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“The Old Love Letter” by Zhang Jiajia 张嘉佳“老情书”英译

July 23, 2022

短篇小说“老情书” — 2014年网红作家张嘉佳著,齐冉译

Zhang Jiajia rose to fame in 2014 after his writing went viral on the internet. This short story is from his 2014 book “I Belonged to You”(从你的全世界路过). It was adapted into a TV drama in 2016. I translated this story from the Chinese in 2014; I haven’t updated it since so please excuse the inevitable errors.

The Old Love Letter

Can you talk or not?

There are two kinds of people who can talk. The first are able to take stock of the situation, divide things into categories, and speak right to another person’s heart, like the TV host Cai Kang Yong. The second talk a lot, but not a word has any impact, like an AK-47 that never runs dry, like Hu Yan (胡言).

Hu Yan is one my most eccentric friends. Usually you hardly realize he exists; as soon as he opens his mouth it’s a nuclear bomb. Boom! Ash blasted on everybody’s face.

One of my bros went through a breakup; his girlfriend took his ring and ran off with somebody. The motley crew gathered at KTV. None of us wanted to bring it up.

Somebody said faintly, “Let bygones be bygones.”

From the corner came Hu Yan’s voice.

“Let bygones be bygones; sluts love to get with morons.”

The room was deathly silent. Everyone’s face was expressionless. I could hear the line in everyone’s heart: “Ha ha ha ha! Oh shit! This guy is too good.”

Another of my bros got married. The welcoming party burst into the bride’s room. The last obstacle was finding one of the bride’s shoes. A pack of dudes tearing the room apart just couldn’t find it, so annoyed that sweat soaked their backs.

    Hu Yan ambled in, knitted his brows and said, “Hidden really good. Ugly chicks. Obviously something only an ugly chick would do. Ugly chicks can’t do anything else but they’re pros at hiding stuff. Otters are ugly their whole lives but they just eat and sleep and don’t mess around. Seals love to hide stuff but they don’t go screw with cuttlefish. Today’s supposed to be a lucky day, but she just has to destroy marriage. They say some girls are good to your face, but really they wish you were like them: never get married your whole life. Today it turns out to be true.”

As soon as he finished, a short girl burst out crying, flopped down and crawled under the bed, from the bed frame pulled out a shoe, and then ran away howling. Everyone looked around in surprise, then burst into cheers. Wiping sweat, the groom thrust a glass of wine on Hu Yan.

“Thanks, man. Today is all thanks to you. Say a few words!”

At the edge of the crowd, I cried, “No!”

It was too late. Hu Yan raised his glass and said excitedly, “Today we gulp the festive wine. Tomorrow the tree topples and monkeys flee.”

I urged him to learn from Kevin Cai, so he watched few episodes of Kangxi Lai Le and said, laughing, “Little S is so great; she’s like a twitching colon, even more shameless than me!”

Why’s a slack colon suddenly shameless?

Hu Yan’s lips are terrifying, but the guy is loyal and honorable; he’s a few years older than me. His father passed away a long time ago; his mom is almost 70, and they depend on each other for survival. The old lady is sharp as a whip, from Jiaxing; she sometimes makes us zongzi to eat. People online howl about the “Sweet Zongzi Party” and the “Savory Zongzi Party”—what party? Only the ones from Jiaxing are really zongzi, others at best could be called “rice balls with filling.” When the old lady sent us zongzi it was nuts; whoever’s house still had a few, we’d rush over that night and eat them all.

One day at dusk Hu Yan called me desperately begging me to go to his house. He was working overtime and couldn’t leave and his mom was bugging him like hell to come home and help out. I rushed over there, panting, and in Hu Yan’s house there were three old ladies sitting up straight around a mahjong table, eager faces turned on me.

    Fine, so play a few rounds. Turns out that gang of old ladies was crazily shrewd; wherever they go, they win. Red in the face and moaning I lost again and again all the way until 11:00. 

Game over, Hu Yan’s mom asked me, “Little Zhang, didn’t Hu Yan break up with his girlfriend?”

    I was stunned: “No idea.”

    She said, “I’ll give you two zongzi; hurry up and talk.”

    I said, “Oh, that girl is from Changsha; she went back home. It’s long-distance so it doesn’t make sense for them to stay together.

    The old lady narrowed her eyes: “Bullshit. Hu Yan must’ve talked too much shit.”

    I said, “We can’t rule out the possibility.”

She slapped her thigh: “Aiya, I never even met her; she just took off. That beast has screwed up good girls one after another.”

I waterfalled sweat…

Hu Yan pushed open the door and came in, yelling, “Mom, what the hell are you talking about?”

    She yelled, “My daughter in law?”

    Hu Yan waterfalled sweat: “She’s an only child, and her parents are old. She doesn’t want to live far away so she went back to Changsha.”

    The old lady flew into a rage: “So you go with her to Changsha!”

    Hu Yan said, “If I go what about you?”

    “I stay here; Little Zhang serves me on one knee.”

My legs went limp.

Hu Yan turned to run; he dragged me away paralyzed on the ground, weeping and yelling, “My zongzi! My zongzi!”

The two of us went to our bro Guan Chun’s bar to talk nonsense. Actually, I understood Hu Yan; the old lady had lived in Nanjing for some thirty years; all her friends for playing mahjong, exercising, walking, and chatting all lived in one neighborhood. Old people can’t make a new group of friends like we can; when they go live in a new place there is only loneliness.

Just as we ordered a round of drinks, Guan Chun led an old lady inside and with a long face said, “Hu Yan, it’s not that I didn’t help you; your mom came here herself.”

    Hu Yan was enraged: “Bullshit! You’re even holding zongzi! You definitely sold me out!”

The old lady leaning on a cane smacked the table and said, “Shut up!”

The whole bar went still; everybody shut up; even the singer, quaking with terror, furtively shut off the music.

    The old lady said, “I just especially can’t stand you young people, twenty or thirty talking nonsense like only ‘plain’ is real. Are you up to it? I was sent down to the countryside; I worked with peasants; I suffered through famine. You will never know what that’s like. But today I’m happy as a clam with nothing to do but play a little mahjong, get up and go to bed early—you think you get inner peace for nothing? An old monk said, in the end you have to see mountains as mountains, but have you ever seen them as anything else? You’re still young, but you don’t get out and move, never face true hardship, thinking never entering the world is the same as leaving it—you think you came straight from Nirvana? I suffered for my plainness. Your plainness is laziness, fear, seeking comfort, a stupid dog that can’t bear to face the world. A woman leaves you and you don’t chase her? Even put the blame on an old lady like me? Idiot.”

She waved her cane and nearly hit Hu Yan in the head: “I never even saw that girl; you all seen her?”

Most of the people in the bar nodded as if chopping garlic.

The old lady said, “You’re weak; you don’t know a thing. Seeing other people strain and suffer you only know how to hide in a corner, make cheap shots, talk sass and make a fool of yourself. Pei! All day long you do nothing but count money. If you spend money you can make more; screw up and you can try again, but once your youth is gone? Only veterans can retire; if you’ve never fought, don’t look down on sacrifice. Can you talk or not? If you can talk, just go to Changsha; tell her, ‘I want to marry you.’”

The old lady trembled out a piece of yellowed paper and shouted, “My husband wrote me this; I’m going to read it to you.” She stared at it and said, “Oh what an idiot! I grabbed the wrong one. This is the electric bill. Little Zhang, you like writing; you make up something.”

I immediately recited, “Believe in youth; thus the more we love, the deeper, but we must love. Used for sacrifice, thus we go to death and return alive, but we must return. From the low valley we scale the mountain peak, then we may find the garden of sweet breezes. There will come a day when all the mountains and terraced fields at our feet bloom with sweat. If you want a home full of harmony, you must drop your bones and pass a myriad beautiful scenes.”

    The old lady slapped me and said, “How can you say ‘bones’ in front of a seventy year old lady? Get out!”

She watched Hu Yan silently, then said, “A few months ago, you were on the veranda talking on the phone; I heard it. You urged her to stay in Nanjing and not go to Changsha. You begged and begged and cried yourself. I really wanted to burst in and beat you senseless. What were you crying about? It’s good that she cares about her parents; can’t you go with her? After that you worked overtime every day. You think you’re hard working? Or was it you were afraid of coming home all alone and missing her?”

The old lady said, “I’m old. Originally, after you were married I wanted to send zongzi every day for you two to eat. Once you got sick of eating them, I could go. You’re my son. Don’t be afraid if you get lost; just come home. Your mom won’t die just yet; when you come back I’ll be at home.”

She finished speaking and wiped her tears, then puffed out her chest and left. Guan Chun hurriedly saw her off. I looked back and discovered every single person in the bar had tears in their eyes.

I suddenly understood where Hu Yan’s language ability came from. It’s absolutely genetic.

Afterward Hu Yan still didn’t go to Changsha. The old lady was so mad she couldn’t bear to watch; she didn’t play mahjong and demanded I teach her how to go online and use Weibo and whatnot. A few days later she booked a tour herself and went traveling, following a pack of old lads and ladies wearing red hats, huffing and puffing going to see nature in Guilin. Hu Yan was worried and wanted to go with her, so in the end she snuck out at five in the morning and left Hu Yan alone staring mutely at the ceiling.

After she came back she was still angry with Hu Yan and got ready to conserve strength and build up her energy to keep at it. Two weeks later she had a heart attack but was saved and hospitalized, awaiting bypass surgery to replace her mitral valve. Us guys spent the night in shifts; the old lady closed her eyes and didn’t say a word.

One day Hu Yan sat by the old lady’s side, sleeping soundly. I had just come in holding a plastic bag, wanting to trade shifts with Hu Yan.

The old lady struggled to open her mouth and said, “Yueyue, Hu Yan is a good boy.”

Suddenly I was beside myself with tears. Yueyue was Hu Yan’s girlfriend, working in Changsha, probably asleep already. How did the old lady know her name?

Right. Actually, mother knows everything.

Later, the old lady didn’t make it to surgery. She had a second heart attack, her condition critical, and couldn’t be saved again. Hu Yan couldn’t talk any more; he became terse and quiet.

For the first seven days, everyone kept a vigil at Hu Yan’s house. At 11 o’clock at night, the unlocked door opened and a girl burst in. She was wearing makeup.

She yelled at me, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

She sobbed, knelt before the old lady’s portrait and said, “Auntie, I told my parents. They said I should stay in Nanjing. Since Hu Yan has a mom like you, they can relax.”

We stood dumbfounded and didn’t say a word, not sure what had happened. The girl was Yueyue, working in Changsha, but there she was in Nanjing. Yueyue was hiccupping with sobs. The old lady’s portrait stood in front of her, smiling at everyone.

That afternoon I had gotten a phone call from Yueyue. She asked me about Hu Yan’s mom. 

I said, “Why don’t you ask Hu Yan?” She said his phone was turned off. I didn’t dare say too much and asked, “What do you want him for?”

Yueyue told me that in fact the old lady hadn’t gone traveling, but went all on her own to Changsha. That day Yueyue was at work. The old lady came up to the counter and deposited 200,000 yuan. Yueyue handled the process and asked how she would like to deposit the money. 

The old lady said, “I hear working at a bank is hard work. Every year you have to reach a certain amount in deposits to get promoted.”

Yueyue couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was saying, and said thanks.

The old lady whispered, “Yueyue, hurry up and get promoted. Make that idiot Hu Yan regret it.”

So just like that Yueyue met Hu Yan’s mom. She immediately took a half day off work and took the old lady out to eat.

The old lady asked, “Yueyue, do you like Hu Yan?”

Yueyue cried, saying she liked Hu Yan but her parents were not in good health; she didn’t feel at ease unless she stayed in Changsha, and was sorry she had disappointed her.

The old lady chuckled and said, “Then you just stay here in Changsha, hurry up and get promoted so Hu Yan doesn’t come here and torment you.”

Yueyue asked, “Is Hu Yan willing to come to Changsha?”

The old lady nodded and said, “He’s going to come. I just came over to get familiar with the area. Later I’ll move over here for a while until you two are settled, then move back to Nanjing.”

The old lady spent three days in Changsha and made zongzi for Yueyue. Afterward, when Yueyue sent her off she discovered the old lady had been staying in a cheap hotel. The table was piled with bamboo leaves and rice and the cheapest kind of rice cooker.

I realized why the old lady had wanted to learn how to use Weibo. She wanted to find Yueyue! My tears wouldn’t stop.

    I said, “Yueyue, you better come to Nanjing right now. Auntie passed away.”

Yueyue who had rushed so many miles for the funeral knelt before the portrait, pulled out a zongzi, and weeping, said, “Auntie, your zongzi are delicious. I was saving the last one in the refrigerator, but today I took it out and it was rotten. Please, Auntie, don’t blame Yueyue…”

All our friends were choked with sobs.

A year later, Hu Yan and Yueyue were married. That day didn’t have a grand banquet, only three tables—all the closest friends. Yueyue’s parents came from Changsha, but other than that there were no relatives. Yueyue wore a wedding dress, beautiful beyond compare, but from the time she came onto the stage, she was crying. Hu Yan in a well-pressed suit held Yueyue’s hand and pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. He read earnestly. Every few words were interrupted by sobs.

Dear Comrade Liu Xue,

I really like you. I have already applied to the leadership; I want to transfer to Nanjing. They didn’t approve, so I quit. I haven’t figured out how to transfer my file yet. Please prepare to receive me in Nanjing.

 Dear Comrade Liu Xue, 

I can’t talk, but I have a feeling I must express. I want to live together with you, forever.

One scene appeared in the minds of all our friends:

The old lady, leaning on a cane, standing in the bar, rebuking the young people, shaking out a yellowed piece of paper, saying, “My husband wrote me this; I’m going to read it to you. Oh what an idiot! I grabbed the the wrong one. This is the electric bill.”

Translator’s comments

The name of the character “Hu Yan” literally means “talking nonsense.”

The love letter needs to be understood within the context of the time: by disobeying and abandoning her work unit, the woman risked utter ruin and staked everything on her lover.

Translation of “Tree on the Bluff” by Zeng Zhuo 曾卓“悬崖边的树”英译

November 21, 2012

“Tree on a Bluff” by Zēng Zhuō (1922-2002)

Rhyming loose translation

I know not what wind brought this tree
to this flatland’s edge on the bluff;
She listens for the far forest’s clamor
And signing of streams in the rough

It stands by itself all alone
Looking obstinate, and lonely;
Its body a mass of tangles,
Wind-twisted, bony.

It keeps the shape of the wind,
seems about to cave in,
and yet soon to spread wings and take flight.

2012.11.18 evening

Literal translation

I do not know what strange wind

blew a tree over there——

the end of a plain

on a crag overlooking the valley

It listens closely to the clamor of a far forest

and the singing of streams in the valley

It stands there alone

looking obstinate, and forlorn

Its crooked body

retains the shape of the wind

It looks ready to fall off into the valley

and yet about to spread wings and take flight……


Original poem
















Translation of “Wanderer” by Mu Dan 穆旦“流浪人”英译

November 18, 2012

(“Liúlàng rén”)

Mù Dàn (1918-1977)
Trans. K. Maynard


my good friend

it keeps pestering me

on this wandering road


the wanderer’s two heavy legs

step, after step, after step……

what place at earth’s end?

no destination. only

two legs moving

step, after step…… wanderer

as if eyes bloomed a flower

flew past a million stars, crow-like.

muddled head, bitter heart;

fiery-hot body, melted——

like cotton, heaped into a ball

but still carrying soft legs

step, after step, after step……

(1933) 4.15 evening







Walking the Philosophers’ Way in Kyoto

August 18, 2012
I went to Kyoto for three days. It’s not far from Osaka, so I rode the train there in the morning and alighted at Kyoto station. The station turned out to be an attraction in itself. Over the main entrance is a web of steel beams, and a series of escalators takes you all the way up the side of the 12-story-plus building to a deck on the roof. On the tenth floor is Ramen Alley, where specialty ramens of different places are represented. I tried to eat there, but every shop had an unbelievable line, so I gave up. The other restaurants on the top of the building (actually an Isetan dept. store) were expensive, so I left my bag in a locker and rode the bus to Ginkakuji, the temple of the famed Silver Pavilion.
Ginkakuji and the Tea Well
Nowadays, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji 金閣寺) is an internationally recognized symbol of Kyoto and Japan itself, but what of the Silver Pavilion, on the opposite Eastern Mountain side of Kyoto? The pavilion is not plated in silver, and unlike the Golden Pavilion, is a 15th-Century original wooden construction. (Kinkakuji was burned by an arsonist about 60 years ago.) Kyoto is large and traffic dense, so it took an hour to get uptown to Higashiyama, around Ginkakuji 銀閣寺. I ate oyako-don (chicken and egg over rice) for lunch on a street leading to the temple. Ginkakuji is not the official name of the temple, but most know it as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. I paid 500 yen ($6) to enter with a huge crowd. We passed a bamboo hedge, and right on our right was the pavilion. The bottom is built in Japanese Shoin 書院style, and the top in Chinese temple style, with a phoenix on the roof. The date of construction was some time around 1400. In front of the temple is a garden of raked sand, and a cone of sand called the Moon-facing Platform. Up the hill was a little spring of clear water and algae called the Tea Well. The water from the well apparently has a good flavor favored by tea specialists, and the water from the well is used to make tea at government functions. A quiet garden led the way out, and I set off down the Philosophers’ Way.
The Philosophers’ Way and Honen’in Temple
Yamazaki and his wife recommended me the Philosophers’ Way, a path lined with cherry trees that leads south from Ginkakuji toward Kiyomizu Temple. After being jostled by crowds in Ginkakuji, a stroll along the river on the stone path was a welcome respite. A café I passed boasted coffee made with water from the temple’s well. At times I was alone on the path, and at times I passed others walking their way. The Way is so named because great scholars of the past were said to amble along the riverbank lost in thought. The trees grew thick on the other bank and hung low their leaves on the water, quite like Suzhou or Ito, and I was quite taken by the mosaic of greens and rocks and stream. I came upon Honen’in Temple 法然院, where Yamazaki said I could find a hint of the old Kyoto. Unlike Ginkakuji, Honen’in was free, not crowded, and set back in the woods of sight. The buildings lacked illustrious pedigrees, but the setting was right for relaxation. A sign before the moss-covered straw roof entry gate read in Classical Chinese, Pungent foods, spices, alcohol and meat may not enter this gate. Inside, on either side of the path were raised platforms of sand with designs formed on top. I’d never seen such artwork before and don’t know what they mean. Great vines grew on the trees over the water, and a pamphlet advertised a lecture titled, Let’s talk with the monks about nuclear power.
Futher down the path, I visited Otoyo Shrine, where a fox and mouse shrine stand side by side (technically an Inari and a Taikoku shrine).
Eikando Temple and the Lake Biwa aqueduct
Before Eikando Temple 永観堂 (officially called Zenrinji 禅林寺) was a sign with a quote: Respect humanity and morality, keep courtesy and moderation, use no martial force, and all under heaven will be in accord. (仁徳を尊び、礼節を守り、武力を用いず、天下和順なれ。)
Eikando’s autumn leaves are famous, and even in this late summer some were starting to redden. I walked among the centuries-old wooden buildings. Some parts of Eikando have been rebuilt more recently, as it suffered during the haibutsu-kishaku 廃仏毀釈 period during the late 19th Century when Buddhism was briefly outlawed, but even the elevator blended nicely with the old wood. I went up to see the tower, a famous spot for watching the sunset. The tower faces west, toward the Pure Land, so when the sun sets one can look out at the faraway Paradise and dream of the afterlife. A story associated with Eikando says that the founder of the sect was pacing in the temple in the cold early morning, chanting Amida’s name, when the statue of the Buddha Amida stepped down from its platform and walked with him. He stopped dead in his tracks. Amida turned his head and said, Eikan, you’re slow! Thus, to preserve that most beautiful profile of Amida, Eikan carved a statue of the Buddha looking over his shoulder than can still be seen in the hall.
Around Nanzenji Temple I saw the Lake Biwa aqueduct, which was built of brick about 100 years ago to bring water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto. I walked along as the water sped down the canal, until I came to a hydraulic station in an old stone-carved western-style building. I took the subway back to get my bag and spent the night in a hostel.

















Art, an Artist and the Tsunashiki Shrine in Osaka

August 12, 2012

Dear Readers:

Today I met a video game character designer named Yamazaki and his wife. We met on CouchSurfing, and agreed to meet in Ueda. While wandering around before the meeting, I came upon a shrine called Tsunashiki Tenmangu Otabisho 綱敷天満宮御旅所, or Tsunashiki Tenjinja. (It has a website here: .) Sitting between buildings on a street next to Kappa Yokocho, Tsunashiki Shrine caught my attention because of its steep steps, and the “Otabisho” part of its name. A “tabi” is a journey in Japanese, and sure enough Tsunashiki is a shrine for ryoko anzen, or safe travels. I offered some yen and bought an omikuji. It was lucky, but recommended I hold back and not try to do too much. As for direction, anywhere south was good. As for travel, it suggested I quit. I tied up the omikuji to ward off the bad luck and bought an o-mamori charm for safe travels. Of course, I can’t quit, so I have the charm. The lesson on the back of the omikuji read something like, “The high peaks tower in the blue sky, but if you climb, there is a way up.”

I ate curry in Kappa Yokocho, got lost around Umeda walking up and down platforms through crowds and department stores, and drank some bottled ginger jujube tea. I met Yamazaki at Yodobashi camera and we tried two cafes before we found one with empty seats. He kindly treated me to coffee and we talked about Kyoto, where he attended university, learning languages, traveling in Rome and Europe, and his dream to hold an international art exhibition in London. Also, he designed two characters in the video game Street Fighter 4.

Art in the Isetan department store

We went to Isetan department store to see an art exhibition called Girlie Show. The theme was “girls,” and women artists from around Japan depicted girls in various styles on small canvasses. Prints of artworks and goods like iPhone cases were on sale, and one or two of the artists were present. We then went upstairs and saw the “Art Liberation Space” or something like that, where various works were exhibited, like ceramic cups crawling with metal insects. In the back was an exhibiton called “The Beauty Adventurers” (美の冒険者たち) if I remember correctly. The artists were students, graduates and faculty at an art college in Osaka. I enjoyed the various styles and materials and the high level of artistry in the works, and happily spent an hour with Yamazaki gazing at paintings.

Tsukemen noodles in Ueda

We met Yamazaki’s wife at Loft variety store and went to a nearby shop for tsukemen (dipped noodles), which were delicious. The roast pork on top was expecially good. The Yamazakis gave me lots of advice about Kyoto, and we talked about what we had done that day. I received advice from a pair who had studied art in Kyoto. What could be better! When I mentioned that I saw the guardian statues at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Yamazaki told me those are by a famous artist of the Edo period. I took notes on place names in Kyoto, and they kindly saw me back to the subway. The next time I see them, perhaps their first child will be born!













The Flower Lantern Festival and Cycling in Nara

August 11, 2012

Dear Readers:

Yesterday I bought a day pass and took the train from Osaka to Nara. From August 4-14, the Tokae (燈花会), or “Flower Lantern Festival” is being held in Nara Park. I rented a bike, cycled around the ruins of the ancient capital, and spent the evening watching the lanterns light.

Cycling the Imperial Capitol Ruins

I wanted to go to Nara for two reasons. Nara was for 75 years the capital of the Yamato empire after the capital was moved from Fujiwara around the year 710, and is full of old temples. I got off the train at Yamato-Saidaiji and rented a bike. I cycled through the crowded roads across the river to the grassy plain that is the site of the former imperial residence. The site is roughly divided into an eastern and western half. During the first half of the Nara Period (as the era in which Nara was the capital is called), on the west side stood the imperial complex, where the courtiers would gather for ceremonies while the emperor sat on the throne. During the second half of the period, a second complex was build on the eastern side, and the old buildings were used for banquets. At the end of the period or sometime thereafter, all the buildings were demolished, and the metal roof ornaments probably melted down for reuse. All that remains today are some raised platforms, and marks in the soil where buildings once stood.

Today, two buildings stand at the north and south ends of the western complex: the Suzaku Gate (朱雀門) and Daigoku Hall (大極殿). Both were reconstructed after extensive archaeological studies. The original appearance of the buildings are unknown, so the designs of the reconstructions are based on drawings of period buildings and the designs of still-standing medieval structures, like the East Tower in Yakushiji temple. I entered the complex through the bright red Suzaku Gate. The Suzaku is a legendary Chinese bird that represents the south. In Chinese mythology, the cardinal directions are represented by animals. The Suzaku represents the south, and the north, east, and west are represented by the Genbu turtle, the Byakko white tiger, and the Seiryu green dragon, respectively. (I have given the Japanese pronunciations.) From the Suzaku Gate the Daigoku Hall stood tall in the field in the far distance. A commuter train cuts right across the site today. I imagined I was an emissary arriving from Tang China or some other faraway place as I stood in the Suzaku Gate. I biked across the train tracks to the courtyard before the Daigoku Hall. The sky was clear and blue and puffy clouds were scattered above. Certainly, the imperial courtiers 1,300 years ago must have stood stiff in the cold on New Year’s morning and looked up at the same sky.

I wandered around the station, mailed my disc of photos back to America, and bought a handmade bento lunch. In the bento shop, I expected stacks of made-yesterday boxes, but the only thing in the shop was a cooler of drinks and a counter. When I ordered a maku-no-uchi bento, I waited about ten minutes for the fried things to fry and whatnot. I ate my bento on the steps of the eastern compound. Behind me, workers cut the head-high summer grass. Clouds lazed in the blue sky, I chewed on a fish stick, and cicadas buzzed in the trees. In the main hall was a message left by the emperor on his visit to the opening ceremony. He wrote, “Research upon research, and restoration. Daigoku-den now stands before our eyes.” (御製=研究を重ねかさねて復元せし、大極殿いま目の前に立つ)

South of the capitol: the Nishi-no-kyo area and Yakushiji Temple

I rode along the river to the Nishi-no-kyo area, which means “the west [part of] the capital.” Indeed, it was the western part of the city south of the Suzaku Gate, and two famous temples still stand there. Yakushiji Temple, or the temple of the Buddha of Medicine, was commissioned by the emperor about 1,400 years ago to help his wife recover from illness. She did recover, and took the throne herself when the emperor died before the temple’s completion. The buildings have burned and been rebuilt several times, but many date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. I most wanted to see the East Tower, which is said to have stood for over 1,300 years, which I assume would make it one of the oldest wooden buildings on earth. It is the only building in Japan that survives from that period. Alas, the entire structure was covered in opaque scaffolding. It has been 100 years since the structure was last renovated, so it is being dismantled and reassembled.

On the back wall of the main hall were plaques with the story of the Buddha. When he died, the Buddha’s last words were something like, “Remember what I have taught you, and believe in yourself.” Inside the hall were three statues from the Nara period, of Yakushi flanked by Nikko and Gekko, the Bodhisattvas of sun and moonlight. Exposure to fire turned the 1,300 year old statues black.

Kasuka Shrine, Nara deer, and the Flower Lantern Festival

I rode four kilometers from Saidai Temple to Nara proper and returned the bike. I got it in my head to visit Horyuji Temple and took the train south, but it was too far away, so I didn’t make it. On the way back from Tsutsui to Nara, I met four middle school guys on the train. They had dyed hair and earrings and poked fun at each other while we talked, like “He’s from North Korea!” and “He pees all the time!” I said I wondered what it must be like to live in a legendary place like Nara, and they said, “We’re legendary children!”

I walked the omote-sando path into Kasuka Shrine inside Nara Park. When the Flower Lantern Festival ends, a Ten Thousand Lantern Festival will be held in Kasuka Shrine 春日大社. Along the path were hundreds or thousands of stone lanterns densely placed. I happened upon a meeting hall at the edge of the park where the mountains begin and walked through the garden behind. I emerged in a field of little lanterns, plastic cups of different colors arranged in different shapes, like stars and hearts and flowers. Groups of volunteers, from little kids to elderly people, were putting water in the cups, and then candles. In addition to lanterns and people, the field was full of deer. Little deer followed the big deer, and all the deer moved slowly in a big pack near the picnic tables beneath small trees. I helped a little boy shoo the deer away when they came to drink the water from the cups. A sign said, “One guest, one lantern,” and they were being sold were 500 yen (~$6). The western sky was gold in sunset, and as the sun disappeared behind Todaiji Temple’s main hall and the treetops below, the eastern clouds turned pink over the mountains.

The Flower Lanterns and temples at night

As the sun set, the volunteers lit the lanterns at about 7 PM. From then, the festival began in earnest. People began streaming into the park, buying lanterns to add to the designs and strolling down the shop walks in yukata and sandals. I walked among the flickering shapes, down a street of food stalls, and down the dark stone path to the vast gate at Todaiji Temple. Giant statues some twenty feet tall flanked the gate, which was a peeled-paint color of rusty brown, and looked very old. Todaiji was closed, but I peered through the gate at the massive wood hall, probably the biggest wooden building I have ever seen. I ate Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at a stall and walked down rows of candles out of the park. I happened upon Kofukuji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda. The old pagoda was dramatically lit, and a hall was open for night prayers. A group was gathered near the foot of the tower around lanterns shaped on the ground. The shape was the kanji “再”, pronounced “sai” in Japanese, as in saikai 再会 ‘reunion’, saiken 再建 ‘rebuilding’, and saisei 再生 ‘rebirth.’

The commercial streets and lesson of Nara

The main hall of Kofukuji was also covered in scaffolding for rebuilding. I made an offering at the octagonal hall and descended stone stairs into a brightly lit shopping street. I passed shops and crowds and ate a ball of green mochi filled with red bean and powdered with kinako soy powder. A trail of lanterns snaked up a stairway to a little Shinto shrine.

Walking among the crowds at Nara station, I felt silly for having rushed to Horyuji Temple. I think I had expected Nara to be a tourist trap, full of tourists hemming and hawing over big Buddhas and big halls like in Kamakura. In fact, Nara is a thriving provincial capital with a living religious tradition. The temples are far apart and far too many to see every one. Many things are unpretentiously old. To make a French analogy, Nara might be Lyon to Osaka’s Paris. I had heard the oldest such and such and the biggest such and such building were in Nara, and those extremes loomed too large in my mind. What of history I was able to feel in the ruins and what of local belief I was able to understand in the sacred places was good enough. It’s not to say I didn’t miss things I’d have enjoyed seeing, but that I didn’t make it to some place or other makes no difference at all.






















Osaka’s Temples and Shrines around Shitennoji

August 9, 2012

Dear Readers:

During a day wandering among temples, I realized that I came to Osaka with a false impression. In the early 1970s, the writer Sawaki Kotaro traveled by train and bus from Bangkok to Singapore. In every city, he felt something was missing. The excitement he’d found in Hong Kong wasn’t to be found in Thailand or Malaysia. On the eve of leaving Singapore, he realized, Singapore isn’t Hong Kong. It seemed too silly to say out loud, but he’d been looking for a copy of Hong Kong everywhere he went. Certainly, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok must have their individual charms.

I assumed Osaka was a loud and crowded place, on flat ground, without much that would carry me away. I was wrong. Shin-sekai, around the now 100-year old Tsutenkaku tower is indeed a place of boisterous bars, and not a boring place to visit. Shitennoji is a world apart.

Shitennoji District (四天王寺)

I happened to be staying next to Tennoji station so I took the subway past it on a whim to make my 200 yen go farther. I alighted at Shitennoji-mae Yuhigaoka Station, which means “In front of Shitennoji (and) Sunset Hill.” It turns out, the Shitennoji area is full of temples, leading south to Shitennoji Temple itself. I learned a lot about Japanese Buddhism by reading the signs. I turned a prayer wheel carved with scripture in Chinese. I met a group of high school students near Yuhigaoka Academy. On a stele was carved in Chinese the exploits of the writer’s father, Date Munehiro 伊達宗広, according to the nearby explanatory board. He loved the songs of a songwriter Fujiwara Ietaka 藤原家隆 who lived many generations before him, so he made his home in the same place, and named it “Sunset Hill” after one of Fujiwara’s poems. They are both buried nearby. While reading the sign, a man working on his 600cc shiny black Honda came over, and we talked about my travels, my brother Pace’s travels in America, and the history of Osaka. His name was Kishino, and he told me to go on to Shitennoji, past the tower we could see over a parking lot.

The tower turned out to be a 400-year-old national treasure, a pagoda to store the treasures in Aisen-san 愛染さん temple. It was the model for a temple once erected at the Japanese pavilion at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Aisen-san itself was bright red.

The Seven Slopes (七坂)

There are seven slopes among the temples. I came up Kuchinawa Slope, which a writer once climbed and thought, “I won’t be climbing this slope for a while, I suppose,” whereupon he came to feel that the sweetness of youth was over, and a new reality had come to face him. I stopped for ramen, and ate “Osaka Black” salt-broth ramen with thick noodles (you could choose thick or thin). The dark broth had an edged flavor. I walked down Aisen Slope to a temple that holds Kinryu and Ginryu Ido, or the “Golden and Silver Dragon Wells.” Alas, they dried up when the subway was built, and Ginryu is buried in concrete. However, a woman from the temple named Asano showed me to Kinryu Well, in which we could see our reflections! The water has come back, little by little, though we can’t yet drink it again to get the sweet taste that was once favored in the tea ceremony.

Kiyomizu Temple and the deadly fault line

I climbed Kiyomizu Slope to Kiyomizu Temple, which shares a name with an illustrious temple in Kyoto. From the hill at the Kiyomizu graveyard (which was packed with a tour group for a few minutes), a vast stretch of Osaka can be seen, including a tower still unfinished at Tennoji Station. I went down to see the waterfall at Kiyomizu, and a man was chanting sutras before the statues behind the water. As I left, a man named Satoshi spoke to me in perfect English. In what was quite likely the first all-English conversation I’ve had with a Japanese person this trip, he told me he worked for the IT department at Stanford and lived in California. He was surprised I came to Kiyomizu, which he visits often, because he seldom sees tourists there. He asked had I noticed the slopes and varied elevation in the area? I had, but he informed me that the slopes are due to a dangerous fault that runs under the area. The line of temples and shrines are built on the fault to prevent disaster with their power.

Isshin Temple and modern decor

I went through a shrine with cats and a man behind the counter who explained the Warring States history of the area. Across the street was a temple far busier than the sleepy ones I had visited. Isshin Temple (一心寺) lost its gate, so a very modern gate was built to replace what had been called the “Black Gate” or Osaka. Indeed, the gate is made of a honeycomb of black metal, and two utterly fearsome guardians wave green fists over heavenly ladies embossed in dark steel. The temple grounds were packed. I prayed in the main hall and offered incense, and a very old couple encouraged me to go to Sapporo.

Shitennoji and the story of the Buddha

Up the street, I walked down the arcade to Shitennoji, the biggest and busiest of all. The red five-story pagoda indeed towered over the hall at Aisen, and every building in Shitennoji was painted red and white. Inside the main hall, wall paintings told the story of the Buddha, from his miraculous birth under the right armpit of Maya, to his death and entrance into nirvana at the age of 81. Most impressive was the scene of the Buddha returning, enlightened, to speak at the Deer Garden. He wore simple clothes and his face was calm and pure, and a light emanated from his brow. In the forest, those who had known him before fell to the ground and reached out their hands in awe to see Gautama so transformed. (According to the explanations written below.) The Buddha had also been attacked by a host of demons, but their arrows turned to floating lotus blossoms and the beautiful women sent to seduce him suddenly grew old. The story was mostly new to me, so I am keen to read more. Another hall told the story of Xuanzang 玄奘, who spent 17 years on a journey from Chang’an to India and back. Upon his return, he and a team of scholars translated hundreds of scriptures, which were stored in the Great Goose Pagoda that I visited last year in Xi’an.

If only I could tell you everything I learned today. I’d never get any sleep. I walked among the bars around Tsutenkaku tower and spent a mostly fruitless and expensive hour in a net cafe trying to copy photos.

Osaka is alive!
















Tokyo and the Sky Tree

July 18, 2012

July 18, 2012

Back in Tokyo

Bakuro-cho, Asakusabashi, Sumidagawa, Sumida-ku, Midori-cho, Kamezawa-cho, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo Sky Tree

Seattle to Tokyo

Flew via Seattle to Tokyo, and slept an hour on a bench in the Sea-Tac airport. Started and almost finished Dazai Osamu’s novel Arrived late around 6:30PM local time. Rode the train in from Narita. The sky was fearsome bright over Narita town in the evening. Trucks rolled over a bridge and a red tower peaked over green trees before an orange sky.

Tsukemen in Asakusabashi

I slept at the Khaosan Tokyo Ninja hostel in Asakusabashi and met a guy from the Phillipines while drinking tea in the common room downstairs. I walked across the Asakusa bridge looking for the ramen place the girl at the desk recommended. I happened upon it under the rattling train and ordered tsukemen from the ticket machine ($10). I sat between two guys on lunch break and dipped the noodles a mouthful at a time. When I had eaten them all, and the pork that was roasted with a blow torch behind the counter, I filled the soup with hot water and drank some.


I walked about Bakuro-cho among little cafes and restaurants, and across the Sumida River. Next to the river was a relief of nine faces representing artists inspired by it. I passed under an overpass toward Ryogoku, and on a map was a mark for the former residence of Kobayashi Issa (a haiku poet) in Midori-cho. I didn’t find Issa’s former home, but two surveyors in blue peered into a gadget on a tripod while workers with a crane lifted a huge pipe off a barge. A highway overpass ran the whole length of the river. A little boat came in among the barges. The crane had “I will not cause an accident” (私は事故を起こしません) written on its arm. The workers guided the pipe with ropes to the artificial embankment they were building, set it down, and started cutting it with a saw. Another worker stood welding a pipe’s mouth, and the smoke plumed up toward the highway.


I walked back through Midori-cho among nondescript buildings, and then Kamezawa. Along Hokusai-dori were prints of Katsushika Hokusai’s works stuck to the lampposts, such as some of the “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” Apparently, Hokusai was born in Kamezawa. I passed kids on the street and a playground covered with kids who looked like they’d just got out of class. Across the street loomed the gray battleship-like Edo-Tokyo Museum. I walked up the wide and empty stairs and under the elephantine metal exhibition hall. The wide and flat platform looked out over Tokyo.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

I bought a ticket and took the escalator up a bright red animal organ-like tube into the belly of the elephant and walked through the museum. Inside was a reproduction of the wooden Nihonbashi from 19th century, among other things. I saw lots of exhibits about Edo, from the time that the shogun turned it from a fishing village into a military headquarters, to the time it became Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration. I learned that people who were granted an audience with the shogun were called hatamoto (旗本), or “bannermen” and were provided individual residences. Other household workers in the shogunate, called gokenin (御家人) lived in communal quarters. Around 1720, there were about 5,000 bannermen, and about 17,000 household workers. Sometimes land was provided that could be used for income, but usually salaries were paid a few times a year, in rice from the shogun’s granary.

In 1854, Commodore Perry forced the shogunate into an unequal treaty with the US, and the establishment of trade relations ended the closed door policy. In the museum were drawings from news clippings depicting the fearsome American steamships. After the Meiji Restoration, there was debate about whether to establish the national capital at Kyoto, Osaka, or Edo. A “two capital” policy was favored for a while, and thus Edo’s name was changed to Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital.”


I took the train to Kuramae. Leaving the station to change trains, I passed by Kaya-dera (榧寺), a small Pure Land temple with two concrete pillars shielding a little garden, and a squat modern-make building with attached cemetery. Inside were sumptuous golden decorations at the altar. A sign showed that Hokusai once painted Kaya-dera in a painting called something like “The High Lantern at Kaya Temple” (榧寺の高燈籠) which shows some people in a boat behind the temple.

Tokyo Sky Tree

I went on to Oshiage to see the Sky Tree. Newly opened, the Sky Tree is an impressive tower that changes from a trangle shape at the bottom to a circle at the top. It looks like an old Soviet TV tower in a way, but also a bit organic in its bend. Inside the ticketing area were 12 objets d’art representing the tower, each made of a different Japanese craft, and paired with a Japanese virtue. The crafts are listed here: (Japanese).

I walked through the “Japanese Experience Zone” (expensive mall) and took the elevator up to the Dome Garden. There, a silver dome greets the Sky Tree on one side, and the partner building on the other, whose glass reflects the Tokyo tree. Kids played on the grass by the dome, and on the other side wordless music played while people slept or lounged on wooden benches. Green plants lined the black fence, and the sky was blue with white clouds behind the Tree, and the orange sun peeked through.

Have you seen the Sky Tree? What do you think of it?


“Ramen” original speech ラーメン ― 弁論大会優勝作品

July 1, 2012

English translation below. I produced this original speech for a contest in 2012 with the help of my advisor Dr Masaki Mori. The historical speculation feels highly amateurish to me now, but it was with this speech that I won a solo trip to Japan that enabled me to produce the travelogues I’ve also included on my site.







Benron Taikai
Kieran Maynard

Among the Japanese foods enjoyed in America, ramen is especially familiar to Americans. Ramen has long been known in America as “cup noodles.” However, I was surprised to find that, in Japan, “ramen” is not only cup noodles, but takes many forms and flavors in different places and restaurants. I lived in Fukuoka, famous for “Hakata ramen.” Hakata ramen’s special characteristic is that the soup base is made with pork bones.

The name ramen is Chinese (lāmiàn), and refers to noodles that have been stretched and shaped by hand. The most general Chinese ramen is a beef ramen called Lánzhōu lāmiàn. Most restaurants that sell Lánzhōu lāmiàn are operated by Muslims and do not use pork. Also, at ramen restaurants in China the process of making noodles by hand can be seen, and the price is around 10% of ramen in Japan.

So, how did ramen cross over to Japan, and how did it transform? According to legend, wheat noodles came from China, traveled the Silk Road, and took various forms in different places. In Italy, they became pasta, and in Japan became udon. About 1,300 years ago, during China’s Tang dynasty, exchange developed between the Chinese mainland and the island of Kyushu, and Chinese people came to the northern part of the island. Starting with udon, Fukuoka is the birthplace of Chinese culture in Japan. Ramen, called “Chinese soba” and sold in Chinatowns, became commonplace in Japan during the early 20th century as ramen food stands became ramen specialty restaurants. However, Hakata ramen became famous because of the later “local ramen” craze. In the 1970s, ramen came to occupy a special place in Japanese culture as a product that expresses the characteristic of a locality.

“Sense of place,” or the character of a place, is very important. To extoll the characteristics of a place (and to attract tourists), people make up and emphasize various things, claiming, “Here the cherry blossoms are the most beautiful in the nation,” or, “Here udon is the most delicious.” The way I see it, this tendency to emphasize sense of place began after World War II, due to the fact that Japan’s cities came to look mostly the same. As residents moved to other places and buildings were destroyed and rebuilt in ferroconcrete, the things that express the characteristics of places disappeared, and thus from the latter half of the 1960s, ramen came to be used as something to give character to the towns that had become indistinguishable.

As I said in the beginning, when we say ramen in America, we usually mean the cheaply available cup noodles, but even so, there is the Hakata ramen restaurant Ippūdō in New York and Umaidō here in Georgia. In the future, perhaps Japanese ramen will become more widely known!

Day 52 Menyuan [China 2011]

June 16, 2012
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Day 52 Menyuan 门源 [Recap of China 2011]

We ate breakfast in the hotel again and set off early for 门源 Menyuan in Qinghai. We drove up into the mountains. We stopped at a dam to view the reservoir created behind it. We photographed the montains that dipped into a valley, lined with yellow flowers. Sheep climbed all over the mountains, which on this stretch were sloped green hills. We stopped for construction on the road, then made it up to a mountaintop overlooking the 花海 Sea of Flowers, a 30km stretch of yellow rape blossoms. In the distance stood dark mountains, behind which loomed the snowcapped peak of 祁连山 Qilianshan.

We descended through tunnels and paved roads. The old dirt track remained visible, winding the trough of the hills. We drove a road lined with endless yellow blooms, and ate lunch in a restaurant in a town in the valley. The meal included Sichuan food, and 土鸡 tuji, or locally raised chicken. The town was the home of our 27-year-old driver, very particular about his food, who said I was the first foreigner he’d ever gotten to know.

We walked the sea of flowers down a dirt path, took photos of the mountains, and could hear the buzzing of the bees, a deep murmur. People were parked and picnicking.


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