Playing Concentration or Memory, Heian Style

 A primary conceit of the current age is that everything today is somehow new or original, completely different from anything of the past.

We’re in the “digital age”, and internet has changed everything. We live in democracies – everything is totally unique.

But the Heian era is proof that this is not the case.  Take a simple game that was played in the Heian era, known as “Kai-Awase”.  “Awase,” meaning “matchings” or “joinings.”  An aristocrat would have a set of 360 pairs of clam shells, which would be painted on the inside with either images, or perhaps poetry lines.

The images on the inner shells were fairly typical themes for the era – poetry, seasonal, literary, flowers, or perhaps noblemen gently weeping by a moonlit pond. Each clam shell would have an exact replica.

The game was played in the following manner. All of the shells would be placed face down on the floor. Each player would take turns flipping over the shells and attempting to find the shell’s match. Whomever found more matches would win the game. ….sound familiar?

This is pretty much the exact same game as Memory, or Concentration, a game nearly every Kindergartner plays with regular playing cards or pieces of cardboard with pictures of cartoon animals. The rules haven’t even changed.  It was played literally the exact same way over 1,100 years ago.  Feel perhaps a little closer to the Heian era? You probably mastered one of their games before learning to read.





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Filed under frivolity, games, sedentariness, the past

Kana’s Arts

Procrastination: everyone I know seems to have this problem, or at least claims to, leading to the popularity of t-shirts and facebook groups proclaiming, “Procrastinators of the World Unite! …Tomorrow.”

When it comes to this blog, I tend to have this issue, only rather than procrastinate entirely, I have an idea or moment of inspiration, type up notes in WordPress, and then press save — the draft unfinished. As it happens, I have drafts from over a year ago, and had essentially written the posts in my head without having bothered to have published anything. It’s horrifyingly lazy (…thus quintessentially Heian?), but I’m attempting to change! We’ll see how that actually goes.

On the subject of things I’ve meant to do, it occurred to me this afternoon that I had always meant to find and purchase prints by a local Gainesville artist. I had seen her work when it was for sale at the museum store at the Harn Museum of Art at University of Florida, and had found it incredibly charming. Being a Japanophile, I had gone to see an exhibition on Kimonos from the Art Deco and Modernist period and happened to stop by the Museum Store. Given that I was moving in a few months, however, I had not purchased any prints but made a mental note to do so.  After several fruitless Google searches, and an unsuccessful call to the Harn museum store for more information (in all fairness, the salesgirl I spoke to was new), I finally managed to find the artist’s name and website:


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Every Snowfall in Heian Japan was a Snowpacalypse

To all of those readers in the Northeast, Midwest, or any of the states currently buried in snow, bored out of your minds,  and experiencing serious cabin fever, think about this: the walls in Heian homes were generally made of very thin screens, or paper, at least inside. That’s right – PAPER. Your house doesn’t seem so cold now, does it?


Filed under snow, tedium

Heian Decor is Always Welcome

I realize that I have not posted in quite some time. Unfortunately, unlike my aristocratic Heian compatriots, I must actually work (?) for a living rather than living on the income of far off provincial estates I have never ever visited and could not find on a map.  As a result, I have had less time to actively pursue an interest in all things Heian.

Nonetheless, Heian objects seem to find me. While waiting on line at a thrift store in my neighborhood recently, I happened to spot this particular mini-collage on the counter next to the register. I didn’t even find it while browsing – it was just there, waiting for me to take it, not having been placed there by an errant shopper off to find one last item.

The gentleman may not be wearing a black lacquer hat, and the lady’s hair does not appear to be long, but this little piece of decor is clearly in the Heian spirit. After all, they are both quite attractively pale and plump.  It’s good to know that unlike some trends, standards of beauty never change.


Filed under art, Ladies

Modern Heian Kyo

The New York Times’ Travel Section this week has a multitude of articles about travel to Asia, and there are two articles about Kyoto alone.

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Cherry Blossom Season

Cherry Blossoms at the Heian Shrine, Kyoto.

In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon are sometimes compared to different flowering trees that bud and bloom in the spring. Reserved and contemplative as she was, Murasaki is thought of as similar to  a cherry blossom, a traditional symbol of purity, while the gregarious, slightly more promiscuous Sei is likened to a vibrant red plum blossom.

A Sakura in Washington, D.C.

March is the month of the first Cherry Blossom or Sakura Festivals in Japan and in Washington, D.C. If you cannot get to Japan, the festival starts in our nation’s capital on March 27th this year. Even if you don’t particularly love cherry blossoms, there’s at least a parade with an enormous Hello Kitty balloon.


Filed under cherry blossoms, Murasaki Shikibu, Shonagon, travel

Buddhist Heian Art : The Lotus Sutra

Gold on indigo-dyed paper - from the later part of the Heian period.

This illustration is from the later part of the Heian period, approximately a century after Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu lived, wrote, and gossiped about each other. Considering that Buddhist compassion and forgiveness has been in the news lately following Tiger Woods’ televised apology, which contained references to his childhood visits to Thai Buddhist temples, this particular worked seemed timely. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the Mahayana belief that Buddha’s compassion is open to all, regardless of position in life. Heian aristocrats would take comfort in such a belief, despite the fact that had a noted lack of empathy for the poor that bordered on disdain.

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Filed under art, beauty, buddhism, Murasaki Shikibu, Shonagon

Heian Kyo in Winter

Snow falling on the Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto.

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In Winter, the Early Mornings…

Last night and into the morning, a new blizzard hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, bringing with it a good half foot of snow or more. While this winter has been particularly cold, and being cooped up indoors induces a form of winter madness in all but the hardiest souls, waking up to newly fallen snow is an undeniably joyous aspect to an otherwise frozen, barren season.

“The Pillow Book” famously starts with the line “in spring, it is the dawn”, as Sei Shonagon poetically describes the loveliest time of day per season. In winter, it is the early morning:

“In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes” —-Sei Shonagon

Frozen salt marsh.

A flock of crows on slushy ice of brackish water.

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Heian Syncretic Sculpture

Zao Gongen, the protective deity of a Shinto-Buddhist cult called Shugendo

This statue of Zao Gongen can be seen in the East Asian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zao Gongen was the spirit of Mt Kimpu, which is south of Nara.  He had previously been holding a thunderbolt scepter, which is now missing. The Fujiwaras, everyone’s favorite ruling clan, were among the adherents of Shugendo, a syncretic Shinto-Buddhist cult.

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Filed under art, buddhism, Fujiwara, nara, Shinto

Be Extremely Repetitive in Your Use of Vocabulary

I know I am!

Heian literature requires a  great deal of effort to translate from the original Japanese, and must be altered totally from its initial form. Why might that be, you ask? A common Heian literary conceit, which was considered elegant at the time, was the excessive overuse of a single adjective in a sentence – to the point of using a strong adjective perhaps  four times in the same sentence.

Sei Shonagon in “The Pillow Book” frequently used adjectives such as “charming” over and over and over again in an anecdote. Were such a passage directly translated, the meaning of the writing would be utterly lost on a modern day reader. It would be far too boring and mind-numbingly repetitive.

On the other hand, perhaps this repetitiveness isn’t too far from the experience of the modern day literature fan. Many writers today, whether of novels, newspaper articles, or blogs, seem to re-use the same vocabulary.

I know I overuse the words ridiculous, hilarious, weird, amazing, awesome, and random. Maybe that assortment of words captures my particular take on life.  Possibly I should start looking at a thesaurus every once in a while.

If anyone calls you out on your slim vocabulary or overuse of a few choice adjectives, turn the tables on them. “Oh, I do that on purpose,” you’ll say. “I find it elegant. It’s very Heian.”

They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. You win.


Filed under Literature, Shonagon, translation, Uncategorized

Just a Friendly Reminder…

....don't even think about cutting that hair.

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Stop Exercising

An aristocratic Heian woman did not move very often. She would not have played sports, nor would she have spent time on long solitary walks. Instead, wealthy women lived extremely sedentary lives, spending much of their time sitting around, playing board games with others, practicing penmanship, or eagerly anticipating a response to a sent poem. This is yet another reason why Heian women dominated Japanese literature of the period to such a degree – there was nothing else to do but sit and write.

Sitting on the floor > than sitting on an exercise bike.

To modernize this behavior, spend your time sitting around your room. Talk to your friends on the phone or online. Start writing in a notebook or a blog. Or just feel melancholy. The choice is yours!

But whatever you do, don’t go for a jog. It’s really not very Heian.


Filed under exercise, insularity, Ladies, melancholy, sedentariness

Go to the Dentist for a Teeth Blackening

Look at those gorgeous blackened teeth! Think they're natural?

According to my dentist’s office, teeth whitening is the most popular cosmetic surgery in America. Nothing, other than clear skin, is considered more of an indication of overall good health and thus beauty than a mouth full of shiny, bright white (porcelain or bleached) teeth. So imagine then, if you will, staining your teeth as black as possible and having that considered the epitome of beauty. It certainly was in the Heian era. White teeth were considered disgusting – reminiscent of mealworms.

Sugar gliders snacking.

The next time someone tells you that an obvious fad will always be stylish or popular, rather than arguing, just nod, smile, and imagine your friend with a mouthful of blackened teeth. It’s a timeless look – just like the lumberjack shirts of today, blackened teeth never went out of style.


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No One Likes a Lazy Exorcist

There are times in life when one hires a religious figure to complete a ceremony or needed task. Whether it is a priest, pastor, rabbi, or shaman, sometimes a spiritual authority is needed and thus summoned. We expect the figure to behave with the requisite solemnity or authority of someone in such a post. However, at times this is not what happens. A minister at a wedding stumbles over the vows, or a priest sneezes from an excessive amount of incense. Hateful!

So goes another anecdote from Sei Shonagon’s Most Hateful List:

“Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long, fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcising too many evil spirits lately, for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful!”

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Filed under exorcism, Pillow Book, Shonagon, superstition, Uncategorized