Category Archives: Culture & Tradition

Plum Blossom at the Imperial Palace Park

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On my way home from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine the other day, I stopped by the Imperial Palace Park to enjoy the plum blossom. The trees at Kitano Tenmangu are probably more famous, but the shrine grounds were also a lot more crowded. Though each tree in the park had its admirers, there was really only a small scattering of people around, and so I could enjoy the blooms in a more relaxed and pleasant manner.

Every tree has its admirers...

Every tree has its admirers…

And there is something very calming about viewing plum blossom.

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The scent of plum blossom is subtle, not strong, but deep like wine and very rich. I love to stick my nose in a spray and take a big sniff!

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梅が香に追い戻さるるさむさかな [松尾 芭蕉]

ume ga ka ni
oimodosaruru
samusa kana
~ Matsuo Bashō

plum blossom scent
this chases off
the cold!
( tr. Michael Lambe)

梅花祭 ~ Plum Blossom & Geisha at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Tenmangu Ume 2

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine has a huge flea market on the 25th of every month, but on the 25th of February this coincides with the peak period for plum blossom viewing. Naturally this calls for a special celebration so every year they hold a special outdoor tea ceremony with geiko and maiko (Kyoto’s geisha) serving the tea. I went along today and found the place packed out with people. Despite the crowds though I could still enjoy the blossom.

Tenmangu ume

There was a long queue of people lining up for tea with the geisha. For 1,500 yen you can get matcha tea and some kind of traditional Japanese sweet…

Tenmangu line (Medium)

I’m not a big fan of matcha tea, so I opted to peek over the fence with these guys instead.

Tenmangu peek (Medium)

Unlike all the other fellows straining for that perfect maiko shot, I did not have a massive telephoto lens, and so I didn’t really think I’d be able to get a decent picture. But one lady there today, happened to be taller than all the other maiko.

Tenmangu Geisha 2

She was quite literally head and shoulders above the rest.

KitanoTenmangu

Plum blossom at Kitano Tenmangu will be viewable until mid-March. To get there take Kyoto City Bus #50, and get off at Kitano Tenmangu-mae. The shrine is open from 9:00~17:00 (7:00~21:00 on the 25th for the flea market). Find out more at the Kitano Tenmangu website: www.kitanotenmangu.or.jp/

Sumi Workshop Article in Kansai Scene

KS articleThis month, Kansai Scene have been good enough to publish an article I wrote about attending Christine Flint Sato’s sumi ink workshop. In her workshops Christine teaches neither calligraphy nor sumi-e ink painting, but breaks down the techniques used in both of these arts to their simplest and most abstract forms. With a uniquely meditative teaching method she helps her students gain familiarity with the materials and having gained confidence first with essential techniques they can then go on to  tackle more advanced designs. Here’s a clip from the article:

Our lesson did not begin with Chinese characters. “I don’t intend to teach shodō calligraphy, or sumi-e in this workshop, ” Christine said, “It’s more of an encounter with sumi, to see how it reacts with the page…” Then we did stretches, for Christine says that relaxation is key. Having loosened up, we began with the simplest of abstractions: the line. Take a breath, she told us and then as you breath out, let the brush move across the page: “The breath tells us how long to draw the line.” And so the whole room fell into a quiet meditative focus, as each student drew repeated lines across the page. Christine moved among us, offering tips: “Don’t grip the brush too tightly. Relax with the ink.”

Next, we moved onto circles, then squares, then triangles and dots. By focusing on these simple abstract shapes, we were able to familiarize ourselves with the spring of the brush held in different positions and with different pressures and speeds. And when we had fully practiced these basic shapes in different shades of ink, we were given free rein to play with more complex designs and combinations. All the while we were encouraged: let the breath be the brush’s guide. Christine told me that this method of using the breath was something she intuitively came up with. “I wanted to relax into it and get away from the pressure of doing it right”.

Kansai scene coverTo read the full article you can pick up a free copy of Kansai Scene at any of the locations listed here: Kansai Scene Pick-up Points

Or you can wait till next month when the full magazine will be available as a downloadable pdf: Kansai Scene Back Issues

To find out more about Christine Flint Sato visit her website here: http://www.sumiwork.com/

See also my review of Christine’s Sumi Workbook for Kyoto Journal.

Maiko at Yasaka Jinja

Maiko at Yasaka Jinja Setsubun (Medium)Maiko, Kyoto’s apprentice geisha, at Yasaka Jinja today celebrating Setsubun.

First they do a little dance

First they do a little dance

Then they throw their lucky beans

Then they throw their lucky beans

Both the maiko and the crowds were awfully excited about those lucky beans...

Both the maiko and the crowds were awfully excited about those lucky beans…

Setsubun is celebrated at Yasaka Jinja every year in both the 2nd and 3rd of February, though the festival proper is on the 3rd. To learn more about the traditions associated with Setsubun read John Dougill’s marvellous blog: Green Shinto.

Celebrating Setsubun in Kyoto, February 3rd 2015

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.

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Detail from a poster for “Gionsan no Setsubun” at Yasaka Jinja (see below).

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): http://www.yasaka-jinja.or.jp/event/setsubun.html

001Heian Shrine
February 3rd: From 11:30 am until 2pm there is a Kyogen traditional comedy performance. Bean pelting is from 3pm followed by a sacred bonfire. Sweet sake is served free all day.
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #5 and get off at Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsukan-mae. Here is a MAP. You can find more details in Japanese here: http://www.heianjingu.or.jp/02/0201.html

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. You can find more details in Japanese here: http://www7a.biglobe.ne.jp/~rozanji/50_setubun.html

Yoshida Shrine:
The biggest disappointment this year is that Yoshida Shrine won’t be holding will be seriously downsizing their annual bonfire. Traditionally, Yoshida Shrine holds the biggest (and longest) Setsubun festival in Kyoto from the 2nd to the 4th. Since the Muromachi era, the climax of this festival has always been a huge bonfire on the night of the 3rd. Pilgrims return all their old amulets and charms and a huge pile of them is burned in a truly massive inferno before the shrine… However, this year the City Government has seen fit to impose new regulations on the disposal of ash after the fire, and these have proven too costly for the shrine to afford. This really is a terrible pity, both for local residents who take part in the annual cycle of seasonal rites, and for visitors to the city who will be denied a chance to see this incredible spectacle. Let’s hope the shrine can work out a deal with the pen-pushers at City Hall for next year. In the meantime, Yoshida Shrine will continue with its festival sans conflagration. It is still worth visiting for the ceremony to drive out evil spirits which will be held at 6pm on the evening of the 2nd. This involves actual mask-clad devils in colourful costumes getting pelted with beans. And 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): http://www.yoshidajinja.com/setubunsai.htm
To get there take Kyoto City Bus #206 and get off at Kyodai Seimon-mae. Here is a MAP.

UPDATE: Apparently, Yoshida Shrine will have a fire, but a much, much smaller one. I only came across this story today, but it seems it has been something of an ongoing saga. I’m told the city actually backed down about the new rules, but it was too late for the shrine to change their revised plans… Better luck next year!
*With the exception of the poster detail at the top of this article, other images are taken from the respective shrine and temple websites.

Traditional Theater Training Summer Program in Kyoto

Continuing the theatrical theme from my last post, here’s something I found via http://shinpaideshou.wordpress.com. 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

http://www.kac.or.jp/10528/

http://www.kac.or.jp/eng/news/10528/

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]world.ryukoku.ac.jp Program director

http://www.world.ryukoku.ac.jp/kenkyuka/teachers/salz.html
http://kyototheatrenow.blogspot.jp/

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.
setsubun
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): http://www5.ocn.ne.jp/~yosida/setubunsai.htm
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): http://www.yasaka-jinja.or.jp/event/setsubun.html

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: www.heianjingu.or.jp/

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: www7a.biglobe.ne.jp/~rozanji/

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

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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 Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk. 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