Trip to Omuro

Today is doyo ushi no hi – the midsummer day of the ox – traditionally considered the hottest day of summer. This year however, it’s comparatively cool; on most days the thermometer stays under 35 degrees, where we normally have 37 and more around this time. One of the tradtional things to do today is to eat eel (unagi), and in Kyoto, people flock to Shimogamo Shrine for the yearly Mitarashi-sai, which I will do tomorrow with friends. But I decided to do something special today.

So, I took the day off to make a trip to Omuro, the neighborhood of Ninna-ji and Myoshin-ji. I didn’t go there though since I had visited both often before. My goal was the Kyutei Omuro. This is one of Kyoto’s old suburban villas, a National Tangible Cultural Property, and it’s open to the public on special occasions only.

The house was built in 1937 at the foot of Narabigaoka hill, which, interesting enough, does not have a shrine on top like many other hills in Kyoto. The house has a traditional stone garden near the entrance and a lush garden at the back that allows you to climb up the hill a little. There stands a tea house that overlooks the garden and house below. I spent almost an hour looking at the house and wandering through the garden! I’m planning a full report with more photos this weekend.

Afterwards, I went to a small cakeshop/cafe nearby that I had wanted to try for a long time already. I had their signature cake for lunch (“Pampelmousse”, very nice) together with iced caramel milk (so-so). The place was tiny and quiet except for the Randen Railway that passed by directly next to the shop and made the whole house shake every time it did so. Before I went home, I bought some shou-creme for breakfast tomorrow.

It was quite a trip to visit the Kyutei Omuro, it took me almost an hour by bike, but it was so worth it! I even met the owner, a lady around my age. It seems the house has been lived in for longer than I had expected. But: more on Sunday!

Last Winter, we Parted

Last Winter, we Parted
Fuminori Nakamura

A writer – whose name we never learn – has taken a commission to write a book about Judai Kiharazaka. The famous photographer has been convicted of burning two young women alive, and the writer interviews him to understand the motive. Kiharazaka is reluctant to open up, but the more the writer learns about Kiharazaka’s background, the more an obsessive personality comes to the foreground. However, when his investigations lead him to K2, a group centered on an artist who creates life-sized dolls after the image of dead women, the writer begins to doubt everything he has found out about Kiharazaka so far…

A complicated thriller, written from perspectives of both the writer and that of Kiharazaka. It is comprised of interviews, letters, and the writer’s notes and memories, and the plot unfolds slowly and in bursts. The big reveal at the end is a twist so far out there, I doubt that anyone could see it coming.

Fuminori Nakamura, born in 1977, is a Japanese writer. He published his first novel “The Thief” in 2002 and won three prestigous literature prizes within three years, one of them the Akutagawa Prize. In 2010, he won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize. A translation of “The Thief” was selected among the best 10 books of 2013 by the NY Times. Out of his 15 books, 7 have been translated into English so far.

If you’re in for something different – warning: it’s not a lighthearted read this one – then you can get it on amazon.

Yoiyama 2021, Part 2

This week is the second yoiyama of Gion Matsuri, the three days leading up to the Ato Matsuri Parade on July 24th (which has also been cancelled this year). Only 6 of the 10 yamaboko that take part in the Ato Parade were constructed. I visited “my” Ofune Hoko, where I usually help selling souvenirs, but this year I was just a guest because I can’t stand on my feet for 5 hours with my hip problem…

It was nice seeing my friends again and they even got me free entrance to the top of the Ofune Hoko. This is the first time I noticed all the names and numbers on each and every piece the Ofune Hoko is constructed of.

There are more than 600 pieces for the main boat and the large dragon that sits at the front of the float is made from 12.

Just like last week, the Daimaru Department store, which is nearby where the yamaboko are built, showed miniature versions of them. They are maybe a meter high (excluding the poles) and are made in loving detail. These look like antiques, so they are probably priceless. I couldn’t find out whom they belong to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are owned by one or more of the old merchant families of Kyoto that have been involved in Gion Matsuri for centuries (literally).

As usual around the time of the Ato Matsuri, it is very hot. Today it was around 35 degrees and the inner city streets were stifling. I went out pretty early and still got myself a nice sunburn… And yet, it is comparatively cool, several degrees below what is usual. There was even a slight breeze today and I haven’t used my fan a single time yet. Maybe tonight’s the night?

Yoiyama 2021

Today is the third day before the saki parade of Gion Matsuri on July 17. It’s the day of the yoi-yoi-yoiyama, when the yamaboko floats have been finished and the inner city is closed for cars during the evening. So far the theory, but for the second year in a row, Gion Matsuri has been limited severely, thanks to COVID-19.

Most of the events that draw large crowds have been cancelled, including the two parades on July 17 and 24, and of course, the yoiyama parties as well. However, this year, 12 of the yamaboko for the first parade will be built (or already have been), and 6 yamaboko of the second parade. There will be the usual sale of chimaki charms, tenugui towels and other souvenirs there, at least during the day from around 10:00 – 19:00.

Usually, my friends and I visit Gion Matsuri together sometime during yoiyama, in the afternoon. We’ll be having lunch tomorrow and see where we’ll take it from there. I have been invited during the second yoiyama next week to visit the Ofunehoko. I worked there at the booth for two years before, but I”m not up to standing for 5 hours this year because of my hip problem. However, I will say hello to my friends who are there, and I have been promised that I may enter the Ofunehoko this year again, which is a special treat because it’s not open to the public because it’s too small a space.

I will report on this year’s yoiyama(s) next week.

Atsuage Donburi

Time for another summer recipe! My friend Junko taught me this dish, and besides being quick-and-easy, it has the added bonus that it is extremely cheap: The tofu needed for this recipe costs only 50 yen a slice! Initially, I hesitated putting it up, as some of the ingredients may be a bit hard to find outside of Japan, but then again, I modified the recipe already, and so can you. Here we go:

Atsuage Donburi à la Junko san
(for 1 person)

  • 1 bowl of cooked rice
  • 1 tablespoon of furikake
    Mix the rice with the furikake and put it in a bowl.
  • 1 piece of yawaraka tofu (atsuage). These are very thick slices (3cm) of fried tofu.
    Wash the tofu in hot water to remove any remnants of oil. Use a fork to poke small holes through the tofu.
  • 1-2 tablespoons each of dashi and mirin
  • 1 teaspoon each of sugar and soysauce
    Combine the above ingredients and heat them in a small pan. Put in the tofu and heat it from all sides so that it absorbs the broth.

    When this is finished, take the tofu out of the broth, cut it in squares and place it on top of the rice.

Now, if that wasn’t quick and easy – and it’s vegetarian too! As I said, I modified the original recipe which called for carrots and daikon cut into small pieces and replaced it with the furikake. I’m using furikake made with sesame and red pepper to add a spicy flavour to this otherwise rather bland dish (the broth doesn’t help that much). But any type of furikake or fresh herbs and spices will do just nicely, depending on your own preferences.

Enjoy!

Vaccination Fast Lane

As you may know, the Covid19 vaccinations are going really, really slow in Japan. At the end of last week, I finally received my invitation package for my own vaccination. It includes a general information leaflet, an extra information sheet about the vaccine that will be used (the Pfizer/Biontech one), a general health questionnaire that I’ll have to fill out and bring along, and the actual vaccination ticket with my name on it.

Since I don’t have a GP I see for my random little ailments, I had to make an appointment at one of Kyoto’s mass vaccination sites. Or rather, I spoke to somebody in the Kyoto city call center who took all my data and entered it into the big scheduling database. She promised that I’ll receive a call with the actual appointment time, but she couldn’t tell me when this would happen. Or how long I would have to wait for said appointment.

However, I do know already that I’m in the higher priority group. That’s because my BMI says I’m obese. To be fair, my pant sizes do too… This means, I might be lucky to get an appointment for my first shot in July already. Still, all I can do right now is wait for that phone call. Given my experience with the Japanese government, things will be oh so slow… But once you’re in the machine, everything will go smoothly and super efficient!

Kinkaku-ji, Plain

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, is probably one of the best-known tourist attractions of Kyoto. The two top floors of the temple are covered in leaf gold; the third floor with the main Buddha relics is gilded inside as well (and not accessible to the public).

However, the temple as you see it today – I’ve written about it before – is not the same one as built in the 14th century. The original building was set on fire by a novice monk of the temple in 1950, and was restored in 1955. At that time, gold leaf was added quite liberally to the top two floors, and some people question whether this is historically accurate.

At any case, here is an image of Kinkaku-ji from some time in the Meiji period. It has been colored by hand and does not show much golden sparkle, but this may be just because of the age of the building. It’s absolutely stunning, and, compared to the modern building, it feels much less sterile. What do you think?

An old photo of Kinkaku-ji

Going Down, Down…

You’ve probably noticed my rather erratic posting schedule lately. Well, I’m not at all feeling well. For the last month at least, I’ve been in the depths of a serious bout of depression and things are not going well.

This is nothing new. I’ve had depressive episodes since I was a teenager. At several points in my life, things got so bad that all I wanted to do was stay in bed and read all day. A stack of books and a large jar of Nutella, and I was set. (To be honest, I still believe this is the setup for a perfect weekend at the best of times.)

But this time, it’s different. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to read, and eating – even chocolates – is optional. I’ve saved almost a quarter of my food budget last month because I didn’t feel like eating much beyond a sandwich or two a day. I don’t feel anything right now, there are no highs, no lows, there’s just apathy. I lie in bed, stare at the ceiling and that’s all.

It’s the first time I’m down quite so low and I wonder why. Maybe, because the other times, I still had a 9-5 job that forced me out of the house and among people five days a week. Many people do perk up with daily routines; not so much because it makes them happy to be among people, but because it keeps them from brooding too much. However, if you’re working from home most of the time – and there’s not much work to do right now, still thanks to Corona – it’s easy to fall into holes.

I’ve been thinking about what to do. At least, I’m keeping the handful of appointments I have every week. Even though I often just want to cancel, I make an effort to show up, and I usually am glad that I did, afterwards. I also try to do things I usually enjoy, on days I can muster the energy. I mentioned the Dainenbutsu Kyogen plays I say two weeks ago (final report is forthcoming, promise), and last Sunday, I went to the big “Ancient Egypt” exhibition with items from the Berlin State Museum. Tomorrow I’m planning a shopping spree – well, I am going to order shoes and a book. It’s nice to focus on something else every now and then.

But overall, those are just tiny islands sticking out of a vast ocean, and I’m mostly struggling to stay afloat in between them. So, forgive me if my posts remain a bit unpredictable for the time being. I am thinking of not forcing myself to write on Wednesdays and Sundays, but just when I’m feeling up to the task, and then scheduling the posts accordingly. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure I want to commit to even that much right now.

Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. This too shall pass. Like all the times before…

Journey under the Midnight Sun

Journey under the Midnight Sun
Keigo Higashino

Cover for "Journey under the Midnight Sun" by Keigo Higashino.

Osaka, 1973. In an abandoned building in a poor part of town, a local pawnbroker is found stabbed to death. Although the investigation is able to zero in onto a prime suspect – the man’s lover – the case cannot be solved and is put on ice. But inspector Sasagaki is not deterred and keeps a watchful eye on Ryo, the son of the pawnbroker and on Yukiho, the daughter of his suspected mistress.

Over the years, Yukiho turns into a mesmerising and independent woman, and Ryo becomes a small gangster involved in computer crime before he disappears without a trace. Only 20 years after the murder inspector Sasagaki is finally able to tear apart the web of deceit that surrounds Yukiho and Ryo and finally finds out who and what was behind the murder.

Another fascinating novel by Keigo Higashino with a startling twist near the end. We follow the two children at the periphery of the murder from their teens to their early adulthood and although they never seem to meet openly, there are too many coincidences in both their lives not to believe in an ongoing connection. What starts out as a strong bond of friendship between them is soon brimming with criminal energy, both out in the open and hidden in the dark.

Keigo Higashino was born in Osaka in 1958 and received a Bachelor of Engineering from Osaka Prefecture University. He started working in the automotive industry, but left the company in 1986 after receiving the Rampo Prize for best unpublished mystery. Has written more than 85 novels and short story collections, and is one of Asia’s most popular authors. From 2009 to 2013 he served as the president of Mystery Writers in Japan.

Get this great summer read on amazon before heading to the beach.

Kyoto’s Three Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Super short weekend post today. I was out all afternoon and came home later than I expected. I was watching Dainenbutsu Kyogen – short pantomimes that often have a religious theme but are mostly meant to be funny – by the three most famous groups in Kyoto, all in one afternoon and all in one venue and for (almost) free to boot!

I will give you a more detailed report next week.