Kai Awase

Do you know the game memory? At least that’s what it’s called in Austria: you have pairs of cards with the same image, they are placed face down on a table and each player may only turn two cards – if they are the same, he may keep them.

The kai awase or shell matching game is an ancient Japanese game that is very similar. It is based on the fact that sea shells consist of two halves which show the same pattern on both halves that fit together perfectly.

Starting from there, playing kai awase is simple: You place the shell halves in front of you and search for the two that belong together. You can check that by simply putting the halves together and see if they fit. If they do, you win, if they don’t, it’s somebody else’s turn.

kaiawase playSo far, so boring. What is interesting about this game is that the insides of the shells are painted. They usually show a typical Japanese scene taken from a well-known story, or images of hanami, temples etc. The images in one shell are never identical, but show to images that go together in some way. For example, there is a couple at hanami: one shell shows the woman, the other the man under blooming cherry trees. Those miniatures are lovely – and you may only look at them if the shells you picked are matching ones. This is your reward for winning the kai awase.

Inside of kai awase shellsKai awase dates back to the Heian court of 1000 years ago. Since this was a game for court ladies, I wonder if the miniatures on the inside of the shells played any additional role. I could imagine for example, that once you found a matching shell, you had to tell the story that goes with the images – or maybe make up a new one. Of course, there are no original shells around any longer (or at least I doubt it very much), but even today you can buy kai awase sets in Kyoto, as a high-class (and high-priced), but very beautiful souvenir.

Incompetence

As you know, I have been very busy promoting What’s up in Kyoto. Part of the promotion is a small advertising campaign with posters in one of the best frequented subway stations in Kyoto. I have contacted an advertising company and they really did their best to have the posters up on July 14th, that’s three days before the first Gion Matsuri parade and also during yoiyama, where this particular subway station is very busy.

I was very happy, and waited for all the visitors that would come to my site and… nothing. Or, at least, not much more than usual. I thought, oh well, you probably have to pass the same poster more than once to take action, so I was not really worried (okay, maybe a little because I spent a lot of money).

And then I received an email from the advertising company yesterday evening at around 7 pm, telling me that: We are so sorry, but the posters were removed already on the 16th due to the mismanagement of the transportation office! My first reaction: I laughed out loud. Using the word “mismanagement” or “incompetence” in business communication is pretty strong, I did not expect that at all from the gentle and roundabout Japanese. It made my evening.

By now, the posters have been put up again, and as a compensation, I will receive a whole month of free advertising since they will leave the posters up until mid September. And also the reprinting will not cost me a thing! If all Japanese incompetence is like this, I don’t think I mind…

Kimono

Every Tuesday I have a work meeting in town that usually takes two hours and is pretty much, well, business. Last week, however, there was a kimono exhibition in the same building where the office is, so it was decided that we would go upstairs and have a look.

Kimono and obi on displayIt was fantastic! All the kimono and obi were silk, handmade and exquisite – and of an appropriate price class, of course. Have a look at the kimono above. They are not yet finished, meaning, only roughly sewn together to be fitted to the final buyer. Each of them is made of one those rolls of silk that you see lying there; each roll holds about 14 metres of cloth.

Obi showing cranesThe obi are handmade as well, and we saw somebody applying gold leaf to an obi in a technique called kinsai. Other obi were “simply” embroidered by hand, which for a standard obi of four meters length and more will take a while. No wonder they can be more expensive than a kimono. Interestingly, an obi is the main accessory for a kimono. If you buy a kimono in a not too flashy color, you will be able to wear it for years – and dress it up or down according to the formality of the occasion, and the age of the wearer with an appropriate obi. I’m not sure if you can get away with only owning a single kimono, but it seems you won’t need as many as Western clothing.

The picture below shows my favourite kimono. It is made in the yuzen dyeing technique, which essentially means it is hand painted. The artist, a man in his 60s, was present at the exhibition, and he says that it took him 20 years to master the technique. Remember that a kimono is made of a single roll of silk? It is not cut during the painting and the artist said that by now, he can paint the whole cloth in a way so that when it is cut up into the kimono, the sides of the design will fit together perfectly. He laments the decline of the kimono as a whole, which is not surprising if you know that one of those may take him up to six months to complete, and it will cost about 1.5 million yen. At the moment, he is looking for an apprentice, so if you have 20 years to spare… Kimono showing waves; made in the yuzen technique

Nara’s Heijo Palace

Nara, the capital of Nara prefecture, is a small city with 360.000 inhabitants about one hour south of Kyoto. Today, it is a rather typical Japanese city, but some 1300 years ago, from 710 – 794, Nara was the capital of Japan before the imperial court moved to Kyoto. But in this period of only 84 years – called the Nara period – a truly impressive palace was built: Heijo-kyu.

The Heijo palace was built in accordance with Chinese customs: Since the emperor was seen as the head of state, the palace must lie on the head of the capital city, which means, on the northern end. The rest of the city was placed on a strict grid layout. The main north-south road, called Suzaku dori, an enormous boulevard of 75 m width, led from the southern city gate called Rajo mon up to the palace’s main gate Suzaku mon. And the main east-west road – smaller, but still 37 m wide Nijo-oji – also passed in front of Suzaku mon.Suzakumon from the inside of the palace grounds

This Suzaku gate is a truly impressive building. 25 m wide, 10 deep and 22 m high in two storeys, it was bigger than any other gate of the palace. With its vermillion pillars, white walls and black roof tiles it reminds one of similar buildings in Korea.

It also looks like a smaller version of the Former Imperial Audience Hall, which is situated exactly north of the gate, in an enormous courtyard, where the imperial courtiers had to assemble for official ceremonies like New Year’s celebrations or coronations. The most interesting thing about the Imperial Audience Hall, besides the fact that it is the largest building of Heijo palace with 44 m width, 20 m depth, and 27 m height, is that it has no doors to the south – the lower part of the building is completely open. That means that the emperor could gaze without hindrance over the whole palace and assembled courtiers from his throne in the center of the hall. (In the reconstructed building, glass sliding doors have been installed in the southern wall).

Former Imperial Audience Hall at Heijo PalaceThis whole compound from the early Nara period from Suzaku gate to the Imperial Audience Hall was enclosed in a cloister – a covered walkway with an earthen wall in the middle (and strategically placed gates).

Detail on the Former Imperial Audience HallIn 745, a new audience hall was built a bit south-east of the old one. North of this Latter Imperial Audience Hall, and east of the former one, lay the Imperial Domicile. On this site, an enormous well was found, lined with Japanese cypress – a hollowed trunk of 1.7 m diameter. Apparently, this well was meant for the exclusive use of the imperial family.

The well of the Imperial Domicile at Heijo PalaceNearby were the Ministry of the Imperial Household, the Office of Rice Wine and Vinegars (with another impressively sized well) and a number of other government offices. Those were much more modest buildings with wooden roofs and simple interiors. Interestingly, the smaller government officials – those who had to do all the mundane tasks – at that time sat on chairs and desks as we know them today (probably another import from China) and they wrote on little wooden slats, the top layer of which could be sliced off repeatedly in an early form of recycling.

Actually, recycling seems to have been quite en vogue in that early period. Some of the lower government buildings have been rebuilt six times, probably not for repairs, but for other, hitherto unknown reasons. When the court moved on to Kyoto in 794, some of the buildings were relocated (foremost the Former Imperial Audience Hall). The same probably happened to buildings of lesser value, and some of the building materials may have been used elsewhere. The buildings that were left when Nara was abandoned as capital, either burnt down or simply fell into disrepair and disappeared over time. The land was reused for agriculture and the fact that once there was an Imperial Palace was (partly) forgotten.

Former Imperial Audience Hall as seen from the Suzaku gate (almost). This is the reason why, when you visit Heijo palace today, the most striking aspect of the palace site is the sheer size of it: Once it covered an area of 1 square kilometer, and today it is nothing but a large open field. The current Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo may be equally large, but because of all the buildings and trees on the grounds, one doesn’t notice that. In Nara, only from 1959 research, investigation, and excavation on the Heijo Palace grounds have been carried on continuously. The site of the Latter Imperial Audience Hall was only rediscovered in 1974 and reconstruction of some buildings began in 1989. Most remarkable, the Suzaku southern gate and the Former Imperial Audience Hall have been rebuilt in great detail, partly with methods employed in the Nara period itself. Some of the original building materials can be admired in the museums on site.

Corner of a Roof, reconstructed with excavated roof tiles.However, whatever building you see at the Heijo palace site is merely an educated guess. There are no historical paintings from that time, and scholars had to piece together information from excavations on the site, from temples built in the same period, or from descriptions of the few historical documents that do exist of or refer to that time period.

All in all, if you don’t mind walking around, Heijo Palace is worth a visit. The sheer vastness of (empty) space is impressive, and museums and excavations, even though far apart, are very interesting – and often even come with English translation. And photography is allowed pretty much everywhere, if you turn off your flash.

Gion Matsuri!

It’s Gion Matsuri again! I haven’t been out to see any of the big events this year, I’m only writing about them… But, as a Kyoto resident, there is no excuse: You must go and see Gion Matsuri.

Today, me and two friends of mine got all dressed up in our summer yukata and went out to see the construction of the first set of floats for the Saki Matsuri Parade next Monday. We had tickets for a tea ceremony at the float called Kikuhoko, which is one of the big ones about 25 m high, with a big golden chrysanthemum on top. These things are done to raise money for the respective yamaboko community, together with selling souvenirs like chimaki and other charms or tenugui.

The tea ceremony was a very casual one. Only the master who made the tea was kneeling on a slightly raised platform, all the other guests were sitting on tables and there was a constant coming and going. Before the matcha we were served a sweet jelly made from black sugar on a blue plate shaped like a chrysanthemum (which we were allowed to keep, by the way). While we were sipping our tea, a group of young girls came in to sit in front of us. My friend gave me a nudge and said “honmono – the real thing”. Yes, during Gion Matsuri even lowly people like us have the chance to meet real maiko…maiko after tea ceremonyAfter the tea ceremony, we went through the hokomachi to see some of the other yamaboko in construction. I always love to see the Funehoko which is shaped like a boat, so we went there among others. We even came across one of the trial pullings that were taking place today, of the Hokahoko if I’m correct. The fun thing about this is that everybody may step up and help pulling, even women and kids who are obviously not part of the big, real parade.

Kids before the trial pulling of the Hokahoko. We did not see all of the floats though, since it was quite hot with 36 degrees. And even though people may tell you otherwise, a yukata is a quite warm piece of clothing… The last hoko we visited was the Naginata hoko. It is always the one to lead the parade and the only one left with a chigo, a young boy to perform a number of rituals during the festival month. We even went upstairs to the community house of the Naginata hoko, but women are not allowed to enter the float itself (all the others will be happy to grant everybody access, for a fee of course).

Inside the Naginata hoko community house.I had a wonderful afternoon, and this year my yukata held up better than last year. I learned a few tricks on how to wear one better (involving towels), but I know that there is still room for improvement. I got several nice comments about my outfit in general, so I must have done something right. Bonus cute story: In the bus home I sat next to an old lady who all of a sudden leaned over and asked: “I’m sorry, it’s very rude, but… did you put on your yukata all by yourself?” And when I said yes I did and confessed that it took me 30 minutes, she was quite impressed about my dedication to do this!

I’m back…

…both figuratively and literally speaking! Last week I took a few days off from business and went down to Nara, a small town about an hour south of Kyoto. Yes I know, I could have chosen a more exotic location – Nara is much like Kyoto on a smaller scale – but I really didn’t have the energy for a long trip. All I wanted was a nice and quiet hotel somewhere I could hunker down for a few days and sleep.

nightview from my hotelroomEven though I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I had planned – too much to explore in Nara – the hotel was just what I needed. I had booked a Japanese ryokan overlooking the city and very much “away” from everything, since it was reachable only by car. What attracted me to the hotel in the first place was the view over the city, the large tatami rooms complete with own genkan and indoors balcony, public hot bath and included Japanese breakfast.

My room in NaraFriendly staff are the norm all over Japan, but since this was my first longer stay in a ryokan, there were a number of little things I experienced first hand that were absolutely charming. For example, a board next to the main door saying “welcome Miss Iris”. A matcha when I was shown my room and its amenities. When I returned from sightseeing on the second day, I had barely time to slip into my hotel yukata when there was a knock on my door, and with a “welcome home” I was served green tea and a sweet. There was also a little note on my table informing me about tomorrow’s weather. All of this, apparently, also is standard in Japanese ryokan. I love Japan!

coming out of the public bathAnyway, I had a lovely and relaxing trip. I learned a few more interesting things about Japan, and I’m feeling ready to get back to work! I hope I didn’t make you too jealous with my hotel photos… More photos of other things Nara will follow, promised!

Mount Fuji

On my recent wanderings around the internet I came across the picture of Mount Fuji below. I prefer to post my own photos here, but there is no way I could ever match this perfection. Enjoy!

Mount Fuji seen from a plane.

Photo courtesy of Hghask Ekorb on unsplash

Busy

Work is keeping me busy – which is good, but also very tiring… Currently I am trying to find a nice and cheap way to attract people to my new website, and I also have to add more contents to the website as well to that said people are enticed to stay and/or return. There are also a few other things I need to do on top of that, which also take up a lot of extra time.

A few days ago I received an unexpected present: a DVD of the film “Koto” where I was an extra, there is one scene where I am featuring prominently in the middle of the screen, and another one where I can be seen in the background if you know to look for me. There were two more scenes where I was present in, but they did not make it into the final film. It’s a nice move I received the DVD though, certainly something to watch when my Japanese improves – there are no subtitles, of course.

In other news, it seems that finally the tsuyu – the rainy season – has arrived, about one month late. Up until now it was surprisingly cool and dry, but this week it started raining, and it became more humid. The coming weekend especially will be hot, it may be time to get out my fan again and remove the blanket from my bed.

Unfortunately these days, I don’t have much time to write decent posts for this blog. Because I am so busy, I am not doing much else than working, and I guess you are not really interested in reading about me and my adventures with Japanese advertising… So, I have decided to take a break next week where I can focus on other things and hopefully be back and write more interesting posts again. I do have a very nice picture planned for Sunday, but after that my next post will be on Tuesday, July 11th.

Kimono

After all these years I finally found out how clothing works. Okay, that sounds odd… Let’s say: I think I finally understand why so many women have fun shopping for clothes. And it happened in a shop selling kimono.

kimonoI never liked shopping for clothes: The sleeves are too long, the shirt too tight, the pants don’t sit right… in short, there is always something wrong with whatever I try. By now, I have learned to compromise and have at least a rudimentary understanding what works for my body and what doesn’t, which speeds up the selection process considerably, but still, clothes shopping is not one of my favourite pastimes. Especially here in Asia, where women are shaped like Greek columns, it is very hard to cater for my curves.

But the other day, I went to a department store in town. They sell everything – I love browsing through their stationary department – and there is always a space near the entrance that sells clothing and accessories: Hats and scarves in winter, rain boots and umbrellas during rainy season, and right now: yukata.

Yukata are light summer kimono made from cotton, and the patterns are usually airy and fun. Even though I can’t wear yukata easily, I like to browse through them and enjoy the patterns. And suddenly it struck me: Essentially, a yukata fits everybody. You just tuck a bit more or less here or there, but at the end of the day, anyone can wear a yukata – and will look good in it! So, with that in mind, you can really focus on colors and patterns and there’s no need to worry about anything – the thing simply fits!

At this point I finally understood why there are women out there who love shopping. They obviously know exactly what fits them and makes them look and feel good – and they can go wild with colors and patterns and materials and accessories etc. And of course, if something is fun, you want to do more of it. I don’t think my personal attitude towards clothes shopping will change, but it’s nice to understand what others see in it.

Fillomino

You know sudoku, of course. Ever since the puzzle was introduced to the readers of The Times in 2004, it has taken the world by storm, and by now, sudoku are a staple in the daily puzzle section of newspapers, whether on- or offline.

20 years before that, sudoku had already been introduced to Japan by Nikoli, a publisher that specialises in logic puzzles and games. Over time, Nikoli has developed many different logic puzzles, a large part of which are language- and culture independent and can be attempted by anyone (you may need basic math skills though). In Japan, you can buy little books containing about 100 puzzles each, and despite everything being online these days, the books still appear popular.

One of Nikoli’s logic puzzles is called Fillomino, and this is how it is done: You start out with a rectangular grid, some of the squares containing numbers, others being empty. The goal is to create boundaries between contiguous regions, where each separate region containing the number n consists exactly of n squares; and two regions with the same number/size may not be adjacent and share a boundary (they may touch at a corner only).That means that a square containing the number 1 is its own region, two adjacent 2s lie inside the same region, etc.

Sounds easy? Well, caveat emptor: It is possible that two non-adjacent same numbers belong to the same region, and in the final result there may appear regions that had no numbers at the start.

Want to give it a try? Here is one of the hard puzzles I copied out of my current puzzle book – notice the sweating pencil? But we’re all nerds here, it shouldn’t be too big a problem for anyone of you… A hard fillomino to try out