Sugar

Most people who get to know me find out pretty quickly that I am very fond of sweets. (And many people who don’t know me deduce that from my weight…) And I find it an extremely nice move when people give me sweets as presents, first because I like to try out new ones, and second because they won’t clutter up my home (for long).

sugar lumps with sugar flowes on topToday I received this little gift from one of my English students. These are nothing but normal lumps of sugar, with a little handmade sugar flower on top. All the flowers are different, and the really cute thing about them is that when you put them into your tea, the sugar cube dissolves more quickly than the flower, which will then rise to the surface and swim on the tea for a while. It almost gives the impression of a lonely lotus on a lake…

I have seen this type of food art before but only as something to be done for tea ceremonies. In general, the Japanese are quite obsessed with food and will often go through great lengths to prepare it; sometimes so much so that you’d really rather not eat the final result. This must be the reason why so many Japanese first take a snapshot of their food before delving into it.

Hina Matsuri

March 3rd marks the day of hina matsuri, the doll festival. Since this time is more or less the beginning of spring, it is also called momo-no-sekku or peach festival, or, since this day is meant to celebrate the girls of a family, it is simply called girl’s day or festival. In the weeks leading up to March 3rd, elaborate displays of dolls are prepared, but since many families have inherited those dolls, the girls are not meant to play with them anymore.

traditional hina matsuri displayThe above is a typical traditional hinadan with five layers containing dolls and other accessories. They are made to resemble court nobles and retainers of the Heian era, when Kyoto first became the capital of Japan, some 1000 years ago. On top you see the two main dolls, the dairi-bina. One step below there are three ladies in waiting, usually holding cups and accessories for drinking sake. The center of the display above shows five court musicians with drums and flutes. Below them are the minister of the left – the one with the beard, since this is the higher rank and thus the person must be older – and the minister of the right. (Here, those dolls should be switched since the “left” refers to the viewpoint of the dairi-bina). Finally, at the lowest layer, there are three footmen or samurai, the lowest retainers of the court, and these are called the whiny, the angry and the merry drinker, interestingly.

Between the ladies in waiting, you can see two plates with colorful cakes; these are mochi and meant as an offering to the gods. Of course, the hina matsuri has its roots in religion, in this case in the ancient belief that the illnesses, bad luck, and general impurities of their owners would be transferred to the dolls when touching them. Very simple dolls made from straw were displayed throughout the year on the household altar in the kitchen, and on March 3rd, they would be thrown into a river or directly into the ocean in order to take away all the negativity of the past year. This practice still survives in the rituals of some shrines, where you write your wishes on a piece of paper shaped like a doll, and then throw it into the shrine’s stream.

modern hina matsuri displayNowadays, the dolls are not thrown away any longer but carefully packed away during the year, a bit like Western Christmas decorations. This practice goes back to the first shoguns of the Edo period, when the dolls were given as presents to daughters of the nobility. Once the merchant class became rich as well in the late Edo period and Meiji era, the dolls became more and more elaborate and expensive and hina matsuri spread throughout Japan. Today, new sets of dolls in traditional styles can be very expensive, I have seen some dairi-bina costing a million yen and more.

dairi-binaThe reason for this is that all dolls are very elaborately dressed in fine silk garments, but the biggest amount of work goes into the dairi-bina. They are the centre piece of the display and the most important, or in some cases, the only part.  On the right side sits the male obina, and on the left side there is the female mebina. They are dressed in Heian-style clothes, which means that the mebina wears a junihitoe, twelve layers of kimono, an elaborate Chinese crown, and a tiny folding fan, whereas the obina wears a traditional headdress, a sceptre, and a large ceremonial sword. The couple above sits in front of a screen made with real gold leaf, just like the emperor and empress would, but the Japanese usually do not refer to the dairi-bina as such. They prefer calling them taishi-sama – imperial prince – and hime-sama – lady; when you remember that the emperor was a god until the last century it should be clear why.

a girls dowryThe dolls are accompanied with all sorts of accessories in miniature. While the dolls are usually bought together in a set, or at least per layer, the other accessories can be bought at any time. This explains the difference in size that is often seen in the diplays. The above picture shows parts of a girl’s dowry: A mirror stand, a cabinet with utensils for tea ceremony, a sewing box, and a tansu – a chest of drawers for kimono – at the back. These are the standard items a girl would get from her parents upon her wedding, and with these things she would enter the house of her husband. Below you can see some more household necessities: a palanquin and an oxcart, but especially the latter was for the use of nobility only.

palanquin, ox cart, and go boardsAlso other practical things can be included in the display, for example lots of dishes, trays, sets of bowls etc. You can see the go-boards above, and below is a tiny hibachi, an oldfashioned heater where charcoal would be burned, not more than 5 cm in diameter. What is interesting about these items is that for the most expensive displays they were made from the same materials and were just as meticulously produced and as elaborately decorated as the real sized originals.

miniature hibachi with iron chopsticksAll in all the displays are beautiful, and even as an adult I need quite some time to take it all in. I can only imagine what a small girl would have to say to these dolls. Well, as I said, probably the same as one of our girls in front of a Christmas tree…

Exhibition

As I had to go to town on Saturday, I took the opportunity to go to an art exhibition at the Takashimaya Department Store.Yes, that’s right: at a department store. Takashimaya is one of the largest chains in Japan with stores in every large city. They are selling upscale goods and all of the international luxury brands, but not everything is prohibitively expensive. They also have a range of Japanese goods like kimono, futons, furniture, and of course, souvenirs. In the basement, there is usually a large food court, where all sorts of prepared foods can be bought, starting from onigiri to tempura, raw and fried fish, Japanese sweets and French style cakes, chocolate… On the top floor are restaurants, they are usually very good, but also rather expensive.

And on that top floor in the Takashimaya in Kyoto was the 44th Japanese Traditional Arts Exhibition. The arts ranged from woodcarving, lacquerware, to glassware and pottery. There were also little sculptures, mainly the little dolls the Japanese love so much. Of course, three walls of the grand hall displayed kimono. Although all the pieces were made in the traditional fashion, they were very modern looking.

Diverse Japanese Traditional Applied ArtsWhen I entered, I was a little shocked at the amount of people. That was because somebody – probably the artist himself – gave a lengthy explanation of one of the exhibits. Once I could pass that bottleneck, the rest of the exhibition was not overly crowded.

At the exit of the grand hall was a little separate room where numerous sake cups were on display. Sake cups are interesting, they come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and materials. I think that at least some of them were made by the artists exhibiting, and one could even buy them. A staff member came up to me and invited me to a sake tasting. At first I did not want to – it was barely noon – but I then asked whether she could explain a little about the sake and when she said she would try, I bought a ticket after all. It is not easy to find an opportunity to taste different types of sake, and this one was quite amazing.

After I had chosen three of the cups on display, I sat down on a little bar to drink. All three sake offered at the tasting were from Kyoto city itself, from Fushimi, where allegedly Kyoto’s best water can be found. Although the taste of sake is not very strong – remember that rice itself has hardly any taste at all – and I found all three of them very mild and pleasant, there was still a quite distinct difference to them. Although the taste was pretty much the same, one of them felt very heavy on my tongue, another very light – for lack of a better word, forgive me, I am not an expert. Interestingly, both of them had the same alcohol percentage, so that cannot have been the reason. I am glad I took the opportunity to do this, it is always nice to try something new.

43rd Nitten

I almost missed it! Yesterday was the last day of the 43rd “Nitten” exhibition here in Kyoto. It is the largest open-entry exhibition of Japanese artists, and it shows exhibits from calligraphy to applied arts to paintings, which are divided into Japanese and Western style paintings. The Nitten claims to be “the largest artist’s organisation with the most glorious history in japan, since 1907”, which I find gloriously funny…

Anyway, I realised around noon yesterday, that it was the last day of the exhibition, and despite my plans for a lazy afternoon at home in bed with books, chocolate, and chips, I made my way to the museum. Once again I was lucky and didn’t pay for it: Just when I wanted to buy a ticket, another visitor walked up to me and handed me one for free. I thanked her profusely and then went to enjoy the exhibition.

Just like last year, I passed on the calligraphy. A friend once suggested to view it simply as art, but I’m not very much into abstract stuff. I think the meaning behind the characters is an important part of the value of these pieces.

I enjoyed the sculptures, they were much less static than last year. Again, the (nude) female body dominated, and there are only so many poses a human body can achieve – yes, most of the sculptures were done after nature. My favourite was a simple piece showing a young woman sitting and reading a book; but part of the attraction may have been the title of “my time”. Yes, I can certainly relate to spending “my time” with a book…

Except for one oMetal statue "flexible"r two snowy scenes in the high mountains the paintings were less to my taste this year. There was a single one, depicting two eagles (in a non-kitsch, matter-of-fact kind of way), that captivated me. Afterwards, I tried to find a postcard of it in the shop, but this particular one they did not have, unfortunately.

They did sell a photo of my favourite piece this year, though: The little, robot-like metal statue you see at the left of this post. It was maybe 50 cm high and had the title “flexible”. Although it had the same posture as in the photograph here, I still think that the parts can move. I took a very close look at the fingers, and they certainly seemed to be flexible. My own fingers itched terribly; I really wanted to try and see, but touching the exhibits was probably not allowed, and I was not finished seeing the whole exhibition yet…

All in all, I did not like this exhibition as much as last year’s. There were less outstanding pieces, less art that I could imagine owning; and although I think that the sculptures have improved, I found the paintings – which form the largest part of the exhibition – rather mediocre. I am looking forward to see the next Nitten, though.

Kyo-no-Tanabata

Tonight was the last night of the Kyo-no-Tanabata night displays along the Kamogawa and the Horikawa. I rather not call it a festival, because it was more about art and there were no food stalls anywhere in sight, although you could put up wishes on bamboo trees as it is traditionally done during tanabata. Kyo-no-Tanabata lamps at the entranceThere are two venues with light installations and art displays, one along Kamogawa between Nijo and Shijo dori and the other along Horikawa north of Nijo Castle up to Imadegawa. I went to the second location and had a couple of hours of fun – although there were lots and lots of people crowding the small walk along Horikawa and taking pictures instead of walking along… I took a number of pictures too, but as I was trying something new with respect to taking pictures at night, very few of them are presentable, unfortunately.

The evening started at Nijo Castle, where there was free entrance to part of the grounds, and a projection of light onto the main castle walls, accompanied by music. It only took ten minutes, probably so that as many people as possible could see it, and I think it was very well done indeed. Light display on the main hall of Nijo CastleFrom there, I went down to Horikawa, a small stream running through town. There is a walkway beside it, but it is relatively narrow, so there was one-way traffic up to the north only, with the single entry point near Nijo castle. You could get out on the way if you wanted to, but not enter. At the entrance there were a number of Tanabata trees and you could buy tanzaku, paper slips, to write your wishes on.

The art displays started with long rows of paper lanterns with calligraphy and paintings. large lanterns with calligraphy and paitings along Horikawa riverA long band of silk, maybe 80 cm wide, dyed in the famous Yuzen style, flowed through the stream. Horikawa lies close to the Nishiki silk weaving district, and apparently has been used in former times to provide the water for dying and washing the silk. A dyed band of silk, decorated with shrimp flowing through the riverA large tunnel with white, blue, and yellow LED’s resembling the milky way was the main attraction, I think.

start of the milky wayofficial photo of the milky way tunnelThe last photo above is the official photo of the milky way, I stole it from the Kyo-no-Tanabata website because it is so much better than any of mine (and there are no people in it…) On the website there are plenty of other pictures, also from the venue at Kamogawa, but some of them appear to be from last year. Anyway, enjoy!

Weekend!

The last three days were very busy, I was on my feet – literally – for more than eight hours each day… When I came home last night I was so tired, I went to bed at around ten, hence the delay in my report, but here it is, finally:

Wednesday night was the last evening of the yoiyama for the Saki matsuri parade. Just like last year, from 6 pm the streets of the inner city where the floats had been built were closed for traffic, and were turned into a huge pedestrian area. It was very crowded; when I looked from Yasaka shrine over Shijo street, it was filled with people, the heads of the Japanese turning the space into a black mass. It had been a very hot day and it was a lovely night, but because it was so crowded, the feeling was more hectic and much less relaxed than last year.

I had fun though, trying out new street food: pancakes made from takoyaki batter, rolled up and then topped with all sorts of condiments. I had one with mayo, parsley, dried fish flakes, and ketchup, thus each bite tasted differently. Altogether, there were at least four different types. For safety reasons I did not try the one with the fried egg on top: although seemingly delicious, the yolk still looked rather runny… Also, I have to admit that I succumbed to shopping and bought a tengui, a traditional, thin Japanese towel, that was sold at the stand of the boat-float, which always comes last in the parade. I bought this one because I really liked the phoenix on it, what do you think:Japanese Towel called "Tengui"

The biggest novelty – and one that my inner treehugger is especially happy about – were the ECO-stations placed at exits and large crossings of the pedestrian area. When I bought the pancake, I received it in a little dish made from very sturdy plastic and I already thought it was a shame to throw it away after single use. Only then did I discover the ECO-stations, where one could return these dishes to have them washed and reused directly. What a wonderful idea! I hope they’ll keep it up and they can be seen at many matsuri to come!

Thursday started very early and ended very late… A friend of mine came up from Kobe and because we wanted a decent spot on a corner to watch the parade, we met at 8 am – and were still about 30 minutes late for the perfect spot, which was reached by the parade only at 9:30… My friend was amazed by the big fuss that was made to turn the naginata hoko around the corner. However, she was not quite as patient as I had been the year before, and so we gave up our front row spot after about an hour of watching, and we walked along Shijo dori towards the other floats of the parade. I showed her my favourite one (topped with the praying mantis), and she was especially excited about the boat-shaped Ofune hoko, traditionally ending the parade, because it looks so different from all the others.

We then had sushi for lunch, and when we left the restaurant at 12:30, we could still see the last floats leaving Kawaramachi street. We then went through Gion to my favourite temple where we relaxed a little before she went to the station where she had booked a tea-ceremony, and I headed back home.

After a nap that felt hardly longer than 10 minutes, I was up and about again to go to my soroban class – it was the big exam day, remember! We conducted it almost like we do a normal class; first a short mental calculation warmup, then the test. It went well, no big surprises, although I was a bit nervous. I could leave right after the test was over as I was so tired, it must have shown. I think at that time my sensei already knew whether I had passed or not, but he said I would get the result only next Tuesday. You are thus still allowed to keep your fingers crossed!

Yesterday, on Friday, I went to a friend’s place at 10:30. She had an invitation for the opening of the summer exhibition at MIHO Museum and had invited me to come along. Miho museum is about a 90 minutes drive from Kyoto, situated in the middle of mountains. it is a privately owned museum, founded by and named after what was at that time the richest woman of Japan. The special exhibition centres around two large tapestries (probably two metres by one), depicting a Kwannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – and a sitting, pensive Buddha. The tapestries were hand-woven for the museum after two old images, and you can see the original paintings as well as statues and other related objects of art.Flyer of MIHO museum

The permanent exhibition is exquisite, albeit small. They have a beautiful little statue of Horus, made from silver, gold, and lapis lazuli, that apparently was once the main deity of an Egyptian temple. There was also a standing Buddha statue, some 2.5 metres high I guess, upper body leaning forward just a little bit. It gave me the impression of a father stooping down a little to his children. I really enjoyed the trip although it took much longer than I had expected. The museum is certainly worth a visit, even though it is a bit far from Kyoto.

Now, those were my last three days. Today I had planned a rest day; from Monday on there will be the second yoiyama before the Ato matsuri parade. It should be much more quiet though, but I hope the friend with whom I will watch it will like it too.

Aikido

Aikido – literally harmonic spirit path – is a modern Japanese budo or martial art. It was developed by Morihei Ueshiba – now reverently called Osensei – in the early 20th century, starting from the time when he was around 20 years old all through his life until his death in 1969 with 85 years.

Osensei Morihei UeshibaOsensei, born in 1883 was a sickly, weak child, and to strengthen his physique, he was sent to take martial arts lessons. Although his father wanted him to eventually take over the family business, Ueshiba – by then a strong young man – took a number of similarly minded people to Hokkaido, where he established a farming enterprise – today we would probably call it a commune – with mixed success. Around this time, he met two people who proved essential for his future path: He met Takeda Sokaku, a master swordsman and martial artist, and he studied what was then called aiki-jujutsu under Takeda for more than 10 years. After that, he joined the Omoto-kyo sect under its spiritual leader Onisaburo Deguchi and opened his first own dojo in Ayabe. Following his spiritual enlightenment as he called it, he went to Tokyo to open a dojo and there, he fused Deguchi’s spiritual ideas and Takeda’s martial arts into the round and soft movements today known as Aikido.

Callligraphy of Kanji meaning "Aikido"Aikido is generally considered an inner martial art, that is, the focus does not lie on increasing physical strength but on developing inner energy called ki. Nevertheless, Aikido is highly effective if done correctly. Aikido is strictly defensive and uses no weapons. The basic idea is to take an attacker’s force and turn it – using round movements – against him; hence, the force is never blocked but always redirected. The techniques fall into a type of pin, rendering the attacker unable to move, and into a type of throw, where the attacker is moved further. The total number of kata techniques is quite limited (for example, there are only six types of pins), but together with a number of different types of attacks and the distinction of receiving an attack standing or sitting, those basics already take a long time to learn: Depending on the dojo, you can expect to train between three and six years for your shodan, the first grade black belt.

From there, everything else takes a lifetime. Clearly it makes a difference whether your attacker is a 150 kg, 2 m muscular superman who comes at you with all he’s got, or a 60 kg, scrawny nerd… The techniques remain the same, but beyond your shodan you will be expected to use less and less force and to make ever smaller movements. Really good shihan – senior teachers – hardly move at all when they smash you into the ground.

A typical Aikido lesson starts with everybody sitting in rows opposite the kamiza, the head of the dojo that usually contains a scroll or a picture of Osensei. The sensei – teacher – enters and seats himself in front of the kamiza; everybody bows first to the kamiza, and then, with a hearty onegaishimas – please – to the sensei. A technique is demonstrated, usually with one of the senior students and then the participants form pairs and try to execute the technique themselves. Usually, there is no restriction with whom you can train, beginners train with black belts, men with women… Everybody trains to their own abilities, and for the next technique, you’ll find another partner.

One of theOsensei training partners is the uke – attacker – and the other is the nage – defender – who is executing the technique. As uke loses by default, there should be no competition as to who is stronger (although I know this is not always the case) and when after four attacks the roles are reversed, both partners benefit in the same way. At the end of the class, everybody bows again to sensei, then to the kamiza, and finally to the other students. Then, the black belts fold their hakama, and the dojo is swept for the next training.

Although Aikido incorporates many moves from sword fighting, the focus lies on empty-handed techniques, but that depends both on the style that is taught and on the particular dojo. There are a number of different styles or schools of Aikido. For example, Yoshinkan Aikido goes back to Gozo Shioda sensei, one of Osensei’s early students. It is a relatively hard style of Aikido and is taught to the Japanese police. Ki-Aikido, a further development by Koichi Tohei, is the softest style on the other end of the spectrum, focusing on Ki – a concept of energy and inner strength that is difficult to explain, even for Japanese. Iwama style Aikido is the one that emphasises weapons training the most, as it was taught to Morihiro Saito in the dojo in Iwama, where Osensei spent his later years. Shodokan or Tomiki Aikido was founded by Kenji Tomiki, another one of Osensei’s earliest students. Shodokan is the only one where regular competitions are held, and as such it is probably the most distant from Ueshiba’s principle.

Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba at a demonstration The largest school of Aikido, considered the main line, at the moment headed by Osensei’s grandson Moriteru Ueshiba, is called the Aikikai, and their headquarter is still in the dojo in Tokyo that was founded by Osensei. Especially inside the Aikikai, there are many different styles, which go back to Osensei’s students of different eras. As I mentioned above, Osensei kept refining his Aikido over more than 50 years, and his techniques changed from the hard style of the young man in his prime (many students of this era went to the US to teach) over the more round style of middle age (often found in Europe) to the irresistably soft style of his old age (mainly found in Japan).

Cover image of ït's a lot like dancingAikido dojos of all styles can be found all over the world. If you are curious, just stop by for a trial lesson, most dojos will allow that. Finally, there are also many books about Aikido out there, from biographies of Osensei and some of his better known students down to how-to’s. My favourite book that does not talk about techniques at all, but about the greater picture behind Aikido and its place in the world is called “It’s a lot like dancing” by Terry Dobson, one of the last students of Osensei. Accompanied by stunning photographs, he shares little stories and insights he gathered from his own training over the years. Think about this one:

To have a war, the enemy must be kept alive.

Lacquerware

One of the most beautiful Japanese handicrafts – in my opinion at least – is lacquerware, also called shikki or urushi. Like maný things Japanese, lacquerware originally came from China, but once again, the Japanese have refined the techniques and raised them to new heights.

detail of a writing box coverLacquer is the filtered sap of the urushi tree, and as the midsummer sap is of the best quality, the tree is usually tapped between June and October, in a similar way as rubber or maple syrup is gathered: by making cuts into the tree’s bark at different places. A sign of quality is the amount of urushic acid in the sap (80 – 85 % is optimal), and the sap from different trees should be kept apart. Interestingly, liquid lacquer is very toxic and needs to be handled with care and safety clothing, but once hardened it is practically insoluble, and drinking from a lacquered cup for example is harmless.

hot water pot in red lacquerProducing a lacquered object is relatively easy: A thick layer of lacquer is applied, left to dry – lacquer dries best in a somewhat damp environment between 20 and 26 degrees – and then polished. This process is repeated numerous times until the desired thickness of the lacquer has been reached; different types of lacquer require different periods of drying (from two days to one month), and different means of polishing (from simple whetstones to deerhorn powder). The complicated parts are the preparation of the object to be lacquered – the core – and the final ornamentations that may be applied at the end.

writing boxIn principle, any material can be lacquered – metal, porcelain, ivory, etc., I once even saw a lacquered leaf – but the core of most lacquer work is wood. Clearly, the size of the object determines the type of wood that lies underneath, but for small, everyday things like bowls or boxes, a core made of cypress wood is most commonly used. When the core has been made, a single layer of lacquer is applied. After drying, channels and joints of the core are carefully covered with a mixture of lacquer, hemp, and rice starch, and then the piece is dried again. This layer is rubbed down to give a smooth surface, then another one of sabi, a mixture of lacquer and burnt clay, is applied. When this is dry, the piece is covered with cloth (hemp or linen) to prevent the wood from cracking. Again, several layers of sabi are applied on top of the cloth, dried and polished each time. Only after this procedure is finished, the “true” lacquering as described above will start.

lacquered cabinetNatural lacquer is transparent, but often coloured pigments are added, for example India ink or – traditionally – iron filings boiled with vinegar give black, silicate powder gives white, vermillion red, metallic powders give gold, silver, or copper tones. Coloured lacquer is used in lacquer carvings, for example. Numerous layers of – sometimes differently coloured – lacquer are applied to the core, and then an image is carved into the lacquer, showing the different colours.

carved lacquer on round boxMetal powder is also used in Maki-e, a kind of painting lacquer ornamentations, that has been developed in the Nara period (645 – 794). Essentially, a design is painted with lacquer onto the piece. The wet lacquer is then dusted or rubbed with coloured powder, and so, layer by layer, the final image is created. When the design is complete, a final layer of clear lacquer is applied to even out the surface, which is then polished.
pitcher, 16/17th centuryLacquerware remains an expensive artwork that takes a long time to create. Even if some steps can be automated with the help of machines (making the wooden core for example), the final decorations lie still in the hands of an artist.

lunch box

Exhibition

Last Monday, when I was wandering around Heian shrine taking pictures of unsuspecting young people in their wonderful kimono, all of a sudden a woman approached me and gave me a ticket for an art exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Museum which is nearby Heian shrine. It came completely out of the blue, I was very surprised and thanked her with many arigatou’s and bows. I am not sure if she had given tickets to other people as well, but it was nice to have the foreigner bonus this time…

Anyway, as I had nothing better to do and needed to find a topic for yet another blog post, I went to the museum this afternoon, where the 45th Nitten Kyoto Exhibition takes place until Sunday. This exhibition is organised by the Japan Art Academy, an organisation that was founded in 1907 and is considered the highest ranking artistic organisation in Japan. The JAA, with its at most 120 members, elected for life, advises the Minister of Education and promotes art in general. There are three distinct categories: Music and Drama, Culture (essentially literature) and Fine Arts, the last being divided into Japanese and Western painting, sculpture, crafts, and calligraphy. 300 works of Fine Arts from Japanese artists travel around Japan in this exhibition and at the Nitten Kyoto Exhibition another 300 works from artists based in or around the Kyoto area are added. You can find all works of art that are exhibited on this Nitten page, you need to do quite some clicking to get to the pictures unfortunately.

I did not bring a watch with me, but it must have taken me close to two hours looking at all the art, and that although I did not go into the calligraphy section. Sadly, I don’t know what to look for in calligraphy beyond the meaning of the words – which is obscured by my lack of vocabulary. I can see that the writing is beautifully executed and certainly better than anything I could produce, but the finer details escape me.

I am a big fan of sculptures though, and although there was only one room dedicated to them, I spent quite some time there. The nude female body obviously still inspires many artists, but ultimately I found many of them comparatively static in posture and thus uninspiring. My favourite was this sculpture by Kuwayama Yoshiyuki, the angle of the photograph is not well chosen; the hands are holding a puppet in traditional Japanese dress, it is facing away from the camera, so it is hard to recognize.

The whole second floor of the museum was dedicated to paintings and crafts. I am not a huge fan of paintings (I like Dali though), but some of them struck a chord within me, and I bought a few postcards at the end. My most favourite piece of art from this exhibition however, is the following “painting” by Namiki Tsunenobu. Actually, it is not a painting, but a piece of exquisit lacquerware (urushi or shikki) with inlaid pieces of gold for the stream at the bottom and a golden moon on top. Once again, the photograph does not quite do it justice, the stream appears more golden than silver in reality. It is 162 x 112 cm large and of perfect craftsmanship, the black lacquer is flawless. It must be worth a fortune. "Painting" of lacquerware

Geisha

I guess that the top three things associated with Japan are sushi, samurai, and geisha. While sushi is easily available all over the world these days, and samurai are readily identified as men with swords and that extra bit of honour, the world of the geisha is even nowadays a carefully guarded one where not everybody is allowed to enter, lest take part. This, as well as the fact that the hanamachi (geisha districts, literally “flower town”) are operating with ancient rules and traditions, the meaning of which has long been lost to the outside observer, has given rise to a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings even among Japanese.

It starts with the name: geisha means literally “art person”, she is a woman trained in a number of traditional Japanese arts and plays the part of hostess at parties generally visited by men. She is there to entertain the guests with singing, dancing, witty conversation, general attentiveness, and just the right amount of flirtation; in short, she is there to embody that image of the perfect woman every man fantasizes about – the perfect unattainable woman, because she will always go home alone.a geisha is perfect elegance even when putting on her zoriLike in many traditional Japanese arts, the first geisha were men, as women were not allowed to go to parties and mingle with men. In the 18th century however, women began to appear as geisha (how this came to pass is unclear), and they quickly became very popular of course. Geisha were independent and worked for themselves, and the brothels or oiran felt threatened by what they saw as competition. So, the government set up rules what geisha were allowed to wear, and how, where, and when they could entertain. Instead of curbing the business, however, this only fanned the flames, and geisha became hugely popular – in the 1920s, there were about 70.000 geisha all over Japan.

In these old days, girls as young as five or six started working and training at an okiya (geisha house). Not few of them were sold by their poor parents to the okiya and had to work there until they could repay the costs for their training. Nowadays becoming a geisha is a normal, albeit somewhat rare career choice for a girl. They usually enter an okiya at 18 (in Kyoto at 16) and start the demanding training of five years until they – at least the most determined ones of them – give their debut as geisha.

A typical training begins with the application of the girl to the okasan (mother) of an okiya. If she is accepted, the okasan will pay for her training and also act as her manager, and the girl will move into the okiya as a shikomi, essentially a maid helping around the house. She will now try to find a mentor among the geisha in the okiya, and once she has been accepted by her onesan (older sister), the so called misedashi ceremony will turn her into a maiko, an apprentice geisha. This is the time when she adopts a stage name that will be hers throughout her career, and often the geisha in an okiya share the first syllable of their stage names. a maiko on the way to workPart of a maiko’s training will be conducted at a kaburenjo, a training school for geisha, where different types of art are taught: ikebana (flower arranging), shodoh (calligraphy), sadoh (tea  ceremony), and traditional Japanese dance and music (shamisen, koto, fue, etc.). Another part of the training is learning to speak the dialect of the local hanamachi, and how to entertain all types of men and what to do at parties in general. For that, the maiko will accompany her onesan, but does this only to observe – and to be introduced and to make connections for her future career. Finally, there are intricacies of polite Japanese behaviour to learn: whom to greet first for example, or how deep to bow. This happens mainly by interacting with the other people in the hanamachi, by visiting other okiya or teahouses, for example. Maiko and Geisha - spot the differenceOnce the training of a maiko is completed, she will make her debut as a geisha after a ceremony called eriage, which literally means “turning the collar” of her underkimono from a red to a white one. This is only one way of distinguishing maiko and geisha. The appearance of a maiko is usually that of a young girl, with very colourful kimono and bright obi. A maiko’s kimono has long sleeves that almost reach to the floor; most often they wear their obi in a long dangling style to show off the pattern. To avoid trailing the expensive kimono on the floor, they must wear 10 cm high wooden okobo, and a part of their earliest training consists of learning how to walk in them. Maiko also have an elaborate hairstyle that includes many colourful hair ornaments and is difficult to maintain.

One of the things many maiko choose to do once they turn into a geisha is to cut off their hair and wear wigs instead. This saves them hours at the hairdresser’s each week, and now they can use real pillows instead of the tiny ones that allow no movement that could destroy the hairdo in the night. In general, a geisha’s appearance is more subdued than that of a maiko, as a geisha represents a mature woman. A geisha’s kimono is less ornate and colourful, the sleeves are much shorter, and the obi is worn in a more compact way. Another boon of being a geisha is that the more simple kimono now allows them to wear normal zori sandals, instead of the okobo. a mature geisha - note the hairstyle!These are the most obvious changes from maiko to geisha, but there are many little details only the truly initiated can spot. Maiko’s hairstyles and collar patterns change from year to year; the more mature a maiko or geisha, the less flaunting her kimono becomes as she is now able to rely on her skills rather than to impress with her dress; and there are people who can tell, just by looking at the kimono and hair ornaments of a maiko which month of the year it is.

Nowadays, geisha are not only accomplished entertainers, but also smart businesswomen. In fact, the hanamachi are entirely run by women – from the maiko, their big sisters and mothers, to the owners of the teahouses that employ them. All geisha are unmarried but I guess boyfriends are allowed these days. A geisha getting married marks the time of her retirement, which is celebrated by the final ceremony of hiki iwai. She may now stop taking classes and can move out of her okiya. Often, however, retired geisha open their own teahouse or okiya and stay in the hanamachi in this capacity. a typical maiko hairdo with lots of ornaments. A private evening with a geisha is almost prohibitively expensive, which may be one reason why the number of geisha is dwindling – there are less than 1000 in Japan these days, mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo. There are some public performances throughout the year though, and occasions where you can see maiko and geisha walking the streets on the way to their work, especially in Kyoto’s Gion district. The photos here were taken at a public ceremony last month, by the way.