Under Wraps

In Japan, giving gifts is a very important part of culture. Not only what is inside can make or break a relationship, also the way it is presented is crucial. That’s why gift wrapping has evolved to almost an art form in this country.

Very often, if you buy food items as gifts in a department store, there’s already a wrapped version available. Sometimes, the wrapping is done in front of you though, and there is a small but important difference to Europe in the way it is done: When wrapping a box in Europe, we place it in the middle of the paper such that the sides of the paper and of the box are parallel. Unless one uses a really large piece of paper, three strips of tape will be necessary.

In Japan, the box is placed on the paper at an angle near a corner. With a bit of experience, only a single strip of tape is needed to close the package. it’s quite fascinating! Of course, there are many youtube videos for that – check out the one below from some large Japanese department store. (He needs three strips of tape though 😉 )

Maneki Neko

The maneki neko – literally beckoning cat, also called welcoming cat, lucky cat etc. – is probably one of the best known objects associated with Japan. The little cat figurine with its raised paw can be found at the entrances or cash registers of most shops and restaurants in Japan, and has made its way into numerous Asian restaurants abroad as well. black manekineko with lucky koban coinThe maneki neko is of truly Japanese origin, although when exactly it became customary to put the little statue up is unclear. They most likely first appeared in Tokyo in the mid to late 19th century, and by 1902 they were already extremely popular. There are a number of folk tales that give a story for the first appearance of the maneki neko; the one most down to earth simply talks about two competing ramen shops situated next to each other. One of them put up a maneki neko in the window, just to see an increase in customers, at least until the other shop followed suit.

many many manekineko...A cat statue is only allowed to call itself maneki neko if it has a paw raised in the typical Asian beckoning gesture, which is executed palm-down here. The raised paw is supposed to beckon customers and/or wealth in general. You can find maneki neko with left or right paws raised, but interestingly not even the Japanese themselves seem to know whether the right paw stands for money and the left paw for customers or vice versa. Other interpretations are one paw for shops (especially bars), the other paw for the home; one for wealth, the other for luck… About 60% of the Japanese maneki neko have their left paw raised, thus bringing in customers (probably), according to research by the Japanese Maneki Neko Club. Really clever people have come up with maneki neko that raise both paws, just to be sure, but they are not very common.

2 calico maneki neko with left/right paw raisedIn any case, the paw became raised higher and higher over time, so some people use this as an indicator of the age of the statue. The idea is here to increase the reach of the cat to lure in customers and money. The latest development is clearly the solar-powered arm that is beckoning for real – and forever.

Other common features of a maneki neko are the red collar with a bell and a little bib. These things most likely go back to the Edo period where wealthy pet owners were actually dressing their cats like that. Furthermore, many maneki neko hold or sit on coins, mallets, carp, or marbles and gems, all of which symbolise money. The coin represents a koban, a gold coin used in the Edo period that was worth one ryo, and the writing on the coin usually says senmanryo – 10 million ryo – a huge amount of money, not just for a little shop owner.

Maneki neko come in various colours. The three-colored calico is based on the Japanese bobtail breed and, probably because those animals are quite rare, is considered the luckiest. Other traditional colours are white (happiness, purity, and positive energy), black (to ward off evil spirits and, in a modern interpretation: stalkers), and gold (wealth and prosperity). A red color is rather unusual, it stands for protection from evil and illness, but nowadays, maneki neko can be bought in practically any color – with more or less modern meanings attached.

modern manekineko in various coloursAn interesting side note to the probable origin of the maneki neko is the following: In the Edo period, sex was not quite as shunned as it is today, and many houses where female companions were available had shelves with lucky charms – often in the shape of penises of all sizes. Enter the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the much more prude West; obviously those charms had to go. However, they were replaced with the maneki neko, because in Japan, the cat is associated with young, beautiful women, especially geisha. This may be because of the witchery cats are said to be exercising – just like young women…geisha figurine with maneki neko

Hidenobu Suzuki

For all of you who are not stalking me at my workplace on Facebook, I just have to share this wonderful photo of what is called “Monet’s Pond” in Gifu Prefecture:

Monet Pond by Hidenobu Suzuki

Monet Pond in Gifu by Hidenobu Suzuki

The photo has been taken by Hidenobu Suzuki, a young Japanese photographer and digital artist living in Aichi prefecture. He says about his work:

My landscape photographs are like Japanese paintings. I think that realism is more Western style. Japanese like to express emotions and spiritual feelings through the landscape photography.

Many more of his absolutely fantastic photographs from places all over Japan can be found on his National Geographic Page; and his work has even been chosen 10 times or so as “Picture of the Day” by the National Geographic – and they are known for exquisit photos! Last December he even had an exhibition in the Louvre in Paris! I wish one day I’ll be as good as he is…

Japanese New Year Traditions

A New Year has begun, and again, I have tried yet a few more of the hundreds of traditions that surround this time of the year in Japan.

Unfortunately, I have been rather sick since Christmas, so instead of going out for the joya-no-kane ringing of the temple bells, I stayed in bed. I could hear the bells from there, however, and even so, it gives a wonderfully spiritual feeling to the quiet night.

I tried two of the food related Japanese New Year traditions though: On New Year’s Eve, I ate what is called toshi-koshi-soba, year crossing soba. Soba are buckwheat noodles, and depending on who you ask, you will get a different version of their significance in the dish: The noodles are long and symbolise a long life; but they are also easy to cut, so they make you let go of the hardships of the past year; and since the buckwheat plant is very hardy, this is a representation of strength and resilience (something I can definitely use right now).

New Year's SweetsFor New Year’s Day, I had bought not a full Osechi menu, but only the sweets that come with it. The rooster is a symbol of this year, and the long flat thing is a paddle that’s used for hanetsuki, a type of old Japanese shuttlecock I have written about before. Interestingly, only half of the pieces had anko in it – I was very happy about that!

Ceramic statue of a RoosterBesides that, I bought a rooster for my home. Not a real one of course, but a small ceramic statue that is usually displayed near the entrance. Since I don’t have space there however, I put it in my living room – one of the few things that are decorative there at the moment. It is my first such zodiac animal and according to a friend, you should not reuse an old statue (the zodiac repeats itself every 12 years), but always buy a new one, to attract new good luck to your home, so to speak. Well, this is a nice tradition to start in my home I guess, and it’s neither expensive, nor does it take too much space, so…


Kyoto has lots of beautiful Japanese gardens, and there’s only so much time to visit them all. Last week, in the peak of the momiji season, I took time out to visit Hakusasonso, a private garden near Ginkakuji temple. I had passed by there many times before, but now I finally went in.

Teahouse in HakusasonsoThe Hakusasonso is the former residence of Kansetsu Hashimoto, a nihonga painter of the Taisho and early Showa period. He bought the site in 1913 when it was nothing more than rice paddies. Until his death in 1945, he worked on the 7400 square metres that make up the gardens now and most of it – including the buildings – are unchanged. Today, the garden is still in possession of the Hashimoto family.

Buddhist temple in Hakusasonso.There are five old buildings in the garden, two small tea houses, one private Buddhist temple, and the old residence that is now used as an expensive kaiseki restaurant. The most interesting building is called zonkoro, it is essentially one very large hall that Hashimoto used as his studio. All four walls have large glass windows, and you can see almost all of the garden from the studio.

Zonkoro StudioNot only did he paint, Hashimoto also designed the buildings and the garden himself. He collected stone lanterns, pagodas, and Buddha statues (many from China) and placed them throughout the garden. Especially lovely is the little hill where Buddha statues meditate underneath large bamboos.

Meditating Buddhas in Hakusasonso.At one end of the garden there is the museum, a modern, two storey building where Hashimoto’s works are displayed. From the second floor of the museum, one can overlook the whole garden, and with the borrowed landscape of Mount Daimonji in the back, the scenery is made perfect. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Nihonga was a special style of painting that combined Western painting methods and ideas with Japanese materials and aesthetics. Nowadays, most Japanese painters work in truly Western style, and the distinction to Nihonga has all but disappeared.

Monkey by Hashimoto Kansetsu


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…


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.


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!