A Delightful Short Story from The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonogan book coverI’m currently reading The Pillow Book, a 10th century Japanese diary from the Heian period. This book is a fascinating journal written by a poet and author called Sei Shōnagon, a court lady who served Empress Consort Teishi just over 1,000 years ago. Through her observations and musings, Shōnagon has provided incredible insight into court life at this time in Japan.

On pages 198-199 there’s a captivating short story within the book I thought everyone would enjoy reading because it’s just so charming. It also gives readers a fantastic example of why The Pillow Book is so well-known and very popular as a piece of literature and an important historical document.

The witty story below is very cleverly written and imaginative and the communications between the Chinese and Japanese emperors clearly make a statement about the political tension between Japan and China during the Heian period at the time of writing.

Please enjoy . . .
“Once upon a time there lived an Emperor who cared only for young people, and killed everyone once they turned forty. People fled and went into hiding in distant lands, and no one over forty was left in the capital. There was at that time a Captain, a brilliant and popular man, whose parents were both nearing seventy years of age. The parents were in terror for their lives, seeing that even people as young as forty were forbidden in the capital. But the Captain was a man of great filial piety. He declared that he couldn’t bear not to see them at least once a day, so rather than send them to live in a distant land he instead secretly dug a hole in the earth under his house, where he built a room. There he settled them, calling in constantly to see that all was well, and he gave out to the court and to the people at large that they had disappeared. Why should it have mattered to the Emperor as long as they stayed shut up in the house, I wonder? What a horrible age it must have been. The parents can’t have been from the upper echelons, with a Captain as a son. He was a very wise man, this Captain, a man of great knowledge, and though he was young he had a fine reputation and a most penetrating mind, so it seems the Emperor held him in the highest regard.

Now the Emperor of China was trying to get the better of this Emperor and seize his country, and he kept menacing him by engaging him in disputes and tests of knowledge. One day, he sent him a piece of planed wood about two feet long, beautifully sleek and shiny and rounded at the edges, with the question, ‘Which is the base and which is the head?’ There was no way of telling the answer to this, and the Emperor was greatly perplexed, but the Captain, feeling sorry for him in his quandary, secretly took the problem to his old father. ‘All His EmperorMajesty needs to do is go to a swift-flowing river, stand on the bank and throw the wood in sideways. The end that turns and heads downstream will be the top,’ his father instructed. The Captain then went to the Emperor and, pretending that the idea was his own, offered to carry out the plan. So he and his companions went and threw the wood into the river as instructed; they indicated the end that had turned downstream as the top, and sent it back to China, and apparently it was indeed correct.

On another occasion the Chinese Emperor sent two snakes of exactly the same length, roughly two feet long, with the question, ‘Which is male and which is female?’ This too was impossible to judge. Our Captain then went again to his father and asked what to do. ‘Line them up,’ said his father, ‘and put a straight stick against their tails. The one that doesn’t move its tail will be the female.’ The Captain went back to the palace and did just this, and sure enough one moved its tail and one didn’t, so they were marked accordingly and sent back.

A long time passed, and then the Chinese Emperor sent a tiny twisted jewel which had seven curves and a central hole running through it, and an opening at the two ends. ‘Thread this and return it to me,’ was the instruction. ‘We can all do this here.’ All the court nobles and senior courtiers, and everybody else as well, declared that even the cleverest craftsman would be defeated by this task. So the Captain went again to his father and told him the problem. ‘Catch two large ants,’ the old man said, ‘tie a thin thread round their abdomens, then attach a slightly thicker thread to this. Then smear the other end of the jewel with honey.’ The Captain passed this advice on to the Emperor, then followed the instructions, and when the ants were put into the hole they smelt the honey, and emerged from the other end in no time. When the threaded jewel was sent back to the Chinese Emperor, he acknowledged that Japan was indeed a clever country, and never did such things again.

The Emperor was deeply impressed with the Captain’s sagacity, and inquired what he could do for him or what rank he wished to receive as a reward. The Captain replied, ‘I wish for no rank or title. I only beg that my old parents who have hidden themselves away be discovered and allowed to live in the capital again.’ ‘Nothing could be simpler,’ the Emperor replied, and he forthwith decreed that they could return. When all the other aged parents learned of this, they too were overjoyed. The Emperor elevated the Captain to court noble and made him Minister.”

The translation of The Pillow Book by Meredith McKinney definitely brings the journal to life so if you like the short story above you’re bound to enjoy the rest of the book which is available in paperbook or eBook from Amazon.

My review of The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon will be published on the Savvy Tokyo website in June, 2017.

21 Enchanting Cherry Blossom Quotes from The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji or 源氏物語, Genji Monogatari in Japanese is a very famous book written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting called Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period (794 to 1185). Every Japanese person has read at least a part of this book and studied it at some point in their lives but it’s also been recognised as a valuable and significant piece of literature in the West and it’s often included on the reading list for Japanese studies at universities overseas.

Sakura at Nishi Koen, Chou-Ku, Fukuoka-Shi, Japan, April 2004.
I read the translation by Royall Tyler and I can say, hand on heart, The Tale of Genji is the most romantic book I’ve ever read. Not only that, every story within the story was an absolute pleasure to read despite the fact this book has 1,224 pages. If you’re wondering whether this book is worth reading, I can promise you this world-renowned literary masterpiece will gently caress your imagination and carry you away to a time and a place where both your mind and your soul will be equally charmed and enchanted.

Genji

I consider myself to be a 桜人 (sakurabito), an old word that became popular in the 11th century to describe people who love cherry blossoms, so you can imagine just how much the poems and the descriptions of cherry blossoms and plum blossoms throughout the book really appealed to me.

Cherry blossoms represent the transient nature of life. Unfortunately, my father passed away from mesothelioma (a type of cancer caused from exposure to asbestos) in his mid-fifties, so I learned at an early age that death is inevitable, life is very precious and we need to appreciate our short time on this beautiful Earth. Cherry blossoms are a fleeting joy and many of the themes throughout The Tale of Genji are an example of this bittersweet impermanence. This reflection on passing whims and placing value on what is really important to us certainly gives you pause for thought.

The perfect time to read these cherry blossom quotes would be at a hanami party (cherry blossom viewing party) with friends as you sip on plum wine or sake, eat Japanese delicacies and look up at the surrounding blossoms.

I really hope you enjoy each one of the cherry blossom and plum blossom quotes below and if they appeal to you as much as they captivated me then please read my review of The Tale of Genji on the Savvy Tokyo website.

1. “The cherry blossom season was over, but two of His Excellency’s trees must have consented to wait, for they were in late and glorious bloom.”

Lovely sakura

2. “Mist trailed through a garden pale beneath thinning branches, to merge here and there with the blossoms and yield a scene more beautiful than any autumn night.”

3. “Quite apart from these weighty hopes of mine, I should like to indulge in the pleasures of the seasons—the blossoms, the autumn leaves, the changing skies. People have long weighed the flowering woods in spring against the lovely hues of the autumn moors, and no one seems ever to have shown which one clearly deserves to be preferred. I hear that in China they say nothing equals the brocade of spring flowers, while in Yamato speech we prefer the poignancy of autumn, but my eyes are seduced by each in turn, and I cannot distinguish favorites among the colors of their blossoms or the songs of their birds. I have in mind to fill a garden, however small, with enough flowering spring trees to convey the mood of the season, or to transplant autumn grasses there and, with them, the crickets whose song is so wasted in the fields, and then to give all this to a lady for her pleasure.”

4. “How poorly mere words convey the exquisite beauty of the gardens of his ladies! The one before the spring quarter, where the scent of plum blossoms mingled with the fragrance within the blinds.”

5. “While the blossom-scented evening breeze at last coaxed the plums in Genji’s garden into bloom”

6. “Willows trailed bright green fronds and blossoms cast ineffable perfumes upon the air. The cherries that were gone elsewhere smiled here in all their beauty, and the wisteria twined about the galleries opened into deep-hued clusters”

7. “Over grape-colored gathered trousers he wore a cherry blossom train-robe, very long behind, and the easy poise of his bearing left a brilliant impression. Meanwhile, His Grace of Rokujō in a cherry blossom dress cloak of light Chinese twill over a plum-red gown, displayed a casually imperial grace more indescribable than ever.”

8. “She made a figure so beautiful and so perfect in size that she seemed to perfume all the air around her and, to express it in terms of flowers, to put even cherry blossoms to shame.”

Heian kimono. Photo courtesy of The Kyoto Project

Heian kimono. Photo courtesy of The Kyoto Project

9. “A sprinkling of snow fell to confirm that spring was not far away and plum buds swelled on the bough.”

Snowy cherryblossom

10. “When mist prettily veiled the trees in flower and others yet to bloom, a warbler appeared in that favorite red plum tree, singing splendidly”

11. “Elsewhere the single-petaled cherry blossoms fell, the doubles faded, mountain cherries bloomed, and the wisteria colored, but she had known precisely which flowers blossom early and which late, and she had planted them accordingly for their many colors, so that in her garden they all yielded their richest beauty in their time.”

 

 

12. “O that I had sleeve enough to cover the wide sky! No wind should then take the flowers that blossom in spring.”

13. “There are flowers on my cherry tree! I will not let them fall, ever! We must put up a curtain all round them—that way the wind will not get at them!” the little Prince announced very proudly. The sweet look on his face made Genji smile. “That is a much better idea than trying to find someone with sleeves wide enough to cover the sky,”

14. “It is true, as they say, that the blossoms of spring are all the more precious because they bloom so briefly.”

15. “Beneath a sky veiled far and wide by the mists of spring, some cherry trees were shedding their petals while others were just coming into bloom, and one admired along the river a lovely prospect of wind-tossed willows reflected in the stream. His Highness of War, unaccustomed to such sights, was struck with wonder and found the scene very hard to leave.”

cherry blossom branch

16. “He ordered a beautifully flowering branch picked and had it presented by a handsome privy page in his service. The note said, “I have come to you seeking in all their beauty mountain cherry flowers, and I myself have plucked a spray to set in my hair.”

17. “The blossoms were at their height, and the spring haze made a lovely view in all directions, inspiring them to compose verse after verse in Chinese and Japanese;”

18. “How I should love just to be with you always like this, enjoying with one heart the moon or the blossoms and sharing observations on this passing world.”

plum blossom

19. “Yes, the cherry trees put this truth very plainly: none of the glory of blossoms and autumn leaves lasts long in this fleeting world.”

20. “The red plum in the garden was so lovely in color and scent that even the warblers seemed unable to pass by without a song,”

21.“Soon all will be gone, who loved them, and leave to storms this mountain village where the plum tree in full bloom with its scent calls back the past.”

 

 

5 Japanese Values Westerners Could Adopt

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draw closer, Japan and the Japanese culture are garnering more and more attention in the West. Lots of students are learning Japanese at school and university, many young people enjoy reading manga or watching anime, others like to practise martial arts, and Japanese restaurants are opening in cities all over the world because everyone wants to eat delicious and healthy Japanese food.

The desire to visit Japan is often an extension of what young people have enjoyed growing up and they’ve developed their passion for Japan even further through social media channels. But why do so many people rave about Japan and why do so many Westerners decide to stay and live in this country for many years when the culture and the language are so different from their own? The answer may simply be their appreciation of Japanese values and how these values impress Westerners who spend time in Japan, even if they’re just visiting the country for a couple of weeks as a tourist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are five values deeply ingrained into Japanese society. Each value makes an important contribution to the Japanese culture and everyone’s day-to-day life in Japan. Although some Japanese people would argue you need to be Japanese to truly appreciate these values, it’s still possible for Westerners to try and adopt them or simply acknowledge them in order to improve their communication skills and to cope in their daily lives. These principles and moral standards can also help Westerners to understand their own culture and why people behave in a certain way in their home country.

1. Mottainai (waste not, want not) deals with waste without regret. This Japanese word is gaining international recognition, partly due to the very popular children’s book Mottainai Grandma by Mariko Shinju, a bilingual book that teaches children to be resourceful and to think about the impact waste has on the universe.

One way stores and companies in Japan are adopting mottainai is by upcycling products and turning them into covetable items with market appeal. The NHK World TV program Tokyo Eye 2020 recently featured a retailer called Seal Omotesando Honten. This fashion and apparel shop upcycles scrapped tire inner tubes and turns them into stylish and unique men’s bags and accessories.

Hopefully, this company’s success will encourage other Western entrepreneurs and well-known companies to look at different ways to upcycle and rethink waste in the future in countries outside of Japan.

Seal Omotesando Honten in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of NHK World TV.

Seal Omotesando Honten in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of NHK World TV.

2. Omoiyari is to notice and be considerate of others. I was really impressed by the kindness I received from the Japanese people when I taught English in Japan. When I was ill my students brought me medicine and made me delicious and healthy meals, my Japanese friends organized parties and hilarious karaoke nights when I was lonely and missing home, and strangers went out of their way to help me when I lost my way and I couldn’t find my destination. I can remember one Japanese lady I asked randomly in the street for directions in Ginza who actually led me to an eikawa school I couldn’t find, even though it took ten minutes out of her time. What struck me the most was the fact she was delighted to do this and she showed no signs of frustration or exasperation.

 Sadly, I was working in an office in the UK and a young man in his early twenties on our team had unfortunately had an accident playing sport and he’d broken his leg. The doctor had told him his leg would probably need to be amputated. Three days a week, he’d arrive at work and only two other people on our team of twenty would ask him how he was feeling or show any concern, even though he would limp into work on crutches for several months looking utterly defeated.

Westerners are often accused of being confrontational and competitive. Obviously, we need to stand up for the values we believe in but we should embrace omoiyari and take more time to think of others. It’s actually very rewarding to reach out to others and help them if you can. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, it just needs to come from the heart. Even a friendly smile could make someone’s day!

3. Honne vs. tatemae are true feelings versus opinions and behavior we express in public. Westerners sometimes complain about the way Japanese people use tatemae or wear a mask to hide their true feelings in order to cover up their honne or real feelings and how this can be frustrating and leave a person feeling isolated and confused. However, some Japanese people say Westerners could benefit from using more tatemae in their lives and less honne. Just consider some of the reality programs dominating TV these days in Western countries. I’m sure you’ll agree some Westerners really need to rein in their opinions and stop flaunting themselves physically and emotionally on television for the whole nation to see.

Western celebrities in the public eye who may have been praised in the past can be condemned to obscurity because of criticism and miscommunication on social media. If we were to express more positive honne and show more tatemae when we feel negative toward someone or something, especially on public forums, maybe life wouldn’t be so difficult for everyone, especially the young who sometimes feel very vulnerable when they’re online in a world where there are no boundaries.

4. Omotenashi – The Japanese company Kanebo Cosmetics defines omotenashi on their website as “the Japanese way of treating a guest. It blends a welcoming spirit with warmth, understanding, and above all respect. The concept is all encompassing.” We’ll certainly see this word omotenashi used a lot more in the media in the run up to the 2020 Olympics, although this interpretation of Japanese hospitality can sometimes be overused and written out of context. Nevertheless, omotenashi is definitely one of the values many tourists will appreciate and remember after they’ve visited Japan.

Omotenashi Japan

Retailers and restaurateurs from countries all over the world could benefit from a visit to Japan to develop a better understanding of omotenashi which they could customize to improve the customer service experience at their own establishments in their home countries.

 

 

5. Iki is inherently a stylish and fashionable aesthetic that represents everyday Japan. This value became popular in the late eighteenth century with the middle and lower classes during the Edo period, but it’s still an active part of the Japanese vocabulary today.

Books by Haruki Murakami are said to embody the spirit of iki. His characters and plot structures are transparent and straightforward, his writing style is neither poetic nor full of underlying themes, and there’s an obvious appreciation of natural beauty and behavior.

Kuki Shūzō was the first person to publish a comprehensive study of iki in The Structure of “Iki” (Iki no kōzō) in 1930. This research indicated iki has three elements: sensual allure, pride, and a sophisticated indifference toward one’s own attractiveness and capabilities in every aspect of life.

It’s not easy to apply iki to the Western world but one woman who comes close to representing this value is Kate Middleton before she became a royal. Her hair and makeup were always Kate Middletonnatural, she had the everyday qualities that attracted Prince William, she had a slim physique, her style was never garish, superficial or coarse, she was neither common nor overly transcendental, and her sensual allure was always understated and discreet. All these attributes personify the principles associated with iki. Many Western and Japanese mothers would probably be very proud to have a daughter who behaves and looks like Kate Middleton in their private and public life.

Simple Japanese Party Food and Drinks!

It’s mid-winter and very cold outside so it’s a great time to have a Japanese themed party with your friends inside a warm home. I live in the UK so everything in this blog post is available from the Japan Centre in London. You’ll be able to pick up most of these ingredients at your local supermarket or convenience store if you live in Japan. Whether you live in Japan or your home country, make sure you invite all your Japanese friends. They’ll love all the drinks and snacks on offer at your party. I think it’s important to stick to popular and much-loved favourites to make sure everyone enjoys the food.

Drinks

There are lots of different drinks available in Japan but I think sake might be a bit strong for this kind of party so I’m recommending some lighter drinks. If you want to stick with the more popular beers buy a few bottles or cans of Kirin Ichiban Shibori Lager or Asahi Super Dry. I recommend umeshu (plum wine) for your guests who like sweeter alcoholic drinks, and Calpis or Melon soda for the kids.

KirinAsahiTakara plum wineMelon soda

 

 

 

 

 

Sushi

Every good Japanese themed party should have a selection of sushi but this can be time-consuming and fiddly to make. Don’t worry, there’s a simple alternative: Salmon and tuna nigiri sushi are much easier to make than temaki and maki sushi. Watch this short instructional video by The Telegraph and you’ll have your nigiri sushi ready in about half-an-hour. Don’t forget to add 1 tablespoon of sushi rice vinegar to 250 grams of freshly cooked short grain steamed rice for an authentic taste.

Japan offers an incredible selection of savoury and sweet snacks you can buy in stores, from vending machines, and at train station kiosks all over the country and you can see a lot of these delicious delights have definitely been influenced by the Western world. The selection below is mostly old favourites you can buy in Japan but there are also some really tasty treats on the list you can get at the Japan Centre, such as the green tea & atzuki bean swiss roll and the cream breads. There are also lots of different variations of Pretz and Pocky in Japan. Almond Crush Pocky has been a firm favourite since its introduction in 1971 so I definitely had to include it here. Kitkats are obviously available worldwide but I recommend the matcha (green tea) version if you want to stick with the Japan theme.

I hope you enjoy all the scrumptious food in this blog post at your Japanese themed party. If you want to make your party even more authentic why don’t you greet your guests at your front door in a kimono? Don’t be afraid to encourage everyone to dress up and have fun!

Savoury Snacks

1. Wasabi peas
2. Pretz Tomato Pretzel Sticks
3. Nori Seaweed Rice Crackers
4. Nuts Aji Gonomi Savoury Mixed Snacks

wasabi peas

Pretz tomato

seaweed snacks

nuts savoury

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Snacks

1. Pocky almond crush
2. Panda Chocolate cream biscuits
3. Meiji Kinoko No Yama (mountain mushroom shape) Chocolate Biscuits
4. Lotte Koala’s March Chocolate Cream Biscuits
5. Japan Centre Green Tea and Azuki Bean Swiss Roll
6. Japan Centre Hello Kitty Character Chocolate Cream Bread
7. Totoro cream bread
8. Matcha (green tea) kitkat

pocky-almond-crush

meiji-hello-panda-chocolate

meiji-kinoko-no-yama-mushroom-biscuits

koalas-march-chocolate

matcha-azuki-swiss-roll-side

Hello Kitty Bread

Totoro bread

kitkat-share-pack