Category Archives: Culture & Tradition

Pendulum – Japanese Traditional Music Course @ Kyoto Geidai; August 18-20

Alison Tokita is running an intensive 3-day course on Japanese traditional music at Kyoto City University of Arts, August 18th – 20th, 2015.

Click to download PDF

Click to download PDF

This short-short course will introduce many of the genres of traditional Japanese music that have been transmitted to the present and are still actively performed. The course will also discuss the varied ways of experiencing musical modernity in the context of the overwhelming dominance of western music in Japan. It will provide an accessible overview of Japanese music culture for non-Japanese participants, including performers, composers and musicologists. It is also intended for Japanese participants who are interested in an international perspective on Japanese music, and students planning to study abroad who want to know something about their ‘own’ music as well as western music.

The major genres include gagaku, shōmyō, and shakuhachi and koto music. The narrative genres of heike and jōruri and their place in the nō, bunraku and kabuki theatres will be introduced. Practical encounter with some genres during learning sessions, and an evening concert will be included.

Cost: 5,000 yen (payable in cash at the commencement of the course)

Schedule: There will be two sessions per day over three days. Morning session 10:00-13:00 Afternoon session 14:00-17:00 (The following schedule may be adapted depending on the interests of participants.)

HOW TO APPLY: Registrations must be received by Friday July 31 by email. Payment will be made on the first day of the course, August 18, between 9:00 and 10:00. Registration form can be found on the website.
Enquiries and registration:
Enquiries can also be made to the course convenor, Alison Tokita:
Here is the link for further details and a contact form:

Exploring Fushimi on Inside Kyoto

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My latest article for Inside Kyoto is an exploration of the backstreets and waterways of Fushimi – Kyoto’s famed sake making district. Included in the article are places to taste sake, a boating cruise, a visit to the Teradaya Inn (where Sakamoto Ryoma narrowly escaped assassination), and a Buddhist temple dedicated to a Hindu river deity that happens to have a Hidden Christian lantern!

Here’s a taste,

Fushimi. Say it aloud and the very sound of those soft syllables seems refreshing. This is not inappropriate. The name originally meant “underground water”, and Fushimi is famous for its springs. The water from these underground sources is soft, mellow and is held to be particularly delicious – perfect for sake production. Many sake breweries thrive in this area and Fushimi sake is renowned as the perfect complement for Kyoto cuisine. Historically the waters of Fushimi also made this area an important hub of transport and trade. Here the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo, and an intricate network of canals were put to good use, sending rice, sake and other goods between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka…

Read more here: Exploring Fushimi – Kyoto’s Sake District

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See also:
Kabuki At Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater
Walking In Gion
Kyoto Samurai
Toka Ebisu

Omuro Sakura at Ninna-ji Temple

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This year’s cherry blossom season was basically a washout, with many hanami parties cancelled because of the incessant rain. Ninna-ji Temple in western Kyoto, has a special variety of cherry blossom that blooms later than most, but when it was at its best last week, the rain was still coming down. Mewby and I resolved to defy the weather and visit the temple anyway. At least, I thought, the rain will keep the bulk of tourists away. We’ll probably have the place to ourselves. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even in the rain, Ninna-ji Temple is very popular.


Perhaps it is because Ninna-ji is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list as one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”? It is certainly ancient. Ninna-ji Temple was first built in 888.

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Like many Kyoto temples though, the original buildings of Ninna-ji were long ago destroyed by fire. In Ninna-ji’s case the temple was destroyed during the conflict of the Ōnin War in 1467. The majority of the current buildings date from a 17th century restoration.

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Most striking of all must be the five storied pagoda…

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But the grounds are extensive and there is much to see here.

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The Kyōzō (経蔵) or sutra repository had a sign outside describing many treasured wall paintings and Buddhist statuary, yet the building itself was completely locked up. There was however a tiny hole in the wooden walls through which we took a little peak and saw…

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The main attraction though was Ninna-ji’s famous orchard of 200 dwarf cherry trees. These date from the early Edo period, so people have been enjoying cherry blossoms here for about 400 years!

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This orchard was designated as a national scenic beauty spot in 1924.

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Even in the rain, cherry blossoms can gladden the heart!

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We enjoyed our trip to Ninna-ji and will certainly go again – but hopefully in better weather!

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You can find out more about Ninna-ji Temple at their multi-lingual website here: It is also possible to stay at Ninna-ji overnight. You can find out about that here:


Getting to Ninna-ji is little complicated but much of the route is quite scenic and pleasant.

To get to Ninna-ji from Kyoto station, take the JR subway to Karasuma-Oike Station and change to the Tozai line. Go as far as Uzumasa-Tenjingawa/Randen-Tenjingawa (it has two names), and then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s three changes over 46 minutes for 610 yen.

To get to Ninna-ji from the town center take the Hankyu line from Kawaramachi to Sai, then change to the Keifuku Dentetsu-Arashiyama line. Take that line as far as Katabiranotsuji and then take the Keifuku Dentetsu-Kitano Line as far as Omuro-Ninna-ji. That’s two changes over 45 minutes for 360 yen.

Check for details of train times at:

Fire Ceremony & Kyōgen Performance at Seiryō-ji on March 15th

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Seiryō-ji temple grounds with festival stalls & giant torches ready to be lit!

Many temples hold special ceremonies on March 15th to commemorate the Buddha’s death, or passing into Nirvana (Nehan 涅槃 in Japanese). One of the more spectacular and eventful commemorations is at Seiryō-ji temple in Saga. There are a number of reasons why you might want to attend this particular event.

  • On this day only, entry to the temple interior is free.
  • It has a real local festival feel with food stalls set up all about the temple grounds.
  • Traditional Kyōgen comedy performances are held throughout the day.
  • There is a huge fire festival in the evening.

Mewby and I visited Seiryō-ji for last year’s Nehan-e (涅槃会), so here are some pictures from our visit.

Seiryō-ji Temple

Naturally we took advantage of the free entry to the temple interior and gardens. Normally this would cost us 400 yen each, but on this day alone there is no charge!

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Many Buddhist artworks of incredible detail are on display inside the temple. In contrast the gardens provide space for peaceful reverie.

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Take a look around yourself!

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for a 360 degree rotational view.

Kyōgen Comedies

Two monks carry in a "living" statue of the Buddha.

Actors portray two monks carrying in a “living” statue of the Buddha.

Saga Kyōgen is a form of medieval mummer’s play, performed completely without words and so very easy to understand, even for non-Japanese. Accompanied by drum and gong, the masked performers, use exaggerated miming to convey very simple plots. The play we saw, concerned a visit to Seiryō-ji temple by a beautiful mother and her less than beautiful daughter.

The "homely" daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

The “homely” daughter is on the left and the mother on the right.

So beautiful is the mother that monks become overly excited in her presence and welcome her warmly. Naturally, the plainer daughter gets a colder reception. Not very subtle I know, but the play does contain some religious satire. Seiryō-ji is famous for its rarely displayed sandalwood statue of the Buddha. This statue is held to be so sacred it is termed a “living Buddha”. In the Kyōgen comedy, the Buddha literally comes to life, turning away from the plain-faced daughter, and actually running off with her mother instead!

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

The Buddha statue running off with a beautiful lady as a temple monk tries to stop him.

Naturally, both the daughter and the monks are very upset by this, but not to worry. There is a Japanese expression, 蓼食う虫も好き好き, or “some prefer nettles”, which means that beauty is very much in the eye of each beholder – and so the homely daughter also finds true love in the end!

All's well that ends well for the homely daughter...

All’s well that ends well for the homely daughter…

The Fire Ceremony

Saga no hashira taimatsu, (嵯峨の柱松明) is part of a religious ceremony commemorating Buddha’s passing from this world into Nirvana. The ceremony begins around 8pm and the two giant torches are set alight at 8.30. You need to get there early though, if you want a decent view.

The pine torches quickly catch fire...

The pine torches quickly catch fire…

I’ve read that the condition of the fire can be used to divine the fortunes of the coming year.

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand...

Fire fighters are on hand to prevent the fire from getting out of hand…

As the fires blaze, monks from the temple parade around bearing lanterns and chanting sutras.

A blazing inferno!

The fires really do reach quite high and send their sparks up to the heavens.


A blazing inferno!

My pictures don’t really do the experience justice, so take a look for yourself!

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Click on this image for 360 degree rotational view.

Details and directions:

Kyōgen performances are held in the afternoon at 15.30, 17.00 and 18.30. The temple interior and gardens are open from 9:00 until 16:00. The fires are lit between 20.00 and 20.30. To get there, take Kyoto Bus #71, or #72, and get off at Saga Shakado-mae. The temple can also be reached by taking a 15 minute walk from JR Saga-Arashiyam Station. Here is a MAP.

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Hina Matsuri ~ A Magical Doll Festival

The first tier of a Hina doll display bears the Emperor (男雛 O-bina) and Empress (女雛 Me-bina).

The first tier of a Hina doll display bears the Emperor (男雛 O-bina) and Empress (女雛 Me-bina).

Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) is a Doll Festival held every year on March 3rd. It is dedicated to the health and happiness of young girls in each family’s household. Though I have lived in Japan for many years, family celebrations like Hina Matsuri, have never really meant much to me – until now. Now that I am marrying into a Japanese family, I get to take part and experience these celebrations first hand. So a few days ago, I helped set up the  hina dan (雛壇), the platform on which the dolls are displayed. As I took the various dolls out of their boxes and arranged them in the correct order with their various accoutrements I found myself fascinated. Much as a Western family might enjoy decorating a tree together for Christmas, this too is a delightful custom.

a child's eye view

Viewing the Hina Doll display from a child’s perspective, it truly is a thing of wonder.

The Hina doll festival as we know it today, was developed in the mid-Edo period, but it has its roots in something much older. In ancient times people believed that doll-like effigies had magical powers and could take on a person’s misfortune and disease and carry it away. Dolls would be placed beneath a child’s pillow for this purpose and then in the spring, the dolls would be put in straw boats and set afloat on a river. As the dolls sailed off toward the sea, so too would bad luck and illness be carried away. Apparently, this custom is still practiced in some parts of the country…

The Emperor bears a ritual baton (笏 shaku) representing his authority.

The Emperor bears a ritual baton (笏 shaku) representing his authority.

Today though the typical Hina Doll display depicts a Heian era court and is symbolic of a well ordered family. Presumably the Emperor and Empress at the top represent mom and dad.

The Empress bears a beautiful fan.

The Empress bears a beautiful fan.

On the second tier are three court ladies, san-nin kanjo (三人官女). They are holding equipment for serving sake.

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A lady bearing sake:

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Below the ladies are five musicians, gonin bayashi (五人囃子), bearing an assortment of drums and flutes.


This young fellow has no instrument because he is the singer, or utaikata (謡い方).

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Below the musicians are two retainers bearing swords, bows and arrows. The Minister of the Left (左大臣 Sadaijin) is a venerable old man.

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The Minister of the Right (右大臣 Udaijin) is much younger.

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On the fifth tier of the display are two trees: an orange tree (右近の橘 ukon no tachibana) and a cherry tree (左近の桜 sakon no sakura). And between these trees are three intriguing figures: the three servants or sannin jōgo 三人上戸. 上戸 is usually translated as “drunk” but why these three honest workers should be drunk I have no idea. They are named the crying drunk, nakijōgo (泣き上戸):


The laughing drunk (waraijōgo (笑い上戸):


And the angry drunk, okorijōgo (怒り上戸):


On the sixth tier a variety of laquered furniture, representing a young girl’s dowry is displayed. Among these treasures is a miniature tea ceremony set.

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The final tier carries vehicles used when carrying a bride away from the imperial palace, such as a palanquin:


And an ox-drawn carriage. In Heian times, an ox-drawn carriage was the favored mode of transport for the nobility.

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And there we have it: seven tiers and fifteen dolls (the numbers are said to be auspicious) that give us a miniaturised glimpse at how Japanese view their own cultural roots. A set like this is too big for most houses these days, so I feel very lucky to see one for myself. If you would like to see some traditional dolls though, the Kyoto National Museum has an ongoing Hina Matsuri & Japanese Dolls exhibition throughout March which may well be worth a look. Our display must be entirely cleared away though, soon after Hina Matsuri is over, for folklore would have it that leaving the dolls out too long, will delay your daughter’s marriage. I fully intend to marry the daughter of this household and so will be happy to help pack it all away. Until then however…

Let’s light the paper lamps!
And decorate with flowers and peach blossom!
Five musicians play with pipe and drum!
Today is so much fun – Hina Matsuri!

You can read the rest of the song lyrics for Ureshii Hina Matsuri in Japanese and English here:

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)

梅花祭 ~ Plum Blossom & Geisha at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

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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…

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

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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.

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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:

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.

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.


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):

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:

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:

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):
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.