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

Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Keiji Nakazawa

Cover of the first volume of "Barefoot Gen"Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.

But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.

And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…

Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.

Keiji Nakazawa, manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.

Check out the book – or better, the whole series – from amazon.

Fire Walking

Last Friday evening, I went to the Tanukidani Fudoin Temple. This beautiful old temple is reminiscent of Kiyomizudera, which is also built on “stilts” at the top of a steep incline. However, Tanukidani Fudoin is much less famous, probably because it is so much smaller, there is no nice view over Kyoto from there, and getting there is much harder – especially climbing the 250 steps at the end of the already steep road is very exhausting. At least in winter, you’ll be nicely warmed up at the end though…

Tanukidano Fudion TempleAnyway, I went there last Friday for the hi-watari – fire walking – ceremony. It is meant to pray for protection and health, and it was the longest religious ceremony I have watched so far in Japan. It started with chants and prayers in the main hall, which I could hear but not see because I had stayed outside to secure a good spot for the main part of the ceremony that started about 30 minutes later.

On the central open space of the temple, a large pyre had been built with logs and pine branches. When the monks had finished their ceremony in the main hall, they went down to the “temple square” and took their places there. Four seated themselves at the corners, surrounding the pyre, the others took their seats at some benches that had been specially provided.

Beginning of the hi-watari ritualThen there was more chanting by the monks, and the head priest performed some rituals, the meaning of which I did not understand. At some point, one of the monks took up a prepared bow, went to each of the four men sitting in the corners of the square, took an arrow from them, said an incantation, and then shot the arrow out towards the four corners of the world. A fifth arrow was shot into the pyre. I assume that this part of the ceremony was meant to repel evil coming from the four cardinal directions, but as I said, I am not sure.

Only after this was done, the pyre was finally lit with a large torch. More chants and prayers followed, including walking around the bonfire, and the head priest threw bundles of wood into the fire, possibly ema, prayer tablets. This whole part of the ceremony took maybe one hour, and at the end of it, the bonfire was nicely ablaze and its sparks were flying high into the nightly air.

Starting the fireWhen all the chants had been spoken and all the monks had taken their rounds around the bonfire, the fire was torn apart by some of the monks and the wood was formed into a pathway of maybe 6 by 3 meters. The larger logs, still burning, were moved to the outside, and at the inside there was left a layer of glimmering charcoal. And then came the moment all the spectators had been waiting for: The monks lined up at one end of the fiery path – and walked over the coals to the other side.

Final FirewalkingThey were accompanied by a large taiko drum, which gave the scene a sort of earnest urgency. It looked very serene, the monks went rather slowly and did not seem fazed at all. A lady next to me, however, remarked that the coals in the middle of the path were completely black by now, meaning they were probably not too hot anymore. Still, it was impressive to watch, and the burning logs at the sides of the path were probably hot enough anyway.

This marked the end of the ceremony, and once all the monks had passed over the hot coals, those who had so far only watched were now also allowed to try fire walking. A large amount of people did, the idea of this part is to pray for good health over summer. Interestingly, many of the ceremonies that take place in summer are to pray for good health; I wonder if in the olden days people were more prone to die from summer heat (or maybe hot weather diseases) than from whatever cold or pneumonia you can catch in winter. It might explain why most Japanese still seem to suffer less in the cold winter than in the hot summer, even though a too much of both is unpleasant.

Mitarashi Dango

Staying with the theme of last Thursday, let’s introduce more Japanese food: mitarashi dango.

Dango are little Japanese dumplings made from rice flour. They are similar to mochi, but mochi are much softer and sweeter than the dango. Dango are usually boiled in water and then skewered in groups of three to five.

Except for the hanami dango that are sold during cherry blossom season and come in three flavours (cherry, green tea, and plain), the dango themselves are usually plain and don’t have much taste. The flavour comes by adding a sauce to the skewered dango, and you can have anything on top from a layer of anko (red bean paste), to a chestnut paste, kinako (roasted soy flour), or sesame seeds.

A set of three mitarashi dango skewersIf you first boil and then grill the dango over a fire and finally cover them with a sweet sauce made of sugar, water, rice vinegar, and soy sauce, you get mitarashi dango. Their origin goes back to the mitarashi festival of Shimogamo shrine, where a family offered the first skewered dango to the gods. Their round shape is meant to resemble the bubbles that form in the shrine’s Mitarashi pond, and that there are usually five to one skewer is explained by the fact that the top dango counts as the head, and the lower four as the arms and legs of a human.

Nowadays, mitarashi dango are sold all over Japan, and especially in summer they are very popular. However, there is a very old mitarashi dango shop nearby Shimogamo shrine, and it is said that the first mitarashi dango were made there. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly a nice story, and I think I might just go and visit that particular shop to try the original.

Mitarashi Festival

Today I went with a friend to the Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo Shrine. This was at least the third time I went there, but it seems I haven’t written about this before. Time to fill the gap then! The Mitarashi festival is an extremely popular festival in Kyoto, and thousands of locals go to Shimogamo Shrine each year to celebrate it. It is very interesting and “hands-on” and there are several steps involved. First, you go to the shrine to pray as usual. Then you turn to the little stream and pond of the shrine that is usually off-limits. Mitarashi festival at Shimogamo ShrineYou take off your shoes, buy a small candle and then wade through the waters of the stream. Somewhere in the middle of the way, you light you candle, and then you walk with your candle to the end of the stream and place it in front of a tiny little shrine. Some people say another quick prayer there. Don’t let the candle go out – you will have to go back and light it again! (Using somebody else’s fire is frowned upon.) The water is ice-cold, which is nice for a short time, but can get very unpleasant if you have to go back and forth more than once or twice.

The idea of the ritual is to pray for good health over summer, and bathing your feet in the cold water definitely helps to cool you down for a while. After you step out of the stream and put on your shoes again, you can drink a cup of fresh water from the shrine’s own well. And there are also little bamboo sheets in the shape of feet for sale, where you write down the names and dates of your loved ones in order to pray for their health as well. Those are put in the water in front of the little Mitarashi Shrine I mentioned before and will be floated down the stream to take the ailments of the people with them. Prayer cards in the form of feetAs I said, this festival is immensely popular, and it lasts about one week each year in July. It opens at 5:30 in the morning and ends only at 9 in the evening, and especially after sunset, there are always lots of people. Many of the smaller kids who come with their parents take the opportunity to splash about noisily in the water, they don’t seem to be concerned about the cold at all. The officials of the shrine don’t seem to mind that, after all, shinto is meant to be a celebration of life.

I really enjoy visiting the Mitarashi festival, and so far, this has been the only festival in Kyoto where I went to each and every year. And I hope that there will be many years to come!

Kai Awase

Do you know the game memory? At least that’s what it’s called in Austria: you have pairs of cards with the same image, they are placed face down on a table and each player may only turn two cards – if they are the same, he may keep them.

The kai awase or shell matching game is an ancient Japanese game that is very similar. It is based on the fact that sea shells consist of two halves which show the same pattern on both halves that fit together perfectly.

Starting from there, playing kai awase is simple: You place the shell halves in front of you and search for the two that belong together. You can check that by simply putting the halves together and see if they fit. If they do, you win, if they don’t, it’s somebody else’s turn.

kaiawase playSo far, so boring. What is interesting about this game is that the insides of the shells are painted. They usually show a typical Japanese scene taken from a well-known story, or images of hanami, temples etc. The images in one shell are never identical, but show to images that go together in some way. For example, there is a couple at hanami: one shell shows the woman, the other the man under blooming cherry trees. Those miniatures are lovely – and you may only look at them if the shells you picked are matching ones. This is your reward for winning the kai awase.

Inside of kai awase shellsKai awase dates back to the Heian court of 1000 years ago. Since this was a game for court ladies, I wonder if the miniatures on the inside of the shells played any additional role. I could imagine for example, that once you found a matching shell, you had to tell the story that goes with the images – or maybe make up a new one. Of course, there are no original shells around any longer (or at least I doubt it very much), but even today you can buy kai awase sets in Kyoto, as a high-class (and high-priced), but very beautiful souvenir.

Kimono

Every Tuesday I have a work meeting in town that usually takes two hours and is pretty much, well, business. Last week, however, there was a kimono exhibition in the same building where the office is, so it was decided that we would go upstairs and have a look.

Kimono and obi on displayIt was fantastic! All the kimono and obi were silk, handmade and exquisite – and of an appropriate price class, of course. Have a look at the kimono above. They are not yet finished, meaning, only roughly sewn together to be fitted to the final buyer. Each of them is made of one those rolls of silk that you see lying there; each roll holds about 14 metres of cloth.

Obi showing cranesThe obi are handmade as well, and we saw somebody applying gold leaf to an obi in a technique called kinsai. Other obi were “simply” embroidered by hand, which for a standard obi of four meters length and more will take a while. No wonder they can be more expensive than a kimono. Interestingly, an obi is the main accessory for a kimono. If you buy a kimono in a not too flashy color, you will be able to wear it for years – and dress it up or down according to the formality of the occasion, and the age of the wearer with an appropriate obi. I’m not sure if you can get away with only owning a single kimono, but it seems you won’t need as many as Western clothing.

The picture below shows my favourite kimono. It is made in the yuzen dyeing technique, which essentially means it is hand painted. The artist, a man in his 60s, was present at the exhibition, and he says that it took him 20 years to master the technique. Remember that a kimono is made of a single roll of silk? It is not cut during the painting and the artist said that by now, he can paint the whole cloth in a way so that when it is cut up into the kimono, the sides of the design will fit together perfectly. He laments the decline of the kimono as a whole, which is not surprising if you know that one of those may take him up to six months to complete, and it will cost about 1.5 million yen. At the moment, he is looking for an apprentice, so if you have 20 years to spare… Kimono showing waves; made in the yuzen technique

Nara’s Heijo Palace

Nara, the capital of Nara prefecture, is a small city with 360.000 inhabitants about one hour south of Kyoto. Today, it is a rather typical Japanese city, but some 1300 years ago, from 710 – 794, Nara was the capital of Japan before the imperial court moved to Kyoto. But in this period of only 84 years – called the Nara period – a truly impressive palace was built: Heijo-kyu.

The Heijo palace was built in accordance with Chinese customs: Since the emperor was seen as the head of state, the palace must lie on the head of the capital city, which means, on the northern end. The rest of the city was placed on a strict grid layout. The main north-south road, called Suzaku dori, an enormous boulevard of 75 m width, led from the southern city gate called Rajo mon up to the palace’s main gate Suzaku mon. And the main east-west road – smaller, but still 37 m wide Nijo-oji – also passed in front of Suzaku mon.Suzakumon from the inside of the palace grounds

This Suzaku gate is a truly impressive building. 25 m wide, 10 deep and 22 m high in two storeys, it was bigger than any other gate of the palace. With its vermillion pillars, white walls and black roof tiles it reminds one of similar buildings in Korea.

It also looks like a smaller version of the Former Imperial Audience Hall, which is situated exactly north of the gate, in an enormous courtyard, where the imperial courtiers had to assemble for official ceremonies like New Year’s celebrations or coronations. The most interesting thing about the Imperial Audience Hall, besides the fact that it is the largest building of Heijo palace with 44 m width, 20 m depth, and 27 m height, is that it has no doors to the south – the lower part of the building is completely open. That means that the emperor could gaze without hindrance over the whole palace and assembled courtiers from his throne in the center of the hall. (In the reconstructed building, glass sliding doors have been installed in the southern wall).

Former Imperial Audience Hall at Heijo PalaceThis whole compound from the early Nara period from Suzaku gate to the Imperial Audience Hall was enclosed in a cloister – a covered walkway with an earthen wall in the middle (and strategically placed gates).

Detail on the Former Imperial Audience HallIn 745, a new audience hall was built a bit south-east of the old one. North of this Latter Imperial Audience Hall, and east of the former one, lay the Imperial Domicile. On this site, an enormous well was found, lined with Japanese cypress – a hollowed trunk of 1.7 m diameter. Apparently, this well was meant for the exclusive use of the imperial family.

The well of the Imperial Domicile at Heijo PalaceNearby were the Ministry of the Imperial Household, the Office of Rice Wine and Vinegars (with another impressively sized well) and a number of other government offices. Those were much more modest buildings with wooden roofs and simple interiors. Interestingly, the smaller government officials – those who had to do all the mundane tasks – at that time sat on chairs and desks as we know them today (probably another import from China) and they wrote on little wooden slats, the top layer of which could be sliced off repeatedly in an early form of recycling.

Actually, recycling seems to have been quite en vogue in that early period. Some of the lower government buildings have been rebuilt six times, probably not for repairs, but for other, hitherto unknown reasons. When the court moved on to Kyoto in 794, some of the buildings were relocated (foremost the Former Imperial Audience Hall). The same probably happened to buildings of lesser value, and some of the building materials may have been used elsewhere. The buildings that were left when Nara was abandoned as capital, either burnt down or simply fell into disrepair and disappeared over time. The land was reused for agriculture and the fact that once there was an Imperial Palace was (partly) forgotten.

Former Imperial Audience Hall as seen from the Suzaku gate (almost). This is the reason why, when you visit Heijo palace today, the most striking aspect of the palace site is the sheer size of it: Once it covered an area of 1 square kilometer, and today it is nothing but a large open field. The current Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo may be equally large, but because of all the buildings and trees on the grounds, one doesn’t notice that. In Nara, only from 1959 research, investigation, and excavation on the Heijo Palace grounds have been carried on continuously. The site of the Latter Imperial Audience Hall was only rediscovered in 1974 and reconstruction of some buildings began in 1989. Most remarkable, the Suzaku southern gate and the Former Imperial Audience Hall have been rebuilt in great detail, partly with methods employed in the Nara period itself. Some of the original building materials can be admired in the museums on site.

Corner of a Roof, reconstructed with excavated roof tiles.However, whatever building you see at the Heijo palace site is merely an educated guess. There are no historical paintings from that time, and scholars had to piece together information from excavations on the site, from temples built in the same period, or from descriptions of the few historical documents that do exist of or refer to that time period.

All in all, if you don’t mind walking around, Heijo Palace is worth a visit. The sheer vastness of (empty) space is impressive, and museums and excavations, even though far apart, are very interesting – and often even come with English translation. And photography is allowed pretty much everywhere, if you turn off your flash.

I’m back…

…both figuratively and literally speaking! Last week I took a few days off from business and went down to Nara, a small town about an hour south of Kyoto. Yes I know, I could have chosen a more exotic location – Nara is much like Kyoto on a smaller scale – but I really didn’t have the energy for a long trip. All I wanted was a nice and quiet hotel somewhere I could hunker down for a few days and sleep.

nightview from my hotelroomEven though I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I had planned – too much to explore in Nara – the hotel was just what I needed. I had booked a Japanese ryokan overlooking the city and very much “away” from everything, since it was reachable only by car. What attracted me to the hotel in the first place was the view over the city, the large tatami rooms complete with own genkan and indoors balcony, public hot bath and included Japanese breakfast.

My room in NaraFriendly staff are the norm all over Japan, but since this was my first longer stay in a ryokan, there were a number of little things I experienced first hand that were absolutely charming. For example, a board next to the main door saying “welcome Miss Iris”. A matcha when I was shown my room and its amenities. When I returned from sightseeing on the second day, I had barely time to slip into my hotel yukata when there was a knock on my door, and with a “welcome home” I was served green tea and a sweet. There was also a little note on my table informing me about tomorrow’s weather. All of this, apparently, also is standard in Japanese ryokan. I love Japan!

coming out of the public bathAnyway, I had a lovely and relaxing trip. I learned a few more interesting things about Japan, and I’m feeling ready to get back to work! I hope I didn’t make you too jealous with my hotel photos… More photos of other things Nara will follow, promised!