Intimidating

A new year brings new challenges, as usual. You may have noticed that over at What’s up in Kyoto, my monthly highlights for this year will be 12 of the many little museums in Kyoto. There are many serious museums (like this month’s Raku Museum and several others dedicated to one artist, one that focuses on netsuke, one for kimono…) and one or two that are more fun (there is a museum for the wigs Geisha are wearing, and one for nagajuban, traditional underkimono). I will have to go to all of them, introduce myself and try to convince them to let me feature them on my webpage.

neon sign spelling ARTAnd: This time I’m doing this on my own. Last year, with the shrines, I had help from a friend of mine, but she has been busy during Decemberand sent me off alone with a “you can do this!” I can definitely see what she’s doing here, and in a sense, I am grateful. She won’t keep doing me favours forever, and eventually I must be able to handle these sort of things myself.

Another reason for her keeping in the background is more Japan/Kyoto related: She thinks that with my foreigner bonus, I might have an easier time approaching these museums. Many of them are family-run or very small businesses, and they probably like to be approached in the proper, roundabout way by introduction through other people that is so common in Kyoto especially. My friend says that if she goes there, she will be expected to know how to do this, while foreign me can just barge in and say “Hi, here I am, and that’s what I want.” So far, it has worked out fine. I have approached two museums already and they were very forthcoming, and I will visit a third one tomorrow.

While I understand her reasoning, and while the first efforts have been encouraging, it is also hugely intimidating, mostly because I don’t know the proper way to do things. One of my life’s mottos is “Rules are there so that you think before you break them” (courtesy of Terry Pratchett), but an important part is knowing the rules first. And better Japanese would help too. We did prepare documents in both English and Japanese of course, but I still have to explain the procedures and what I’m expecting and everything. And while the Raku Museum had one person communicating in excellent English, I had to fumble my way through in Japanese at the first one I visited. I still believe that most Japanese do understand English better than they let on though.

Anyway, I’ll keep trying. My friend says it’s important to stay friendly and hopeful and make the best out of things. And now I have to think about the questions I will be asking the curator of the Raku Museum in my interview with her on Thursday…

Emperor Meiji’s Tomb

The Meiji EmperorJapan’s Meiji Emperor reigned over the country in one of its most turbulent eras. When he was born, in 1852, the Shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled a secluded country for around 250 years. When he ascended to the throne, in 1868, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had abdicated, both under pressure from Japanese uprisings as well as threats of foreign power. And when Emperor Meiji died in 1912, he had ushered in an era of rapid technological modernisation, cultural renewal, state reform, and governmental participation – penning the first constitution of Japan and in Asia as a whole.

A great man like this is often revered beyond his death, and emperors in Japan usually get a special honour upon their demise: They become one of Japan’s many kami. The Meiji Shrine is located in Tokyo at a place he liked to visit during his lifetime, and it is a very popular spot for hatsumode in the few days after New Year’s Day. However, his tomb is where he was born, in Kyoto, and it is quite spectacular, even when taking into account that the Meiji emperor was still seen as a true descendant of the gods.

The tomb of the Meiji Emperor is located in the southern part of Kyoto, but very easy to find. From Fushimi Momoyama (Keihan) or Momoyama (Kintetsu Nara Line) simply follow the road uphill until it takes a sharp turn to the right. Straight ahead, a broad gravel road starts, leading further uphill. It is lined with beautiful, large cedar trees that are impressive even now, although the forest has suffered quite a bit during typhoon Jebi in September 2018. After a while of gentle ascent on the softly curving road, the top is reached, opening up to the view below.

Entrance to the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorTo the right, there are a few modern buildings that are not very interesting, but moving further along, a large square opens up, and to the left is finally the tomb of the Meiji Emperor.

Tomb of the Meiji EmperorIts dimensions are hard to gauge from this picture, but the first torii is about five to six metres high. The dome-shaped tumulus, probably 25 metres at the back, holds at its base the emperor’s remains. In fact, this type of tomb is very old and can be found in Korea as well. Turning around, there is a steep staircase leading up to the plateau, and from this height, there is a nice view over the southern part of Kyoto, even though it is a bit obscured by more trees.

View from the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorA small but quite steep road leads further on, where a smaller version of Meiji’s tomb can be found. There, his wife, Empress Shoken is buried. There is no view at all from her tomb, since it lies lower on the hill and the spot is completely surrounded by trees.

The Tomb of Empress ShokenThe whole complex is enormous, and apparently it was very expensive to build. So much so, in fact, that Meiji’s successor, the Taisho emperor, had to promise to build himself a much more humble abode for his afterlife. Since he lived only until 1925, and was much less popular among the Japanese people, this request was perfectly justified in the end.

Kyoto Sake Experience

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity (through What’s up in Kyoto) to take part in a sake tasting in Fushimi, a southern part of Kyoto. The experience is well worth sharing – and recommending! – so here are the details:

I had made an appointment with Kotaro, founder and CEO of Kyoto Sake Experience, who conducts most of the sake tastings himself. We met near Fushimi Momoyama station, and first talked briefly about what I could expect – and about Kotaro himself. He grew up in Fushimi and spent a few years in Australia, so his English is excellent. He is very passionate about sake and was happy to answer, and could sometimes even preempt, my questions. In fact, he recommends taking a sake class as the very first thing to do in Japan, so people have time to find out what type of sake they like best and to be able to fully enjoy it on their visit – and take a few bottles of their favourite back home in the end!

Anyway, after our brief talk, we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest and oldest sake breweries of Japan. They have a sake museum, and Kotaro uses its exhibits to explain the intricacies of sake, starting out with the rice. Rice meant for sake is different from rice meant for eating; it has longer stalks and contains more starch, both of which makes it about twice as expensive as food rice.

Once the rice is harvested, it is polished, and since the flavour lies in the hull of the rice, the smaller the remaining grain (i.e., the higher the polishing rate), the more pure starch is there, and the better (sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.

As first step the rice is steamed and cooled down to 30 degrees before adding koji mold. This mold is meant to break down the starch into sugar, and many breweries have their own type of carefully guarded koji. Only very little is needed to start the procedure, but since the koji is very temperature-sensitive, it must be checked every couple of hours. After two days, the procedure is finished and we have kome koji, mouldy rice.

Now it is time to make moto, a mixture of kome koji, fresh steamed rice, water and yeast. There are about 30 different yeast cultures that are shared property of all sake breweries, and each culture gives a certain flavour in the end. Making the moto takes about two weeks, this is essentially the starter culture for the final fermentation that starts afterwards.

To the finished moto is again added more kome koji, fresh steamed rice, and water, and now the fermentation can begin in earnest and in very large barrels. In this step, the koji continues to produce sugar so there is constant supply of food for the yeast that turns the sugar into alcohol. However, after 27 days when the alcohol content is 22% (genshu sake), this process comes to a natural end and the sake is finished.

Technically, that is, because now the raw sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurised, and diluted in a series of different steps. Special types of sake are taken out of this process early, for example namazake is not pasteurised. However, the sake that is usually available at stores or restaurants underwent the whole process. It has a final alcohol percentage of around 15% and is divided into several types, according to the original polishing rate of the rice.

We have for example daiginjo with a polishing rate of 50% or more, or ginjo with 50-60% of the grain remaining. Daiginjo often has a fruity taste, which is enhanced by adding distilled alcohol. Pure rice sake, consisting only of rice, water, yeast, and koji, has a somewhat stronger taste and gets the prefix junmai.

That was already an enormous amount of information, and my head was spinning before the very first cup! But now the sake tasting started, back at the place where we started. There were 7 different types of sake waiting for our return, three special ones and four standard ones, for two rounds of tasting.

In the first round I was to drink the sake pure, and my favourite turned out to be the daiginjo with a very fruity taste, and, unfortunately, it is the most expensive one. Remember that the polishing rate is highest, so there is more sake rice needed to produce it. I also liked nigori, a type of sake that is not fully filtered (it reminds me of Austrian Sturm, another story).

In the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro was working as a chef. This time, the winner was much less clear. Like with European wine, it is important to balance food and drink, so that they are either balanced in strength of taste (daiginjo with soy beans has a very delicate taste) or strongly complementary (a 5-year-old sake together with cream cheese led to a taste explosion). The difference in the taste of sake together with the food compared to without it was phenomenal, and even though I am not a gourmet, it was obvious.

Altogether, I spent three hours with Kotaro and his sake, and I found it a very intoxicating experience in all respects, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The only complaint I have is that the name is not well-chosen: this was not just any standard sake experience, it was a master class! I now know exactly what to look for when buying sake (for myself and others) and I feel like the only way I could learn more about sake would be by making it myself (which is not on the agenda. For now.)

If you are coming to Kyoto and want to know more about sake, and especially if you want to find the right sake for you, do take Kotaro’s Sake Master Class. Don’t worry about the price, I promise you that you will never need another sake tasting again!

Disclaimer: I received a free sake experience in return for an honest review. A much shorter version of this will be posted on What’s up in Kyoto as well.

Vortex

Last Saturday, I took some time out to visit the 3rd Kyoto Student’s Art Auction. I came across it through What’s up in Kyoto, and because there was one piece of art I really liked, and because everything was in English and Japanese, I decided to give it a try.

On Friday I went to see the exhibition of all 25 pieces made by 12 or 13 students from Kyoto’s Art Universities, and while my favourite looked even better in real life, there were two others that impressed me, so I filled out the form to register as a bidder, and then returned on Saturday afternoon.

This was my first auction, so I had no idea what to expect. I came early, was given documents along with my paddle and then was shown into the auction hall. There was a table with drinks (champagne, sake, and some non-alcoholic ones) and snacks (cheese, crackers and chocolates), and in the back the art was put up. The students were already there and ready to chat with the people who had come – including me, and it was great fun talking to them.

When the auction finally started, I was surprised at the formality of it. Everything started off with a short talk by the mayor of Kyoto and the rector of one of the universities. The auctioneer then took over, starting with a joke about how he had considered donning a suit, but how this would be unthinkable for an auctioneer in Japan, and he ended up wearing kimono and hakama (just like the mayor) as usual. We then got a short introduction on how to show our paddles, where the bidding would start (10.000 yen) and how much it would increase per bid (5.000 yen), how to pay, etc.

Upon finishing, he looked straight at me – the only foreigner in the room, clearly distinguishable by the red turtleneck sweater from all the guys in black suits – and asked: “Do you need English assistance?” As if I needed help embarrassing myself in public… Anyway, he said he would call in English and Japanese the pieces for which I was bidding so that was a good compromise.

When the bidding came to my favourite piece, it seemed that it was the favourite piece of many people. The very first moment, bids were up to 35.000 yen – and I had to pass, that was over my budget already. Besides, the person who finally bought it for 50.000 yen gave the impression that he would get it for any price. I bid for another one as well, but had to bow out there too, but the third piece I liked was mine – and for the minimum bid of 10.000 yen too!

After paying – and making everybody nervous with my foreign-ness – I could take it home immediately. I have already chosen where to hang it in my office, but I will leave it as a Christmas present for me. My first piece of “real” art. What do you think about it?

"Vortex" by Ismael Franco Alvarez

It’s called “Vortex”, and was made by Ismael Franco Alvarez with ink and pen on Maruman paper. It is very well done, when you try to follow any of the lines, the picture does suck you in – like into a vortex… Ismael is from Mexico and studies Japanese painting at Kyoto Saga University of Arts.

For more of his works, check out his instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/ismairu/

Writer in Kyoto!

All the way back in July, when I had fun selling chimaki at the Ofunehoko, I met two other foreigners working there. One of them suggested – upon hearing that I’m writing a blog – that I should become a member of the group Writers in Kyoto. This is nothing less (or more) than a group of (mostly) foreigners living and writing in Kyoto, often about Japanese topics.

Everything needs to be pondered thoroughly, but finally, last week, I did the deed (meaning: I paid the fees) and became a member of Writers in Kyoto. It’s about 45 people right now, and they are serious writers, with a large number of books, poems, blogs, newspaper articles, etc. published among them. To be very honest, I’m slightly intimidated, me with my little personal blog here complaining about the weather, compared to all them big shots… It’ll be fine I think, once I get to know some of them in person – so far I have only communicated with the head of the group per email.

logo of writers in KyotoAnd wouldn’t you believe it, I already got homework! Well, it’s a group of writers, so I should have guessed that sooner or later they would want me to write some thing or other. And, as makes for proper beginning in Japan, it’s supposed to be a self-introduction. I have promised it “by the end of this week”, and it will be published on their site that I have linked above. For all my fans of old here, don’t expect big news. I guess a heavily condensed version of my blog posts of the last 6 years will do nicely. For now.

Toni Toni

It was a wonderful day today, bright and sunny, just what I needed after a month of typhoon-induced rain! So I decided to take a bit of a time-out after my Japanese class and walk around the area a bit. And I went into the Toni Toni, the “Festival of the Ages Building” right next to Heian Shrine. It is a modern, steel reinforced concrete building with two storeys, but it looks like an old wooden house with white walls and dark wood beams and windows. It was built as a shopping mall and food court, and the location is well-chosen since there are barely any shops or restaurants in that area, and Heian Shrine is quite popular.

The building is brand new, it opened only last December, and I had been there two or three times before. But something felt out of place this time. There were hardly any customers around and some of the places I had noticed or shopped at before have already closed again, like the nice gyoza restaurant that would offer sake all day long… The whole feeling was rather sterile, unfortunately, and the prices for food were quite steep, which means that the rents for the shops must be outrageous.

I wonder how many people come to the place. Last time I was there, the guy from the gyoza shop complained that they would have to close already at 18:00, so no evening customers coming out of the theatre next door. And I know that many people visiting Heian Shrine come there with buses, I would guess that they have limited time for shopping, and definitely none for eating, even though takeout is possible.

And then again, maybe I just came at the wrong time. I was noon, where most bus tourists probably have lunch elsewhere. There are no big companies nearby whose employees would come for a quick bite. And there may be more tourists in the weekends too. Still, it appears that even in Kyoto, even in a very touristy spot like this, some things don’t work. Or at least: they will take quite some time to take off properly. Maybe things will be different by the time the 2020 Olympics come along?

Mount Hiei

After two days of stressful work, I decided to take today off. The plan was to take a walk along the Philosopher’s Path on my way home from Japanese class and to visit a few of the places I haven’t seen in a long time. However, this morning, my Japanese teacher cancelled unexpectedly and on short notice. And because I still felt like walking around somewhere outside, I decided on the spot to visit Mount Hiei.

Hieizan as it is called in Japanese, is the highest mountain among those that surround Kyoto; and it lies on the northeastern mountain range. It is 848.1 m high and marks the boundary between Kyoto and Shiga province. From there (although not from the same spot) one can see both Kyoto and Lake Biwa, and the views are beautiful. In the ancient times it was said that Mount Hiei would serve as a guardian for Kyoto and the imperial family. This is not just a fanciful saying: On top of the mountain lies Enryakuji, the headquarter of the Tendai sect, and from the founding of the temple in 788, its famous warrior monks have protected Kyoto in times of war and danger quite literally.

And Enryakuji is the main reason to visit Hieizan today. There are some hiking trails on the mountain and the Monet-inspired garden museum Hiei, but the top of the mountain is dominated by the temple. Or rather: the temples, because there are three different areas where several temple buildings are clustered together, and the whole is called Enryakuji, even though no single building has this name.

I did not know that there was so much walking involved, even within one of those areas. As this is a mountain, there are many, many stairs to climb and long paths between each temple. The silence and relative solitude on the mountain does make up for it though. And the temple buildings are beautiful! Many of them are very old, and they fit perfectly into their surroundings. I’ll just add a few of my photos below to give you an impression of the mountain.

EnryakujiEnryakujiEnryakuji ShakadoEnryakuji

Hagi Matsuri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monument of Gratitude

Memorial/tomb of KyodaiWhat do you think this is?

A tomb maybe?
It does look like one, and the sheer size of it (about two storeys high and with a diameter of perhaps two metres) would suggest a very important personality. But this is not on a graveyard, but in the middle of a standard residential neighborhood. Imperial tombs, the very old ones at least, are large and located all over the city, however, they have a distinct look that is very different from this here.

A memorial perhaps?
Could be, but there is a meadow around it with a stone fence, and it is not publicly accessible.

So, what could it be? memorial/tomb of Kyodai, closerIn fact, it is both a tomb and a memorial. It belongs to Kyoto University and is meant for the people who donated their body to science.

I am not sure whether this monument really hold physical remains – that is, a few bones of each person – like a normal Japanese tomb, or maybe just a list of names, or other things that are more symbolic. But just the fact that somebody took the time and effort to build something like that, does show an enormous amount of gratitude. It makes me happy.

Excursion

When looking for events for the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar, I came across a tiny little exhibition in an old machiya in Kyoto. And because me and my English students all are interested in old houses, we went there this afternoon and had a look.

Yoko Hoshino ExhibitionIt was a tiny exhibition of only three pieces of furniture, made as a graduation project by a student of one of the local art universities. There was a large round floor lamp (made from very thin wood that let the light shine through just a little), a small round table with lacquerware and a large chaise longue type of chair (with cushions made from an old curtain. Really!). The motto of the exhibition was “Waiting for the Moon Life” and the designer played with light and shadows in the furniture and in the house itself.

The house was a machiya, some 100 years old, with a typical part in front, then an inner garden, and a tea room in the back, that belonged to the designer’s family. She said that she remembers coming here as a child when things were still a bit different, the house was gently remodeled in the 1970s, and sadly, a parking lot now replaces the front garden.We were allowed to see all ground floor and finally ended up sitting in the living room where we were chatting with a cup of tea.

What I found so interesting was the fact that she deliberately kept the lights off in all the house. The darkness indeed had a calming effect on all of us, and always surprising, the house was almost completely quiet, even though there was a big road with heavy traffic nearby. She said that Japanese houses were meant to be pretty dark inside, lit only by candles, and that this was the way she wanted to exhibit her work in the first place. Only now that she has done it this way, she feels her work is complete..

A fun thing was that she was talking about a book by Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows”, where he describes the influence on darkness and shadows on Japanese culture. Fun because this is the book I am reading right now! Small world, full of coincidences…