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Category: Japan


Milan, 3 December 2016

Back from Kyoto, and still with a bad case of jet lag (it’s 4 am and my wife and I are sprawled on the living room couches, wide awake), it’s time to review the three weeks we spent in that city. Apart from the misery cause by the American presidential elections and the pleasure derived from teaching a course on sustainable industrialization to a group of eager youngsters not yet affected by the pessimism of old age, what else will I take back with me from my three weeks spent in Kyoto?

Ever since I first visited the city thirty years ago, Kyoto for me is first and foremost the place of Zen gardens. I have already written a paean to these rock gardens in a previous post, so I will not repeat myself. I will simply mention the pleasure I derived from visiting several rock gardens which I had not seen thirty years ago (or even five years ago, when we came for a brief visit from Beijing). My wife and I decided that our daughter, who came to visit us for Thanksgiving, just had to see a couple of these glorious creations: “he (or she) who has not seen a Zen garden has not lived”, to surely misquote someone famous. We took her to the gardens in Tofuku-ji Temple as well as those in Kennin-ji Temple, both at the foot of that range of hills which runs down Kyoto’s eastern edges and which is constellated with temples. The garden in Tofuku-ji was laid down a mere 75 years ago, in the last years of the 1930s. It gives one pause to think that these so very peaceful gardens were created when Japan was ramping up its war effort towards the disastrous conclusion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years later.

The garden was designed by Mirei Shigemori. This was his first major work and it made him famous (at least in the small world of landscape gardening). The work consists of four gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The largest, and best known, is the south garden.
It is dominated by four clusters of massive rocks. Standing imposingly at one end of the garden, they represent the mythic, far-off isles of the immortals.
Their shores are “washed” by a sea of raked white gravel, which leads the eye to five moss-covered mounds at the other end. These represent the five main temples in Kyoto of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, one of whose temples is Tofuku-ji.
This garden obviously has its roots in the design of the far more famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji.
Shigemori’s departures from the classical zen garden style were far more radical in the other three smaller gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The north garden has a checkerboard pattern, with square paving stones embedded in moss, that gently fades off into randomness, thus drawing the eye to the stand of Japanese maples beyond.
The west garden repeats the checkerboard motif, but this time with a dense array of square-cut azalea bushes.
The small east garden departs from the usual use of rough stones, inserting instead seven truncated stone cylinders (recycled from the temple’s old outhouse) into the usual “sea” of raked gravel surrounded by moss. Shigemori set the pillars out like the stars of the Big Dipper, Seven Northern Stars in Japanese.
These last three gardens caused much frothing at the mouth by the traditionalists but also drew much praise from the garden landscaping avant-garde. I leave it to readers to decide in which camp they want to be in. Meanwhile, I will move to the second zen garden which we visited with our daughter, the gardens in Kennin-ji. These gardens are a good deal more venerable, as befits the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.

The same design of gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall is found here. We have here the main garden, where, in contrast to Tofuku-ji, the monk-designer allowed a fringe of vegetation along the far border of the garden.
On the other side of the Abbot’s Hall, we have a smaller garden that invites the visitor to step over it to a beckoning tea house.
(unfortunately, the path is off-limits, but the determined visitor can reach the tea-house through a more circuitous set of stepping stones).

We have a moss garden enclosed between buildings and walkways.
Finally, squeezed in between several buildings, we have the small, compact “circle-triangle-square” garden
Kenninji Circle Triangle Square Garden
so-called because it is said that all things in the universe can be represented by these three forms (at the risk of being irreverent, though, I see the circle and square in the garden but I don’t see a triangle).

Switching gears dramatically, these three weeks in Kyoto also reanimated the love which my wife and I have for miso soup, that most Japanese of all soups.
Readers may think I lack gravitas turning in this way from the glories of Zen gardens to the humble miso soup, gentle handmaiden to the flashier main courses of countless Japanese meals. But I feel there is a strong affinity between the two: spare simplicity in the assemblage of the constituent elements, yet delivery of intense pleasure to the senses.

What is it about miso soup’s ingredients that give it that unique taste, to be found in no other soup? It is a question which I have asked myself every time I sip on its delights, yet it is only now, in my jet-lagged haze, that I turn to the Internet to find out.

The answer is the miso paste. It is this paste which, mixed with the traditional Japanese stock “dashi”, is at the heart of all miso soups. Other ingredients that are added, such as silky tofu cubes, finely chopped spring onions, and seaweed, are – if I may mix my culinary metaphors – merely cherries on the cake. Digging further, to my mind the magic of miso paste, what gives it that so very special taste, is the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. I should perhaps explain that miso paste is the product of a fermentation process; here we have the fermentation taking place the traditional way.
Our friend A. oryzae works its fermenting magic on a mash of soybeans and salt (to which other grains such as barley and rice are sometimes added). This is what the little critter looks like through a high-powered microscope.
My internet searches have also turned up the interesting fact that there are many kinds of miso paste, depending on the length of fermentation. At the less fermented end of the spectrum, we have white miso, lighter in colour and taste, at the more fermented end, we have red miso, darker and with a stronger flavour, and we have different colourings in between.
As one might imagine, there are regional preferences in the colour of one’s miso paste and, by extension, one’s miso soup. We must have been eating white miso soup since that is the preferred colour in Kyoto (while red miso soup is preferred in Tokyo, for instance).

After all this, my eyelids are beginning to droop. Maybe I’ll be able to get in a few hours of sleep before the new day dawns and have sweet dreams of visiting Kyoto once more. There are more Zen gardens to visit and more miso soups to try.

Tofukuji-south garden-1:
Tofukuji-south garden-2:
Tofukuji-south garden-3:
Ryoanji garden:
Tofukuji-north garden:
Tofukuji-west garden:
Tofukuji east garden:
Kenninji gardens-1:
Kenninji gardens-2: mine
Kenninji gardens-3:
Kenninji gardens-4:
Miso soup:
Aspergillus oryzae:
Miso pastes :



Kyoto, 26 November 2016

Two weeks ago, my wife and I visited the temple on mount Kurama, a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. We took the train to the mountain’s foot and then climbed – well, “climbed” is perhaps misleading, since rather than toil all the way up using the path that snakes its way to the top we took a cable car to very near the summit and toiled lightly the rest of the way. It was the Fall colours which had brought us there, and indeed the red of the Japanese maples and the yellow of the ginkgoes were a sight to behold.

Since it was a cool, rainy day, the surrounding landscape was enveloped in drifting cloud and mist, strongly reminiscent of painted Japanese landscapes.
At the top, we walked around the temple

and enjoyed the view.
After which, we walked down the other side of the mountain
to take a well-deserved lunch at the bottom.
A week later, when our daughter joined us for Thanksgiving, we took her to the Fushimi Inari Shrine on the hilly eastern edge of Kyoto and hiked up the mountain behind the shrine, passing through the famed tunnel of torii on the way
Torii gates—Fushimi Inari Shrine
(although when we passed through the tunnel, it was packed with people – the disadvantage of visiting Kyoto at this time of the year).

After admiring the view at the top and inspecting the small shrines sprinkled along the path, all of which were smothered in small votive torii
we made our way down again and had a well-deserved bowl of rahmen at the mountain’s foot.
Ours was an admittedly very secular version of a pastime as ancient as civilization itself, the climbing of mountains to pray to the gods. I suppose it makes sense. Gods often have been thought to reside up in the sky somewhere, and mountains were as close to the sky as we humans could get before the age of aviation. And before there were 7 billion of us, working our presence into every nook and cranny of the planet, mountains were remote, mysterious places, where our ancestors could more easily commune with the divine.

So it comes as no surprise to see that all religions have their mountains. Several degrees of longitude to the west of Kyoto, the Chinese had their Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and their Four Sacred Mountains of Daoism, and scholars sitting at the foot of mountains is a common scene on scrolls.
Hinduism, along with Jainism and Buddhism, has its Mount Meru, a mythological mountain, which for many believers, though, finds its material incarnation in Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;

Many Hindus and Buddhists make the arduous journey to the mountain. Once they reach it they will reverently circle it (I highly recommend the book “To A Mountain In Tibet”, in which that great travel writer Colin Thubron relates his journey on foot to this mountain up through the high valleys of Nepal).

Moving further west, Judaism has its Mount Sinai, traditionally thought to be this mountain.
The Bible tells us that Moses climbed it to commune with Yahweh in the Burning Bush, and from its top he brought down the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Charlton Heston gave a great performance as Moses in the Hollywood film epic “The Ten Commandments”
although I personally prefer Michelangelo’s splendid Moses.
Islam also has its holy mountains; since it is a religion of the Book, many of these are linked to stories in the Bible: Mt. Sinai because of its link to Moses, Al-Judi, reputed to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood, the mount of Olives, where the righteous will be chosen and evil abolished. But it also has mountains which are holy because of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. One such is the Temple Mount, the scene for Muslims of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven in his Night Journey, and on which they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock.


Another is Jabal Al-Nour, on the outskirts of Mecca.
This mountain houses the Hira Cave in which Muhammad began receiving the revelations which became the Qu’ran. The cave is extremely popular with Muslim pilgrims who make the arduous trek up the mountain to reach it.

As for Christianity, Jesus was crucified on a hill, Mount Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. It’s really quite a modest hill, a hillock really, which in Christian art, though, grew into a respectable hill, as shown in this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Imagining a good-sized hill gave later generations of Christians an excuse to bedeck local hills with a Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, which would wend its way up to the top of the hill and along which would be dotted the fourteen stations. The faithful would climb the Via Crucis, stopping and praying at each station (I remember well doing this as a young boy). UNESCO has canonized as a World Heritage Site nine such hills, the Sacri Monti or Sacred Hills, which are strung along the alpine foothills of Lombardy and Piedmont, not too far from Milan where we now reside. Their Vie Crucis were all created in the 16th-17th centuries.
I’m trying to persuade my wife that we should go and climb a couple. To make the suggestion more palatable, I’m suggesting that we now wait until Spring – and that we choose sacri monti that have good restaurants at their foot to which we can repair after the climbs.

Misty Japanese landscape:
Mount Kurama temple:
Other pix of Mount Kurama: ours
Scholars under mountain:
Mount Kailash:
Torii Fushimi Inari Shrine:
Fushimi Inari mouintainside shrine:
Noodle shop, Fushimi Inari shrine:
Mount Sinai:
Charlton Heston as Moses:
Michelangelo’s Moses:
Dome of the Rock:
Jabal Al-Nour:
Pilgrims to Hira Cave:
“Procession to Calvary” by Peter Breugel the Elder:
Sacri Monti-1:
Sacri Monti-2:


Kyoto, 13 November 2016

We read glumly about the results of the American presidential elections and their aftermath. The future looks bleak. Yet, even in this dark hour, it is impossible not to be struck by the beauty that surrounds us in Kyoto.

The paintings on the sliding doors of the temples, branches spreading over a wash of gold.
The sweep of moss, brilliant green, under the trees, in the temple gardens.
The leaves turning on the Japanese maples, early November scarlet bleeding into old summer green.
I am moved, like the Japanese poets of old, to compose a haiku.
Velvet moss greening gnarled roots,
Maples blooming red:
I weep for America.

Sliding doors:
Japanese poet:
Other photos: ours


Bangkok, 19 December 2015

I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.

Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.

My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.

The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).

For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).

OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.

Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.

Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:

So simple! And simply so beautiful!

The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).

It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …

St. George’s Chapel interior:
The flags:,_Windsor_Castle
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms:
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms:
Emperor of Japan’s standard:


Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.


In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started especially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry


petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition


petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).


Pétanque in France: (in

Petanque on the beach: (inétanque)

Pétanque old photo: (in

Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: (in

Pétanque in Laos: (in

Pétanque in Thailand: (in

Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: (in

Pétanque in Pondicherry India: (in

Pétanque in China: (in

Petanque video-game screen: (in



Bangkok, 19 November, 2014

I was in Myanmar last week for the first time in my life, with a team of colleagues. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with an ASEAN Summit in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, which was attended by sundry political worthies, including President Obama and Premier Li Keqiang. We seemed to have spent most of the week fleeing from these worthies. We hurriedly visited various government Ministries in Nay Pyi Taw in the two days before the Summit started and rode out of town to Yangon the night the politicos started arriving. We were congratulating ourselves on having missed the craziness which usually accompanies the presence of political heavyweights, but we had not reckoned on President Obama following us down to Yangon. His motorcading around the city to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and do various other things like visit a church snarled Yangon’s already chronically congested traffic and made our lives a misery as we threaded our way through back roads to arrive more or less on time at our various meetings.

But actually this post has nothing to do with President Obama or any other Big Cheese. It has to do with a stop we made somewhere in all this threading, at a market. One member of the team had made promises to his wife to bring a little something back to her, and the other team members thought this was an ideal occasion to pick up some Burmese bibelots. Unwillingly, I tagged along. As I feared, the market was a tourist trap: store after store of rubbish and store keepers hovering ready to pounce. But I preferred to walk around grouchily than sit in the van grouchily.

I had a faint glimmer of hope when I came across a store which sold lacquerware from Bagan. I’d read about the ancient Burmese king who had conquered his way through northern Thailand, Laos and over to Yunnan, and brought back skilled lacquerware craftsmen in his baggage train, using them to create a new luxury industry in his capital Pagan. Might I find something worth contemplating in the store?

Alas not. For one thing, I cannot stand places which look like this.


All that stuff pressing claustrophobically in on you! The feeling of being the proverbial elephant in a china shop, bumping into something and bringing mounds of breakables crashing down around your ears! My immediate reaction is to run out of such places. But I controlled my urge to run and looked. And liked not what I saw. This picture shows the typical designs being offered for sale.
Too much, too much! Too – damned – much! All those dense, dense designs. It makes me think of Australian Aboriginal art, which I wrote about in an earlier post. In art, in design, the KISS principle applies (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Now it could just be that modern makers of Bagan lacquerware use these designs because tourists have shown a preference for them, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. But a look at older designs suggests that the Burmese kings and their aristocracy also liked busy designs, although this is a good deal better than the modern stuff.
No, give me Japanese lacquerware any day. Look at this bento box in the maki-e style
Or this box in the Aizu style
Or this tray in the Negoro style (where the upper red layers of lacquer are intended to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath).
These are old fashioned if not antiques. Modern Japanese lacquerware is just as lovely. Look at this:
Or if you find that this has strayed too far from lacquerware, how about this vase?
Or if you find the design too modern, how about this?
Beauty is in simplicity of form and of pattern.

I have spoken.


Myanmar lacquerware store: (in
Typical modern Bagan lacquerware: (in
Yun lacqerware tray: (in
Maki-e bento box: (in
Aizu box: (in
Negoro tray: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-1: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-2: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-3: (in


Beijing, 6 September 2014

In our dying days in China – we leave for good in a week – it seems appropriate that I should write my last posting from Beijing about that most Chinese of utensils, the chopstick. I have a feeling that chopsticks and the Chinese food they pick up are probably the first contact which most Europeans have with Chinese culture (in the very broadest sense of that term), down at their local Chinese restaurant

Chinese restaurant UK

where fun is had by all trying to figure out how to use these two sticks

trying to use chopsticks

and where in recent years helpful instructions are printed on the paper wrapping around the chopsticks to help us ignoramuses figure this out.

instructions to use chopsticks

Certainly, I rapidly found out when I arrived here that the Chinese generally didn’t expect me to be able to manipulate chopsticks and always solicitously asked me at the beginning of meals if I wanted a knife and fork. But after years of experimentation in my local Chinese restaurants back home and after hours of carefully studying the instructions on my chopsticks’ paper wrappings, I felt that my chopstick skills were good enough and I would grandly wave away these offers of help. Generally speaking, it’s worked and I have not made too much of a fool of myself, although slippery food still defeats me completely, and I do tend to end up with numerous stains on my trousers.

Although I am a firm believer in the adage “When in Rome do as the Romans”, and will therefore use chopsticks when in Beijing, in my heart of hearts I think forks are so much better than chopsticks. I mean, it seems so much more efficient to spear pieces of food

Picture 566

rather than tweeze them

Cooked tiger shrimp with thyme twig in chopsticks

while also having available the secondary possibility of scooping if needed (for peas, for instance).

peas on a fork

And twinning a fork with a knife means that cooks can turn over the pesky work of cutting up the food to the eaters rather than to have to do this work themselves in the kitchen.

But I will admit that chopsticks are aesthetically more pleasing than forks. Or at least they are to me (and here I pull out another venerable adage: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). Used to the grotty pieces of balsa-like wood offered to us in Chinese restaurants, it came as something of a shock to my wife and I when we were offered two beautiful sets of chopsticks on our first trip to Japan. They looked something like this.

wakasa chopsticks

mother of pearl chopsticks

That was some thirty-odd years ago. They have travelled with us everywhere we’ve gone, like talismans. When we first got to Beijing, we visited Qianmen, which is a pedestrianized road to the south of Tiananmen Square. It’s very touristy, full of shops, generally pretty awful. But there was one shop which drew me like a magnet, a clearly high-end shop which sold chopsticks

chopstick-shop in qianmen

I went in and looked around. Beautiful, so beautiful – but hideously expensive. I was staggered by the prices and left empty-handed. I beg to differ with yet another adage, “beauty has no price”.

The shop taught me something I hadn’t known. Chinese chopsticks are blunt

Chinese chopstickswhile Japanese chopsticks are pointed

Japanese chopsticks

Weighing it all up, I think pointed chopsticks are more pleasant on the eye than blunt ones – and you can spear things if necessary.

I leave you with a beautiful sunburst of chopsticks. Enjoy!

circle of chopsticks


Chinese restaurant UK: [in

Trying to use chopsticks: [in

How to use chopsticks: [in

Forks: [in

Chopsticks and shrimp: [in

Peas on a fork: [in

Wakasa chopsticks: [in

Mother of pearl chopsticks: [in

Chopstick shop in Qianmen: [in

Chinese chopsticks: [in

Japanese chopsticks: [in

A circle of chopsticks: [in


Beijing, 21 May 2015

I’ve just come back to Beijing from Europe. I’ve been living long enough in China now that whenever I’m back in Europe I acutely notice differences, especially physical differences. For instance … noses. We white folk have really big schnozzles, you know! This was one of the first things which the Japanese noticed when the Portuguese showed up on their shores in the late 1500’s. The Japanese paintings of the time stress differences in nose sizes

Jesuit in Japan

And now, after just four years in Asia, I feel that everyone in Europe is Cyrano de Bergerac

cyrano de bergerac

or San Carlo Borromeo, the cardinal saint from Milan whose conk sticks out mightily from every painting of him in every church of Milan


As I see these large noses all around me back home, the lines from Cyrano come to mind, where he mocks his own gigantic hooter in front of an appreciative audience, on stage and off:

Ah ! Non ! C’est un peu court, jeune homme !
On pouvait dire… oh ! Dieu ! … bien des choses en somme…
En variant le ton, —par exemple, tenez :
Agressif : « moi, monsieur, si j’avais un tel nez,
Il faudrait sur le champ que je me l’amputasse ! »
Amical : « mais il doit tremper dans votre tasse :
Pour boire, faites-vous fabriquer un hanap ! »
Descriptif : « c’est un roc ! … c’est un pic… c’est un cap !
Que dis-je, c’est un cap ? … c’est une péninsule ! »

 Or, in English:

Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short!
You might have said at least a hundred things
By varying the tone. . .like this, suppose,. . .
Aggressive: “Sir, if I had such a nose
I’d amputate it!’ Friendly: ‘When you sup
It must annoy you, dipping in your cup;
You need a drinking-bowl of special shape!’
Descriptive: ”Tis a rock!. . .a peak!. . .a cape!
–A cape, forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!’
Curious: ‘How serves that oblong capsular?
For scissor-sheath? Or pot to hold your ink?’
Gracious: ‘You love the little birds, I think?
I see you’ve managed with a fond research
To find their tiny claws a roomy perch!’
Truculent: ‘When you smoke your pipe. . .suppose
That the tobacco-smoke spouts from your nose–
Do not the neighbors, as the fumes rise higher,
Cry terror-struck: “The chimney is afire”?’
Considerate: ‘Take care,. . .your head bowed low
By such a weight. . .lest head o’er heels you go!’
Tender: ‘Pray get a small umbrella made,
Lest its bright color in the sun should fade!’
Pedantic: ‘That beast Aristophanes
Names Hippocamelelephantoles
Must have possessed just such a solid lump
Of flesh and bone, beneath his forehead’s bump!’
Cavalier: ‘The last fashion, friend, that hook?
To hang your hat on? ‘Tis a useful crook!’
Emphatic: ‘No wind, O majestic nose,
Can give THEE cold!–save when the mistral blows!’
Dramatic: ‘When it bleeds, what a Red Sea!’
Admiring: ‘Sign for a perfumery!’
Lyric: ‘Is this a conch?. . .a Triton you?’
Simple: ‘When is the monument on view?’
Rustic: ‘That thing a nose? Marry-come-up!
‘Tis a dwarf pumpkin, or a prize turnip!’
Military: ‘Point against cavalry!’
Practical: ‘Put it in a lottery!
Assuredly ‘twould be the biggest prize!’
Or. . .parodying Pyramus’ sighs. . .
‘Behold the nose that mars the harmony
Of its master’s phiz! blushing its treachery!’


Jesuit priest in Japan: [in

Cyrano de Bergerac: [in

San Carlo Borromeo: [in


Beijing, 13 April 2014

My French grandmother’s house was … old-fashioned, shall we say. Among its many quirks was the fact that it did not have a flush-toilet. Instead, you eased yourself into this small, cluttered space, and you parked your derriere (your backside) on this beautiful wooden seat to do your besoins (your needs), as the French delicately put it. Once finished, you pulled a lever to open a trap door at the bottom of the porcelain bowl and off went your besoins, helped along with a generous portion of water you poured in from a large enameled metal jug. The exhalations emanating from the opened trap door were sometimes eye-wateringly powerful, and there was always a generally musty smell in the loo. However, the olfactory downsides were more than offset by the beautiful view from the window, framed as it was by the bright green leaves of a wisteria vine which snaked up the outside wall and onto the roof. The view was that much more beautiful in spring when clusters of the wisteria’s light purple flowers thrust themselves at the window. When my mother inherited the house, one of the first things she did was to install a flush toilet. But the wisteria remained. In fact, after my parents retired there my mother encouraged it to spread to other walls nearby, which made it a rare pleasure to go and visit my parents in spring. This is not a photo of the house, but it gives an idea of what would greet my wife and I, with children in tow, after a long drive up from Italy in May.
glycine sur mur-2
Since those moments in my grandmother’s loo, I have always had a weak spot for wisteria. At the right moment of the year, I keep an eager lookout for a sudden froth of light purple flowers popping up over a wall or in the corner of a garden. I have a particularly powerful memory of a bike trip which my wife and I made many years ago along the Loire valley, where between one Renaissance chateau


and another


we would run into cascades of wisteria – every garden seemed to have a wisteria.
glycine dans la vallee de la Loire-1

glycine dans la vallee de la Loire-2
And just last year, when we were in Philadelphia, we stumbled onto a pergola covered by a thick coat of white wisteria, which was a first for me (I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post but I repeat the photo)
white flowers 003
And the neighbours to our rooftop garden in our last apartment in Vienna had planted a wisteria, which coiled and twisted its way onto our side, an intrusion we gladly accepted since it rendered so pleasant those first days in spring when my wife (with a very little help from me) toiled at her garden tubs, planting and repotting, after the long sleep of winter. In fact, jealous at their success, I purchased a modest wisteria plant for our side, with dreams of it eventually smothering our balcony. Alas, it perished miserably that summer while we were away for our holidays.

So you can understand my pleasure when I saw that the wisteria across the road from our apartment in Beijing had flowered
wisteria beijing

although I mentally castigated the management of the building for not doing a little pruning.

For the first time in my life, I read up a bit on wisteria. And the first thing I discovered is that wisteria is Chinese! Well, there’s also a Japanese wisteria. And two American wisterias. But no European wisteria! So once again, like the weeping willow which I wrote about in my last post and the magnolia which I wrote about a few posts earlier, Europeans have borrowed a plant from China, or maybe in this case from Japan (but not from the US; American wisteria don’t seem to be gardeners’ favourites, even in the US itself, since their flowers are of more modest size, bloom for less time, and are scentless). When you read these cases, you begin to understand why the poorer countries complain about pharmaceutical and other companies from the richer countries coming and “borrowing” their flora and making a fortune selling them, or their chemical components, back home.

But now I’m left with a tricky question: was the wisteria at my grandmother’s house Chinese or Japanese? The literature tells me that the flower-clusters (racemes in the horticultural lingo) of the Japanese wisteria are longer than those of the Chinese wisteria, but I’m buggered if I remember the length of those racemes nodding at the loo window. And anyway, I’m sure raceme lengths are all averages, so I don’t think this would be a good way for an uneducated plant man like me to distinguish a Chinese wisteria from its Japanese cousin. A far more powerful way of distinguishing the two seems to be the direction of twining which the vine adopts. Chinese wisteria twine clockwise, while Japanese wisteria twine counter-clockwise! (I love it; isn’t that a great way of figuring out where a plant comes from? But why would one twine one way and the other the other? The mysteries of genetics). I must remember to send my sister an email (she inherited the house, did further massive works, but kept the wisteria) and ask her which way the wisteria twines. This will no doubt be the moment she concludes that I have finally lost it …


Wisteria on the house: [in

Château d’Amboise : [in

Château de Blois : [in ]

Wisteria along the road-1: [in

Wisteria along the road-2: [in

Wisteria in Philadalphia: my photo

Wisteria in Beijing: my photo



Beijing, 4 December 2013

The Chinese have a a strange relationship with rocks. Go to any self-respecting Chinese garden and somewhere in the twists and turns of its paths you will come nose to nose with a fantastically twisted rock standing there waiting to be admired.

The Forbidden City in Beijing has a specimen which is (of course) very large
rock sculpture forbidden city-2
while a number of the famous gardens in Suzhou have examples more to the human scale
rock sculpture suzhou-1

rock sculpture suzhou-2
rock sculpture suzhou-3
Admire them they do, the Chinese. When they catch sight of one of these rock sculptures, they will normally break into oohs and aahs, and end up – inevitably, in today’s culture in China – taking a group photo in front of said rock.

The fascination with these rock sculptures extends to internal spaces. It is very common to come across smaller (and sometimes not so smaller) versions in Ministries and other public buildings. Even in the intimate space of the scholar’s study, it was almost de rigeur for the scholar to have a small rock sculpture such as this one
scholar stone
sitting on his desk, among the brushes, ink stand, rice paper, and the rest of his scholarly paraphernalia.

This is not a dead art form. Chinese sculptors are continuing to create these rock sculptures, as this photo from an outdoor exhibition in Chicago attests (in this case, though, while the design principles remain the same rock no longer seems to be the medium)

rock sculpture in Chicago

I have to assume that Chinese garden designers, like their English counterparts, were bringing the natural landscapes around them, suitably tamed, into their gardens. In the case of the rocks, the landscapes in question must surely be the karst landscapes which are common in many parts of China. This is one such landscape in Yunnan, known as the Stone Forest and famous enough to have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
stone forest yunnan-2
(on an aside, I should note that it was visited by Lisa, of whom I have written earlier, during a trip which she took to Yunnan some six months ago; predictably, her photos of the trip included a large number of her, or her traveling companion, or her tour group, standing among the rocks)

I have to say, I don’t like these rock sculptures. I find the sheer froth of all that twisted stone to be just too much.  Those whorls, those curlicues, those knobs, those piercings, the sheer grotesqueness of it all … Ugh!

This fascination with large rocks has taken on a modern twist. It has become a sign of class for any organization with pretensions of social or economic significance to have a large rock placed before its important buildings, with its name carved on it in classy Chinese characters. These rocks tend to eschew the flowery style, opting instead for a massive ponderousness which no doubt is meant to signal the solidity and power of the organization in question.

rock in front of building-1

I don’t like these sculptures any better. They are just big and heavy with no redeeming features that I can see – the Chinese will sometimes get excited about the script, either because it adheres to the classical cannons of beauty for Chinese characters or because they are copies of some famous Chinese person’s script, but all that leaves me cold.

So you can imagine the relief and pleasure I felt when my wife and I came across this
rock landscape Suzhou IM Pei museum
in the courtyard of a museum in Suzhou, which was designed by the architect I. M. Pei (he of the East Wing of the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C.). Here at last was a rock sculpture in China which I could relate to, spare, simple, clean of line, yet able to evoke beautifully its subject, a range of mountains in the distance.

It is that same spare style which made me fall in love so many years ago with Japanese rock gardens which my wife and I visited in Kyoto during a trip to Japan. Here are pictures of some of the more beautiful of these gardens.
Kyoto Nanzenji rock garden

Kyoto Ryoanji-Rock-Garden

Kyoto Ryogen-in Rock-Garden-2

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

Kyoto totekiko rock garden
When I saw these gardens, I vowed that some day, somewhere, I would make my own rock garden. I had to wait 15 years before I got my chance, in Vienna, in a corner of the large balcony which wrapped around our apartment. I bought the small stones in a garden store, I found two largish stones in the woods around Vienna (I nearly bust a gut carrying them to the car and then up the stairs to the balcony), and I strategically placed two small plants (also bought in the garden store) behind these stones. I cut saw teeth into a plywood plank to make a rough rake, and then I lovingly raked the small stones around the large stones to create a vision of ripples around rocky islets. The result was really not bad, even if I say so myself.

But we left the apartment, and with death in my heart I had to abandon my rock garden. But some day, somewhere, I’ll make another one, to contemplate it in my old age with peace in my heart.


Rock sculpture in the Forbidden City-2: [in

Rock sculpture Suzhou-1: [in

Rock sculpture Suzhou-2: [in

Rock sculpture Suzhou-3: [in

Scholar’s stone: [in

Stone forest Yunnan: [in

Rock in front of building-1: [in

Rock sculpture in Chicago: [in

Rock landscape Suzhou IM Pei Museum: [in

Kyoto Nanzenji rock garden: [in

Kyoto Ryoanji: in []

Kyoto Ryogen-in rock gardens:–kyoto-japan-daniel-hagerman.jpg [in–kyoto-japan-daniel-hagerman.html%5D

Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: [in

Kyoto Totekiko rock garden: [in