Category Archives: Culture & Tradition

Traditional Theater Training Summer Program in Kyoto

Continuing the theatrical theme from my last post, here’s something I found via As it’s a summer program and in Kyoto, the part about “air-conditioned studios” is VERY important.

mission_logo02The Traditional Theater Training Program (T.T.T.) at Kyoto Art Center invites applications to its 30th annual program, July 18-20 (orientation and overview of performing arts) and training (Jul 21-Aug 8). Master-teachers of the Kanze school noh, Okura school kyogen, and Wakayagi school of nihonbuyo classical dance offer an immersive, authentic experience to artists and scholars. Classes are in the air-conditioned studios of the Kyoto Art Center, with a costumed recital on the Oe Noh Stage. Please find information in Japanese and English.ttt_photo_00

There are early bird and and student/artist discounts, and special rates on hotels, hopefully making this affordable to participants, Japanese and non-, from around the world.

Jonah Salz jonah[at] Program director

Bean Pelting, Devils & Fiery Charms – Setsubun in Kyoto!

Setsubun is an old festival for seeing out the hardships of winter and welcoming in the spring, symbolized in the ritual act of throwing beans at mask clad devils… 鬼は外福は内! (“oni wa soto! fuku wa uchi!” – “devils out, and good luck in!“) people cry while pelting their lucky beans till the demonic forces beat a retreat. There are a variety of sites around town where you can join in with devil dances and bean throwing ceremonies which I shall list below.
Yoshida Shrine (see the poster above) holds the biggest Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The festival lasts for three days from the 2nd to the 4th. Highlights are the driving out of the evil spirits from 6pm on the evening of the 2nd and the fire festival from 11 pm on the 3rd. A huge bonfire is lit with piled up amulets, papers and charms – and when I say huge I mean it. It really is quite dramatic. As with most festivals there are 屋台 (yatai – food stalls) galore lining the route to the shrine, so there’s plenty to eat and drink. See details at the Yoshida Shrine website (Japanese):
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206 and get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae. Here is a MAP.

Other Setsubun locations:
Yasaka Shrine
img_setsubun01Here you get to see Maiko and Geiko throwing the beans! Bean pelting and traditional dances will occur at various times on both the 2nd & 3rd of February as ladies from different districts come to perform. Times on the 2nd are: 1pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. On the 3rd the times are 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 4pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206, and get off at Gion. Here is a MAP. Website (Japanese):

001Heian Shrine
February 3rd: From 12pm there is a Kyogen traditional comedy performance and bean pelting from 3pm. Sweet sake served free all day.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #5 and get off at Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese/English website:

50setu_oni1biki_BRozan-ji Temple
February 3rd: Here you can see devil dancing from 3pm and bean pelting from 4pm. Old charms will be burned in a bonfire from 5pm.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #205 and get off at Furitsu Idai Byoin-mae. Here is a MAP. Japanese website:

If you know of other Setsubun events around town, please list them in the comments! Here’s a video of Yoshida Shrine’s raging inferno to get you in the mood:

Kawai Kanjiro’s House


This is the house of Kawai Kanjiro, a legendary potter and a key figure in the mingei or Japanese folk art movement. His beautiful wooden townhouse has been preserved as a memorial run by his family. The building itself and the garden are wonderful, but you can also see here many of his works: ceramics, sculptures, and woodcarvings. His kilns are preserved at the back of the house. I was there back in September and took some 360 degree pictures which I shall share here as they give a good impression of how much there is to explore in the house. Just click on them to have a proper look around: Continue reading

Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces

Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide - Click to buy!I am currently reading this new book by Judith Clancy and at some point will write up a proper review for Kyoto Journal. But for the time being here are some rough notes and impressions.

Machiya are the traditional wooden townhouses of Kyoto, sadly under continuing threat from modern developers and their preference for boxy apartment buildings and parking lots. This book provides a guide to 140 of Kyoto’s machiya restaurants and cafes, with 20 singled out as personal favorites. Many I have been to and many I haven’t, so it’s nice to know there is plenty yet to explore and with excellent maps, details and directions they all look to be easy to find.

In addition, introductory chapters describe the evolution of Kyoto’s machiya culture and design within a historical context, and celebrate the revival of machiya values in recent years. An excellent photo essay by Ben Simmons also helps to act as a guide to differing machiya design characteristics as well as helping the novice to appreciate their simple beauty.

Indices by both cuisine and shop name provide easy reference. And with a glossary of culinary terms, plus a guide to Japanese table manners, this is a very handy tool for the Kyoto explorer.

The small businesses featured in this book are helping to preserve and revive Kyoto’s machiya culture for future generations and so a book that supports those businesses in turn is to be praised. Judith Clancy’s Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide is an essential addition to the Kyoto lover’s library.

Available from,, and Also available on Kindle.

Exploring Kyoto - click to buy the bookJudith Clancy is the author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, long a favorite walking guide to the city.

A portion of the proceeds from Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide are being donated to the Kyomachiya Machizukuri Fund to support machiya preservation.

See also: Machiya Revival in Kyoto
Images of machiya from Stone Bridge Press.

Kyoto & Poetry on Japan Navigator

A miniture replica of the Rashomon Gate - picture source Wikipedia

Ad Blankestijn, the writer of the Japan Navigator site, is an incredibly prolific blogger on all kinds of subjects, among them travel, history, art, literature, film, music, Japanese cuisine and sake. So many subjects in fact, it is quite hard to keep track. Readers of this blog will certainly be interested in his ongoing (and ambitious) Kyoto Guide. This post for example, on the site of the legendary Rashomon Gate, is fascinating.

The Rashomon Gate was 32 meters wide and 8 high. It had red pillars and double green roofs, a bit like the present Heian Shrine. On the top floor of the gate originally a stern statue of Tobatsu Bishamon was placed, looking like a soldier standing guard. Tobatsu Bishamon originated in Central Asia and acted as a protector of cities. I imagine him glaring at the lands beyond, to protect Heiankyo from evil… LINK

Recently though, I have also discovered his “Walking Waka Tracks”; verses from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu with a brief guide to their respective locations. Today the writer introduced the one verse in the collection that includes our beloved Mount Ogura. Two days ago he introduced the poetry of famed Heian scholar and statesman Sugawara no Michizane, who was later deified as the God of Learning Kita no Tenjin. Here he is introducing the first poem of the anthology, Dew in the Hut:

The Hyakunin Isshu anthology of waka poetry, collected by Fujiwara Teika, opens with a poem by the Emperor Tenji (626-671), who ruled from Otsu (then briefly Japan’s capital)…  …Although the poem resembles a simple folk song about thwarted love (and surely is one, the attribution to the emperor is contested), the traditional interpretation is that the poem expresses Tenji’s compassion for the lot of the peasants. That is why it was considered suitable as the starting piece of the anthology… LINK

The translations of the poems and the unfolding of their meaning and intent are both clear and precise. I wonder if Mr. Blankestijn plans to continue this series until he has finished all 100 waka. I sincerely hope so. I am enjoying them a lot.

Here are two more entries in the Walking Waka Tracks series:

The Ausaka Barrier – Semimaru
Nakoso Falls – Kinto

See also:
Cycle Kyoto
Other Recommended Kyoto Sites

Shinto – Deities, Shrines and Symbols

The Sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami emerges from a cave, bringing sunlight back to the world. This print by Utagawa Kunisada is in the public domain.

Ian Ropke writes,

Shinto is Japan’s original religion and today it maintains a strong position next to the country’s other main religion: Buddhism. It is interesting to note that nearly all Japanese do not even know what the word Shinto means. The word Shinto comes from the Chinese characters: god and path. Elegantly translated Shinto means The Way of the Gods. Today, if you want to get onto the subject of Shinto you more or less have to begin talking to people about the world of the jinja or shrine.

Shinto for the average Japanese of today is a world of superstitious beliefs and practices that most people do. Few understand very much about the religion and this is understandable as there are basically no holy texts. Shinto has no real founder, no religious laws and only a very loosely organized hierarchy of priests. It is a religion of the wild world of nature, of which humans are just one tiny part.

Izanami and Izanagi, a public domain painting by Kobayashi Eitaku

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Evidence indicates that its main beliefs came into existence before 500 BC. These beliefs are a combination of many things: nature worship, shamanism, fertility cults, and techniques for divining the future. Until the end of WWII, the Emperor of Japan was regarded as one of the many gods or kami in the Shinto pantheon. He descended to earth from heaven as the kami that would live among men.

The divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, gave birth to the islands of Japan and their other children became the deities of Japan’s many clans or tribes. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of the Imperial family. Her shrine at Ise is one of the largest in Japan and the emperor journeys there every year to pay his respects. Indeed, much of the emperor’s yearly life revolves around the many rituals and ceremonies that he, as a god, has been performing throughout the year for over 1,500 years. Continue reading

Furansisko no Ie

Sword clasp at the Furansisko no Ie showing a Portuguese galleon bringing the European religion to Japan.

Here’s a new post from our good friend, John Dougill.

Near Shijo Omiya is a small museum called Furansisko no Ie.  From the outside it’s unremarkable; inside is a small exhibition room with items from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They represent the time when Christianity first arrived in Japan, before falling into disfavour and being banned.

One of several Hidden Christian stone lanterns found in Kyoto. This one at Furansisko no Ie has an image of Maria carved at the base which could be covered over with earth when not in use for worship.

What marks the museum out is its location, for the site is associated with one of the most dramatic events of the period: the crucifixion of the 26 Martyrs at Nagasaki in 1597.

Prayers of the Hidden Christians, known as Orashio, which were kept secreted away.

The episode originated four years earlier, when the Spanish governor of the Philippines sent a delegation headed by a Franciscan friar.  He petitioned Hideyoshi for permission to build a small monastery where the museum now stands.  With three others he ran a hospital, and the charitable works soon resulted in converts. The surrounding area became known as ‘Dios machi’ for the number of Christians.

Maria Kannon, symbol of the Hidden Christians. On the surface a statue of Kannon, but to believers it represented Maria.

In 1596 a Spanish galleon named the San Felipe was shipwrecked off Shikoku and the cargo seized.  The enraged pilot threatened the authorities by claiming missionaries in Japan were the advance guard of the Spanish king whose armies would colonize them, just as they had in S. America.

When news of this reached Hideyoshi, he ordered a round-up of Catholics and twenty-four Franciscans were seized in Kyoto and Osaka (Jesuits were spared for fear of disrupting the Portuguese trade).  The ears of the captives were cut off and the prisoners publicly paraded, before being force-marched all the way to the Christian stronghold of Nagasaki.  Two volunteers accompanying the men to give comfort were also arrested and added to the group.


A 'stamping picture' (fumie) used by authorities to test for Christians. The idea was that believers would not deny Christ by treading on the icon. Hidden Christians, however, did.

At Nagasaki the 26 Martyrs were publicly crucified.  Six were foreign priests (one was an unfortunate Mexican heading home from the Philippines aboard the San Felipe).  The rest were Japanese laymen, the youngest of whom was just twelve years old.

Though Catholicism continued to be tolerated, it remained suspect and in 1614 came a nationwide ban.  A period of persecution followed in which over 4000 are known to have died and many more subjected to horrendous torture.  It drove the church underground, as described in Endo Shusaku’s novel, Silence.

During the age of isolation it was thought the religion had been eradicated.  Only after 1865, with the return of foreign priests, was it realised that for seven generations pockets of Hidden Christians had handed down their beliefs in secret.  It was an astonishing story, and one whose history is recorded in the artifacts of the Furansisko no Ie.

Hidden Christians at prayer in a secret attic room. (Exhibit at Rosario Museum in the Amakusa Islands)

John Dougill’s book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians has just been published by Tuttle.  For details about Furansisko no Ie, see

Kasagake at Kamigamo on October 16th

Deer-skinned horse riders deciding their turn by lottery

John Dougill writes,

There were traditionally three styles of horseback archery carried out for the entertainment of the kami. The most well-known is Yabusame, in which galloping riders shoot at a fixed target. Much rarer is Kasagake, to be performed this Sunday at Kamigamo Jinja. The other style involved firing at live dogs: thank goodness, it’s no longer practised.

Entry Procession

There is mention of Kasagake being carried out at Kamigamo Shrine some eight hundred years ago. Previously it had simply been a martial art, designed to improve battle skills. Legend has it that it began with Emperor Jimmu who used his helmet as a target. It was adapted as a shrine entertainment, and then died out.

Horse rider procession

In 2004 Kamigamo revived the ritual, and it is carried out by the Takeda-ryu school of horseback archers. Among the riders are descendants of the Kamo clan, who settled the Kyoto basin in pre-Heian times. The event begins and ends with the banging of a drum, following which a procession of colourfully costumed officials gather for a purification ceremony. The head rider then performs a Heaven and Earth ritual, by circling his horse first to the left and then to the right to summon yin-yang forces, before aiming a symbolic arrow upwards and downwards to ward off evil spirits.

Opening ritual - shooting towards the ground

There are ten riders in all, separated into two groups. Unusually for such an event there are women riders and the order of the riders is decided by lottery. On the first run through the riders fire at three targets at shoulder height. On the return run they fire at two targets set near the ground. The number of hits is recorded and announced over the tannoy. Once the results are in, the best five are put through into a second round, when the targets get smaller. Amazingly, this means that at a fairly high speed they fire at something little bigger than a saucer.

Winners and losers on their way back

Inui Mitsutaka

As part of the shrine’s outreach to foreigners, it provides an English-language commentary along with the Japanese, performed by Inui Mitsutaka who worked for a while with the International Shinto Foundation in New York. There’s much here that tells of the values of Shinto. The celebration of tradition. The entertainment for ancestral deities. The treasuring of skill and precision. Confucian and Taoist influences are evident, while the white horse on display brings to mind the importance of the animal as an emissary of the kami. They say Buddhism in Japan is a religion of the living concerned with death. Shinto on the other hand focuses on dead spirits but is concerned with life. Here in the galloping horses is a case in point.

The sacred white horse at Kamigamo (only to be seen at festivals and holidays)

The festival begins at 13.00.  Details about the shrine and how to reach it can be found here:
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here,

Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

Kyoto Antiques: Shopping & Window Shopping

Ian Ropke writes,

There are two areas in Kyoto known for antiques: Teramachi and Shinmonzen. Both areas are perfect for window shopping and, naturally, shopping.

Antiques shop on Teramachi

Teramachi, south of Marutamachi, north of Oike but mostly north of Nijo, is Kyoto’s newest antique center. It is more casual, and often quite a bit cheaper when it comes to antiques pure and simple (provenance and expert value aside). It also has a wide range of other interesting shops (highly recommended for high quality Asian handicrafts and art & tea ceremony accessories, and getting into the minutely graduated worlds of tea at Ippodo and washi paper in the shop just to the south of Ippodo). The smartest way to do this route is to either crisscross or go down one side of Teramachi and then up the other.


Shinmonzen, running west for about 500 meters from Higashioji just north of the Gion district, is the old center of Kyoto’s antique industry. This is where the Americans got some of Japan’s finest treasures for next to nothing and many many did. In the Russian war, POWs were allowed to go and shop on Shinmonzen as the barracks for POWs in the Kansai region was nearby in Kyoto). The shops here are less suited for window shopping, but interesting in every other way.

Shinmonzen Doori - 新門前通

Many shops in both areas specialize (for example Chinese/Japanese/Korean antiques, paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics, bronze, Japanese furniture, wood-block prints, wood carving, scrolls, Buddhist paintings and sculptures, pearls, glassware, tea ceremony utensils, kimonos, etc.), while others offer a crazy selection. Prices are often not marked, and bargaining is expected. Experience the exotic world of Kyoto antiques, and take something special home from Asia’s streets of treasure. Most shops on both streets are open every day 10:00-18:00 (some are closed on Mondays). English is understood and spoken well in many shops.

Kamiji Kakimoto (established 1845) just south of Ippodo on Teramachi sells washi paper.

Useful Antique Shopping Language

antique – kottouhin

What is this for? – Kore wa nanini tsukauno desuka?

How much is it? – Kore wa ikura desuka?

(It is) __________ yen. - (Kore wa) __________ en desu

Yagi's art shop on Shinmonzen (detail)

Can you make it cheaper? – Motto yasuku narimasen ka?

How about _______ yen? – ______ en deha dodesuka?

How old is it? – Kore ha odregurai furui mono desuka?

I’m just looking. – Chotto miteru dake desu

Can I touch it? – Sawatte mo ii desuka?

Do you have anything similar to this? – Kore to onaji mono ha mou hitotsu arimasu ka?

How old is this? – Kore wa dore gurai furui desuka?

Yagi's art shop on Shinmonzen

Edo jidai (1603 – 1867)
Meiji jidai (1868 – 1911)
Taisho jidai (1912 – 1927)

What is this made of? – Kono sozai ha nan desuka

Wood: ki; Cedar: sugi; Cypress: hinoki; Cherry: sakura; Bamboo: take.

Metal: kinzoku; Silver: gin; Copper: do; Brass: shinchu; Iron: tetsu.

Cotton: men; Silk: kinu; Linen: asa.

Is it fragile? - Kore wa koware yasui desuka?

Can send it to me in my home country? – Gaikoku ni okuru koto dekimasuka?


Full text by Ian Ropke. Photographs by Michael Lambe. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, assistant editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.

Karasu Sumo at Kamigamo Shrine on September 9

John Dougill writes,

Priests hopping and cawing like crows.  Seven year old kids doing sumo.  What’s that all got to do with Shinto, you may wonder?

Kamigamo Jinja is Kyoto’s greenest shrine and probably the oldest.  It was established by the Kamo clan long before Kammu founded the capital in 794.  One of the clan, according to legend, helped guide Emperor Jimmu across Kii Hanto and was known as yatagarasu (the three-legged crow).  Personally, I take this to mean he was a shaman of the Crow People, who settled in Kyoto after immigrating from Korea.  Their descendants still live in the area around Kamigamo.

Bowing to the sacred mounds

At the festival the priests sit in front of two mounds of earth, which represent the sacred hill onto which the shrine’s kami, Kamo Wake-ikazuchi, first descended.  The hill, known as Koyama, lies north of the shrine and every year there is a secret ceremony there to reenact the shamanic rites of old.

But why are there two mounds?  Interestingly, this recreates the two mounds that stand permanently inside the middle torii.  Priests at the shrine say that they represent yin and yang, but they could well signify the theme of renewal in Shinto.  At Ise, for instance, a new shrine is built adjacent to the old shrine for the kami to move into.  Perhaps the two mounds here act in similar symbolic manner.

Parade of the (mini) sumo wrestlers

The day’s rituals start with the offering of chrysanthemum flowers at 10.00, following which participants proceed from the worship hall to the arena.  A colourfully costumed young girl representing the historical saio (imperial princess) presides over events.  The initial rites include the shooting of arrows to dispel evil spirits, after which two of the priests do their crow performance.

Facing off...

The climax is the children’s sumo, put on for the entertainment of the kami.  There are two teams, and each boy gets to wrestle two times.  The atmosphere can become quite heated, and the crowd usually gets behind the little toddler struggling against a bigger opponent.  Cameras flash from all directions.  By the end you may feel just as happy as the kami that this ancient tradition has been preserved so long.


Text and images by John Dougill. John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History. His current project, In Search of Amaterasu’s Mirror, is a study of Shinto. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here, and his blog Green Shinto at

(For a video of the priests crowing, see