Sweet Apples

There are countless Japanese sweets. Some are made exclusively for tea ceremony, and others are eaten as desserts. Traditionally, many of these sweets are made with heavily sugared anko red bean paste or they involve matcha. Since I am not a big fan of red anko, I am happy whenever I find sweets that don’t have it. Like these palm-sized apples:

Crimson Apples dessertThese are called beniringo – crimson apples – for obvious reasons, and they are delicious. At first, I thought they would contain white anko (which I do like), but no, it gets better: they have an apple filling! They are a perfect afternoon snack, just two or three bites and very sweet. I have returned to the shop twice now and handed these sweets out to friends, and I’m actually tempted to buy another batch before they start the winter season with their sweets and I have to wait another year.

These wonderful apples are made by Kogetsu, a traditional Japanese sweets shop from Kyoto that opened back in 1945. Today, they have 16 stores in Kyoto and their sweets are sold in 69 shops (including department stores etc.) throughout Japan. If you’re coming to Kyoto and interested in Japanese sweets, both traditional and with a modern twist, I recommend you check them out.

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the Dunes
Kobo Abe

Niki Jumpei travels to a remote beach to catch sand beetles for his collection. On his search, he discovers a village with houses that are overcome by the sand, so much so, that some of them stand on the bottom of pits dug into the dunes. When he misses the last bus home, the village elders allow him to stay with a woman who lives in one of these sunken houses. The next morning however, Jumpei finds himself trapped down there. Forced to help the woman excavate the sand so as not to be buried by it, he must choose whether to fight against the inevitable or to give in to it – and to the woman.

This is probably the best known book by Kobo Abe and a personal favourite of mine to which I return ever so often. We follow Jumpei’s inner journey as he is trapped at the bottom of the pit, and the question “what would I do” is ever present. The ending of this novel is interesting, and depending on your own answer to the question above will either come as a shock or as a natural conclusion of Jumpei’s path.

Kobo Abe, born in Tokyo in 1924, was a Japanese writer, playwright, musician, photographer and inventor. Following his father’s footsteps, he studied medicine in Tokyo and graduated in 1948. In his last year in medical school, he started writing short stories, and already in 1951, he recceived the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Woman in the Dunes, published in 1961, earned him the Yomiuri Prize and international acclaim as was turned into a movie. Abe was famous for his surreal and modernist style. He died in 1993.

Somehow I feel that this kafkaesque novel is the perfect ending for 2020. If you want to give it a try, you can get it from amazon.

Labour Thanksgiving Day

Today is the end of a long weekend in Japan, with Labour Thanksgiving Day – kinro kansha no hi – today. This national holiday was established in 1948 and is meant to “praise labour, celebrate production and give thanks to one another”. Especially the “celebrate production” was important after WWII when Japan and its economic miracle took the world (and the car industry in particular) by storm…

When it comes to Kyoto, the most celebrated type of production was going on in the textile industry. For centuries, it was a thriving industry with thousands of people working in it, and even today, it is one of the main industries in Kyoto (after tourism, of course). In Kyoto, the traditional textile industry has seen some of its most interesting innovations, like yuzen, shibori and other types of dyeing, and of course, nishijin-ori weaving for obi. Interestingly, when it comes to looms for weaving, Nagoya’s Toyota company was a large manufacturer, before they moved into the automotive business.

Although modern looms are used almost everywhere, obi are usually still woven by hand with traditional Jacquard machines – which have been modernised from punch cards to computer controls at least. Still, there is something special about seeing a craftsman working on a traditional loom. And even though the photo below was taken in a studio and does not depict the reality of an 1875 weaving workshop, it does come pretty close to how the work is done even today.

Pictures From Taisho

I’m very interested in Japanese history, in particular in the time of the Meiji and Taisho Emperors.

The Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) was when the Shogunate was abolished and Japan opened up to the Western world and had to speedily catch up with it. It was an era of extreme modernisation, in particular in the cities, while I would assume that most people in the countryside kept living their lives like they had for the last 250 years.

The Taisho Era (1912 – 1925) that followed saw a similar development, but at the same time, the West’s fascination with the newly discovered Japan lessened and whatever was left was drowned out by WWI.

In any case, below is a video of early film recordings taken in Tokyo in the very early years of Taisho, 1913 – 1915. You can see most of the people, in particular children, wearing traditional Japanese clothing and sporting traditional hairdos (I’m a fan of those!) The streets are crowded (as they are today) and I don’t recognise anything except the big lanterns at Asakusa temple in the very end.

The old film has been colored for this video, and there is an underlying soundtrack. The coloring is pretty good, but I’m not happy with the soundtrack – Japanese people are never so noisy! On the other hand, these are mostly children, and maybe things have changed in the last 100+ years. Anyway, enjoy!

Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Nonomiya Jinja

Deep in the bamboo forest of Arashiyama lies Nonomiya Jinja, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, dating back to the 7th century. Nowadays, it is a rather small shrine overflowing with tourists, but when it was established, it was literally a “shrine in the fields” (hence the name) dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Those imperial princesses who were meant to become priestesses at Ise, the main shrine of Amaterasu, first came here for a purification rite that took a year or more. Afterwards, they were sent off in a colorful procession, never to return to their family.

The first such saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of the Saga Emperor in the 8th century. However, the practice ended in the 14th century. Afterwards, the shrine continued to be used for a variety of imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, and probably its size as well, it is still maintained and visited by members of the Imperial Family until today.

Nonomiya Jinja lies in the evergreen bamboo forest of Arashiyama – the traditional meaning of bamboo is to ward off evil. The entrance to the shrine precincts is at the black kuroki torii which is made from oak with its bark left intact. This kind of “natural” torii is the oldest style of torii that has been used, but because they are nowadays seen very rarely since they are expensive to set up and properly care for.

The haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu is to be worshipped, lies only a few steps behind the torii. This is the main square of Nonomiya shrine and there are many ways to pray to the gods. For one, there is the large kame-ishi stone that looks like a turtle. It is said, that if you ask the gods for something and afterwards, with that wish still in mind, give the kame-ishi a good rub, the wish will come true within a year.

Here is also a spot to put up ema or to write your wishes onto prayer sticks, both of which will be ritually burned at special intervals. And if you buy one of the special mizu omikuji, there is a little well where you can float your water charms and see what is in store for you.

To the right of the haiden, there is a red torii that leads further into the shrine’s precincts. Here are the shrines for the minor gods that are worshipped here, like Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten who are responsible for good marriages and childbirth, and Shiramine Bezaiten and Ooyama Bezaiten watch over the arts and traffic safety, respectively.

There is also an interesting mikoshi portable shrine that looks quite different to the others that are usually used during festivals. I am not sure why this is, but it makes a nice motif for photos.

Another popular motif is the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small compared to many other shrine gardens, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.

Because Nonomiya Shrine lies within the rather dark bamboo forest and it carries the idea of parting from Kyoto, it has a rather sombre atmosphere which has inspired many painters and writers. For example, Nonomiya Shrine plays an important part in a chapter of the Tale of Genji, where prince Genji visits his lover – the mother of a saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a famous noh play by Zeami, called after the shrine Nonomiya (Shrine in the Fields). Of course, many poems have been written about the shrine and its suroundings, and it even plays a role in the book The Old Capital by Japanese Nobelprize winner Kawabata Yasunari.

Nonomiya Shrine is popular amongst women who look for relationships and marriage, or who come to pray for easy childbirth. There are beautiful enmusubi (tie-the-knot) omamori available, which show motifs of the long gone Heian era. Sadly, the goshuin stamp of the shrine is not very pretty, since it is only a red stamp without the usual calligraphy written in black.

Kyoto's Bamboo Forest, completely empty.I would not necessarily recommend Nonomiya Shrine on its own since it is rather small and there are too many people to enjoy the experience (if there’s no pandemic going on…) However, if you’re strolling around the bamboo forest anyway, it’s a nice place to step in. The big event at Nonomiya Shrine is the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession in October, where the ancient procession of the princess to Ise is reenacted, even though she only goes as far as the river these days.

Chrysanthemum Festival

September 9 is one of the special days in the Japanese calendar. It is the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival, also called choyo or kikku-no-sekka, and many shrines and temples have ceremonies to pray for health and, in particular, longevity. This is because 9. 9. is the largest single-digit day possible, and so there is a connection. Looking at the Japanese statistics of people who lived beyond 99 years of age, the prayers actually seem to work.

In Kyoto, the most famous Chrysanthemum Festival is at Kamigamo Shrine, where there is karasu sumo, a special event with kids performing sumo for the gods. I visited this event already in 2013, you can read about my impressions in the post I did then.

So, today I had to go elsewhere, partly also because the karasu sumo was cancelled because of Covid19. Many other shrines have cancelled their events too, so I decided to visit Kuramazaki Jinja who promised a special dance for the occasion. I have passed the shrine before, on my visits to Arashiyama, and it looked interesting, so off I went just before noon.

At Kuramazaki Jinja, the kikku-no-sekka ceremony started with the usual prayers to the gods, accompanied by gagaku music. Then, different types and colors of chrysanthemums were offered to the gods in a comparatively short but nevertheless solemn ceremony. Afterwards, there was indeed a dance performance by a female dancer who also held chrysanthemums in her hands during the dance. For some reason, the music for her performance came from a tape, I did not quite understand why, since there were gagaku players present. Finally, guests to the ceremony were allowed to make their offerings to the gods as well.

Altogether, the ceremony took about 30 minutes. I felt that it had been scaled down from its usual size. For one, there was no chrysanthemum sake offered to the visitors because of Covid19. Also, I believe there should have been more performances of music and dance after the religious ceremony, but whether they were cancelled because of Corona or because of the rain, I am not sure.

One thing that struck me immediately: There was a woman among the priests of the shrine. I have never seen this before. Usually, all the priests are male, and the only women allowed near the gods are the miko, the shrine maidens, who to this day have to be unmarried women. And here, there was a young female priest, and she even seemed to lead the ceremony. Slowly, slowly, even Japan is changing. Maybe.

Torarin

Japan is the land of mascots. Every prefecture has one, many cities have one, every government office has one, and even private businesses sometimes have one. They are called yuru-chara and most of them are cute – after all, they are meant as ambassadors and promotional tools.

Kyoto’s official mascot is Mayumaro. He’s based on a silk cocoon (because of Kyoto’s silk and textile industry) and has been doing public relations for Kyoto since 1969. But there are many other yuru-chara in Kyoto, for example Kyoto’s public transport offices have two – one cute little bus called Kyo-chan, and Miyako-kun who represents Kyoto’s subway.

One of the latest additions to the ranks of Kyoto’s inofficial ambassadors is Torarin, the mascot of Kyoto National Museum. Officially, this little tiger is called Kogata Rinnojo, but Torarin will do just fine, after all, he’s just 5 years old. The name is a portmanteau of Tora (tiger) and Rin (for Rinpa, a Japanese school of painting), and he is modeled after a famous ink painting by Ogata Korin. That’s also the reason why he’s black and white and not as colorful as many other yuru-chara.

However, he is absolutely cute, and on my last visit to the museum, I just had to buy him in effigy, I mean: a plushie which now sits on my desk and watches me writing this post… I came across him via the homepage of the Kyoto National Museum, where there is a link to Torarin’s youtube channel. There, he explores the museum, his home, with the help of the staff. Some of the videos have been translated into English, and while they are obviously made for kids, they are interesting for adults as well.

Of course Torarin also has a personal website (with an online shop for fans), a facebook page (as a “public figure” nonetheless) and a twitter account. He’s quite busy, obviously. Well, the next time I’ll visit the National Museum, I will try to see if I can match my schedule to his. Would be nice to meet him “in person”.

Kwaidan

Kwaidan: Studies and Stories of Strange Things
Lafcadio Hearn

This is a, if not the, classic collection of Japanese ghost stories. While there are many famous ghost stories related to classic Japanese literature, like the Tale of the Heike, the 17 stories contained here are old folk tales. For example, “The Story of Mimi-nashi-hoichi” tells of the dangerous experience of a blind musician who gives a concert on a graveyard. And “Yuki-onna” warns of the dangers of not keeping a woman’s secret.

Collected more than 100 years ago, these stories have lost none of their charm and have rightfully earned their place among the must read books for everyone interested in Japan and its culture.

Lafcadio Hearn was born 1850 in Greece and moved to the US when he was 19 to work as a journalist. In 1890, he was sent to Japan and was soon offered a teaching position. Hearn wrote a great number of articles with a focus on Japanese customs and folklore, even though he is mainly known for the collection of ghost stories above. He married into a Japanese family and took the name Koizumi Yakumo, under which he is famous in Japan. He never left the country again and died in Tokyo in 1904 from heart failure.

Japanese people tell each other ghost stories in summer to cool down. To be true to tradition, you should get the book one of these days, perhaps from amazon.

Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.