Category Archives: Ian Ropke

Shichi-go-san: A special ritual for child health and longevity

From Ian Ropke,

This month visitors will have a great chance to photograph children all dressed up in kimono, a special opportunity not to be missed. November is the month of the shichi-go-san (7-5-3) ritual for girls (seven and three years of age) and boys (five years of age).

Four generations celebrate shichi-go-san.

Four generations celebrate shichi-go-san.

Shichi-Go-San is believed to have started in the Heian Period (794-1185). It was a ritual developed by court nobles to celebrate the passage of their children into middle childhood. In Japanese numerology, odd numbers are considered to be lucky.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the fifteenth of what is now known as November was set as the date for this ceremony.

The samurai class also found the ritual beneficial for their children. Samurai children, according to the custom of the warrior class, had their heads shaven until they were three years old. Samurai boys were allowed to wear their first hakama (samurai formal wear) at age five. And samurai girls from age seven onwards were allowed to wear obi sashes around their kimono instead of simple cords.

By the Meiji period (1868-1912), the shichi-go-san tradition was firmly part of the annual traditional practices observed by all classes. By this time, the practice also included visiting a shrine to have the local deities keep the children free of bad spirits and to bless them with a long, healthy life.

Today, the tradition has changed little. Three-year-old girls and five-year-old boys often wear their first formal Japanese clothing, kimono for girls and hakama for boys, at a shichi-go-san ceremony. Three-year-old girls differ from the seven-year-olds in that they usually wear hifu padded vest over their kimono.

Chitoseame or “thousand year candy” is something that children also look forward to in November, as part of the shichi-go-san ritual. These long, thin candies, presented bags decorated with a crane and a turtle, symbols of longevity, are colored red and white (the colors of celebration in Japan). Eating the candy is said to ensure a child’s healthy growth and a long life.

The best shrines in Kyoto to see this beautiful and colorful ceremony are Heian Shrine, Shimogamo Shrine, and Kamigamo Shrine. Though the 15th is still considered the actual correct day of the event, modern times have resulted in both weekends before and after the 15th as being the most popular. This month, the 14th and 15th and the 21st and 22nd will be the best time to experience shichi-go-san and take some of the cutest and most memorable pictures you will ever see.

Text and image by Ian Ropke. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.

Takeuchi Seihō – Japan’s most important modern Japanese-style painter

Takeuchi_SeihoTakeuchi Seihō (竹内 栖鳳 – his real name was Takeuchi Tsunekichi) lived from December 20, 1864 – August 23, 1942. He was an early master of nihonga art, and prior to World War II led a notable circle of painters in Kyoto. His former residence in Higashiyama still stands as The Sodoh – now a restaurant and event space.

Ian Ropke writes,

During Takeuchi’s early youth his father said to him, “You are the only boy in the family. So you must succeed me in my business.” The boy replied, “Yes, father. But I would really like to be a painter.” An age-old dilemma in traditional societies, children had very little choice in deciding their career, even if they dreamed passionately of doing something very different. However, Takeuchi was fortunate enough to have an older sister who loved him dearly and who was willing to take his place in the family business. Lucky for the boy, his father agreed. Immediately, Takeuchi started to study Japanese painting earnestly. Only 13 years old at the time, he set out to learn what he could from an established artist in his neighborhood. At the age of 17, he became a disciple of Kōno Bairei, a leading Japanese-style painter of the late Edo period.

On Takeuchi’s first day, Bairei gave him model paintings of a pine, bamboo and plum. However, 3 days later Bairei stopped asking him to paint from the models and gave the boy a new first name, Seihō, saying, “Paint the way you feel.” The name Seihō means “phoenix”, an exceptional name for a young, new pupil. But already in the first days, Bairei had seen promising talent in the boy. Takeuchi’s painting skills improved rapidly under Bairei’s direction as the boy concentrated on sketching and studying traditional paintings.

lionIn 1900, when he was only 36 years old and already a leading person in Kyoto painting circles, one of his paintings was selected for display in the modern art section of the Japanese Pavilion at the International Exposition in Paris. This exhibit allowed him to make the long journey to Europe, where he came into direct contact with the European painting tradition. In a chance visit to the zoo in Antwerp in Belgium, he discovered a lion that he just had to sketch. He remained in Antwerp for an extra 3 weeks just to sketch the lion to satisfaction. Profoundly affected by his experiences in Europe, Takeuchi returned to Japan to become a leader of the modern movement in Japanese-style paintings, producing powerful, large-scale pieces year after year. His painting “Lion,” the result of his intense sketching at the zoo, was put on display at a major Japanese exhibition the year after he returned from Europe and won the Gold Prize.

rainWhile Takeuchi is largely known for his introduction of Western painting styles to Japan, he also inquired deeply into the fundamental elements of Japanese paintings. During the middle of the Taisho period (1912 – 1926), Takeuchi began to shift from large-scale paintings to smaller works which revealed his increasingly keen artistic sensitivity and maturity. In this new style, his paintings, which were quickly executed, impart an energy similar to the poetic compositions seen in haiku. His masterpiece, at the age of 45 — Oh, Rain — is a truly poetic work.

Seihō’s long career came to an end in 1942, but even today his brilliant paintings continue to attract and fascinate people. Many great Japanese painters studied under Takeuchi, such as Tsuchida Bakusen, Uemura Shōen. For his unique achievements, Takeuchi was awarded Japan’s first Order of Cultural Merit, in 1937.

19286-1393570574Several famous works by Takeuchi Seihō are currently on display, with those of other great nihonga artists, at the Art & Living: Takashimaya Exhibition currently being held on the 7th floor of Kyoto’s Takashimaya department store. The exhibition continues until March 11th. You can read more about it here.

Text by Ian Ropke. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.

Shinto – Deities, Shrines and Symbols

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

Ian Ropke writes,

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

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

Izanami and Izanagi, a public domain painting by Kobayashi Eitaku

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

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

Kyoto Antiques: Shopping & Window Shopping

Ian Ropke writes,

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

Antiques shop on Teramachi

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


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

Shinmonzen Doori – 新門前通

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

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

Useful Antique Shopping Language

antique – kottouhin

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

How much is it? – Kore wa ikura desuka?

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

Yagi’s art shop on Shinmonzen (detail)

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

How about _______ yen? – ______ en deha dodesuka?

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

I’m just looking. – Chotto miteru dake desu

Can I touch it? – Sawatte mo ii desuka?

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

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

Yagi’s art shop on Shinmonzen

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

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

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

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

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

Is it fragile? – Kore wa koware yasui desuka?

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


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

Kyoto Shop Signboards

Original and interesting ways to advertise


Ian Ropke writes,

Japan’s ingenious and eye-catching signboards known as kanban are unique. The earliest examples avoided the use of words, presumably because they couldn’t have been read by an illiterate public, and often focused on the shape of the product, or the form of the container in which it was sold. Larger than life carvings of objects such as geta, candles, brushes, fans, and combs, were sometimes used to get the message across. Hardware stores signs still make use of this latter form, with real scissors, locks, nail covers, or doorknobs. Here are three classics to look for (but don’t stop looking!):

The signboard at Kosetsu-ken, on Nijo, east of Kawaramachi, is a large, beautifully-carved, wooden brush that identifies the shop as one catering to the needs of the calligrapher or painter. The original actually used the hair from three horse tails, but over the years, the hands of curious people ended up turning the brush bald!

The original Yaosan sign.

Yaosan, on the northwest corner of Aneya-koji and Higashi-no-toin, a seller of yuzu (lime) miso for over 280 years, has a magnificent kanban. The original, preserved inside the shop, is the work of the famous Kyoto potter, Kitaoji Rosanjin. He is said to have written and carved the bold, confident letters at the beginning of the Taisho period (1912-1926).

The sign on Yaosan’s front is a faithful replica of the original.

The kanban outside is a copy of the original.

Lastly, from woodblock prints, we know that little roofs and folding doors were often used to protect signs from the elements. Few of these roofed kanban still exist. One good example, can be seen at Amamori Keitaro Yakubo, on Kurumaya-cho, south of Nijo. The current sign probably dates back to 1864, when the premises were rebuilt.

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

Sencha – The Chinese Way of Tea

Ian Ropke writes…

Mention tea ceremony and most Japanese will think of chanoyu, the way of tea based on a ritual for drinking the powdered green tea called matcha, which was formalized by Sen no Rikyū in the sixteenth century. Much closer to everyday life yet unknown to a surprising number of Japanese is the way of tea for sencha, or leaf green tea.

The legendary Shen Nung tasting herbs to check their qualities…

For history, Japan cannot touch China, where the legendary Emperor Shen Nung, said to have lived some five thousand years ago, is credited with first discovering that tea could be drunk. When it comes to ritual, however, Japan probably ranks first in the annals of tea.

The kissa, or tea, first brought to Japan from China in the seventh century was in the form of black tea leaves pressed together and shaped into small balls, which were used to make infusions. For T’ang Chinese, drinking tea was a part of a carefully cultivated atmosphere which embraced writing or reciting poetry, doing calligraphy, and looking at art. The Heian aristocrats of Japan, in their rush to embrace all things new and Chinese, adopted both tea and its attendant cultural atmosphere. Continue reading

Ryokan Pleasures & Possibilities

Ian Ropke writes…

The exotic world of the Japanese inn

At the beginning of the 20th century in Japan and Europe and elsewhere, there was a class of people, often men, who spent great portions of their life living in inns and hotels. Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was one of the last people to live in ryokan in what could only be called “the age of the gentleman”. Indeed, Japan’s great ryokan inns still are and probably always will be connected with wealth and leisure. Some of the finest of these host the stars and nobility of the world when they come to Kyoto, the Old Capital.

The Hiragiya Ryokan, Fuyacho, Kyoto

The best ryokan of Kyoto continue to inhabit a world that expresses the very essence of tradition and perfection. The traditions run to the very generations of families that clean, cook and otherwise service the guests. In some inns in Kyoto, one can still request the services of a blind masseuse at bed time. Reposed and relaxed in the comfort of your exquisite futon the masseuse adds the final touch and puts you to sleep long before the massage ends. In the morning, as always, the perfection and patina of master craftsmen and time awaits you. This is another of the wonders of the ryokan world. The flagstones and wood have been worn smooth in places by the long vanished guests of centuries past. The gardens breathe with a sense of time that only generations of care by skilled landscape artists can create. Continue reading

Saiundo Traditional Art Supply Shop

Today’s post from Ian Ropke is a continuation of yesterday’s post on Nihonga…

The classic Japanese artist’s best friend

For well over one hundred years, Saiun-do has been supplying artists with quality Nihonga pigments and brushes. The business has an illustrious history. The famous painter Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924), just one of Saiundo’s illustrious clients, recommended the auspicious name Saiun-do [Spectrum Cloud Hall] in 1890. The kanban [shop sign] that hangs in the office was painted by Tessai himself.

At first glance, Saiun-do appears to be a traditional Chinese medicine [kampo] shop, with shelves lined with jars and vials and cases of exotic-looking colored powders. These prized ingredients and how they are mixed can transform white or wooden boards into prized art treasures, and for that reason the color recipes are often closely-guarded secret formulas.

Since the beginning, Saiundo has been a favorite destination for many of Japan’s major Nihonga and Sumie (ink paintings) artists. Continue reading


Ian Ropke writes…

The history of traditional Japanese painting

The history of Nihonga, the traditional Japanese manner of painting, can be traced back to the beginning of the Heian period.

INAGAKI Chūsei’s “Cat” (c. 1919 – private collection), a fine example of Nihonga, is currently on display at Momak, Kyoto. For more details, click on the picture or see below.

A manuscript from 999 mentions a style of painting called Yamato-e (Yamato was the old name of Japan). When exactly this new school of painting originated is not known, but it is clear that Japan’s break with the Tang Court of China, prepared the soil for the growth of a purely ‘Japanese’ art. Yamato-e broke away from the Chinese-inspired Kara-e by favoring typical Japanese subject matter and developing a narrative style of depicting events: the e-makimono or scroll painting.

It was not until the beginning of the Meiji era that China’s position as Japan’s cultural mentor was replaced by Europe. Soon Japan came under the influence of the Western tradition of oil painting (Yusaiga). In no time at all, Japanese art, literature, and music were more and more like branches of the Western arts. As is common in such circumstances, a counter-reaction set in almost immediately. Perhaps it was at this time that the concept of Nihonga as a style of art different from the Western style (Yoga) came to be accepted.

Throughout Japanese history, political and military power has shifted constantly, but Kyoto has managed to retain its status as the cultural and traditional center for the arts. Hence, examples of Nihonga have been beautifully preserved here in their original forms. They can be admired in scroll form, individual panels, sliding doors, temple walls, Noh stages, folding screens, and beautifully decorated fans. A wide variety of subject matter has been depicted, and although subjects may have changed throughout the years, a number of devices which characterize the tradition have remained unchanged:

1) an emphasis on colorful forms, simplified to create ornamental patterns;

2) a strong preference for delineating shape by silhouetting it against a background of different color;

3) little emphasis on shading, and thus a flattened image;

4) a view which renders the essential of scenes with the greatest economy to maximize the beauty of the formal design;

5) a final opaque quality that contrasts with the oil-based colors utilized in the west;

6) rigorous selection of materials and tools.

It should perhaps be pointed out that the above characteristics are no longer exclusive to Nihonga and that this traditional style of painting, born out of nationalistic pride, will eventually be absorbed into a wider, global framework.

Paper Used: Most Nihon-ga artists use mashi (hemp paper). There are many kinds of mashi even today, differing in character depending on where they are made. Some mashi is made in Otaki Village near Fukui and possibly still in Toyama and Nigata prefectures.

Brushes: Nearly 80 percent of the brushes (hake or fude) in Japan are made in the town of Kumano in Hiroshima Prefecture using horse hair, sheep hair, or a combination thereof.

“The Inagaki Brothers: Chusei & Toshijiro” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs till June 27; free admission; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Fri.), closed Mon. For more information, click on this image.

Pigments and Binding Agents: The powdered colors are mixed with a glue binder (nikawa) made from animal hooves (cow, deer, and rabbit) as well as fish and whale bones.

This is a two-part post. The second part Saiundo Traditional Art Shop will be published tomorrow…

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

The current exhibition at Momak, The National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto is The Inagaki Brothers: Chusei & Toshijiro. Featuring several fine examples of Nihonga (read a Japan Times review here), it continues until June 27th. More details are available here. Access information and a map are here.


Ian Ropke writes…

Portrait of Ikkyū by Bokusai (Public Domain)

Ikkyū was a Zen monk who was famous for burning the candle of life at both ends. By day, he was devout and extremely accomplished monk and scholar. By night, he reveled in the so-called “floating world” of drink and women. He lived in tumultuous 15th century Japan at a time when most of the country was ruined by civil war.
Ikkyū was born the illegitimate son of an emperor and a court lady. As a boy he already displayed remarkable abilities and intelligence. He was particularly attracted to Chinese culture which he absorbed and used for the rest of his life in his poetic imagery. He was not good looking. His Zen apprenticeship began at age 13 at Kennin-ji Temple, Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, located, ironically, just south of the first-class world of wine and women: Gion. From a young age, he took naturally to criticizing the world of hypocrisy he saw around him in temples and in the ruling families of his day. Continue reading