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Maritime Ryukyu


Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

Six Weeks in Istanbul

A view of the Istanbul skyline from the top of Galata Tower.

Having finally finished my posts about my Japan travels in summer 2018, I can now move on to talking about what I did with the rest of the summer. I know all of this makes it seem like I’m doing so much traveling, and I guess I have been; but since the summer it really has been mostly just buckling down and working. And a few conferences here and there.

Istanbul is a fantastic city, much like a dozen other places I would love to visit or try living in, from Dublin to Copenhagen to Brussels to Amsterdam to Berlin to half a dozen places scattered across the Balkans. It’s no Kyoto. I find myself much more comfortable, much more in my element in a certain sense in a place like Kyoto than Istanbul – not just because of logistical conveniences like the fact that I know the language and the culture better, but also because this is a culture which for the better part of the last 20 years has spoken to me. Walking along the Kamogawa, hearing shamisen music, seeing wooden machiya, makes me smile makes me happy in a way that the Istanbul equivalent does not. It’s just not my thing, in the same way as Japan doesn’t spark that similar excitement in my girlfriend, who studies Turkish music and who loves Istanbul.

But, all of that said, I loved living in Istanbul, and I miss in particular the experience of constantly learning new things. Living in a city I never expected to even visit, I learned a handful of words in Turkish, learned about foods and places and all kinds of things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. And now I can come back here to my life in the US, and bring back a certain bit of knowledge, experience, which I never had before.

I also love the feeling, or the idea, of having favorite restaurants in faraway cities. Living in the Cihangir neighborhood, we had several of the best breakfast places in the city right at our fingertips. Van Kahvalti Evi is probably the best, but we went a number of times to places like Kahve 6* and Cuppa Cafe as well, all within super close walking distance. Though I never really took full advantage of it, it would have been an excellent neighborhood, too, for just picking cafes to sit and do dissertation work in; I did that a couple of times at a cafe called Journey, one called Kronotrop, and also at a chain place called Espresso Lab once on Istiklal (one of the most main shopping boulevards in the city).

Breakfast at Cuppa Cafe, including menemen (eggs w/ tomato & pepper), fried eggs, vişne reçeli (sour cherry jam), nutella, acuka (a spicy pepper paste), bal kaymak (honey and clotted cream), several kinds of cheeses, cucumber, tomato, bread, pişi (fried dough), and of course çay (tea). Not pictured: tahin pekmez (tahini + grape molasses).

I guess before I go on I should talk about Turkish breakfast. I happened upon an article recently, long after coming back to the States from Turkey, which said something like “Turkey has the best breakfast in the world, hands down.” And I think it’s true. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed a nice tea and crumpets on my last trip to London (to be discussed in an upcoming blog post); somehow despite living in London for a whole year (way back in my very early grad school days), I somehow never discovered the wonders of jam and clotted cream and a good cuppa. … And I’m plenty happy with the kind of breakfasts I scrounge together for myself when I’m in Japan – most often, steamed buns or egg salad sandwiches or something like that from the convenience store; really, more like lunch food I guess than “breakfast,” but so it goes. But in Turkey we were enjoying a real proper breakfast – basically, the experience of a nice Sunday brunch in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but affordable, and every day. Kahvaltı (lit. “before coffee”) just means “breakfast,” but kahvaltı tabağı (“breakfast platter”) means eggs, several kinds of cheeses, some nice cut-up tomatoes and cucumbers, at least one kind of jam (I think the vişne / sour cherry is my favorite), clotted cream + honey (bal kaymak), and a mixture of tahini and grape molasses (tahin pekmez), along with plenty of bread to eat it all with, and at many places, free refills of Turkish tea (çay). We also often ordered menemen, a dish made chiefly of eggs, tomatoes, and bell peppers. So damn good.

We also discovered a chain called Midpoint which had surprisingly excellent pasta – like, seriously, amazingly amazingly good, not to mention nice atmosphere and a cool menu. Midpoint is like one of those fancy restaurants you might want to go to at the shopping mall but never do because it’s too expensive.

Galata Tower. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, roughly a century before the Ottomans (Turks) took the city. And it’s still standing and looking beautiful.

I have to admit, I do think that a lot of the appeal of Istanbul for me came from the fact that it was so affordable. Because of basic purchasing power parity (it’s a poorer country, and so things are cheaper there overall; the US dollar, or Euro, or British pound, goes a long way) and all the more so because the Turkish lira tanked while we were there, going from roughly 4.5 lira to the dollar to closer to 7 more or less overnight, we could live so much more comfortably than we ever could here in the States. Living in a nice apartment, going out to nice cafes and restaurants all the time, and not having to worry too much about how much we were spending… It wasn’t pennies a day by any means, and it’s not like we were absolutely living like kings, but to be honest, just sort of living the nice sort of “young people in the city” sort of life that so many TV shows and movies have taught us should be within reach (look at, for example, the kind of apartments people live in on Friends or New Girl, or in movies like Julie & Julia). Clothes were suddenly what I would consider a normal reasonable price – closer to $15-20 per shirt or pair of pants, for example, instead of $60-100. And it just means getting to spend time in the nicer parts of town, like Beşiktas and Nişantaşı, and, again, trying out nice cafes like Yeşil no 11, and buying new (knock-off) Birkenstocks without having to spend hundreds of dollars on them. It also means that little nice features of life, like getting your clothes tailored or your shoes or luggage repaired, suddenly becomes affordable enough (more than affordable! actually, really quite inexpensive indeed) that you can do those things. And order a drink, appetizer, salad, and/or dessert with dinner without constantly constantly feeling like you need to hold back and watch your spending like I do at home.

But, I feel bad for thinking that that alone should be the reason I should love Istanbul. I mean, it’s a great thing for living a decent cosmopolitan life to be affordable. But I don’t want to think that I didn’t or don’t love the city for its own distinctive culture and history as well… But, while I sort of waver and worry on that point, I think overall I’m safe. I’ve been to Morocco and Jakarta (Indonesia) as well in the last couple of years, and while things may be more affordable there, I really can’t imagine enjoying living there for any real length of time, unlike in Istanbul.

The view from our apartment in Cihangir. Photo courtesy of my partner.

I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I am not really sure what kind of experience I might have had if I had gone to Istanbul by myself. I’m not sure what kind of experience I would have if I went back there again by myself. So much of what I enjoyed about the city was because I was with my girlfriend, who had been in the city for about two months already by the time I got there, was studying Turkish, and is super into and knowledgeable about Turkish music and a whole lot else; I don’t think I would have ventured into nearly as many bookstores, CD stores, music venues, without her. More to the point, I just don’t think I would have had any idea where to look to go, where to try to go. If I had for some reason found myself in Istanbul without ever having gone with her – like, if I had never met her but then ended up going to a conference in Istanbul, for example, I don’t know that I would have ventured much past the most standard tourist sites. I certainly never would have experienced the city as fully as I have now, after living there for six weeks. I wonder what it would be like if I were to go back again on my own – certainly I have a stronger sense for myself now of a lot more of the neighborhoods and such, beyond just the touristy parts, and I have some sense of which shops and which brands to look for, which foods I like, and so forth; how to get around by subway, bus, and ferry boat; and a very few key words of Turkish (which, who knows how long I’ll still remember…). But even so, traveling alone is so different than having someone to go shopping with, to go to breakfast and dinner with, and so forth. To go on errands, as it were, seeking out a tailor, or the best cheapest produce, or other things… A certain way of exploring and experiencing a city that’s quite different from being there as a tourist. And so much of the book, CD, and clothes shopping was for her – though some was definitely for me. I wonder, if I were to go back, would I be able to feel I was getting anything out of going into some of these shops, or would it just feel empty?



*Kahve 6, or Coffee Six, kahve altı in Turkish, being something of a wordplay, since it sounds so close to kahvaltı, meaning “breakfast.”

A folding screen in the home of art collector Alex Kerr. I’m not sure exactly how it’s lit, but notice how the gold shines; it’s easy to imagine how this might have helped brighten a room when only natural light or candles were available.

In a recent article in the Nikkei Asia Review, Michael Dunn proposes that the lighting in Japanese museums is inexplicably arranged poorly, deadening the textures and reflectiveness of works and casting aspects of their shapes into shadow.

As he writes, Japanese art and design can be fascinating and enchanting in its myriad forms, from handscrolls and hanging scrolls to the most modern and postmodern designs. But that, according to him,

visitors to the country’s many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces.

At the core of his argument would seem to be simply that works are regularly lit from above and not from the side, despite the fact that traditional works were nearly always designed to be lit by incidental sunlight or fire-light from the side and not from overhead, and despite the fact that they would look better that way (in terms of the way the gold-foil would catch the light, etc.). I’ll be honest, I never paid attention really to how works were lit; definitely something to start thinking about. But I did notice when visiting the Getty Museum recently here in LA how much the gold accents in their illuminated manuscripts shone, so much more brightly and more noticeably than in most other exhibits I’ve seen. Lighting or other factors were used very successfully to highlight the presence of such features. I also remember photographing Japanese woodblock-printed books as an intern at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, and how we used various camera angles and other techniques to capture the reflectiveness of mica, silver, and other materials on the pages, which would not otherwise show up in photographs, making the attractiveness of these works more directly visible to (digital) viewers.

I’m kind of amazed that a publication like Nikkei Asia Review would publish such a one-argument article on such a technical, niche, sort of issue.But I’m certainly interested to read such things, as I have long been interested in these sorts of museum-world considerations. Dunn goes on to complain that whenever he has brought up this issue with Japanese curators, they have simply insisted that their lighting system was state of the art – the implication being that they either don’t understand why there should be any problem with lighting things in this way, or that they’re dodging the question.

Screen painting of Nagasaki harbor, at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). I have no idea if this is the best example, or how exactly this was lit, but notice how the gold seems flat, not shining at all. Perhaps this is what Dunn is talking about.

I think there’s a deeper and potentially quite interesting history to be uncovered here, which is going unspoken in this article. To what extent do display practices today in Japanese museums stem from the development over the last 120+ years or so of a particular modern tradition of museum practices, which is then adhered to? Regardless of how they were made, displayed, and viewed in the past, in the modern era it has come to be its own “tradition” that museum professionals always display folding screens /this/ way, and ceramics /that/ way, because that’s the right way, the professional way, the proper way, that museums do it. Something like that? And to what extent, I wonder, does this stem from the infiltration of Western ideas (or Japanese notions of/about Western ideas) of how art is to be displayed or appreciated?

One of the tokonoma at LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion, using natural light filtered through shoji screens to light the paintings. Not the most attractive photo, but…

In any case, with the example of gold-accented or gold-foil-backed paintings, “intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight — a magical property of gold — through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night,” there’s a give-and-take to be had, always. On the one hand, yes, lighting them more minimally so that the gold really shines, giving an impression of how they might have looked historically, is one way to go about it. Joe Price played some major role in having the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed to do just that. At LACMA, Japanese paintings are hung in (a modern stylized version of) the traditional tokonoma, and they are lit at least in part by sunlight filtered through white paper shôji screens. And it really is incredible to see such paintings in situ, at temples and palaces, to get a sense of how the artworks actually interacted with the space and with the people in it. This is part of what I love about certain works by Tim Screech, William Coaldrake, and others, who talk not just about the paintings themselves, their style, their composition, but about how works interacted with the environment around them. How they were used. To give one example, how fusuma and byôbu arranged behind or around a shogun or other lord within his audience halls augmented the sense of his prestige. But, this is an art museum, and as aesthetically impactful and intellectually meaningful as it would be to portray such things in limited lighting or even in an architecturally loyal manner, there will also be a great many visitors – from the most casual tourists to professional art historians – who will want to see the works as well-lit as possible, in as much detail as possible, so that they can appreciate the style, composition, and aesthetics otherwise of the object itself, in as fully visible a manner as possible.

I think that in museum display in general – whether in Japan or anywhere in the world – there is a balance to be struck between aesthetic impact (displaying things with a focus on their striking beauty) and other modes of display which might highlight the historical or cultural context, or which allow visitors to see the work more fully. There will always be multiple ways in which an object can be shown – as an aesthetic object vs. a practical one; emphasizing its original historical context vs. its provenance (the history of which/whose collections it’s been in); as a practical object vs. a religious/sacred one; as an object unto itself vs. as a part of a whole or of a grouping; and so on and so forth. There will always be visitors, scholars, trustees, and other “stakeholders” as they say, who will always want it to be some other way, but decisions have to be made, and you can’t please everyone. But, you can certainly give it consideration; and while most museum visitors might not think about it, lighting is most certainly one of those considerations.

Running Around Japan: Kyoto

For the final week of my crazy jaunt around Japan this past summer, I enjoyed the privilege of taking part in a “graduate summer school” run by Kyoto University. It was a great program, introducing us to the university’s great collections, and presenting just a tiny glimpse into how archaeological research is done, how medieval documents are read, and so forth. I was certainly blown away by the items in the collection, the opportunity to see such things up close is always such a pleasure.

Still, I feel bad to say so, but while I think it would have been a fantastic program for students earlier in their programs, I’m at a stage right now where anything not directly related to helping me improve and finish the dissertation just doesn’t grab me right now. I must admit, I spent much of the week thinking about how “I could/should be working on my dissertation right now.” Especially after two weeks of just travel, even though that travel included archives and libraries, I was feeling guilty for not just buckling down and getting back to work. But, still, I’m very glad for this program as it (1) gave me an opportunity and excuse to spend a whole week in Kyoto, easily one of my most favorite cities in the world, and (2) allowed me to meet a whole lot of new people, make new friends/acquaintances/colleagues.

Yasaka no tô (Yasaka Pagoda), as seen from a small street near Ninenzaka.

At the end of it, I am sad to leave Kyoto. I had a really fantastic time. Even after all the rest of the traveling, I can tell that Kyoto, more so than Fukuoka or Kagoshima or Tokyo, is a place I could really enjoy being for a real length of time. I wish I had another week, or a year, to sit in cafes and just write, interspersed with going out to dinner with friends, going to theatre, visiting historical sites… I suppose that having friends around makes a whole lot of the difference, that that’s a part of what made this week in Kyoto so great. Without friends it wouldn’t be the same. But even so, it would still be such a wonderful city. I love exploring Kyoto, the shrines and temples and historical sites and cafes and restaurants and everything. I love the particular aesthetic and charm of so many Kyoto cafes. And I love how just historical and cultural everything is.. You can feel it, it’s in the air.

On my first trip to Kyoto, I remember writing in my LiveJournal (haha) that it was a small city with just enough of the modern city amenities. I remember that I was thinking in particular of Harajuku, and how you can in fact get cool fashion and other “modern” city experiences in Kyoto, but that it’s much smaller. That if you want the ultra-modern X, Y, and Z of Tokyo, you have to be in Tokyo. (Or Osaka, I suppose, but I still have never spent any time in Osaka). But, I’m not sure I feel the same way about Kyoto anymore. I know it’s because my interests have changed – I don’t need the anime stores of Ikebukuro anymore. And because Harajuku itself has changed, too. What once was, is no longer, even in Tokyo. Now, I’m more interested in history and culture and theatre and cute cafes and so on than I ever was before.

A view along the Kamo River.

I think I would really love to live in Kyoto for a year or so. Or even just for a few months. It’s not a city with too much direct relation to my research, unfortunately. So much talk all week about the Heian court and such… very far from my studies. But who cares, right? … And there are plenty of universities in Kyoto, hopefully one of them might be looking for a postdoc or something.

After this trip, I really do feel I could stay in Japan long-term. Maybe not indefinitely, make my whole life and career here. But certainly for a few years. It’s just such a good place to be, and with so much great stuff to see and do. Life is clean and good. It’s not dirty and falling apart like NY. It’s not a society pulling itself apart at the seams over politics like our own. Japan has its problems, to be sure, and in certain respects all the moreso as a foreigner. But sometimes I just really want, need, an escape from the insular, local, problems and politics of home. I feel like Kyoto is such a city of possibility. Not that one can’t say the same thing of any other big city, but there’s somehow something that just grabs me about Kyoto, that makes me feel like there is such a wealth of experiences to be had. That if you met the right people, made the right contacts, heard about the right opportunities, you could get into just so many incredible spaces and experiences. From Noh to Butoh, from tea to Zen, from shamisen to Nihon buyô. From dozens of cool or cute cafes to amazing temples, archives, seminars. I would love to live such a life.

Apologies for the disjointedness; for the rest of this post, I’m just going to share my thoughts-at-the-time on a couple of sites I visited in Kyoto.

The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.

NIJÔ CASTLE

Nijô castle was built in 1603 to serve as the base of Tokugawa presence in the imperial city. Though as it turned out no shogun visited Kyoto for over 200 years from 1634 to 1863, representatives and officials continuously occupied the castle, overseeing goings-on in the city, handling various administrative matters, and so forth. Today, Nijô is of particular interest (at least to people like myself) because it’s the chief surviving site that might offer some sense of what the shogun’s main castle in Edo was once like. (The main residence and administrative buildings of Edo castle having never been rebuilt after an 1863 fire) Here are some thoughts I had at the time while visiting there for the first time in 15 years:

When you really think about it, it’s so weird, to walk around these rooms, these very rooms where these events really took place, and not be able to enter them to experience the space more directly. On one level, sure, it makes perfect sense, and I don’t need to enter the rooms at Independence Hall, for example, and to sit at those desks, to get a sense of what happened there and its gravity. But, somehow here it’s different. Walking through the honjin at Futagawa, and actually sitting in the room, you really get a sense of the space that you don’t by walking around only in the corridors. There’s just this incredible disconnect I feel here. The whole building becomes such a completely different space when the chief areas become unused, and the corridors become the main areas in which any human activity takes place.

The Ôhiroma, or Grand Audience Hall, of Nijô castle, arranged with mannequins to show how lords would have sat or bowed before the shogun. Sadly, obnoxiously, no photos allowed inside the building. This photo from Hananomichi blog.

I don’t know why, but somehow it just feels weird to me that a building of such great importance should become so empty, so dead, just put on display like this. I know that’s the very essence of the historical house as museum and I’m glad it’s preserved and open to visitors – neither destroyed nor kept limited to official business. I’m glad I get to see it. But somehow, more so than all the other castles and historic homes I’ve seen, this one struck me somehow. I somehow really wish we could engage with it more directly, or more extensively somehow.

Of course, there are simple practical reasons why you can’t let people walk on the tatami – it would get ruined so quickly. But, I wonder if some replica experience could be produced somehow. So people could experience these rooms not only from the outside, but from within the space, surrounded and immersed in the effect intended by the designers, and experienced by the people of the time.

TÔJI

Somehow, in my previous visits to Kyoto, I had never actually been to Tô-ji, one of the oldest temples in the city, and home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. I guess part of the reason I’d never gone was because Buddhist sculpture has never really done much for me. But somehow this time was different. To see them all arranged together, in 3D space, in context, and especially the grand size of these works, I think one really can sense the impact, the feeling of peace and spirituality that’s being evinced.

You can really feel / sense the deities looking down upon you. You can really imagine them being not sculptures buy actual deities manifesting before you. And the smell of the statues, of the wood, and of the incense also makes a big difference.

I think, at least in my own personal experience, that for a lot of Japanese arts, one just needs to be in the right mood, or catch it from the right frame of mind. I’ve been so moved by Buddhist sculpture two or three times, even when dozens and dozens of other times it didn’t really do much for me, and there have been a handful of times that I became truly taken in, entranced, moved, by Noh, though so many previous viewings I never managed to cross that mental or emotional divide. And the same for paintings – seeing paintings in person, with no glass or anything, is almost always a breathtaking experience, but seeing them on display, it’s really not so often that a piece takes me in. So, maybe it is just the timing, or just catching me in the right frame of mind.

Photo of the interior of Sanjûsangendô from the Nikkei newspaper, because god forbid they should allow regular people to take photos of some of the most famous examples of beautiful, masterful, Kamakura period artworks in all of Japan.

We also visited Sanjûsangendô, a very long hall containing 1001 medieval (c. 12th c.) sculptures of the bodhisattva Kannon. I had been there before, but this time we happened to arrive on a (slightly) historic day. These sculptures were long designated “Important Cultural Properties,” but were very recently upgraded to “National Treasures.” In connection with this (I think?), they moved many of the sculptures back to an earlier Edo period configuration just today (August 1), rearranging the exact arrangement of the auxiliary figures surrounding the central larger Kannon, as well as switching the Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind) sculptures at the very ends of the arrangement.

Today’s Keihan [train line], feels good.

Finally, I guess I’ll end this post with just a few thoughts on Kyoto as a tourist city.

Are some parts of Kyoto getting Disneyfied? Absolutely. And it’s a shame to see. But I would be curious to know the numbers, the statistics, regarding tourism – is this gentrification, this “touristification,” this Disneyfication, primarily in connection with appealing to great numbers of domestic (Japanese) tourists, or foreign tourists? But, then again, does it matter? Does it make a difference in how we think about it, does it make a difference in whether we are critical of it or not?

I’m frankly not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I can absolutely sense, feel, that Disneyfication, and it’s worrying. It’s problematic. No one should have to feel like their own home is no longer their own – that their own neighborhood is designed around tourists and not around residents. It’s something I’ve seen in Hawaii and Okinawa as well, and it’s no good. But, if there’s a silver lining at all it’s that a great deal of the city doesn’t look/feel like Ninenzaka or Hanamikoji, and it’s still vibrantly authentic, for lack of a better word. I know some people who say Kyoto’s too far gone already – they won’t come here, they won’t bother anymore, because it’s already gone to the dogs, so to speak. Maybe it’s just because it’s been so long for me since my time in Kyoto, and since my time this time around was so constrained; maybe it’s just because I still entertain fantasies of what it’s like rather than knowing how it truly is, but for me, it’s still very much worth visiting. I had a marvelous time this time, and an all the more astounding time the previous time around, and I think I would again, if I ever got the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period again. I don’t think it’s time yet to write the city off.

Kyoto is still full of wonderful cafes, temples, universities, museums, theatre, and all sorts of other arts and cultural goings-on. And all of these, I am sure, sway with the winds that are blowing, feeling the impacts of increasing tourism and increasing touristification. But for now at least I think we can still honestly say that a great deal does continue to go on in this city in a relatively authentic fashion, disconnected from catering to what the tourists want.

I wonder if there is anything meaningful or worthwhile to say about the touristification of Kyoto regarding that it may date all the way back to the Edo or Meiji periods. That this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. After all, tourism in Japan really boomed towards the middle and late Edo period (18th-19th centuries), and during our workshop we saw some tourist maps of the city, pointing out Buddhist temples and other sites of interest. In the Meiji period, after some considerable debate and waffling and so forth, the government decided to keep Kyoto as a traditional, historical, imperial city, in contrast to the very modern city they were going to turn Tokyo into. Not that any of this is necessarily perfectly pertinent to the current phenomenon of what’s happening to Kyoto, but even so, context.

I wish I had anything more to say, more insightfully, regarding this interesting and important issue. But I guess I have to just leave that to those who are actually in tourism studies, unlike myself. I’ll just end this already very lengthy blog post by saying that “Let’s Make a Bus Route” (バスルートをつくろう) is a wonderful little board game in which you compete with other players to build the best bus route around Kyoto. No Japanese language ability required. (h/t to my friend Evan for introducing me to the game!)

All photos my own, except where indicated otherwise.

The garden at guesthouse toco in the Iriya/Uguisudani neighborhood of Tokyo.
Now I’m trying to remember where I stayed in each of these cities, during this crazy journey.

I’ve already touched upon my lodgings in Naha, Kagoshima, and Fukuoka for this trip. Two great hip hostels/guesthouses, and one crappy boring-as-hell ordinary business hotel.

In Himeji, I ended up staying in a business hotel again (Himeji Green Hotel Tatemachi), because I couldn’t find anything else. It was fine. Served the purpose, on a basic level. But, honestly, really, nothing impressive or positive about the experience. I really do think I’m going to try to avoid these places as much as possible from now on.

I didn’t stop in Ise overnight, but ended up staying that night in Nagoya. Actually, I didn’t really have a plan for where I was going to stay that night – didn’t book anywhere because I didn’t know if I’d end up in Nagoya, or all the way back in Tokyo, or where, by X hour of the evening. So, using Agoda.com (or perhaps some other app; I don’t recall), I found at the last minute, late that night already, a place just outside Nagoya Station. EcoHotel Nagoya. Since I was arriving late at night and leaving the next morning, it certainly served my purposes. But it was the most absolute basic arrangement. The one staff guy was pretty much only there for check-in, and the entire arrangement was just basically here’s a room. Shared showers in the basement. Elevator didn’t go to the ground floor, so you had to lug your bags up the stairs. I’m not sure if it was converted from day laborers’ dorms or what, but it was just really small rooms, a place to lay your head. One towel. A big trough with pipes flowing over it, just the most basic thing you could image that allows for the basic needs of brushing your teeth and washing your hands without having to go all the way downstairs to the showers. I don’t even remember what the room looked like, just the hallway, entranceway, stairway, which looked completely un-renovated, like no one made any effort whatsoever to make this look nice/clean for visitors. But I guess that’s okay, when you’re paying #20/night or whatever it was.

At least I got to have a room to myself. Didn’t get that one night in Tokyo, at Tsubame Guest House, which was not only rundown-seeming, with a faint sense of mildew or the like, and with no elevators, and with multiple beds in a shared room, but also it was quite a bit of a walk from the nearest station; not a convenient location at all.

Still, I’m glad I got that place to stay in Nagoya at all. It was already 9 or 10 at night by the time I booked it, using the wifi at the Starbucks at Nagoya Station.

Returning to Tokyo, I spent one overpriced night at FirstCabin Azabu, but also managed to score a few nights at a cool guesthouse called guesthouse toco. FirstCabin is a chain of glorified capsule hotels. I guess this “cabin” thing is getting big now. Unlike a capsule hotel (which I’ve never tried; too claustrophobic), you get a space with a more normal height of ceiling. But otherwise, it’s still less like a full proper room than it is a whole row of over-large capsules (or “cabins”). There’s no door to lock, and indeed for whatever reasons you’re not allowed to lock it at all. There’s a sort of curtain to pull down, like a garage door, and inside your little box, you have just the bed, and just barely enough space to keep your luggage, and like a small bedside counter. Anyway, I didn’t mind this; it was private enough, and comfy enough, for my purposes. But, I don’t know, I can’t quite put my finger on it, there was something just too impersonal, too depressing or dystopian about the aesthetic somehow, it just really put me off. The main lobby was like a hotel lobby – unnecessarily fancy, and generally impersonal and off-puttingly over-professional (i.e. unlike a hostel/guesthouse where the young cool hip staff might be more friendly). And the whole rest of the place felt empty, even more inhuman, like being on a spaceship or something, disconnected from Earth. I know, it’s a funny thing to say, but there just really was something about the sterile, antiseptic, high-technology, dark-colored decorating scheme that just made me feel this way. Sure, there were other people around, but it’s not like we talked or anything. The whole hotel was the 9th, 10th, 11th floors or something like that, with only one elevator, and guestroom cards that were required for accessing certain areas (e.g. the showers) but which wouldn’t get you into other areas (e.g. the women-only floor). Which is fine, it makes sense, but it also gave me a sort of dystopian, space station, too high-tech HAL 9000 sort of vibe.

The entrance area at guesthouse toco.

In any case, the other place, guesthouse toco, was great. I mean, it wasn’t some super amazing special experience like I thought it just might be based on the fact that the place was featured on Nippon.com, as if it was really a unique special place worth knowing about. Based in a repurposed Taishô-era (c. 1910s-1920s) house, it definitely has character, in a good way. When you first walk in, there’s a nice little bar/café area all in wood, with a bunch of tables and a little bar towards the back, which in my experience I found to be a very friendly collegial, fun place for conversation. I almost never hang out and talk to people at hostels – I’m no backpacker, I’m usually a fair bit older than most hostel-stayers, and I’m usually much more experienced with Japan, being here not for some wacky once-in-a-lifetime adventure but for, well, something else. But, at toco, at least those particular days, it just seemed like a really good mix of people, and people willing to talk and just chat and be cool. I dunno. It just worked.

A staircase in that first room is painted all rainbow, and leads up to some of the guest rooms. Then, you cross out the back of the bar and cross a small outdoor garden sort of area, into the somewhat more traditional-design older house. Two (or more?) big main rooms are taken up by six or eight beds; I don’t like sharing a room, but it worked out fine. I basically just hung out in the bar area until I was fully ready for bed and then just went to sleep. It’s tough not having any full-on private space to yourself for a few days, but it was only for a few days. Sliding doors, wooden veranda planks, a nice little garden to admire out the window, the whole deal. Very nice.

One more downside of the shared room and bunk beds – nowhere to put your luggage. I suppose I was being kind of entitled and obnoxious to keep my luggage outside of the room, but, seriously, I’m not going to go through my luggage right in front of someone else’s bed, and then try to shove it under that bed… Even if I am comfortable enough with having just a bed and not a whole room to myself for sleeping, I need a little space to sort myself out. I don’t know if I’m just getting too old for this, or if that was never my kind of thing to begin with. But, really. I’m flexible, I’m easy-going, I can manage a lot of different living/sleeping conditions, and I certainly did on this trip. But I really would prefer having a bit more space to myself, if only for basic logistical purposes of not making noise and taking up space directly around other people who are trying to sleep!

In any case, behind these main sleeping rooms was a kitchen & common area, with bathrooms and showers, and a little outdoor garden area with laundry machines and clotheslines. I feel bad that I did laundry and then left my stuff out all day – and it then rained – such that my stuff was taking up almost all of the clotheslines such that no one else in the whole guesthouse could hang their stuff out to dry for a day or two. But I guess maybe that’s just how it is? .. And the staff also cook you breakfast in the morning, which is really nice and also provides another opportunity for chatting and hanging out. Again, I wasn’t really looking to make friends; I had my own things to do and wasn’t going to find/make a traveling buddy. But, still, it was nice to feel a little social interaction after so many days of traveling on my own.

So, yeah. There’s my short run-down of a few more of the different sorts of places I stayed during this trip. All in all, I think my favorites were places like &AND HOSTEL AKIHABARA and the Abest Cube Naha, as well as WeBase Hakata, all very clean, sleek, hip, white aesthetic sort of places. Small rooms on halls with shared showers or whatever, but still, private rooms, which makes all the difference to me, and with a nicer aesthetic than business hotels. Even if I have to share a bathroom with others, I still prefer that to the sort of “box” bathrooms in these business hotels, which always feel too small to me, and just somehow never feel clean enough. Quite frankly, if my bedroom and bathroom are going to be that small, I don’t want them to be so close to one another. Even if I have to go all the way down the hall to a shared bathroom, that’s better than feeling like I’m basically in the same room as my toilet, as if it were a camper van or a prison cell or something. I don’t feel that way in normal-size hotel rooms; only in the tiny Japanese ones.

The main tower keep of Himeji Castle.

In between my visits to Okinawa, Kyushu, and Tokyo this past summer, before landing in Kyoto for the final week, I took the opportunity to make use of my JR Pass to visit a few other places, including Himeji Castle, Ise, a Tokaido post-station known as Futagawa-juku, and … So, before I get to finally talking about Kyoto (and then finally moving on from my summer 2018 Japan trip), this blog post is going to be a little scattered.

7/22 HIMEJI

Himeji is of course one of the largest, most famous, castles in Japan, and one of only a few to actually date from the Edo period and not be largely/entirely 20th century reconstructions. But, as it’s a short ways west of Kobe, and not located within a major city, I had never gotten around to visiting it before.

It’s certainly a cool thing to get to see, and with great history. The Sakai family lords of Himeji were interesting folks, including some very prominent and influential figures within the Tokugawa shogunate government, as well as figures like Sakai Hôitsu, son of one of the lords of Himeji, who never gained any political prominence or power but is surely among the greatest painters of the Edo period. I also very recently learned that several of the Sakai lords were real pioneers in patronizing Ming (Chinese) music in Japan. And, as I learned upon visiting the castle, Princess Sen (or Senhime), a daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada and wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, once lived there. Stories about her thus dominated much of the labels and descriptions within the castle.

Inside the main keep at Himeji castle.

I only wrote a very few thoughts/reactions about the castle at the time. But, one thing that struck me was the way they did it up as a history of the castle vs. as a history of the domain more broadly. It’s funny… When visiting for example Fukuyama Castle (near Hiroshima), as well as Hiroshima castle, both of those pretty much just use the castle as a space to tell a much broader history of the domain, and of the successive lords of that domain. In both Fukuyama and Hiroshima castles, which were just chock full of artifacts, paintings, documents, displayed as museum exhibits, I felt it was a shame that we couldn’t really get a sense of it as a castle. I wished they’d done it up more like a historical house recreation.

And yet, at Himeji, the first half of what I visited, the tenshu (main keep) has no objects on display at all, and is almost exclusively about appreciating and experiencing the space itself, the architecture, and the way the space was used at the time (primarily for storing weapons, and as a guard tower, from which warriors could defend the castle, or something like that). It’s only in the second half of the site (a different, nearby building) that you learn about Senhime, and her life there. But even then, I was wishing there were more teaching us about the Sakai family, from Sakai Tadahiro to Tadazumi to… whomever. But I guess you can’t have it both ways.

Of course, this castle also is mostly just empty rooms, and not anything approaching a recreation of what it would have actually looked like in use. So, there’s room for going in that direction as well. I would still love to see any of these historic castles done up a little bit more to really show not just the rooms, but the furniture, etc.

The Great Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Nijô castle in Kyoto.

Nijô castle in Kyoto does that to a certain extent. The Ôhiroma, or Great Audience Hall, at Nijô has mannequins arranged to show you how lords would have gathered before the shogun, and that I really appreciate. Really does just so much to show you how these rooms were used, rather than giving you an empty room and asking you to imagine. But even at Nijô, most of the other rooms are still left empty.

7/22 ISE

「大林寺の方へ飛んでいたわいな。」

The small temple of Dairin-ji, in the Furuichi neighborhood of Ise. And, just to one side of the main temple building, the graves of Magofuku Itsuki and his lover Okon, the inspiration for the Kabuki characters Fukuoka Mitsugi and Okon.

On my way from Himeji to Nagoya, I stopped in Ise. As you do. Actually, for anyone reading this and planning your own trips, note that actually Ise is rather out of the way. You can take the Shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Himeji to Nagoya; Ise is not strictly-speaking along the way. Only local trains and not bullet trains go there.

As I wrote in a series of blog posts quite a few years ago, Ise was historically not only the site of one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, but as a pilgrimage destination it also developed in the Edo period a very notable neighborhood of inns, theaters, brothels, etc. There is very little left to see today of the Ise Furuichi (“old market”) neighborhood, but even so I was very much curious to see it, as Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the kabuki play I took part in during my time in Hawaii, was set there. So, I visited the Buddhist temple Dairin-ji, mentioned very briefly but never seen in the play, where Manjirô escapes to briefly, so as to not be seen by… I forget, who, actually. And, perhaps more importantly, the real individuals who served as the basis / inspiration for the main characters of the play are buried there. It was kind of funny trying to find the temple. I’m not sure exactly what I expected. Well, I expected that the temple grounds might be even just a little bit larger than they turned out to be, and in particular, I expected that there would be some kind of traditional wooden gate. I don’t know why, but somehow I had in my mind an image of the big wooden gate to Dairin-ji, and that that would be where I might take a photo. As it turns out, there is no gate. Not even a modern one. Just a single main temple building (and a few smaller more modern ones attached to it), immediately facing (or, depending on how you look at it, situated within) a small parking lot, and then to the side of that, an extremely small graveyard, no more than 10 or 15 gravestones. And, a stone marker indicating the name of the temple. That was it. I’m glad I went, glad I saw it, but there was really nothing at all to see other than to take a couple of photos and move on.


Sadly, I arrived too late in the day to see the Ise Furuichi local history museum. So, I do wonder what that might be like. For all I know, it might surprise me. Might be quite nice and newly-maintained, like the ones at Futagawa and Tomonoura. Maybe all that I expected to find at the temple might be satisfied at the museum. But, yeah, sadly, I didn’t get to see that. Fortunately, however, just as I was despairing at having come all that way just to see so little, I came upon a small stone marker (right) indicating the former site of the Abura-ya, the brothel where nearly the entire play takes place. Actually, it’s funny – I opened up Google Maps to search for it, to search for where it might be, and then noticed it was actually right there right in front of me. Haha. Wow. Not that this was much either – it truly is simply nothing but a stone marker. But, even so, as something I’d hoped to see for years, I was glad to not leave without spotting it.

Of course, I didn’t leave Ise without visiting the shrine. But, to be honest, and I’m sorry if any of my Religious Studies friends take offense or something, but after having visited Meiji Shrine, Atsuta Shrine, and some other such places that also involve very long walks through wooded paths before you finally actually get to the sacred center, I kind of felt like I’d seen and done that before. And since, of course, at Ise you’re forced to remain at a certain distance from that sacred center, and can’t go in further past a certain point, well, that was about it. Even the closest point you can go, the one place where there really is something (anything) worth taking a photo of, is the one place where you’re not allowed to do so, and they have a pretty serious-looking security guy from the Imperial Household Agency (or something? I forget) watching to make sure you don’t take photos. So, *shrug* that was that. If I’d had more time, I might have enjoyed the touristy shopping street just outside the shrine, get a little more of a feeling of having actually experienced something by coming all the way out there, but, oh well. I’m sure I’ll be back, eventually. Maybe in 2033 when they rebuild the shrine over again, haha.

7/23 NAGOYA

From Ise, I then made my way to Nagoya. I’d been to Nagoya before, and had seen all the really major sites – Nagoya castle, Atsuta Jingûso this time, while I had just a day or so, I made sure to poke out to some more minor, but interesting, sites related to the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo.

Since Atsuta Shrine was a major destination, it was also a stop on the Tôkaidô. Just a few blocks away from the shrine, though there’s nearly nothing to see of it today, is a small parking lot and a stone marker marking where the Red Honjin, the main elite lodgings at this Miya-juku (lit. “shrine post-station”) once stood. The honjin can be seen in an 1832 illustrated book known as Meiyô kenbun zue, which I’ve quite enjoyed using for my research.

Above right: A gravestone at Zuisen-ji in Nagoya, for Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu, musician who died on the 1832 embassy. The inscription reads 「中山富山親雲上梁文弼久米村儒家以楽師于後江戸来至没於尾張国鳴海駅回葬馬時午三十八」(roughly, “Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu of Chûzan [i.e. Ryûkyû], master musician and Confucian scholar of Kumemura, later traveled to Edo and died at Narumi station in Owari province [i.e. Nagoya] … [and then a part I don’t quite understand; he died at age] 38.).

Also quite nearby is Shichiri-no-watashi, the former site of a boat dock where people used to arrive and depart for the crossing across Ise Bay to Kuwana. A Ryukyuan mission was nearly lost in a storm on this crossing in 1671, and so from then on (with one exception), they took an overland route.

Finally, I also visited the really small and slightly out-of-the-way temples of Kaikoku-ji and Zuisen-ji, where Tokashiki peechin Shinfu Ma Gen’ei (a member of the 1748 mission) and Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu (a master musician on the 1832 Ryukyuan mission to Edo), respectively, are buried after dying of illness on the journey. Sadly, this was not entirely uncommon; the almost complete separation of Japanese and Ryukyuan populations, combined with the Ryukyuan lack of experience with cold weather, were likely key contributing factors, and a number of members of embassies to Edo caught Ryûkyû no kaze (the Ryukyuan cold, or Ryukyuan flu) and died. Many Japanese fell ill, however, too, whenever Ryukyuan embassies passed through their towns, so Ryûkyû no kaze went the other way as well.

A guardtower at Shichiri-no-watashi, at what is today known as Miya-no-watashi Park 宮の渡し公園. I wish I might have visited the corresponding site at Kuwana on the other side of Ise Bay, but there was no time.

7/24 FUTAGAWA-JUKU

The entrance of the main honjin at Futagawa-juku, as seen from inside the building, looking out towards the street.

I then sped to Tokyo to meet up with some professors, and a day or so later took the Shinkansen out to Toyohashi City, Aichi prefecture (which was a fair bit farther from Tokyo than I’d thought), to visit the honjin museum at Futagawa-juku. Futagawa was one of 53 official “stations” along the Tôkaidô, the chief highway connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. When daimyô (samurai lords), Ryukyuan or Korean embassies, imperial envoys, or certain others passed through such post-stations, they were often provided lodgings at a honjin – a special inn set aside for such elites, that was usually larger, nicer, better than the other inns, and that often included certain special amenities for precisely that purpose, such as a small area with a raised floor, so that the lord could literally sit above his retainers when he met with them. These honjin often served as lodgings for only a portion of the time, and often doubled as the home and/or main “office” so to speak of the town headman. Getting to the point, the honjin at Futagawa is one of only a very few that are still intact, and that are maintained as a museum.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from such a small local history museum, but I was certainly not disappointed. Quite to the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. All along the main stretch in Futagawa, along the old Tōkaidō, nearly every house and shop has the same blue Futagawa-juku noren (curtain) hanging outside. Makes me curious, if people really feel a strong connection and pride in the history or whether it has more to do with community, or how exactly they (and we) might characterize it.

The honjin itself is huge. I guess I’m not surprised, it totally makes sense that for an inn worthy of a daimyo, and one that can house 30-40 of his followers, it would be such a size. And of course not all honjin were this big; they varied, and we can look that up. But to see it first-hand, experience the number of rooms, is something. A much different experience from simply reading about their size or capacity, or looking at illustrations or diagrams. And the Museum itself, housed in a neighboring building, was surprisingly large, too, with two floors of exhibits. Awesome of them to allow photos too.

The beginning of the second floor exhibits at the Futagawa-juku Museum, showing travelers on the Tôkaidô.

Plus, the curator, Wada Minoru, was so kind. He not only came out and helped show me exactly which publications listed the relevant documents, but he even was willing to go and get them and let me see them immediately. If he had said you have to make an appointment, I would have totally understood. But he was willing to take the time to let me look at them immediately. Amazing. Of course, who knows how useful they’ll be especially since I really don’t have the time to actually read them. But… Maybe just by having them in my HD, I’ll gain something by osmosis or something, haha.

I know I’ll never work for such a small local history museum; unless I end up doing some kind of research on the museum itself, I don’t see how (why) I would ever find myself actually spending more than a couple of days there. Which is sort of a shame, really – considering that they actually seem to have a pretty great operation at the Futagawa-juku Honjin Museum. The exhibits are very nice, they publish a lot of good catalogs … The local museum at Tomonoura is perhaps similar, but even so their exhibits were still not as extensive as those at Futagawa.

I feel like it would be really great to get to know some of these museums, and their surrounding communities, a bit better. Someday. Somehow. At the very least, I do want to go back to Futagawa someday, if only to visit the small local history museum at the Arai sekisho (checkpoint) a couple train stops away, and Hamamatsu (Okitsu) and Sunpu (Shizuoka), where there are a few more Ryukyu-related sites to be seen.

For now, though, this past summer, I simply went back to Tokyo, finished up my business there, and then headed to Kyoto for the remainder of my summer sojourn.

All photos my own.


Falling farther and farther behind on blog posts. Still only up to events of July, and so much has happened since then! But bear with me, please.

I know it’s a little crazy, but I actually went straight from Fukuoka all the way back to Tokyo, in order to catch a few meetings, and then head back the other direction (west). Ultimately, I skipped Hiroshima and Okayama, as I wasn’t sure what conditions were like given the then-recent flooding disaster. But, as I’ll touch upon in future posts, I managed a crazy whirlwind set of visits to Kobe, Himeji, Ise, and Futagawa (Toyohashi) before settling in Kyoto for my last week. We’ll get to that. But in the meantime, while I’ve already posted about my feelings on going back to Tokyo, here’s a separate post on the exhibit “The Ryukyu Kingdom: A Treasure Chest of Beauty” (琉球:美の宝庫) held at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo this summer.

It was truly wonderful to see such an extensive Ryukyu exhibit. Not just “decorative arts” – textiles and lacquerwares – but paintings as well. With label text highlighting “the superb artistic and technical mastery of the kingdom’s painters,” the fact that so much was lost in the war so we can’t know the full extent or “a full portrait of Ryukyuan achievements.” And, further, highlighting that the royal court had “a particularly deep connection with the Fuzhou art world,” and an extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese works. We can only imagine, if the war hadn’t happened, if none of this had been destroyed, how much more brilliant, more cultured, more “deep” for lack of a better word, Ryukyu would seem.

And I do love that they’ve brought some of the greatest treasures of Ryukyuan painting here. A cat by Yamaguchi Sōki; pheasants in the snow by Zamami Yōshō. Paintings of officials from the TNM, and of Gi Gakugen and Tei Junsoku from the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The Naha Port screens from Kyoto and Shiga Universities. Good thing I didn’t try to see any of these works at their home insititutions – they were on loan, here in Tokyo.

But, as wonderful as it is to see these treasures, I’m perhaps even more pleased to see additional works, like a painting of Li Bai viewing a waterfall, attributed to Gusukuma Seihô. Most of what once existed has been lost, but what survives goes beyond just a few famous paintings of cats, pheasants, and mythical beasts. Ryukyuan painting, like Chinese or Japanese, has a whole range, and that’s what we’re getting a tiny taste of here.

I’m excited to be learning the names of a few additional Ryukyuan painters. It’s not all Zamami Yôshô, Gusukuma Seihô, and Yamaguchi Sôki. There’s a very nice trees in snow landscape by Yakena Seiga which reminds me a bit of Sesshû or the like. Several pieces by Izumikawa Kan’ei 泉川寛英(Shin Shikyū 慎思丸)1767-1844, a painter for the Keezui bujôju, whose son Izumikawa Kandō 泉川寛道(慎克熈 Shin Kokki)b. 1800, painted the famous painting of a young official and his consort which graces the cover of the Ryukyu Kaiga catalog.

「琉球進貢船図屏風」(Ryukyu Tribute Ship Folding Screen), Kyoto University Museum.

It was exciting, too, to see the two most famous folding screen paintings of Naha Port, which I had previously only seen digitally, or in catalogs. One is held by the Kyoto University Museum, and the other by Shiga University in Hikone. Being so scattered, I had never had the chance to see them in person before. As a result, I don’t know that I had ever realized, but the Shiga screen is much larger and brighter than the Kyoto one. Both are great, but the Shiga one feels more iconic to me. Seeing them in person now, I realized it’s the one I remember much better, making the Kyoto one feel off, like a bad imitation, though of course it is not – it’s a fantastic original artwork unto itself. The Shiga screen stands tall, like it was meant to be put on the floor, while the Kyoto screen seems to be the height for being put up on a platform, like in a tokonoma perhaps. Interestingly, the composition is quite similar in both – how the returning tribute ship is placed relative to the haarisen (dragon boats), for example, and how the bay and other parts of town are arranged.

Another work on display that’s very cool to see is the Chinese basis for the famous pheasant painting by Okinawan painter Zamami Yôshô. I hadn’t realized there were these two, but I guess it makes sense. It’s great that the Churashima Foundation (which operates Shuri castle) owns this Chinese painting, so that it can be displayed comparatively with the Ryukyuan version.

A handscroll by Sun Yi 孫億 of birds and flowers was just gorgeous. A brightly colored piece in reds and blues and greens against an oddly bright yet not actually gold-foiled silk ground…

琉球来聘使登営図 (detail). Handscroll by Bun’yû, Tokyo National Museum. 1843.

And how about that, just my luck, the TNM procession scroll I wanted to see was here too. Now if only they had allowed photos, I could have gotten what I didn’t (couldn’t) get from making an appointment at TNM. Well, for part of the painting anyway. In any case – the scroll is beautiful, very well done with bright colors and careful details. But since we know it’s by Bun’yû 文囿、a student of Tani Bunchô, and not by any official Shogunate painter, I wonder if we can explain away the oddities as simply incorrect. The section of the scroll opened and visible begins with the two placard holders, then six muchi bearers (instead of just two; these were red-lacquered staffs used to part the crowds to make way for the procession). After one mounted figure in Ming style costume, we see one chingu 金鼓 banner and one tiger banner paired up with one another, then a few musicians, then the Prince’s sedan chair, followed rather than preceded by the royal parasol (ryansan). I do wish I could look at the whole thing.

A procession scroll from the Kyushu National Museum (Kyûhaku) was on display too, making me feel better about not trying to request objects there – this one would not have been available anyway. We see Prince Tomigusuku, head of the 1832 mission, surrounded by figures identified as 中小姓 (“middle[-ranking] page”), and by other names and titles. This may be the only scroll depicting the 1832 mission. They also had Kyûhaku’s copy of Sugitani Yukinao’s Zagaku scroll. This is a gorgeous, full-color, scroll painted by Kumamoto domain court painter Sugitani Yukinao depicting Ryukyuan Chinese-style musical performances at the Satsuma mansion in Edo in 1832. One version is now held by the Eisei Bunko, the collection of the Hosokawa family (descendants of the lords of Kumamoto), one of the more difficult samurai family collections to get into. But, apparently, Kyûhaku and Shuri castle own copies of it, each of which are slightly different. This one has gold leaf, but the colors are much more muted, thinner. How many copies of this painting are there?


“Evening Glow at Jungai,” by Hokusai, 1832, and the image he based it on, from an 1831 Japanese reprinting of the 1757 Chinese book Liuqiu guo zhilue.

And, finally, they had on display half of the eight prints of Hokusai’s “Eight Views of Ryukyu,” displayed alongside copies of the Ryûkyû koku shiryaku (C: Liuqiu guo zhilue) on which he based the images. Very nice. I know that so many of these names and references to particular works won’t mean much to the majority of readers, and for that I apologize. I am so far behind on blog posts, I’m afraid I’m just not taking the bother to really properly rewrite these personal notes on the exhibit into a more proper (audience-friendly) blog post. But, suffice it to say, I suppose, that just about every one of the most famous works related to Ryukyuan art were on display in this exhibition. A real marvel to see, and something I would dream of replicating if/when I might ever have the kind of curatorial position that might allow me to propose such a thing.

Moving down to the next level, they had more of the most famous treasures on display, including a pink bingata robe with dragons (National Treasure) that I saw a replica of at Shuri castle just the week before, and a white one with pink, blue, purple streaks, also very famous. A set of incredible royal serving dishes which I’ve seen many times before in catalogs but which is all the more impressive in person, for it’s size and bright red and gold colors, with the royal mitsudomoe crest.

A replica of the royal crown – they later showed the real one for a few weeks in August – similarly shines. Somehow I never thought of it as being quite so bright and colorful. But I suppose when it’s lit up properly – unlike the dim lighting at Shuri castle – that gives it the opportunity to do so. How impressive this must have looked on the king’s head, with the Okinawan sun reflecting off of the gold and jewels.

Next, a somewhat restrained lacquer dish that I think I like especially. No gold, no mother-of-pearl, just matte red and black, with a simple design of the mitsudomoe in the center. Apparently this was used in the ūchibaru (the women’s quarters of Shuri palace), for less ceremonial, more regular occasions. I wonder if the rest of the palace used similar designs, or if those for the women were especially restrained.

A 2014 recreation of the ogoe of King Shô Iku is a great inclusion. All of the official royal portraits were lost in 1945, though we are fortunate to at least have b&w photos. It’s hard to say just how accurate this painting might be to the brightness or boldness or coloration of the originals, but if all you can do is a replica, I like this better than nothing, for showing the brilliance and power and so forth of Ryukyu. And that it’s not all decorative arts and folk culture, but that it was a full culture, a full kingdom, just like Japan or Korea or anywhere else. Can you imagine if Western bookstores put all the Japan stuff under “folk culture” instead of under History and Art? I’m pretty sure they used to. If China and Korea aren’t under such categories, whether in the bookstores or in how they’re displayed in museums, why should Okinawa (or Hawaii, or anywhere else) be?

The next X number of objects were all lacquerwares of course, because what’s a Ryukyu exhibit that isn’t disproportionately filled with lacquerwares and textiles. But here was something new and interesting – an Okinawan lacquerware box (I guess I trust the experts that somehow we know from style, or otherwise, that this is indeed of Ryukyuan manufacture) decorated with the Tokugawa crest. And yet the labels say it’s not typical of the kinds of things given as formal gifts, but rather that it was likely to be shown, or seen, in the hand 手元で鑑賞するふさわしい逸品である, whatever that means. Having written these notes before buying the exhibit catalog, and not having that catalog on hand right now as I type this up, I’ll have to go back and look at it sometime, try to figure this out.

The exhibit ended with photographs and notebooks by Kamakura Yoshitarô, a prewar scholar whose mingei (“folk art”) ideas about Okinawa were, I suppose, rather problematic in ways, patronizing and orientalizing. But at the same time, he was instrumental in having Shuri castle saved from destruction, and in saving or at least photographing or copying down countless examples of Okinawan arts, crafts, architecture, and documents. His notebooks have very recently been digitized and also published in modern type transcription by the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, and are just invaluable for anyone studying certain aspects of early modern Okinawan history. So many royal government documents – not just about arts or whatever, but about policies and events too – survive today only in those notebooks. I’ve been reading a lot from these modern publications, but to see the originals was really something. His sketches are just incredible. I’m glad they’ve been designated Important Cultural Properties. They deserve it. I would love to see more of them in person. If possible, it’d be amazing to do just an exhibition organized around them.

Gradually working my way through my time in Japan this summer. Next, some brief thoughts on some various other places I visited, and then finally, Kyoto.