It’s been a difficult year but I’ve been blessed with so much support from everyone in my life. I’d like to thank all those who have taken the time to say hello, visit my blog, read my books, or offer encouragement. Wishing you all the very best during the festive season as well as good health and happiness in 2022.
Living in the UK and missing Japan? An afternoon at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University should fill that void. When you enter the Tokyo: Art and Photography Exhibition, a bright pink panel of cherry blossoms greets you, stretching along the floor and up the walls, creating the perfect Instagram backdrop.
Step inside and Japanese graphic art, woodblock prints, samurai armour and swords, as well as videos and contemporary photographs will stimulate your senses as you travel through time from the 17th century to the present.
Some works are elegant, capturing Tokyo’s traditions with style and grace. Others are fun and frivolous like this work below photographed by Shinoyama Kishin featuring Chim↑Pom. The title is Love is Over (2014). Guests from the wedding of group member Ellie march into Tokyo’s business district, climb on top of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, and start a demonstration. Is this art, love, politics, private or public? The message is ambiguous.
I can only show you a selection of the works on display at this exhibition but there is so much more to appreciate so please visit if you can. I was really looking forward to seeing the woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige so I was delighted to see his ukiyo-e as soon as I entered and I’m thrilled to share them with you here.
Let me begin with Suruga Street featuring Mitsukoshi in 1856 on the left-hand side. This is Japan’s first and largest department store. It was originally called the Echigo-ya textile shop (越後屋). Suruga Street is renowned for its excellent view of Mount Fuji which is located 80 kilometres away. Hiroshige uses Western linear perspective to portray this shopping scene.
Another, just as popular, woodblock print by Hiroshige is next in the display. His Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge, Atake, 1857, is instantly recognizable thanks to the clever criss-crossing of grey lines seemingly scratching the scene as the townsfolk pull down their wickerwork hats to shield themselves from the pouring rain. Vincent van Gogh was so impressed by this print he copied it in oils.
If it’s beauty and drama that attracts you to art, you’ll fall in love with Hiroshige’s third woodblock print, The Drum Bridge at Yuhi Hill in Meguro. The glistening snow and snowflakes on the moonlit stone bridge are actually unprinted areas of paper that stand out thanks to the dark night and the cobalt blue river.
This stunning painting below in the style of the Toda School is by an anonymous painter but it’s a welcome and very attractive addition to the exhibition. This view of Edo portrays the Shogun’s castle at the back and the Sumida River in the middle. Samurai on horseback and simple folk wander around the city. The gold clouds are painted using traditional methods. Positioned at the top and the bottom they draw your eye towards the centre.
Fast forward to 1951 and Hayashi Tadahiko’s photographs provide real and hard-hitting documentation of Tokyo’s poverty in the post-war years. New housing developments, shops and entertainment venues crop up all over the city as Tokyoites try to forget the destruction of the past decade.
Turn the corner in the exhibition and you’re thrown back to the Edo period in a room dedicated to People. We’re reminded that Edo (old name for Tokyo) was populated with more than a million people in the 18th century and the artisans and merchants were dominated by warriors. This was a time for peace and the samurai were very appreciative of the arts. Their costumes represented aggression but their hearts were brimming with culture.
So many artists, writers and poets have expounded on the attractiveness and virtues of various Japanese women over the centuries. In Ito Shinsui’s Fireworks from his Second Collection of Modern Beauties a Japanese lady in kimono from the 1930s sits in a Western pose admiring the fireworks. Effortlessly elegant and relaxed, she enjoys a pastime most Japanese people relish. Like cherry blossoms, this summer tradition is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
Death Multi and Hollow Blue (both 2015) are by Murakami Takashi, one of the most famous pop artists in the world today. I certainly didn’t expect to see these two artistic endeavours and their morbid persuasion. His works are usually so exuberant, full of a certain joie de vivre. This sudden change of heart is representative of the rioters who spray paint the alleys and footpaths of Tokyo. Murakami says he has been influenced by natural catastrophes like the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and he has used the words “Death” and “Hollow” to symbolize harshness and emptiness and to remind us of human vulnerability.
Legendary photographer Moriyama Daido shares his slideshow and wallpaper at the end of the exhibition. Each grainy image he has taken over the last 50 years makes you stop and contemplate its meaning while you admire its appeal. He’s creative and dynamic as he provides thought-provoking visions of Tokyo and the people who live there, showing us characters and providing sounds that make this metropolis so compelling. “I just try to take as many photographs as possible to record the time in which I have lived” – Moriyama Daido.
But wait there’s more. Don’t leave the Ashmolean without checking out the gift shop. You won’t be disappointed. There’s the official Tokyo Art and Photography book, postcards, Suruga Street key rings, Tokyo Station tote bags, Tokyo magnets, Japan 2022 calendars, Hokusai diaries, Japanese boxed pencil sets, Japanese calligraphy washi sets, origami gold and silver necklaces, Liam Wong’s TO:KY:O art book, Nancy Singleton’s Japan The Cookbook and much, much more.
AND you can also buy a stunning Japanese woodblock print in the gift shop at a very reasonable price. . .
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Robert Whiting is a talented and fascinating writer addicted to Japan. He has lived and worked as a journalist in Tokyo on and off for more than fifty years. His memoir ‘Tokyo Junkie‘ begins in 1962 when Japan was transforming itself on a monumental scale in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. The pages in-between cover a plethora of captivating subjects relating to the capital and the colourful characters who live there, as well as his own experiences in the Land of the Rising Sun. His final thoughts dwell on the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 and the effects of Covid-19 on the Japanese people and the businesses that thrive on the streets and alleyways in Tokyo.
Whiting is a humble man, saying more than once he believes he lacks an understanding of the finer points of Japanese culture, for example tea ceremony, but this book proves he has an all-encompassing understanding of society, culture, politics, sport and religion in Japan. He writes on a variety of subjects including the prevalence of Shintoism and attitudes towards Christianity, giving examples of why Shintoism is so ingrained in everyday life. He describes the four seasons in Japan on page 206 with poetic charm and shares snippets of history to enthral the reader. On page 89, he explains: “The name Ochanomizu literally means “water for tea” and references the Kanda River from which water was extracted to make the shogun’s tea during the Edo period”. He also quotes haiku by Issa, the 18th-century poet, on page 25:
“ 酒好きの蝶なら来よ角田川 (If you’re a butterfly that likes to drink, come down here to the Sumida River).”
The above quote is one Whiting would appreciate more than most. He reveals he’s partial to a few drinks and he regularly makes an appearance at the Foreign Correspondence Club of Japan where he serves on the Board of Directors. He says BBC correspondent John Morris once described this place as “a waterfront sailors’ bar and a brothel” (pg. 321). However, Whiting points out the FCCJ is an ideal place for any writer, including himself, to source excellent writing opportunities and it’s the perfect club for networking with other journalists.
Whiting admits he finds himself drawn towards the “low end” of Tokyo when he’s not thinking of or writing about his favourite sport, baseball. He has always been intrigued by the sordid underbelly of city life and the seedy people who live, work and play there like the yakuza, gamblers and hostesses. He likes to write about illegitimate or quasi-criminal and fraudulent activities that lay just below the surface of polite society in Tokyo. This has landed him in trouble on more than one occasion. He almost became involved in dealing firearms with the yakuza and at times he has been afraid of being pushed in front of a train in a Tokyo subway station by a chinpira for offending a yakuza boss he mentioned in his other book ‘Tokyo Underworld‘!
Whiting’s love of Tokyo and the people who live there is ever-present in this book. He mentions everyone who has touched his heart and helped him when he needed it most, like the elderly lady who worked in the kiosk in front of Shibuya Station. She provided a bed and breakfast for him when he missed the last train home. Or Kazuhiko Kusaka-san who found him lodgings, acted as a rent guarantor, and escorted him around the temples, shrines and old-fashioned shops in his local area, helping him to assimilate into the Japanese way of life.
One minute Whiting is explaining sumo wrestling is a difficult sport with a long tradition and on the next page he’ll share a story about a romantic date like his involvement with a young girl called Chako, the daughter of an izakaya owner. But it’s his love for his wife Machiko that leaves the greatest impression. He writes about her with the utmost respect and fondness. He describes her as “educated, cultured and intelligent (pg. 195) . . . the beautiful, clear-eyed wife (pg. 369)” who refuses to move to New York because she wants to make it clear she’s interested in him and not his passport. His passion for Tokyo is also reiterated repeatedly. He loves “the honesty of the average Tokyo-ite (pg. 353) and he likes the way “Japan was a place where it simply wasn’t necessary to win every argument – or even argue at all, for that matter“ (pg. 287).
Whiting is a captivating writer. His style is void of unnecessary adverbs and superlative adjectives and he is direct, candid and sincere on every page. His descriptions of Tokyo make the reader want to move to this enticing capital or at least visit the city for an extended period. He says “I like the incredible energy, the activity, the politeness, the orderliness, the cleanliness, the efficiency, the trains that always arrive on time, the mix of neon lights, the charm, and the uniqueness of it all.” (pg. 77)
This book is like a multi-faceted diamond with each prism refracting a unique light on each subject at hand. In the past decade, many Westerners have visited Japan as tourists and it has become one of the world’s most popular destinations. Tokyo is now home to more than 500,000 foreigners. Many people strive to understand the real Japan. They give up realising there are so many layers to the culture and levels in society and it would take years to fully comprehend. In less than 400 pages, Whiting’s memoir provides the answers to the many questions that need answering in order to understand the Japanese and their customs. This is possible because he opened his heart to the Japanese people and their culture many years ago when he was stationed in Japan, unlike most of his fellow soldiers. This is a brilliant memoir, I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Whiting’s books in the future.
Thanks for visiting my Cherry Blossom Stories Blog!
In Japan, cherry blossoms represent the fleeting nature of life which is characteristic of many Japanese traditions. Their striking beauty appears, lasts for a couple of weeks, then swiftly fades away.
The transient nature of the cherry blossoms teaches us to appreciate and celebrate our time on this magnificent planet. This sensitivity towards ephemera is called mono no aware (物の哀れ) in Japanese. I think this is a very interesting theme and I've tried to weave it into my novels and short stories. You may have also noticed cherry blossoms are a key feature on the cover of all my books.
I try to post at least once every couple of months and I usually write about Japan, especially Tokyo. I will share with you my thoughts on Japan-related fiction as well as a variety of other subjects linked to the Land of the Rising Sun. I also feature exclusive interviews and articles on well-known people who are movers and shakers in Japan and I run competitions now and again, giving you the chance to win signed copies of my books and other cool prizes!
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Buy the Books
If you love Japan and the Japanese culture you'll really enjoy Tokyo Hearts, Tokyo Tales, and Tokyo 2060.