150th Miyako Odori

All the way back in February this year, I was invited to a press conference of Gion Kobu, one of Kyoto’s five kagai – geiko/maiko districts. This year, they celebrated the 150th Miyako Odori, a public dance performance with geiko and maiko held every April that was established in 1872. I have written a piece about its history on my medium page, have a look at Geiko and Maiko Celebrate 150th Miyako Odori.

The press conference featured talks by a professor of Doshisha university about the history of the Miyako Odori and a talk by the dance master Yachiko Inoue, whose school is exclusively responsible for the choreography – and that for 150 performances.

Afterwards, we were introduced to the painter who designed this year’s poster and to two of the three maiko who made their debut on stage this year were presented and we were allowed to have a few questions. They were shy and a bit uncomfortable, and no matter how mature they may seem thanks to their makeup and dress, at the end of the day, they are just some giggling teenagers after all.

A few days later, we were invited back to take promotional photographs of the kimono and the stage setting, again with a Q&A of maiko as well as of the dance master. I found it very interesting how unabashedly the photographers directed the girls to “turn that way, look here” etc. To me, who has always heard the maiko referred to respectfully as maiko-san, it was quite a new experience.

So was watching how the main promotional photo was taken of the two maiko in full dress on stage. The dance master sat at the end of the stage directing them how to smile and hold the props etc. This part alone – one photo for each of the eight scenes – took several hours; sadly I was busy in the afternoon and had to leave at noon.

Finally, as the highlight of the entire backstage experience, I received an invitation to the final dress rehearsal of the Miyako Odori on March 31st. Once again, there were interviews with this year’s first performers and the dance master. The entire theater was filled with invited people, and while the press had to sit at the very back, we were the ones allowed to take photos. Here are a few that I took during the 150th Miyako Odori.

End of a Landmark

Breaking news today in Kyoto: A tree has fallen!

Not in the woods surrounding the city (who would be there to know it happened or hear it fall?) but at Ninenzaka, one of the main approaches to Kiyomizudera Temple. This in turn is one of the main tourist attractions of Kyoto.

Judging from the moss growing on the trunk, it must have been very old, and the fact that it was a cherry tree makes its loss so much worse – in the eyes of the Japanese.

However, the old sakura will live on forever thanks to having been part of Kyoto’s most scenic spots. And who knows, somebody might just plant another sakura in its place soon.

Yozakura 2024

It appears that last Wednesday I spoke too early about hanami being over. The rain did not appear in the force expected, indeed, we’ve had some fairly nice days. Nice enough for me to go out on Friday evening for some yozakura – illuminated cherry trees – in the Botanical Gardens.

Here are some photos I took (without a tripod). My favourite sakura this time around are those that have pink and white blossoms on one tree. Who’d have thought!

Rediscovered Painting by Jakuchu

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity – thanks to What’s up in Kyoto – to be among the first people to lay eyes on a recently discovered painting by Jakuchu. It was a press-only-reveal of a colorful scroll and it was done with all the ceremony that such an event required.

You can read all about this important discovery, and a little bit about Jakuchu, on the Japonica Medium page in my article
Rediscovered Painting by Kyoto Master Returns Home – Jakuchu scroll found in Europe causes stir in Japanese art scene.

It was a nice diversion from the things I usually do, and a friend of mine even recorded evidence of me trying to be a serious photographer. (She calls the photo “kakkoi” – cool.)

I love my job.

Kyoto’s Sanjo Dori and its Buildings

When thinking of Japan’s most modern cities, Kyoto is probably not on anyone’s list. And it’s true, once you leave the futuristic station building (the second largest in Japan, btw.) and lose sight of the candle-shaped Kyoto Tower, the city’s narrow streets lined with wooden houses and dotted with Jisho shrines give off a lovable, but somewhat old-fashioned vibe.

Things were very different 120 years ago, though. After the Meiji Restoration, when the Emperor and his new government took residence in Tokyo, Kyoto’s citizens made a concerted effort to keep the city from sliding into obscurity. Japan’s first railroad connected the old and new capital, the Lake Biwa Canal furnished electricity for the brand-new city tram, and a number of Western-style buildings gave Kyoto a distinctly modern look.

To this day, many of these buildings survive in Kyoto’s inner city, especially along Sanjo dori between Teramachi and Karasuma. Take a closer look at the former main street of Kyoto the next time when you’re out shopping and discover these beautiful, not-so-hidden gems.

Let’s take a walk on Sanjo dori westwards from Teramachi. Already at the next corner, you’ll find the 1928 building, so named after its year of construction. Then, it was home to the Kyoto branch of Osaka Mainichi Newspaper, and some traces can still be found in the basement. There are lovely ArtDeco elements throughout the building, especially in the stairwells. Today it houses the GEAR theater and gallery spaces, as well as a restaurant/bar in the basement.

Walk further to the lovely Old Yabetoku Clock Shop with its three arches. This two-story house made with red bricks was built in 1890 for a dealer in watches and precious metals. Sadly, the clocks are gone in favor of clothing, but the building is an important cultural property of Japan.

Directly at the opposite corner lies the SACRA Building, formerly the Kyoto branch of the Fudo Chokin Bank. Built in 1916, it still has the heavy wooden doors and staircase it was originally fitted with. Thanks to the many shops inside, a close-up look is possible.

Two large red brick buildings stand on the second to last block before Karasuma, and they look so similar they could be twins.

The first is the Annex of the Museum of Kyoto, built in 1903 as the Kyoto branch of the Bank of Japan. The inside has been lovingly restored to its former glory: A huge single room with high ceiling and the old wood trimmings of the bank still exudes riches. It was turned into a museum in 1967, and the former vault in what is now the museum’s inner courtyard secures a branch of Maeda Coffee.

Finally, there is the Nakagyo-ku Post Office, another red brick building, built in 1902. This is the only building mentioned here that is still used for its original purpose. It narrowly escaped demolition in the 1970s, thanks to the engagement of the locals.

Many more of these modern buildings from the turn of the century survive in Kyoto, like the Kyocera Museum and other buildings in Okazaki, Kyoto National Museum and Kyoto City Hall, the Restaurant Yaomasa at Shijo Bridge, the old Fucho Prefectural Government building, the old campus of Doshisha University just north of the Gosho… It’s really worth taking the time and looking around a little to find these delightful little gems.


Sorry for not writing on Wednesday, I was uncharacteristically busy this week.

It started already last Friday with a maiko press conference that continued on Monday with a maiko photo shoot. While those invitations usually come weeks in advance, this one arrived only two days ahead of the press conference, so I had to wiggle with my deadlines a bit. Still, I am very grateful for the opportunity to look behind the scenes of the Miyako Odori, a public performance of the maiko and geiko of Gion Kobu district, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. I’ll go in more depth at some later point, but here’s a quick picture.

Afterwards, I had a big paper deadline on Tuesday, and lots of smaller things to fill my Wednesday, because I decided to go on a short trip to Nagoya on Thursday afternoon and spend Friday – a public holiday in honor of the Emperor’s birthday – with a friend there. The added bonus was to see the BATI-HOLIC concert there on Thursday night. It appears that the guys appreciated me showing up so far from home.

Anyway, it was a very busy week and I had to start working again yesterday; next week will be very busy too, end of the month and all. But with everything that happened last week, it was worth the effort – so many new impressions. And who knows, I might be invited to more maiko press conferences and photo shoots in the future…

My Favourite Dragons

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Japan (all over Asia, actually), and dragons are a popular motif in Japanese art. They have a special connection to Zen temples, where dragons are often depicted on the ceilings of their main halls. Since they are considered to live in water, placing their image there is a prayer for protection from fires (not very successfully, as history shows). Dragons are also thought to protect the Buddhist Dharma and to keep a watchful eye over the priests and congregation below them.

My favourite dragon painting is that of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. In contrast, the painting was only created in 2000, so it has a very vibrant and modern feel to it and provides a stark contrast to the old temple hall. Here it is:

It’s actually two dragons intertwined instead of only one; one of them with mouth closed, the other one with mouth open, reminiscent of the guardian lions that can be found at many temple and even shrine entrances. They seem to fight over one single ball of treasure, which one of them holds proudly in a 5-clawed paw, something that is rare in Japan. Most dragon paintings here have only 4 or even just 3 claws, the use of the 5-clawed dragon was reserved for the Chinese emperor.

Anyway, the painting is stunning and whenever I go there, I spend some time sitting down and following the bodies of the dragons, trying to find all the parts and figuring out to which dragon they belong. Sadly, Kennin-ji has become very touristy (I remember when I first visited it, there was nobody there), so it’s less peaceful than it once was 10 years ago.

Out & About

Just a wee bit late… Yesterday, my friend from Tokyo visited Kyoto for a short day trip. We went to no less than three museums, one of them even for free and unofficially, because we arrived between exhibitions and the nice lady downstairs let us in anyway.

We had ramen for lunch and coffee and sweets as final act of the day before my friend returned home again. I always enjoy our outings, she’s curious and flexible and very happy to try and experience all sorts of new things with me.

After our outing, I found myself at Kitaoji Bus Terminal and decided to buy a new IC card for public transport. Of course, I have one – a so-called SUICA I bought years ago in Tokyo – and while it’s still perfectly valid and functional, the Kansai region has recently introduced a discount system for commuters and other heavy users that only works with the local IC cards PiTaPa or ICOCA.

I thought I could simply buy one of these and be done with it after registering my address, but it turns out that the PiTaPa is only available via (online) application, because it is in fact a post-paid card that requires a connected bank account for automatic payment at the end of each month.

In any case, it took a while to explain to the two people at the information counter what I wanted from them; in turn it took a while for them to explain to me the requirements… Finally, I got the advice to “research PiTaPa on the internet”.

“Is there a URL,” I asked, “can you please write it down for me.” This is the note I received:

I think I discovered peak stupidity.

Garden of Fine Arts

Today, I took advantage of the free admission to finally visit the “Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto”. It lies next to the Botanical Gardens on Kitayama Dori, which is probably the reason why there isn’t a single plant in sight…

Instead, it is an outdoors gallery on three underground levels, created with massive concrete slabs and pillars by architect Tadao Ando. It is home to eight large-scale ceramic reproductions of famous pieces, among them Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and Leonardo’s Last Supper. Because of the way the gallery has been set up, the art can be viewed from several levels and perspectives, giving new insights along the way (literally).

Throughout the place you can hear the gushing of water as it flows along walls into pools at the very bottom. You make your way down on gentle slopes and there are benches to sit and view the art pieces.

I’m not a fan of this kind of architecture, to be honest, and the Western art at least didn’t touch me either. I’m not sure why, maybe because the surroundings were so much different that what I’m used to. Also, there is the age of the reproductions to take into account, even though ceramic should be able to withstand quite some abuse. I couldn’t find anything definite, but apparently the gallery opened in the 1990s.

I did like the Choju Jinbutsu Giga, a long scroll from the 12th/13th century depicting frolicking animals; it is often called the first Japanese manga. Because these tiles lie under the walkways, they seem to be in better condition and that you can get really close is definitely a plus.

Overall, I’m not sure if I can recommend the Garden of Fine Arts. If you like Tadao Ando’s work, do check it out, it’s currently only 100 yen to view it. If you’re not into grey concrete slabs, you won’t miss much if you pass.

1200 Years of Toji and Shingon Buddhism

Sorry for not writing yesterday, I was out all afternoon and came home soaking wet after dark. But since it’s a holiday today (Sports Day), I had some time for a recap. As you may know, thanks to WUIK, I count as “member of the press” and so I got a preview for the special exhibition “All About Toji” that started today. The preview lasted four hours, and it was worth every second, despite all the rain. Below are my impressions and some photos I took yesterday.

From 794, Toji, the “Western Temple” and its 5-story pagoda marked the entrance to Heian-kyo, the then-new capital of Japan. Today it still stands (unlike its sister temple to the east) just south of Kyoto station, and this month, it celebrates the 1200 anniversary of Shingon Buddhism.

The monk Kukai, after his death revered as Kobo Daishi, was given Toji temple in 823 and expanded it greatly. He also oversaw the construction of several buildings, among them the pagoda that is now a landmark of Kyoto. Although there are several large temples in Kyoto affiliated to Shingon Buddhism, Toji remains the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism to this day.

Sadly, most of the temple’s original buildings were destroyed one time or another by earthquakes, typhoons, or fires. They have been rebuilt, however, sometimes even according to old plans, and many now count among Japan’s National Treasures.

The preview started out with a short press conference in a building adjacent to the abbot’s quarters. While it looks fairly recent outside and has a lovely garden, I was taken by the modern paintings on top of the fusuma. They reminded me of Insho Domoto, but were actually by a contemporary artist called Taisuke Hamada.

We were then free to walk the temple grounds. First stop: The Miedo, aka Daishi-in, which was originally the residence of Kobo Daishi, even though the current building is from 1390. Instead of a Buddha, it has a statue of Kobo Daishi; people come and worship him all the same.

The Homotsukan temple museum is home to temple treasures. This time, letters from Kukai are on display, as well as letters from emperors to the temple and some treasured mandala. For me, however, the most spectacular exhibit was on the second floor: an enormous 6m-tall statue of Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, with her 1000 arms. The statue was once housed in another building, but was greatly damaged when a fire destroyed the hall. It took years to reconstruct her, and one can only imagine how impressive it must have looked like before the fire.

The sub-temple Kanchin-in was home to the temple’s guest house, built in 1359. It is a very large complex with interlocking building and boasts wall paintings by one of its famous guests: Miyamoto Musashi. The eagle painting shows its age, but the bamboo still looks fresh. I liked the little gardens that are fit between the buildings, and in a more modern part that has several tearooms, there were more paintings by Taisuke Hamada, this time depicting seasonal scenes.

The main part of Toji Temple consists of three buildings in a large garden: The Kodo Lecture Hall was established by Kobo Daishi in 825; the current building is from 1491. Inside is an unusual three-dimensional mandala with 20 Buddhist statues, also created by Kobo Daishi and all centred around a seated Dainichi Nyorai. Personally, I prefer the statues of the so-called Wisdom Kings, they are much more dynamic in expression and posture than the serene seated Buddhas.

Three Buddhas make up the entire interior furnishings of the Kondo Main Hall, just south of the Kodo, which was commissioned by Hideyori in 1603. It shows the distinct architectural style of the Momoyama period.

The 5-storied pagoda is the symbol of Toji Temple and one of Kyoto’s landmarks. The current one is from 1644, built under the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. Its shock-absorbing construction is said to have inspired similar designs used in Tokyo’s Skytree. On the ground floor, are four seated Buddha statues, each facing a different cardinal direction. The interior of the pagoda is covered in colourful patterns and paintings, in stark contrast to its dark and sombre exterior. I wonder what the other floors may have inside, but these are off limits at all times.

Finally, there were two more exhibitions of beautiful close-up photographs of statues and buildings of Toji temple which I greatly admired – I wish I could take photos like these. There were also two brand-new mandalas by a contemporary artist, which, to be honest, I didn’t find that good, but they were dedicated to the temple on this day.

For me, the best things were the Kannon statue, the 3D mandala and the interior of the pagoda as well as Kanchiin House as a whole. It was my first time entering the buildings of Toji Temple and I can wholeheartedly recommend it!

If you’re in Kyoto this October, do take the time to visit this exhibition “All About Toji” where you can see all this with a single ticket and a special audio guide in English.