Jakko-in Temple

Ohara is a sprawling rural community situated in a wide plain (hence the name) northeast of Kyoto. It still belongs to Kyoto, even though it lies more than 30 minutes by bus outside of what I would consider the city limits. Ohara is famous for its oharame – local women who used to peddle firewood, flowers or produce in Kyoto – Sanzen-in Temple with its beautiful moss gardens, and the former nunnery Jakko-in.

Jakko-in is a tiny temple that lies in the opposite direction of Sanzen-in at the end of a little valley. The walk there is very pleasant, it leads first along a little stream, then though the community. Judging from the number of souvenir shops and cafes on the way, it must be less popular than Sanzen-in. And had it not been mentioned in the Heike Monogatari, I guess it would have been forgotten long ago.

But let’s start at the beginning, in 594, when the temple was established by Shotoku Taishi to pray for the soul of his father, Emperor Yomei. At that time, Buddhism had only recently been introduced to Japan. Therefore, one of the first nuns of the country (who also happened to be the wet nurse of Shotoku Taishi) moved to the temple. Subsequently, Jakko-in became a retreat for nyoin, female members of the Imperial family and daughters of other high-ranking families. It seems, however, that taking vows was not a requirement to live there.

According to the temple, the third nun only moved there in 1185, and it’s because of her that Jakko-in is famous to this day. Her name was Kenreimon-in Tokuko, daughter of Taira-no-Kiyomori and mother of Emperor Antoku. Sounds familiar? The Taira (or Heike) fought against the Minamoto (or Genji) clan in the Genpei War (1180–1185), which was immortalized in the Heike Monogatari mentioned above. Sadly, the entire Taira clan was wiped out , and even Emperor Antoku, a mere boy of 6 was killed. Kenreimon-in spent the rest of her days in Jakko-in praying for the souls of her son and relatives.

From the temple’s entrance, stone steps lead straight up to the main hall. It is home to a statue of Rokumantai-Jizoson, the protector of children. There are also wooden statues of Kenreimon-in and her servant Awa-no-Naishi, only the second nun ever to live at the temple. Her garments are said to have been the model for the oharame’s clothes.

Sadly, none of this is original, not the building, and not the statues either. The temple was burned down in an arson attack in May 2000, and all you can see are reproductions. The main statue especially looks very modern; it is dressed in a colorful garment that I would call garish to the point of kitsch. However, on asking, I was told that that this is the original look of the statue when it was – supposedly – created by Shotoku Taishi himself, according to old documents.

To find out more about the temple, the nuns, and the arson attack, you can visit the treasure house which holds a lot of artifacts. The most interesting of these are more than 3000 wooden statues of Jizo, roughly 10 cm tall, that were all found inside the main statue after the arson. The original, badly burned statue, an Important Cultural Asset, is not usually on display.

Since the temple is so small, the gardens are not very extensive. The ones surrounding the main hall are the most beautiful, and there is a stump of a 1000-year-old pine that sadly did not survive the fire. It is said that this part has been maintained since the time of the Genpei War, and right now, you can hear tree frogs croaking in the little pond beneath the former pine. Another pond with koi carp and a little waterfall lies to the north of the main hall, and on a lower level, there is a tea house with yet another pond in front of it.

Kenreimon-in is still present at the temple. Just south of the main hall, a marker indicates her former residence, and once you leave the temple and take the steps uphill just outside of it, you can visit her tomb.

All in all, I found Jakko-in a nice experience. I like to visit places that are not overrun by tourists, and being just a bit off-season does help as well in this respect. The staff are very friendly and happy to answer questions.

Greenery Day

Happy national holiday!

The purpose of today’s Greenery day is for people to enjoy the great outdoors of Japan – and also to remember Emperor Showa, who, despite all his shortcomings, had a great love for nature.

So do I, as long as nature doesn’t manifest itself as insects in my bedroom…

Daigo-ji in Kyoto by David Emrich on unsplash

Ikenobo & Ikebana

A few weeks ago, I visited the Ikebana Spring Exhibition at the Ikenobo Headquarters in Kyoto. On no fewer than 8 floors, there were hundreds of flower arrangements, so many that at the end, they all blurred together. I wish I had done a bit of research earlier, but better late than never. The photos below show flower arrangements from that exhibition, I’m afraid I chose not overly traditional ones (because they are more fun).

The Ikenobo is the oldest school of flower arrangement in Japan. It dates back to 8th century Kyoto, and its headquarters are still at the same spot, at Rokkaku-do temple in the heart of Kyoto. Rokkaku-do itself was founded by Shotoku Taishi in 587, long before the capital was moved here. The temple’s priests lived in a hut (bo) at a nearby pond (ike), and over time, the people began to call them ike-no-bo. The priests made flower offerings at the temple every day.

So, Ikebana has its roots in such flower offerings at Buddhist altars, and as such, it is an import from India and China. However, at first, these offerings took the simple form of putting flowers into a vase in front of the Buddha, whereas Japanese ikebana over time developed into a style with dozens of formal rules.

These rules crystallized during the Muromachi period into tatehana, a simple style that presented flowers as they occurred in nature, meaning “standing up”. At this time, flower arrangements were quite large and therefore only shown in temples and the homes of wealthy aristocrats.

The term ikebana – it means arranging flowers or living flowers – can be traced back to the 15th century, however the oldest book on the subject, the Sendensho is dated 1445 and already gives very detailed instructions for arrangements for special occasions.

In the first half of the 16th century, Senno Ikenobo wrote another book on the art, called Kadensho. There, he mentions the importance of finding the inner beauty of plants through the arrangement, instead of merely appreciating beautiful flowers. At this time, the style of rikka became popular, and Senno Ikenobo was not only its main artist, he also formalized the style as a combination of fixed elements that needed to be present in every arrangement. In this manner, virtually everybody could produce pleasing arrangements, but on the other hand, artistic expression was rather limited.

In the 18th century, a simpler style was created that used a reduced number of the parts in a rikka arrangement. This style is called seika or shoka (pure flowers), and its significantly smaller end results found their way into private homes of fairly wealthy but common people as well.

In the Meiji era, Japanese traditions lost their appeal under the influences of new art and lifestyle introduced from the West. However, through new styles like the nagairebana (thrown-in flowers) and moribana (piled-up flowers), as well as permitting Western flowers in the arrangements, ikebana saw a renaissance. This was reinforced when ikebana, together with tea ceremony and calligraphy, was seen as essential in the education of women, especially of the upper classes.

So far, the last innovation in ikebana was the introduction of the jiyuka style (free flowers) after WWII. As the name suggests, there are no more rules and the focus lies on creativity, so much so, that even non-flower materials are permitted.

Over time, dozens of new ikebana schools have been formed, all with slightly different rules for their arrangements and a varying emphasis on formality and creativity, respectively. Today, ikebana is taught worldwide, but nowhere else has it such a recognition as in Japan. In Kyoto, the birthplace of ikebana, the Ikenobo school operates an entire college dedicated to it.

The Decay of the Angel

The Decay of the Angel
Yukio Mishima

Former judge Honda is 75 years old and long retired when he meets Toru by chance. The teenage boy bears three moles that make Honda believe that Toru is another reincarnation of his school friend Kiyoaki. Honda sees another chance to prevent Kiyoaki’s/Toru’s premature death, and he decides on the spot to adopt the orphan.

But Toru could not be more different from Kiyoaki. He has a malicious streak and joyfully seeks to thwart Honda’s best intentions. He gets one of his tutors dismissed, destroys a proposed marriage and abuses the maids. Things only escalate when Toru becomes a legal adult, and he is now violent towards Honda as well.

However, when his presumed former lives are revealed to him, and that he may be a fraud after all if he survives his 20th years, Toru cannot accept this. Clearly upset, he makes a drastic decision that changes his life for good.

This is the last of the four books of the “Sea of Fertility” and the one I liked least. Toru is, quite frankly, an asshole from the very beginning. In “Runaway Horses”, I didn’t care for Isao’s nationalistic views, but he honestly believed that he’s doing the right thing. Toru, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, he is mean because he can. Interestingly, it seems that Honda can see through his facade also from the beginning, and yet, he doesn’t do anything to address the issue, not even when he stop believing in his reincarnation theory.

Over all, the book is worth reading, though – Mishima was a great writer – but you may need the other three books to understand some of the references, and the ending in particular.

Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th century Japan. Already his first short story was a great success, and in 1968, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which ultimately went to his benefactor, Yasunari Kawabata. Besides being part of the intellectual elite of his time, Mishima trained rigorously in martial arts and achieved several black belts in kendo, battojutsu, and karate, respectively. After a failed coup d’état that he instigated, Mishima committed ritual suicide. This book was finished only shortly before that.

Follow Mr. Honda through the last years of his life and get the book from amazon.

Uemura Shoen

There must be something in the air in Kyoto that is especially conducive to artists. Clearly, while Kyoto was the capital of Japan, this was the place to be if you wanted to make a living as an artist, or even as a craftsperson. But even today, Kyoto is a hub of Japan’s art world and many people with strong ties to the city become leaders in their fields, be it ukiyo-e, paintings, calligraphy, ceramics etc.

One of the most famous Japanese artists – and a woman to boot – is Uemura Shoen (1875 – 1949). She stands out as one of the few female painters from the Meiji/Taisho/Showa eras of Japan who rose not only to national but even to international fame during her lifetime.

When she was born in 1875 as the second daughter of a tea merchant in Kyoto’s Shimogyoku district, she was named Tsune. Her father had died two months before her birth, so she grew up in a household dominated by her mother and aunts. Tsune’s mother ran a popular teashop called “Chikiri-ya” which attracted affluent clients purchasing tea and other items for tea ceremony.

Little Tsune loved to draw from an early age and impressed her family so much with her talent that she was sent to the Kyoto Prefectural Art School to study when she was only 12 years old. Just three years later, her painting The Beauty of Four Seasons was sent to an art exhibition and was promptly bought by Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, who was visiting Japan at that time. From one day to another, the young girl now known as Uemura Shoen became a celebrity.

At that time, this was highly unusual. Even though many women, especially of the higher classes, learned how to paint (mostly in the traditional Japanese style), they practised the art as a pastime rather than as a profession. While other professional female painters did exist at the time (for example, Ito Shoba and Kajiwara Hisako), most of Japan’s art scene was dominated by men, in particular outside of Tokyo. Uemura’s international success – a version of The Beauty of Four Seasons won an award at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago – was unprecedented.

Uemura Shoen studied under several teachers (Suzuki Shonen who gave her the first kanji of his name, Kono Bairei and Takeuchi Seiho) and in her work integrated the traditional Maruyama Shijo, Kano, and Sesshu schools of painting. She also drew influences from ukiyo-e and Chinese landscape paintings.

The majority of Uemura Shoen’s works are so-called bijin-ga, paintings of beautiful women, doubtlessly influenced by all the women who visited her mother’s teashop. Their bodies often take up most of the painting and draw the focus towards the intricate details of their kimono and hair ornaments, painted with unparalleled delicacy. Many of her works were inspired by Noh theater. Even though women are not allowed to perform, Uemura’s paintings of Noh show women in classical dance poses and with a strong and determined mien.

When Uemura was 27 and unmarried, she gave birth to a son, Uemura Shoko, who later became a painter himself. She raised him and his sister, born a few years later, as a single mother, and never revealed the name of their father. It is speculated, however, that it may have been her teacher, Suzuki Shonen. Not only did he allow her to use the first character of his name in her own pseudonym, but he also accelerated her education and let her learn and practice the painting of figures in his own atelier instead of at school. Already at that time, people suspected an affair between the two, and her reputation took a downwards turn. However, in the long run, her exceptional talent silenced all critics, whether of her work or her private conduct.

In her later years, Uemura Shoen’s status as outstanding female painter was officially recognized. She became the pioneer in numerous top-ranking awards: first female painter accepted in the Imperial Art Academy (1941), second female court artist to the Imperial Household Agency (1944), and first woman to receive the Order of Culture (1948). Her painting Jo no mai of a female Noh dancer was the first painting by a Japanese woman rated as Important Cultural Propery. Uemura Shoen died in 1949, aged 74, still painting until the very end.

Uemura Shoen was a very prolific painter. To see a wide range of her pieces, you don’t have to go far (from Kyoto, that is): The Shohaku Art Museum in Nara focuses on her works, as well as those of her son and grandson.

The Temple of Dawn

The Temple of Dawn
Yukio Mishima

Shigekuni Honda, successful international business lawyer, is called to Bangkok in 1941 to settle a dispute. While engrossing himself in the study of Buddhism, in particular reincarnation, he is permitted an audience with the royal princess Chantrapa. She is the daughter of Honda’s high school classmate and insists that she belongs to Japan. When she recognizes Honda, he believes her to be a reincarnation of the revolutionary Isao whom he had defended years ago, but in the end, he must leave Thailand without proof.

They meet again 11 years later when the princess – now 18 years old and calling herself Ying Chan – comes to Japan to study. Honda is obsessed with the young woman and tries to crack her secret, but Ying Chan avoids him whenever she can, just spurring on the advances and scheming of the lawyer.

The first part of this book, set in Thailand, is heavy with Buddhist teachings that demand quite some attention. In the second part, we can focus on Honda and his desire to find out whether Ying Chan is indeed Isao’s reincarnation. Although some of Honda’s schemes are quite unsavoury, I still felt sympathy for him overall. I feel that Mishima is at his best when describing land- and cityscapes, and I loved the images of Bangkok he could conjure up in my mind’s eye. This is probably the reason why I liked this book more than the “Runaway Horses”, and I myself got very curious about this whole reincarnation business…

This is the third book in Mishima’s “Sea of Fertility” cycle, and it centres on Honda, who has hitherto been a mere side character. There were so many references to Isao, the protagonist of the second book, that it would be hard to follow without having read “Runaway Horses”.

Yukio Mishima is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost authors of the 20th century. A weak child, he took up bodybuilding and kendo when he was older and became very fit. He started writing early and eventually became the protégé of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides his numerous books, he also wrote plays for Noh and Kabuki, as well as for contemporary theatre. He was 45 when he committed ritual suicide.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into Buddhism and the practice (or art?) of reincarnation, you can get this book at amazon.

Equinox

A long weekend just ended today with shunbun-no-hi, the vernal equinox. It was a nice day, so I went out and many other people did, too. The streets in Okazaki were bustling, and the atmosphere was quite energetic. Since many universities and high schools have their graduation ceremonies, there are lots of young people around wearing their finest kimono. It’s a lovely time to be out and about.

It is too early for a proper hanami yet, but some cherry trees here and there are in bloom already. I’m curious to see this neighborhood during hanami, the approach to Saginomori Jinja is lined with sakura trees, but overall, I’d say the area is better known for the koyo in autumn. This year, I have special plans for hanami – yozakura (evening lightup) to be precise. I’ll keep you posted.

And finally, from tomorrow, there will be no further Covid-19-induced state of emergency in Japan. We still have more than half a million active cases, but the numbers are declining rapidly. I received my invitation to the third shot already, I just have to make an appointment. I am really looking forward to ditching the masks, but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Spring is coming, and things will get better. For good, this time. Hopefully.

Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum

I found out about this new museum recently and just had to check it out (I love my job). It’s always special to find something brand new in Kyoto, where everything else dates back hundreds of years and even people are not considered “real” Kyoto people unless their family moved to Kyoto “before the war” – the Onin War of 1467, mind you…

The Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum in Gion was established last year, and it is housed in a newly-built building in zen-like style, very minimalistic. An effort has been made to make it fit among the surroundings, which also show a traditional exterior.

This little museum is a private one, founded by the Kagizen Yoshifusa, a maker of traditional Kyoto sweets that dates back to the Edo period. Usually, sweets shops like these cater to monks and tea houses, since traditional kyo-gashi confectionary is most often used at tea ceremonies or to offer to guests. However, back in the Showa period, the then-head of the family, Zenzo, managed to establish the Kagizen as a salon for artists, writers, researchers, in short: the intellectual crowd of Kyoto. Their sweets have been immensely popular among general citizens as well.

So, said Zenzo, the 12th generation head of the family, made lots of connections to the local art scene, and especially the mingei movement (folk art) headed by Kawai Kanjiro was favoured by him. He also established a deep friendship with Tatsuaki Kuroda, a wood craftsman and lacquer artist, who designed pieces for the Kagizen store and teahouse. This friendship laid the foundations of the museum’s collection, and I wish I had found the museum already last year, because the very first exhibition was about the connection between Kuroda and Zenzo – and I love lacquerware.

But their current exhibition on wooden molds for sweets is equally fascinating, because it explores the history of the Kagizen Yoshifusa as sweets maker famous for higashi, dried sweets. These tea-ceremony favourites are often nothing more than sugar, sometimes colored, and pressed into molds to create a large variety of shapes. Chrysanthemums and other flowers are common, as are seashells and fish. For weddings etc. there are auspicious cranes or turtles, and each new year sees the appropriate zodiac animal.

I was surprised by the variety of the shapes, and how delicately the molds were carved. Of course, this is a job for an expert, and besides molds used by the Kagizen over the years, there were also some from a collection of a 3rd generation artisan sweet-mold maker. My favourite? The astronauts!

So, if you’d like to check out this lovely new museum, here’s their website: https://zenbi.kagizen.com/ The exhibition on the sweets molds is on until April 10, 2022.

On the way home, drop by at the shop on Shijo dori and get some sweets – definitely worth it as well! https://www.kagizen.co.jp/en/store/


Runaway Horses

Runaway Horses
Yukio Mishima

Japan, 1932. Isao is a youth who lives and breathes the ancient samurai spirit. He is worried about the modern Japan that he sees in the hand of greedy industrialists instead of that of the benevolent emperor. Spurred on by a book bout a group of rebels in the early Meiji era, he forms his own “League of the Divine Wind” with 20 of his best friends. Supported by high-ranking men in the military, they set out to kill the country’s business elite and to restore the purity and integrity of Japan under the emperor.

This book tells of a fanatic group of young men in their early 20s who see the greatest honour not necessarily in killing, but in dying for a cause they believe just. Ideas of nationalism are expounded in detail, which make this book difficult to read at times, in particular when knowing that these ideas led to war just a few years later.
This is the second novel in the “Sea of Fertility” series by Yukio Mishima. Except for a few recurring characters, it can be read as a stand-alone, though.

Yukio Mishima was born into an old samurai family in Tokyo in 1925. He started writing at a very young age and had his first work published in a literary magazine when he was only 16 years old. Five years later, he approached Yasunari Kawabata with manuscripts and became his protégé. Mishima wrote 15 novels and more than 250 other works in his lifetime. He is regarded as one of Japan’s foremost novelists, but his nationalistic tendencies are viewed more sceptically by the Japanese. The above novel foreshadows his own death in 1970.

Not my favourite novel of the four, but if you want to have a go at it yourself, here’s a link to amazon.

Vending Machine

This is a quite old picture of one of the many Japanese vending machines. It’s only for beer – in case your nightly cravings are so strong you can’t quite make it to the next convenience store… This one is aptly called “The town’s liquor store”. Next to it was another one just for Gekkeikan Sake. It had only three different offerings (and not the priciest ones).

I took these photos years ago, so I’m not sure these two are still there – or any of the alcohol serving vending machines. Let’s keep the city clean and sober, guys.