I’m Back!

Happy New Year again! I had two wonderful weeks (mostly) off in which I did a lot of fun things. I went to several exhibitions, did just enough maintenance around the house to feel very adult and accomplished, and finally, I had enough time to do relaxing things.

For Christmas, I bought myself a cake (a Japanese tradition) and I had potato salad and sausages for dinner on Christmas Eve (a family tradition). Presents were plentiful, and not all bought by myself! While I bought a long-needed pillow and a new pyjama, my friends surprised me with chocolates and special Christmas tea and a number of Christmas cards. Even though I’m not religious, Christmas is something very personal for me, and I try not to go out on December 24 and 25. I have celebrated Christmas with others before, but it doesn’t feel right to me; every family has their own traditions and I felt like the 5th wheel… Better to stay home and make my own tradition!

As for the exhibitions, I went to the Insho Domoto Museum to see the “Best of Insho”, where a number of his most famous works are on display. Among them are sliding doors that he painted for a temple. I really like Insho Domoto’s works, especially the abstract paintings he created when already past 70 years old. As many larger exhibitions in Japan, this one comes in two parts, and I am planning to go and see the second half of it as well.

I also went to see the Nitten, a yearly exhibition of the Japan Art Academy and its members. It tours through Japan and comes to Kyoto in December/January, where about half of the exhibits are from artists from Kyoto and Shiga provinces. There are five categories in the Nitten: Japanese painting, Western painting, calligraphy, sculpture and applied arts/crafts. I still don’t get calligraphy, but I really like the applied arts and crafts section. There are some stunning pieces each year, and to me, it’s the highlight of the Nitten. Unfortunately, I am always disappointed by the sculptures. Many of them are slightly larger-than-life nude (female) figures, but to me, they seem very static and lifeless.

omamori charm in the shape of a ratFinally, for New Year, I waited for my Hatsumode (the first visit to a shrine in the New Year) until January 3rd, hoping to avoid the crowds. However, I made the mistake to visit Otoyo Jinja, a usually very quiet little shrine just off the Philosopher’s Path, which happens to be Kyoto’s Rat shrine. Why is that important? Because it’s the year of the Rat, and you’d want to start it off on the right foot (and with the right deity), of course. Apparently, many, many other people had the same idea and I ended up waiting in line for 2.5 hours, just to go and do my first prayer… I don’t think I’ll be doing that ever again, but just in case, I have the proper omamori charm to prove my dedication! (Note the little tail. And the whiskers!)

Speaking of dedication, of course I have a number of New Year’s resolutions, but I will write about them on Thursday.

Grand Open!

Finally, the shopping mall nearby is finished, and they had their “Grand Open” today. There were many people and it was extremely busy, which was to be expected, given how much advertisement the whole mall and some of the individual shops did…

New Quanat

The neighborhood was also invited to a Pre-Open on the 4th and 5th, with shorter opening hours, not all shops fully finished etc. It was a much more relaxed experience… So, first of all, the thing received a brand new name possibly reflecting a new owner? The shop space has almost doubled, and the whole interior received a thorough revamp, making it look more airy and open, especially in the main floors. Most of the old shops are back, but there are also some new additions that I am already fond of:

  • A Kaldi coffee shop, which sells not only coffee but also imported foods (Hello Milka chocolate and Nutella…). I’m glad I don’t have to go to town to shop there, although it might turn out to get very expensive over time…
  • There are now decent restaurants in the basement plus a large food court with “fast food” on the second floor. The food court has doubled in size, has some natural light and nicer seating. Bonus: A brand new Korean place that even sells Samgetang, a soup with chicken that’s stuffed with rice. I can’t wait to try them out.
  • There is also a nice cafe directly at the new entrance. They have a special “Coffee Time” in the afternoon with discounts on cake and drinks. It’s a bit noisy, so it probably won’t be my to-go place when I want to work, but their vanilla souffle is excellent!
  • Not there yet, but coming in March, will be a Loft store. They sell household goods and all sorts of knick knacks and I hope they will also bring their stationary department, where I usually buy all the Birthday and Christmas cards I need.

Interestingly, there is only a single shoe store at the moment, down from the four or so that were there before. And the uniqlo will also open only in March, for some weird reason. Overall, I’m quite happy, even though I’m not somebody who sees shopping as a spare-time activity.

However, I will still go there every few days for my groceries. My supermarket also got a revamp, which, unfortunately, means that I will have to take a stroll through the whole thing just to look for all the stuff I usually buy and which has been moved elsewhere… They do have an enlarged delicatessen section, but the cheese is still as expensive as before.

As I said, right now things are very busy, it even seems as if they got staff from elsewhere, and I hope the excitement and the crowds will disperse over time. The only reason I was there today at all (given that I went the two previous days as well) was that I wanted to buy some Nutella, but had to wait for the Grand Open to get the 10% discount. And then I didn’t buy it after all, because the queue in front of the cashier literally wound once through and around the whole store… So, I’ll be back on Monday to do some serious (Nutella) shopping!

Botanical Gardens

It’s the height of the koyo autumn colors and yesterday, the weather was just perfect: nice, sunny, not too windy… Since I was in the area for work, I decided to take a stroll in the botanical gardens of Kyoto to see their momiji. And it was an excellent decision! The grounds are so vast that people just disappear in them. It would be hard to feel crowded even on so perfect a day as yesterday. Anyway, here are a few photos I took in the botanical gardens yesterday.

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Botanical Gardens Kyoto - koyo 2019

Bicycle Drama

Last weekend, I took a day off for some special sightseeing. A number of venues had special openings, and I had set my eye upon an old, private home near Kamigamo Shrine: the Umetsuji Family home. Before I could enter, however, the following velociped-related drama unfolds:

So, I go there on my bicycle because it was nice weather, and whenever I visit a place like this, I always ask where to leave my bicycle. Usually, I can park it near the entrance on the street. Sometimes, I am asked to put it inside the front garden, but in general it’s not a big deal.

This time however, I was told no, I’d have to park elsewhere. One of the guides who were showing people around the house went with me to a nearby Koban police box, but I was not allowed to park there. At least, the policewoman on duty said it was fine to leave it on the road near the entrance, so back to the house we went. I parked my bicycle where I had left it before, locked it, and the moment we entered through the gate I was told: Oh, it’s okay, just bring it inside the garden…

That’s what can happen when you want to (temporarily) get rid of your bicycle, because although Kyoto is quite flat and easy to navigate, most Kyoto people prefer to drive, especially during the hot days of summer. There are more parking lots for cars than for bicycles and it’s very easy to get your bike impounded.

I’m not sure if I have told this before, but once I watched a crew of city workers taking bicycles parked near Sanjo-Kawaramachi, at the entrance to Teramachi shopping street. They parked their truck and waited… and waited… waited patiently until it was precisely 19:00, at which point they took the bicycles, loaded them onto the truck and drove off with them, all within 3 minutes or so. Quite a joy to watch such an efficient team, but I felt sorry for the people who were probably just shopping nearby.

Anyway, once my bicycle was deemed properly parked, I was finally allowed to enter the house. The Umetsuji family had been sake brewers, and the house dates back around 300 years. There were a few interesting features, like a flower-shaped window that is apparently very Kyoto, and a long water-spout that would drain rain water from the roof into a stone “dragon’s mouth” in the garden. The house also had an inner, private genkan and an outer entrance for guests.

Unfortunately, of the rather large house, only three rooms were open, and I found them quite ordinary compared to some of the rich merchant homes I have seen. There were some large-scale calligraphies and two folding screens, one with beautiful paintings with scenes from the Genji Monogatari, but they did show their age. A map dating back to the time the house was built was very impressive though.

However, it was the first time the house was open to the public at all, so I hope they will continue renovating more rooms and restoring family heirlooms over time. And maybe, one day, it will be allowed to take photos too!

Typhoon #19

Last weekend, this year’s typhoon #19 (called Hagibis) passed through Japan’s west coast. It caused great damage in and north of Tokyo, and a massive amount of floodings and landslides everywhere on its path, in particular in Nagano province. Hagibis was one of the strongest typhoons ever to hit Japan, and it caused the deaths of at least 55 people, with a few still missing.

Thankfully, Kyoto was not affected, at least not in my area. The typhoon passed through on Saturday afternoon, with lots of rain in the morning and strong gales of wind in the afternoon. Just before nightfall, everything was over.

And at that time, there was an interesting phenomenon, something I have never seen before: a bright yellow sky, with the sunset usually on the mountain visible on the right. If you know what could cause this interesting color, please do let me know!

A yellow sky after typhoon #19 in 2019.

Moon Viewing

Last Friday night was a full moon, and the full moon in September is considered the most beautiful by Japanese people. That’s why there are many moon viewing parties going on everywhere, from the expensive dinners and tea ceremonies in quiet gardens to festival-like events with food stalls in shrines and temples, and there are some people who just go out with a can of beer and organise their own moon-viewing picnic.

This year, I took some time out to visit Shimogamo Shrine for their moon viewing event. I live very close to the shrine, so it’s easy to get to, and my choice was partly driven by the cloudy skies that looked like it would start to rain any moment. At Shimogamo Shrine, the full moon is a rather minor accessory to the events, the big thing is a concert of traditional Japanese music. It lasts for three hours, and there are a number of participants. I am not sure if they are the same every year, but this year we had:

Five people playing the shakuhachi to kick off the concert. I was very pleased about that, and I found it quite interesting that my own shakuhachi sounds so much deeper than the ones they played. I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong, actually, that’s very likely since most of the times, I cannot get a tone out of it anyway…Gagaku Musicians

Afterwards we had a gagaku concert – traditional Japanese court music. It is still not my thing, I find it excruciatingly boring, and I am wondering if the people back in Heian times really and honestly enjoyed this kind of music.

Then, a large troupe of koto players took the stage, and this was the part I enjoyed most. They played very lively and modern sounding pieces, but from the reaction of the spectators next to me who could hum the tunes alongside the musicians, I guess that the pieces must have been very old and popular ones.

The biwa music that followed was less exciting to be honest, but still my fellow spectators knew the tunes. I could not help wondering whether half of the musicians were Buddhist priests or nuns – shaved heads and all.biwa musiciansAfter a biwa solo recital and one more fun koto part, we got to the highlight of the evening: another gagaku concert. This time, however, the music accompanied dancers, which made the whole experience much more bearable. We had three dances, first four children dressed in butterfly outfits, then two men who might have been courtiers, and finally, a single performance of a demon, complete with mask, sword, and spear.Kids dancing as butterflies.

The dance movements were extremely formalised, almost stiff, to be honest, the dancers didn’t look very graceful. Only the demon at the end was allowed to brandish his spear in a more realistic way, it must have been a part for a very advanced performer. Still, all the costumes were fantastic and elaborately decorated, it was a joy to just look at all the details. I am sure the colors and embroidery have some hidden meaning, but even so, they were lost on me.Demon Dance

I bought a ticket for reserved seats in front of the stage and I did not regret it – standing for three hours is no fun at all. The ticket also included a cup of green tea with sweets, but I would have had to leave my seat to get it. I thought about it and, looking back, I should have just gone during the first gagaku concert, but it was fine anyway. In the end, I had a nice evening – and when I walked home, the moon came out from behind the clouds for a brief “good night”.

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be  honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Kyoto Crafts

Sorry for not posting on Tuesday – I fell into a craft-shaped hole… Let me explain: The last three days there was the “Tradition and Innovation – Culture and Industry” exhibition at the Miyakomesse in Kyoto, and it was promised that a number of Kyoto artisans would exhibit their work and actually be present to do and explain some work there.

Since my Tuesday Japanese class is just next door, I decided to drop in and have a look at the craftsmen and the exhibition. I thought it would take maybe an hour, because how big can such an event be, really. Boy was I wrong!

There were 40 little booths with a large variety of crafts. Most of the space was devoted to the different steps of nishijin weaving – nowadays used to make an obi for kimono – from the design on plotting paper and the dyeing of the silk to the threading of the silk onto the loom to the actual weaving. There were other textile arts like yuzen dyeing – painting or printing onto silk – embroidery and weaving decorative ropes.

An obi from start to finish

Then there were decorative arts like woodcrafts, bamboo weaving, lacquerware, cloisonné, damascene work, making umbrellas and carving Noh masks; and finally things necessary for a traditional Japanese house like bamboo blinds for in- and outdoors, bamboo fences and even roof tiles.

Making an end tile.

There were places set aside for exhibitions of ikebana and calligraphy, and a large place for tea ceremony; and of course there were stalls to buy Kyoto food and sweets.

The “Innovation” part of the exhibition showed a few interesting pieces of modern inventions by companies that did traditional crafts; for example there was one traditional producer of gold leaf which is now making ultra thin sheets of copper (think micrometres) for modern electronics. And the experimental kyocera car where the mirrors are replaced by cameras.

Kyocera Car

So yes, that one hour that I had planned turned into three. Partly because I wanted to learn as much as possible, which was aided by the fact that there was an English interpretation service. And partly because I happened to be the only foreigner there on Tuesday afternoon, so it seemed that people were extra friendly and talkative and wanted to show/explain everything in extra detail.

For example, I was invited to try hikizome, a type of yuzen dyeing, and I was asked if I wanted to put on a kimono and pose with one of the “Miss Kimono” already present. And I had to try dashi, fish broth, apparently made by one of the best kaiseki haute cuisine chefs in town. And I got photographed a lot that afternoon. By the end of it, I was so exhausted, I even forgot to buy the ginger mochi I like so much.

Noh Masks.

But, no matter, I went there again today. Not for the ginger mochi only, although I did buy a pack. I went there to pick up my new hanko! One of the crafts on display was seal-carving. I  started chatting with the artist, I mentioned that I always wanted a hanko with my name in katakana. When I wrote down my name, he quickly came up with a nice design – and I ordered a hanko on the spot. I received it today – complete with a little silk bag and some red ink – and I’m absolutely thrilled about it.

I was also thrilled to meet two friends there, rather by accident, which was nice. Also, I handed out postcards promoting whatsupinkyoto.com to everybody who asked about my job. And, as an extra bonus I can now tell you that my (business) acquaintances include the Deputy General Manager of the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Who knows what this might lead to…

Venues

On Thursday afternoon, I usually meet with my English students. For the last few years, we had our class in the “gourmet court” at my shopping center, a large open space in the basement surrounded by a number of small fast food places. The atmosphere is not very stylish, but it is one of the few public places indoors where people can meet and chat without being forced to consume. And there is free water too.

But, as you know, the shopping center is currently being enlarged and renovated, and many of the shops have closed already. In the basement floor, the food court was closed 2 weeks ago, the drug store will follow on Sunday, and even the supermarket will close for two weeks during November. The grand opening of the new shopping center will be in December, no doubt just in time for Christmas and New Year’s shopping sprees.

Anyway, until then we will have to find a new place to meet. Cafes are nice, but you can’t just sit there without drinking anything; outside is not an option, neither are libraries. And while I’d love to visit the Tamayuran more often, every week is a bit much… We’ll figure something out.

Today, we went to Jissoin, a little temple in Iwakura, the northern part of Kyoto. Jissoin is famous for the paintings on its sliding doors and for one room where the wooden floor is so highly polished that the maples of the garden outside are reflected in it. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside the temple, and the garden with the momiji is not accessible, so I’ll link you to the website of the temple with nice pictures during the seasons:

http://www.jissoin.com/information/

Another highlight of this visit were two large maps from 19th century China. One of them was a beautiful star map, but because each culture tends to find their own pictures in the constellations, it is hard even for astronomers to make sense of them. I think I was able to see the Big Dipper though.

And then there was the big map of China from 1825 painted in blue ink (indigo?), an impressive piece of workmanship, mounted onto a large folding screen. Now that I can compare it with a modern map, I am amazed at how accurate it is. The big wall is in the north (depicted in brown), you can make out the Korean Peninsula and the Indochinese Peninsula… Again, no pictures allowed, but if you have time, you have two more days to see the map for yourself.

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.