Cats often feature in the books of Haruki Murakami and, indeed, in Japanese literature and folklore in general. Of the latter, the most famous is probably the maneki neko ((招き猫)or beckoning cat, images of which can be seen throughout the country, to bring good fortune to the owners. The origins of the tale are claimed by both the inhabitants of Kyoto and Tokyo (and even the Chinese, not surprisingly), but the principle is the same: an impoverished owner of a failing store took pity on a passing cat and invited him in to share his meagre supplies of food. In gratitude the cat sat outside the store raising his paw to invite in passers-by, thus improving the fortunes of the kind-hearted shop owner.
Goutokuji Temple in Setagaya Ward, western Tokyo has its own version. At the end of the 17th century, a lord from Hikone was passing a temple when a thunderstorm was approaching. A cat emerged from the temple and raised its paw as if waving the lord inside, thus saving him from a drenching. In gratitude the lord rebuilt the temple and re-named it Goutokuji in 1697.
Nowadays this is commemorated by the display of thousands of cats beckoning the few visitors who make their way to this hidden gem off the main tourist trail.
But, in the three storey pagoda, if you look carefully, very carefully, you might just spot, and be spotted by, a cat hiding in the rafters.
Feline fans keen to improve their own luck can buy their own version made from wood, plastic or more commonly ceramics. Some even have battery or solar powered rising paws to give you a greater sense of being welcomed. And pause for thought: the right paw raised is to bring money, the left to bring in more customers. Both raised and you can’t go wrong.
An avid reader, my usual genres of choice range from historical to literary fiction, epic sagas and espionage and psychological thrillers as well as, obviously, books either set in Japan or written by Japanese authors. So, that gives me plenty of scope to hit, and usually exceed, my annual Goodreads challenge of 100 books. Not included on that list is either fantasy or science fiction but I will make an exception if there’s a crossover with one of my other genres of choice. Therefore, I recently read ‘Klara Under the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro a novel about Artificial Intelligence and in particular Artificial Friends or android. It was his first published novel since he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.
Kaz, or, to give him his full name and title, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro OBE FRSA FRSL, was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and moved to England with his parents when he was five years old. Now, a naturalized British citizen, he writes in English and much prefers to talk in my mother tongue rather than Japanese. His books range from post-war novels set in Japan (A Pale View of the Hills), to the fictional memoir of an English butler in a stately home (the Booker prize winner, ‘Remains of the Day’) to historical fantasy (A Buried Giant), to the more speculative works such as Never Let Me Go and now Klara Under the Sun. Despite my misgivings about the latter’s subject matter, the purity of his prose had me entranced from the beginning. Told through the eyes of Klara who is chosen from a shop window to be an Artificial Friend to Josie, it explores the developing relationships between Klara and her adoptive family. Suspenseful and at times emotional (yes, robots do have feelings), it’s easy to understand why the author has won some of the world’s top literary awards.
When he won the Nobel, Japanese TV news programmes interviewed residents of Nagasaki for their reaction. Few had read his books, which would have to be translated into Japanese in order for them to do so but most were proud that a native of their city had reached such literary heights.
Unlike Haruki Murakami, another Japanese author whose books I’ve read and thoroughly enjoy who is a long-term contender. Despite having had his books translated into many languages and being the recipient of many prizes, he’s always missed out on the ‘big one’ much to his fans’ disappointment. Although his best known books are probably the earlier ones such as ‘Wild Sheep Chase’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, one of my favourites is ‘Kafka on the Shore’.
Murakami is a great music fan. A former owner of a Jazz café, music often features in his writing, and as the day of the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature approaches, his fans ( known as Harukists) gather in Jazz bars waiting to celebrate the success of their hero, whilst bookstore owners prepare to stock the shelves only to have to put his books away until the next year. Divine help is also called upon, as some will visit the Hatanomori Hachiman shrine, tucked away in side street close to the National Stadium to pray for the result. Maybe, his next novel and his first for six years, the publication of which (theme and title unknown) has been announced for 13 April will prove to be the trigger that will bring him and his loyal band of fans the ultimate prize.
A modern day ninja waits for the message to call her into action:
But win or not, I shall certainly buy the English version once published as well as other novels written by a growing list of Japanese authors whose unique style is increasing in popularity and meeting my reading needs as well as filling my bookshelves.
“Greetings Grapple Fans!” was how commentator Kent Walton used to open ITV Sports’ wrestling programme on a Saturday afternoon, a must-watch for this teenage fan in the UK 50 years ago. From the Royal brothers tag team of Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner, to bad boy Mick McManus, the man they loved to hate, from the masked mystery of Kendo Nagasaki to Johnny Kwango, the head-butt specialist, everyone had their favourites. But perhaps the most iconic of this ‘sporting’ phenomenon were the massive Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree) and his erstwhile tag-team partner Giant Haystacks (Martin Ruane) both of whom I had the pleasure to see in a live tournament in London’s Royal Albert Hall in the late 1970s.
That was shortly before I was first sent to work in Japan. The UK’s grunters and groaners (both sound effects used to good dramatic effect), would not have gone down well in the more refined world of sumo wrestling where displaying emotion is not considered acceptable in this traditional martial art. But I soon grew to enjoy the six televised tournaments a year alternating between Tokyo and regional cities of Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. As well as learning about all the traditions and rituals that accompany the bouts; the techniques of pushing and thrusting or grabbing the opponent’s mawashi belt to force him either out of the ring or onto the floor; and the ranking system from the junior divisions through to the seniors, I got to know and appreciate some of the characters who graced the dohyo ring.
Not all the wrestlers were Japanese born and bred. One of the more personable was Hawaiian-born Takamiyama (Jesse Kuhaulua). At more than 200 kgs and with his trademark sideburns, he was instantly recognisable and not just to sumo fans. But it was in the ring that he achieved most fame by becoming the first foreign born rikishi wrestler to win a top division yuusho championship back in 1972.
Closer to home was Chiyonofuji (aka The Wolf) from the northern island of Hokkaido. At ‘only’ 126kgs, and 80kgs lighter than Takamiyama, he was one of the lighter wrestlers relying on his muscular frame and skill to achieve the top rank of Yokozuna grand champion at the age of 26. He held that position for a record 10 years. Following his retirement in 1989, he went on to join the ranks of the sumo elders, owning and running his own ‘stable’ or club.
Chiyonofuji was still around when I returned to Japan in 2011, 30 years after I first took an interest in the sport, and I often was able to see my hero when I, also semi-retired, started to attend tournaments and ceremonial events. But, sadly, the world of sumo lost one of its greatest stars when he died of cancer aged only 61.
Nowadays, the sport is dominated by wrestlers from Mongolia, none more so than Hakuho (actual name: Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal), who set plenty of records of his own (longest reigning yokozuna, most top division championship wins, most matches in a professional career) surpassing most of his own heroes and role models from which he became known as the King of the Ring. He retired just over a year ago and now runs his own stable as well as getting out to meet his fans and promoting the sport.
Like most sports which receive wide TV coverage, nothing is better than watching it live and in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to see a few tournaments as well as the ceremonial events such as the Yokozuna performing the entering the ring ceremony at Meiji shrine in the new year.
In Tokyo the tournaments are held three times a year in the Rygoku kokugikan stadium on the banks of the Sumida River.
A day out, especially pre-covid, involved turning up early to watch some of the junior division bouts and the rising stars; buying a bento lunch, from one of the many food and souvenir stalls, to eat in your seat, either a mat on the floor or a regular cinema style chair; enjoying the entering of the ring ceremonies as each wrestler is introduced to his fans; and hopefully seeing one of your favourites beating someone from a higher rank to register his suitability for promotion.
One develops favourites of course, and I follow the careers of some of the (eastern) European wrestlers who have become successful in recent years.
There can be up to four yokozuna grand champions at any one time. But currently, mongolian Terunofuji is the only to one to hold the rank, so he performs a solo entering the ring ceremony.
If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket for the final day of the tournament there will also be the climax of the trophy presentations to the winner who just happened to be Terunofuji.
But more than anything else, it’s a day which guarantees drama and good sportsmanship and an insight into this aspect of Japanese culture and tradition dating back more than 1300 years. So, sit back, and when the referee turns his gunbai, ceremonial fan, forward, Let Battle commence.
Part travel, part memoir, part cultural investigation but overall an exploration of the urban soul of Japan’s capital city while delving into my own psyche while walking the streets.
I’ve lived in Tokyo for about 15 years now. But do I really know the city? Probably not. Do I really know the people? Probably not. Do I really know the language? Definitely not. But I have scratched the surface of it all, and now is the time to dive deeper.
Quarantine, exile, solitary confinement, self-isolation. In these difficult days of the corona-virus we’re all being urged to cut ourselves off from human contact to avoid contagion and infecting others but at the same time to preserve our physical and mental health by taking exercise daily. In the UK family and friends were allowed one hour/day, but no such rules were laid down in Tokyo. But with pools and gyms closed during the State of Emergency and jogging while wearing a mask not conducive to free breathing, walking at a leisurely pace seemed like a good alternative.
Why ‘psycho’? Is this some horror story about stalkers? Certainly not. Is it Freudian-style attempt at self-analysis? Possibly. Is it an attempt to join the ranks of some of the great city walker-writers? Probably. Or is it a growing interest in psychogeography? Definitely.
Psychogeography – sometimes described as the ‘science(?) of walking/wandering aimlessly’. Iain Sinclair, one of the greatest modern proponents says that ‘drifting purposefully is recommended’. As such, psychogeography is not about walking with a pre-determined destination.
A flaneur is a composite figure – vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller – yes within these many and often contradictory roles, his pre-dominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is the basis of his legacy to psychogeography…soon the mental traveller(Ann Tso quoting from Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography)
In the introduction to ‘Psychogeography and Psychotherapy’, editor Chris Rose says that:
Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or a ramble; it is observant, analytic and self- reflective. Psychogeographers find unfamiliar routes… Walking appears to have an effect that is unrelated to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a treatment for depression’
James Kirkup in his book ‘Tokyo’ said ‘only by walking the streets can one really hope to know a city and its people’. So, during my retirement years, and certainly in the ‘social distancing’ era, I’ve done just that in the hope that I could get to know the soul of Japan’s capital. I’ve discovered parks, rivers, shrines and back-alley cafes and eateries that are not covered in the mainstream tour guides, and met some fascinating people.
And, by blogging about my experiences, I hope to offer to those with an interest in Japan and its capital city a personal insight and reflection on the place I have called my home for the last ten years.