Gion Matsuri Shinko-sai

I actually made it to the Shinko-sai of Gion Matsuri last night! The Shinko-sai is the first part of Gion Matsuri (or actually, many of the shrine festivals in Kyoto and elsewhere), where first, the gods of Yasaka shrine are moved from their seats in the shrine to the portable mikoshi. Then, the mikoshi are paraded through the neighborhoods by enthusiastic people before they are placed in their temporary resting place, the so-called Otabisho. In Kyoto, the Otabisho for Yasaka Shrine is directly on the corner of Shijo dori and Shinkyogoku dori, which are both very popular shopping streets.

Yesterday, after my meeting, I went down to the Otabisho, where I arrived around 19:30. From 20:00, Shijo dori was closed for traffic (Shinkyogoku is a pedestrian area to begin with), and people were anxiously waiting for something to happen. Around 20:30, a parade arrived with musicians and gifts for the gods and people on horseback accompanying the chigo, a young boy who is representing a god or the gods during the whole of Gion Matsuri. He is the most important figure during Gion Matsuri with special duties and is not allowed to touch the ground or any woman, including his mother, for example.

Chigo on HorsebackAbout 45 minutes later, the first of three mikoshi arrived. In front was a group of children, all dressed up like the adults, and all happily yelling hotoi to cheer on those who would carry the mikoshi behind them.

Row of children in front of the mikoshiThen, finally, the first mikoshi arrived, accompanied by over 100 people who carried it on their shoulders. And, as if this portable shrine was not heavy enough as it is, it is very important to jump up and down with it, accompanied by shouts of hotoi throughout. The jumping looks almost choreographed with special steps, and the men carrying the mikoshi are changing all the time, which is also done very carefully.

Hotoi - Mikoshi amongst its carriersIn the end, the mikoshi made two full turns in front of the Otabisho on outstretched hands, which is quite a feat.

Turning the mikoshi around in front of the OtabishoFinally, the mikoshi was set down in front of the shrine next to the Otabisho. There, prayers were said – probably to welcome the kami to its resting place – and finally, everybody clapped happily for a job well done.

A last prayer for the gods before everything is over.While the first mikoshi was dismantled and put up in the Otabisho, the second one already waited a bit further down Shijo dori, but by now it was 22:00, and to be very honest, after more than 2 hours of standing on the hot asphalt, my feet hurt quite a bit. So I decided to go home, leaving the clapping and shouting for the other two mikoshi to the remaining spectators. Interestingly, also the men who carried the first shrine did not stick around. On my way back to my bicycle, I could see them walking home in small groups, obviously even more exhausted than me.

Mochitsuki

One of the really fun things that happen around New Year is mochitsuki – literally: beating of the mochi – where lots of people pull together and help making mochi.

Mochi are ricecakes, made out of a very sticky rice, that is first boiled and then put into a large mortar (usu) and beaten with large wooden hammers (kine). Once the mochi is finished, the individual rice grains have been broken up, and the whole thing takes on a sticky consistency. This large piece of mochi is then broken up and divided among the participants of the mochitsuki to take home or eat rightaway.

MochitsukiYesterday, there was Seijin-no-hi, the national holiday “Coming of Age Day”. And for some reason that I have not quite figured out, the guys at the large construction site in the neighborhood had organised a mochitsuki. They stopped working in the early afternoon to set everything up, and everybody who wanted was invited to come in and help beating the mochi.

Of course, adventurous me had to try that! I went there and immediately got a wooden hammer (for lack of a better word) put in my hands. It was surprisingly heavy, which makes sense because it is supposed to do some damage after all. And then, me and one of the guys from the construction company were beating away alternatingly. It was not very difficult and I can see that if you manage to find the right rhythm, you can probably go quite a long time. If you are trained, that is, which I am not… but it was fun nevertheless, and I did get some 10 or 15 beats in – which earned me great respect among the guys.

Afterwards, I was invited to soup and mochi, of course. The freshly produced mochi were served with daikon radish and soy sauce, and, as a sweet option that is apparently eaten only during New Year’s, with kinako soy flour, which was surprisingly sweet. And finally, I could take home a whole pack of mochi, which I still have because I have to ask if I could technically put it into soup as well.

Anyway, I had fun – and free lunch – and this was the closest I could get to the construction site. By now, they finished the basement and are now on ground floor level, and about a quarter of the building has already the steel beams completed. It will be interesting to see them grow further, if I remember correctly, they want to be finished by the end of the year.

Hagi Matsuri

Last weekend was the Hagi Matsuri (Bush clover Festival) at Nashinoki Shrine. Nashinoki Shrine is rather small and lies next to the Imperial Palace, and it is full of bush clovers. One thing that people do during this festival is to write short poems and tie them to the bush clovers of the shrine.

The main attraction throughout those days, however, are the performances of traditional Japanese arts. There are three performances per day, and they show different types of art – including martial arts.

I went there on Saturday afternoon with a friend, where we caught the last bit of the Iaido (sword drawing) performance. At the end, there was the cutting of reed mats, something that seems to be surprisingly difficult.

cutting reed matsThen we took part in a tea ceremony. It must have been my third or fourth, and still, I don’t know how the tea is prepared! There are so many other things I need to pay attention to during the ceremony – it is pretty hard to be a guest even.

I went again on Sunday morning for a kyogen performance where I understood a bit here and there, but not enough to get the whole picture. It was funny though, the facial expressions alone could make you laugh.

kyogen playAfterwards there was a short shakuhachi concert. I love the tone of the bamboo flute, and the first song that all three players did together, was my favourite. I am tempted to learn it myself eventually… But maybe I should finish my soroban degree first!

I did not return on Monday, the last day, so I missed the Japanese dance and the archery. However, it was fun to watch so many different traditional arts in such a short time span.

Chimaki

It is almost time for the highlight of this year’s Gion Matsuri – the main saki parade will be on July 17. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow night are the yoiyama, the nights preceding the festival which means essentially a huge party in the inner city of Kyoto. Not only are people celebrating summer, they also visit the floats that will be shown in the parade on Tuesday to buy souvenirs.

chimaki charmAnd one of those souvenirs are chimaki. “Souvenir” is actually not correct, chimaki are protective charms made from bamboo leaves. People put them up at the entrance of their homes or businesses to ward off evil and to prevent sickness. But only for one year – you’ll have to buy a new one at the next Gion Matsuri!

Traditionally, chimaki were thrown from the large hoko floats into the gathered crowds, but nowadays, they are sold during the days (and nights) of the yoiyama. Every float has their own chimaki, with slightly different properties, but the chimaki of the Naginata hoko, which always leads the saki parade, is considered the most powerful and thus extremely popular among the locals.

The story behind the chimaki is ancient and it goes like this: A long, long time ago, the god Susanoo (the brother of the sun goddess) was travelling in disguise through Japan. One evening, he looked for shelter, but was refused entry to all of the wealthy houses of the town. But when he knocked at poor Somin Shorai’s home, he was welcomed and treated with great respect. When Susanoo left the next day, he gave Somin Shorai a bundle of cogon grass to wear at his waist for protection, which was the origin of today’s chimaki. (*) To this day, some chimaki have an extra red strip of paper attached saying “I am a descendant of Somin Shorai”, which is believed to offer extra protection against evil.

(*) Other versions of the story say he received a small wreath of miscanthus reeds, the origin of today’s chinowa wreath, which is used in the Nagoshi no Harae summer purification.

It seems that these kind of chimaki are a speciality of Kyoto or Gion Matsuri in particular. This may be because Susanoo is the main god enshrined at Yasaka Shrine, for which Gion Matsuri is held. When researching this topic, most of the websites about chimaki pointed to a type of sweet rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves, that are eaten at Boy’s Day in May. But that’s a topic for another weekend post.

PS: I cannot for the heck of it find the photos of my own chimaki at the moment. It’s too late to take new ones, so I’ll add them tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!

 

Seiryu-e Festival

I’m so busy these days with all sorts of stuff, so even though I finally know about many of the cool events in Kyoto, I barely have time to go there anymore… However, last Friday I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule and visit the Seiryu-e Festival of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Seiryu-e Festival is the festival of the blue dragon, where an 18 m long dragon is carried through the temple precincts and later though the streets below Kiyomizu-dera. In the beginning, the dragon emerges from the 3 storied pagoda near the entrance of the temple. It is accompanied by three women in front and a group of men (monks?) behind it. Of course, a number of people with shell trumpets must be there as well to announce the coming of the dragon.

The blue dragon enters Kiyomizu-deraThere is a very short ceremony in the main hall of the temple before the dragon moves on to the newly renovated stage where it performs an elaborate dance to the chanting of the monks that have followed it earlier. Afterwards, the dragon moves through the temple precincts and back to the pagoda, which it circles once before leaving the temple through the main gate and going down to the streets below to bestow its blessings onto the town.

The blue dragon is believed to be an incarnation of Kannon – the goddess of mercy – and it is said that it visits the waterfalls of Kiyomizu-dera each night to drink. To Western minds it may sound a bit weird, but in Asian culture, dragons are associated with water instead of fire, and many temples and shrines have wells with a dragon-shaped spout. Also, the translation of Kiyomizu-dera is “Clear Water Temple”, so it seems natural for this temple to have a festival like this.

The blue dragon of Kiyomizu-deraInterestingly, this is one of the newest additions to Kyoto’s festival calendar. The first Seiryu-e festival was held only in 2000, and although the dragon is quite spectacular, it appears as if not many people are aware of the performance. I had the impression that most people who were visiting Kiyomizu-dera – which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto – didn’t know about the festival and were taken by surprise.

Because of this, the ceremony was not overly crowded, and I managed to get a first row spot to take photos; and I even managed to receive a special blessing including a paper talisman that was given out by the women accompanying the dragon through town. If you like, you can have a look at a short video of the Seiryu-e Festival at the homepage of Kiyomizu-dera: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/seiryu-e/

Otsu Hanabi

What a day! After my Japanese class I went to a lovely exhibition of handmade glass items (pity I couldn’t afford anything), then I was off to my weekly business meeting. And from there, I went straight to Otsu, a little town some 30 km east of Kyoto, situated on lake Biwa.

This was the highlight of my day, because today was the Biwako Hanabi – fireworks! Japanese fireworks usually happen in summer, and it’s always a big festival with drinks and food on the streets. Different to the West, a fireworks display is not part of a bigger event, it IS the event, and it can last an hour or even more.

I went there with a friend whose friend lives in Otsu and was up even earlier than me this morning and reserved a spot for a picnic in the very first row directly on the lake. This is necessary since there are very few places available where you won’t have to pay for your seat, and apparently, Otsu draws some 350.000 spectators for the fireworks each year. The train going there (2.5 hours before the event) was already packed, and upon leaving (my friend was driving) there were long, long queues in front of the train stations…

After the heavy rains yesterday, the weather was nice and cool, perfect to bathe your feet in the water, have a sushi bento and a beer, and watch the fireworks above you. We sat exactly opposite one of the two spots in the lake from which the rockets were shot, and this year’s theme was also water, by the way. There were fireworks depicting fish, umbrellas, and water melons, for example. Unfortunately it is notoriously difficult to photograph fireworks without a tripod, but I did get a few good pictures. Here’s one of them before I’m off to bed. Enjoy! Otsu Hanabi 2017

Saki Parade

Today was the Saki Matsuri parade of Gion festival. A friend invited me to her home on Oike dori, where we could watch the parade from her balcony. It was a nice Gion matsuri party with food, drinks and air conditioning inside, because even though it was overcast and hazy, both temperature and humidity were quite high. I even made the effort to properly honour the occasion and wore a yukata, a Japanese summer kimono – but I’ll write about this experience some other time.

I have written before about Gion matsuri and the parades in quite some detail, so this year I’ll simply post a handful of photos from a different view-point. Enjoy!

Gion matsuri Saki parade - Naginata hoko and 4 moreSitting on the roof of a hokoLooking down Oike dori towards Karasuma doriKamakiri Yama - an alltime favouriteDancingthe final two floats in the parade

Hideyoshi’s Hanami

It is cherry blossom season – hanami – and there are plenty of occasions to go out and watch Japanese look at the Japanese sakura cherry trees, most likely through a camera lens.

One of the oldest versions of hanami is recreated each year at Daigo-ji temple. In 1598, the de-facto-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had 700 sakura trees planted all over the temple precincts, and then hosted a party underneath the trees with more than 1300 invited guests. The procession starts out from Sanbo-in, an exquisite garden also designed by Hideyoshi. The gate already is interesting: The chrysanthemums on the outside represent the Imperial house, while the Paulownia in the centre are the family crest of the Toyotomi.

main gate of sanbo-in gardenFirst in line are samurai with a fierce look on their faces, and they are followed by court musicians, other nobles, and priests of the temple.

first in line: samuraiOnly then comes Hideyoshi, the only one not on foot, and he graciously waves to his subjects. At the time of the famous hanami, Hideyoshi was 62 years old, so the age and the appearance of the man on the dais is accurate.

Hideyoshi ToyotomiBehind him, at the end of the procession, follow Hideyoshi’s wife and his consorts. This was quite normal at the time, especially since marriages were more of a political than a love affair. He is said to have been extremely fond of his consort Yodo, the mother of his heir Hideyori, who was five years old at the time of the hanami. He did not follow the modern procession though.

Hideyoshi's womenThe procession took the short path of the lower part of Daigo-ji, and then entered the middle part of the temple through the  niomon gate.

entering through the niomon gateBeyond this, there are a number of temple buildings and a beautiful pagoda; but for the hanami, an extra stage is built for music and dance performances. Unfortunately, I did not see them because you need an extra ticket, but the music could be heard throughout the temple complex, so I think there was quite some party going on… court musicians in the procession

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…

Otsu Matsuri

Last Sunday I spent in Otsu, the capital of Shiga province, which lies on the shore of Lake Biwa, maybe 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu, for a short period in the 7th century the capital of Japan, is still home to the largest harbour on Lake Biwa, which itself is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. However, the city is rather stretched out along the shore, and thus has the feeling of a little town despite its 350.000 inhabitants. There are a number of famous sites there, but I did not do any sightseeing this time.

Instead I went to enjoy Otsu matsuri with some friends of mine. Otsu matsuri has its origins at the beginning of the Edo period at the turn of the 17th century; the first time it was officially recorded was 1624. It is similar to Gion matsuri in that there are large floats that are paraded through the city, but there are also differences. All floats of Otsu MatsuriThe hikiyama of Otsu matsuri are about two storeys high, that’s somewhere between the size of the yama and hoko floats of Gion, and they are similarly decorated with beautiful tapestries on the outside. They only have three large wheels, which makes them more easy to manoeuvre by the people who are pulling them – yes, I have seen some women doing that as well!

A hikiyamaOn the second floor of the hikiyama, which can be reached by a staircase at the inside, only men are allowed though. Traditionally, only the first sons of families that lived around the storage house of each hikiyama were allowed to take part in the matsuri, but this has changed recently, and other young men may now participate too. When the floats are moving, they play a tune with flutes and drums that is similar to the one at Gion matsuri – to my ears, at least.Young men playing flutesThe most interesting part of the 13 hikiyama however, are the wooden displays on the second floor. Those are karakuri ningyō, mechanical dolls, and they depict, or rather, act out, a scene from a well-known fairytale or story, mostl of them originating in China.Saikyo Sakura Tanuki Yama One of the exceptions is a float with a doll representing Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of the famous Tale of Genji. It is said that it was in Otsu – more precisely in Ishiyama Temple – where she began writing on her novel some time in the beginning of the 11th century. Murasaki ShikibuWe were invited to one of the houses that “own” one of the floats, and we could go to a second floor balcony and watch the parade from there, meaning that we were eye-to-eye with the dolls and the men playing the instruments. From such an elevated postion you can see that the dolls were operated manually as the men crouched down, but that did not take away the beauty of the performance. I especially liked the one depicting how to catch a Tai (a lucky fish of golden colour), and because each performance was repeated twice in front of our balcony, I could even catch the decisive moment on camera. Catching a fish