The Original Japanese Travel Writer

Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), was the son of an Irish Army Doctor and a Greek Women and was first and foremost a writer. After attending school in Ireland, he moved to America where he wrote in Cincinnati and New Orleans for various newspapers.

Hearn became increasingly dissatisfied with materialistic life in the west and so planned to move to Japan. However, an opportunity came in 1890 when he was commissioned to write a travel article in Japan. Upon arriving in Yokohama, Hearn instantly quit his contract and moved to Matsue in Shimane Prefecture to become a teacher. In Matsue he met and later married Koizumi Setsu, a daughter from a Samurai family.

Later, Hearn changed his own name to Koizumi Yakumo, a name taken from an Japanese myth. Hearn was the original travel writer on Japan, writing and collecting stories up until his death in 1904. Living in Japan in what many would call a golden era for Japan when akon Yosai・ the bringing together of Japanese spirit and Western Technology, was at the forefront of Government thinking after the Meiji restoration, Hearn luckily provides us with an image of Japan that is no longer present.

In famous works such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan(1894), Out of the East(1895), In Ghostly Japan(1899), Kwaidan(1904) and Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation(1904) Hearn looks and analyses the minutiae of Japanese life, and delves into the depths of the ghost in the Japanese psyche.

For myself, Kwaidan- literally Horror Stories is the best gift he left us. The book is an excellent translation and collection of ghost stories, and has been made into a brilliant film by the director Masaki Kobayashi (1964). If you are studying Japanese or are interested in Japan, Hearn must be read. I will say no more and let Hearn do the rest with two poems.


Yamadera no
Taki no oto

(In the mountain-temple the paper mosquito – curtain is lighted by the dawn: sound Of waterfall


Yuki no mura;
Niwatori nait

(Snow-village; -cocks crowing; – white dawn)


Thanks to the following websites:

Copyright @ Warren Courtney. All rights reserved.

The Yukigassen

The higlight of my year in Japan is the ‘Yuki-gassen’ the snowball competition. Every year in the prefecture of Tottori in a small eastern town, people gather in Wakasa, to hurl snowballs at one another for fun.

However, it is not just for fun as this is a national competition. I have never been in a winning team – in fact I have never been in a team that has won a game – but this is a serious business.

When you arrive at the tournament – you are entered in as teams of ten – you are given a huge ‘snowball making machine’. This machine is in two halves. In each half are 50 semi-circular holes. You pack each hole with snow, and then you put both halves of the machine, one on top of the other, thereby making whole snowballs. Snowballs not correctly made are illegal – snowball judges come around to check and see if they are being made correctly – and bad snowballs are dispensed with.

You are allowed 100 snowballs for your team. In the actual game both teams line up in separate halves of a small football pitch, which is covered in snow, but has walls placed all across the pitch. These walls are important because they are your protection. The rules of the game are simple: Do not get hit by a snowball or you are out, or try and hit all the other team with a snowball so you win. If you cannot get everybody – and it is tough – then you can go for a flag which is in the opponents half. If you get the other team’s flag you win automatically.

Playing against baseball teams in particular is suicide, there is often no point even turning up. A snowball made by these guys hurts, and if you are hit in the head, they meant it. The games I played in were fast affairs, the slowest member of our team – me – made a run for the flag and got knocked senseless by all those fastballs. Even so however cold it is, spurred on by hot green tea and yakitori which are sold at the event makes for a great day out. Although Tottori has a hell of a lot of snow, and I have been dug out of my house twice now by Shogaksei, the Yukigassen makes it worth it.

The finals I have seen are tentative affairs, with fast runners trying to steal flags and snowballs flying in all directions. Winners are cautious teams who have spent hours practising at throwing snowballs at moving objects from behind a snow wall. One day I’ll get to the national final.

The winners of this local tournament then have their travel paid for to go to the national finals. But if ever you have a chance to play – do so and Gambatte Kudasai!

Copyright @ Warren Courtney. All rights reserved.

The Osaka Minority Museum

Recently, I went with a friend of my to see Steven Spielberg’s new film ‘Minority report’. The film talks about hidden files in the mind of a psychic that the main character, Tom Cruise needs to clear his name of a supposed crime that he is going to commit.

Soon after, I went with a teacher friend to the Osaka museum of Japanese Minority Cultures. We were in Osaka at the time for a Sumo tournament with a whole group of individuals and after looking in the Lonely Planet guidebook, deicided that this destination would be a good one to explore. Strangely enough, I wished we had not.

We set out on the tube, which in Osaka is relatively easy to follow. although you have to keep an eye out for station names. We soon discovered that station names became larger in Kanji and smaller in Romaji the further we went from the city centre. We even went wrong twice and mistakenly took the wrong service going back the way we had come.

The temperature on the train also made us rather dozy which did not help our decision making. However, after three changes we finally got to the stop that in our guidebook stated was the nearest point to the museum. Great we thought, not far. On the small map, supplied as part of the book it looked easy enough to get to the museum.

However, when we got out of the station and started to try and find out way, we quickly became disoriented. Sometimes in Japan all the urban areas start to look the same and so we went up and down the same road four or five times before finally asking in a small, old wooden restaurant if they knew the way. They had never heard of it and looked at us as if we were mad. Why go there they asked? We want to see what it is we replied. We expected a large museum, huge signposting to the museum and lots of interesting things inside.

Finally we made a wrong turn that ended up being a right turn which brought us right outside the museum. A very modest town hall sized building with a very small entrance fee of about 2000 yen I think.

The museum itself was brilliant. I did not know for example that music in the Okinawan culture was such an intrinsic part of its way of life. Ainu music I heard for the first time, it was haunting and beautiful. For myself the most interesting aspect was that which dealt with the Burakumin – that problem which noboy dares mention. This group who are made peripheral to Japanese society becuase of historical links to butchering or shoe making – all those areas within society that Buddhism detested – still suffer today. However, in my home town of Chizu in Tottori, my town hall representative are fighting this racism and many a long meeting has tackled the subject.

I was surpised to see at the museum a replica of a ‘black book’ one of the supposed books used by Japanese companies to list Burakumin names, in an attempt to enable companies to be able to screen out these people rather than employ them. This practice is now long dead but I could not help feeling as I left the museum that it was in a such an out of the way place on purpose. What a shame as these cultures seem to have so much to offer and are now beginning to make headway culturally in Japan, particularly Okinawan music.

Copyright @ Warren Courtney. All rights reserved.

Two years on

The last time I wrote for in in 2000 I believed that I did not have alot to offer. I did not think I had enough understanding of Japanese culture to make my column worthwhile.
However, 2 years on, I realise that my understanding of Japan, its culture and its language has moved on.

It is very easy to become enamoured with Japanese culture, particularly with the way in which the Japanese treat their own countryside. The temples, the cicadas buzzing and clicking all the time throughout the stifling summer and the low mist hanging over the mountains all create a beautiful scene for contemplation. But I write now in earnest.

Recently I have been reading ‘Dogs and Demons’ by Alex Kerr. Kerr is the only foreigner to have won the prestigious Shincho Gakugei prize in Japan – and he is concerned. Kerr grew up in Japan in Yokohama when his father worked in the American Navy – later taking degree in Japanese studies from Yale and Oxford Universities. Kerr and was lucky enough at primary school to have been taught Hiragana and Katakana.

But for Kerr in his current book, and in a famous book called ‘Lost Japan’ he argues that foreigners living and working in Japan are in love with a Japan that does not exist anymore.

For Kerr the growth of the construction industry in Japan has led to an industry that cannot stop.
Forests, rivers, whole valleys are destroyed according to Kerr as the construction department and construction industries and local town halls rush every year to use up surplus money in an effort to make sure contracts are renewed the following year.

Places such as Kyoto – Kerr lives nearby in Kameoka – for example are filled with monstrosities such as the Kyoto Station, or the Kyoto tower which was put up in the 1960’s albeit against alot of local resident resentment.
The Kyoto for Kerr that exists in the mind of the foreigner is simply not there. Kerr speaks of a foreigner who was taken on a tour of the area around Mount Fuji. The individual wanted to see the physically see the famous thirty six views of Mount Fuji by Hiokusai, The problem is that those views no longer exist.

So I am writing after two years and a return to Japan because I am beginning to see Kerr’s point. There are people desperate to preserve Japan. Kyoto for example was spared bombing at the end of world war two because the American government deemed it a place worthy of being a world place of cultural significance. Up until thirty years ago, wooden homes could still be seen in Kyoto and they were the predominant place of residence. Not any more.

Conversely, Japan as an international culture grows, linguistically and now, in football aswell. This should not be at the expense of the cultural depths that are still apparent in Japan, but you have a lot harder for them today.

Copyright @ Warren Courtney. All rights reserved.

Starting to Understand Wabi Sabi

Hello! Yookoso! I’m the newest team member to the writers on webjapanese. In time honored Japanese fashion as I am new to this business I must therefore say that I hope I do not offend anyone in the upcoming months, or appear too stupid. In short, please forgive me for my failings as I believe I am a white belt when it comes to writing about Japan, and its language.

I first became interested in Japan when a close friend of mine started studying Japanese at University. He was studying history, but he also had a minor in Japanese, so to see him learning this bizarre and unusually written language was very impressive. He lent me books by Japanese authors such as Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, and Kenzaburo Oe with titles such as The Golden Pavilion, A Personal Matter and (my favourite) A Wild Sheep Chase. What I loved the most about this first step into Japanese was that Japan and its culture was different, and yet so similar to western countries. This in part led me to call this column Kabuki Trifle reflecting both the West and Japan.

Japan whilst being intensely original with things like the tea ceremony also has at its core western ideals such as fuikusshon (fiction), the name now applied to the younger generation of writers like Banana Yoshimoto. The subtle hints of the peace and harmony at the surface of Japanese culture pulled me in.

To use my column title, I understand trifle, but now I want to understand things like Kabuki more readily, and how they have become a modern “Kabuki Trifle” So reading Japanese authors left me with many burning questions. Why would anyone burn Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) because of such an intense love for it? Why would anyone write a book about the Kitchen being their favourite part of a house? Simply put: because there is an intelligent simplicity (Wabi Sabi) in Japan, which has been lost in the west, and has now drawn me in. Even in translation the clear and simple style of Mishima (I am told this is what it is like to read it in the original) is not lost. The honest and passionate anger shown by Oe in A Personal Matter about having an autistic son is brutal, yet wonderfully open-minded. An English or American writer could not tackle a similar subject so well. The different way these writers looked at the world made me want to know more.

So here I am. I can now read “albeit very slowly” Hiragana, and I find Katakana a pain. But I am gradually discovering Kanji and I am finding an intelligent simplicity in them. They are easier to understand than Hiragana and are also far more beautiful than Roman script. So hopefully in the future I will be able to write fluently with Kanji as well. Anyway, I have waffled enough for now, so Kanpai until next month.

Copyright @ Warren Courtney. All rights reserved.