Summer Purification

Last weekend, there was a very interesting summer purification rite at Shimogamo Shrine. This time, we random spectators were not allowed to participate, but it did involve the Mitarashi Pond at the Shrine again. When I arrived in the early evening, there was a circle of arrows stuck into the pond, and some fire places were set up and a table for a prayer ceremony.

A circle of arrows in the Mitarashi Pond of Shimogamo ShrineEventually, two priests came to pray in front of the little shrine you see in the back of the above photo, and when it became dark, the fires around the pond were lit. There was quite a bit of waiting, but when it was really dark, two groups of men arrived together with a number of priests. The men took their seats on the steps leading down to the pond on both sides, and there was more praying and a blessing of both groups.

When this was done, a sign was given, and all of a sudden, both groups jumped up and into the water and tried to get as many of the arrows as possible. While they were splashing about, the priests were throwing yellow pieces of paper into the water and onto the participants.Everything was over in two or three minutes when there were no more arrows to be grabbed. The participants, now all wet, sat down again for another blessing, and then left quickly, and the whole ceremony was over.

Nagoshi no Harae ceremony at Shimogamo ShrineThis ceremony is meant to pray for health for the rest of the year, and getting one of those arrows is meant to be extra lucky. I could not find out what was happening after the official ceremony, and what purpose the arrows have, but I guess they will be put in the houses of the participants who won them. However, the yellow paper was in the shape of humans, and on each piece was written a name and the wish of that person for the rest of the year. Those paper dolls were fished out of the water rather unceremoniously in the end, I guess they were thrown away or maybe burnt afterwards.

The most interesting part of the ceremony was that there was one woman amongst all the guys competing for the arrows. Never before have I seen women participate in this sort of religious events (other than as helpers somehow), so I don’t know if this was an exception or common at Shimogamo. Maybe Japan is changing 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.

Mitarashi Dango

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

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

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

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

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

Mitarashi Festival

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

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

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

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!

Suspect

I regularly receive pamphlets from my local koban. A koban is a local police station, usually located in a tiny building somewhere in the neighborhood and staffed with a handful of police officers.

Their main purpose is to provide assistance to the locals, like answering to emergency calls, going on the beat, or being the local lost-and-found. Personally, I have once been there when I moved into my apartment to ask directions to a number of places, and even though they don’t speak English (what do I expect), they were very friendly and helpful.

As I said, I receive regular newsletters from my local Koban, covering various topics that may or may not be interesting. They talk about fire safety for example, and one lengthy issue talked about how to safely ride a bicycle without running anyone down. That particular pamphlet did not tell old people to look at the traffic before stepping onto the street, but maybe there will be another issue to come…

mug shot from my local police kobanIn the latest pamphlet, which I received a few days ago, there was this mug shot of a suspect in a murder case. The Japanese murder rate is very low, the country ranks 212 among 215 countries (to compare: Austria is 208 and the US is 94), so there is no need to feel unsafe here. However, what I found funny about the mug shot is that it looks like any other Japanese guy and I would find it very, very difficult to recognise the man (okay, maybe not the one on the left picture without the nose…) And I am wondering: Is this simply because the picture is not good enough for me to make a connection? Or is it that I am too much European and not integrated in the country enough, where all Japanese still look the same to me?

Anyway, if you come across that guy, call the number in the picture. They say that even insignificant information will be valuable.

Kyotographie

Sorry for not posting last weekend – but I was busy. The weather is slowly getting warmer and is more conducive to going out again. And right now, Kyoto hosts the international photography exhibition Kyotographie. This year is the 5th time, and the motto is LOVE. In 18 venues all over town photos are shown that have some sort of connection to the theme (sometimes it’s a vague one, but still).

Together with a friend, I went last Sunday to see some of the exhibitions that seemed most interesting to both of us. Her favourite was an exhibition of a group called “Toiletpaper”. Their photos are loud, colorful, and a bit weird. I think pop art is the best word to describe it.

exhibition of "Toiletpaper"

Original photo by “Toiletpaper”, photographed again by Miss Uda.

My favourite were some 70 photos of the Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave, projected onto a huge screen in a dark room, to amplify the cave feeling. At first I thought it was all about the limestone stalactites and such – until I noticed the paintings of lions, buffalos, horses… The cave, situated in Southern France, has paintings and other traces of human habitation dating back 35.000 years. It was discovered only in 1994, and promptly closed to the public for conservation. The paintings are magnificent, and the way these photos are displayed just heightens the feeling.

So, if you are in town these days, have a look – some of the venues are free of charge. Kyotographie will last until May 14th, I am sure there’s something for every taste.

Kyo Chaffle

Green tea is a wonderful discovery/invention. In Japan, some 90.000 tons of tea leaves are harvested each year. Most of this tea is consumed either as “raw” green tea or fermented or roasted (as black tea or hojicha, respectively). An interesting Japanese invention is matcha, green tea leaves that are finely ground to a powder and which can be used to make the famously bitter tea for tea ceremony, or as an ingredient for cooking.

Additionally, in Japan you can buy matcha flavoured anything: From candy to kitkat and chocolates, to ice-cream (with and without anko) for example. And all sorts of cakes and cookies.

Kyochaffle with packageA personal favourite of mine from the latter department are cookies called Kyo Chaffle. Those are thin, round cookies with an intensely green color and an even more intense taste. Their “mouthfeel” if you want so is like that of brownies: On the inside they have a slightly sticky consistency, while they are dry on the outside. They are very delicious indeed and are nice as a snack in between – provided you can manage to stop after a single one…

Going Out

Ever since I started my company, I have been teaching English to two retired ladies in their early 60s. Most of the times we just meet in the shopping mall nearby my place (because it has free parking), but sometimes we go out and do something special.

Like today. A common friend of ours is an artist. He makes shin-hanga woodblock prints, and this week he has an exhibition of his prints of spring flowers. Most of his pieces are flowers, actually, and he has a very distinctive style, not really naive, but not realistic either. I had seen much of his work – so I thought – and I was surprised that I could find something totally new to me. The picture below consists of four single prints, close-ups of seasonal flowers, from spring at the left to winter at the right. The coloring is interesting – the warm colors for spring and winter, and the coldest blue for summer.

Woodprints: Seasonal FlowersAfter visiting his exhibition, we went to a nearby cafe. We wanted to go to the cafe “Independant” in the basement of an old, Western style house that was built in 1928 and is still used today. Unfortunately, that cafe is closed in the afternoon for someStaricase to the Cafe Independant reason, but we could at least go downstairs and admire the lovely mosaic staircase. The basement itself is a single room with very high ceilings, heavy pillars, and typical vault architecture – it is definitely worth going there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in another cafe on the second floor of the same building, eating chocolate cake and iced creme brulee and drinking tea and coffee. We were chatting about this and that – just like old ladies like me enjoy doing. I had a great afternoon!

Nail House

You have heard of nail houses or holdouts, right? Those are houses or rather the property on which it stands that did not become a part of a larger development (a shopping centre, public building, etc) because the owners refused to sell. Nail houses is a relatively new term for these properties, many of them are in China and there are plenty of photos online.

Recently, there is a lot of building going on in Kyoto. Lots of beautiful old buildings, many with large gardens, are torn down to make room for a brand-new mansion – I positively hate them! Often, a number of houses in a neighborhood are bought up by a developer to be able to build even bigger mansions… When you are walking down the roads in Kyoto in 20 years or so, all you will see are mansions and parking lots, with a few convenience stores strewn in between, I swear. The old buildings that will be left at that time will feel like a zoo because nobody will live in them anymore, they will be just cafes and souvenir shops…

Anyway, I wanted to write about a nail house near the old place where I lived. The owner refused to sell to one of those huge mansion developers, and now her house is surrounded on three sides by the mansion, the fourth side is facing the road. While I commend her guts to stand up to the guys with the big money, I have to say I wouldn’t want to live like that…

But then I realised that there is an even more prominent nail house in Kyoto. It is smack on one of the busiest corners in inner city, at Shijo-Kawaramachi, and it is this:

Kyoto Takashimaya Building, 2006The big building is the Kyoto Takashimaya, one of the largest department store chains in Japan. It was founded in Kyoto in 1831 and moved to this prominent spot in 1948. And at that point already, the owner of the little house on the corner refused to sell to the big developers, and you can see what happened then: Just like what would happen nowadays. You see, in Japan, it’s all about tradition… 😉