Tuesday, December 01, 2009

'The Old Capital': Cultural Context, Places and Events (JLit Book Group)

The following are passages from The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, our current selection for the Japanese Literature Book Group. Please click on the links for more information. Many of the links provided include photos which should give you a visual idea of some of the places visited by the characters in the novel.

"...They've finished repairs on the pagoda at Daigoji. Would you like to see it? ... the unveiling?"
"Will it end up like the new Gold Pavilion?"
"It's probably been newly painted in bright colors. The pagoda didn't burn down like the Gold Pavilion. They took it apart, then reassembled it as it was originally. The unveiling will be when the flowers are at their best..." (p. 11)

The road was rather long. They avoided the avenues where the streetcars ran, taking the more secluded route around to Nanzenji Temple Road, passing behind Chion'in Temple. Then they crossed the back side of Maruyama Park, walking the old narrow path that emerged at Kiyomizu Temple. The spring evening mist had just filled the air. [...]
This was the hour that Chieko preferred to visit. Votive candles burned in the dark recesses of the Great Hall, but Chieko passed by without stopping, continuing on from the Amida Hall to the rear sanctuary.
The veranda of the rear sanctuary was built overhanging a cliff. Like the light, buoyant cypress bark roof, the veranda too appeared to be delicately suspended. The veranda faced west, looking out toward Nishiyama on the far side of the capital. (p. 14)


"The mother and father I have now love me very much. I don't have any desire to look for my real parents. Perhaps they are even among the graves of the unknown pilgrims in Adashino. Of course all the stones there are quite old." (p. 16)

PhotobucketAs she was serving the boiled tofu, Chieko noticed her father's great desk. There was nothing there to indicate that he had been designing a dye pattern; only an Edo-period lacquer inkstone box and two rolls of hand copies of Ki no Tsurayuki's introduction to the imperial anthology, the Kokinshu, rested on one corner. (p. 24)

The hearth, however, was still intact, as it was in many houses, probably because faith in Kojin, the fire god, was still prevalent. A Shinto talisman was hung behind the hearth as a precaution against fire. Potbellied statues of Hotei, the god of fortune, also stood in a row. There could be as many as seven. The number had increased each year when the Sadas bought one at the Inari Shrine in Fushimi on the Hatsuuma in February. If there was a death in the family, they would remove the figures and begin again with one. (p. 30)

The "flowers" were actually branches of sakaki used in Shinto rituals, but the leaves were still young. (p. 32)

"Mr. Sada has designed an obi, and we're going to weave it for him," his father said. (p. 45)

The grove of cherries to the left inside the main gate of Ninnaji was overflowing with blossoms. (p. 49)

"It's because he likes you, isn't it? You understand that much, don't you? He said you were more beautiful than the Miroku at Chuguji or Koryuji Temple. It surprised me too. That obstinate fellow says some amazing things." (p. 58)

"Whenever I see the lovely straight cedars at Kitayama, it makes my spirit feel refreshed." (p. 63)

Photo © Kyoto City Web

The portraits of Taira no Shigemori and Minamoto no Yoritomo in Jingoji Temple had been made world-famous by André Malraux. Chieko had heard Masako say the same thing many times before. At Kozanji Temple Chieko enjoyed viewing the mountains from the veranda of Sekisuiin. (p. 64)

Hearing her father say she was born under the cherry trees at Gion reminded her of the old story "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," in which the tiny princess Kaguyahime was found between the joints of a stalk of bamboo. (p. 72)

Twenty years ago it was not only that her parents would have been embarrassed at having twins, but that it would also have been a hardship to raise them both. (p. 99)

She did not reveal to Hideo that they were twins. (p. 111)

"Twenty years ago twins weren't accepted, but now it's nothing," her father said. (p. 164)
I hadn't heard of this negative attitude towards having twins before so I asked my Japanese husband about it and he hadn't known either. But he did say that he could kind of understand the mentality behind it. Japanese tend not to accept things that are different. Since giving birth to twins or multiple births is somewhat rare it was considered unnatural and therefore shameful, and something you had to hide.

This year Chieko did not see the Daimonji, the fires lighted on the mountainside on August sixteenth to mark the end of the Bon Festival. (p. 113)

Photo © Noboru Ogata

"Father, as long as we'll be walking near there, could we go over toward Shoren'in Temple?" Chieko asked in the car. "Just in front of the entrance."
"The camphor trees. It's the camphor trees that you want to see, isn't it?" (p. 124)

The "three great festivals" of the old capital were the Festival of Ages on October twenty-second, along with the Hollyhock Festival of the Kamigamo and Shimogamo Shrines and the Gion Festival. The Festival of Ages was a celebration of the Heian Shrine, but the procession began at Kyoto's Gosho. (p. 144)

Of all the many festivals of Kyoto, Chieko enjoyed the Kurama Fire Festival even more than the Daimonji. (p. 147)

In Kyoto there were many events like ... the Imperial Offering of Cucumbers at Rengeji Temple. Might this reveal an aspect of both the old capital and its people? (p. 148)
I found this one quite amusing!

The three of them went to Daiichi, a turtle soup shop at Kitano Rokuban, in Ryusuke's shop car. Daiichi was a venerable establishment, well known among tourists. The rooms were old-fashioned with low ceilings.
The had turtle that had been boiled in a so-called round pot and made into a stew. (p. 153)

Stay tuned for a little The Old Capital inspired activity, for which there will be a small prize. And if you're looking for an update on the Hello Japan! mini-challenge, I'll be posting about it later this week. Sorry for the delay.


  1. Nice blog. I really like these wordings ""It's probably been newly painted in bright colors. The pagoda didn't burn down like the Gold Pavilion. They took it apart, then reassembled it as it was originally. The unveiling will be when the flowers are at their best..." and your blog is awesome.

  2. The twin issue is so very interesting, isn't it? These are very beautiful photographs. Thank you for finding them all!

  3. This is such an interesting post. Even though I've been to Japan many times and lived there, there are so many things I don't know about the country and its traditions. I love the picture of Kiyomizudera. I'm definitely going to read Kawabata's book soon. Currently I'm reading Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters which I'm enjoying.

  4. Flowers - Um.. thank you.

    Kristen - I'd honestly never heard that about twins in Japan or elsewhere. It's interesting how people get different ideas about things.
    I'm glad you liked the photos. It took me ages to put this post together but I don't mind if people find it informative. :)
    Some of the links have great photos too. There are so many wonderful temples and places to visit in Kyoto.

    Sakura - I feel the same way. Even though I'm currently living here, there is so much I don't know.
    I really loved The Makioka Sisters when I read it. Happy reading!


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