Plum Blossom at the Imperial Palace Park


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.


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!

梅が香に追い戻さるるさむさかな [松尾 芭蕉]

ume ga ka ni
samusa kana
~ Matsuo Bashō

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

Bakumatsu Samurai on Inside Kyoto

My article, Kyoto Samurai, is now up on Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto website. For this piece I took a tour of sites around Kyoto associated with legendary samurai of the Bakumatsu era, like Sakamoto Ryōma and the Shinsengumi. I must say, once I got into this topic I found it quite fascinating, and I even started watching that old NHK Shinsengumi! drama series!

The Shinsengumi as depicted at the modern day Ikedaya restaurant.

The Shinsengumi as depicted at the modern day Ikedaya restaurant.

The Bakumatsu was a time of profound turmoil and change that saw the end of the old feudal Shogunate, and the start of a new modern era with the Meiji Restoration. During this time, some swordsmen fought for tradition and others for change. Among them Sakamoto Ryōma was a lone wolf figure, working behind the scenes to realise his vision of a modern Japan. When I visited his grave and saw other visitors pray at his tomb I felt profoundly moved by the high esteem in which he is held even now among modern Japanese.

Sakamoto_Ryōma - image Public Domain

A revered figure from Japanese history: Sakamoto_Ryōma – image Public Domain

One major site of interest that isn’t mentioned in the article is the Teradaya in Fushimi. This was the location of Sakamoto Ryōma’s famous escape from a Shinsengumi attack, and today it is a museum dedicated to his memory. It seemed better to include that site though, in a more general article on Fushimi, so look out for that one in the coming months.

Here is the link: Kyoto Samurai!

See also: Toka Ebisu on Inside Kyoto

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.


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:

Support Kai Fusayoshi & the Spirit of Honyarado this Saturday February 28th at Urbanguild!


Honyarado as it was…

…the café caught fire in an unknown cause before dawn of 16th January and over 2million frames of black-and-white photographic negative film I’ve saved for more than 40 years, along with tens of thousands of prints, thousands of copies of more than 40 books I wrote, posters, postcards, my favorite cameras, a hundred and several tens of diaries I’ve kept for 43 years, manuscript of “Youth of Honyarado”, my new book on the pleasant early days that was about to be published, valuable guest books conveying the atmosphere of early days vividly, and thousands of books from my library, were mostly burned down and lost.
I am now at a total loss. I don’t know where to begin…

KAI Fusayoshi

the spirit of honyarado

Legendary Kyoto cafe Honyarado, once famed as a center for counter-culture and folk music, was sadly lost to us in a fire on January 16th of this year. Fortunately, Kai Fusayoshi the proprieter, escaped unhurt, but he did lose many of his precious negatives and books. Kai is a well-known black-and-white photographer who has been documenting the lives of ordinary Kyoto citizens (and cats) for many years now, so this is a terrible loss. The good news is that the good people at Urbanguild have organized an event this Saturday to show their support for Kai, and encourage him to start afresh. This is a good opportunity for the local community to come together and show some support for one of our most valued members, and I’m sure it will be a memorable night.

Here are the details:

February 28th Saturday
Doors open: 17:00
Show starts: 18:00
Close: 21:00

Entry: 1000 yen (+ one drink) -> and a donation!

The Performers:
Kevin McHugh
trace elements (max & ryotaro)
草壁カゲロヲ (VOGA)
ゲバゲバ2 [KEi-K (alto sax) + 横田直寿 (ds)]

Location: UrBANGUILD. From Sanjo Dori go down Kiyamachi Dori. This is the narrow street running alongside Takase stream. Urbanguild is on the east side (left hand side as you walk down from Sanjo). Walk approximately 150 metres. Its on the 3rd floor of the New Kyoto Building – access by elevator or stairs. Here is a MAP.

Apparently some “smoked” photographs will also be on sale & there will be an after-party at Kai’s bar, Hachimonjiya (map here).

Kyotographie 2015 Crowdfunding Campaign Now Open!

kyotographie 2015

The crowdfunding campaign for Kyotographie 2015 has now begun. This has become a major art event in Kyoto over the last two years. Please lend your support if you can! Here’s the link:

About Kyotographie:
KYOTOGRAPHIE is a high-end photographic event that runs annually in Kyoto (Japan), for over three weeks during the height of the spring tourist season. With a unique approach in Asia to traditional exhibition, KYOTOGRAPHIE presents world-class photography with original scenography in Kyoto City’s unique traditional and contemporary architecture. Recognized as a distinguished photographic event, the festival successfully proved its significance in 2014 with around 40,000 visitors coming from across the country and overseas.

KYOTOGRAPHIE 2015 – 3rd EDITION, April 18th – May 10th, 2015. Exhibiting widely recognized and celebrated Japanese and international photography from 9 countries in 14 iconic venues.

KYOTOGRAPHIE aims to foster an appreciation of photography as a medium and art form. The festival brings together the international arts community and creates opportunities and events that generate quality exchanges for people of all ages and cultures. In addition to the major festival program the festival also fosters opportunities for emerging photographers through its satellite event KG+.


Breaking News: Philippe’s Bar – aka Bar F.S.N. #3 is Open!

This picture by John Gorman

This picture by John Gorman

This news from Mr. John Gorman:

Philippe is proud to announce the long awaited opening of F.S.N. the third!

The bar will be open from tonight!

Opening party Saturday February 21st, DJ’s from 22h.

DJ’s boogie Dan, Rei and Raijin.

The new bar is located between Kawaramachi and Nishi-Kiyamachi, on the north side of Rokaku Dori, on the third floor of the Rokaku Terrace Building.


Rokkaku Terrace Building 3F
Kawaramachi-Rokkaku Higashi-iru

〒604-8032 京都府京都市中京区河原町通六角東入ル 六角テラスビル3F

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:

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

Ancient Football at Kamigamo Shrine


A public domain image of Emperor Jinmu – Stories from “Nihonki” (Chronicles of Japan), by Ginko Adachi.

Tomorrow, 紀元祭 – Kigensai (National Foundation Day), will be celebrated at shrines all over Japan with prayers for peace and prosperity. This is said to be the day when the legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu ascended to the throne. If you go to Kamigamo Shrine tomorrow, it is also a good opportunity to see a Heian era game resembling an early form of football called “kemari” (“kickball”). There will also be karate and kendo demonstrations.

The schedule is as follows:

9 – 10:00 am: Kendo
10:00 am: Hoisting of the Hi-no-maru national flag and singing of Kimigayo (the national anthem)
10:15 am: Karate demonstration from local children
11:00 – 11:50 am: 蹴鞠 – Kemari kick-ball. Players dressed in colorful Heian era costumes attempt to keep a deer-skin ball in the air.

Image taken from Kamigamo Shrine website. Click to visit the site.

Image taken from Kamigamo Shrine website. Click to visit the site.

For more details check the link (Japanese only):

The Heiji Monogatari Emaki – Interactive Scroll Now Online

“Few paintings of the period capture the force, confusion, and terror of battle as effectively as does the episode of the burning of the Sanjō Palace in the Heiji monogatari emaki.” – The Encyclopaedia Britannica

Sanjō Palace in flames - a detail from the Heiji Monogatari interactive scrolls from Bowdoin College

Sanjō Palace in flames – a detail from the Heiji Monogatari interactive scrolls from Bowdoin College

One night in January 1160, a band of 500 men stormed the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa’s palace at Sanjō, took the former emperor captive, killed most of his staff and set the palace ablaze. Go-Shirakawa was carried off to join his son, the reigning Emperor Nijō, who was being held prisoner at The Great Palace. Meanwhile the rebels continued to eliminate their enemies. The coup was brief, effective and bloody.

Soldiers blockaded the [Sanjō] Palace on all four sides and set fire to it. Those who fled out they shot or hacked to death. Many jumped into the wells, hoping that they might save themselves. The ladies-in-waiting of high and low rank and the girls of the women’s quarters, running out screaming and shouting, fell and lay prostrate, stepped on by the horses and trampled by the men. It was more than terrible. No one knows the number of persons who lost their lives. – From “The Burning of the Sanjo Palace” translated by Reischauer & Yamagiwa

Kyoto, in the 12th century, was the setting for an intense power struggle between two samurai clans: the Minamoto and the Taira. The leaders of these clans, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and Taira no Kiyomori, had once been allies in putting down an earlier rebellion, but a bitter rivalry had developed between them. When Taira no Kiyomori left the capital on a pilgrimage, Minamoto no Yoshitomo saw his chance to seize power, and launched his attack on the Sanjō Palace. Ultimately however, the Taira would return and exact their revenge…

This, in short, is the history of the Heiji Rebellion, a brief civil war that resulted in Taira no Kiyomori’s victory over Yoshitomo and the establishment of Japan’s first samurai led government. History buffs and art lovers alike will be delighted to learn that Bowdoin College has now put online the illustrated 13th century Heiji Monogatari scrolls which depict these events, and in a fully interactive format.

From the Bowdoin website:

“A Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” provides an excellent introduction to the genre of picture scrolls. The scrolls read from right to left, and all action flows to the left. A few people hurrying flow into a confused throng of warriors and nobles, epitomized by a wayward bystander being crushed by an ox cart. Out of the confusion, attention shifts to the palace, where Fujiwara Nobuyori can be seen ordering the retired emperor into the cart. Wisps of smoke appear, leading to a conflagration at the palace, with hapless supporters of the Taira being killed, and women of the palace attempting, with mixed success, to flee. Gradually order is restored, and a band of warriors, including Fujiwara Nobuyori and his co-conspirator, Minamoto Yoshitomo, surround Go-Shirakawa’s cart in a triumphant procession.


A detail from the Bowdoin College interactive scroll.

The scroll itself is beautiful. The commentary buttons that explain both the narrative flow and specific images are very helpful. There is also a translation button for the opening portion of the scroll, (quoted above) which introduces the unfolding events. The Bowdoin College site is a great learning tool and a fantastic introduction to this dramatic episode in Kyoto’s history.

You can find it here:
The Heiji Scroll
The Interactive Scroll Viewer

Kyoto Botanical Gardens by Izumi Texidor Hirai

Pond (Medium)

Image © Izumi Texidor Hirai

The Asahi Shimbun recently ran a story about Kyoto Botanical Gardens. Researchers there are planning to build a greenhouse for endangered species. Not only will the greenhouse be used for preservation but it will also serve an educational purpose as visitors will be able to observe the plants and the work involved in keeping them alive.

The garden’s botanists also anticipate using the new facility to collaborate with universities and research organizations in reintroducing plants that are extinct in the wild back into their natural habitats.

“When people hear the term ‘endangered species,’ most of them tend to focus on animals,” said Junichi Nagasawa, the director of the garden. “But we want visitors to understand the rarity of endangered plants and how they are influenced significantly by changes in their environment.

An important reminder that the Botanical Gardens are not just a pleasant center of recreation but a locus of serious scientific endeavor! You can read the full story here: Kyoto garden to build greenhouse where visitors can observe endangered species

This story also reminded me that I have been meaning to post a special excerpt from Deep Kyoto: Walks by Izumi Texidor Hirai. In her walk through the Botanical Gardens Izumi weaves personal recollection with finely observed details of life in the gardens as they pass through the four seasons.  January has already passed now, but we are still very much in the early and wintry part of the year. Let today’s excerpt from Izumi’s walk serve as a happy reminder of all the special seasonal joys that the year ahead has in store.


The Botanical Gardens

The Rose Garden is my favourite part, like stepping into an English garden. A couple of tables shaded under tall trees, roses blooming in every colour I can imagine, grass and gravel under my feet, and then Mount Hiei quietly standing there at the end. Before I notice it, my steps have become smaller and slower. My eyes want to look at all those roses, every single one of them, and my lungs want to breathe in as much of their aroma as they can. In full bloom, this garden is spectacular and many people gather here to take quick photos or to slowly sketch their favourite bloom. However, I quite like it around November, on a cool, rainy day. I like the smell of wet earth and the rain drops on the flowers and on the leaves, and I like to see Mount Hiei mysteriously surrounded by grey clouds. I like that there is no one around and all I can hear is the continuous whispering of rain. I wonder if it sounds the same down here amongst the roses, as up there, at the top of Mount Hiei. In the spring, I will sometimes sit at one of the tables under the big pine trees and read or study. It is one of those special places where time stops as people come and go.

Now I have had my fill of roses, I want to explore the rest of the place, so I stand up, leave the Rose Garden behind and head north. Depending on the time of year, I will see camellias, or irises coming out of a lotus pond, or big hydrangeas if it is June. The lotus pond has an interesting bridge that often reminds me of classic Japanese novels. It is not a straight bridge or even a typical slightly elevated bridge, it goes right and left, and then right and left again, making you understand that the point is not to go from here to the other side, but to walk slowly and look around, maybe even stop a couple of times and enjoy a certain spot. When I get off the bridge, I start walking freely, no longer really having any direction in mind. All that zig-zagging. Wherever I go, I am always shaded by big old trees that must have seen a hundred years go by. There are more than twelve thousand species of plants and trees in these gardens, and birds live in some of these trees. I have often seen bird watchers with the latest cameras, moving silently in groups and taking fast snaps. Like modern ninjas.

Picture 14 Bridge by Izumi Texidor Hirai (Medium)

Image © Izumi Texidor Hirai

Then the sound of bamboo makes me slow down again. It is not a big forest, like the famous bamboo forests that people visit in other parts of Kyoto, yet still bamboo has this way of standing there, strong yet soft, that always transmits depth. At least it always makes me have deep thoughts. I think of how graceful the bamboo shoots look, but how strongly rooted they are to the earth, and how fast they separate from it, to grow higher and higher, while their roots go deeper and deeper, in a constant yet invisible effort to live. And then there is that sound. The wind finding its way through the shoots and the leaves. And the shoots and the leaves moving together with the wind, being flexible, but never bending, always going back to their straightness. It makes me think of how I want to be.

Still half lost inside my green thoughts, I continue my stroll. If I go north, I will see a big fountain that makes kids happy during the summer months, and just next to it, an area with all sorts of seasonal flowers. I like walking in there, not only because of the colours and all the flowers I never knew existed, but also to feel the effort that someone put into that seasonal garden. This is something that I have always admired in Kyoto, the effort people put into their tiny entrances, filling them with small pots neatly cared for. These minuscule urban gardens make such a big difference. A small effort will surely always make a difference.


Text and photographs by Izumi Texidor Hirai. To read the rest of this story, download our book here: Deep Kyoto:Walks.

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.

About Izumi Texidor Hirai

photoIzumi Texidor-Hirai is half Japanese and half British, but born and raised in Barcelona. She first came to Japan in 1998 to study at Tokyo University. After many travels she returned to Japan to work for FIFA during the 2002 Japan/Korea World Cup. She decided to stay on after the event and moved to Kyoto, where her family have roots. Izumi had always admired kimono and took this chance to go to a kimono school, where she trained to become a kimono teacher. This course led her to the world of cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) which has since become her passion. Izumi is currently working towards a degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, studying QiGong with a sensei in the Imperial Palace grounds, wearing kimono most days and continues to be very passionate about cha-no-yu.


To learn more about Deep Kyoto: Walks please check the following links:
About the Book