Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be  honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Gray Men

Gray Men
Tomotake Ishikawa

Gray Men book coverRyotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.

This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.

Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. Gray Men is his debut novel and in 2011 won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award (an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese).

If you need something quick and easy (and a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.

Cicadas

Summer in Japan means essentially three things: heat, humidity and cicadas. There are about 3000 different species of cicadas worldwide, and Japan itself is home to around 30 species, which can be easily distinguished by their different songs.

The most common cicadas in Japan are the so-called abura semi which literally means “oily cicada”, since their song resembles the sound of frying oil (to the Japanese at least). Even though abura semi are among the largest cicadas here – they measure up to 40 mm – and you hear them everywhere in summer, they blend perfectly into the trees and are very hard to see.Abura semi in tree

The Japanese abura semi are a yearly species. They emerge in mid July as adults (imago) and from then on live, sing, and mate until late August to early September. Their larvae survive in the ground where they feed off tree roots until they emerge again in the next summer. This is when there are many empty shells left on low leafs and bushes, and it is easy to see that summer has started.A molting cicada

Cicadas don’t come alone, they sit in trees and bushes by the hundreds and sing together to attract females. Every species has its individual song, and they can be extremely loud. Some species can generate up to 120 dB, among the loudest of all sounds produced by insects, rivaling chain saws. And as cicadas can sing for hours, it can get very annoying over time, and it seems a bit unfair (although totally understandable from an evolutionary point of view) that males can disable their “ears” while singing to prevent hearing loss.

How the cicada’s song is produced is very interesting: Essentially it’s by training their muscles! Male cicadas have so-called tymbals (noisemakers) in their abdomens, and they click every time the internal muscles are flexed, and a second time upon relaxing them again. In addition, the abdomen of male cicadas is pretty much hollow, which amplifies each click. When many cicadas come together, these clicks blend together to a single soundscape where individual clicks or even a single insect are not distinguishable at all.

Another interesting tidbit about cicadas is that they cannot jump, but they do fly. They are not dangerous at all to humans, but when one of those large abura semi comes right at you with a deep buzz, it can be quite scary. Besides their perfect mimicry which makes them hard to see on the trees they sit on, they also practice “playing dead” when they are being disturbed. In the last weeks, I have nudged quite a few cicadas that were lying on their backs in front of my apartment, just to have them fly off again with some extra indignant clicks.A young cicada

As mentioned above, cicadas are one of those beloved Japanese insects that are often used to denote a season in art. While the Japanese don’t eat them like the Chinese do, they are significant in Japanese culture. And although they may not make quite as pretty a motif for paintings as the grasshopper, cicadas have inspired many poets over the ages because they signify the shortness of existence.

The song of the cicadas leaves nothing visible from their near death.
Basho

Summer Greetings

shochu mimaiThe week or two before Obon is considered the height of summer in Japan, and it’s definitely hot enough for it! Although Obon is not a public holiday, many shops and companies, especially the smaller ones, are closed for at least a few days leading up to August 16.

One of the traditional “must dos” during these days is to send shochu-mimai, summer greetings. Just like the kanchu-mimai in winter, these are simple postcards with a suitable motif to wish people good health to get through it all. In Japan, the hot summer days have traditionally been of greater concern than the cold winter days.

Speaking of tradition: These mimai once were actual visits to people in the hottest (or coldest) time of the year, but if you couldn’t visit somebody, it was acceptable to send greeting cards instead. A related custom is the sending of ochugen summer gifts to family and business partners, but this is not as wide-spread nowadays as the still ubiquitous oseibo year-end presents.

a summer greeting cardMaybe because of modern air-conditioning that is taking the edge off the heat, the sending of shochu mimai has declined. I am not sending any myself, but I have received some from friends. Just like the nengajo that are sent for New Year’s Day, these seasonal greeting cards are often handmade by the more artistically inclined people – like my friends. The cat really doesn’t need much explanation for anyone who knows me, and the demon’s face is popular at summery lantern festivals like the Aomori Nebuta Festival.

Yama-no-hi

Today is a holiday: Yama-no-hi or Mountain Day. The idea is to give the Japanese a (or rather: another) reason to go hiking in the mountains. The largest mountain ranges of non-volcanic origin in Japan lie in central Honshu, the main island, and encompass the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains. These mountain ranges include the highest mountains in Japan (except Mt. Fuji) with a height of more than 3100 m. Some of them even have what are called “active glaciers”, meaning their ice is flowing.

Anyway, the tallest mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji. Since ancient times it has been the most revered mountain in Japan, and since 2013 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, drawing even more people to its top on a sort of modern pilgrimage.

Anyway, I’d like to share a picture of this fantastic gold screen painting of Mt. Fuji that was on display at the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture when I was visiting it for their last exhibition. It was painted by Shibata Gito (1780 – 1819) from Okayama, which means so much as “edge of the mountain”, which is quite fitting the theme, don’t you think?

Golden Screen with Mt. Fuji by Shibata Gito

A Midsummer’s Equation

A Midsummer’s Equation
Keigo Higashino

Cover for A Midsummer's EquationHari Cove is a sleepy resort town that has seen better days. The most exciting thing happening at the moment is the plan for underwater mining just off the coast, which has divided the people still living there and has brought physicist Prof. Yukawa to the town. But then, after one of the mining company’s meetings, a man is found dead and is later declared murdered. He turns out to have been a retired policeman from Tokyo, and thus Yukawa is drawn into the case. He finds himself unveiling a well-kept secret and, against his usual inclinations, must consider protecting the guilty – not just of this crime, but of another one from many years before…

Another first class crime novel by Higashino. I loved the twists and turns that brought me from Hari Cove to Tokyo and back again, and back and forth in time for more than 20 years. As usual in a Higashino novel, what really happened is only revealed on the last few pages and comes as a surprise. However, when reading the novel carefully (or a second time), you cannot help wonder if Yukawa hadn’t figured out everything right from the start already.

Keigo Higashino was born 1958 in Osaka and started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. Already his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he was able to write professionally. Since then he has written more than 60 novels and collections of short stories, his books have been made into movies and TV series, and he has won many more awards, mostly for his crime fiction.

If you’re keen on solving a Midsummer’s Equation in your own holidays – it’s available on amazon.

Gion Matsuri Shinko-sai

I actually made it to the Shinko-sai of Gion Matsuri last night! The Shinko-sai is the first part of Gion Matsuri (or actually, many of the shrine festivals in Kyoto and elsewhere), where first, the gods of Yasaka shrine are moved from their seats in the shrine to the portable mikoshi. Then, the mikoshi are paraded through the neighborhoods by enthusiastic people before they are placed in their temporary resting place, the so-called Otabisho. In Kyoto, the Otabisho for Yasaka Shrine is directly on the corner of Shijo dori and Shinkyogoku dori, which are both very popular shopping streets.

Yesterday, after my meeting, I went down to the Otabisho, where I arrived around 19:30. From 20:00, Shijo dori was closed for traffic (Shinkyogoku is a pedestrian area to begin with), and people were anxiously waiting for something to happen. Around 20:30, a parade arrived with musicians and gifts for the gods and people on horseback accompanying the chigo, a young boy who is representing a god or the gods during the whole of Gion Matsuri. He is the most important figure during Gion Matsuri with special duties and is not allowed to touch the ground or any woman, including his mother, for example.

Chigo on HorsebackAbout 45 minutes later, the first of three mikoshi arrived. In front was a group of children, all dressed up like the adults, and all happily yelling hotoi to cheer on those who would carry the mikoshi behind them.

Row of children in front of the mikoshiThen, finally, the first mikoshi arrived, accompanied by over 100 people who carried it on their shoulders. And, as if this portable shrine was not heavy enough as it is, it is very important to jump up and down with it, accompanied by shouts of hotoi throughout. The jumping looks almost choreographed with special steps, and the men carrying the mikoshi are changing all the time, which is also done very carefully.

Hotoi - Mikoshi amongst its carriersIn the end, the mikoshi made two full turns in front of the Otabisho on outstretched hands, which is quite a feat.

Turning the mikoshi around in front of the OtabishoFinally, the mikoshi was set down in front of the shrine next to the Otabisho. There, prayers were said – probably to welcome the kami to its resting place – and finally, everybody clapped happily for a job well done.

A last prayer for the gods before everything is over.While the first mikoshi was dismantled and put up in the Otabisho, the second one already waited a bit further down Shijo dori, but by now it was 22:00, and to be very honest, after more than 2 hours of standing on the hot asphalt, my feet hurt quite a bit. So I decided to go home, leaving the clapping and shouting for the other two mikoshi to the remaining spectators. Interestingly, also the men who carried the first shrine did not stick around. On my way back to my bicycle, I could see them walking home in small groups, obviously even more exhausted than me.

Words for Each Day

On Friday, I went with a friend to Daisen-in, a subtemple of Daitokuji in the north-western part of Kyoto. We got a special tour through the grounds, and  apparently, the current abbot of Daisen-in is quite a famous figure in Kyoto or Zen Buddhism. We were both deeply touched by his  “Words for Each Day”, so I’ll give them to you and wish you a nice Sunday!

 

Each Day in Life is Training
Training for Myself
Though Failure is Possible
Living Each Moment
Equal to Anything
Ready for Everything

I am Alive – I am This Moment
    My Future is Here and Now

For If I cannot Endure Today
When and Where Will I

Soen Ozeki