Friday, 23 December 2011

Rakugo Heaven

I was excited about a lot of things, coming to Japan, but finding out more about Rakugo - traditional Japanese storytelling - was probably top of the list.

I saw my first Tokyo Rakugo - the famous Japanese ghost story Banchou Sarashiki - by lantern light in the middle of Aoyama Cemetery. Okiku, a beautiful servant girl, is in charge of a samurai family's priceless collection of ten plates. But, in revenge for her refusal of his advances, the evil Son hides one of the plates, knowing that its loss will mean Okiku's death. Sadistically, he makes her count them one by one...the tenth is of course nowhere to be found. She counts again. And again. And again. Even after her death, you can still hear Okiku's ghost constantly counting up to nine, never finding the tenth plate.

The way Rakugo tellers bring old stories to life seems like magic to me. No costume changes, hardly any movement, just two props (always a fan and a hanky) but maximum effect. A slight downward glance and a sigh, and the teller became Okiku; a moment later, shifting her eyes front and squaring her shoulders, she became the Father. I was completely transfixed. I had to see more Rakugo.

Lucky for me, I immediately found that the brilliant Diane Orrett, who trained in Japan as a Rakugo teller, was on for one night only in Asakusa, telling stories in Japanese and English.

So, armed with another three brilliant stories and some notes about how Rakugo works, I set out to find even more. I started with the Japanese TV series Tiger and Dragon, which apparently re-popularised classical Rakugo for young Japanese audiences. The performance of Neko no Sara (the cat's plate) was hilarious even without the subtitles


Now I realise I've barely even begun: Sue Hiro Tei, one of the last Yose (400-year old theatres especially built for storytelling) in Japan, is my next target.

It's hugely famous. It shows Rakugo all day, almost every day of the year. And, best of all, its a 10 minute train ride from where I live. There are no subtitles...but with stories this funny, who really needs them?

What am I waiting for!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Shrines at Night

Friday night was 'Octopus night' in Shinjuku. At Hanazono Shrine, before my eyes, these

got turned into this - the most tentacle-tastic Takoyaki (octopus pancakes) I've eaten in Tokyo. Yum!

This octopus feast was courtesy of one of Tokyo's liveliest night-time festivals, Tori no Ichi. It's a celebration of good fortune held in Japan on Chinese 'Rooster' days during November. It was late, but people were everywhere - eating, drinking and praying to the gods for riches:

Between the main Torii gate and the shrine itself, stalls were selling everything from lucky rakes to the sight of a woman eating a live snake (!)

Shrines aren't always full of people, though. And when they aren't, they are spooky. The sight of this Torii on a dark walk home on another night was decidedly unsettling:

It got me thinking about Japanese ghosts - Yurei. In the stories, these phantoms can appear anywhere, but most often in the Japanese 'witching hour' between 2 and 3 in the morning.

Which is about when I walked past this. Eep!

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Momiji Madness!

Autumn is supposed to be the most beautiful season of the year in Japan. The leaves on all the Momiji (red maple) trees turn red, the sky is by turns deep blue and a bright grey that makes colours stand out like children's lollipops in photos, and thousands of people flock to parks and mountains and woods to admire the scenery. Viewing the autumn leaves has a word all its own: Momijigari.

Photo by Crystal Japan

This year, though, Autumn came so late to Tokyo that there were hardly any red leaves in sight at Mount Takao's famous all November-long Momiji Matsuri (Maple Leaf Festival) until its very final week - and there still weren't many even then, when I finally made the trip there.

But I was delighted anyway. Tokyo has everything but open space; I hadn't really seen anywhere that wasn't full of buildings and people since I went to Hanno in September. So the forest on the mountainside alone was like paradise to me...

...but I had to admit that the leaves that had turned were utterly spectacular

 ...and thanks to the chair lifts (the mountain is so small it really doesn't need them, but I wasn't complaining) our Momijigari was the easiest thing in the world.


The maple leaves weren't the only red foliage to see on Mount Takao. These cute bushes looked like they'd been spray-painted...

...which reminded me of those super-cute good-luck dolls, also called Momiji. Sadly the word similarity is just a co-incidence, but this one is dressed very appropriately anyway - in a demure autumn-coloured kimono:

All kinds of art in Japan IS inspired by the autumn Momiji though, including Noh. One of the most famous Noh plays ever written is actually called Momijigari. It starts innocuously enough: on a woodland hunt the great soldier Taira no Karemochi bumps into a noblewoman and her party who are, like everyone else in Japan at this time of year, in the mountain woods to view the turning leaves. Or at least, that is what they tell him...

The woman is beautiful, important and flirtatious: Karemochi can't resist talking to her. But as in so many old stories, the Forest is a place where nothing is ever what it seems. Things start getting stranger very quickly. Karemochi is blissfully unaware, even as he is being lulled into an enchanted sleep by beautiful dancing and far too much sake...

 ..that the beautiful lady is actually a demon in disguise. Later, the demon returns in its true form to create who knows what kind of mischief, and Karemochi shows no sign of noticing the danger. So, an Old Man - really Takeuchi, a retainer of the great Boddhisattva Hachiman, in disguise - has to save the day by appearing to Karemochi in a dream, leaving an enchanted sword by his side, and talking him into waking up. When he does, he finds the demon right infront of him

getting closer all the time

With his enchanted sword, Karemochi fights the demon... 

a spectacular fight, the most dynamic I've seen so far in Noh - made all the more spectacular coming straight after a long period of almost total stillness on stage.

Back in Tokyo, in the real world, now, with only 20 days to go until Christmas, the real-life Momiji leaves have really only just started falling. The weather is as unpredictable as the Forest here: winter might appear for a few hours (the temperature plummets and people start wearing woolly hats) but then it quickly hides again behind autumn sun and warm rain. Crazy!