Daimonji

Yesterday was the final day of the Obon festival, where the dead, who have returned to earth during the last few days are sent off to the underworld again. In Kyoto, this sending off is celebrated with 5 enormous fires that are lit on mountains surrounding the city, called the Daimonji festival (or, officially, the Gozan-no-okuribi).

This year, I had wanted to go to Arashiyama to see the large torii, which is the only one of the five fires you cannot see from the city. However, I started a project in the afternoon and overlooked the time and because it takes about an hour from here to Arashiyama, I would not have made it on time to see the fire (each one only burns for 20 – 30 minutes or so.)

So, I decided to stay local and go to the myo-ho, which is not one, but two fires about 20 minutes from my apartment. They are on rather low mountains and other than the big dai on Mount Daimonji and the lovely boat-shaped funegata, I cannot see them from my balcony.

However, even here, I was too late because I underestimated the amount of people who would be in the area. The myo-ho fires can best be viewed from a little road that is usually completely devoid of traffic, but last night it was full with people! While I could see the first one of the fires, the ho, I was just a little bit too late to see the myo character. When I finally had made my way through all the people there, the fire had already gone out…

The "ho" character of the Daimonji festivalOh well, at least I could see the big dai and the funegata on my trip. And next year I know to either be very early, or to take a different road a bit further south where there are (hopefully) no people. Or maybe I’ll make it to Arashiyama to see the torii after all.

Summer Purification

Last weekend, there was a very interesting summer purification rite at Shimogamo Shrine. This time, we random spectators were not allowed to participate, but it did involve the Mitarashi Pond at the Shrine again. When I arrived in the early evening, there was a circle of arrows stuck into the pond, and some fire places were set up and a table for a prayer ceremony.

A circle of arrows in the Mitarashi Pond of Shimogamo ShrineEventually, two priests came to pray in front of the little shrine you see in the back of the above photo, and when it became dark, the fires around the pond were lit. There was quite a bit of waiting, but when it was really dark, two groups of men arrived together with a number of priests. The men took their seats on the steps leading down to the pond on both sides, and there was more praying and a blessing of both groups.

When this was done, a sign was given, and all of a sudden, both groups jumped up and into the water and tried to get as many of the arrows as possible. While they were splashing about, the priests were throwing yellow pieces of paper into the water and onto the participants.Everything was over in two or three minutes when there were no more arrows to be grabbed. The participants, now all wet, sat down again for another blessing, and then left quickly, and the whole ceremony was over.

Nagoshi no Harae ceremony at Shimogamo ShrineThis ceremony is meant to pray for health for the rest of the year, and getting one of those arrows is meant to be extra lucky. I could not find out what was happening after the official ceremony, and what purpose the arrows have, but I guess they will be put in the houses of the participants who won them. However, the yellow paper was in the shape of humans, and on each piece was written a name and the wish of that person for the rest of the year. Those paper dolls were fished out of the water rather unceremoniously in the end, I guess they were thrown away or maybe burnt afterwards.

The most interesting part of the ceremony was that there was one woman amongst all the guys competing for the arrows. Never before have I seen women participate in this sort of religious events (other than as helpers somehow), so I don’t know if this was an exception or common at Shimogamo. Maybe Japan is changing after all?

Pottery Festival

Every year from August 7 – 10, there is a pottery festival in Kyoto. Along both sides of the eastern most bit of Gojo dori, between the Kamogawa and Higashiyama, hundreds of stalls are set up by people from all over Japan selling pottery. And that’s on top of all the pottery shops that already line that part of Gojo dori.

I am not a huge fan of pottery, but I was in the area yesterday anyway so I dropped by. I was hoping to maybe find a few of those tiny dishes that Japanese use for soy sauce or similar, but I didn’t find anything I liked, so I returned home empty-handed.

There were a few truly stunning pieces though, for example rather large black vases that looked like hewn from lava stone, with a crane motif painted in gold and silver, for some 350000 yen each. I could imagine that you buy this kind of vase for a tea room or something similar formal. Not for me this time. I did contemplate buying one or two little ceramic airplanes, which the seller had displayed on a shelf looking like an aircraft carrier, which was a cute touch.

Anyway, a bit off the main street at an entrance to a shrine there was this: Taoist god fighting a devilIt depicts a Taoist god fighting the devil on the left, and both are made with old ceramic plates and cups of all sizes. This was a project of students of one of Kyoto’s art universities, and they said it took them three months to complete. It was a very interesting art installation, and we talked a little, they also had a questionnaire asking for input for next year’s project. I said maybe something really Kyoto like one of the temples, or at least a temple gate, or something Japanese, like a Shinkansen or similar. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested Kyoto tower or maybe the Sky Tree… Oh well, next year then.

Otsu Hanabi

What a day! After my Japanese class I went to a lovely exhibition of handmade glass items (pity I couldn’t afford anything), then I was off to my weekly business meeting. And from there, I went straight to Otsu, a little town some 30 km east of Kyoto, situated on lake Biwa.

This was the highlight of my day, because today was the Biwako Hanabi – fireworks! Japanese fireworks usually happen in summer, and it’s always a big festival with drinks and food on the streets. Different to the West, a fireworks display is not part of a bigger event, it IS the event, and it can last an hour or even more.

I went there with a friend whose friend lives in Otsu and was up even earlier than me this morning and reserved a spot for a picnic in the very first row directly on the lake. This is necessary since there are very few places available where you won’t have to pay for your seat, and apparently, Otsu draws some 350.000 spectators for the fireworks each year. The train going there (2.5 hours before the event) was already packed, and upon leaving (my friend was driving) there were long, long queues in front of the train stations…

After the heavy rains yesterday, the weather was nice and cool, perfect to bathe your feet in the water, have a sushi bento and a beer, and watch the fireworks above you. We sat exactly opposite one of the two spots in the lake from which the rockets were shot, and this year’s theme was also water, by the way. There were fireworks depicting fish, umbrellas, and water melons, for example. Unfortunately it is notoriously difficult to photograph fireworks without a tripod, but I did get a few good pictures. Here’s one of them before I’m off to bed. Enjoy! Otsu Hanabi 2017

Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Keiji Nakazawa

Cover of the first volume of "Barefoot Gen"Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.

But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.

And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…

Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.

Keiji Nakazawa, manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.

Check out the book – or better, the whole series – from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

More Taxes

Japan has an interesting system regarding the payment of taxes and social security, both for individuals and companies. The amount you have to pay each month does not depend on your current income, but on the income from the year before. And since the standard fiscal year for a company ends in March, the numbers for taxes and social security are calculated after that, and the new amounts have to be paid from July onwards.

Up until now, I have paid very little taxes on my income; I only had to pay national taxes to the amount of about 5000 yen per month. I would pay them twice a year only, accumulated for six months. However, now in the third year of my business, I also have to pay city and prefectural taxes on my income, which is another 5000 yen each per month. So, from one month to the next, my tax payment has tripled – and my income stayed the same, not to talk about my profits (for now).

Japanese currencyInterestingly, these two payments cannot be processed automatically using a collection order for the tax office for example. The reason is – as my accountant claims – that the monthly amount may fluctuate depending on the number of employees and their salaries. And the Kyoto city and prefectural tax offices, naturally, are by far not as advanced as my gas company for example and could not possibly know how to deal with this.

And since my bank denies me internet banking for my company account for some random reason, I will now have to make a pilgrimage before the 10th day of each month to my bank so I can pay my taxes there – in person and with a manually filled out piece of paper. So much for the highly advanced tech-country Japan. Well, I guess all the staff at my bank need something to do…

Fire Walking

Last Friday evening, I went to the Tanukidani Fudoin Temple. This beautiful old temple is reminiscent of Kiyomizudera, which is also built on “stilts” at the top of a steep incline. However, Tanukidani Fudoin is much less famous, probably because it is so much smaller, there is no nice view over Kyoto from there, and getting there is much harder – especially climbing the 250 steps at the end of the already steep road is very exhausting. At least in winter, you’ll be nicely warmed up at the end though…

Tanukidano Fudion TempleAnyway, I went there last Friday for the hi-watari – fire walking – ceremony. It is meant to pray for protection and health, and it was the longest religious ceremony I have watched so far in Japan. It started with chants and prayers in the main hall, which I could hear but not see because I had stayed outside to secure a good spot for the main part of the ceremony that started about 30 minutes later.

On the central open space of the temple, a large pyre had been built with logs and pine branches. When the monks had finished their ceremony in the main hall, they went down to the “temple square” and took their places there. Four seated themselves at the corners, surrounding the pyre, the others took their seats at some benches that had been specially provided.

Beginning of the hi-watari ritualThen there was more chanting by the monks, and the head priest performed some rituals, the meaning of which I did not understand. At some point, one of the monks took up a prepared bow, went to each of the four men sitting in the corners of the square, took an arrow from them, said an incantation, and then shot the arrow out towards the four corners of the world. A fifth arrow was shot into the pyre. I assume that this part of the ceremony was meant to repel evil coming from the four cardinal directions, but as I said, I am not sure.

Only after this was done, the pyre was finally lit with a large torch. More chants and prayers followed, including walking around the bonfire, and the head priest threw bundles of wood into the fire, possibly ema, prayer tablets. This whole part of the ceremony took maybe one hour, and at the end of it, the bonfire was nicely ablaze and its sparks were flying high into the nightly air.

Starting the fireWhen all the chants had been spoken and all the monks had taken their rounds around the bonfire, the fire was torn apart by some of the monks and the wood was formed into a pathway of maybe 6 by 3 meters. The larger logs, still burning, were moved to the outside, and at the inside there was left a layer of glimmering charcoal. And then came the moment all the spectators had been waiting for: The monks lined up at one end of the fiery path – and walked over the coals to the other side.

Final FirewalkingThey were accompanied by a large taiko drum, which gave the scene a sort of earnest urgency. It looked very serene, the monks went rather slowly and did not seem fazed at all. A lady next to me, however, remarked that the coals in the middle of the path were completely black by now, meaning they were probably not too hot anymore. Still, it was impressive to watch, and the burning logs at the sides of the path were probably hot enough anyway.

This marked the end of the ceremony, and once all the monks had passed over the hot coals, those who had so far only watched were now also allowed to try fire walking. A large amount of people did, the idea of this part is to pray for good health over summer. Interestingly, many of the ceremonies that take place in summer are to pray for good health; I wonder if in the olden days people were more prone to die from summer heat (or maybe hot weather diseases) than from whatever cold or pneumonia you can catch in winter. It might explain why most Japanese still seem to suffer less in the cold winter than in the hot summer, even though a too much of both is unpleasant.

Mitarashi Dango

Staying with the theme of last Thursday, let’s introduce more Japanese food: mitarashi dango.

Dango are little Japanese dumplings made from rice flour. They are similar to mochi, but mochi are much softer and sweeter than the dango. Dango are usually boiled in water and then skewered in groups of three to five.

Except for the hanami dango that are sold during cherry blossom season and come in three flavours (cherry, green tea, and plain), the dango themselves are usually plain and don’t have much taste. The flavour comes by adding a sauce to the skewered dango, and you can have anything on top from a layer of anko (red bean paste), to a chestnut paste, kinako (roasted soy flour), or sesame seeds.

A set of three mitarashi dango skewersIf you first boil and then grill the dango over a fire and finally cover them with a sweet sauce made of sugar, water, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, you get mitarashi dango. Their origin goes back to the mitarashi festival of Shimogamo shrine, where a family offered the first skewered dango to the gods. Their round shape is meant to resemble the bubbles that form in the shrine’s Mitarashi pond, and that there are usually five to one skewer is explained by the fact that the top dango counts as the head, and the lower four as the arms and legs of a human.

Nowadays, mitarashi dango are sold all over Japan, and especially in summer they are very popular. However, there is a very old mitarashi dango shop nearby Shimogamo shrine, and it is said that the first mitarashi dango were made there. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly a nice story, and I think I might just go and visit that particular shop to try the original.

Mitarashi Festival

Today I went with a friend to the Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo Shrine. This was at least the third time I went there, but it seems I haven’t written about this before. Time to fill the gap then! The Mitarashi festival is an extremely popular festival in Kyoto, and thousands of locals go to Shimogamo Shrine each year to celebrate it. It is very interesting and “hands-on” and there are several steps involved. First, you go to the shrine to pray as usual. Then you turn to the little stream and pond of the shrine that is usually off-limits. Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo ShrineYou take off your shoes, buy a small candle and then wade through the waters of the stream. Somewhere in the middle of the way, you light you candle, and then you walk with your candle to the end of the stream and place it in front of a tiny little shrine. Some people say another quick prayer there. Don’t let the candle go out – you will have to go back and light it again! (Using somebody else’s fire is frowned upon.) The water is ice-cold, which is nice for a short time, but can get very unpleasant if you have to go back and forth more than once or twice.

The idea of the ritual is to pray for good health over summer, and bathing your feet in the cold water definitely helps to cool you down for a while. After you step out of the stream and put on your shoes again, you can drink a cup of fresh water from the shrine’s own well. And there are also little bamboo sheets in the shape of feet for sale, where you write down the names and dates of your loved ones in order to pray for their health as well. Those are put in the water in front of the little Mitarashi Shrine I mentioned before and will be floated down the stream to take the ailments of the people with them. Prayer cards in the form of feetAs I said, this festival is immensely popular, and it lasts about one week each year in July. It opens at 5:30 in the morning and ends only at 9 in the evening, and especially after sunset, there are always lots of people. Many of the smaller kids who come with their parents take the opportunity to splash about noisily in the water, they don’t seem to be concerned about the cold at all. The officials of the shrine don’t seem to mind that, after all, shinto is meant to be a celebration of life.

I really enjoy visiting the Mitarashi festival, and so far, this has been the only festival in Kyoto where I went to each and every year. And I hope that there will be many years to come!