Sugimoto Residence

As I mentioned in my post last Tuesday, the highlight of my extra long Golden Week vacation was my visit to the old Sugimoto family home to see an exhibition of Boy’s Day decorations. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos in the house, but here is the homepage of the Sugimotoke with a lovely gallery of the building and its gardens:

http://en.sugimotoke.or.jp/about-sugimoto-residence/introduction/

The Sugimoto family were merchants who sold fabric for kimono and their old machiya – built in 1870 is open to the public at very special occasions only. The house is quite large, even for a wealthy family, and it has a number of special features that I haven’t seen elsewhere before:

A special room where a visiting priest could wait and get changed into formal clothing before praying at the family altar. This room lies on the other end of a corridor which, to honor the status of the priest that came from the Nishi Honganji Temple, is laid out with tatami. This is highly unusual, since corridors in kyo-machiya or other old houses tend to be from wood.

The room with the family altar is considered the main room of the house, and having a private prayer room in a commoner’s house is highly unusual. The altar is located in a small two-tatami space that can be closed with fusuma and seems to me rather usual, but the interesting bit is the room itself. It has a small cellar underneath made from stone, where the altar could be moved in case of a fire. Basements like this are very rare, especially in such an old house, but this one was – thankfully – never needed.

The other interesting feature of the house was in the large main guest room, and I don’t even mean the lacquered tokonoma that was only uncovered at special occasions. The guest room is an already impressive 10 tatami room, and as usual, just by removing the sliding doors to the adjacent room, it can be enlarged by another 6 tatami. The interesting part is that the wooden grooves for the fusuma (in Japanese they are called shikii), can be taken out of the floor. The tatami from the adjacent room would be moved up and thus create a space of 16 unbroken tatami for very large events. When the event was over, the tatami, grooves, and fusuma would be put in place again, and normal life could be resumed.

There is also an interesting Western-style drawing room near the entrance that was built in 1929 and has cork flooring, modern furniture, and a piano. The low ceiling was taken out and the room now covers what has once been two floors at once, with an extra window on the former second floor. This makes the room feel very spacious, airy, and bright.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the gardens or to see the three kura storehouses. Still, just sitting in the rooms gazing out the large windows grants a nice and relaxing frame of mind.
The Sugimoto Residence is one of the largest kyo-machiya still existing in Kyoto. In 1990, the house was designated as a Tangible Cultural Asset by Kyoto City and in 2010, it was designated as a National Important Cultural Property. One year later, its garden was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.
As I said, it is only open for special occasions and it’s not possible to take photos inside. But if you are in Kyoto and even remotely interested in old houses, this is definitely one to visit!

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.

Monument of Gratitude

Memorial/tomb of KyodaiWhat do you think this is?

A tomb maybe?
It does look like one, and the sheer size of it (about two storeys high and with a diameter of perhaps two metres) would suggest a very important personality. But this is not on a graveyard, but in the middle of a standard residential neighborhood. Imperial tombs, the very old ones at least, are large and located all over the city, however, they have a distinct look that is very different from this here.

A memorial perhaps?
Could be, but there is a meadow around it with a stone fence, and it is not publicly accessible.

So, what could it be? memorial/tomb of Kyodai, closerIn fact, it is both a tomb and a memorial. It belongs to Kyoto University and is meant for the people who donated their body to science.

I am not sure whether this monument really hold physical remains – that is, a few bones of each person – like a normal Japanese tomb, or maybe just a list of names, or other things that are more symbolic. But just the fact that somebody took the time and effort to build something like that, does show an enormous amount of gratitude. It makes me happy.

Excursion

When looking for events for the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar, I came across a tiny little exhibition in an old machiya in Kyoto. And because me and my English students all are interested in old houses, we went there this afternoon and had a look.

Yoko Hoshino ExhibitionIt was a tiny exhibition of only three pieces of furniture, made as a graduation project by a student of one of the local art universities. There was a large round floor lamp (made from very thin wood that let the light shine through just a little), a small round table with lacquerware and a large chaise longue type of chair (with cushions made from an old curtain. Really!). The motto of the exhibition was “Waiting for the Moon Life” and the designer played with light and shadows in the furniture and in the house itself.

The house was a machiya, some 100 years old, with a typical part in front, then an inner garden, and a tea room in the back, that belonged to the designer’s family. She said that she remembers coming here as a child when things were still a bit different, the house was gently remodeled in the 1970s, and sadly, a parking lot now replaces the front garden.We were allowed to see all ground floor and finally ended up sitting in the living room where we were chatting with a cup of tea.

What I found so interesting was the fact that she deliberately kept the lights off in all the house. The darkness indeed had a calming effect on all of us, and always surprising, the house was almost completely quiet, even though there was a big road with heavy traffic nearby. She said that Japanese houses were meant to be pretty dark inside, lit only by candles, and that this was the way she wanted to exhibit her work in the first place. Only now that she has done it this way, she feels her work is complete..

A fun thing was that she was talking about a book by Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows”, where he describes the influence on darkness and shadows on Japanese culture. Fun because this is the book I am reading right now! Small world, full of coincidences…

Matsunoo Taisha

Matsunoo Taisha – lovingly called Matsuo-san by the locals – marks the western end of Shijo dori with its large torii. Matsunoo Taisha was established in 701 by Hata-no-Imikitori, the head of the local ruling clan. The story goes that he saw a turtle (a sign of luck and longevity) in a waterfall and decided to build a shrine here. However, the locals had worshipped a certain boulder on the mountain for a long time before that already. In any case, Matsunoo Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, and the Hata clan was instrumental in moving the capital to Kyoto eventually.

Matsunoo Taisha - Torii and Romon GateThe two main gods enshrined at Matsunoo Taisha are O-yamagui-no-kami, the god of brewing sake and of Matsuo-san, the mountain behind the shrine; and Ichiki-shima-hime-no-mikoto, a female deity protecting travellers.

The main entrance of Matsunoo Taisha is at the large, 14m high torii at the western end of Shijo street. A smaller road leads to the main shrine, where there is another torii. From there, the path leads up some steps to the two-storey Romon gate, which is – like the one at Yasaka shrine across the city – guarded by two zuishin warrior statues to the left and right.

Romon Gate of Matsunoo Taisha in KyotoPassing through the gate, at first, there is a small stone bridge to cross, and a few more steps lead directly up to the dance stage. At the left of it is a large display of sake barrels. While these are common donations to shrines, Matsunoo Taisha, as home of the god of sake brewing, has received a large number of barrels originating from sake brewers from all over Japan.

Behind the dance stage lies the long haiden outer hall where people worship and behind that, the impressive honden main hall. This is the oldest building of the shrine, dating back to 1397 and is designated Important Cultural Asset. Its unusual roof – in the so-called Matsuo-zukuri style – forms porticos on the back as well as in the front of the building.

Haiden Prayer Hall at Matsunoo TaishaAfter praying at the haiden, go to the right and through the low entrance to the back of the shrine where a path leads uphill. To the right, there is the famous Kame-no-i well, where a large black turtle spews holy water. It is said, that this water will bring health and longevity to those who drink it. Even more importantly: If sake is brewed with even a small fraction of this water, it will not go bad. Therefore, many sake brewers visit the shrine regularly to get some of the water, and to pray for business success. Further up the path lies the shrine’s sacred waterfall Reiki-no-taki, which marks the spot where Hata no Imikitori allegedly watched the turtle swim all these years ago.

Kame-no-i sacred turtle wellNearby the Kame-no-i well lies the entrance to two of the three gardens that make up the Shofu-en garden of Matsunoo Taisha. They were designed by the late Mirei Shigemori just before his death in 1975 and are considered the best modern gardens in Japan. Each of the three parts of the garden is representative of a Japanese era, and the opposing ideas of stillness and movement, represented by large blue-green rocks and water, respectively, are the central design elements.

The first garden behind the entrance is the Kyokusui garden, with a stream of water bending seven times around heavy rocks. The stream is framed by smaller stones, giving it the appearance of a dragon, a water creature in Japanese mythology. The Kyokusui represents the gardens popular at the Heian era, the time of the foundation of Kyoto.

Kyokusui Garden of Matsunoo TaishaBeyond the Kyokusui lies the Iwakura or Joko garden, where a number of large rocks scattered on a steep slope represent the ancient times, where the gods roamed the mountain tops of Japan. The two largest rocks on top of the slope are meant to represent the main gods of the shrine. Beyond this garden, there is a path further up the mountain where the original place of worship, the iwakura stone, can be visited.

The third garden, the Horai (the entrance is next to the little restaurant outside the Romon gate), is constructed in the Kaiyu style, where a large pond shaped like a crane is the central focal point. The basic idea here is the Chinese concept of paradise, where people do not get old or die. The rocks represent islands in the sea, and the only movements are contributed by the fountain of youth in the back of the garden and the many carp in the pond.

Horai Garden of Matsunoo TaishaBesides the extensive shrine gardens, which are a rare feature in Shinto shrines, Matsunoo Taisha also has two museums. The treasure hall is the main museum; it is situated between the first two gardens and shows 21 wooden statues in total. The three largest ones date back to the Heian period and are among the oldest and best preserved wood carvings of Japan. Although they are carved in the style of Buddhist statues, two of them are said to show the main Shinto deities of the shrine. These statues with their beautiful serene expressions are among Japan’s national treasures and alone justify a visit to the shrine.

The other museum lies near the entrance, on the way to the parking lot. The little Sake-no-shiryokan shows old tools that were once used to produce sake. They were donated by sake makers worshipping the god of sake brewing here.

Kerria bushes at Matsunoo TaishaMatsunoo Taisha lies a bit off the beaten tracks of Kyoto’s Arashiyama area, but especially during April and May, when the shrine’s 3000 yellow Kerria bushes are in bloom, it has a distinct charm that should not be missed. The shrine sells a number of unique lucky charms, for example one representing a bright yellow Kerria flower. However, for extra luck, you should try to win your omamori at the game shooting arrows at empty sake barrels.

Higashiyama Hanatouro

Every year in early spring, just before the cherry blossom season starts, there is the Kyoto Higashiyama Hanatouro. Between Shoren-in and Kiyomizudera temples, thousands of lanterns light the back streets of the Higashiyama mountains. Many of the temples en route hold special light-up events as well, and also, there are displays of large Ikebana works, most of them in Maruyama park.

This year was the first Hanatouro I visited, and it was lovely! The evening last Friday was cool, but not too cold, and as it was not raining, the atmosphere was very pleasant. There were other events and exhibitions on the way as well: You could write your wish to the world on a cherry blossom shaped sticker and put it on a lantern. There was a “fox wedding”, where a bride with a fox mask was drawn through the streets on a rikisha. There was an exhibition of designs for lanterns (and some of them were used on the streets). There was a stamp rally where you could win prizes. And there were many Ikebana displays, from the sombre and serious ones to the modern versions, one of which you can see below (it looked like the model of an atom, as my friend observed).

So, today just a few pictures of this year’s Higashiyama Hanatouro – enjoy!

Chion-in Temple during Hanatouro Modern style Ikebana. Huge Paper lantern warriorApproach to Sorenin during Hanatouro 18Ceramic lantern "cherry blossom"Kiyomizudera Temple during Hanatouro 18

Heian Jingu

Heian Jingu is among the newest shrines of Japan. It was built in 1895 as part of the Industrial Exhibition Fair, to commemorate the 1100 year anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto, then known as Heian-kyo. In the beginning, Heian Jingu only enshrined emperor Kanmu, the founder of Kyoto. However, in 1940, emperor Komei was deified and, as the last emperor to reside in Kyoto, was also enshrined here. The shrine is popular with the locals because it was an attempt to halt Kyoto’s decline after the capital had moved to Tokyo – and it did work! So, when it burnt down completely due to arson in 1976, it only took three years to rebuild it. Today, Heian Jingu is considered an Important Cultural Property.

Heian Shrine Main HallHeian Jingu as a whole is a replica of the ancient imperial palace Daidairi, built at the founding of Kyoto, and destroyed in 1227. The shrine is built in the official compound structure style Chodo-in, on a 5/8-scale of the original. The final designs were made by architectural historian Ito Chuta, and the colorful buildings and vast spaces between them have a distinct Chinese charm, that was very popular during the Heian period. It also gives the shrine a grand and stately atmosphere.

The first building to greet visitors in the impressive, two-storey Otenmon gate in vermillion, green, and white, once the main gate of the old Heian palace. However, the official entrance to the shrine is 500 m further to the south, at the huge torii, one of Kyoto’s landmarks. Interestingly, the torii was erected only in 1929, when, with a hight of 24,4 m and legs that boast a diameter of 3,6 m, it was the largest torii in Japan.

Torii of Heian ShrinePassing through the Otenmon gate, the shrine opens up into a large courtyard, at the north of which lies the Daigokuden, the Great Hall of State, where once the emperor conducted the state affairs. The Daigokuden is divided into three parts: In the Gaihaiden front shrine, people come to worship and buy good luck charms. Behind it lies the inner sanctuary, which was once used only for imperial ceremonies, but today, shinto ceremonies like weddings or the popular shichi-go-sai shrine visits for kids take place here. At the very back lies the main sanctuary, where the kami are enshrined and only the priests have access.

Heian Shrine Blue Dragon TowerAt the eastern and western end of the courtyard lie two towers called Soyru-ro (blue dragon tower) and Byakko-ro (white tiger tower), respectively. Those two animals are guardians of the east and west, and they also adorn two fountains nearby the entrance. Of course, there are also guardians of the north (Genbu, a black snake-turtle) and south (Suzaku, a vermillion bird). Images of the four animals can also be found on the iron lanterns present throughout the shrine.

The blue dragon wellA very interesting feature of Heian Jingu is its large public garden, 33.000 square metres hidden behind the buildings. Construction on the Shinen Garden, which is divided into four parts, started in 1895, but it took 20 years to complete. Today, the entrance is at a gate at the western end of the courtyard, and directly behind it lies the South or Heian Garden, with some 200 species of plants that are mentioned in Heian era literature. It is also the resting place of Japan’s oldest street car that once ran through Kyoto.

Further along the path lie the West, Middle, and Eastern Gardens. They were designed by famous Kyoto gardener Ueji VII (aka Jihei Ogawa), whose style is readily recognized. Unusual for a Shinto garden, Shinen is centered around large ponds that draw water from the Lake Biwa Canal, and are home to rare turtles and fish.

Stepping Stones in Shinen GardenIn the West Garden, Byakko-Ike pond shows about 2000 Irises, representing the 200 species that grow in Japan. The Middle Garden follows with Soryu-ike pond that is crossed by stepping-stones called Garyuko. They were once part of old Sanjo and Gojo bridges built in the 16th century. However, the East Garden is the largest one, with Seiho-ike pond at its center, and many weeping cherries all over. The big attraction here is the covered bridge Taiheikaku, a gift from the imperial palace in the 1970s. The ceremonial hall Shobikan, that is reached after crossing the bridge, was also an imperial gift, today it is used for the weddings that take place at the shrine.

Taiheikaku Bridge in Heian Jingu. Heian Jingu is popular among tourists and locals alike. The gardens are a must-see in every season (although most famed during cherry blossoms) and the shrine itself is a popular destination for locals for their hatsumode visit or the Adult Day celebrations.

Oyamazaki Sanso

Last Thursday, two friends and I took advantage of the holiday to visit Oyamazaki Sanso, or, officially: The Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It is located on a hillside in the south-western part of Kyoto, overlooking the place where the rivers Kizu, Uji, and Katsura merge. The villa consists of a number of buildings in a more than 16000 m2 large garden, which alone is worth a visit, in particular now.

Oyamazaki SansoThe main house was built in the Taisho era (about 100 years ago) and was subsequently enlarged. It has an obvious Western feeling to it, but even so, there are many features that are reminiscent of Japanese style: enormous wooden beams (one square one with a side length of 50cm) support the ceilings, and the entrance and second floor have high ceilings where the roof structure can be seen, there are little ornaments featuring bamboos… But mainly, the house is Western style: there are two large terraces on the second floor, together with a very modern looking guest bathroom with beige tiles that even features fixtures for hot water. The ground floor sports a large dining room and parlour with enormous fireplace, and out into the back, there is an airy corridor with lots of windows that once led to a greenhouse for orchids.

Oyamazaki Sanso EntranceThis main house was built as a country villa for Shotaro Kaga, a wealthy businessman from Osaka. He had many interests, like cultivating orchids and drawing pictures of them, and he was also involved in the founding of Nikka Whisky Distilling. A close friend of his was Tamesaburo Yamamoto, the first president of the Asahi Breweries. After the death of Kaga and his wife, the house changed hands a number of times, but eventually fell into disrepair. By the mid 1980s, the house was slated for demolition to make room for luxury apartments, but the locals could convince Asahi Breweries to buy and renovate the Oyamazaki Sanso.

The old buildings were renovated, and two new buildings that now serve as the main museum were added. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, they are so well integrated into the site that they are all but inconspicuous when approaching the main building. The whole museum now contains the main house, a watchtower (from where Kaga watched the main house being built), two tea houses, a rest house (originally a garage) and the modern jewelry box and dream box museum annexes. The museum opened in 1996, and the old buildings were designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties in 2004.

Oyamazaki SansoThe museum shows various special exhibitions during the year, and it also shows pieces from the Yamamoto collection of art, collected by the first president of Asahi Breweries who was interested in the Mingei Movement that focused on folk art. The underground jewelry box, a small, round single room shows parts of the permanent collection, in particular some of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. This was quite a surprise to me, mostly because the museum is so small. I now found out that Monet had painted some 250 versions of the Water Lilies, but still, that there are three of those paintings in such a small museum is quite a feat I think.

Oyamazaki Sanso GardensAs mentioned above, the museum lies in an enormous garden on a hillside. Especially now during the koyo, the garden is lovely – and it can be visited for free, by the way! Of course there are the obligatory Japanese lanterns and little bridges over the water, and right next to the entrance to the jewely box with the Water Lilies paintings there is – a waterlily pond. The pond with the carp next to the corridor that once led to the greenhouse was my personal favourite spot.

Oyamazaki SansoUnfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the building. There are beautiful ones on the homepage of the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art’s homepage though, including a video and lots and lots of information about the building, the collection, the location… Do check it out, it’s worth it:
http://www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com/english

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.

Nail House

You have heard of nail houses or holdouts, right? Those are houses or rather the property on which it stands that did not become a part of a larger development (a shopping centre, public building, etc) because the owners refused to sell. Nail houses is a relatively new term for these properties, many of them are in China and there are plenty of photos online.

Recently, there is a lot of building going on in Kyoto. Lots of beautiful old buildings, many with large gardens, are torn down to make room for a brand-new mansion – I positively hate them! Often, a number of houses in a neighborhood are bought up by a developer to be able to build even bigger mansions… When you are walking down the roads in Kyoto in 20 years or so, all you will see are mansions and parking lots, with a few convenience stores strewn in between, I swear. The old buildings that will be left at that time will feel like a zoo because nobody will live in them anymore, they will be just cafes and souvenir shops…

Anyway, I wanted to write about a nail house near the old place where I lived. The owner refused to sell to one of those huge mansion developers, and now her house is surrounded on three sides by the mansion, the fourth side is facing the road. While I commend her guts to stand up to the guys with the big money, I have to say I wouldn’t want to live like that…

But then I realised that there is an even more prominent nail house in Kyoto. It is smack on one of the busiest corners in inner city, at Shijo-Kawaramachi, and it is this:

Kyoto Takashimaya Building, 2006The big building is the Kyoto Takashimaya, one of the largest department store chains in Japan. It was founded in Kyoto in 1831 and moved to this prominent spot in 1948. And at that point already, the owner of the little house on the corner refused to sell to the big developers, and you can see what happened then: Just like what would happen nowadays. You see, in Japan, it’s all about tradition… 😉