Perfect Weekend

A very short recap of a very perfect weekend:

Pumpkin and I had our very first overnight visitor! Because it’s Gion Matsuri and Kyoto is practically booked solid, my friend from Tokyo stayed in our guest room – aka upstairs living room. Pumpkin was not very happy about this; he oscillated between anxiety and curiosity. Both of which meant that he was up all night, keeping me the same…

She came down to finally get to the bottom of my BATI-HOLIC obsession and went to their 20th Anniversary concert with me. Well, let’s just say she isn’t into rock music. Which is fine; I’m happy that she at least tried. The photo of lead singer Nakajima is courtesy of my friend, just before she left to have dinner. I had an absolute blast for more than 2 hours, met some old friends and made some new ones… As I said: PERFECT!

Anyway, I am sure you’re pretty tired of my fangirling here already, so I’ll stop… In case you’re not, I wrote an article about 20 Years of BATI-HOLIC for my WUIK newsletter, which actually made it into a (rock) music magazine in Australia of all places. You can read my article in the Heavy Magazine.

After sleeping in and having a relaxed breakfast, my friend and I went to Shisendo, a nearby temple that is always pretty quiet. The gardens are nice, but not spectacular (outside the azalea season that is), but it is a nice place to sit for a while.

In the afternoon, we went to the Insho Domoto Museum, a favourite of mine; their current exhibition is about monochrome ink paintings, and my favourite painting is exhibited as well. I still can’t describe why it makes me feel the way I feel, but it still moves me to tears every time I see it. My friend was quite put out (and not as impressed about this particular painting I might add.)

Anyway, my friend is back in Tokyo, I’m back at home, Pumpkin is back at ease – and at least I had the perfect weekend! Tomorrow is a holiday to boot, so I can sleep in again. I’m very happy!

The Death of the Tea Master

Early this year, I had the opportunity to write an article about Sen-no-Rikyu, Japan’s foremost tea master. Born in 1522, he shaped the Japanese tea ceremony like no other – inventing wabi-sabi on the side. Rikyu rose through the ranks and eventually, he served the country’s leaders Nobunaga and Hideyoshi – until the latter commanded him to commit suicide in 1592.

My article details his life and legacy and was published last month in the 20th issue of EATEN, a print and digital magazine devoted to food history.

The reason I’m sharing this here is because I’m so immensely pleased with the illustrations the editor chose to accompany my piece. They are woodblock prints from 1896 and capture the essence of Rikyu’s tea ceremony perfectly.

As a writer, there is always a bit of apprehension when it comes to images for one’s articles; this is nothing we can influence. When they turn out so wonderfully, it’s cause for extra celebration.

The whole magazine is stunning (a few photos are on the website above) and it’s well worth reading. Other articles in this drink-themed issue center on the connection of NASCAR and bootlegging, how to make the perfect cup of coffee, and it includes a number of recipes enjoyed by Oxford Dons in 1835. Cheers!

Hachidai Jinja

At the end of May, I decided to explore my neighborhood and visit Hachidai Jinja, a famous shrine that dates back to the 13th century, when the whole area was very much outside of Kyoto still. In fact, the Ichijoji village (named after a temple that ceased to exist in 1335) was only incorporated into Kyoto City in 1931. But I digress.

The main deity of the shrine is Susanoo-no-mikoto, the brother of the sun goddess. While Yasaka Jinja (the shrine celebrating Gion Matsuri) is the head shrine for Susanoo, Hachidai Jinja is often called the “northern Yasaka”. Interestingly, Saginomori Jinja, which is even further north, also enshrines Susanoo-no-mikoto, but perhaps he was added to the local pantheon there a bit later.

Hachidai Jinja once had much larger precincts, but today it is fairly small. Passing through a torii, a steep slope leads to the main part, and the main hall (built 1926) lies on top of a few more steps. People come here to pray to exorcise evil spirits, for academic success and matchmaking, among other things.

The shrine is also responsible to provide protection from “directional evil”. It protects the city in particular from evil that comes from the north-east, and was once one of 12 shrines that protected the city.

Nowadays Hachidai Jinja is famous for its connection to a single event: The fight between Miyamoto Musashi and the Yoshioka clan at Sagarimatsu Pine, in 1604. At the time, the pine stood still on the shrine grounds, and it is said that young Musashi went to pray before the fight. However, he changed his mind when he realized that he should only rely upon his own strength and went into battle without prayers. The gods must have favored him regardless, since he was able to wipe out the entire clan during that night.

At the spot of the fight, the fifth descendant of the famous pine still stands to this day; at the shrine itself, the stump of the original tree has been enshrined in a glass case. Next to it, erected only in 2002, stands a statue of Musashi, imagined at only 21 years old (as he was during the fight) and holding his two swords.

It was nice to explore the history of the neighborhood, even though I wouldn’t call the shrine itself spectacular. Unfortunately, even though it is pretty high up in the Higashiyama mountains, there is no view from the precincts; for that you should visit Shisen-do temple just below the shrine. I have done that, of course, and will report about this visit in due course.

The Kyote

A few weeks back, I have discovered a newsletter from a fellow Kyoto denizen who calls himself (or possibly just his newsletter): The Kyote.

It’s a newsletter about what’s going on in Japan at the moment, with a focus on what’s trending on (Japanese) twitter. In the second half, there is a deep(er) dive into a historic crime that shocked Japan at the time (a bit like my Sada Abe case). He publishes every Sunday at 19:00.

This week’s edition is titled “Vibrator* Racing”. Yes, it’s exactly what it means, and yes, it’s a totally serious project. The writer appears to have a certain nerdy humor though… Here’s a little gif:

The link to this particular newsletter with a more detailed explanation is here:

(Re-) Visit

Last weekend, mostly to get new photos for the “deep dive” feature of my WUIK newsletter, I visited the Garden of Fine Arts again. And: it grows on me.

Part of this is certainly the fact that this time around, I went in the early morning when the sun illuminated the place much better (remember that it’s 2 floors underground) and gave it a more bright and uplifting atmosphere.

The other part is that now I know that the Last Supper and Last Judgement from the Sistine Chapel in Rome were reproduced almost on the original scale. The Last Judgement in particular takes up all three floors of the museum space, and somehow, I can appreciate both paintings much more because of this.

Afterwards, I went to the nearby Kyoto Institute Library and Archives, which I recently (re-) discovered. The entire second floor of the building is just the library with plenty of nooks and crannies to lose yourself in – and books too, of course.

On the first floor, there is a small museum, and this is where I discovered Yasuo Hayashi. He’s now 96, a ceramic artist from Kyoto, and somehow, his works look like MC Escher has discovered the third dimension:

I really enjoyed this exhibition (it’s on until June 9 if you’re in town) and will try to find out more about this artist. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photographs, but I got a list of books showing his works that I can get from the library above.

The Izu Dancer and Other Stories

Yasunari Kawabata and Yasushi Inoue

This is a collection of four short stories by the two authors above. The stories are literary fiction, in other words: Not much is happening, really, but they provide an interesting glimpse into the Japan of the 1950s.

The Izu Dancer was the first story by Kawabata to appear in English; the foundation stone of international fame that eventually led to the Nobel Prize in 1968. It’s about a troupe of dancers from the Izu Peninsula who travel through Japan in summer to make money. The youngest one catches the eye of an equally wandering student, but when he finds out that she’s only 13, he is content with sharing the road only.

The other stories are all by Yasushi Inoue.

The Counterfeiter describes the life of Hosen Hara, a childhood friend Keigaku Onuki. While both show artistic talent from a young age, it is the latter who becomes a famous painter. The former eventually produces forgeries of his friend’s artwork. Inoue asks the question whether this outcome was inevitable.

In Obasute, Inoue traes the legend of abandoning old people on a mountain and relates it to the inner dynamics of a family: Their matriarch has just turned 70 – the age for the legendary abandoning – but at the same time, his younger sister abandons husband and children to pursue her own life.

The Full Moon details the rise and eventual fall of Kagebayashi, who is made president of a company just before the annual moon viewing celebrations. We hear about leechers and hangers-on as well as of his enemies, all this with the backdrop of the harvest full moon. One of them will be Kagebayashi’s last…

While Kawabata has become famous as the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, Yasushi Inoue is less known abroad. He is, nevertheless, considered one of Japan’s greatest modern novelists and his work has received numerous awards: The Akutagawa Prize (1950 for The Hunting Gun), the Mainichi Press Prize, the Kikuchi Kan Prize to name just a few. Born in 1907 in Hokkaido, he died in 1991.

Discover Inoue and get the four stories from amazon.

150th Miyako Odori

All the way back in February this year, I was invited to a press conference of Gion Kobu, one of Kyoto’s five kagai – geiko/maiko districts. This year, they celebrated the 150th Miyako Odori, a public dance performance with geiko and maiko held every April that was established in 1872. I have written a piece about its history on my medium page, have a look at Geiko and Maiko Celebrate 150th Miyako Odori.

The press conference featured talks by a professor of Doshisha university about the history of the Miyako Odori and a talk by the dance master Yachiko Inoue, whose school is exclusively responsible for the choreography – and that for 150 performances.

Afterwards, we were introduced to the painter who designed this year’s poster and to two of the three maiko who made their debut on stage this year were presented and we were allowed to have a few questions. They were shy and a bit uncomfortable, and no matter how mature they may seem thanks to their makeup and dress, at the end of the day, they are just some giggling teenagers after all.

A few days later, we were invited back to take promotional photographs of the kimono and the stage setting, again with a Q&A of maiko as well as of the dance master. I found it very interesting how unabashedly the photographers directed the girls to “turn that way, look here” etc. To me, who has always heard the maiko referred to respectfully as maiko-san, it was quite a new experience.

So was watching how the main promotional photo was taken of the two maiko in full dress on stage. The dance master sat at the end of the stage directing them how to smile and hold the props etc. This part alone – one photo for each of the eight scenes – took several hours; sadly I was busy in the afternoon and had to leave at noon.

Finally, as the highlight of the entire backstage experience, I received an invitation to the final dress rehearsal of the Miyako Odori on March 31st. Once again, there were interviews with this year’s first performers and the dance master. The entire theater was filled with invited people, and while the press had to sit at the very back, we were the ones allowed to take photos. Here are a few that I took during the 150th Miyako Odori.

So. Many. Museums.

As you may have guessed from the missing posts, I’ve been busy the last week, and things will stay this way for a while. This year the pace is picking up, I am receiving more and more invitations to press previews for upcoming exhibitions.

Last Friday was the preview for “The Legend of Sesshu”, a 15th century Japanese painter whose style has influenced many other painters through the Edo period and beyond. One of his paintings of Mt. Fuji was so groundbreaking that it served as a model after which many other painters created their own views of Fuji. No fewer than six of his paintings are National Treasures, more than of any other painter in Japan – and they are all in Kyoto right now for the exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum.

My personal favourite of the entire exhibition was this ink painting titled “Winter Landscape” from 1470. It’s hard to describe what I feel when I see it, and while I’m not a painter myself, I do understand on a very visceral level that it’s a masterpiece.

As I said, things are picking up; tomorrow I will go to a preview for Bijinga (paintings of beautiful women) and next week there will be Japanese combs and hair ornaments. I love my job!

Yozakura 2024

It appears that last Wednesday I spoke too early about hanami being over. The rain did not appear in the force expected, indeed, we’ve had some fairly nice days. Nice enough for me to go out on Friday evening for some yozakura – illuminated cherry trees – in the Botanical Gardens.

Here are some photos I took (without a tripod). My favourite sakura this time around are those that have pink and white blossoms on one tree. Who’d have thought!

Death in Midsummer

Yukio Mishima

Nine stories of various lengths are collected here, plus Dojoji, one of Mishima’s modern Noh plays. The stories that stood out to me are:

  • The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love
    Heian period. And old, saintly priest catches a glimpse of the Great Imperial Concubine of Kyogoku. He immediately becomes infatuated with her and experiences once again feelings he had long thought conquered. He believes that all he needs to cure himself is a single meeting with her…
  • Onnagata
    We delve behind the kabuki stage and see the actor Mangiku through the eyes of his assistant Masuyama. Mangiku is an onnagata who specializes in female roles, and like many a drag queen, he is more attractive than a women. But what does Masuyama see in Mangiku?
  • Patriotism
    Just after the February 26th Incident, a young lieutenant of the Imperial troops is shocked to find that his closes colleagues are implicated in the mutiny. Worried that they might meet on opposite sides on the battlefield, he prepares for his ritual suicide – and his wife of six months with him.

Yukio Mishima is a fantastic writer, and even in translation, he creates images in the reader’s mind that put him directly next to the protagonist of the story. “Next to” is important here, because I feel that Mishima stays on the outside of his characters, a mere observer who doesn’t get emotionally invested. Whether this is by conscious choice or due to his own character, I do not know, it’s definitely not because of a lack of talent.

While Mishima is unequivocally lauded as exceptional author, as a person, he is more controversial, at least in Japan. The story “Patriotism” can be seen as a foreshadowing of Mishima’s own death: The staunch nationalist committed ritual suicide in 1975 after a failed attempt at a coup d’etat.

Discover more Mishima with this book from amazon.