Gotōchi Formcard

A modern post office goes beyond selling stamps and being a place where to send parcels and letters. Nowadays, you can also buy stationary, postcards, cardboard boxes to pack your stuff in it…

In Japan, every post office in a city that is frequented by tourists – whether Japanese or from abroad – sells special postcards called gotōchi forumukādo (ご当地フォルムカード). Literally that means “local formcard”, and these are fun postcards that depict some of the most iconic tourist spots or things of that particular city and are often shaped accordingly.

In Kyoto, these formcards of course have something to do with Geisha, and there are also a few of Kyoto’s most iconic temples and even tsukemono, which are pickles and the main souvenir from Kyoto, for Japanese tourists, that is. What do you think of these? Do you recognise the two places?

Gotoji Formcards from KyotoPostage varies according to size, but these cards can be sent abroad as well. However, the clerk at the post office suggested using an envelope for destinations outside of Japan, just to make sure they arrive unharmed.

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!

Noh Costumes

All the way back in March, I visited an event called “Noh Translation”, an introduction into the ancient Japanese theatre form Noh. I wrote about it then, and tonight was another one of these events called “Discover Noh”. This time, the focus was on Noh costumes, in particular the ones worn at the play Hagoromo, which is a lovely little fairytale. Discover Noh flyerThe same three Noh actors were taking part again, and it was really interesting to learn in detail about the costumes, the significance of their patterns and their lifetime (about 50 years). We then saw an actor getting dressed – with the assistance of three people – and in the end, there was a short performance of the last bit of Hagoromo.

I am very busy these days, but I made a point to have this evening off to go to this event. I really enjoy Noh and would love to see more of these events, because it hardly ever happens that you can chat with a Noh actor about his job (and they are all very enthusiastic about it!) Maybe, I’ll talk a bit more about this at a later time, but I just came home and I’m quite tired and I have more work to do tomorrow, so…Good night!

Eight Views of Omi

The Eight Views of Omi is a series of woodblock prints from the Edo Period, depicting scenes from places around Lake Biwa. The Biwako is the largest sweet water lake in Japan, its southernmost tip is only some 20 minutes east of Kyoto. Historically, the province in which Lake Biwa is located was called Omi, and many little towns around the lake still have Omi as part of their name.

8 Views of Omi - all in oneThe idea of the Eight Views goes back to China, in particular to the 11th century paintings Eight Views of Xiaoxiang. Eight Views were considered the most beautiful or significant scenes of an area, and since many artists made images like that, these can be seen as an early version of visual advertisements. The idea came to Japan in the 15th century and inspired prince Konoe Masaie and his son Naomichi to a series of poems about eight scenic places on nearby Biwako. In the early 18th century, woodblock printer Nishimura Shigenaga took Konoe’s poetry and turned it back into images, his Eight Views thus becoming one of the first series of landscapes made in Japanese woodblock printing art.

From there on, many different artists took up the theme and produced at least one series of Eight Views of Omi. However, the most prolific of all artists was Hiroshige, who made at least 20 different series over a number of years. The topic was popular until well into the 20th century, when the modern shin-hanga style of woodblock printing evolved from the old ukiyo-e. For example, Ito Shinsui produced a series of Eight Views of Omi as late as 1917. Note that there is also a series of images called The Eight Views of Lake Biwa, however, this refers to a modern version with some different locations created in 1949 by the government of Shiga Prefecture (the modern name of the area around Lake Biwa).

The Eight Views of Omi are usually called by the following titles:

  • Returning Sails at Yabase Yabase is a former harbour on the east side of Biwako. Situated near the Tokaido (the main road between Kyoto and Edo), people could use boats to go down to Otsu, thus speeding their journey. Yabase harbour was abandoned when the first railway between Tokyo and Kyoto was opened. (Harunobu, ca. 1760) 8 Views of Omi - Yabase
  • Evening Rain at Karasaki Karasaki is but a small cape reaching into the lake, with a single large pine tree. The enormous tree has been replaced a number of times, the current one was planted in the 20th century. (Ryuryukyo Shinsai, ca. 1820)8 Views of Omi - Karasaki
  • Evening Bell at Miidera Founded in the 8th century, Miidera temple is home to one of the three great bells of Japan, with a height of more than 3 metres. (Hiroshige, 1852)8 Views of Omi - Miidera
  • Wild Geese Returning Home at Katata Rather than geese, the recurring image is that of Ukimido Temple, which stands on piles in the lake and is accessible by a bridge. (Nishimura Shigenaga, ca. 1730)
    8 Views of Omi - Katata
  • Clear Breeze at Awazu Awazu is famous for its pine forest. On some old prints the castle of Zeze can still be seen, however, it was dismantled in the early Meiji period.8 Views of Omi - Awazu
  • Autumn Moon at Ishiyama Ishiyama Temple is located a bit south of Biwako and was built into a steep slope, somewhat reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera Temple (Ito Shinsui, 1917)
    8 Views of Omi - Ishiyama
  • Evening Glow at Seta These images usually show the great bridge crossing the Seta river, which was once part of the Tokaido. The modern bridge is made from concrete, but its original Chinese style has been kept. (Hiroshige,1835) 8 Views of Omi - Seta
  • Evening Snow at Hira Mount Hira on the west side of Biwako is the highest mountain of the chain and in winter is always tipped with snow. (Hokusai, 1802)
    8 Views of Omi - Hirayama

The Eight Views of Omi were very popular, and many artists have taken the concept and transplanted it to other regions of Japan in what the Japanese call mitate. For example, there are Eight Views of Kanazawa, Samani, near Edo… Many of those prints copied the underlying ideas of the original images, like “evening glow” or “clear breeze” and transported them to suitable other locations. Yet other artists have taken the theme a bit further and produced Eight Views that parody the original, for example the Eight Views of Beautiful Shields by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, showing samurai, or his Eight Views of Wise Women. Isoda Koryusai produced Eight Elegant Views of Fukugawa, depicting beautiful women. In 1927, a set of modern Eight Views were introduced, showcasing scenic landscapes from all over Japan.

Izumi Miyazaki

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyzaki

Izumi Miyazaki, born 1994 in Yamanashi Prefecture, is a Japanese photographer. Her works are colorful self portraits amongst every day items – all with a surreal twist.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

She started with photography in a highschool photo club, and later went to Musashino Art University in Tokyo, graduating with a major in Imaging Arts in 2016. Already during her student days, she took surreal pictures and posted them online on Tumblr, where she was almost an instant hit. Her first solo show Cute & Cruel, was in Luxembourg 2016, her first solo show in Japan followed (stand-in, in Tokyo, 2016). She was also invited to participate in the group show Give Me Yesterday (Milan, 2016–17), and her work is one of 40 photographers featured in the book Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze by Charlotte Jansen.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

As Izumi Miyazaki says in an interview with CNN Style, she never liked to be catalogued or categorized, and doesn’t mind to be on her own. Her work is carefully crafted and designed, but even though she is the only model in her photos, she feels as if that person were somebody else. Again, when asked for her style, she says that she doesn’t really have one, only tries to work inthe moment. However, she hopes that the viewers approach her photos with an open mind.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

Many more of Izumi Miyazaki’s surreal photos can be found on her Tumblr page.
The full CNN interview mentioned above.
Get the book Girl on Girl from amazon.

Izumi Miyazaki

copyright: Izumi Miyazaki

Japanese Calligraphy

Although most Japanese nowadays write with ballpoint pens or, worse, type their thoughts into their smartphones with a single finger, traditional brush calligraphy is still held in high esteem. All kids in Japan learn calligraphy in elementary school where it is seen not only as a way to study proper hiragana/katakana and kanji themselves, on top of producing nice handwriting, but also as a means to teach patience and diligence and to build character. Many people in Japan believe that a fine piece of calligraphy always reveals the character of the writer.

The Gakkiron written by Empress Komyo (744).Like many other traditions in Japan, calligraphy or shodo – the way of writing – came to the country from China, where the first pictograms were invented around 2800 BCE. The Chinese script was introduced to Japan around 600 CE together with Buddhism, and the first application of calligraphy was the copying of Buddhist sutras in temples. Some 200 years later, in the Heian period, writing had been introduced to the court and its bureaucrats, and a distinctive Japanese style of calligraphy began to develop, culminating in the hiragana script.

hiragana calligraphyThe hiragana script was invented as a kind of shorthand for the kanji, but over time, many of the hiragana were dropped and the script turned into a syllabary. For a long time, hiragana were considered the women’s script – in fact, women were even expressly forbidden to study kanji – but eventually, hiragana became widely accepted, and their combination with kanji created the typical Japanese writing system known today.

calligraphy toolsShodo is a relatively cheap hobby to start. As a beginner, you need a brush, paper, paperweight, and ink. Many beginners start out with bottles of liquid ink, but the more serious students will not get around buying ink stick and stone to grind their own ink. Practice paper can be cheap newsprint, but more elaborate works that are meant for keeping do call for Japanese washi paper, and at that stage, a personal seal to sign – or rather: stamp – the piece will be necessary. Many calligraphers carve their own seals in special seal script characters, by the way.

8 strokes of eternity

8 strokes of “eternity” taken from

When learning to write kanji with a brush, the kanji for “eternity” is probably the best starting point, since its eight tenkaku strokes are all the different strokes that there are to master. Technically, that is. Students first start out with what is called kaisho or regular script, which has clear aesthetic rules – for example, each character should be as square-shaped as possible. Some of these rules go back to Wang Xizhi, a 4th century Chinese scholar whose calligraphy was seen as an aesthetic benchmark in both China and Japan for a long time. Kaisho most resembles the kanji printed in newspapers and books.

Calligraphy by Muso Soseki "no meaning"The next step for the learner is gyosho or semi-cursive script, which resembles handwriting and works with a number of simplifications and abbreviations, so to speak. The last step is sosho or cursive, where the easy flow of the brush is paramount. It is very individual, and closer to art than to legible writing. Many people cannot read texts written in sosho they are not familiar with.

Not only the way each stroke is written is important, also the order in which this is done. Some people insist that only kanji that were written in the correct stroke order possess aesthetic merit and are pleasing to the eye.

Since shodo is a rather cheap hobby, many people in Japan practise it. It is a form of applied art deeply connected with Japanese spirit and culture. As already elementary school children learn the basics, they can take part in the popular kakizome ceremony, where people of all ages write down their wishes for the New Year. This often takes place in temples or shrines, for example in Kyoto, Kitano Tenmangu is very popular for kakizome. The best pieces of calligraphy are exhibited afterwards and may even win a prize. Also connected to the New Year are the nengajo postcards. Although nowadays, many of them are simply printed out, especially older people still write and address them by hand, thus showing off their penmanship.

Calligraphy by Bankei Yotaku.Zen calligraphy is a special form of calligraphy practised by Buddhist monks in particular. Since black ink on white paper is rather unforgiving and shows every mistake and even hesitation, the idea is that there is but one chance to get it right on a  particular piece of paper. In order to produce good Zen calligraphy, the writer must completely clear his mind and let his body and subconscious do the work. This spiritual state of mind is called mushi, and hitsuzendo means “zen way of the brush”.

Flower by Nakajima Hiroyuki.

Flower by Nakajima Hiroyuki.

Finally, calligraphy also stands at the beginning of each tea ceremony: The guests are invited to look at a piece of calligraphy before the ceremony begins (also as a way to clear their minds) and often, there is also a calligraphy placed in the tokonoma alcove of the tea room.

Modern Japanese calligraphy was developed in the 1930s, when many new schools of calligraphy emerged that advocated creating a new, distinct style of Japanese calligraphy, rather than adhering to old, pre-Edo aesthetics. There are stunning modern pieces that are more reminiscent of paintings than of writing, and are definitely worth checking out.

If you want to know more, especially about calligraphy history, see this page on Japanese calligraphy.

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Dainenbutsu Kyogen are short theatre performances that were originally meant to teach Buddhism to the general population of Japan. In Kyoto, there are three major such kyogen performances: Mibu Kyogen (in Mibudera Temple), Senbon Enmado Kyogen (in Injo-ji Temple) and Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen.

The latter ones, shown in spring and autumn in Arashiyama’s Seiryo-ji Temple, originate in a ceremonial event called Dainenbutsu-e that was initiated by the monk Engaku in 1279. In modern times, their history was a bit rocky: In the 1960s, these plays went through a crisis when the number of actors declined and performances had to be cancelled. In 1975, volunteers founded the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen Hozonkai organisation to train new actors and keep the art alive through regular performances. In 1986, the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen were designated as a Japanese Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and today, the performances have become an integral part of Kyoto’s cultural calendar.

the servant stereotypeThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes, where a set of (male) actors dressed as certain stereotypes (like the young woman or man, the monk, the servant, etc.) breathe life into the story that is performed on a simple stage with barely any stage design and only a few necessary props. The actors – called kyogen kata – share the stage with musicians – hayashi kata – who play a special, 9-hole yokobue flute, kane bell, and small taiko drum. There are only two basic patterns of alternating the bell and drum, it is more of a rhythm than a melody, and is played throughout the performance. Also on stage is a supervisor – koken – who may help the actors with props etc.

Musicians and supervisorThis is necessary, because in the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen, all actors wear full face masks in the style of Noh masks, a tradition going back to the Muromachi era (14th – 16th century). These wooden masks have only very small eye holes through which the actors can see, which makes finding small props or immediately reacting to another actor quite challenging. Thus, the actors sometimes clap their hands or stomp their feet as a sign for the others who may wait at the edge of the stage for their next action that the play has progressed to a certain point. It is possible that two unrelated scenes that are taking place at the same time but in different places, are acted out simultaneously on stage.

Monk and woman with childThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen has a repertoire of about 20 plays. Not all kyogen are funny, or “soft” Yawarakamon plays, about half of them are more serious or “hard” Katamon that have their origin in Noh. Up to three plays may be grouped together and performed in one afternoon, usually the focus lies on the funny Yawakaramon though.

surprising the monkThe atmosphere around these plays – whether soft or hard – is very relaxed, it is an outdoor performance in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are pleasant. Because the plays were developed to teach laypeople about Buddhism and they work without any speech, the stories are very easy to understand and transcend time and culture. Universally funny, they are definitely worth watching!

Important Cultural Property

You have no idea what I have met last Sunday… But let’s start at the beginning!

Last Sunday, I took a few hours off to take an introductory course on Noh in a very small Noh theater. Noh (or Nohgaku) is traditional Japanese theater with a history of some 600 years, and I have seen one play before. This time, however, there was an in-depth explanation of some aspects of Noh, given by three actors of both the Kanze and the Kongo theater – both major traditional Noh schools.

The course came in three parts: In the first, we got a brief historical overview, then talked about chants (Utai), masks (Omote), and movements (Kata). Two people could even try putting on one of the masks, which must have been very exciting for them. Anyway, in the second part, the movements were explored further, and the audience learnt a very short chant to which the actor then performed the moves on stage. Even though I can’t sing, this was the most fun part of them all.

Nohgaku TranslationIn the third part, we saw a short excerpt of the Noh play “Atsumori“. But first, the most senior actor played that part with all its movements and chanted in English what was happening. Noh movements are very complex and refined, without knowing what is going on it is pretty much impossible to discern it just from watching the play. So, this part was very useful, since we could compare the English version to the stylised real version we could watch just a few moments later. I liked this part a lot, and it gave me more incentive to go back and see more Noh plays. Yes, for some odd reason, I do like Noh, even though most of it is practically incomprehensible to the outsider.

Anyway, after the course, there was first a question and answer session, and afterwards, a few people – me included – went to have dinner in a nearby Japanese restaurant. There, the instructors of the course, the staff of the theater, and 12 people from the audience could sit together and eat, drink, and talk to the Noh actors. It turned out that the oldest one – who spoke English almost flawlessly – was the representative of a very small local Noh theatre. He was very knowledgeable, and talking to him gave me lots of things to think about.

Towards the end of the dinner, people exchanged business cards, and, you won’t believe it: That old sensei was a “Designated National Human Important Cultural Property” of Japan. These people are usually extremely knowledgeable in a traditional art of craft, and they are officially charged to maintain the art on the highest possible level and transmit their knowledge to future generations. Obviously, there are not many of them, and I am so thrilled that I could actually meet one of them – and even more: That he could speak English so well and that I was allowed to ask all sorts of questions.

Yes, I do indeed like Noh. I will be back for more!

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

Kyoto Map

In the ROHM Theatre, where I have a meeting once a week, there is the following piece of art, hanging near the entrance.

Taguro Noguchi's Map of KyotoIt is huge, maybe 3 x 1.20 metres or so, and it must be very expensive – the gold and silver are real precious metals! It has been made by Takuro Noguchi, a local artist from Kyoto, who has coined the term hakuga for this kind of work made with gold leaf and other precious metals and with lacquer.

This particular type of artwork is relatively new, Noguchi himself has started to develop this art form only in 2001. But, the idea itself is an old one – he comes from a dynasty of craftsmen in the Nishijin district, who used gold leaf to cover silk threads which in turn were used to weave obi. No wonder one cannot wash such an obi!

With the above hakuga, it took me quite a while to realise that it is not just something abstract. The moon is kind of obvious, but the rest is supposed to be a map of Kyoto and its surroundings. And indeed, when you look closely, you can find landmarks like the big Torii at Heian Shrine, or the Daimonji.

Takuro Noguchi's Map of Kyoto, DetailsIf you are interested in seeing more of Noguchi’s works, he shows a number of them on his homepage. And also, if you’re in Kyoto, he has a solo exhibition at the Daimaru Department Store Gallery from November 29  – December 5, 2017.