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.


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.

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


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


I am slowly trying to japanify myself, and a friend of mine helps me doing so by teaching me how to cook. Last Friday we spontaneously decided to make gyoza – Japanese meat dumplings.

Japanese GyozaYou need gyoza wrappers – thin, round wrappers made of noodle dough. I guess if you can’t find those, it would be possible to make them yourself. Those are filled with a mixture of cabbage and pork and a few other things and are relatively easy to make. See a full recipe at my washoku page. Still, I would recommend making a really large batch and freezing whatever you can’t eat. It is best to freeze the fresh gyoza before frying them.

Also, extra tip: the meat mixture described in the gyoza recipe is the same as for meat balls. Japanese tend not to fry those in a pan, but rather, they put them on a stick and grill them. Something I will also try out eventually.


The Toseikyo is a very old Japanese game. Although it seems very simple, it takes great skill to win it.

Toseikyo targetOn a small block of wood, some 20 cm high, there is placed a little cloth target with bells that looks a bit like a jester’s cap. The player sits about 2 metres away from it and gets a small paper fan. The opened fan is then thrown towards the target – and if you can knock the target off the block, you win. Usually one player tries a few times and counts the hits before the next person may throw.

Throwing a fanSounds easy, right? But it isn’t! You are not allowed to throw the fan sideways with a flick of the wrist; the proper way is to throw the fan in a straight line from you towards the target – and that makes it really difficult! You need to gauge the force with which you throw the fan just right – too much force and the fan will turn downwards and bury itself in the tatami, too little force and you won’t get far enough.

Just missed the target!It takes a lot of practice to do it right. Apparently, the game is ancient and was already played 1000 years ago at the Heian court. I suppose all those court ladies of leisure had enough time to perfect their skills… Interestingly, I have seen new Toseikyo sets for sale at high-end shops in Kyoto. Nice to see that there is still a market for these kind of things.


Last Saturday I went to a small open air concert in a temple in the centre of Kyoto: koto and shakuhachi. The two instruments go well together, and the flute was the main reason why I wanted to go. I had been to koto concerts before, but never heard a shakuhachi live. And I have to say – I was disappointed by it.

I am not sure what was wrong with the shakuhachi player – a rather old monk from said temple – whether I could not hear him because the microphone was not well-adjusted or functioning (there were a number of total outages throughout the concert) or whether the player himself didn’t have enough breath do make himself heard.

The two koto players were very good though, so my time was not wasted. Interestingly, I was the only non-senior in the audience, something I had not expected at all. But maybe because of this, I was treated to a very special performance: The last song (and the encore) must have been well-known tunes, because at some point, people in the audience started singing along! Man and women alike accompanied (or were accompanied by) the koto and the shakuhachi. It was lovely!

A Japanese Kokyu As a bonus, I learnt something new: In one of the pieces, a so-called kokyu was used. It looks like a half-sized shamisen, but is played like a cello. A kokyu has three silken strings and the bow is a thick handful of horsetail hair. The bow-strings (do you call it like that?) are slack, and you need to use the ring finger of the bow hand to tighten it while you play.

This is not easy, and I know that because I was allowed to try it after the concert – obviously the foreigner bonus. To be honest, the sound of the kokyu is not very pleasant to Western ears. It is reminiscent of the Chinese erhu, but the tones of the kokyu are less crisp. I guess this is either because the bow is never really taut, or because of the silken strings.

All in all I had a nice afternoon, even though I will have to try and catch another shakuhachi concert. I hope that I will hear about more concerts and events like this – there is so much to do and learn in Kyoto!

I am a Cat

I am a Cat
by Soseki Natsume

Cover for I am a CatThe cat in question, which has not been named, lives in the house of a schoolteacher, Mr. Sneaze, a somewhat stingy and definitely dyspeptic man with a wife and three children. As soon as the cat arrives at this household, it begins to quietly observe his master and the friends that come to visit: Mainly Coldmoon, a former student of his master and now looking for a wife, and the rich Waverhouse telling his stories, whether true or false, and a number of others. The cat is always there, occasionally taking matters in his own paws, but mostly observing from the background and commenting on the three men and the things that happen to and around them.

The cat’s observations are pointed and witty, sometimes scathing, and always come from a somewhat aloof position. This way, the reader is presented with an interesting picture of humanity in general, and those living in Tokyo of the Meiji period in particular, where Western influences creep into Japanese culture and make for an especially interesting mix.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this book, and I have read it twice now. It has been written as a series of short stories that appeared in a magazine. The first story is hilarious, and its success prompted the author to write more stories about the nameless cat. The stories can stand alone, but there is a common arc throughout, which would have been better if the book had been planned as such from the outset, I think. And towards the end of the book, the cat (or rather: the author) loses himself in long and rambling philosophical meanderings, which are sometimes hard to follow. Friends have assured me though that the Japanese original reads much better than any translation. Okay – I may get back to it again in a few years.

Soseki Natsume is considered the best writer of Japanese (modern) history, and he is still widely read today. He was born in 1867 in Tokyo and studied English literature from 1890. He spent two years in England, which he thoroughly disliked, and when he returned to Japan in 1903, he started publishing his works. “I am a Cat” was among his first published books, and is considered a masterpiece. Soseki died in 1916.

Check it out on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.