Sunday, 25 January 2015

Little Crowds

Thank you for your comments, and I did appreciate my brief trip to Suffolk! I'll visit everyone's blogs shortly.

Now, back to Japan.  There are some great museums there, (although I wished more of them had English labels) and I did want to take you along to the Edo Tokyo Museum, which tells the story of olden days Tokyo.  It is spacious and easy to wander around but it is full of crowds - tiny crowds, mostly. That is, crowds of tiny model people.  Or, intricate drawings on a huge scale of crowds and crowds of people, each one meticulously drawn, indeed, but very small.

I love models, and so I spent a lot of time marvelling at the degree of craftsmanship in the displays.   Here's part of a festival.  I don't know what sort of festival, because I can't read Japanese and I felt a bit guilty asking our friend Eiko to translate ceaselessly.

Other models showed entire buildings and complexes of buildings - shops, houses, temple compounds.  I liked this model department store of a hundred years ago. Inside are people buying goods spread out on low tables.  Something about the lighting reminded me of trudging down one of those narrow little streets on a dark winter's evening. 

For me, the most fascinating model showed the city as it used to be - in sanitised form, no doubt, because no ancient city was that clean, and this was a very clean model!     I was so impressed that each tiny figure thronging the city's streets reminded me of an individual going about their life.    

Below you see a couple of women women chatting as they do their washing, almost unnoticed in a back garden - I've enlarged this image, which was part of a vastly larger scene. 

And here, a small crowd gathers to watch an entertainment in the street. I particularly like the lion.

There are many fine two dimensional works, too.  I think that in both Japan and China, certain rulers liked making giant drawings or paintings of their entire kingdom as a sort of birds eye view, showing everyone and everything.  There are several large beautiful screens in the museum, showing everyday Edo Tokyo in painstaking and accurate detail.  I wish it was possible to show these images in close up.  There's so much to see but this section of one screen gives you a slight idea of the artistic layout, colour and detail of the screens.

I also thought this crowd looked pretty good - it is a painting of fire fighters.  It seems that the old city was so vulnerable to fire that eventually it was decreed that streams of water must criss cross the place at close intervals and fire fighting was given top priority.   

So this is people going to a fire. The white whirling thing is a kind of banner called a matoi.  There was a real matoi in the exhibition, so extraordinarily heavy that I thought it must have been more exhausting carrying the matoi than fighting the fire! But then someone said that it was really only taken to a high place to show the distant firefighters the location of the fire.  Now, matoi are sometimes used for ceremonies.   

A few of the models were life sized, as you see from the size of these visitors posing for their pictures at the front of the Noh Theatr with splendidly dressed models.  There was a tiny working model showing a Noh play in action, but I couldn't get close enough to photograph it - it was surrounded by huge crowds of schoolchildren! 

Actually, sometimes I felt as if I had walked into one of the models.  This is a reconstruction of the bridge which used to lead into the old city, in the exact size and style.  Suddenly I felt rather like one of those tiny model figures myself.  I think it was the large expanse of black echoing space all around, as though I'd shrunk to table size.

There were also crowds of real people at the museum, most of them going around in groups.  I liked this cheerful group of schoolgirls trying out a Japanese style sedan chair. 

And talking of small people,  I forgot to put the little person below in my last post. As I said, the Edo Tokyo museum is in the same area as the sumo wrestlers,  and this little sumo wrestler must be popular because it seems that many people have rubbed his tummy, and worn away all the patina! 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Daily Life.....

So, here in London, daily life has been going on...  It's been busy (mostly about Lewis Carroll) and I'm getting cabin fever stuck inside.  I also need to stop listening to the radio all about the horrible things going on in the world, but thank goodness I have got out sometimes, to the gym, the shops and of course, to see family.

And, a bonus - our friend's cottage in Suffolk just became empty and she's offered us the chance to go for a few days soon.  East Anglia in winter is not the warmest or most exotic of places but we willl go eagerly.  I've been missing Suffolk, which has been an important part of my life for years with its beautiful big skies.    Here's a picture I took there a few winters ago.

Well, back to work. I just wanted to check in.  I'll post about Japan again in a few days. It's nice to revisit it in my mind. 

Monday, 12 January 2015


Haha, here's me and the new man in my life. T is glad he is only made of cardboard.   I have always been rather fascinated by sumo wrestling. I never really went for European style wrestling but there's something so ritualistic about sumo. It seems to be about more than just hurling the other guy out of the ring.   (I have just found out that it has roots in Shinto religious rituals). 

 When our kind friend Eiko took us to the Edo-Tokyo Museum in the Ryogoku area of Tokyo, I was fascinated by some obviously old photographs of sumo champs that were stuck up in the railway station alongside the slot machines and next to the neon lights and hot water pipes.  

I don't know what the dates of these huge photos are but to me they look quite old, perhaps originally taken in black and white and beautifully coloured with those transparent paints people used to tint photos with.  

You can see this one is a little torn at the bottom, which again suggests that it is old. I didn't ask Eiko what the writing on the frames said. 

These are handprints and signatures of more recent sumo greats.  

and Eiko only just managed to reach up to the height of the tallest wrestler measured, who is Yokozuna Akebono.  (The top guys are called Yokozuna - Grand Champions -  and Yokozuna Akebono is actually Hawaiian-born, which might explain why he is so tall.)

There is a sumo stadium nearby but sadly it was the wrong season going to see a match. I was quite fed up about it.  Still, the next best thing to seeing sumo in Japan seemed to be to follow this pair who shot past us on bikes.....

They were heading for the sumo training centre nearby.   There's an interesting little museum there, and it's free, but you are not allowed to take photos inside.

What interested me most in the museum were beautiful old woodcuts of sumo in which everyone seemed really cheerful and to be having a great time.    I think this fellow from about 1850 looks as if he really enjoys his life. I wish I understood what all the things in the picture were. 

If and when we return to Japan, I'll try to time the visit to coincide with sumo season. 

I'm finishing a revision of my biography of Lewis Carroll. It is the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland's publication this year and a lot is going on. My other website went off just before Christmas and we've now got it back - I think.  It's been very frustrating. I'll have to start updating it more seriously, and next thing I'm going to do is update the blog. 

Do you like watching local sports when you go somewhere new?

Monday, 5 January 2015

Inspired by A Cartoon.

Today is the last day of the holidays, even though Twelfth Night isn't till tomorrow.  We've had a  good time seeing family and friends, and I've been preparing a talk I'll be giving n a few days time. (I'm not a great public speaker so it's a bit nerve rackimg.) And T. has been bravely struggling with our service provider, Gradwell, who took my other website offline before Christmas and have been barely responsive ever since.

I've also watched a couple of Christmas presents - Japanese anime cartoon DVDs.  I loved "The Girl Who Leaped Through Time" and Ghibli Studios' "Pom Poko," about Japanese raccoon-dog spirit-gods fighting the growth of the modern world.    Like most of the anime movies I've seen, they were really watchable, and  Pom Poko gave me the inspiration for this blog post.  Because I was watching a scene when an old farmhouse with a huge thatched roof is being demolished (above), and I thought, 

Hey! I've seen old houses like that! 

We saw very similar buildings in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, where our friend Yoshi took us when we stayed with him and his family in Toyama.  They're villages on the Shogawa River, dating back to the 11th century. They are apparently the only place in Japan where groups of these large ancient farmhouses survive more or less unscathed, although once they could be found all over Japan. 

 Until the 1970s, the villages were very remote and inaccessible, particularly in winter, when they have heavy snowfall, and the inhabitants survived by rearing silkworms. Now, they're UNESCO sites and, although the houses are still family homes, the villagers live mostly by tourism. So the village atmosphere is less  "authentic" than it was in those remoter days, but at least visitors like me have a chance to appreciate them. They're such a contrast with sparkling modern Japan, and there is something rather reassuring about their still slightly ramshackle and traditional air.     

You'll see old fashioned sights like beans laid out to dry in the sun outside the houses

Giant radishes from the garden hung in the porch

and strings of physalis or "Japanese Lanterns" hang on home made frames outside the wooden walls, overhung by thick thatch.

Trucks trundle down the little roads, loaded with straw for repairing thatch.

Rice sprouts from small fields,  the pink and white blooms of untidy cosmos plants wave in the wind,

and there were lots of butterflies when we visited in October.

.And life goes on, with people going about their daily business and hanging their washing out to dry 

One of the houses is an inn, and we went inside and had tea. The owner was very friendly although she didn't speak English, and she was happy to let us wander round the large, dark rooms.

and she was happy for us to look around

It was really dark up in the attic, and we gaped at the silkworm rearing trays and equipment.  How I wished the silkworms were still there, munching away on mulberry leaves beneath the tall rafters. Hanging off a beam were some of the  woven straw boots that local people used to wear in the very heavy, snowy winters

There is a little restaurant-cum-giftshop in one of the farmhouses which, despite seeming rather slow and touristy, sold one of the nicest lunches we had in all our time in Japan

The houses are at great risk of fire, with their open, wooden construction and thatched roofs, but one advantage of being a UNESCO site is that the villagers no longer have to rely on an antiquated fire engine - here it is, stashed away alongside someone's house. Loads of money has been invested to keep the village in good shape.

Now there's a modern and very high tech system explained on the poster below, which operates from an underground water supply and sends huge jets of water arching over each house in the main street.  Apparently the system is occasionally turned on even when there is no fire, to create artificial rain in dry periods. It must be a most spectacular sight to see. 

See the strange red dancing figures in the sign above?  You get a clearer view on the poster below. It is a bit of poetic license to have these dancers operating the firefighting equipment, but traditional to Gokayama is a performance called Mugiya-bushi,  The dancer is holding a percussion instrument which can be waved around to make a rattling sound.  

Songs in this tradition are still performed.

Gokayama opened a small window into a very, very different world, and it is set in an entrancing landscape, with calm rivers and steep wooded mountains of enormous beauty.  I hope I'll be able to go back one day to this area, do some hiking and see what else there is to see.

Happy New Year!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Puzzled in Tokyo

I hope you had a good Christmas.   Ours was really fun, a good mix of seeing friends and family, and down time. And finally I have had  the chance to put together a couple more posts,too, which is even better!   

It's been fun looking at our very first photos.( The one above is a Russian Christmas doll in a Shinjuku store.)  When I was taking them, there wasn't much chance to think because we were running around and seeing things. But now they bring back how charming yet bewildering Japan seemed.   Bewildering of course partly because neither of us can speak or read the language, so I had the usual type of problems-  like buying a pot of jam under the impression it was a tub of yogurt, and so on.

We were so grateful to our Japanese friends for helping us out and so some things that were initially puzzling became clear.  These small figures standing beneath a large statue, dressed in their red woolly hats, I think represent babies and small children who have either been restored to health from illnesses, or are there to represent children who have died, so that Jizo, the bodhisattva who protects travellers and children, can protect them.

 I learned that these figures in the hallway of a house I visited were not cute ornaments, but kami, representing spirits, essences of life or forces-of-nature connected with the Shinto religion.  They can bring good luck if treated right, although they not exactly gods. 

Objects to do with religion are always full of symbolism, and very fascinating to learn about, but the following photos are some of the things we saw when we arrived in Tokyo, that still baffle me. Not all of them are to do with old traditions. Some are quite modern. Others.... well, probably they are just the way that things are done.  
First, I loved these grand looking white rabbits which were dressed up beautifully. But they don't just look like toys. It is as if they are wearing traditional fabric designs, and perhaps even traditional garments, and so I'm guessing they are something to do with Japanese folklore.   But what?

 I saw these arrays of artificial flowers lined up in an alleyway.  They are not window boxes. 

Opposite them were these circular objects. I think they have cranes on them, which is a symbol of happiness and youth? Or are those winged things some kind of insect?    I just don't know what they are or why they were kept in this side alley.

Now for a modern puzzle.  This machine explains clearly how you put your umbrella in, and then get the umbrella out again encased in plastic.  My question is, why? There is no need to encase a dry and rolled umbrella in plastic. And if the umbrella is wet, you should leave it to drain so it will be dry. If it's been kept wet inside plastic, surely it'll cover you with water when put it up again? 

Mind you, I did not have an umbrella, so I didn't try it out. Perhaps if I had, I'd have understood!

And talking of umbrellas, I wondered why people in Tokyo cycled along with umbrellas in wet weather instead of wearing wet weather gear?  It is not as if umbrellas protect you all that much from the rain when cycling, and what is more, it's very difficult to see the traffic properly if you're holding an umbrella. It's also pretty hard to steer the bike safely with only one hand. I suspect that is just the custom, perhaps one that began when traffic was lighter.

The famous Japanese toilets can cause some confusion with foreigners. This was a simple one, but some had many more buttons than this and one or two had no obvious means of flushing.  I was never quite defeated because I found that if you pressed all the buttons, then finally one would do what I wanted.  


It is wonderful to be in a place that is so clean.  If you do spot a piece of litter lying ahead of you in the sparkling streets, it is likely that someone will pick it up and put it in a bin before you reach it yourself.    I have never seen quite that degree of cleanliness and care anywhere else. I didn't once notice a dirty vehicle.   But even so, this concrete mixer caught my eye ...

It was making its way along the narrow street at the end of the day. I had watched the workmen on the site as I passed to and fro, and I thought I'd seen them using this very mixer earlier on.  But look at how clean it is.   Could the workmen possibly have cleaned it up after a day's work? To clean heavy machinery only for it to get dirty again the next day -  well, that would be real dedication to cleanliness!

As I said, though, I never saw a dirty vehicle. 

In the evening, walking through a district of small shops, we were confronted with a black and white inflatable dragon on a hand-drawn wagon,(you can see its open mouth from the front in this image). The dragon was accompanied by people wearing unusual clothes and black makeup around their eyes,  and carrying circular placards.

Every now and then they would stop, take out trumpets, stand in a line and play their trumpets in unison, mostly 17th and 18th century European classical music.  They were extremely good -  I would probably pay to hear them.  But what were they doing? Why had they dressed up like this and brought their music to the city?

They were followed by girls in tutus, who attracted the attention of the Marlboro Dog. 

I thought it might be an advertising parade, but nobody was giving out leaflets, and when I showed my pictures afterwards to Japanese friends, they didn't know what it was all about either.So this will remain a mystery, probably. Anyway the parade went down very well among the many people enjoying snacks in the little open-sided cafes along the way. 

We realised very quickly that we were going to like Tokyo - clean, safe, and with so much to see and so much to interest us and make us think. 

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