Category Archives: John Dougill

Kamogawa Musing – An Excerpt from Deep Kyoto Walks by John Dougill

In this extract from Deep Kyoto: Walks, John Dougill walking by the Kamo River, the nature reserve that cuts through the heart of Kyoto, muses on history and literature…

Leisure activities on a cloudy day at the meeting of the Kamo and Takanogawa

Leisure activities on a cloudy day at the meeting of the Kamo and Takanogawa

“The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration. So in the world are man and his dwellings.” – Kamo no Chomei in Hojoki (tr. Donald Keene)

Kyoto ranks among the world’s great cities. What other town can boast of 17 different World Heritage properties – and it could have been so many more! One only has to think of the places left out: Fushimi Inari, with its seductive tunnel of torii; Daitoku-ji, home to Zen and the making of tea; the Former Imperial Palace and detached villas, including the exquisite Katsura estate.

To live in such surrounds is to be blessed indeed. I’m reminded of this every single morning as I open my curtains to gaze onto the great Dai of Daimonji and the thirty-six peaks of the Eastern Hills. I live next to one World Heritage site (Shimogamo Shrine), and I work next to another (Nishi Hongan-ji). From my writing desk I look up towards holy Mt. Hiei, ‘mother of Japanese Buddhism’. Culturally, one could hardly ask for more; it’s like living in a treasure box.

Yet for me, Kyoto wouldn’t be the city I love unless it were for the life-sustaining river that runs through its heart, forming a sliver of greenery and wildlife within the concrete city. I walk the river almost every day, for I live next to the lower reaches of the Takano where it merges with the Kamo to flow southwards towards Osaka. Most days I walk down to the Starbucks at Sanjō (Third Avenue) to set up office in the basement, but today I’m heading all the way down to Shichijō (Seventh Avenue), before turning west along the thoroughfare to my university.

The walk offers ‘time out’ from the daily round of urban life, a place for solitary contemplation of the larger matters. Here the spirit swells and relaxes. Here the mind can think in centuries. Here immersed in the rus in urbe I lose myself in observation of the wild life and muse on the seasonal round. There are fish that flash silver in springtime, large funa that glide improbably in the shallow water, even the occasional carp let loose in the river water and looking lost.

But this is not so much a river of fish, as of birds. Birds that swoop, scavenge and shriek in sheer delight at the oasis of water and greenery. Kamogawa translates as Duck River, and along with the duck varieties are pigeons, sparrows, cormorants, herons, wagtails, egrets, hawks, Siberian seagulls, crows galore, even the occasional kingfisher. These are my companions on my solitary walks. And the wonder is that you get all this while passing through downtown Kyoto. It’s almost miraculous.

The things I’ve seen on these river banks. A trumpeter sounding the Last Post on one long blood-red sunset; the cherry blossom delight of merry picnickers stretching away into the northern hills; the sad, sorry sight of flooded cardboard boxes belonging to the homeless; hawks snatching rice balls out of the hands of the unsuspecting. Strangest of all, one January dusk I saw a group of people in the river immersed to their waists like frozen statues. A trick of the eyes? A joke? An art performance? No, it turned out to be a karate club performing winter austerity rites. Walking this river can be an education too.

For it’s not just wildlife that enjoys this strip of water and greenery – it’s a vital playground for humans too. This is where people take time out to stretch and play, eat their bento or strip off to sunbathe. Old folks do gateball, youngsters play American Football. This is where musicals are rehearsed, Noh verses recited, tunes learnt, haiku composed, and dogs walked by dogged owners. Foreigners practice tai chi here, prompting children to tug at their parents in wonder, while TV crews add Kyoto glamour to their documentaries and celebrities pose for fashion magazines.

For me personally, the pleasure of a city like Kyoto derives from the way physical space is enhanced by the patina of time. ‘No city or landscape is truly rich unless it has been given the quality of myth by writer, painter or by association with great events,’ wrote V.S. Naipaul. In this sense Kyoto is rich indeed, for every corner of every street is fraught with poetic or historic significance. Here passed a poet, here martyrs were sacrificed, and here stood the palace of a shogun.

This walk along the river is thus about much more than physical movement. It’s about the passage through time and how the past has shaped the present. And there’s a personal dimension too, for the surrounds give me pause to reflect on the curiosity of my own life. Kyoto was founded in 794, and as it happened I first came here to live in 1994. For the city, the 1200th anniversary was a cause for celebration; for me, it marked the beginning of a whole new era.

An egret rests on one-leg, determined not to stick its neck out.

An egret rests on one-leg, determined not to stick its neck out.

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Text and photographs by John Dougill. To read the rest of John Dougill’s Kamogawa Musing, download Deep Kyoto: Walks here: LINK.

DeepKyoto-cover-0423-finalAbout Deep Kyoto: Walks

Deep Kyoto: Walks is an independently produced anthology of meditative strolls, rambles, hikes and ambles around Japan’s ancient capital. All of the writers and artists involved in this project have lived and worked in Kyoto for many years and know it intimately. The book is in part a literary tribute to the city that they love and in part a tribute to the art of walking for its own sake.

John-Dougill-2-242x300About John Dougill
John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History, Japan’s World Heritage Sites and In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians. He also keeps a blog, Green Shinto (www.greenshinto.com). Born in the UK to a Czech mother and a Yorkshire Viking, he studied Russian and Slavic Studies at university. However, a lust for wandering took him to the Middle East, where he married a Yemeni, before travelling around the world for a year. He set up house in Oxford, but fate intervened to send him to Kanazawa where he was a lone gaijin on the backside of Japan, dreaming of one day teaching in Kyoto. Now he has to pinch himself every morning as he looks up from his bed at Daimonji. When not playing chess, writing haiku or walking along the Kamogawa, he works as professor of Cultural Studies at Ryukoku University.
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See also:
Meet the Authors
Meet the Artists
An Exclusive Extract from Judith Clancy’s Walk
Old School Gaijin Kyoto – An Excerpt from Deep Kyoto Walks by Chris Rowthorn
Ghosts, Monkeys & Other Neighbours – An Excerpt by Bridget Scott
Blue Sky – An Excerpt by Stephen Henry Gill
Across Purple Fields – A Reading by Ted Taylor (VIDEO)

Deep Kyoto: Walks ~ Released on Amazon!

DeepKyoto-cover-0423-final

Deep Kyoto: Walks
Publisher: Deep Kyoto; 1st edition (May 18, 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ASIN: B00KFM2J0C
URL: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KFM2J0C
Price: $7.99 (811 yen)

Editors: Michael Lambe & Ted Taylor

Authors: Jennifer Louise Teeter, Bridget Scott, Miki Matsumoto, Robert Yellin, Pico Iyer, Chris Rowthorn, John Dougill, John Ashburne, Stephen Henry Gill, Sanborn Brown, Joel Stewart, Izumi Texidor-Hirai, Perrin Lindelauf and Judith Clancy.

Includes:
18 walks
16 photographic illustrations
A specially commissioned woodblock print by Richard Steiner
12 detailed maps
Links to all locations on Google Maps
Cover Art by internationally acclaimed artist Sarah Brayer

I am very happy to announce the release of our ebook Deep Kyoto: Walks on Amazon.com.

Just a little over a year ago I began to send out tentative proposals for the first Deep Kyoto publication. The book would be about walking in Kyoto. But it would not be a typical guidebook, with a set of directions and little nuggets of historical and cultural information. Each walk would be a meditative stroll around an area the writer knew intimately and would explore that writer’s personal relationship to the city. The book would be both a literary tribute to the city as home, and a testament to the art of walking for its own sake.

To my delight our writers responded with great enthusiasm to this proposal, and in their walks they have taken my initial idea into areas I could never have imagined. In our book we have neighborhood walks, mountain hikes, bar crawls, backstreet rambles, philosophical wanderings and strolls down memory lane. And we have gathered a fantastic group of writers too, from established Kyoto experts like Pico Iyer, Judith Clancy and John Ashburne to newer talent like Bridget Scott and Izumi-Texidor-Hirai: all of our contributors have written superb accounts of walking this city and I want to thank them all for their participation in this project.

I would also like to thank our artists: Sarah Brayer for her wonderful cover art, and Richard Steiner for his beautiful print illustration of Daimonji in flames.

Profound thanks also to Yutaka Nakayama for his design work on the cover and for his super detailed maps. And to Rick Elizaga who stepped in to take care of the formatting, and who has done a truly splendid job of it, many many thanks indeed.

Finally I would like to express my eternal gratitude to my co-editor and very best walking companion, Ted Taylor (1). From the beginning of this project to the end, he has been a great ally, and a source of encouragement, energy and inspiration.

This has been a great collective effort and together we have made a wonderful book of which we can be hugely proud. I look forward very much to our next collaboration.

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Note (1): Other than Mewby of course!

See also:
Introducing the Writers
Meet the Artists

Deep Kyoto: Walks ~ Introducing the Writers

The editors...

The happy editors…

We are now one week away from the release of our ebook, Deep Kyoto: Walks! Here at last we reveal the full list of writers! You may be pleasantly surprised at this happy mix of fresh faces and seasoned hands…

There are 16 writers in our book and 18 walks. For your convenience the main chapters of the book with the writers names are listed below, along with the corresponding times that they are mentioned on the video.

The Walks:
(0.28) Time Travelling on GojoJennifer Louise Teeter discovers the Gojozaka area in the August heat offers portals through time and into other worlds…
(1.15) Red Brick & Sakura: A Walk in Modern KyotoMichael Lambe explores alternative visions of modern architecture in eastern Kyoto…
(1.51) Ghosts, Monkeys & Other NeighboursBridget Scott meditates on her personal connection to her neighborhood on a well-worn stroll from Shisen-dō to Manshu-in…
(2.24) Climbing Mount DaimonjiMiki Matsumoto considers our relation to the natural world while climbing this iconic mount
(2.41) Not Sure Which Way To GoRobert Yellin encourages us to seek chance and adventure along the Path of Philosophy…
(3.09) Into the TumultPico Iyer on a favoured walk from Gesshin-in to Sanjo Bridge reflects on how he first fell in love with this city and what it has taught him…
(3.38) Old School Gaijin KyotoChris Rowthorn tours the haunts of his reckless youth with the ironic eye of experience…
(4.07) Kamogawa MusingJohn Dougill walking by the Kamo River, the nature reserve that cuts through the heart of Kyoto, muses on history and literature…
(4.50) Gods, Monks, Secrets, FishJohn Ashburne on a mouth-watering tour of the Nishikikoji market with a sprinkling of zen spice…
(5.43) Across Purple FieldsTed Taylor walks to his corner store for a beer and on the way encounters the world…
(6.30) Blue SkyStephen Henry Gill takes us on an expert guided tour through the poetic and historical landscape of Saga and Arashiyama….
(7.34) Hiking Mount AtagoSanborn Brown joins an annual summer pilgrimage with an eccentric tea ceremony master…
(8.05) In Praise of Uro UroJoel Stewart, on a walk from Daitoku-ji to Shōden-ji, views the eclectic architecture of his neighborhood with the unique eye of an artist…
(8.45) The Botanical GardensIzumi Texidor Hirai walks through the seasons and through personal recollections in her favourite city park…
(9.20) A Long MarchTed Taylor joins a nuclear protest demo from Maruyama Park to Kyoto City Hall, and reflects on ideals and reality…
(9.39) Up & Down the Ki’Michael Lambe follows troubadours Mark Dodds and Ryotaro Sudo on a ten-bar musical bar crawl of Kiyamachi…
(10.21) Rounding Off: The Kyoto TrailPerrin Lindelauf walks the entire circuit of the hiking trail around Kyoto’s surrounding mountains
(10.55) EpilogueJudith Clancy reflects on how long years in Kyoto have changed her way of seeing…

In addition the book has a Foreword on the topic of walking by myself, and an Introduction by Ted Taylor: Afoot in the Old Capital. It is also illustrated with photos from our contributors, plus a wood block print from Richard Steiner, and is completed by 12 detailed maps to help you find your way around!

Deep Kyoto: Walks will be released on Amazon DeepKyoto-cover-0423-finalon May 21st 2014!

See also:
Joel Stewart & Ted Taylor: Two Friends Deep Kyoto Walking
Ted Taylor on the Trail of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: A Deep Kyoto Walk through History
Judith Clancy in “Deep Kyoto: Walks” ~ An Exclusive Extract
Deep Kyoto: Walks ~ Meet the Artists
Coming very soon, the first publication from Deep Kyoto

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)

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John Dougill’s book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians has just been published by Tuttle.  For details about Furansisko no Ie, see http://www7a.biglobe.ne.jp/~christian/framet.html

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: http://www.kamigamojinja.jp/english/index.html
Tel 075-781-0011
Fax 075-702-6618
Nice short of video of it here, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqoOEDyAvNM

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 http://greenshinto.com/.

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.

Gambatte!

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 http://greenshinto.com/.

(For a video of the priests crowing, see http://chrenee.blogspot.com/2007/09/karasu-sumo-festival.html)

MITARASHI MATSURI

Shimogamo Jinja  July 21-24, from 5.30-22.30 

John Dougill writes,

Hot, hot and humid! At this time of year you may feel all you want to do is wade through cold water. Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine. Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for your legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity). The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality. In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating. Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Inoue Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami. Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water. There are black stones available too from the bottom of the stream, which are said to have a special deterrent power for disease demons, particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children. A suitable donation to the shrine is expected in exchange. On the way back, at the stalls in front of the shrine, you can get Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’. This is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode. Unlike the overcrowded Gion Festival, this is on a more manageable scale and reflects the community nature of Shinto. There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

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 http://greenshinto.com/.

John Dougill’s Green Shinto

Our friend, the historian/poet John Dougill, has launched his own website, Green Shinto, and it looks like a cracker! I know personally that strolling round a shinto shrine with John at your side amiably explaining what everything means, is a very educational experience. Now his expert knowledge of Shinto belief and tradition is available to a far wider audience:

Green Shinto is a blog by John Dougill operating out of Kyoto, Japan, which is dedicated to the promotion of an open, international and environmental Shinto.   It seeks to celebrate the rich heritage of the tradition, from sacred rocks and shamanistic roots to bawdy myths and fertility festivals.  It believes Shinto to be essentially diverse, localised and community oriented.  It looks to a Shinto free of borders, liberated from its past to meet the demands of a new age.   It looks in short to a Shinto that is green in deed as well as in word. LINK

John has already written a LOT of fascinating postings. Here are some tasty snippets that should encourage you to visit:

Continue reading

John Dougill enjoys a seasonal stroll from Tambabashi to Fushimi

Kammu burial mound entrance with Hideyoshi's reconstructed castle in the background

A pleasant walk through woods and 1100 years of history? In Kyoto? Yes, it’s possible on the south-eastern edge if you walk between Tambabashi and Fushimi-Momoyama. It takes two hours and along the way are imperial tombs, Shinto shrines and an Edo-era escapade.

Paying respects at the Emperor Kammu's burial mound

Start from any of three Tambabashi stations (JR, Keihan or Kintetsu). Walk uphill for ten minutes and you’ll come to the tomb of Emperor Kammu (737-806), fiftieth in succession from the sun-goddess and the founder of Kyoto. The reconstructed tower of Hideyoshi’s Fushimi castle peers out from the trees behind. Continue reading

A Kyoto New Year

This will be the last post for the year as I am going home to the UK for Christmas and will be offline for an ENTIRE WEEK! Before I hand you over to John Dougill for the final word, let me wish you all a very merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year. And for those who can’t bear to be without Deep Kyoto for a whole week, I have posted a list of categorised 2010 highlights here (click it! go on click it!) for your browsing pleasure. Now, over to John!

Kurodani by Sarah Brayer

John Dougill writes…

The true soul of Japan is neither Shinto nor Buddhist.  It’s Shinto-Buddhist.  Until the artificial split of early Meiji times, the country had more than 1000 years of happy syncretism.  Born Shinto, die Buddhist is the Japanese way.
Shinto is this-worldly, concerned with rites of passage and social well-being.  Buddhism is other-worldly, concerned with individual salvation.  At New Year the two religions come together like yin and yang, either side of midnight.  Buddhism sees out the death of the old; Shinto celebrates the birth of the new.  Joya-no-kane (tolling of the bell) gives way to Hatsumode (first visit of the year).
To get the full feel of a Kyoto New Year, you need to be syncretic too.  In the dying minutes of the year, go hear the bell at a Buddhist temple.  By tradition it is rung 108 times once for every attachment that plagues the human condition.  Then head for a shrine to pick up arrow and amulets for protection through the coming year.
With over 3000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, you’re spoilt for choice.  A popular but crowded combination is Chion-in and Yasaka Jinja.  File up the hill to watch the young priests at the temple acrobatically swing on ropes to ring the bell.  Then head down to the shrine to get twisted bamboo lit with the sacred Okera fire.  It will purify your home.
Personally I prefer the open space of Kurodani, where the bell booms soulfully over the nearby hillside.  Open fires give off a warm glow, which you can add to with heated sake before lining up to ring the bell.  Afterwards a twenty-minute walk leads through dark and dozing streets to the wooded surrounds of Shimogamo Jinja.
Suddenly there are laughing voices, bright kimono, and gaudy lights.  Aspiring yakuza sell candy floss and goldfish.  Here all is jollity and smiles.  ‘Akemashite gozaimasu’ rings out on every side.  At the shrine people toss coins over the heads of those in front into the offertory boxes.  With the blessing of the kami, this too will be a happy New Year.  A happy Kyoto New Year!

John Dougill is the author of Kyoto: A Cultural History.  He is currently working on a book about Hidden Christians. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here. John will write again in a few days with some top tips for New Year’s Eve!

See also:

A Kyoto Christmas by John Dougill
Christmas Carols at Kyoto City Hall
Christmas at Tadg’s