Corona Catches Kyoto

Sorry for being quiet, I’m fine, please don’t worry about me, but right now, everything is going downhill here, and pretty quickly too…

woman wearing a surgical maskLast Friday, the Kyoto city mayor as well as the Kyoto prefecture governor have urged the national government to include Kyoto prefecture into the state of emergency declaration. As of now, nothing has happened… It seems to be a typical Japanese response: If we ignore it, maybe it’ll go away!? Meanwhile, four more prefectures have declared their own state of emergency, which is not ordered by the national government, among them Gifu and Aichi (Nagoya). Kyoto’s governor is not ready to do that at this point, so we’re still in limbo. At the moment, there are 210 Corona infections in Kyoto prefecture as a whole.

Thus, the mayor of Kyoto has strongly urged people to stay at home and not go out unless absolutely necessary. Essentially all events have been cancelled, all four big department stores and most museums are closed, and even hotels will be shutting down in the next days. The Kyoto bus and subway systems had 70% fewer passengers last Sunday than usual and will shut down a number of lines that are geared towards tourists. I have seen photos of Shijo street taken last Sunday, where it’s essentially empty – Shijo dori between Yasaka shrine and Horikawa dori is one of the busiest shopping streets in Kyoto, usually.

So yeah… my business has essentially shut down too. Although some smaller events are still taking place, it’s a bit hard to tell people to go out at the moment… So, I have decided to ditch my usual daily event tips on facebook and take people on a “virtual tour” through Kyoto while everything is shut down. If you want to come along every day at 8, have a look here: https://www.facebook.com/whatsupinkyoto/

Other than this, I have given myself permission to take it extremely easy with respect to work. I have plenty of smaller things to do that keep falling by the wayside (both for work and privately), but honestly, it’s been hard to keep my motivation up the last weeks already. And it’s not going to get better… At least the prospect of writing for the “virtual tour” excites me, so that’s good.

Other than that… I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the blog here. Surely, you already have enough about people whining about Corona, so I don’t need to add to this. Maybe I should be taking it easy here too? I’m not sure… We’ll see how much writing motivation I can muster each day.

Signs in Kyoto

Kyoto is different from any other city in Japan, and even Japanese people – born in Kyoto or not – generally agree with me. Personally, I like to call Kyoto “the most Japanese city” of the country, whereas the other big centres like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Sendai… feel more generally Asian to me. The differences range from language (besides the special vocabulary that is common in any dialect, Kyoto-ben is considered more formal than any other local variety of Japanese) to customs, food, building styles etc.

Part of the latter are strict zoning laws for the city. For example, with the one and only exception of Kyoto Tower (131 m), no building may be taller than the 5-story pagoda of Toji temple. It measures 54.8 meters, the elevation difference of Kyoto’s Shichijo and Kitaoji streets.¬†

Anyway, I wanted to talk about another thing where Kyoto is quite different from all other cities in Japan, something most people don’t even notice. Look at these two photos below. Notice the difference? Sure you do, but what is it, exactly?

The signs are gone! Since 2013, Kyoto has implemented rigorous standards for company signs, ranging from sizing and placement to detailed rules for coloring. Nowhere in Kyoto will you find gaudy colors during the day or flashy neon signs at night. If you want to hang out your shingle, it better be a classy one.

Starbucks near Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

For this reason, many Japanese companies had to come up with special color schemes for their signs just for Kyoto. And even multinational corporations like Mac Donald’s have to obey the rules. Not every company goes quite as far as Starbucks though, but then again, this particular cafe near Kiyomizudera is the exception there as well.

Many long-established Kyoto companies go the traditional route when it comes to their signage. Even on modern buildings you can see wooden signs, but the large carved ones are most often found on traditional buildings. There also, you may be greeted with a chochin lantern inscribed with the company name or with a logo-bearing noren in front of the main door, which, by the way, is a practical indicator of whether the place is open for business. 

Signs at the Shimadai Gallery

Yes, Kyoto is different! And with this rather small and insignificant change, the city government allows you to take your eyes off the blinking signage so you can focus on the things that really matter.

Yasaka Pagoda at night

All photos above are taken from the publication “Signs in Kyoto” by the Kyoto City Government.

Ancestors

I have another one of my “pick up” stories for you today: Craving some katsudon, I went to lunch to one of my favourite “fast food” places nearby. Usually, I do some writing while I’m waiting for the food to arrive. However, I had spent all morning at the doctor’s (long story for next week) where I expected a long wait, so I had a book with me and started reading. When the food came, I plopped it next to me on the bench.

Cue the two ladies sitting at the table next to me, taking an interest in the book – quite a tome – and, as happened so often before, they were chatting me up. The usual questions ensue: Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing? What’s your name? I answered all their questions and to the final one, I returned: “And what’s your name?”

I was surprised at the answer, it was a name I had never heard before, and I said as much. The older one of the two women proceeded to tell me how all three of her nieces had been Saio-dai (imperial princess) at the famous Aoi matsuri a number of years back. This is an honor usually bestowed only on very old (and wealthy) families of Kyoto, and again, I said as much.

Toyotomi HideyoshiTo which the old lady proceeded to tell me that in her family they had head priests of Matsunoo Shrine and various other shrines and temples; that others had been important producers of Kiyomizu ceramics near Gojo street. And then she mentioned, rather casually, that one of her ancestors, some 400 years ago, had been the personal physician of Toyotomi Hidenaga, the younger half-brother of Hideyoshi. An ancient Kyoto family indeed!

Oh, the book I am reading now? A novel about the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi…

Setsubun at Rozan-ji

Yesterday was setsubun, the last day of winter in the traditional calendar. It is said that between the seasons there is a gap through which evil demons enter the world. Obviously, this is not good, so they have to be repelled – by throwing roasted beans at them while shouting “oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi”. I wrote about setsubun and the ceremony at Kyoto’s Yoshida Shrine on this blog before (and also on What’s up in Kyoto by the way), if you are curious about details.

Yesterday I went to two setsubun rituals. In the morning, a friend of mine invited me to the temple were she usually goes to. First, there was a normal worship with lots of chanting done by the congregation, which was the first time I experienced this – usually, it’s only the monks chanting. Afterwards, there was a short sermon by the current head of the temple (broadcast from Tokyo, another first time for me) and then there was the mamemaki bean throwing. My friend’s mother was smart enough to bring a large shawl that she draped on our laps, so we got an extra amount of lucky beans without straining too much.

After lunch, we went to Rozan-ji temple, where Kyoto’s second largest setsubun ritual (after the one in Yoshida shrine) is taking place. Here, there is a Buddhist ceremony taking place inside the temple, and while only selected guests may enter, you can hear the chanting outside as well. Then, all of a sudden, three scary demons in red, green, and black appear on the scene, wielding a sword and a torch, an axe, and a mallet. They perform a kind of dance on stage and slowly and with lots of looking about, approach the temple and finally enter it.

Inside, the priests appear undeterred from their ritual and keep on chanting as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, I could not see what was going on, but after a while, the three demons ran out of the temple, without their weapons and staggering from left to right. They disappeared somewhere at the back of the precinct, never to be seen again – setsubun mission accomplished!

Right afterwards, an archer came out and shot arrows into the four cardinal directions. This is meant to create a kind of blessed circle around the temple, which evil demons cannot cross. Catching one of these arrows is also considered lucky, and if you do, they should be displayed in the altar of the home or, lacking one, near the entrance door.

Finally, it was time for the setsubun highlight, the mamemaki bean throwing. Some of the priests and other invited people came onto the stage where just before the demons had danced, and started shouting “oni wa soto” while throwing beans to the spectators. Besides the lucky beans that were covered in white and pink sugar-coating (and were quite delicious), they also threw small mochi into the crowds. Some of them had a stamp on them saying “lucky”, and you could exchange these mochi for a sacred arrow.

There was quite some scrambling for the beans and the mochi. It’s surprisingly hard to catch them, but people were just as happy to pick them up from the ground (which meant more scrambling). I was not lucky enough to catch an arrow, nor did I catch one of the “lucky” mochi. I did catch one normal mochi though and picked up a second one, and one of the lucky beans caught in my collar.

All in all, with all the beans I got throughout the day and the two mochi, I think I will be decked in with luck for the time being. Which is always a good thing, I think we can agree on that!

I’ll add some pictures tomorrow!

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”.