Shunbun-no-hi

Today is Shunbun-no-hi, the vernal equinox, and a national holiday in Japan.

Traditionally, people would visit the graves of their ancestors and do some spring cleaning around their homes, but I am not sure if this is still a thing. Also, this day was meant as the official beginning of winter, since from now on the days will be longer than the nights again.

The moon at Ishiyama by Hiroshige, 1834.

I am definitely looking forward to spring, even though the winter this year was quite mild. For now, it is too cool still for hanami, and I have not seen any cherry blossom buds except in very sheltered spots. But, this year’s cherry blossom forecast states that they will start blooming in Kyoto some time early next week. I shall report.

Taiko

Among the many types of traditional Japanese music instruments, taiko drums are probably the most exciting. They have been used in many settings, including court music and theater – both noh and kabuki – but the biggest taiko drums were used during warfare. There, they were used chiefly for communication, to let the troops know when to attack or to retreat, or simply to keep the beat during long marches.

Today, these large drums are often played during festivals, and then, it’s usually in the form of a kumi-daiko, where a group of people with different sized drums performs together. I enjoy listening to taiko music, it is – excuse the pun – always very upbeat and energising. The video below shows a performance by Kodo, which is probably the taiko troupe that is best known outside of Japan, since they are touring abroad for four months each year.

The video is 8:24 long and safe for work – although you might want to turn the volume down a bit.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Cover for The Goddess Chronicle16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?

This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.

I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…

Natsuo Kirino is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka, a female Japanese novelist born in 1951. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.

Find out for yourself about what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.

The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book
Sei Shonagon

Cover of "The Pillow Book"The Pillow Book is hard to describe. It is an ancient diary, not a novel, so there is not much plot. The entries are undated and although there are references to this or the other festival in this or the other season, it is hard to get a feeling of the flow of time. On the other hand, the little entries tell of a time and place so strange, that whatever moved the writer at her time seems to come from an entirely different universe and sounds like fiction after all. The individual entries talk about the routines of daily court life, interesting outings to festivals, and there is gossip of course, about friends, foes, and lovers alike.

Sei Shonagon was a court lady on the Heian court in Japan at about 970 – 1020. She began writing The Pillow Book when she received a book of fine writing paper as a gift, and her diary ends when the paper was used up. Her little vignettes tell of a time long gone and of strange customs that even at her time only a few people were privy to.

The book is very strange, and every time I read it, I feel differently about it. Her stories, although they seem trivial at times – as diary entries are bound to be – still have an eerie way of drawing you in. I don’t know much about the customs of that time, but I wonder what people with a better understanding of them think about The Pillow Book.

Go find out for yourself and get your copy from amazon!

Transition

As you probably know, this year, Japan will have a new emperor. The current one – the Heisei Emperor – will retire on April 30th, and his son will ascend to the throne on May 1st. There are many preparations for this event, some things are known already, and others have yet to be decided.

It is known that the retired emperor will receive the title Jōkō, which means “retired emperor” and he is the first to hold this title in almost 180 years. It is not known if he will stay in Tokyo or not, although Kyoto people do (more or less secretly) hope that he might come to live in the palace here.

It is known that on April 30, the Heisei Period will officially end, but it is not known which name the new era, starting on May 1, will have. This will be announced on April 1st, and for practical reasons, it is unlikely that the new era name will start with a T, S, or an H.

It is also already known that, on occasion of the enthronement of the new Emperor, there will be 8 national holidays in a row, from April 29 – May 6. That’s because the change will take place during Golden Week, where there are already several holidays to begin with.

  • April 29 is Showa Day, in remembrance of the father of the Heisei Emperor
  • April 30 is a “Sandwich National Holiday” because, according to Japanese law, all work days falling between two national holidays are automatically national holidays as well.
  • May 1 is a Special National Holiday because of the ascension of Still-Crown Prince Naruhito and the celebrations for the occasion
  • May 2 is a “Sandwich National Holiday” like April 30.
  • May 3 is Greenery Day, the first day of Golden Week
  • May 4 is Constitution Day, also part of the Golden Week
  • May 5 is Children’s Day, the last Golden Week holiday
  • May 6 is a “Happy Monday Holiday” because, according to Japanese Law, all National Holidays falling on a Sunday will be celebrated as a day off on the following Monday.

Add to this the weekend before, and (most of) the Japanese are looking at 10 days off in a row.

The ceremonies are not over at this point, the real enthronement will take place only on October 22nd and will probably involve a very private and secret ceremony at Ise Shrine, the highest ranking shrine in Japan.

Already now, ceremonies are being held since this year is the 30th anniversary of the current emperor’s enthronement after the death of his father in 1989. There is a large exhibition organised by the Imperial Household Agency that shows photos of many of the Heisei Emperor’s visits to Japanese and foreign cities, as well as gifts received at those occasions. Also on display are the traditional clothing worn by the current emperor and empress at their enthronement ceremony 30 years ago.

If you are in Kyoto, this very popular exhibition is taking place at the Takashimaya right now, and definitely worth a visit.

Mochitsuki

One of the really fun things that happen around New Year is mochitsuki – literally: beating of the mochi – where lots of people pull together and help making mochi.

Mochi are ricecakes, made out of a very sticky rice, that is first boiled and then put into a large mortar (usu) and beaten with large wooden hammers (kine). Once the mochi is finished, the individual rice grains have been broken up, and the whole thing takes on a sticky consistency. This large piece of mochi is then broken up and divided among the participants of the mochitsuki to take home or eat rightaway.

MochitsukiYesterday, there was Seijin-no-hi, the national holiday “Coming of Age Day”. And for some reason that I have not quite figured out, the guys at the large construction site in the neighborhood had organised a mochitsuki. They stopped working in the early afternoon to set everything up, and everybody who wanted was invited to come in and help beating the mochi.

Of course, adventurous me had to try that! I went there and immediately got a wooden hammer (for lack of a better word) put in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy, which makes sense because it is supposed to do some damage after all. And then, me and one of the guys from the construction company were beating away alternatingly. It was not very difficult and I can see that if you manage to find the right rhythm, you can probably go quite a long time. If you are trained, that is, which I am not… but it was fun nevertheless, and I did get some 10 or 15 beats in – which earned me great respect among the guys.

Afterwards, I was invited to soup and mochi, of course. The freshly produced mochi were served with daikon radish and soy sauce, and, as a sweet option that is apparently eaten only during New Year’s, with kinako soy flour, which was surprisingly sweet. And finally, I could take home a whole pack of mochi, which I still have because I have to ask if I could technically put it into soup as well.

Anyway, I had fun – and free lunch – and this was the closest I could get to the construction site. By now, they finished the basement and are now on ground floor level, and about a quarter of the building has already the steel beams completed. It will be interesting to see them grow further, if I remember correctly, they want to be finished by the end of the year.

Making a Katana

This here is a really interesting video about how to make a katana, a traditional Japanese sword. The guys from “Man at Arms” start out with getting and melting the iron ore, and then show all the steps necessary to forge a katana. I’ll leave it to you to discover the intricacies, I surely learned something new!

Don’t be put off by the Kill Bill reference, I guess they just needed an interesting hook for the video. 😉 The video is 18:40 long and safe for work. Enjoy!

Emperor Meiji’s Tomb

The Meiji EmperorJapan’s Meiji Emperor reigned over the country in one of its most turbulent eras. When he was born, in 1852, the Shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled a secluded country for around 250 years. When he ascended to the throne, in 1868, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had abdicated, both under pressure from Japanese uprisings as well as threats of foreign power. And when Emperor Meiji died in 1912, he had ushered in an era of rapid technological modernisation, cultural renewal, state reform, and governmental participation – penning the first constitution of Japan and in Asia as a whole.

A great man like this is often revered beyond his death, and emperors in Japan usually get a special honour upon their demise: They become one of Japan’s many kami. The Meiji Shrine is located in Tokyo at a place he liked to visit during his lifetime, and it is a very popular spot for hatsumode in the few days after New Year’s Day. However, his tomb is where he was born, in Kyoto, and it is quite spectacular, even when taking into account that the Meiji emperor was still seen as a true descendant of the gods.

The tomb of the Meiji Emperor is located in the southern part of Kyoto, but very easy to find. From Fushimi Momoyama (Keihan) or Momoyama (Kintetsu Nara Line) simply follow the road uphill until it takes a sharp turn to the right. Straight ahead, a broad gravel road starts, leading further uphill. It is lined with beautiful, large cedar trees that are impressive even now, although the forest has suffered quite a bit during typhoon Jebi in September 2018. After a while of gentle ascent on the softly curving road, the top is reached, opening up to the view below.

Entrance to the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorTo the right, there are a few modern buildings that are not very interesting, but moving further along, a large square opens up, and to the left is finally the tomb of the Meiji Emperor.

Tomb of the Meiji EmperorIts dimensions are hard to gauge from this picture, but the first torii is about five to six metres high. The dome-shaped tumulus, probably 25 metres at the back, holds at its base the emperor’s remains. In fact, this type of tomb is very old and can be found in Korea as well. Turning around, there is a steep staircase leading up to the plateau, and from this height, there is a nice view over the southern part of Kyoto, even though it is a bit obscured by more trees.

View from the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorA small but quite steep road leads further on, where a smaller version of Meiji’s tomb can be found. There, his wife, Empress Shoken is buried. There is no view at all from her tomb, since it lies lower on the hill and the spot is completely surrounded by trees.

The Tomb of Empress ShokenThe whole complex is enormous, and apparently it was very expensive to build. So much so, in fact, that Meiji’s successor, the Taisho emperor, had to promise to build himself a much more humble abode for his afterlife. Since he lived only until 1925, and was much less popular among the Japanese people, this request was perfectly justified in the end.

Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari KawabataIt is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegé Keiko.

While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…

In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was a Japanese writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. This is his last published novel.

This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by getting this book from amazon.

Kyoto Sake Experience

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity (through What’s up in Kyoto) to take part in a sake tasting in Fushimi, a southern part of Kyoto. The experience is well worth sharing – and recommending! – so here are the details:

I had made an appointment with Kotaro, founder and CEO of Kyoto Sake Experience, who conducts most of the sake tastings himself. We met near Fushimi Momoyama station, and first talked briefly about what I could expect – and about Kotaro himself. He grew up in Fushimi and spent a few years in Australia, so his English is excellent. He is very passionate about sake and was happy to answer, and could sometimes even preempt, my questions. In fact, he recommends taking a sake class as the very first thing to do in Japan, so people have time to find out what type of sake they like best and to be able to fully enjoy it on their visit – and take a few bottles of their favourite back home in the end!

Saketour - Gekkeikan Sake Brewery MuseumAnyway, after our brief talk, we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest and oldest sake breweries of Japan. They have a sake museum, and Kotaro uses its exhibits to explain the intricacies of sake, starting out with the rice. Rice meant for sake is different from rice meant for eating; it has longer stalks and contains more starch, both of which makes it about twice as expensive as food rice.

Once the rice is harvested, it is polished, and since the flavour lies in the hull of the rice, the smaller the remaining grain (i.e., the higher the polishing rate), the more pure starch is there, and the better (that is, sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.Different grades of polished rice

As first step the rice is steamed and cooled down to 30 degrees before adding koji mold. This mold is meant to break down the starch into sugar, and many breweries have their own type of carefully guarded koji. Only very little is needed to start the procedure, but since the koji is very temperature-sensitive, it must be checked every couple of hours. After two days, the procedure is finished and we have kome koji, mouldy rice.

Now it is time to make moto, a mixture of kome koji, fresh steamed rice, water and yeast. There are about 30 different yeast cultures that are shared property of all sake breweries, and each culture gives a certain flavour in the end. Making the moto takes about two weeks, this is essentially the starter culture for the final fermentation that starts afterwards.

To the finished moto is again added more kome koji, fresh steamed rice, and water, and now the fermentation can begin in earnest and in very large barrels. In this step, the koji continues to produce sugar so there is constant supply of food for the yeast that turns the sugar into alcohol. However, after 27 days when the alcohol content is 22% (genshu sake), this process comes to a natural end and the sake is finished.

Busily fermenting sakeTechnically, that is, because now the raw sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurised, and diluted in a series of different steps. Special types of sake are taken out of this process early, for example namazake is not pasteurised. However, the sake that is usually available at stores or restaurants underwent the whole process. It has a final alcohol percentage of around 15% and is divided into several types, according to the original polishing rate of the rice.Pressing the sake.

We have for example daiginjo with a polishing rate of 50% or more, or ginjo with 50-60% of the grain remaining. Daiginjo often has a fruity taste, which is enhanced by adding distilled alcohol. Pure rice sake, consisting only of rice, water, yeast, and koji, has a somewhat stronger taste and gets the prefix junmai.

That was already an enormous amount of information, and my head was spinning before the very first cup! But now the sake tasting started, back at the place where we started. There were 7 different types of sake waiting for our return, three special ones and four standard ones, for two rounds of tasting.

In the first round I was to drink the sake pure, and my favourite turned out to be the daiginjo with a very fruity taste, and, unfortunately, it is the most expensive one. Remember that the polishing rate is highest, so there is more sake rice needed to produce it. I also liked nigori, a type of sake that is not fully filtered (it reminds me of Austrian Sturm, another story).

Seven types of Sake during the testingIn the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro had been working as a chef. This time, the winner was much less clear. Like with European wine, it is important to balance food and drink, so that they are either balanced in strength of taste (daiginjo with soy beans has a very delicate taste) or strongly complementary (a 5-year-old sake together with cream cheese led to a taste explosion). The difference in the taste of sake together with the food compared to without it was phenomenal, and even though I am not a gourmet, it was obvious.

Kotaro inspecting the almost done sakeAltogether, I spent three hours with Kotaro and his sake, and I found it a very intoxicating experience in all respects, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The only complaint I have is that the name is not well-chosen: this was not just any standard sake experience, it was a master class! I now know exactly what to look for when buying sake (for myself and others) and I feel like the only way I could learn more about sake would be by making it myself (which is not on the agenda. For now.)

If you are coming to Kyoto and want to know more about sake, and especially if you want to find the right sake for you, do take Kotaro’s Sake Master Class. I promise, you will never need another sake tasting again!

Disclaimer: I received a free sake experience in return for an honest review. A much shorter version of this will be posted on What’s up in Kyoto as well.