Review: A Diplomat in Japan by Ernest Mason Satow

The book A Diplomat in Japan, by Ernest Mason Satow describes Satow’s work and life from his arrival in Japan in 1861 to his first home leave in 1869. Satow maintained a diary throughout his working life, and this book is essentially a reworking of the diaries of that period into a more abstract chronological description of the events at the…

Flying fish

Flying fish in the Science Museum, Coimbra I took a photo of this flying fish in the Science Museum of the university of Coimbra. It is perhaps not the most impressive animal on display, but it caught my eye because I have a weak spot for animals that swim through the air. (Of course a flying fish can not swim…

Review: On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal by Mary Taylor Simeti

In 1962, Mary Taylor came to Sicily on a graduation trip to do social work in the Dolci Center in Partinico. There she met Tonino Simeti, married him, and stayed on the island permanently. Only eighteen months after their marriage, Tonino’s elder brother died, and the dreams the couple had of a nomadic life doing development work in Africa were replaced by the…

The sad history of the Japanese tower and the Chinese Pavilion in Brussels

In 1900 there was a world fair in Paris. The Grand Palais and Petit Palais, as well as the nearby Pont Alexandre III, were built for this fair, and are famous Paris landmarks to this day. The fair showed novelties such as Rudolf Diesel‘s engine (running on peanut oil!), Russian matryoshka dolls, talking films, and escalators.

The world fair also contained a pavilion called Le Tour du Monde, designed by the French architect Alexandre Marcel. The pavilion consisted of a set of buildings showing different architectural styles from all over the world. Within the building were panoramas that showed various places in the world, such as a Chinese city, a cemetery in Constantinople, the Suez Canal, and the Angkor Wat Temple. One part of this pavilion was a pagoda in a Japanese style.

King Leopold II of Belgium visited this world fair, and was so impressed by Alexandre Marcel’s pavilion that he wanted something similar as an ornament for Brussels. He hired the architect to build in a corner of the palace grounds in Laken a Japanese tower similar to that at the world fair, and also a pavilion in the Chinoiserie style. Marcel included a small part of the world-fair pavilion in the buildings for the king, but most of it was newly designed and built. The ostensible purpose of the Japanese tower was to contain a permanent trade show “to stimulate trade with the far East”, and of the Chinese pavilion to be run as a restaurant (a French haute-cuisine restaurant of course, running a Chinese restaurant in it was never considered). I’m not sure anybody took these justifications serious, but the truth is that no restaurateur was ever interested in operating a restaurant in the Chinese pavilion, the effectiveness of the trade show was highly debatable, and in any case it only ever occupied a small part of the tower.

Review: The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

According to wikipedia, a netsuke is a miniature sculpture. It goes on to explain that it was invented for a practical purpose: to hang an object such as an inrō box from a belt. In reality, that practical purpose was mostly just an excuse to own a netsuke; a simple piece of wood would have worked just as well. So, a…

Things to do: Visit the Saitama railway museum

The history of Japanese railroads goes back as far as 1872, when a railroad was opened between Yokohama and Tokyo (just in time for Isabella Bird to use it in 1875). The network was quickly expanded, but the highlight of the modern Japanese railway system is the Shinkansen, a network of high-speed trains with a remarkable track record of punctuality and safety. The…

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