Halving

Over the New Year’s period, even Kyoto’s public service people get a week or so off. This means, among others: no garbage collection. A few weeks before New Year’s, you get a detailed schedule of what type of garbage is collected until which day and from which day. The schedule is comprehensive, on top of the usual suspects (standard garbage, plastics, glass, and paper) there are also mentioned slightly more exotic things you might want to get rid of: large household appliances for example, or dead pets.

plastic grocery bagsThis year, on the bottom of the page, there was a special appeal to reduce waste. Apparently, the city is making an effort to cut their garbage in half, from a peak of 390.000 tons (per year, I assume?) The rate has slowed down, and now people are encouraged to go the extra mile to reduce 27.000 tons more to meet the target. Particularly suggested are a reduction in food waste (meaning: the throwing out of perfectly edible leftovers or overstocked food) and to be more diligent in separating paper from the general garbage.

Both is fine with me 😉 What was interesting about this appeal was a very simple calculation. They suggest that each person should reduce their waste by 30 grams each day. That sounds rather puny, no? After all, that’s just one PET bottle, or 3 plastic bags, or half a newspaper (probably not the Sunday edition); or one bell pepper, or 1/5 of a carrot or tomato. But when you actually doing the numbers, that little bit does sum up: To 900 grams, i.e., almost one kilo per month, and 10.8 kilos per year. For one person – count the approximately 1.5 million people living in Kyoto alone, and that leads to more than 16.000 tons a year.

Impressive what a tiny little bit can sum up to – if everybody does it!

Streets of Kyoto

When Kyoto was founded more than 1000 years ago, it was modeled after the then capital of China. This means, all of the city was laid out on a rectangular North-South, East-West grid, with the grounds of the imperial palace on the northern end of the city, representing its head.

Lots of things happen in 1000 years, in particular the growth of Kyoto beyond its original boundaries to fit the 1.5 million people living here today. A large portion of the newer parts of the city have simply extended the grid scheme, but especially near the mountains that enclose the town, this is not the case anymore.

However, to be considered a “true” Kyoto person, you must live in that inner part of town that once made up the original city (ideally, that means your family has been living there forever). And so as not to get lost in those little streets that all but looked the same in the time of the old Japanese wooden houses, children learnt the Kyoto street song, listing all the streets of Kyoto “proper” first from North to South, and then from East to West.

Even today, every person born in Kyoto knows this song. I am not sure if the song itself has a meaning beyond the street names, but since they are abbreviated and one of the lines talks about “Ane san”, meaning older sister, I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually did tell a story. Enjoy!

Just in case you’re wondering what’s with the penguins: Kyoto City Aquarium houses 47 penguins that are all named after the 47 streets in this song. And in this video, you hear the staff of the Aquarium.

Oyamazaki Sanso

Last Thursday, two friends and I took advantage of the holiday to visit Oyamazaki Sanso, or, officially: The Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art. It is located on a hillside in the south-western part of Kyoto, overlooking the place where the rivers Kizu, Uji, and Katsura merge. The villa consists of a number of buildings in a more than 16000 m2 large garden, which alone is worth a visit, in particular now.

Oyamazaki SansoThe main house was built in the Taisho era (about 100 years ago) and was subsequently enlarged. It has an obvious Western feeling to it, but even so, there are many features that are reminiscent of Japanese style: enormous wooden beams (one square one with a side length of 50cm) support the ceilings, and the entrance and second floor have high ceilings where the roof structure can be seen, there are little ornaments featuring bamboos… But mainly, the house is Western style: there are two large terraces on the second floor, together with a very modern looking guest bathroom with beige tiles that even features fixtures for hot water. The ground floor sports a large dining room and parlour with enormous fireplace, and out into the back, there is an airy corridor with lots of windows that once led to a greenhouse for orchids.

Oyamazaki Sanso EntranceThis main house was built as a country villa for Shotaro Kaga, a wealthy businessman from Osaka. He had many interests, like cultivating orchids and drawing pictures of them, and he was also involved in the founding of Nikka Whisky Distilling. A close friend of his was Tamesaburo Yamamoto, the first president of the Asahi Breweries. After the death of Kaga and his wife, the house changed hands a number of times, but eventually fell into disrepair. By the mid 1980s, the house was slated for demolition to make room for luxury apartments, but the locals could convince Asahi Breweries to buy and renovate the Oyamazaki Sanso.

The old buildings were renovated, and two new buildings that now serve as the main museum were added. Designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, they are so well integrated into the site that they are all but inconspicuous when approaching the main building. The whole museum now contains the main house, a watchtower (from where Kaga watched the main house being built), two tea houses, a rest house (originally a garage) and the modern jewelry box and dream box museum annexes. The museum opened in 1996, and the old buildings were designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties in 2004.

Oyamazaki SansoThe museum shows various special exhibitions during the year, and it also shows pieces from the Yamamoto collection of art, collected by the first president of Asahi Breweries who was interested in the Mingei Movement that focused on folk art. The underground jewelry box, a small, round single room shows parts of the permanent collection, in particular some of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. This was quite a surprise to me, mostly because the museum is so small. I now found out that Monet had painted some 250 versions of the Water Lilies, but still, that there are three of those paintings in such a small museum is quite a feat I think.

Oyamazaki Sanso GardensAs mentioned above, the museum lies in an enormous garden on a hillside. Especially now during the koyo, the garden is lovely – and it can be visited for free, by the way! Of course there are the obligatory Japanese lanterns and little bridges over the water, and right next to the entrance to the jewely box with the Water Lilies paintings there is – a waterlily pond. The pond with the carp next to the corridor that once led to the greenhouse was my personal favourite spot.

Oyamazaki SansoUnfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the building. There are beautiful ones on the homepage of the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art’s homepage though, including a video and lots and lots of information about the building, the collection, the location… Do check it out, it’s worth it:
http://www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com/english

Kyoto Map

In the ROHM Theatre, where I have a meeting once a week, there is the following piece of art, hanging near the entrance.

Taguro Noguchi's Map of KyotoIt is huge, maybe 3 x 1.20 metres or so, and it must be very expensive – the gold and silver are real precious metals! It has been made by Takuro Noguchi, a local artist from Kyoto, who has coined the term hakuga for this kind of work made with gold leaf and other precious metals and with lacquer.

This particular type of artwork is relatively new, Noguchi himself has started to develop this art form only in 2001. But, the idea itself is an old one – he comes from a dynasty of craftsmen in the Nishijin district, who used gold leaf to cover silk threads which in turn were used to weave obi. No wonder one cannot wash such an obi!

With the above hakuga, it took me quite a while to realise that it is not just something abstract. The moon is kind of obvious, but the rest is supposed to be a map of Kyoto and its surroundings. And indeed, when you look closely, you can find landmarks like the big Torii at Heian Shrine, or the Daimonji.

Takuro Noguchi's Map of Kyoto, DetailsIf you are interested in seeing more of Noguchi’s works, he shows a number of them on his homepage. And also, if you’re in Kyoto, he has a solo exhibition at the Daimaru Department Store Gallery from November 29  – December 5, 2017.

Seiryu-e Festival

I’m so busy these days with all sorts of stuff, so even though I finally know about many of the cool events in Kyoto, I barely have time to go there anymore… However, last Friday I managed to take a few hours out of my schedule and visit the Seiryu-e Festival of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Seiryu-e Festival is the festival of the blue dragon, where an 18 m long dragon is carried through the temple precincts and later though the streets below Kiyomizu-dera. In the beginning, the dragon emerges from the 3 storied pagoda near the entrance of the temple. It is accompanied by three women in front and a group of men (monks?) behind it. Of course, a number of people with shell trumpets must be there as well to announce the coming of the dragon.

The blue dragon enters Kiyomizu-deraThere is a very short ceremony in the main hall of the temple before the dragon moves on to the newly renovated stage where it performs an elaborate dance to the chanting of the monks that have followed it earlier. Afterwards, the dragon moves through the temple precincts and back to the pagoda, which it circles once before leaving the temple through the main gate and going down to the streets below to bestow its blessings onto the town.

The blue dragon is believed to be an incarnation of Kannon – the goddess of mercy – and it is said that it visits the waterfalls of Kiyomizu-dera each night to drink. To Western minds it may sound a bit weird, but in Asian culture, dragons are associated with water instead of fire, and many temples and shrines have wells with a dragon-shaped spout. Also, the translation of Kiyomizu-dera is “Clear Water Temple”, so it seems natural for this temple to have a festival like this.

The blue dragon of Kiyomizu-deraInterestingly, this is one of the newest additions to Kyoto’s festival calendar. The first Seiryu-e festival was held only in 2000, and although the dragon is quite spectacular, it appears as if not many people are aware of the performance. I had the impression that most people who were visiting Kiyomizu-dera – which is one of the most popular tourist spots in Kyoto – didn’t know about the festival and were taken by surprise.

Because of this, the ceremony was not overly crowded, and I managed to get a first row spot to take photos; and I even managed to receive a special blessing including a paper talisman that was given out by the women accompanying the dragon through town. If you like, you can have a look at a short video of the Seiryu-e Festival at the homepage of Kiyomizu-dera: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/seiryu-e/

Sento Kuyo

In August, when the Japanese celebrate Obon – the festival of the dead – there are many related events, and not all of them take place during the few days leading up to August 16th, when the dead are sent back to the underworld again. The Sento Kuyo or Manto Kuyo festivals take place at temples throughout Japan, and they are meant as memorial services for ancestors long gone.

Tonight, there was the Sento Kuyo (literally: 1000 lights memorial service) festival at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple. This temple from the Heian period, located in the Arashiyama mountains west of Kyoto, is famous for its approximately 8000 stone monuments. Many of them are quite small and have been found during excavations in the area – which has long been a graveyard – in the early 20th century and relocated to the temple grounds. Some of them are in the shape of small Japanese tomb stones, others may have once been Jizo statues; it’s hard to say because they are heavily worn with age.

8000 Monuments at Adashino Nenbutsu-jiWhatever their former purpose, they now stand densely packed in a walled part of the temple grounds, with a large stone pagoda and Buddha at the center. And this garden of stones lies at the centre of the Sento Kuyo ceremony. In the beginning, the monks chant sutras in a small building adjacent to the cemetery. Then, the first candles are lit before the central Buddha in the cemetery and the monks pray there, before making a round through the cemetery.

Temple staff will now light the first candles and distribute them throughout the graveyard, there are little iron spikes everywhere, on which the candles are placed. When the first candles have been lit, visitors to the temple are now invited to also light a candle at one of the stones. I have seen many people doing this and saying a little prayer there, even though it is not known whom the stone belonged to – or if it was ever meant as a tomb to begin with. Lit candles during sento kuyo festivalThe ceremony starts at 18:00 and there is chanting all the way through until the temple closes again at 20:30. It is very nice to watch as dusk is falling and the candles are (almost) the only thing lighting up the graveyard in the end. I think it was a beautiful and spiritual sight, but the Japanese friends I talked to say to them it’s just creepy. Maybe that was part of the reason why the ceremony attracted relatively few people. At least it did not feel crowded at all, even though the part where the ceremony took place is relatively small.

After I had decided to have taken enough photos, I left, and downstairs, on the street passing the temple, there was another, more profane light up: Large hand painted lanterns lined the street on both sides, and here and there, huge oval lanterns were hung up and served as a focal point. Many of the lanterns were painted by kids, but there were a few really artistic ones as well. The backdrop there were old houses; apparently this is part of a special preservation area at Arashiyama.

Lightup in ArashiyamaIn any case, I had a nice evening watching the ceremony. It was touching to see people coming and praying over their candle that they had just placed somewhere… I really should go there again at some point and have a closer look at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and its surroundings – during daylight hours.

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!