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Chinese woodblock print of orchids (postcard)

Hanakotoba is the language of flowers: emotions or messages are communicated through the symbolism of flowers. Since it turned summer on June 21st, I figured I’d tell you about the meaning of orchids.

Mahjong Guardian Stone Summer OrchidAs a mah jongg-player I thought it was THE flower of the season, orchid being the Summer Guardian Stone. But having looked into Japanese flower symbolism, I seem to be wrong! Yeah well, mah jongg is originally Chinese, so.. :) Never mind. As the game is being played in Japan as well, this post is still relevant as my submission for June’s Hello Japan! mini challenge about Flowers & Japanese Gardens. ;)

Mahjongg Card Summer OrchidStarting of with a haiku by Yosa Buson (1716 ~ 1783), translated by R.H. Blythe.

An evening orchid,
Hidden in its scent,
The flower’s whiteness
yoru no ran
ka ni kakurete ya
hana shiroshi

The orchid represents refinement. It is no common plant and it’s pleasures are reserved for the privileged few, so it is also a symbol of the rare and precious. The essence of refinement is an continual process of improvement until absolute perfection is reached.

In the art of fortune telling with mah jongg cards or stones, the Orchid Guardian protects young girls. If it appears in response to a question about a daughter or a younger female relative, it serves to allay any anxieties regarding their welfare.

I have a white orchid at home. It was a birthday gift from my aunt several years ago. White seems appropriate for a flower like this, since it indicates purity and cleanliness in traditional Japanese society, and is seen as a blessed colour because of its sacred nature: it’s the colour of the gods and therefore free of all ‘contamination’. But what is maybe best — if you’re into Zodiac signs that is (which I’m really not) — the white orchid belongs to my sign of Pisces.

White orchids

I’ll leave you with the Japanese version of a beautiful song about flowers by Einstürtzende Neubauten: Blume, sung by Etsuko Sakamaki-Haas. I invite you to listen to the English translation afterwards.

Hello Japan! is a monthly mini-challenge focusing on Japanese literature and culture. Each month there is a new task which relates to some aspect of life in Japan. June’s mission is ‘Flowers and Japanese Gardens’.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? logoWHOOOAAH! Another post today? Yes! Joining in again with Sheila from Book Journey’s It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? meme.

I’m currently reading two books.

Cover Geketende Democratie (Japan), Hans van der LugtGeketende democratie: Japan achter de schermen (‘Democracy in Chains: Behind the Scenes of Japan‘) ~ Dutch nonfiction about Japan by Hans van der Lugt, who’s been a foreign correspondent in Tokyo for 10 years. It’s a very interesting book and I’m glad I recently picked it up again after having ignored it for a few months.

This week I’ve been reading about corrupt police officers (and uragana, secret money funds), about the dowa issue (still existent discrimination of the lowest classes) , Van der Lugt ‘meeting’ the emperor and empress in a press meeting where he was the only foreign journalist allowed to ask questions, and the holiday to The Netherlands crown prince Naruhito took in 2006 with his depressed wife Masako. It reminded me that I desperately want to read the biography of the royal princess, written by Micha Fritz & Y. Kobayashi.

Cover Sneeuwland, Yasunari Kawabata (isbn 9029047321)For fiction I’m reading the Dutch translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country: Sneeuwland. I only just started so there’s nothing to tell yet.

In the past week I’ve read the following books & stories.

  • Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
    I had my heart set on reading Murakami’s first novel(la) first thing in 2011. And I did, right after I finished the last book I had started in 2010 (Caos Calmo). It was like meeting a good friend!
  • Near the end of the Hear the Wind Sing I came across this quote:
    “I bought a ticket for the overnight bus, sat down on the waiting room bench, and just looked at the lights of the town. As the night wore on, the lights began to go out until only the street lamps and neon signs were left. From far off steam whistle sounded, ushering in a slight sea breeze.”
    Not only is that shear poetry, it also made me re-read the title story of ‘A Steam Whistle in the Middle of the Night‘, a miniature love story that is absolutely beautiful.
  • Poelie de Verschrikkelijke (‘Poelie the Terrible‘) by Frans Pointl
    This autobiographic collection of cat stories, Kodaks and poetry by Frans Pointl should be read by every cat lover. Just be prepared to shed a tear or two.
  • Last but not least I devoured Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
    It’s the Boekgrrls’ January group read and I’m so glad this book got chosen because chances are it would never have popped up on my radar otherwise. It is so much more than a crime novel! I really felt for 12-year old Steven Lamb, looking for his family’s affection by searching his uncle Billy’s body.
    “How had it happened? Where had he gone? Somewhere, somehow, the little boy who used to be him had disappeared and been replaced by the new him.”

I’m awfully happy with how 2011 started! Planning to keep it up ;)

Of course it’s also Music Monday on this — not so depressing — Blue Monday, so I’ll close off with the wonderful eighties hit by New Order. Enjoy!

Cow postcard sent to Germany NL-112622 (copyright unknown)

Okay, now it’s official: sometimes I’m just a stupid Dutch cow. *
(Cows are cute though! ;)

I thought that the Friday Book Blogger Hop only happened on… Fridays. I even laughed at Novroz for doing it on the wrong day! Silly me ;) Jennifer’s Book Blogger Hop at Crazy for Books is a party that goes on for the whole weekend.

This week I was triggered by Lori enquiring:

Do you listen to music when you read? If so, what are your favorite reading tunes?

Book Blogger Hop logoMy answer to this question is that it really depends on the book I’m reading, the music I’m listening to, loudness & language. If I’m reading a book in English the lyrics of a dito song can be distracting if it is being played too loud. On the other hand I love to create a cosy atmosphere with some candles and soft classical music, or melancholic Turkish songs by Sezen Aksu. So there’s no definite yes or no to this question!

Album cover Hot Day In Waco (Dogbowl & Kramer)Without a doubt books and music can become an integrated experience. Right after I had finished my studies in Museology I lay in bed for three whole days and read. Noooo, I wasn’t ill! Just tired and very happy with my time off. Mr Gnoe (who was still only Gnoe’s BF at the time ;) had recently bought a cd by Dogbowl & Kramer, called A Hot Day in Waco. He played it all the time, while I was immersed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy… It is more than 10 years ago but whenever I hear a song from that album, Frodo, Gollum & Gandalf appear before my mind’s eye and I’m back in Middle-Earth!

The Lord of the Rings / In de Ban van de ring

Mr Gnoe’s taste in music has evolved and Kramer can only very rarely be heard at our place these days. But today I’ll share When te Sun Goes Down with you (4:19 mins)!

I would like to add that this was the first and only time I have read books in the Fantasy genre. I loved wandering about in that magic world, but once was quite enough. And up until today I have refused to watch the movie adaptation: I do not want a director to replace my personal images of The Lord of the Rings. I really don’t care what people think of that — I already admitted that I’m sometimes plain stupid ;)

* Mr Gnoe is Not Amused that I’m calling myself a cow in this post. Don’t you love that? :))

Other bookish things

I’m currently reading The Accidental by Ali Smith. Haven’t gotten really far yet so I can’t tell you anything about it. I finished Sarah Waters’ Affinity the previous weekend when I was staying with family in the Hautes Fagnes (Belgium). It was a fun read and I hope to share my thoughts with you in a few days.

In between my previous Sunday Salon and Waters I also read Shusaku Endo’s Silence for the Japanese Book Group and The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch for my personal 2008-2010 challenge and this year’s What’s in a name challenge, category ‘body of water’. Aw, lots of reviews to write up!

Cover The Accidental, by Ali SmithCover Silence, by Shusaku EndoCover The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)

The Pillow Book

Reading along with the ‘Pillow Book Friday‘ on In Spring It Is The Dawn
Arrived at entry: 111/180
Entries read since last time: 26
Edition: 1986 Dutch translation of Ivan Morris’ Penguin edition: Het hoofdkussenboek van Sei Shōnagon (transl. from English by Paul Heijman)

Last month I went out to dinner with two of my friends and they were really strict with me, telling me to quit (!) reading The Pillow Book. Why? Because I hardly took up a book at all and reading the plotless musings of Sei Shōnagon had become a huge chore. Honest, it was a BIG relief to hear them say that! So I stopped, but never got round to pulling the cover off my blog page. Today I wanted to do so, but not without telling you about it! Maybe I shouldn’t have… While checking the page number where I had ended my Pillow Book project, I noticed I have only about 75 entries more entries to go — less than a hundred pages! What to do???

Cover Geketende Democratie (Japan), Hans van der LugtOther Japan-related nonfiction I’m reading is a book by Hans van der Lugt, a Dutch reporter having stayed on the Japanese islands for over 10 years: Geketende democratie, Japan achter de schermen. It hasn’t been published in English but if I’d have a go at translating the title it would be something like: Democracy in Chains; Behind the Scenes in Japan. The author’s revealing accounts are quite interesting, but the book doesn’t really call out to me to come read. And that is what I need these days! I guess I could ‘do’ a chapter every once in a while — maybe after I have finished reading The Pillow Book? ;)

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

Hello Japan! definitely got me swinging into 2010. January’s topic was ‘Music to my ears’. And because I found it hard to decide on just one musical subject I tried to entertain you with some ‘Music Lessons’ on Fridays. I wish I’d called them music sessions though ;)

You’ve heard several genres:

Now what’s missing? Next to popular artists Ken Ishii, Cornelius, Puffy, Hideki Kaji etc. (for those of you who want to learn more about Japanese pop music, check out Nippop), I would have loved to find out more about gagaku; traditional Japanese court music that has been an inspiration to many musicians like Ishii and Takemitsu. Well, something to wish for the future. And without a post about that ancient, 100% Japanese music, there’s a recurring aspect you might have noticed in the past lessons… There was always some connection with other nations, either western or Asian. What can I say? I’m a world citizen ;)

[4’10” David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto]

I really had an awesome JAPANUARY!
I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did?

Hello Japan! is swinging into 2010. January’s topic is ‘Music to my ears’. I found it really hard to decide what musical subject to concentrate on, so I am presenting a 5 part series of ‘Music Lessons’ on Fridays. Welcome to the final session, #5! And enjoy your weekend :)

Don’t you love to start your weekend with some ‘feelgood’ music? I know I do! :) But who would have expected me to do so with J-Rock??? Well, here’s a cover song that makes me happy each time I hear it: Can’t take my eyes of you (椎名林檎), by Sheena Ringo. So energetic!

There are several ways to write her name in romaji (using the Latin alphabet for Japanese text). It’s Shena on, Shiina in Wikipedia. Me, I’m writing Sheena, because that’s how I came to know her first.

Sheena Ringo is a singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist, oh.. and ballerina ;) As an artist she chose her childhood nickname Ringo (apple) instead of her real name Yumiko, because she used to be a shy girl and blush a lot: turning her cheeks red like apples. But later she also declared that she gave herself the name of an object, following manga cartoonist Sensha Yoshida whom she likes (his first name Sensha meaning ‘battle tank’).

Sheena Ringo is a great all-round musician. Last year she wrote some songs for another Japanese band I enjoy listening to: Puffy (AmiYumi). And good news for a film fan like me: in 2006 she directed the music for the movie Sakuran. I read about it in chasing bawa’s blogpost and I’ve been on the lookout for the dvd ever since!

Of course I can’t just leave you with a cover of a 1967 hit performed by Sheena Ringo; she usually writes her own stuff. Here’s the fine song Shūkyō (宗教 ‘Religion‘) from the album Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana (5’07”).

Hello Japan! is swinging into 2010. January’s topic is ‘Music to my ears’. I found it really hard to decide what musical subject to concentrate on, so I am presenting a 5 part series of ‘Music Lessons’ on Fridays. Welcome to #3! Which is actually more of a report on a concert I visited ;)

Time flies… almost a year ago I went to a performance of classical music by contemporary Japanese composers that are influenced by ‘the West’ but have kept their Oriental identity. The works were selected by conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and performed by the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble.

The evening consisted of music by the well-known Tōru Takemitsu (Tree Line / Archipelago S.), Jo Kondo (Isthmus / Syzygia), Toshio Hosokawa (Voyage V) and the Dutch premiere of Vanishing Point by Dai Fujikura. Because of the program’s diversity the hosting concert hall, Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, had called it ‘Japanse Mix‘; a Dutch name for a combination of rice crackers… Not surprisingly Reinbert de Leeuw pleaded in his introduction to forget about those nuts. So, apologies for the following ;)

My main sensation of the evening was that it completely cleared my head, almost like a yoga session! LOL. I don’t think I would have been able to listen as relaxed if I had been at home though. But tonight I was forced to stay put and listen ;)

Some thoughts & impressions…

Takemitsu is said to be the first Modern Japanese composer to be known in the West. Of course that has something to do with his affinity with jazz (among others); a genre not much to my liking — what might be the reason that I have to make an effort to appreciate his music. Although his oeuvre is quite varied of course. Here’s a quote on the interconnection of East and West by the master himself:

There is no doubt […] the various countries and cultures of the world have begun a journey toward the geographic and historic unity of all peoples […] The old and new exist within me with equal weight.

The evening was enclosed by two compositions of Takemitsu. The final, Archipelago S., was more ‘accessible’ to the untrained ear. It’s a piece written for 21 musicians and they all sat in a half-circle (crescent moon) on stage. Lots of solos so each got their fair share of attention ;) I’ve only got two different works of Takemitsu at home, so I’ll share with you Stanza II, performed by harpist Naoko Yoshino. Just to give you a general idea. It’s from Insomnia, a collaborative album with Gidon Kremer.

Something else Takemitsu said about his compositions appeals to me so much it really makes me want to love his music.

My music is deeply influenced by nature and Japanese gardens. From gardens, I’ve learned to treasure the Japanese sense of timing and color. Each element is precious… every rock and tree, and, somehow, we see reflected in all of them… the entire universe.

Back to the concert and other composers. What I especially liked about Voyage V by Hosokawa, were the Western flutes simulating the sound of Japanese wind chimes, ending in utter silence. A vanishing point, so to say, but that was another piece of music; by Fujikura. Is there any relation to the 1971 cult movie Vanishing Point? Anyway, the premiere of this piece was impressive in that it seemed to require the utmost concentration of all performers. The composer was present and seemed very satisfied.

Now you might have noticed I didn’t mention Kondo’s music.. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about it and I didn’t note down any striking thoughts. Maybe it was so minimalistic that it seems never to have existed? Bad joke, I know :\ Dutch readers can look it up in this review in de Volkskrant of January 31, 2009.

Although it wasn’t all as exhilarating as I might have hoped, we had a nice evening out that we concluded in the bar with a drink and snacks. Nuts, of course.

Hello Japan! is swinging into 2010. January’s topic is ‘Music to my ears’. I found it really hard to decide what musical subject to concentrate on, so I am presenting a 5 part series of ‘Music Lessons’ on Fridays. Welcome to #2! And enjoy your weekend :)

After last week’s New Year’s post I’d like to stay just a little longer within the Holiday theme and talk about the extremely melancholic song Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Here’s the short version, called Father Christmas.

Quite a contrast to the ‘happy’ popgroup Pizzicato Five that I presented you with on January 1st, eh?

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the theme song from the 1983 cult movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, for which the great musician Ryuichi Sakomoto composed the complete score. Nagisa Oshima’s film might be best known for its starring actor, pop star David Bowie playing a Japanese prisoner of war on Java in World War II. Ryuichi Sakamoto is Bowie’s opponent as a young camp commandant.

I was hugely impressed when I saw Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a teenager. It’s a dramatic history of the Second World War, parts of which still get denied in Japan today. It is amazingly well performed and directed (as far as I can remember). A very powerful movie that should be compulsory for anyone interested in history and Japan. There, I’ve said it.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence album coverOf course that my father lived in Japanese internment in Indonesia as a child might have a lot to do with it. His aversion of all things Japanese never left him and I don’t think he would have appreciated my current interest in this country and its culture if he had been alive today.

But I’m getting sidetracked. The vocal version of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence has lyrics by David Sylvian and is called Forbidden Colours. This song has helped spread the movie’s fame as well. And as I’m sitting in the confessional already, I might as well tell you Forbidden Colours was one of the tracks on the goodbye tape of my first boyfriend when he left for the US… Need I say more?

The title of the song is derived from Yukio Mishima’s novel Forbidden Colors. Both film and book explore homosexual themes, but that’s the end of their relation; the movie was based on some memoirs by Laurens van der Post.

Because of his soundtracks (and his influence in developing the technopop style in Japan), kyoju Ryuichi Sakamoto is internationally probably the best known Japanese musician.

For those of you who don’t know yet: I’m a real fan of movie soundtracks. I guess it’s because film music is supposed to be evocative and plays at people’s emotions. I’m a sucker for that ;) Of course it might help that I LOVE movies too!

Both favs of newly discovered music in 2009 were film scores: Nick Cave’s soundtrack of — the best movie of 2008 — The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Max Richter’s music for one of two best movies of 2009, Waltz with Bashir. Both pretty melancholic as well — and that tells you something more about me, doesn’t it? ;)

Hello Japan! is starting the new year with some music lessons. January’s topic is ‘Music to my ears’.

Music is pretty big business in Japan. There’s J-pop, J-rock, J-rap, R&B, anime music, enka, folk music, music from Kabuki, or Noh, taiko drums, shamisen, and a whole host of other traditional Japanese music and instruments. This month’s task is to listen to Japanese music. What kind, and how much is completely up to you.

And since I find it so hard to choose… I’ve decided to use this mini-challenge for a short series! Each Friday of the month of January will feature a Hello Japan! Music ‘Lesson’. Well, I’ll try to live up to that promise anyway ;) A good way to start the weekend, isn’t it? And yes, I’ve backdated this first post to January 1st because I had meant to write a New Year’s post anyway — but didn’t get to it ;)

Listen to the traditional New Year’s song 1 Janvier (一月一日), by Pizzicato Five.

Pizzicato Five (also known as P5) consisted mainly of Maki Nomiya and Yasuharu Konishi. It was the most famous pop group of the Shibuya-kei movement of the nineties: music made by artists associated with the Shibuya district in Tokyo. Typical for Shibuya-kei is that there’s a great interconnection between artists. Also, it’s not just one genre like J-Pop but can be any type of music: bossa nova, chanson, dance, ska, 80’s & 90’s etc. Actually, it’s even not just music: design is a very important aspect of Shibuya-kei as well! You’ve got to be stylish, don’t you ;)

I’ve been interested in Japan for a long time, but it took a huge flight once Mr Gnoe stumbled upon Pizzicato Five by accident and our home became a real life Shibuya-kei reservoir. One thing led to another: Japanese lessons for Mr Gnoe (so he could understand some of the lyrics), getting into vegetarian Japanese cooking, watching more Japanese movies, picking up Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle etc. Oh, and did I mention my big discovery of bento lunch boxes? ;)

The song 1 Janvier comes from P5’s last cd which came out in 2000: Çà et là du Japon. It’s overflowing with things Japanese: the songs all refer to Japan and Japanese culture. There’s one about Pokémon, one of the titles is the same as the Japanese anthem, they’re singing the Japanese alphabet and so on. The cover refers to the poster of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, showing the Japanese flag with the kanji for ‘Tokyo’ on its rising sun. And there’s a LOT more in the booklet, like a picture of Maki in traditional New Year’s kimono, koi in a pond, the Shinkansen and Fuji mountain. You should check it out someday!

In the new millennium Shibuya-kei had passed. Çà et là du Japon was meant as a round-up record and it contained a lot of artists with whom Pizzicato Five had previously worked together. And now, the first decade of this millennium has already passed as well! Time flies.

On December 31st I’ve been practicing all day to wish people a happy new year in Japanese on Maki’s lead. I’m afraid I’m still not very good at it so I’ll leave it to her to wish all of you Akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!

BTW as a tribute to Pizzicato Five we’ve sent a geocaching trackable on the way to Tokyo!

La Veuve MoustachueYay, it’s time for another Hello Japan! mini challenge! I had hoped for something music related because we’re going to see Kishino Yui-chi (a.k.a. La Veuve Moustachue) & Oorutaichi next Sunday — but the actual mini mission is quite as good:

This month the task is simply to eat Japanese food, take a picture if possible, and tell us about what you ate. You can go to a Japanese restaurant, or make something at home. It can be a favourite dish, or you can challenge yourself to try something new.

Cover Decorative Food CarvingHa! I can think of several ways to accomplish my mission. For one it gives me a great excuse to buy this book I have been drewling over have my eyes on: The Decorative Art of Japanese Food Carving by Hiroshi Nagashima (thanks to sherimiya of Happy Little Bento who let the Want! Want! Want! ghost out of the closet)!

But maybe I shouldn’t give away the options I’m contemplating? :\ I could do them all! And who knows… maybe on Sunday there’ll be some Japanese snacks at the concert! :)

To all participants: itadakimasu!

The Sunday Salon is a virtual gathering of booklovers on the web, where they blog about bookish things of the past week, visit each others weblogs, oh — and read ;)

I just got back from the movie Fish Tank and we have some catching up to do on Day 7 of the television series 24 before we got to leave for tonight’s Nouvelle Vague concert. So I’m keeping this short ;)

I finally managed to write my review of To Kill a Mockingbird and send the bookcrossing book off to its next reader. Now I’m 1 review down for my Classics Challenge! I even learned something new: there’s a subgenre in American literature called Southern Gothic..!

Cover Be With YouI’m currently reading Be With You, by Takuji Ichikawa. I haven’t gotten very far yet but I really love it. I feel like writing down whole pages because the passages are so beautiful! You might be surprised to know this book is part of no challenge or book group read whatsoever ;) The story, but also my mini-chillenge for October’s Hello Japan!, has made me think of Strangers by Taichi Yamada a lot, so I recycled a review I sent to my virtual book group in 2005. It is mostly in Dutch but I plan to translate that sometime soon.

That’s all folks. Next weekend: the 24 hour read-a-thon! You can read all about that in last week’s salon post.

Gnoe goes ExtraVeganza!


Currently grazing

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Gnoe herding...