Opportunities

What's up in Kyoto square logoI have been very busy with moving What’s up in Kyoto to the next level. So far, I did all of that work on that website for free, a very time-consuming hobby indeed. But now I am gearing up to allow advertising on the site, and a friend of mine has helped me draft some letters for various businesses that I’ll get translated into Japanese and then start sending off in the hope of getting some income.

Also, I have devised a cunning plan to drive more visitors to the website, but I’ll need to do a little bit more research on this one. Essentially it is involving all the international conferences that are organised locally by universities; scientists are curious and would appreciate a list of things to do in Kyoto, I’m sure.

On top of that, to bridge the money chasm while I’m waiting for all those advertisements to come in, I have applied for a writer’s position at a local English magazine geared towards foreign visitors. That was some two months ago, and: I received a no.

However, I still went there today for an interview. The people in charge were impressed with the What’s up in Kyoto website and all the other experience I have concerning social media and online publishing, so they are considering me as their new, actually: their very first webmistress!

Their current website and online presence has been quite neglected, and we were talking  how to put it on better feet for now. I left with a good feeling and quite some excitement about me getting to learn all sorts of new things. And I kinda sorta got invited to their next staff meeting. Does that mean that I’m hired already?

Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Gas Check

Yesterday afternoon I had a visit from the gas company; they wanted to check my gas equipment. I have a gas heater for hot water in my kitchen, and also the kitchen stove is using gas.

The service man checked the heater for damaged parts and when he turned on the hot water, he used a mirror to look outside and check if the exhaust fan is working. He also checked the gas faucet that connects to my stove, and advised me to move the stove a bit away from the back wall because there is a rubber tube connection that might get burned otherwise.

In the end, he also said that if I ever smelled gas the very first thing to do was to open the windows. I have a gas detector in one corner of the kitchen and showed it to him. Apparently it’s a rather old model and I could get it replaced with a rental one for 350 YEN/month. I declined because it’s not my apartment, and old doesn’t automatically mean not working.

The whole check was over in 10 minutes or so, but I have learnt something interesting: In one corner of each of my rooms, there is a little terminal, for what I didn’t find out until yesterday: It’s extra gas supply! So, in the winter, you can use a gas heater and connect it there rather than using liquid gas which I find very unsafe to be honest.

I’m not using gas heaters and I have no plans of doing so. Ever so often, there are accidents where people are poisoned by carbon monoxide (CO). I would need some sort of heating in my bedroom where I sleep on the floor – and CO is heavier than air… Just to be on the safe side, I’ll pass on any kinds of gas heaters and keep using my electric one, even though this is much more expensive than using gas. Yes, I have said that I want to stay in Japan until I die, and I’m still planning to do so, but there’s no need to hasten the arrival of that day…

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be  honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Kyoto Crafts

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday – I fell into a craft-shaped hole… Let me explain: The last three days there was the “Tradition and Innovation – Culture and Industry” exhibition at the Miyakomesse in Kyoto, and it was promised that a number of Kyoto artisans would exhibit their work and actually be present to do and explain some work there.

Since my Tuesday Japanese class is just next door, I decided to drop in and have a look at the craftsmen and the exhibition. I thought it would take maybe an hour, because how big can such an event be, really. Boy was I wrong!

There were 40 little booths with a large variety of crafts. Most of the space was devoted to the different steps of nishijin weaving – nowadays used to make an obi for kimono – from the design on plotting paper and the dyeing of the silk to the threading of the silk onto the loom to the actual weaving. There were other textile arts like yuzen dyeing – painting or printing onto silk – embroidery and weaving decorative ropes.

An obi from start to finish

Then there were decorative arts like woodcrafts, bamboo weaving, lacquerware, cloisonné, damascene work, making umbrellas and carving Noh masks; and finally things necessary for a traditional Japanese house like bamboo blinds for in- and outdoors, bamboo fences and even roof tiles.

Making an end tile.

There were places set aside for exhibitions of ikebana and calligraphy, and a large place for tea ceremony; and of course there were stalls to buy Kyoto food and sweets.

The “Innovation” part of the exhibition showed a few interesting pieces of modern inventions by companies that did traditional crafts; for example there was one traditional producer of gold leaf which is now making ultra thin sheets of copper (think micrometres) for modern electronics. And the experimental kyocera car where the mirrors are replaced by cameras.

Kyocera Car

So yes, that one hour that I had planned turned into three. Partly because I wanted to learn as much as possible, which was aided by the fact that there was an English interpretation service. And partly because I happened to be the only foreigner there on Tuesday afternoon, so it seemed that people were extra friendly and talkative and wanted to show/explain everything in extra detail.

For example, I was invited to try hikizome, a type of yuzen dyeing, and I was asked if I wanted to put on a kimono and pose with one of the “Miss Kimono” already present. And I had to try dashi, fish broth, apparently made by one of the best kaiseki haute cuisine chefs in town. And I got photographed a lot that afternoon. By the end of it, I was so exhausted, I even forgot to buy the ginger mochi I like so much.

Noh Masks.

But, no matter, I went there again today. Not for the ginger mochi only, although I did buy a pack. I went there to pick up my new hanko! One of the crafts on display was seal-carving. I  started chatting with the artist, I mentioned that I always wanted a hanko with my name in katakana. When I wrote down my name, he quickly came up with a nice design – and I ordered a hanko on the spot. I received it today – complete with a little silk bag and some red ink – and I’m absolutely thrilled about it.

I was also thrilled to meet two friends there, rather by accident, which was nice. Also, I handed out postcards promoting whatsupinkyoto.com to everybody who asked about my job. And, as an extra bonus I can now tell you that my (business) acquaintances include the Deputy General Manager of the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Who knows what this might lead to…

Gray Men

Gray Men
Tomotake Ishikawa

Gray Men book coverRyotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.

This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.

Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. Gray Men is his debut novel and in 2011 won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award (an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese).

If you need something quick and easy (and a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.

Venues

On Thursday afternoon, I usually meet with my English students. For the last few years, we had our class in the “gourmet court” at my shopping center, a large open space in the basement surrounded by a number of small fast food places. The atmosphere is not very stylish, but it is one of the few public places indoors where people can meet and chat without being forced to consume. And there is free water too.

But, as you know, the shopping center is currently being enlarged and renovated, and many of the shops have closed already. In the basement floor, the food court was closed 2 weeks ago, the drug store will follow on Sunday, and even the supermarket will close for two weeks during November. The grand opening of the new shopping center will be in December, no doubt just in time for Christmas and New Year’s shopping sprees.

Anyway, until then we will have to find a new place to meet. Cafes are nice, but you can’t just sit there without drinking anything; outside is not an option, neither are libraries. And while I’d love to visit the Tamayuran more often, every week is a bit much… We’ll figure something out.

Today, we went to Jissoin, a little temple in Iwakura, the northern part of Kyoto. Jissoin is famous for the paintings on its sliding doors and for one room where the wooden floor is so highly polished that the maples of the garden outside are reflected in it. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple, and the garden with the momiji is not accessible, so I’ll link you to the website of the temple with nice pictures during the seasons:

http://www.jissoin.com/information/

Another highlight of this visit were two large maps from 19th century China. One of them was a beautiful star map, but because each culture tends to find their own pictures in the constellations, it is hard even for astronomers to make sense of them. I think I was able to see the Big Dipper though.

And then there was the big map of China from 1825 painted in blue ink (indigo?), an impressive piece of workmanship, mounted onto a large folding screen. Now that I can compare it with a modern map, I am amazed at how accurate it is. The big wall is in the north (depicted in brown), you can make out the Korean Peninsula and the Indochinese Peninsula… Again, no pictures allowed, but if you have time, you have two more days to see the map for yourself.

Giving Up

A Man presses a "reject" buttionEven though I kept trying many times, I had to realise this morning that I’m not a fashion expert. Not even a fashion person. And definitely not a fashion writer.

You may know that I regularly write articles for various online businesses. To name a few, I have written about smartphones, doctors, hotels… This is all managed by another company for whom I work freelance, and they keep sending me invitations for new projects.

The way this works is that you need to sign up, you get invitations for a project. If you like the project, you send a writing sample (usually according to a given brief), and if you are chosen to work on the project, you will get all the further details. And payment further down the line.

Several times now, I have tried to get work writing for fashion brands or retailers online. I do not know anything about fashion, but I did write very successfully about smartphones without owning one, so I thought this would be in the same category. Well, I never got picked, and this morning I finally understood why.

As the test, I had to write a 300-word article about a well-known fashion brand. And, being me, I took the nerdy approach: a bit of history, a bit of innovations, a bit of types of clothes and a bit about the big-name designers they currently work with. I wrote it last night and let it sit, which is always a good idea when it comes to this type of writing, at least in the beginning.

This morning, I went online to a link I was given, and all the way down, there was an introduction to the brand. (Before you ask why I need to write this when it’s already there, I guess they are regularly updating the writing on the pages to make it seem more dynamic?) And that intro took the fashionista approach, talking about shoes and hoodies and leggings and sportswear and bras and socks and caps and backpacks and accessories and of course that it will feel wonderful when you wear it.

Note that this was on the bottom of a page already showing photos of all these things (minus the wonderful feelings of course) plus: the writing brief stated explicitly not do get sales-y. There were two sentences unique about the brand (one of them talking about their latest designer), but everything else was completely interchangeable with any other brand out there.

I didn’t even bother sending in my sample. Obviously this type of writing is so far out of my natural habitat, that it is a complete waste of time to even consider learning the how-to. So: I am calling a strategic retreat and cut my losses. Best to stick to stuff that I know something about. Serious nerdy stuff. Like smartphones. 😉

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.

Hawk Show

Last Saturday, I took the day off to go to Arashiyama in the western part of Kyoto. It once was a kind of country retreat for the city’s aristocrats, and even though distances have shrunk thanks to modern travel, it still takes me more than an hour to get there. That means, I don’t really like to go there – unless there is something very special going on.

HawkLike a hawk show. The Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture is holding a special exhibition at the moment with paintings of birds. And to make things interesting beyond the usual talk of art experts, they invited a falconer to come and show us his hawks.

First, there was a talk, of course. In Japan, falconry is called takagiri and it goes back as a sport for the nobles to the 4th century, when it was introduced from Korea. Tokugawa Ieyasu was particularly fond of hawking and put together a string of laws to govern its use during the Edo period. After the Meiji Restoration, however, takagiri was mostly discontinued, and today it is practised by a private clubs.

When a hawk is hatched, it takes about two months until it reaches the size of an adult. At this point, the training begins, first with very short sessions of 5 minutes a day, increasing to 10 minutes, 15 minutes… up to 4 hours of training a day. Interestingly, female hawks are larger than male ones, and they are easier to train for some reason. Hawks are flown daily and there is no retirement for them; they have a life span of 20 – 30 years.

Most of the training is based on incentives with food. Unfortunately, I did not quite understand what exactly they are fed, but the falconer stated that it’s not as simple as going to the supermarket and buying meat there. An interesting tidbit is that Japanese falconers fly their birds from the left hand, while in China the right hand is used. Part of it is that most people are right-handed, but part of it is that in Japan, the samurai still needed to be able to draw a sword…

After the talk, we were treated to a hawk show. There were two hawks present, and one of them was flown indoors between two people. After one or two how-to’s, visitors were invited to try themselves (with the help of a falconer, of course). Finally, we went outside for a more authentic experience. This time only the falconers worked with the birds though, but we saw how a hawk would hunt for a flying object, and it is amazing how fast these animals really are.

Hawk Show