor is in the old Chinese style and was used for meditation.

The roof is in a thatched pyramid with shingles. The building is topped with a bronze phoenix ornament. In Japanese mythology the Phoenix brings goodwill as it descends from the heavens and is typically shown sitting on top of a gateway to a Shinto shrine. This ornament adorns the roof of the Kinkaku-ji Temple, it is a symbol of an imperial household.

From the outside, viewers can see gold plating added to the upper stories of the Pavilion. The gold leaf covering the upper stories hints at what is housed inside: the shrines. The outside is a reflection of the inside. The elements of nature, death, religion, are formed together to create this connection between the Pavilion and outside intrusions.

The garden complex is an excellent example of Muromachi period garden design. The Muromachi period is considered to be a classical age of Japanese garden design. The correlation between buildings and its settings were greatly emphasized during this period. It was a way to integrate the structure within the landscape in an artistic way. The garden designs were characterized by a reduction in scale, a more central purpose, and a distinct setting. A minimalistic approach was brought to the garden design, by recreating larger landscapes in a smaller scale around a structure.
Source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

An Interview with Akira

Photo: Wikimedia

“Akira-san”, I said, “ I must confess that your movies Throne of Blood and Ran introduced me to Shakespeare. The stories are compelling, tragic and dark but you masterfully expressed it in the cinemas, in black and white and in color. In Ran, which is an adaption of King Lear, the dark , cruel world is expressed in cinematic beauty, highlighted by the colors of the traditional costumes and the color of blood. Is this more or less how you see the world?”

“Tragedy is part of Japanese life which has been frequented by by earthquakes, tsunamies and wars. The Kanto earthquake was a terrifying experience for me, and also an extremely important one. Through it I learned not only of the extraordinary powers of nature, but extraordinary things that lie in human hearts. The Edogawa river had raised its bottom and showed new islands of mud.  The whole district was veiled in a dancing, swirling dust whose grayness gave the sun a pallor like that during an eclipse. The people who stood to the left and right of me in this scene looked for all the world like fugitives from hell, and the whole landscape took on a bizarre and eerie aspect. I stood holding on to one of the young cherry trees planted along the banks of the river, and I was still shaking as I gazed out over the scene, thinking, "This must be the end of the world."

I said:
“ In the Throne of Blood, which is an adaption of Macbeth, there is a scene with the piles of human skeletons forming little mountains. Is this how it looks like in the aftermath of the Kanto earthquake?”

“When the earthquake had died down, my brother Heigo brought me to look at the ruins. The burned landscape for as far as the eye could see had a brownish red color. It looked like a red desert. In the conflagration everything made of wood had been turned to ashes, which now occasionally drifted upward in the breeze. Amid this expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable.  When I involuntarily looked away, Heigo scolded me, "Akira, look carefully now." I failed to understand my brother's intentions and could only resent his forcing me to look at these awful sights. The worst was when we stood on the bank of the red-dyed Sumidagawa River and gazed at the throngs of corpses pressed against its shores. I felt my knees give way as I started to faint, but my brother grabbed me by the collar and propped me up again. He repeated, "Look carefully, Akira." I resigned myself to gritting my teeth and looking.
Later he said "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at every-thing straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of." Looking back on that excursion now, I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.  “

I said:
“You once said that your brother Heigo has a great influence in your interest in cinemas. How did he influence you? “

“Heigo was a professional silent-film narrator. The narrators not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen— much like the narrators of the Bunraku puppet theater. The most popular narrators were stars in their own right, solely responsible for the patronage of a particular theater. Under the leadership of the famous narrator Tokugawa Musei, a completely new movement was under way. He and a group of like-minded narrators stressed high-quality narration of well-directed foreign films.
In matters of both film and literature I owe much to my brother's discernment. He was addicted to Russian literature. But at the same time he wrote under various pen names for film programs. He wrote in particular about the art of the foreign cinema, which was much promoted following the First World War. I took special care to see every film my brother recommended. As far back as elementary school I walked all the way to Asakusa to see a movie he had said was good.”

I said:
“What happened then when the cinema transitioned silent movies into sound movies?”

“As the silent films went out, so did the need for the narrators, and Heigo's livelihood was struck a terrible blow. At first all seemed well because by this time my brother was chief narrator at a first-run movie house, the Taikatsukan in Asakusa, where he had his own following.
Then it had now become clear that all foreign movies would henceforth be sound movies, and theaters that showed them decided as a universal policy that they no longer needed narrators. The narrators were to be fired en masse, and, hearing this, they went on strike. My brother, as leader of the strikers, had a very difficult time.”

I said:
“As what has happened, the transformation of cinema is inevitable, from silent to sound, from black and white to colors, and from celluloid to digital.”

“In the midst of this, one day we heard of my brother's attempted suicide. I believe the cause was his painful position as leader of the narrators' strike, which had failed. My brother seemed to be resigned to the fact that narrators would no longer be needed when film technology progressed to the point of including sound. Since he knew it was a losing battle, the fact that he had to accept the leadership of the strike must have been indescribably painful for him.”

I said:
“ Didn’t he told your mother that he would die before he reached the age of thirty?”

“My brother had always said that. He claimed that when human beings lived past thirty, all they did was come uglier and meaner, so he had no intention of doing so. I had made light of my brother's words, but a few months after I had assuaged my mother's fears in this way, my brother was dead. Just as he had promised, he died without reaching the age of thirty. At twenty-seven he committed suicide.”

I said:
“Some people said you're just like your brother. But he was negative and you're positive. You have made good black and white as well as good color movies, you are the first Japanese movie director receiving international acclaim.”

“That time Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice. I watched a woman read a book throughout the Japan home-grown movie. Japanese films have lost their youth, vigor and high aspiration. Movies . . . look like the work of tired, old men, who make petty judgments, have dried-up feelings, and whose hearts are clogged.”

I said:
“Your first international acclaim is Rashomon which received Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival in 1951. Set in 11th century Japan, a time of fire, earthquake, pestilence, banditry, war. A period when the country’s central government were being undermined by the growth of political and military powers. There were rebellions, fires, earthquakes and violent crime in the capital city. It was a period where it appeared to be the end of the law, and the country is on the brink of disaster.
The movie opens at the Rashomon Gate, the main gate to the city of Kyoto. The gate is in ruins, and so is the city as well.  The rain in black and white gashing down the Rashomon Gate paints a bleak picture of the world. The destroyed gate, its apparent grand scale and strong foundation reduced to utter ruins. The clothing of the men is ragged, dark, dirty  and wet.”

“The film goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeons scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. Light and shadow, represents not only good and evil, but also rationality and impulsiveness. The introductory section in particular, which leads the viewer through the light and shadow of the forest into a world where the human heart loses its way, was truly magnificent camera work by Miyagawa Kazuo.”

I said:
“The story and the characters are interesting, involving various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same murder incident. Through an ingenious use of camera and flashbacks, you reveals the complexities of human nature as four people recount different versions of the story of a  samurai's murder and the rape of his wife.”

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better than they really are. The characters deceive even themselves; they refuse to face or acknowledge the truth because they fear it. The commoners standpoint is that all men and women are like this, and it is a property of mankind to lie and embellish reality even to itself.  As the priest said, if men dont trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.”

I said:
“ At the end there is the scene of an abandoned baby whom was crying loudly.  At first we did not understand how did this baby arrive at Rashomon gate, out of the blue.  Later I found from readings that other than being a place to abandoned corpses the Rashomon gate also became known as a place where people abandoned unwanted babies.  Then I can appreciate that this scene is not as out of place as some people thought.”

 “We see the Woodcutter accept the abandoned infant to take the child home to be cared for, although he is poor and already has 6 children. This symbolizes the man choosing to do what’s good. This is important because the Woodcutter for the entire film to this point has merely stood by, choosing not to be a participant in what he sees, “I didn’t want to get involved”, he says. By choosing to take the child he gives hope to the priest that man is good and that the world does not belong to the selfish.”

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Akira Kurosawa.

Source: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mount Fuji, at the 5th Station

Mount Fuji is 3,776 meters high and is the highest mountain in Japan.  With unrivaled magnificence and a beautiful cone shape, Mt. Fuji has often been selected as the subject of paintings and literature.  It is a volcano that has been dormant since its last eruption, in 1707, but is still generally classified as active by geologists. Mount Fuji's exceptionally symmetrical cone is a well-known symbol of Japan and it is frequently depicted in art and photographs, as well as visited by sightseers and climbers.

Mt. Fuji has an image of being snow-capped, but actually it's not covered in snow all year round. Usually, the snow melts in the summer and you can see the surface. Mt. Fuji usually starts being covered in snow in late September to early October, and the peak of the snowfall is from March to May.
In Japan, there has been a culture to respect a mountain as a spiritual spot since old times. Mount Fuji has been a sacred site for practicers of Shinto since the 7th century. Shinto is the indigenous spirituality of Japan. From the old days, many people worshipping and practicing Shintoism have been visiting this Komitake shrine, located at the 5th Station of Mt. Fuji.
It is said that Mt. Komitake was a mountain that existed before Mt. Fuji of today, and that this Komitake shrine was established as a place to pray more than 1000 years ago.
Komitake and Ko-Fuji (Old Fuji) became a base and erupted repeatedly, which formed the present figure of Mt.Fuji. In 937, Fujisan Komitake Sharing was located and the Komitake Shrine constructed on the peak of Komitake Mountain as the sacred place of the mountain faith.
At 2,400 meters the 5th station is the highest starting point to climb Mount Fuji, and it connects to a trail which is the shortest route to the top. Populated with several shops, cafes, a temple, a couple of observation decks and a post office, the station has the feel of a small village. You can thoroughly enjoy the magnificence of Mt. Fuji by just looking at the beautiful sight and its surrounding environment close at hand in all seasons without having to climb all the way to the top.
Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Tokyo, at Roppongi Hills

Roppongi Hills is a development project in Tokyo and one of Japan's largest integrated property developments, located in the Roppongi district of Minato, Tokyo. Constructed by building tycoon Minoru Mohri, the mega-complex incorporates office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheatre, and a few parks. 

The centerpiece is the 54-story Mohri Tower. Mohri's vision was to build an integrated development where high-rise inner-urban communities allow people to live, work, play, and shop in proximity to eliminate commuting time. He argued that this would increase leisure time, quality of life, and benefit Japan's national competitiveness. Seventeen years after the design's initial conception, the complex opened to the public on April 25, 2003.
The first six levels of Mohri Tower contain retail stores and restaurants. Roppongi Hills features more than 200 shops, cafes and restaurants. Most shops specialize in fashion, accessories, interior design and household goods, while restaurants offer a wide array of Japanese and international cuisine.
The top six floors house the Mohri Art Museum and the Tokyo City View with panoramic views of the city. A new exit from Roppongi Station empties into a glass atrium filled with large television screens and escalators, as well as several shops and restaurants. The rest of the building is office space.
Large open spaces have been built into the design of Roppongi Hills. About half of the area consists of gardens, pavilions, and other open spaces. A small oasis of greenery between the tall buildings of Roppongi Hills, the Mohri Garden is built in the style of a traditional Japanese landscape garden complete with a pond and trees. The garden has a number of cherry trees that make it a nice spot to enjoy the cherry blossom season in late March and early April. The Mohri Garden is a part of a lost mansion that housed members of the feudal Mohri clan.
By night, Roppongi becomes Tokyo’s most foreigner-centric nightlife spots, a center of late-night hedonism and fun. Bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants jostle for attention among the bright lights, giving visitors in search of a good time options the whole night.

Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Tokyo, at Asakusa Temple

Asakusa is a district in Taitō, Tokyo, Japan, famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. There are several other temples in Asakusa, as well as various festivals, such as the Sanja Matsuri.
For many centuries, Asakusa used to be Tokyo's leading entertainment district. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the district was still located outside the city limits, Asakusa was the site of kabuki theaters and a large red light district. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, modern types of entertainment, including movie theaters, set foot in Asakusa.
The complex resembles the Edo-period site, with several imposing gates, including the Kaminarimon or the Thunder Gate, with its iconic giant red lantern, and a five-story pagoda. The giant red lantern is 4 meters tall, 3.4 meters in circumference and weighs 670 kilograms. The front of the lantern displays the gate's name, Kaminarimon. Painted on the back is the gates official name, Fūraijin-mon. A wooden carving depicting a dragon adorns the bottom of the lantern.
The Asakusa temple is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. According to legend, a statue of the Kannon was found in the Sumida River in the year 628 by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. The chief of their village, Hajino Nakamoto, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa so that the villagers could worship Kannon.
Every year on a weekend in mid May, a festival takes place in the Asakusa area , called the Sanja Matsuri. It is one of Tokyo’s most popular festivals. It is held in celebration of the three founders of Sensoji Temple, who are enshrined next door to the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Its prominent parades revolve around three mikoshi (portable shrines), as well as traditional music and dancing. The procession of Sanja Matsuri  for the three mikoshi, begins from Nakamise-Dōri towards the Kaminarimon. These three elaborate shrines honor and represent the three men responsible for founding the Sensō-ji. During this final day of the festival, these  three important mikoshi are split up in order to visit and bestow blessing to all 44 districts of downtown and residential Asakusa.
Nakamise Dori is a shopping street that runs from the Kaminarimon right up to the Senso-ji Temple. Around 90 stores line up along the 250 meter long strip, transforming this street into the prime shopping spot in Asakusa. Nakamise Dori is one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan.
Various products are sold here, such as Japanese chopsticks,  wooden combs, fabrics, dolls, art products and traditional Japanese snacks.
Further down between Asakusa and Ueno there is Kappabashi-dori, also known just as Kappabashi  or Kitchen Town, a street which is almost entirely populated with shops supplying the restaurant trade. These shops sell everything from knives and other kitchen utensils, mass-produced crockery, restaurant furniture, ovens, and decorations, through to esoteric items such as the plastic display food (sampuru) found outside Japanese restaurants.
If you’re after some reasonably priced traditional pottery, kitchen utensils, sake or tea sets, chopsticks or knives, you won’t leave disappointed.
Source: Wikipedia