Daimonji

Yesterday was the final day of the Obon festival, where the dead, who have returned to earth during the last few days are sent off to the underworld again. In Kyoto, this sending off is celebrated with 5 enormous fires that are lit on mountains surrounding the city, called the Daimonji festival (or, officially, the Gozan-no-okuribi).

This year, I had wanted to go to Arashiyama to see the large torii, which is the only one of the five fires you cannot see from the city. However, I started a project in the afternoon and overlooked the time and because it takes about an hour from here to Arashiyama, I would not have made it on time to see the fire (each one only burns for 20 – 30 minutes or so.)

So, I decided to stay local and go to the myo-ho, which is not one, but two fires about 20 minutes from my apartment. They are on rather low mountains and other than the big dai on Mount Daimonji and the lovely boat-shaped funegata, I cannot see them from my balcony.

However, even here, I was too late because I underestimated the amount of people who would be in the area. The myo-ho fires can best be viewed from a little road that is usually completely devoid of traffic, but last night it was full with people! While I could see the first one of the fires, the ho, I was just a little bit too late to see the myo character. When I finally had made my way through all the people there, the fire had already gone out…

The "ho" character of the Daimonji festivalOh well, at least I could see the big dai and the funegata on my trip. And next year I know to either be very early, or to take a different road a bit further south where there are (hopefully) no people. Or maybe I’ll make it to Arashiyama to see the torii after all.

Pottery Festival

Every year from August 7 – 10, there is a pottery festival in Kyoto. Along both sides of the eastern most bit of Gojo dori, between the Kamogawa and Higashiyama, hundreds of stalls are set up by people from all over Japan selling pottery. And that’s on top of all the pottery shops that already line that part of Gojo dori.

I am not a huge fan of pottery, but I was in the area yesterday anyway so I dropped by. I was hoping to maybe find a few of those tiny dishes that Japanese use for soy sauce or similar, but I didn’t find anything I liked, so I returned home empty-handed.

There were a few truly stunning pieces though, for example rather large black vases that looked like hewn from lava stone, with a crane motif painted in gold and silver, for some 350000 yen each. I could imagine that you buy this kind of vase for a tea room or something similar formal. Not for me this time. I did contemplate buying one or two little ceramic airplanes, which the seller had displayed on a shelf looking like an aircraft carrier, which was a cute touch.

Anyway, a bit off the main street at an entrance to a shrine there was this: Taoist god fighting a devilIt depicts a Taoist god fighting the devil on the left, and both are made with old ceramic plates and cups of all sizes. This was a project of students of one of Kyoto’s art universities, and they said it took them three months to complete. It was a very interesting art installation, and we talked a little, they also had a questionnaire asking for input for next year’s project. I said maybe something really Kyoto like one of the temples, or at least a temple gate, or something Japanese, like a Shinkansen or similar. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested Kyoto tower or maybe the Sky Tree… Oh well, next year then.

More Taxes

Japan has an interesting system regarding the payment of taxes and social security, both for individuals and companies. The amount you have to pay each month does not depend on your current income, but on the income from the year before. And since the standard fiscal year for a company ends in March, the numbers for taxes and social security are calculated after that, and the new amounts have to be paid from July onwards.

Up until now, I have paid very little taxes on my income; I only had to pay national taxes to the amount of about 5000 yen per month. I would pay them twice a year only, accumulated for six months. However, now in the third year of my business, I also have to pay city and prefectural taxes on my income, which is another 5000 yen each per month. So, from one month to the next, my tax payment has tripled – and my income stayed the same, not to talk about my profits (for now).

Japanese currencyInterestingly, these two payments cannot be processed automatically using a collection order for the tax office for example. The reason is – as my accountant claims – that the monthly amount may fluctuate depending on the number of employees and their salaries. And the Kyoto city and prefectural tax offices, naturally, are by far not as advanced as my gas company for example and could not possibly know how to deal with this.

And since my bank denies me internet banking for my company account for some random reason, I will now have to make a pilgrimage before the 10th day of each month to my bank so I can pay my taxes there – in person and with a manually filled out piece of paper. So much for the highly advanced tech-country Japan. Well, I guess all the staff at my bank need something to do…

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.

Public Service

Today, I am feeling very proud of myself! After not sleeping very well last night and then spending all day in different meetings, I came home around 5 pm – and still had the energy to perform a public service: I killed a cockroach that was lurking in the hallway outside my apartment!

At first I thought it was a cicada because they are of a similar size and colour, and never before have I seen a cockroach sitting on a wall about two meters off the ground. So I checked twice before picking up the glass cleaning fluid and liberally spraying the insect with it until it died. This doesn’t seem like much of work, but I probably saved this building from potentially 400 more cockroaches this summer – which yes, I consider a public service even if it happened right in front of my own apartment.

Now I should do a bit more hunting inside my apartment. Last Sunday, just when I was about to go out, I discovered a gecko in my office. I don’t mind them very much, in fact they are rather cute and I think they have very intelligent faces. However, it would surely be better for the both of us I can find it and put it outside again. This is now the second gecko entering my apartment since I lived here and I would really like to know how it got in. Yes, my windows are now open essentially 24/7, but that’s what the fly screens are for, no?

Incompetence

As you know, I have been very busy promoting What’s up in Kyoto. Part of the promotion is a small advertising campaign with posters in one of the best frequented subway stations in Kyoto. I have contacted an advertising company and they really did their best to have the posters up on July 14th, that’s three days before the first Gion Matsuri parade and also during yoiyama, where this particular subway station is very busy.

I was very happy, and waited for all the visitors that would come to my site and… nothing. Or, at least, not much more than usual. I thought, oh well, you probably have to pass the same poster more than once to take action, so I was not really worried (okay, maybe a little because I spent a lot of money).

And then I received an email from the advertising company yesterday evening at around 7 pm, telling me that: We are so sorry, but the posters were removed already on the 16th due to the mismanagement of the transportation office! My first reaction: I laughed out loud. Using the word “mismanagement” or “incompetence” in business communication is pretty strong, I did not expect that at all from the gentle and roundabout Japanese. It made my evening.

By now, the posters have been put up again, and as a compensation, I will receive a whole month of free advertising since they will leave the posters up until mid September. And also the reprinting will not cost me a thing! If all Japanese incompetence is like this, I don’t think I mind…

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

Gion Matsuri!

It’s Gion Matsuri again! I haven’t been out to see any of the big events this year, I’m only writing about them… But, as a Kyoto resident, there is no excuse: You must go and see Gion Matsuri.

Today, me and two friends of mine got all dressed up in our summer yukata and went out to see the construction of the first set of floats for the Saki Matsuri Parade next Monday. We had tickets for a tea ceremony at the float called Kikuhoko, which is one of the big ones about 25 m high, with a big golden chrysanthemum on top. These things are done to raise money for the respective yamaboko community, together with selling souvenirs like chimaki and other charms or tenugui.

The tea ceremony was a very casual one. Only the master who made the tea was kneeling on a slightly raised platform, all the other guests were sitting on tables and there was a constant coming and going. Before the matcha we were served a sweet jelly made from black sugar on a blue plate shaped like a chrysanthemum (which we were allowed to keep, by the way). While we were sipping our tea, a group of young girls came in to sit in front of us. My friend gave me a nudge and said “honmono – the real thing”. Yes, during Gion Matsuri even lowly people like us have the chance to meet real maiko…maiko after tea ceremonyAfter the tea ceremony, we went through the hokomachi to see some of the other yamaboko in construction. I always love to see the Funehoko which is shaped like a boat, so we went there among others. We even came across one of the trial pullings that were taking place today, of the Hokahoko if I’m correct. The fun thing about this is that everybody may step up and help pulling, even women and kids who are obviously not part of the big, real parade.

Kids before the trial pulling of the Hokahoko. We did not see all of the floats though, since it was quite hot with 36 degrees. And even though people may tell you otherwise, a yukata is a quite warm piece of clothing… The last hoko we visited was the Naginata hoko. It is always the one to lead the parade and the only one left with a chigo, a young boy to perform a number of rituals during the festival month. We even went upstairs to the community house of the Naginata hoko, but women are not allowed to enter the float itself (all the others will be happy to grant everybody access, for a fee of course).

Inside the Naginata hoko community house.I had a wonderful afternoon, and this year my yukata held up better than last year. I learned a few tricks on how to wear one better (involving towels), but I know that there is still room for improvement. I got several nice comments about my outfit in general, so I must have done something right. Bonus cute story: In the bus home I sat next to an old lady who all of a sudden leaned over and asked: “I’m sorry, it’s very rude, but… did you put on your yukata all by yourself?” And when I said yes I did and confessed that it took me 30 minutes, she was quite impressed about my dedication to do this!

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!

Kimono

After all these years I finally found out how clothing works. Okay, that sounds odd… Let’s say: I think I finally understand why so many women have fun shopping for clothes. And it happened in a shop selling kimono.

kimonoI never liked shopping for clothes: The sleeves are too long, the shirt too tight, the pants don’t sit right… in short, there is always something wrong with whatever I try. By now, I have learned to compromise and have at least a rudimentary understanding what works for my body and what doesn’t, which speeds up the selection process considerably, but still, clothes shopping is not one of my favourite pastimes. Especially here in Asia, where women are shaped like Greek columns, it is very hard to cater for my curves.

But the other day, I went to a department store in town. They sell everything – I love browsing through their stationary department – and there is always a space near the entrance that sells clothing and accessories: Hats and scarves in winter, rain boots and umbrellas during rainy season, and right now: yukata.

Yukata are light summer kimono made from cotton, and the patterns are usually airy and fun. Even though I can’t wear yukata easily, I like to browse through them and enjoy the patterns. And suddenly it struck me: Essentially, a yukata fits everybody. You just tuck a bit more or less here or there, but at the end of the day, anyone can wear a yukata – and will look good in it! So, with that in mind, you can really focus on colors and patterns and there’s no need to worry about anything – the thing simply fits!

At this point I finally understood why there are women out there who love shopping. They obviously know exactly what fits them and makes them look and feel good – and they can go wild with colors and patterns and materials and accessories etc. And of course, if something is fun, you want to do more of it. I don’t think my personal attitude towards clothes shopping will change, but it’s nice to understand what others see in it.