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.

Ofunehoko

Yesterday, for the second year, I was working as a volunteer at the Ofunehoko, the last big float of the second Gion Matsuri Parade that is taking place on July 24th in the morning.

I felt a bit more confident this year, being there before and most of the things we had to do were the same. This year, the visitors to the second floor of the Ofunehoko house and the Ofunehoko itself had to take care of their own shoes, which was a great relief since this was a very stressful job last year. Also, every one of us could spend some time inside the Ofunehoko house, which meant: sitting down for a while! Even if it’s just sitting in seiza, taking the weight off the wooden geta and not having to stand for 6 hours straight is quite a relief.

Even though there were much fewer people this year (probably because of the bad weather), it was still fun to sell the chimaki and the upstairs tickets and the tenugui… Interestingly, most of the foreigners dropping by yesterday were Italians. Unfortunately, only a single one of my friends visited me, but it was the one who introduced me to the Miyakogusa group and made the whole thing possible in the first place. I felt quite honored that he would come and see me.

A chimaki from the OfunehokoAs a reward for our work, we all received a free chimaki upon leaving – the paper bag that goes with it is almost more interesting. A chimaki is a charm that is usually put up at the entrance door or in the genkan of a Japanese house to prevent evil from entering. Interestingly, there were even young Japanese people who asked about the meaning of the chimaki, which I found a bit odd – it seems such a fundamental thing here in Kyoto that I can’t believe this is not done everywhere else in Japan. I will investigate…

Gion Matsuri Shinko-sai

I actually made it to the Shinko-sai of Gion Matsuri last night! The Shinko-sai is the first part of Gion Matsuri (or actually, many of the shrine festivals in Kyoto and elsewhere), where first, the gods of Yasaka shrine are moved from their seats in the shrine to the portable mikoshi. Then, the mikoshi are paraded through the neighborhoods by enthusiastic people before they are placed in their temporary resting place, the so-called Otabisho. In Kyoto, the Otabisho for Yasaka Shrine is directly on the corner of Shijo dori and Shinkyogoku dori, which are both very popular shopping streets.

Yesterday, after my meeting, I went down to the Otabisho, where I arrived around 19:30. From 20:00, Shijo dori was closed for traffic (Shinkyogoku is a pedestrian area to begin with), and people were anxiously waiting for something to happen. Around 20:30, a parade arrived with musicians and gifts for the gods and people on horseback accompanying the chigo, a young boy who is representing a god or the gods during the whole of Gion Matsuri. He is the most important figure during Gion Matsuri with special duties and is not allowed to touch the ground or any woman, including his mother, for example.

Chigo on HorsebackAbout 45 minutes later, the first of three mikoshi arrived. In front was a group of children, all dressed up like the adults, and all happily yelling hotoi to cheer on those who would carry the mikoshi behind them.

Row of children in front of the mikoshiThen, finally, the first mikoshi arrived, accompanied by over 100 people who carried it on their shoulders. And, as if this portable shrine was not heavy enough as it is, it is very important to jump up and down with it, accompanied by shouts of hotoi throughout. The jumping looks almost choreographed with special steps, and the men carrying the mikoshi are changing all the time, which is also done very carefully.

Hotoi - Mikoshi amongst its carriersIn the end, the mikoshi made two full turns in front of the Otabisho on outstretched hands, which is quite a feat.

Turning the mikoshi around in front of the OtabishoFinally, the mikoshi was set down in front of the shrine next to the Otabisho. There, prayers were said – probably to welcome the kami to its resting place – and finally, everybody clapped happily for a job well done.

A last prayer for the gods before everything is over.While the first mikoshi was dismantled and put up in the Otabisho, the second one already waited a bit further down Shijo dori, but by now it was 22:00, and to be very honest, after more than 2 hours of standing on the hot asphalt, my feet hurt quite a bit. So I decided to go home, leaving the clapping and shouting for the other two mikoshi to the remaining spectators. Interestingly, also the men who carried the first shrine did not stick around. On my way back to my bicycle, I could see them walking home in small groups, obviously even more exhausted than me.

Tamayuran

This afternoon I had my weekly English class, and we usually meet in the shopping mall next door. As I mentioned before, the mall is being extended, and many shops are closed, even at parts of the mall that have nothing to do with the extension. They want to have the big “renewal open” in December, and I’m looking forward to it! At the moment the place looks like a ghost town with large parts dark and closed off. It’s not a nice place to have English classes …

Additionally, today it was very noisy, so we decided to go elsewhere. My student/friend suggested to visit the Tamayuran, a small cafe near Kyoto University. The owner rescues cats of all ages, and my friend picked up a 10 year old cat there a couple of months ago, which is how she got to know the Tamayuran in the first place.

So, we went to see cats. And: I’m in love! It is the season for baby cats, and there were six or seven in the cafe, from youngsters who are a couple of months old and very playful to a tiny little one that’s probably less than four weeks at the moment. Here is little “Kyoichiro Yoshida”:

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【たまゆらん保猫園】吉田 京一郎 生後3ー4日の仔猫がポトンと落ちていました。 周りに母猫や兄弟猫の気配もなく… 本当にポトンと… 保護し、お店に連れ帰ってます。 へその緒もまだついてる、目もあいていない子。 体温が低いので、かなり心配な状態です… 柄が独特。綺麗なアメショ柄になりそうな男の子。 吉田 京一郎くん。 今日からミルク頑張ります。 #京都カフェ #今出川通り #北白川通り #おうちごはんcafeたまゆらん #たまゆらん #看板猫のいるお店 #たまゆらん保猫園 #仔猫 #保護仔猫 #京一郎成長記

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He’s a bit bigger now, some two handfuls of kitten, but sooo cute and lovely and he was first sleeping and then crawling around in the big box he was in and when I picked him up he started crying but then he liked being stroked and got cuddly and he’s so tiny still with blue eyes and …

*cough* Sorry.

So yes, he’s very cute, but already spoken for! Somebody from Tokyo will come down next month and get him. Personally, I like cats of all sizes, but I think grown-ups are easier to care for, especially if they are potty-trained already. But since I’m not allowed to have cats here anyway, the point is rather moot.

Even without the cats, the cafe is definitely worth visiting. I had a wonderful milk tea and my friend and I shared a enormous peach parfait. It was delicious! The Tamayuran is open from 12:00 – 18:00, closed on Wednesdays. They serve a daily lunch, toast and sandwiches, and the seasonal parfaits are to die for (says my friend). I will definitely visit again, I think what the owner is doing is commendable and I’m happy to support her.

Find lots of pictures of the Tamayuran – with a certain focus on cats and food – on their instagram page above.

Words for Each Day

On Friday, I went with a friend to Daisen-in, a subtemple of Daitokuji in the north-western part of Kyoto. We got a special tour through the grounds, and  apparently, the current abbot of Daisen-in is quite a famous figure in Kyoto or Zen Buddhism. We were both deeply touched by his  “Words for Each Day”, so I’ll give them to you and wish you a nice Sunday!

 

Each Day in Life is Training
Training for Myself
Though Failure is Possible
Living Each Moment
Equal to Anything
Ready for Everything

I am Alive – I am This Moment
    My Future is Here and Now

For If I cannot Endure Today
When and Where Will I

Soen Ozeki

 


Encounters With Kyoto

I have reason to celebrate: I can now call myself a “published author”. Yay!

As I mentioned before, since last November, I am a member of the group Writers in Kyoto, as the name suggests, a small group of writers who live in (or around) Kyoto or have some other connection to Kyoto and who write in English.

This year, for the third time altogether, the group has put out an anthology to which the members of the group were invited to contribute. There was also a writing competition that was free for everybody to join. About half of the Writers in Kyoto members have sent in short stories or poems or non-fiction essays – and I’m one of them!

Cover of Writers in Kyoto Anthology, Vol. 3And, our book “Encounters With Kyoto – Writers in Kyoto Anthology 3” is now available on amazon in paperback! An e-book version is in preparation and there’s lots of fun stories to read. For example, there is a very interesting non-fiction piece on ropes made with human hair that were used to lift the wooden beams of Higashi Honganji Temple – some of the ropes are still on display there. Or the lovely poems full of childhood memories by a local Kyoto lady. And then there’s my essay about a Japanese garden I was not supposed to enter… My personal favourite is a fun piece on an encounter with yakuza – in the sento to boot!

Last Saturday the group met for the official book launch in Umekoji park near Kyoto station. We had sake and local and international snacks and then some of the authors went on to read their pieces from the anthology. It was my first time at a group meeting, so I decided to read my piece by way of introduction. People seemed to like it, or at least the liked my reading, so we had something to talk about afterwards, thank goodness.

It was fun to meet other English speakers in Kyoto, some of whom have lived here for decades, some of whom have just arrived; some of whom I have heard about from friends, others I would have never known otherwise. And it was fun to meet so many different people – and to find out interesting things we have in common regardless.

I realise that this self-promotion is a bit of an unusual book post for a Sunday, but I really enjoyed working on my essay and reading the other contributions. If you’d like to check it out – and I promise there are better writers in it than me –  as I said, it’s available internationally on amazon.