Old Houses

Last weekend, I indulged myself – once again… There was an open house near Kyoto University, and since the house was a semi-traditional Japanese one built some 80 years ago, I just had to see it.

In fact, it was not just one house, but three buildings on the same plot of land. There was one very large main house with 10 rather large rooms on two floors. Then there was a much smaller house with three rooms in total, and some sort of shed in the back of the garden. Here are some pictures from the agent’s leaflet:

Fujii House photosIt turned out the house was built for a professor of Kyoto University by a quite famous architect of that time, Koji Fujii. Fujii was one of the pioneers of ecological building in Japan, and he certainly had a keen eye for details. The ceilings are restrained but beautifully decorated with differently colored wood; There are tiny windows at the right spots, and there is even a reading room/office with built-in desks right at the windows, still original.

It is not a truly traditional Japanese house, but it is not one of the westernised homes with European exterior that were so popular in the Taisho era and among the university professors either. It is a very well designed Japanese house with modern influences, and this fusion is so well done you don’t even notice them. For example, on the ground floor are rooms with normal wooden floors as well as rooms with tatami. The latter are raised significantly higher as usual than the former, so that if you are sitting in seiza on the floor, you are at eye level with somebody sitting on a chair outside.

The state of the house is not good, unfortunately, but not quite as bad as the last one I visited. On the other hand, since it is more traditional, the interior is rather dark with the small windows and the paper covered shoji, and the wood which is mostly painted dark does not help much to be honest.

Still, I hope there is somebody who buys the house and renovates it properly instead of simply tearing it down and building another bloody mansion on top… I wish I could save this house from certain destruction, but I don’t quite have the money for it. Anybody who has a spare million Euros for me?

Kyoto State Guest House

Entertaining guests – especially if one is determined to do it well – is not an easy thing to do. Raise it to the level of state guests, and walking the delicate line between entertainment and representation almost becomes an art. Heads of state and other dignitaries are treated to intimate views of national landmarks, personal meetings with local celebrities, and a walk past a military guard; all of these usually accompanied by numerous cameras. But once they are turned off, the guests are briskly whisked away – but where to?

In Japan, one of the places such illustrious guests are taken to is the Kyoto State Guest House. Situated in the park of the Imperial palace, the house – or rather, the complex consisting of several buildings on two floors – consists of some 8.000 square metres of floor space on each level, located in a separate, walled-in park of more than 20.000 square metres. Usually, the guest house is off-limits to the public, but a few times a year, special openings are held where the official part of the building can be admired.

Kyoto State Guest House gardenHaving passed through the main entrance and the Juraku-no-ma lobby, one enters the conference room called Yubae-no-ma. The room itself is in a rather sober Western style, but each of its short sides is decorated with a tapestry 2.3 x 8.6 metres high, depicting the moon over Mount Hiei on the east wall, and the sunset behind Mount Atago on the west wall, mirroring Kyoto’s true layout.

State dinner set for 1 personBeyond this is the Fuji-no-ma Banquet Hall, the largest room in the guest house, which can seat up to 120 guests. Again, a huge tapestry of 3.1 x 16.6 metres adorns the main wall and behind a number of sliding doors hides a stage, where music or dances are performed as dinner entertainment. A table setting like the one above is used at such dinners, coordinated to the latest detail. The embroidery on the napkin shows the Japanese state seal by the way, a stylised image of a Paulownia, going back to at least the 17th century.

hallwayFrom here a dark and comparatively narrow hallway reminiscent of old Gion leads to the Kiri-no-ma, a small, almost intimate Banquet room in Japanese style. This room with its tatami and low chairs seats only 24 people, but it does so extremely stylishly on a 12 metre long, black-lacquered table made from a single piece of wood. The low chairs again bear the Paulownia seal on their backs.

Kyoto State Guest House small banquet roomThe rooms beyond that – in particular the private guest rooms – remain closed, so from this final room that is open to the public, visitors are led back to the entrance. On this last path one has the opportunity to admire the large garden with the obligatory pond that lies at the centre of the whole complex. The design concept behind it is complete harmonisation of the garden and house, and it has been accomplished very well indeed.

detail of sliding doorInterestingly, the house, built only in 2005, is made of reinforced concrete, but the traditional Japanese interior design with its paper sliding doors, wood panels and floor lamps easily conceals this. Still, when you think of it, this is nothing more than a hotel, so the feeling conveyed is cool understatement, and the furniture and other decor are functional and sparse. At the same time, the devil expecting to impress hides in the details, only for the initiated to find and appreciate: The furniture is handmade using traditional craftsmanship, the decorations on sliding doors and furniture are pure gold, the strategically placed artwork only comes from the most renowned Japanese artists, and the lacquered table you see in the picture above must have taken years to make and is doubtlessly worth a fortune.

I have only posted very few pictures of my own this time, but in fact, you can take a video tour of Kyoto State Guest House yourself; it even includes one additional room we were not allowed in. Have a look here – enjoy!


Uji is a small city between Kyoto and Nara with about 185.000 inhabitants. It lies on the Uji river, an important waterway of olden times, which one can travel up until Lake Biwa. The first settlement in Uji was established in the 4th century, and in the 7th century the first bridge across the river was built.

The town, with its mountains coming up to the river, was a popular destination for outings of the nobility that lived in Kyoto and served in the palace there. The last ten chapters of the most famous Japanese novel – the Genji Monogatari, which was written around 1000 CE – take place in Uji. Some people claim it was even written there when Murasaki Shikibu retreated to a monastery for a while, but then others dispute her having written those chapters altogether. There are at least two statues of Murasaki near the river, and a museum devoted entirely to the Genji Monogatari.Genji monogatari statue at Uji river.The most famous attraction of Uji, however, is Byodo-in temple. It was originally a villa, built in 998 by a high-ranking court official, but only some 50 years later it was turned into a Buddhist temple by his son. The main hall or Phoenix hall, is supposed to resemble the palace in the Land of Happiness. It is a bit hard to see in the photo below, but the building is essentially a T-shaped structure, where the left and right parts of the horizontal stroke represent the wings, and the vertical stroke the tail of a phoenix. Where the two strokes meet, the head of the bird is supposed to be, and there is placed a large statue of Amida Buddha.Byodo-in templeByodo-in was designated as UNESCO World Heritage in 1994, and an image of it is prominently featured on the 10 YEN coin. One of the phoenixes on the roof – national treasures, by the way – is depicted on the 10.000 YEN bill of Japan. There is a large museum in Byodo-in showing Buddhist art that was made for and used in the temple. Even if you don’t buy the extra ticked to get you into the main hall, you can still get a feeling for how it would look inside.Phoenix on the roof of Byodo-in templeOn crossing the river, there are the two main shrines of Uji, the Uji shrine at the bank of the river, and the Ujigami shrine a bit up the hill. Until the Meiji restoration, they were a unit, but now they are separate entities; and in 1994, Ujigami shrine was also registered as UNESCO World Heritage. Entrance of Ujigami shrine

Both the prayer hall of the shrine – the image right below – as well as the main hall are Japanese national treasures. Ujigami shrine, built around 1060 as a guardian shrine to Byodo-in temple, is the oldest original shinto shrine in Japan, quite a feat in a country where many so-called ancient buildings have burnt down and were rebuilt several times.Prayer hall of Ujigami Shrine

Another thing Uji is famous for its green tea. It is one of the first places of Japan where matcha green tea was cultivated, and from the 12th century until today, the quality is excellent. On the road from Uji station to Byodo-in temple, there are numerous shops that sell anything tea related, be it ever so vaguely: matcha chocolate and cookies, matcha Baumkuchen and soba,… but also utensils for Japanese tea ceremony, and cups and beakers. There are numerous different types of green tea, of course, from the cheap daily varieties to the expensive ones served only at tea ceremonies on special occasions. But, this is a topic for another time…


I am very tired these days. I am busy looking for a new place to live and it proves to be very difficult indeed…

As I said, I would prefer to rent a house if possible, but all of the old houses I have seen so far are rather small and somewhat unpractical, and incredibly dark. There was this lovely old house I have been to, where the genkan, the front entrance, had three stepping-stones amidst a floor strewn with pebbles. I loved the house immediately. Unfortunately, the rest of the interior was not quite up to scratch… The top floor appeared to have been newly renovated, the two rooms were both very light and had an airy feel.

However, the ground floor… The kitchen was tiny, very old and could have used at least some cleaning, if not outright renovation. Ditto the bathroom. Given the amount of time I spend in the bathroom each day, I really don’t need one of those huge “oasis” kind of things that are so popular in the West these days. However, when I bow to spit during my toothbrushing, I prefer not to hit the wall opposite the wash basin with my behind. And I think it is a bonus if I can get to the shower without squeezing through the 30 cm that are left once the washing machine is in its place. If the bathroom had been in a better state, one might convince me to live with a Japanese squatting toilet though. I’m not a big fan of those – I still don’t know how to go “big” there – but if the rest of the house is okay, I’d just suck it up I guess.

It was not, however. The house was old enough to have a little garden in the back and a whole glass front between it and the adjacent living room – but still, the light from the garden did not even reach half of the living room, which was only six tatami, 12 square metres. Given my almost life-long intimate knowledge of depression, a dark place is something I definitely cannot live in. I certainly have no need to invite depression to follow me to Japan… Maybe, if the ground floor was renovated like the rooms upstairs, and painted with lighter colours, the house would actually be quite pleasant. But it’s not something I can wait for.

I have seen a number of apartments so far, and they are equally drab: rather dark and pretty small. I know now that the size of tatami must have changed over the years. I am quite sure that the six tatami from my room would not fit into any of the six tatami-rooms I have seen on my quest for a new place so far.

Anyway, I’m not giving up. Although it is exhausting, I will keep looking for that perfect place. You’ll hear from me when I find it.sleeping cat at Toshogu Shrine

Ears and Noses

The other day, when browsing Wikipedia, I came across a description of a place in Kyoto that I found most intriguing. It sounded so odd and interesting that I decided I needed to see it myself. This is it:Mimizuka in Kyoto

It is called the mimizuka, the Ear Mound – although at the time it was erected in 1597 it was called the hanazuka, the Mound of Noses. It is what the original name suggests: a tomb for noses, and the story behind it is rather… gruesome.

From 1592 through 1597, Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI – who, by the way, is enshrined in the Toyokuni shrine literally across the street – led an invasion of the Korean peninsula, with the intent to conquer first Korea, and ultimately, China. Wars in the 16th century were obviously not the clean “push-button-here” affairs that we can watch on TV now, and there were thousands of casualties, both on the battlefields and among civilians. At this time, soldiers were paid per kill, and one way to prove that was by taking the heads of the dead. By the second Japanese invasion in 1597, the custom had changed to take the more easily transportable noses of the victims instead, which were properly collected, counted, and then shipped to Japan as proof of the army’s efficiency. More than 200.000 heads and noses were taken during this time.

Interestingly, by the end of the invasion (which was unsuccessful, by the way), the noses were interred with proper ceremony in the hanazuka, and Buddhist priests were set to pray for the souls of the victims of the war. Only several decades later it was decided that the name hanazuka was too offensive and changed to mimizuka, but personally I don’t quite see the difference here, as the kanji for “ear” is still used.

Nowadays, it seems that many Japanese do not know about the significance of the mimizuka (there are a few others in other parts of Japan) and what the monument contains. Koreans do come to visit it, however, and there are even efforts being made to get the remains returned to Korea. Once again something I find rather odd – it’s 400 years ago after all, it is a nice and well-cared for monument, and there still seem to be regular ceremonies held there. But then again, what do I know…


I am back from my trip to Tokyo, and I’m rather tired now. I got everything done and even had some free time to do some sightseeing. Tokyo is a very modern city, and instead of historically and interesting sights you have in Kyoto, you need to go into another direction to find interesting things to do in Tokyo. So, I chose the most modern sightseeing spot you can find Tokyo right now to spend a few hours there yesterday afternoon and early evening.

I went to and up (and then down again) the Skytree. Isn’t it fantastic:Tokyo skytree by day The Skytree was built over four years, and since its official opening on May 22, 2012, is the highest tower in the world, standing 634 m tall. Its main purpose is that of a broadcasting tower; it was built so high to avoid influences from all the skyscrapers in Tokyo. And while they were pouring the concrete, they also built a shopping mall beneath it (of course), an aquarium, a planetarium,… Skytree ground floorThe Skytree has two observation decks, the first one is called Tembo, where there are – actually on three floors (called 340th, 345th, and 350th floor) – a 360 degree view over Tokyo, a souvenir shop (of course) and a restaurant, as well as two cafés. Smaller attractions there are holes in the floor of the lowest deck, and very cool interactive maps of the surroundings where you can zoom in and out, change the view from day to night, and look at the history of the city.

From the Tembo observation deck you can take one of two elevators an extra 100 m up to what is called the Tembo galleria, a wonderful walkway that takes you up in a spiral to the highest point you can reach in the tower as a visitor: the so-called sorakaba point at 451.2 metres. Needless to say that this is exactly the spot to take a selfie… The galleria is very nice, especially if you like steel and glass, but I think it is only worth the extra 1000 YEN on a very fine day, because the view is the only thing you have up there. I am sure the view is spectacular – if it is clear enough, that is… Although it did not rain yesterday, it was very hazy, and once again, I could not see Mount Fuji.Up the second elevatorThe tower became very crowded just before sunset, and Tokyo by night is indeed quite a sight! Once again, the whole experience is very organized: People leave and enter the tower and even the two decks on different floors, so people in/out, or up/down will never get in each other’s way. You can buy an advance ticket which allows you to enter the tower without queueing up for a ticket (and, according to the space that is allocated, the queues can be very long indeed), but they are more expensive than if you just go and wait in line. I did not have to wait, as it was Tuesday afternoon, but I guess that the Skytree will become very crowded in the weekends.

Okay, a few more facts about the Skytree to satisfy the nerd in me (and in other people as well): As mentioned above, it is 634 m high, the numbers can be read in Japanese as “mu-sa-shi”, which is a nod to the old name of the area in which the tower stands. At the base, the Skytree’s cross-section is shaped like an equilateral triangle, but the higher you come, the more and more round it becomes – this progress is depicted in the elevator as you go up, by the way – and the Tembo observation deck on 350 m already has a circular cross-section. This makes the base very stable and the top is such that it can withstand high winds easily. Depending under which angle the Skytree is viewed, this change of diameter shows a different shape from below.

At the centre of the tower is a 375 m high concrete pillar. This and the steel structures surrounding it can move independently to absorb up to 50 % of the shock from earthquakes. Interestingly, this appears to be an ancient way to construct high buildings – traditional five storied pagodas were built using the same principle.Tokyo skytree at nightThe tower is painted a special type of white, also coming from old, traditional sources, and in the night it is lit by LED’s in two different styles that alternate daily – the purple one I saw uses a colour that is reminiscent of the old Edo court, when the Shogun and the samurai were still in charge of Japan. There are four elevators to the Tembo deck, and, if you can believe the display in them, their maximum speed is 600 m/min. Well, we did not travel very long, that’s for sure. Two more elevators – this time with a glass door and a glass top to “heighten anticipation of the visitors” lead to the galleria in 450 m height.Tembo galleria


We are having a serious attack of builders in the house. Well, actually, it’s only one elderly guy, but he’s everywhere and nowhere, making lots of noise or none at all, all the time, or not at all… and it has been going on for the whole of last week, and he is not yet finished. I have no idea what the general plan is (we are usually not told anything unless we specifically ask), but one of the bigger things he has been doing was to replace the ceiling in one of the upstairs rooms.

The ceiling is a very simple construction of very thin wood planks (I guess less than 5 mm thick) nailed to a frame, so replacing it is very simple. It took him two days: One to remove the old ceiling, and a second one to put up the new one. I know this does not sound very fascinating, but these 5 mm of wood are the only thing between the upstairs rooms and the roof. As the house is around 100 years old, the construction of the roof is very interesting indeed – have a look:The beams of the roof

The main beams are just trunks of more or less straight trees, and it does not seem as if much has been done to make them more fit for the purpose, like nowadays, when you cut them into long rectangular poles. Also, look at the roof: No insulation, only wooden shingles (and I bet they are not very thick either), and on top of that the roof tiles.

An interesting feature on both ends of the house are two large triangular pieces filled with small stones. I wonder what that is good for – maybe to keep the roof on the house during typhoons? Before you ask, yes even in Kyoto we can have very heavy storms, although the winds are not as strong as on the shore.
At both ends of the roof, stones make it more heavyHello electricity!

Do you see the cables winding so leisurely along the roof? Hello electricity! It does seem scary somehow, don’t you think? My housemate’s assertion that this is how it was done everywhere else as well only that it was usually better covered up, may be correct, but does not really make me feel better.wattling of the earthen walls

Finally, look at the top of the wall here: This looks like thin bamboo sticking out, doesn’t it? The house is old enough to essentially only consist of a wooden frame between which are earthen walls – and this bamboo wattling is used to hold the mud together better, I presume. (I think the correct architectural term for this type of house is “frame house” and the inner workings of the walls are called “wattle and daub” but I’m happy to be corrected on this.)

It is interesting to see, that the basics of construction have not changed much in the last 100 years or so. Think about it: nowadays, instead of wood and bamboo we are using steel, and the mud has been replaced by concrete, but besides that… In any case, I did not expect the house to be that flimsy, to be honest. At least I now understand in detail why it is so unbelievably  cold in here during the winter…


The Golden Pavillion Temple Kinkaku-ji is the most striking of all the famous sights in Kyoto and should be on the very top of your must-see list when coming here. The Golden Pavillion is the main building of a zen temple – officially known as Rokuon-ji, Deer Garden temple –  in Northern Kyoto and it is golden indeed: The two top floors of the three story building which stands in a large lake with several islands are covered in gold leaf on laquer and a golden phoenix crowns the centre of the roof. If you look closely you may notice that each floor is representative of a different architectural style: The ground floor is typical of the Heian period style palace buildings called shinden, the first floor is a guilded version of the bukke style of samurai residences, and the top floor – covered in gold leaf in- and outside – is built in the style of a Chinese zen hall. The pavillion houses Buddha statues and similar relics, but it is not open to the public.Kinkaku-ji closeup

The pavillion and the garden date back to the late 14th century, when the third shogun of the Muramachi period, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, bought the property from another statesman and built his own villa there. After his death, according to his wishes, the whole estate was turned into a Buddhist temple. The golden pavillion is the only “original” structure left from that period; I use the quotes because the building has burnt down and been restored several times in its history, the last time it was destroyed by arson in 1950 and rebuilt five years later. Below are the old abbot’s quarters, with beautiful screen paintings – but it’s not open to the public either.abbot's quarters

The large garden surrounding Kinkaku-ji is truly original though, and considered an especially fine example of garden design from the Muromachi period. The garden was meant to represent the pure land of Buddha in this world. The pavillion lies in a pond with ten small islands, and on a clear day the impression of the golden building is heightened by its reflection in the water.kinkakuji mirrored in the pond

The one-way path leads you along the pond to the back of the pavillion and from there into the garden, where a number of little springs can be seen and several places where people throw coins for luck. The second floor of the garden on top of the hill contains another little pond called Anmintaku that allegedly never dries up, and the Sekkatei, an Edo-period tea house that has been specifically built to enjoy the view on Kinkaku-ji during the afternoon – the best hours to view it.gardens at kinkaku-ji


When the capital of Japan was transferred to Kyoto in 794 (then known as Heian-kyo), the emperor’s living quarters were called the Dairi imperial residence. When the Dairi was destroyed by fire, the emperor moved his private residence to the palaces of other noble families in the city. Clearly, it must have been a great honour for those families, and the number of imperial (ex-) residences (or Sato-dairi) in Kyoto makes it easy to believe that the emperor was rather forthcoming with this kind of favour. From the latter half of the Heian period (794 – 1185), the original imperial residence fell into disuse, and the emperor moved for good into the Sato-dairi. In 1331, emperor Kogen was crowned in a Sato-dairi called Tsuchi-Mikado-Higashi-no-Toin-Dono, and subsequently, it became the new imperial palace, the starting point of today’s imperial palace or gosho. It remained the residence of the emperor until 1869, when the imperial household left Kyoto and moved to Tokyo after the Meiji restoration.

The imperial palace, like many parts of Kyoto, was destroyed by fire several times in its 500 year history, it was often reconstructed, but also new buildings were added throughout. So, when you visit the palace, there are many different architectural styles to be seen, starting from the bright red buildings with endless corridors of the Heian time to the Otsunegoten, the emperor’s private residence in the Shoin-style of 1590. The latest addition to the palace, however, is the Shinmikurumayose – a new entrance for carriages that was built for the 1915 enthronement ceremony of emperor Taisho.

newest part of gosho seen through a gate of the oldestWhen you enter the palace grounds through the Gishumon gate, you first pass the Okurumayose entrance for dignitaries and then you see the Shodaibu-no-ma, a waiting room, or, rather, three adjacent waiting rooms, decorated according to the rank of the people who would have to wait there for their audience. panel with cherryblossoms in the Shodaibunoma waiting room

Other than those visitors of old, you have to take a more roundabout way: You pass the Shinmikuru-mayose and the red Heian-style corridors to get to the Nikkamon Gate leading to the Shishinden, the most important building of the palace. It was used for enthronement ceremonies for example, and there is the Chrysanthemum throne in the centre and the smaller empress’s throne to the right of it. Sitting on the throne (no, you’re not allowed to enter any of the buildings), you behold to the South a large Japanese Zen-style “garden” of raked white gravel, the only living things in there are a cherry and a mandarin tree.The chrysanthemum throne of the Japanese emperors

You then move past the Shishinden to the Seiryoden, a reconstruction of the emperor’s residence built in the 8th century, where the emperor would receive visitors. Opposite the Kogosho and Ogakumonjo-buildings (for meetings with lower ranking people and lesser ceremonies in general), there is a beautiful Japanese garden called the Oikeniwa. Keyakibridge in Oikeniwa Garden

Its pond is meant to resemble the sea, pebble beach included, but the red koi do not quite fit that image. Finally, you get a glimpse at the Otsunegoten, the private residence of the emperor. It is the largest structure of the palace grounds with 15 rooms and faces the Gonatei, the emperor’s private garden. This is the end of the tour and you exit through the Seishomon gate.Omima building with wandpanels

The Imperial Palace covers an area of about 110.000 square metres. It is enclosed by a wall, and lies inside the Kyoto National Gardens, which covers more than 900.000 square metres and is enclosed by another wall. To visit the palace, you must first register with the Imperial Household Agency. You can do this either online or in person in their office in the garden. You can go as late as 20 minutes before a tour, but it’s better to be early. There are currently two free tours in English from Monday to Friday. Don’t forget your passport! Check out the homepage of the Imperial Household Agency for more details.