Improvised

The other day, on the bus, there was an elderly woman sitting across the aisle from me. In general, I do like to watch people, but she only caught my eye when she started nestling with some plastic. She had some strips of thin plastic which she twisted into a somewhat thicker string that she finally knotted into a circle.

She worked very deftly, but I could see no reason why she would do that, and on the bus to boot. From my experience with people watching, I can tell you that there are many very strange people on the loose. In cases as these, it is best not to stare. But she looked like a friendly and normal grandmother, so I kept glancing at her doings ever so often.

After she had finished two plastic circles, out came a small yellow towel. Most Japanese carry them, they are extremely handy in public bathrooms where very often, there are neither towels nor any other means to dry your hands. These days its even worse, when thanks to Covid19, most electric handdryers have been turned off to prevent spreading the virus. But I digress…

So, out came the towel and she folded in two opposite corners to form an (almost) rectangle. She then placed one of her plastic cirles of the third corner of ther towel and folded this in too. Now I was positively staring. What IS she doing, for crying out loud? Occupational therapy? On the bus?

She performed the same operation with the second circle and the fourth towel corner. I still didn’t get it. Only when she was trying to put it on did I realise: She was making a face mask!

They are still mandatory, okay: kindly requested, on public transport , but I hadn’t even noticed that she didn’t wear one until then. Unfortunately, my own stop was coming up, so I didn’t see her wearing her creation. The strings were a bit too short, so she needed to make adjustments. But just coming up with the idea on the fly, and to use what she had on hand – pure genius!

So yes, there are indeed lots of very strange people on the loose. But sometimes, it’s worth looking beneath the surface.

Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Domestic

We’ve just had a nice long weekend with Monday and Tuesday two holidays in a row. Since the weather was great, I took some time to cycle around and visit a few new places or just explore the back roads. I also did a lot of reading (a friend of mine just sent me her new book) and I caught up with some things household related. So, mostly, I stayed at home.

It seems that most people in the neighborhood did the same. And unfortunately, with all the windows open at this time of the year, you hear more from your neighbors than you might want to…

In the opposite building, there is a family where I sometimes see the husband hanging up the laundry on the balcony. Personally, I think it’s great when a man does his bit in the household, but I digress. Sadly, in the last time, I can hear them fight more often. I mean, I can hear him scream on the top of his lungs, he seems to be very angry. It’s way too fast for me to understand, but it does scare me, and I’m happy he is out of throwing distance from me…

Which leads to a certain dilemma: Do I say anything? And if so, to whom?

To him? Even though we are “neighbors”, I have never met him. And starting your very first conversation with a “oh, you’re the one screaming last Sunday morning…” is not the best idea.

To somebody else in the house? First of all, I am sure the others have heard something as well. But, I once said something when a burglar alarm went off in the middle of the day, and I was assured that it was nothing…

To the police? Well, it’s not as if I could tell them what is being said, the only thing I ever understood was “shigoto desu – it’s work”. Hmmm… now that I write this down, maybe his wife suspects that he has an affair?

So yes, even if you want to do the right thing, it is not always so clear what that would be, really…

Nonomiya Jinja

Deep in the bamboo forest of Arashiyama lies Nonomiya Jinja, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, dating back to the 7th century. Nowadays, it is a rather small shrine overflowing with tourists, but when it was established, it was literally a “shrine in the fields” (hence the name) dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Those imperial princesses who were meant to become priestesses at Ise, the main shrine of Amaterasu, first came here for a purification rite that took a year or more. Afterwards, they were sent off in a colorful procession, never to return to their family.

The first such saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of the Saga Emperor in the 8th century. However, the practice ended in the 14th century. Afterwards, the shrine continued to be used for a variety of imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, and probably its size as well, it is still maintained and visited by members of the Imperial Family until today.

Nonomiya Jinja lies in the evergreen bamboo forest of Arashiyama – the traditional meaning of bamboo is to ward off evil. The entrance to the shrine precincts is at the black kuroki torii which is made from oak with its bark left intact. This kind of “natural” torii is the oldest style of torii that has been used, but because they are nowadays seen very rarely since they are expensive to set up and properly care for.

The haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu is to be worshipped, lies only a few steps behind the torii. This is the main square of Nonomiya shrine and there are many ways to pray to the gods. For one, there is the large kame-ishi stone that looks like a turtle. It is said, that if you ask the gods for something and afterwards, with that wish still in mind, give the kame-ishi a good rub, the wish will come true within a year.

Here is also a spot to put up ema or to write your wishes onto prayer sticks, both of which will be ritually burned at special intervals. And if you buy one of the special mizu omikuji, there is a little well where you can float your water charms and see what is in store for you.

To the right of the haiden, there is a red torii that leads further into the shrine’s precincts. Here are the shrines for the minor gods that are worshipped here, like Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten who are responsible for good marriages and childbirth, and Shiramine Bezaiten and Ooyama Bezaiten watch over the arts and traffic safety, respectively.

There is also an interesting mikoshi portable shrine that looks quite different to the others that are usually used during festivals. I am not sure why this is, but it makes a nice motif for photos.

Another popular motif is the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small compared to many other shrine gardens, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.

Because Nonomiya Shrine lies within the rather dark bamboo forest and it carries the idea of parting from Kyoto, it has a rather sombre atmosphere which has inspired many painters and writers. For example, Nonomiya Shrine plays an important part in a chapter of the Tale of Genji, where prince Genji visits his lover – the mother of a saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a famous noh play by Zeami, called after the shrine Nonomiya (Shrine in the Fields). Of course, many poems have been written about the shrine and its suroundings, and it even plays a role in the book The Old Capital by Japanese Nobelprize winner Kawabata Yasunari.

Nonomiya Shrine is popular amongst women who look for relationships and marriage, or who come to pray for easy childbirth. There are beautiful enmusubi (tie-the-knot) omamori available, which show motifs of the long gone Heian era. Sadly, the goshuin stamp of the shrine is not very pretty, since it is only a red stamp without the usual calligraphy written in black.

Kyoto's Bamboo Forest, completely empty.I would not necessarily recommend Nonomiya Shrine on its own since it is rather small and there are too many people to enjoy the experience (if there’s no pandemic going on…) However, if you’re strolling around the bamboo forest anyway, it’s a nice place to step in. The big event at Nonomiya Shrine is the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession in October, where the ancient procession of the princess to Ise is reenacted, even though she only goes as far as the river these days.

Chrysanthemum Festival

September 9 is one of the special days in the Japanese calendar. It is the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival, also called choyo or kikku-no-sekka, and many shrines and temples have ceremonies to pray for health and, in particular, longevity. This is because 9. 9. is the largest single-digit day possible, and so there is a connection. Looking at the Japanese statistics of people who lived beyond 99 years of age, the prayers actually seem to work.

In Kyoto, the most famous Chrysanthemum Festival is at Kamigamo Shrine, where there is karasu sumo, a special event with kids performing sumo for the gods. I visited this event already in 2013, you can read about my impressions in the post I did then.

So, today I had to go elsewhere, partly also because the karasu sumo was cancelled because of Covid19. Many other shrines have cancelled their events too, so I decided to visit Kuramazaki Jinja who promised a special dance for the occasion. I have passed the shrine before, on my visits to Arashiyama, and it looked interesting, so off I went just before noon.

At Kuramazaki Jinja, the kikku-no-sekka ceremony started with the usual prayers to the gods, accompanied by gagaku music. Then, different types and colors of chrysanthemums were offered to the gods in a comparatively short but nevertheless solemn ceremony. Afterwards, there was indeed a dance performance by a female dancer who also held chrysanthemums in her hands during the dance. For some reason, the music for her performance came from a tape, I did not quite understand why, since there were gagaku players present. Finally, guests to the ceremony were allowed to make their offerings to the gods as well.

Altogether, the ceremony took about 30 minutes. I felt that it had been scaled down from its usual size. For one, there was no chrysanthemum sake offered to the visitors because of Covid19. Also, I believe there should have been more performances of music and dance after the religious ceremony, but whether they were cancelled because of Corona or because of the rain, I am not sure.

One thing that struck me immediately: There was a woman among the priests of the shrine. I have never seen this before. Usually, all the priests are male, and the only women allowed near the gods are the miko, the shrine maidens, who to this day have to be unmarried women. And here, there was a young female priest, and she even seemed to lead the ceremony. Slowly, slowly, even Japan is changing. Maybe.

Torarin

Japan is the land of mascots. Every prefecture has one, many cities have one, every government office has one, and even private businesses sometimes have one. They are called yuru-chara and most of them are cute – after all, they are meant as ambassadors and promotional tools.

Kyoto’s official mascot is Mayumaro. He’s based on a silk cocoon (because of Kyoto’s silk and textile industry) and has been doing public relations for Kyoto since 1969. But there are many other yuru-chara in Kyoto, for example Kyoto’s public transport offices have two – one cute little bus called Kyo-chan, and Miyako-kun who represents Kyoto’s subway.

One of the latest additions to the ranks of Kyoto’s inofficial ambassadors is Torarin, the mascot of Kyoto National Museum. Officially, this little tiger is called Kogata Rinnojo, but Torarin will do just fine, after all, he’s just 5 years old. The name is a portmanteau of Tora (tiger) and Rin (for Rinpa, a Japanese school of painting), and he is modeled after a famous ink painting by Ogata Korin. That’s also the reason why he’s black and white and not as colorful as many other yuru-chara.

However, he is absolutely cute, and on my last visit to the museum, I just had to buy him in effigy, I mean: a plushie which now sits on my desk and watches me writing this post… I came across him via the homepage of the Kyoto National Museum, where there is a link to Torarin’s youtube channel. There, he explores the museum, his home, with the help of the staff. Some of the videos have been translated into English, and while they are obviously made for kids, they are interesting for adults as well.

Of course Torarin also has a personal website (with an online shop for fans), a facebook page (as a “public figure” nonetheless) and a twitter account. He’s quite busy, obviously. Well, the next time I’ll visit the National Museum, I will try to see if I can match my schedule to his. Would be nice to meet him “in person”.

Sleepless in Kyoto

I’m pretty tired these days and don’t have much energy… Thankfully, it’s not as hot anymore as it was a few weeks ago, but while the day temperatures have dropped a few degrees, the night temperatures have not. And the comparatively small difference between day and night makes sleeping really difficult at the moment. The last few days, I’ve been waking up several times in the night just to turn on the fan for half an hour or so, which helps just enough to fall asleep again.

Today, the weather was awfully windy and couldn’t decide whether to rain or not. There was a brief shower in the afternoon, but not enough to cool the city down. As usual in Japan’s summer, any kind of rain just makes the place more humid. However, it seems that the coming week will be more cloudy and thus, less hot, I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep!

Kwaidan

Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
Lafcadio Hearn

This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.

Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.

Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.

Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.

Thanks, Shinzo!

It’s almost scary to realise that we’ve been living with Corona / Covid19 for about half a year now! And sadly, things are not getting much better yet. It seems that some countries stand at the beginning of a second wave, and it’s just been discovered that there’s no long lasting immunity against the virus either. Yes, it seems indeed that this one is here to stay…

Japanese currencyFor now, governments in many states give financial aid to businesses and sometimes even to private citizens to ease the burden. For my company, I am eligible for financial aid since my income for May 2020 has dropped by more than 50% compared to May 2019. My accountant is currently busy with the paperwork, although it seems that there are not that many documents necessary in the first place.

And for me as a private person, I already received the 100,000 yen that Shinzo Abe has promised for everybody living in Japan. And I’m already spending it, too. There are a few things I need, but nothing really substantial: A pair of light summer slippers that I can wear on the bicycle (meaning: no sandals). A new backpack since the one I’m using right now is two years old already and won’t last forever.

And I also bought a very nice and extra warm duvet for winter, stuffed with real sheep’s wool. I’ve been looking at this one since last winter, but couldn’t make up my mind to buy it. Now that that shop has a grand sale because they will close soon for renovations, I finally bought it last week – for 30% off and with the government’s money to boot. Hey, thanks, Shinzo! 

Other than this, I have no big spending plans. Except… well, Shinzo’s money won’t cover all of that… You see, I’m looking into something really big right now. It’s too early for details, but I’ll keep you posted, promised!

Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.