Kyoto Map

In the ROHM Theatre, where I have a meeting once a week, there is the following piece of art, hanging near the entrance.

Taguro Noguchi's Map of KyotoIt is huge, maybe 3 x 1.20 metres or so, and it must be very expensive – the gold and silver are real precious metals! It has been made by Takuro Noguchi, a local artist from Kyoto, who has coined the term hakuga for this kind of work made with gold leaf and other precious metals and with lacquer.

This particular type of artwork is relatively new, Noguchi himself has started to develop this art form only in 2001. But, the idea itself is an old one – he comes from a dynasty of craftsmen in the Nishijin district, who used gold leaf to cover silk threads which in turn were used to weave obi. No wonder one cannot wash such an obi!

With the above hakuga, it took me quite a while to realise that it is not just something abstract. The moon is kind of obvious, but the rest is supposed to be a map of Kyoto and its surroundings. And indeed, when you look closely, you can find landmarks like the big Torii at Heian Shrine, or the Daimonji.

Takuro Noguchi's Map of Kyoto, DetailsIf you are interested in seeing more of Noguchi’s works, he shows a number of them on his homepage. And also, if you’re in Kyoto, he has a solo exhibition at the Daimaru Department Store Gallery from November 29  – December 5, 2017.

National Treasures

Yesterday, I went to the National Treasures Exhibition in the Kyoto National Museum. The Japanese Government has designated a number of works of art from all over Japan and all centuries as “National Treasures”; they can be ink paintings, calligraphy, lacquerware, swords, clothing, ancient artifacts,… And in this exhibition, a large number of them were brought together from museums from all over Japan. And it seemed to me that people from all over Japan took the opportunity to visit the museum.

Even though I had been warned by a friend who went in the weekend and had to wait in line for three hours, and even though I came right when the museum opened, it was full already – I had not expected such masses of people. I have never experienced anything like this in a museum before! A ticket was quickly bought, but then I had to wait in line – 4 people per row – for half an hour, just to enter the museum. Inside, the people were standing in rows three deep before the exhibits, and it was really hard to get to the front where you could actually see anything at all. Interestingly, I saw quite a few people who had brought binoculars usually used in theatres to get close and personal with the exhibits. I found that quite funny, but then again, progress was so slow, there was plenty of time for detailed examination between two steps.

Irises by Korin, left screenAnyway, apart from the masses of people, I did enjoy myself. There were indeed stunning objects; remember that most Japanese art is applied and intended to be used. For example, there was a beautiful 14th century samurai armor; a bit rusty the helmet ornament, a bit faded the colors, but still imposing. Stunning pieces of lacquerware belonging to the trousseau of a Shogun’s daughter. A beautiful scroll with calligraphy, where one artist had written the same text in three different calligraphy scripts – I asked, even the Japanese could only read the most formal one. Another scroll with a chapter of the “Tale of Genji”, decorated with gold and silver flakes throughout and a lovely painting at the end from the 12th century.

Hard to say which were my favourite pieces, especially since I couldn’t see everything in detail (I should really buy one of those opera glasses). I guess I’ll go for two large scale 18th century screen paintings. The one above is by Ogata Korin, it depicts Irises on a golden ground and was painted around 1701/02 in Kyoto. It was announced with great pride, since it was exhibited in Kyoto for the first time in more than 100 years!

The painting below is by Maruyama Okyo, another golden screen painting depicting pines in the snow. Even though it is only in black and white, it is very realistic, and on first sight, I was stunned. It was painted around 1785 and looks still fresh and vibrant. I would have loved to buy a postcard or something with this motif, but there weren’t any, maybe the Irises above are more popular overall.

Pine Trees in Snow, left screen, by Maruyama Okyo

More Rakugo!

As some of you – especially those who stalk whatsupinkyoto on facebook – may have guessed from my weekend post, I went to a rakugo performance on Sunday! An English one, just to be sure, but it didn’t make much difference in the performance, I think.

It was definitely not what I had expected! I thought it would be something like stand-up comedy, with the jokes and punch lines coming fast and furious. They weren’t. Although all of the stories were funny, some of them were pretty long, and for my taste, a bit drawn out too much. Especially when you got the idea the first time around, there is not much point in telling a variant 10 seconds later…

Anyway, I loved the rakugoka, some of them were really good with their posture changes and facial expressions, which are the main points to make rakugo entertaining. Altogether, I spent an enjoyable afternoon, even though my expectations were not met. Oh well, I just learned something new, that’s always worth it!

By the way, the group “Laugh-Laugh-Tei” that did the performance, consists of a number of people from Kyoto who use rakugo as a way of improving their English, which in itself I find funny. One of them, Kimochi, cites this as the only reason why he started to perform English rakugo. He appears to be quite ambitious, actually, and is actively trying to bring rakugo to a Western audience. And, if today you are at or nearby Michigan State University, you can watch Kimochi giving an English rakugo performance tonight, November 14, from 18:30 in the RCAH Auditorium.

And if you’re not, just watch him here:


When it comes to Japanese performing arts, one first thinks of Noh and Kabuki, two very old forms of theater. Elaborate costumes are used, the masks are stunning, the movements highly stylised, and the stories told are often moral and serious.

And then there is rakugo, and it’s none of these. To be fair, rakugo is not so much a theatrical performance, but a storytelling. A single performer – rakugoka – sits on a stage, with nothing but a cushion and a folding screen (and sometimes a little table) as stage design. He – yes, mostly they are men – has nothing by way of props but a folding fan and a tenugui, a small Japanese towel. But this is all he needs to tell his story: gestures and body movements, a change of pitch in his voice, or a slightly changed posture will do – the rest lies in the viewer’s imagination.

A rakugo stageRakugo goes back to Buddhist monks of the 10th century, who interjected little, often humorous stories to their sermons to make them better understandable for the lay people. The stories evolved to a kind of monologue that people told among themselves, and especially the daimyo of the Edo period were the patrons of this kind of storytelling. With the rise of the rich merchant class, however, rakugo as an art form finally spread to the common people, and by the end of the 18th century, professional rakugoka had emerged, who rented rooms – yose – for their performances. Finally, theaters especially for rakugo were set up as well.

Suehirotei Rakugo Theatre in Shinjuku

Suehirotei in Shinjuku. Photo by James Justin on Flickr.

Many of the stories performed date back to the beginnings of rakugo as it is known today, some 400 years ago. The traditional canon comprises several hundred pieces of various lengths, but there are some modern rakugoka who write and perform their own stories. A large part of the attractiveness of the stories is the fact that they are dialogues between different stereotypical people, and that these dialogues sound very natural. Some of the stereotypes employed are: The sexy young girl, the authority figure, the dumb vs. the smart person, the cunning and lying figure, etc. They are pitched against each other in the performance, and at the end, there is an ochi (literally meaning fall) which brings the main story to an unexpected, funny end.

Before the main story starts, however, the rakugoka starts with an anecdote called makura (literally: pillow) to lead the viewer into the main story. Watch this English performance of the famous story “The Cat’s Bowl”; the first half of the video is the makura (which may or may not be true recollections of the performer), and the main story starts at about 5:20.

Today, there are about 700 professional rakugoka in Japan, about 30 of them women, divided between the two traditions of Edo/Tokyo and Osaka. Even today, the way to become a rakugoka is by receiving direct instruction from a master performer. Just like in the old days, the student – deshi – will move into the master’s house and essentially run his household. During the 2 – 4 years of training, the master in turn is fully responsible for the student, including in financial matters.

The training in the art itself is done verbally only, and while audio and video are now allowed, books or other notes are still frowned upon. After all, this is an oral tradition! The master tells the story, and the student imitates. Only when the student has fully memorised the story, will he get permission to perform it – this particular story only! The three ranks of rakugoka are zenza, futatsume and shinuchi; the final rank allows a rakugoka to train students of his own.

Rakugo is still quite popular, both on TV and live. The setup of the performance can almost be called intimate, and the Japanese take advantage of the opportunity to let their hair hang down in public.


Office Party

As you know, I have been writing facebook posts for Kyotogram, and just recently, we have celebrated our first year online. We are doing this by collaborating with a local store; so if you’re in Kyoto during November and are a fan of Kyotogram on facebook, then you get 5% off at the Kurochiku souvenir shop.

Anyway, besides that, we also had a more private party in the office last night – my very first Japanese business party! It was only a small affair since the office is rather small with only 10 people or so, but it was fun anyway. Even though we were told that there would be no dinner provided, we had a selection of sushi, oden, pizza; popcorn, chips, and chocolate. And lots of alcohol, of course: We quickly finished a large bottle of Sake, and while the others moved on to beer afterwards, I downed some cans of Chu-Hi. It was fun!

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a decent office party if the department head hadn’t given a (thankfully very short) speech at the beginning. And it wouldn’t have been a decent Japanese office party, had it not been timebombed: Just before 22:00, there was another short speech ending with en mo takenawa, which is a formulaic expression meaning something like: “I hate to say this when we’re having a great time, but we have to close this party.”

And in truly Japanese fashion, all of us were helping together to clean up, the office was back to normal within 10 minutes, and then everybody left. Except for the department head, who had some extra work to do afterwards… Even drinking parties in Japan are very formalised and restrained. Or maybe that was just the tip of the iceberg?

Functional Living

Tuesdays, I have my Japanese class in the morning and a meeting in the afternoon with a two-hour break in between. Usually, I try to get something done in that break, and I have written a lot of letters, emails, and blog posts over lunch. But today was such nice and sunny weather, that I decided to go down to the river and have my lunch box there.

And there I sat musing… I looked at the houses nearby, some old wooden buildings, many apartment blocks, some new, and some older. And, looking at them, I thought how easy it was to distinguish them: It seems to me that the older a house is, the more pretty it is, or at least, the more time and thought appears to have gone into building something that is pleasing to the eye – and probably to the people living there.

Modern buildings today are not like that anymore, especially individual houses look like shoe boxes. To begin with, there are no gardens that need daily care and attention and pruning. Instead, we get parking lots in front of main entrances, in concrete slabs that be hosed down quickly if ever the need arises. This is not only striking when comparing family homes, but also clearly visible at the apartment blocks. To me, modern buildings look cold, mass-produced, and rejecting. A current architect would probably rather call them “functional”.

HoneycombBut, we are not machines that need to “function”. We are humans, we are only living. And living is messy and dirty sometimes and it has no straight lines and right angles as far as the eyes can see. It is rough and random and unpolished. It would be nicer, I think, if people’s homes would represent that again, somehow. Meanwhile, I’ll keep dreaming of my house with garden…


Ryu Murakami

cover of Audition by Ryu MurakamiIt’s been six years since Ryoko’s death, but Aoyama is not even dreaming of dating, lest marrying again. Only when his teenage son, Shige, starts urging him to find a new wife, is he willing to give it a try.

When Aoyama tells his friend Yoshikawa about his plans, film director Yoshikawa is all ears and sets up an audition to find his friend not just any, but the perfect wife. The whole scheme is skillfully disguised as the well-publicized search for the main female character in an upcoming movie. Of the thousands of applicants, young Asami captures Aoyama’s heart at first sight, and they soon begin dating, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings, who feels that there is something wrong about her.

And indeed, at first, everything seems perfect, but how far is Asami – in her desire for love, undivided one, that is – willing to go?

I have read a few of Ryu Murakami’s novels, and this one is an easy introduction to his works. The book starts out with a desperate man trying to find love again – and succeeding quickly, to his great delight. Soon, however, a feeling of danger is creeping into the story, and the finale – very typical for Ryu Murakami – is drowning in blood…

Ryu Murakami is the enfant terrible of Japanese authors. Born in 1952, he started his artistic career as a member of a number of bands, before he moved on to film and writing books. His first book was written when he was still in highschool, immediately winning him the acclaimed Akutagawa Prize for fiction. Most of his works center around the dark side of humanity, they describe sex, violence, drug use, and the abysses of the human soul in general very graphically, and are not for the faint of heart.

Get this book from amazon – if you dare!


Sorry for not writing on Tuesday, I came home exhausted and went to bed at 9 already.

I have just taken a step further towards my Japanification. For the first time ever, I bought a five kilo sack of rice, and I have to admit that I was even tempted to buy the big ten kilo sack, and I only refrained because I don’t have a proper spot to store that much. I feel very Japanese now, I am not even sure you can buy that much rice in a single package in Europe (other than in an Asia shop of course).

A bowl of white riceEven though Japan produces about 120% of its population’s consumption of rice, and even though rice farmers are heavily subsidized by the state, it is very expensive here. One kilo usually costs about 1000 yen, and that’s the bog standard Japanese rice you can get in any supermarket. That’s why I was tempted to buy the 10 kilo sack of newly harvested rice for only 4500 yen, but as I said, not enough storage space.

Interestingly, and something I didn’t know for a long time, even rice can go bad! Fresh rice has a very slight and sweet smell that is hard to describe – a little bit like milk. When it goes bad – only after a long, long time usually – it smells musty. I found this out in Korea, when I once tried to cook rice pudding and the milk curdled unexpectedly – even though I had just bought it on the same day. I hope that I’ll be able to finish all the rice before it goes bad – in the worst case, I can always eat it in hearty dishes like Bibimbap or Reisfleisch…

Business Update #4

I hate facebook. I mean, that’s no big news to anyone who knows me, but now I have an official reason for that… Let me explain.

As you know, What’s up in Kyoto has a facebook page. Not that I’m happy about spending all that time and effort there, but as the owner of a company that essentially deals in online services, you need social media presence these days, and facebook (unfortunately) is (still) the number one in that respect. It is a modern version of the village pump, and word of mouth can go quite far there, if you hit the right people – even without advertising.

And it did go very well indeed: it took me several months, but from one week to the next my posts had a reach (i.e., the number of people seeing them) of some 600 people each day. That made me very happy, and I could see the click-throughs to the main page increase, even though by far not all of these people would look beyond facebook. This state lasted maybe a month or so, and now, equally inexplicably, my reach dropped to about 20 people each day – that is back to the reach I had when I started out on facebook, which is really bad for more than 6 months of effort, and many more followers than I started out with.

courtesy of

image courtesy of

I had no idea what happened, until I found an article somewhere: facebook changed something in their internal workings. To put it simply (or at least, as I understood it): Whenever a user logged on to facebook, they got a “news feed” on their facebook page, which included any updates their friends had posted, and any new posts on pages they had liked. But now, facebook has changed this, the “news feed” only contains posts from friends. There is now a new “explore feed” where facebook suggests pages that are similar to what people have liked before. But not necessarily the pages people already did like! If you want your (business) page to show up in the news feed of people who liked the page already (!) you’ll have to pay for it.

As an analog example, just imagine that all of a sudden you have two mail boxes, one for letters and postcards of people you know (which is probably mostly empty) and another one for stuff the mailman thinks might be interesting to you, depending of the mail he has delivered before. However, for the newspapers you have already subscribed to, you have to out and get them yourself at the newsagent’s…

I’m not sure how to feel about this to be honest. Half of me is furious because the whole thing is simply yet another way of making more money for facebook. And there’s now a lot of people I can’t reach anymore – including ones that already liked whatsupinkyoto. If you did – I’m afraid you’ll have to manually visit the page each day, nothing I can do about that. The other half of me is happy that facebook was always just an add-on to the main page, so if things go well there it’s good, if things don’t, there’s not much lost. Especially since I never paid a single yen to them. At least that is not going to change. Ever.


It was raining – no, pouring – all weekend because of an approaching typhoon. Sunday night the storm was so heavy that I couldn’t sleep, and at some point in the middle of the night I even got up and cleared my balcony to prevent anything from being blown away.

Next door to my apartment, there is this garage for garbage trucks. And just this Saturday, they had their open day again, with games for the kids, allowing them to sit in a garbage truck, stalls for food, etc. There was even a brass band, which played a medley of Queen songs some time in the morning. From what I could see from my balcony, it seemed pretty empty. I felt so sorry for them, putting in all this effort, and then they are washed away by the typhoon.

The big event on Sunday – Jidai Matsuri, a favourite of mine – was cancelled altogether. It was a wise decision, and even though it had cleared a bit by Monday, the auxiliary date, it would not have been much fun for anyone. Even the Manga museum closed early on Sunday.

By now, things are back to normal again. The temperature has dropped even further though, and I now have put out my gloves and woolen scarf and hat in case I have to go somewhere on my bicycle in the evening. Also, tonight is the first night this autumn where I am using my space heater. My fears for a long and cold winter are probably justified…

On a somewhat lighter note, it seems that Japan has been taken over by Halloween altogether. There will be a Halloween-themed cosplay parade next weekend for example, and of course, Halloween costumes and trinkets are for sale everywhere. Even serious Japanese businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. Today, I passed by a very old Japanese sweets shop that mainly sell traditional sweets with red bean paste, and waffles with simple sugar cream inside. Said waffles are now having a cute design – Halloween inspired, of course.Japanese Halloween Waffles.