Review of “The Widow, The Priest and The Octopus Hunter” by Amy Chavez

“On this island, I have sat in the eye of a typhoon, seen how octopus are hunted, learned to dance under the moonlight, and wandered like the poet Basho on an ancient pilgrimage trail. I’m still content to watch lavender-colored sunsets from Shiraishi Beach in bare feet rather than a posh restaurant atop a grand building.” — Amy Chavez (The Widow, The Priest and The Octopus Hunter:” p. 213)

So many books have been written about Japan. Still, very few delve deeply into its cultural core to reveal the secrets the Japanese pass on from one generation to the next. Amy Chavez shares these hidden elements in her latest work of non-fiction. Readers can absorb and appreciate the memories and history of the inhabitants of Shiraishi, an island in the Seto Inland Sea where she has lived for 25 years. This eloquent wordsmith joins the ranks of prominent writers and Japanologists such as Donald Keene and Lafcadio Hearn with the publication of her book The Widow, The Priest and The Octopus Hunter. This is a collection of 31 portraits offering immense cultural value. It’s beautifully written and the interviewees are fascinating, endearing, wise but humble, and intrinsically Japanese.

All seven elements of culture: social organisation, language, customs and traditions, religion, the arts, forms of government, and economic systems are explored within the pages of this book. However, at no point or on any page does it read like a schoolbook or textbook. Although, students would be thrilled to scrutinize the passages on ghosts, a death by fugu puffer fish, and human sacrifices!

Shiraishi Island has just 430 inhabitants with an ageing population. The young have moved to larger islands or mainland cities like Osaka and Tokyo because “iconoclastic children and grandchildren value convenience over tradition” (p. 127). Even the local temple has become more of a hermitage rather than a place for people to gather because of depopulation. The schools are closing because of the lack of children. This is a significant loss because their events brought people together and strengthened community ties. There’s no hospital and the doctor only visits the island twice a week. The elderly who still live on the island are afraid of becoming muenbotoke, an abandoned spirit, with no one to look after their graves (p. 97).

Many Westerners see Japan as the land of Sony TVs, Honda and Toyota automobiles, the birthplace of manga and anime, a country filled with beautiful temples like Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, and the grand metropolis that is Tokyo with the graceful Mount Fuji acting as a superb backdrop. Not many tourists think of visiting the islands like Shiraishi, a place full of culture with wonderful traditions like the sea ceremony, the insect festival, and the Obon festival when the islanders perform the Shiraishi Bon Dance. But this book by Chavez could facilitate a new way of thinking. Her description of the times she spends with her neighbours during the sakura season is very appealing and after reading such lovely prose others may feel inclined to visit or move to the island:

“Soon, the cherry trees will blossom and we’ll sip sake under their boughs. Someone will bring a guitar and we’ll all sing, and maybe even dance under the trees while perfect pink petals rain down upon us like snowflakes against the backdrop of the cerulean Seto Inland Sea.” (p. 222).

The stories and struggles in this book are interesting because the elderly all grew up experiencing island life. The Doll Maker, Okae, explains how there was no TV or any other form of entertainment when she was an adolescent, so they just talked and socialized for fun. The boys would practise yobai where they’d sneak into girls houses at night to fool around to keep themselves amused (p. 141).

When Tetsumi, a friend of Chavez and a gracious septuagenarian who runs the Otafuku inn, chats about her past she remembers the difficulties she faced with a fond sense of nostalgia. She tells Chavez there was little rice to go around, it wasn’t always grown in Japan, and even though the government distributed it, rice was scarce, and they had to make do with wheat and potatoes. They kept themselves busy just surviving. They had to carry tofu on bamboo poles on their shoulders over narrow mountain paths to the men who worked at the quarries for their lunch. People lived simply on fried food, tofu, and konnyaku. Even senbei rice crackers were sold individually. However, Tetsumi goes on to explain how the 1960s and 70s were more prosperous and people came to the island to stay at the inns and enjoy fresh sushi. The staff wore kimonos and sang enka songs but even then, jobs were scarce on the island and most people were either fishermen or farmers. These memories and the history of Shiraishi Island provide captivating stories for the reader to enjoy. Every account is distinctly unique and they’ll appeal to anyone who wants to explore a different side of Japan.

Chavez’s writing is personal but not purely subjective. She writes mainly of others with hints of her own life. This book proves she gives back to the community and integrates herself into island life wholeheartedly; breaking down the barriers one would expect for an outsider or murahachibu (those not accepted into the community). The photos in the hardback are a lovely and thought-provoking addition. Especially, the picture of Eiko sitting with the other war widows in front of the infamous Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where it’s believed the souls of Japan’s war dead reside. Her book is definitely worthy of 5-stars and it’s a welcome addition to the world of Japan-related literature written in English.

“The Widow, The Priest and the Octopus Hunter” by Amy Chavez is published by Tuttle Publishing. It’s available to buy on Amazon and from all good booksellers.

In Praise of Tokyo and Cherry Blossoms: Stunning Photographs by RK

The sakura season has arrived! It’s an honour for me to feature an awe-inspiring collection of cherry blossom and Tokyo pics taken by the award-winning Japanese photographer Ryosuke Kosuge, better known as RK (アールケー). Scroll down and marvel at his dynamic images then head over to Instagram to check out his portfolio @rkrkrk and you’ll see why he has more than 700k followers.

RK is a graphic designer, DJ, and photographer who is fast becoming one of the most influential artists of the decade. He’s recognised as one of the primary creators of the “dense” genre which focuses on intensity and density in urban life.

Top models, well-known rappers, and a stream of celebrities have posed for him on the streets of Tokyo. RK has also worked with major international brands and he gets DMs on social media from world-famous Japanese designers who fly him across the world for photoshoots. He has been interviewed by prominent magazines like GQ and his pictures, taken all over Japan and in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Singapore, are breathtaking.

Cherry Blossoms by RK

Sakura night light for Mount Fuji

Yamazakura cherry trees point the way for Fuji-sama pilgrims

Sakura illumination on a rural tea plantation

A weeping cherry tree frames the five-tier pagoda at Sensō-ji Temple

Reaching for the stars at Tokyo Skytree

Dreaming of cherry blossoms

Anyone for niku sushi in the moonlight under the cherry blossoms?

Raindrops fall gently on her wagasa umbrella in springtime

The transient nature of these falling petals reminds all of us to appreciate the here and now

A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and man cannot live without love

Timeless beauty

Cherry blossoms and eroticism in a yokocho alleyway

Tokyo by RK

Midnight battle at Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa

A ‘Sunshine Girl’ toasts Tokyo Tower

Hanging out with a Neo Tokyo explorer

Vinyl umbrella parade under a neon sky

Red blot on the Shibuya Shamble Crossing

Reckless abandonment on a pristine street in seedy Shinjuku

Feeling blue in Tokyo

Survivor Geek in Wonderland


Bird’s eye view of the tracks

Old and new school

Squinting on the kaleidoscopic escalator at Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku

Ojousama aspirations at Prada in Minami-Aoyama

Maximizing space in technicolour Japan-style

Snack bars galore

Time slip into the 1950s

Rashomon effect

Check out RK’s full portfolio on Instagram @rkrkrk. All photographs are © copyright 2022 Ryosuke Kosuge, RK.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2022! 🎅​🎉​🎁​🔔​🎄

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.

Highlights from the Tokyo: Art and Photography Exhibition at Oxford Uni’s Ashmolean

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. . .