A Pillow Book of Japan

Ever since my first visit to Japan I have been fascinated by the myriad of traditional practices, flavours, sounds and sights that are both cherished as part of a rich history and integrated into everyday modern life. The practice of observing the changing seasons is as evident in the flavours of soft drinks and fast food as it is in the sophisticated kaiseki ryori cuisine. The summer tradition of hanging a fūrin windchime is seen in the handblown glass chimes hung outside traditional homes and in the mini plastic fūrin dangling from mobile phones. Alongside these old traditions the cultural landscape of Japan is filled with new practices, sights and flavours adopted from the West. The ubiquitous US-style konbini convenience stores are seen all over Japan having being given a Japanese twist and become an institution. Western favourites such as KitKats, Pepsi and Mcdonalds are also common sights in Japan but have been blended with traditional flavours like green tea, azuki bean and teriyaki. It is this blend of fiercely protected archaic traditions and seamlessly appropriated modernity that, I think, is the most fascinating thing about Japan.

This cultural split-personality forms the basis of my current project, an observation of the traditional and the modern in Japan explored through the country's sights, sounds, flavours and aromas. I intend to use research and personal experience including a trip to Japan, photography and text to explore these themes culminating in what I hope will be an interesting and informative book.

The book itself will be take the form of a 'Pillow Book' inspired by the writings of Sei Shōnagon, a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji). Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book is a collection of thoughts, musings and observations of life at the court of Empress Sadako where she served as a lady-in-waiting. The numbered sections of her book range from lists of pleasing things and her thoughts on fashionable society to her memories of events at the palace and provide a very personal insight into life at the palace. This magpie approach to writing, taking a little inspiration from here, creating a list favourite things there, has appealed to me ever since I came across extracts of Shōnagon's Pillow Book in an encyclopaedia and seemed the most appropriate approach for this project.

Over the next year I intend to gather all the research and ideas that I need to get the most out of my trip to Japan. Along the way I will use short articles on this blog to report on and record my progress. I hope that you will join me on my journey and share your thoughts and experiences too.

My list of themes, made up of a combination of established traditions, modern imagery and personal memories, so far contains the following:

The traditional soundscape of Japan is dominated by sounds associated with religion such as Buddhist temple bells and Shintō shrine bells while traditional garden ornaments also provide many nostalgic sounds, traditional instruments such as the shamisen or koto also create sounds that are distinctly Japanese.
While the sounds of traditional Japan could be described as harmonious and contemplative the streets of modern Japan are often described as being filled with a cacophony of electronic noise. From the jingles and melodies of pachinko parlours, games centres, pedestrian crossings and train and subway stations to the enthusiastic calls of retail workers the streets of Japan are indeed filled with a noisy soundtrack. Nature is also evident in the rasping call of the many crows that are a common sight in parks and gardens.

The sights of traditional Japan are recognised around the world; elegant wooden architecture, elaborate kimono, beautiful geisha and maiko and the famous sakura. Bamboo, used in just about every aspect of life in Japan from food to household items, has been a symbol of Japan for hundreds of years.
The modern symbols of Japan such as neon signs, shinkansen, the ubiquitous vending machines seen on every corner and the lifelike plastic food samples are just as famous. Konbini convenience stores and the super modern toilets seen across the country are also part of what makes modern Japan unique.

The base of traditional Japanese cuisine is formed by three main ingredients; rice, fish and shoyu. Seaweed is also an important flavour as are green teaanko red bean paste and a variety of different noodles.
Modern Japanese food is dominated by yoshoku Western-style dishes such as omurice and hamburg steak, instant ramen and special varieties of imported snacks like KitKat and Mcdonald's. The much used Kewpie mayonaise is also an important flavour.

This list is proving a little more difficult to form and I have nothing more than the art of incense ceremony, a traditional pastime practiced with the same seriousness as tea ceremony, at the moment.

As I will be visiting Japan during the summer I am also including some seasonal imagery. The soundscape of summer is filled with the crackle of hanabi, the rustle of bamboo groves, the gentle ting of a fūrin and the piercing sound of cicada. The practice of sprinkling water known as uchimizu, matsuri and hanabi displays, people dressed in colourful yukata and the use of fans and handkerchiefs are all common sights during the summer. Flowers such as morning glories and hydrangeas often represent summer as do fireflies. As far as flavours go mugicha, watermelon, kakigori and mizuyokan are popular as are chilled noodles and special seasonal flavours of drinks like Pepsi and snacks like KitKat.

The Sounds of Japan: Bonshō Temple Bells

The Sounds of Japan: Japanese Gardens

Rice: Japan's Staple Food and Important Cultural Symbol

Summer in Japan: Sounds

Summer in Japan: Uchimizu


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