Break-up Stone

Yasui Konpira-gu is a rather small a shrine in Gion and large buildings encroach it on all sides. However small, it is very famous among people from Kyoto and elsewhere. Until recently, it had an ema museum, ema being wooden tablets on which worshippers write their wishes to the gods. Unfortunately, the building where the museum was located is very old and has been considered unsafe, so the museum is closed for the time being.

However nice the museum might have been, it was never the main attraction of Yasui Konpira-gu. That title goes to the enkiri / enmusubi ishi, a large stone (purportedly in the shape of an ema, but it’s hard to tell, really) with a round hole at its base. This stone is said to help break off bad, unhealthy relationships and form new, better ones instead.

break-up stoneThe procedure is simple: First you buy a slip of paper and write your wish on it. Then you position yourself at the stone and crawl through the hole. Going front to back means to break off a relationship. Going back to front expresses a wish for a new one. Many people do both; obviously you’ll have to end a relationship before you can start a new one (at least, that’s the clean way to go about it). Finally, you glue the paper to the stone and hope that your wishes will be granted.

By the way: this does not only work for romantic relationships, although most people probably visit the shrine for this reason. A friend of mine told me that some of the papers glued to the stone read like lines from a soap opera. “I want his wife to die” is probably one of the stronger requests. But many people come to break addictions to drugs or gambling, others want to find a more satisfying job, and cutting the “relationship” with an illness for oneself or a close person are very common wishes too… The possibilities are endless!

Kyo no Tanabata

I’m still busy with the website, sorry… So, this is just a very short post with a few pictures I took in the weekend at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.

Kitano Tenmangu @Kyo no TanabataTogether with a friend I went there, because it is one of the places where there is an evening light-up for the current Kyo-no-Tanabata festival. The shrine was open and lit up until 21:00, and there were quite a number of people visiting. They also had a mitarashi purification – that’s the one where you wade through a cold stream – but my friend said that the mitarashi purification you do at Shimogamo Shrine and nowhere else. Indeed, this is the first year I hear of it taking place at Kitano Tenmangu. I guess it must be a really popular festival if it is being copied by other shrines… Kitano Tenmangu @ Kyo no TanabataAnyway, the shrine was beautifully lit up and everywhere were little bamboos where you could tie your wishes to. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed, because it looked a bit empty and haphazard. But then we went down to the momiji garden… This is a very quiet place that is indeed a bit lower than the rest of the shrine, the Tenjin river flows through and there are dozens of momiji maples. Of course, now is not the time to see momiji, but there were lights in different colors making the trees resemble the autumn colors. It was rather quiet down there, maybe people didn’t know about this place, so it was a nice stroll along the river.

Kitano Tenmangu @Kyo no Tanabata


Yesterday was the second yoiyama, the day (and night) before the second grand parade of Gion Matsuri. As I have mentioned last week, it was a very special yoiyama for me: I was invited to volunteer at the Ofunehoko, the large boat-shaped float that always ends the Ato Matsuri parade.

The boat shaped O-fune hoko ending the processionNow you’re probably wondering how I, as a foreigner (with very bad Japanese to boot) can help out at one of the most important Japanese festivals! Well… it was all really by accident… I am a member of the Miyakogusa, a volunteer organisation of Kyoto where people of all ages (mostly women of a certain age though) do a variety of activities: From visiting shrines and temples, to cleaning up the Imperial gardens, to presentations on Kyoto’s history, this is all volunteer driven and organised. How I got to be a member of this is an even more unbelievable story, I’ll tell it some other time.

Anyway, the leader of the Miyakogusa is a very energetic woman (!) and she seems to have many sundry connections and know everybody, including the people from the Ofunehoko, which has been restored only a few years ago. About a month ago or so I received a phone call from her where she invited me to take part this year. Of course, when Gion Matsuri calls, you don’t say no. And thus I ended up working yesterday, selling chimaki charms and books and little tenugui hand towels…

It was a very interesting experience. Two weeks ago there was an introductory meeting where we were explained the history of the Ofunehoko, little details to its size, weight, number of men to pull it… Then there were the practical things: How much was each item, where would we get lunch, where is a toilet for us volunteers… Everything was planned to the last dotted i – including what to say when selling something and asking for the money – actually, we were “giving” things to people, since “selling” is a dirty word when it comes to items blessed by the gods…

The level of detail that went into the planning made the whole thing yesterday run very smoothly. When I arrived at the spot, I was set up with two Japanese into one team – we were to do everything together and change stations regularly. There were three stations for us: The small northern and big southern tent, where we sold the chimaki and other things as well as entrance tickets; plus the entrance to the house, from where you could enter the Ofunehoko and take a look at the street from above.

Mostly the work was easy, there were hardly any foreigners requiring assistance, and the Japanese I talked to were easy to satisfy. Part of the smooth ride was surely that I took the morning shift from 10:00 to 16:00, I could see a sharp increase of visitors towards the end of my shift. Then especially the entrance to the house got busy: We were to take the shoes of each visitor, clip a number onto them and hand an identical number to them, so we could find their shoes on returning and give them back. The later the afternoon, the more people wanted to go upstairs, and even though they were only admitted in groups of 10, it sometimes became quite overwhelming when just as many came down the stairs also.

Anyway, I had great fun and I made a couple of new friends. Some of my old friends visited me at work as well, even though it was very hot. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures from the inside of the stalls, it would have been an interesting and rather unique view on Gion Matsuri! After 6 hours of standing only (there were seats but not enough for everybody) I was exhausted! Not so much from the heat – we had enough free drinks and cold patches to stick underneath your clothing – but because my feet hurt so much…

Fun incident: All of us volunteers had to wear yukata. It took me about 45 minutes to get dressed; first the spanx and the towels (long story), then the yukata itself, and then I needed 20 minutes just to put on the obi! By the time I was done, I was soaked in sweat – definitely a good start for the day! After all that work, I was mightily proud of myself, but obviously it was not good enough still. At some point, one of our yukata-wearing customers looked at me disapprovingly and said: Turn around! She then proceeded to pull hard on the back of my yukata – the part that reaches down below the obi, and after a few minutes, she was satisfied: the pulling had produced a better neckline in front – and in fact, other women passing by later did comment on this! Only in Japan…

Heat Wave

Have I complained about the heat already this year? It’s hot. Very hot, and as you can see, it will stay like this for at least another week: current temperature in KyotoWell, this is quite usual around the time of Gion Matsuri. In fact, during the Gion Ato Matsuri, where the highlight will be next Tuesday, there always seems to be a peak in the heat wave. Speaking of Gion Matsuri: I went last night to the yoiyama, where the inner city changes into a party zone. This year, I wanted to see the kagura – a sort of sacred dance/theatre – performed in Yasaka Shrine. I was not disappointed, even though I came a bit late and had to watch from way far back. Kagura is a bit like Noh when it comes to the masks and costumes, but much more dynamic. I think half of the plays I watched consisted of people mock-fighting each other with swords, and dancing around each other for the main part of the play. And that at more than 30 degrees – the actors must have been exhausted at the end!

I certainly was, so when the performance ended at about 9:30, I decided not to go further to the inner city. Crowds are not something I enjoy, and there were enough food stalls at Yasaka Shrine already to eat my fill. The only thing missing were the baby kasutera that I love so much, but there will be another opportunity to get those, I’m sure.


It is almost time for the highlight of this year’s Gion Matsuri – the main saki parade will be on July 17. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow night are the yoiyama, the nights preceding the festival which means essentially a huge party in the inner city of Kyoto. Not only are people celebrating summer, they also visit the floats that will be shown in the parade on Tuesday to buy souvenirs.

chimaki charmAnd one of those souvenirs are chimaki. “Souvenir” is actually not correct, chimaki are protective charms made from bamboo leaves. People put them up at the entrance of their homes or businesses to ward off evil and to prevent sickness. But only for one year – you’ll have to buy a new one at the next Gion Matsuri!

Traditionally, chimaki were thrown from the large hoko floats into the gathered crowds, but nowadays, they are sold during the days (and nights) of the yoiyama. Every float has their own chimaki, with slightly different properties, but the chimaki of the Naginata hoko, which always leads the saki parade, is considered the most powerful and thus extremely popular among the locals.

The story behind the chimaki is ancient and it goes like this: A long, long time ago, the god Susanoo (the brother of the sun goddess) was travelling in disguise through Japan. One evening, he looked for shelter, but was refused entry to all of the wealthy houses of the town. But when he knocked at poor Somin Shorai’s home, he was welcomed and treated with great respect. When Susanoo left the next day, he gave Somin Shorai a bundle of cogon grass to wear at his waist for protection, which was the origin of today’s chimaki. (*) To this day, some chimaki have an extra red strip of paper attached saying “I am a descendant of Somin Shorai”, which is believed to offer extra protection against evil.

(*) Other versions of the story say he received a small wreath of miscanthus reeds, the origin of today’s chinowa wreath, which is used in the Nagoshi no Harae summer purification.

It seems that these kind of chimaki are a speciality of Kyoto or Gion Matsuri in particular. This may be because Susanoo is the main god enshrined at Yasaka Shrine, for which Gion Matsuri is held. When researching this topic, most of the websites about chimaki pointed to a type of sweet rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves, that are eaten at Boy’s Day in May. But that’s a topic for another weekend post.

PS: I cannot for the heck of it find the photos of my own chimaki at the moment. It’s too late to take new ones, so I’ll add them tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!


Gion Matsuri – Building Phase

In Kyoto, all through July, there is Gion Matsuri, what I like to call “the biggest party in Japan”. While the main party night is on July 16th, i.e., next Monday, people are getting ready: The yamaboko floats for the saki matsuri parade on July 17th are being built right now.

Today, I went with two of my friends to get a glimpse at the new floats. Building of the biggest ones has already started, but the smaller ones are not out yet. We first had lunch in a tiny restaurant serving excellent sashimi, then we walked around the inner city and watched five of the big floats being built. Although they weigh more than 10 tons, there is not a single nail used anywhere, they are held together by elaborately tied, nay: woven ropes of rice straw. The whole frame is then covered with beautiful tapestries, the originals of which are hundreds of years old and are on display during the three days of yoiyama, starting on July 14th. Below is the building of the Kikusui Hoko, one of the large and popular ones.

Building Kikusui HokoOne of the favourite things for Kyotoites to do during Gion Matsuri is shopping. For yukata and obi, but also towels and new handbags… anything cloth-related, really. So, we went to one of the Yukata shops nearby the Kikusui Hoko to have a look around. Gion Matsuri is the one and only occasion where I am wearing a yukata – a summer kimono – myself, and while I am interested in the patterns, I didn’t really want to buy one: I already have two, and I’m not a big fan of pink flowery clothes.

My brand new Yukata! However, my friends decided on the spot to buy a new yukata for me! Isn’t it lovely? (I know that this is not the correct way to fold it!) I think these are bell flowers and some sort of feathers, a rather common pattern. I got dressed in my new yukata on the spot (and I hope I can remember the correct way of doing so) and could spend the rest of the afternoon looking really nice and mature (according to my friends), and I did get a number of approving looks as well. I also bought a new pair of geta – summer sandals – mostly because the straps on my old ones are broken and cannot be repaired. I am not a huge fan of the new pattern on the geta, but now that they are proper Japanese ones and not “made in China”, I can have them replaced at any time.

So, I had a fantastic afternoon at Gion Matsuri! To my friends (who are reading this): Thank you for spending today with me, thanks for the lunch and the tea, and, of course: Thank you so much for the beautiful yukata!

Umenomiya Taisha

Umenomiya Taisha is a rather small shrine with a very large garden tucked away in a residential area in Arashiyama. It was founded about 1300 years ago by Agata Inukai no Michiyo (or Tachibana Michiyo) as a shrine for her ancestors, in a little place in the rural parts of Kyoto prefecture. With the rise of the Tachibana family into imperial ranks, the shrine was moved twice before it was relocated to Kyoto around the year 800 to the place where it still stands today.

Romon Gate of Umenomiya ShrineUmenomiya Taisha enshrines the mountain god Oyamazumi-no-kami and his daughter Konohana-no-sakuyahime, the goddess of life. Legend says, that Oyamazumi-no-kami was so pleased when his daughter gave birth to his first grandson, that he invented sake to celebrate the occasion. Furthermore, it is said that her delivery took place one day after her marriage, and it was a quick and easy one. For these reasons, the shrine is still popular with sake brewers and couples hoping for children.

The main entrance of the shrine is through the red torii and the two storey Romon gate in the south. The two zuishin warriors placed inside the gate are rather common; the special feature are the rows of sake barrels stacked on the second floor.

tree in Umenomiya TaishaDirectly behind the Romon gate lies the haiden dance stage. Just like the gate, it was rebuilt in 1828 and is a Kyoto prefecture registered cultural property. To the right of the Romon gate, there is a large and interesting pine tree whose stem has been twisted around itself by the gardeners. I don’t know how old it is, but it does look very impressive.

honden prayer hall of Umenomiya TaishaThe honden prayer hall at the very north dates from 1700 and is the oldest building of the shrine, with a beautiful cypress-bark roof. Beyond the honden, surrounded by ancient trees, lies the actual sanctuaries of the gods. Also back there, and not generally accessible, lie the Matage-ishi stones, that come with the following legend: Empress Danrin, who had moved the shrine to Kyoto, had difficulties conceiving until she came to Umenomiya Taisha and stepped over the stones, upon which she was immediately blessed with a son. The story goes further that she took sand from the shrine and spread it under her bed, aiding in an easy delivery. To this day, many couples who want children come to the shrine to perform the Matage-ishi ceremony, and some of the shrine’s omamori talismans allegedly contain sand surrounding the Matage-ishi stones.

Umenomiya Taisha has a large garden that can be entered through the Higashi Mon, the eastern gate. It looks less perfectly laid out as some of the other shrine gardens, but the slightly unkempt appearance has a lovely charm to it that is worth experiencing. The so-called Shin-en gardens contain two ponds: Directly behind the gate, in the east gardens, lies Sakuya Ike, where different types of Iris and lotus greet the visitors. Inside the pond, that is teeming with colourful carp, is an island with the little tea house Ikenaka-tei, built in 1852 by wealthy Minamoto-no-Morokata who lived in the area.

tea house in Umenomiya Taisha's gardensFurther along the path, in the north garden, lies Magatama Ike. It has the shape of a comma, resembling the ancient magatama jewels made from jade. Again, it is filled with Iris and lotus flowers, and surrounded by plum and cherry trees. There is no prominent pond in the west garden, but instead, there are many little paths among colourful hydrangea bushes and peaceful trees.

west garden of Umenomiya TaishaThe best time to visit the gardens is in the first half of the year, where different flowers mark the passage of time, starting with plums and cherries, iris and lotus flowers and azaleas and hydrangeas. Spring is especially lovely when the 500 plum trees of 40 varieties in different colors from bright white to dark crimson are in bloom. Although less interesting in summer and autumn, the west garden has many hidden paths with quiet benches, where you can sit in the shade and enjoy the solitude.

Umenomiya Taisha is a hidden gem worth visiting for all those who like to venture off the beaten tracks. It should also be on the list for cat lovers since the family of the shrine’s priest is taking care of a large colony of very photogenic cats. They seem to be very popular with even renowned photographers, and there are postcards of the cats for sale at the shrine. Yet more unconventional shrine souvenirs are umeboshi, pickled plums, made from the very plums that grow in the gardens, or a bottle of sake that is specially made for the shrine – although probably not by the gods any more.

Leave Luck to Heaven

Sorry for not posting last Tuesday. After being out all day, I came home with a bad headache, took two aspirin and went straight to bed. Instead of waking up an hour or so later as I had hoped, I slept until Wednesday morning…

So, I have to tell my Tuesday story today: I met one of my English students then and we started to talk about the big companies that have their headquarters in Kyoto instead of in Tokyo. Among them are Wacoal (women’s underwear), ROHM (semiconductors), Kyocera (printers, phones, solar cells) and, probably most famous world-wide: Nintendo. We got to talk about the early history of Nintendo, something most people don’t know about, and my student asked me to share the information – and I’m happy to do this today.

Nintendo 1889 logoNintendo is a very old company, founded in 1889 in Kyoto. The name’s Kanji can be translated as “leave luck to heaven”. At first, the company produced handmade hanafuda playing cards, which were quite popular because of their simple design. However, those cards were almost always used for gambling, something the government tried to restrict, especially from the Meiji period. One way out of this was to produce different sets of cards every time one particular game became illegal. However, in 1959, Nintendo had a brilliant idea: They made a deal with the Disney company, allowing them to use Disney designs on their playing cards. In this way, the cards could be marketed to families with children – and in one year, more than 600.000 packs were sold.

Eventually, from 1966, when the market for playing cards was saturated, Nintendo became a toy company, and in the early 1970s, Nintendo started to produce electronic games. The rest is history. 😉

I did not know about the early beginnings of Nintendo, but I will look more into the hanafuda playing cards and the (illegal) games one would play with those. I love learning something new!

Matsunoo Taisha

Matsunoo Taisha – lovingly called Matsuo-san by the locals – marks the western end of Shijo dori with its large torii. Matsunoo Taisha was established in 701 by Hata-no-Imikitori, the head of the local ruling clan. The story goes that he saw a turtle (a sign of luck and longevity) in a waterfall and decided to build a shrine here. However, the locals had worshipped a certain boulder on the mountain for a long time before that already. In any case, Matsunoo Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, and the Hata clan was instrumental in moving the capital to Kyoto eventually.

Matsunoo Taisha - Torii and Romon GateThe two main gods enshrined at Matsunoo Taisha are O-yamagui-no-kami, the god of brewing sake and of Matsuo-san, the mountain behind the shrine; and Ichiki-shima-hime-no-mikoto, a female deity protecting travellers.

The main entrance of Matsunoo Taisha is at the large, 14m high torii at the western end of Shijo street. A smaller road leads to the main shrine, where there is another torii. From there, the path leads up some steps to the two-storey Romon gate, which is – like the one at Yasaka shrine across the city – guarded by two zuishin warrior statues to the left and right.

Romon Gate of Matsunoo Taisha in KyotoPassing through the gate, at first, there is a small stone bridge to cross, and a few more steps lead directly up to the dance stage. At the left of it is a large display of sake barrels. While these are common donations to shrines, Matsunoo Taisha, as home of the god of sake brewing, has received a large number of barrels originating from sake brewers from all over Japan.

Behind the dance stage lies the long haiden outer hall where people worship and behind that, the impressive honden main hall. This is the oldest building of the shrine, dating back to 1397 and is designated Important Cultural Asset. Its unusual roof – in the so-called Matsuo-zukuri style – forms porticos on the back as well as in the front of the building.

Haiden Prayer Hall at Matsunoo TaishaAfter praying at the haiden, go to the right and through the low entrance to the back of the shrine where a path leads uphill. To the right, there is the famous Kame-no-i well, where a large black turtle spews holy water. It is said, that this water will bring health and longevity to those who drink it. Even more importantly: If sake is brewed with even a small fraction of this water, it will not go bad. Therefore, many sake brewers visit the shrine regularly to get some of the water, and to pray for business success. Further up the path lies the shrine’s sacred waterfall Reiki-no-taki, which marks the spot where Hata no Imikitori allegedly watched the turtle swim all these years ago.

Kame-no-i sacred turtle wellNearby the Kame-no-i well lies the entrance to two of the three gardens that make up the Shofu-en garden of Matsunoo Taisha. They were designed by the late Mirei Shigemori just before his death in 1975 and are considered the best modern gardens in Japan. Each of the three parts of the garden is representative of a Japanese era, and the opposing ideas of stillness and movement, represented by large blue-green rocks and water, respectively, are the central design elements.

The first garden behind the entrance is the Kyokusui garden, with a stream of water bending seven times around heavy rocks. The stream is framed by smaller stones, giving it the appearance of a dragon, a water creature in Japanese mythology. The Kyokusui represents the gardens popular at the Heian era, the time of the foundation of Kyoto.

Kyokusui Garden of Matsunoo TaishaBeyond the Kyokusui lies the Iwakura or Joko garden, where a number of large rocks scattered on a steep slope represent the ancient times, where the gods roamed the mountain tops of Japan. The two largest rocks on top of the slope are meant to represent the main gods of the shrine. Beyond this garden, there is a path further up the mountain where the original place of worship, the iwakura stone, can be visited.

The third garden, the Horai (the entrance is next to the little restaurant outside the Romon gate), is constructed in the Kaiyu style, where a large pond shaped like a crane is the central focal point. The basic idea here is the Chinese concept of paradise, where people do not get old or die. The rocks represent islands in the sea, and the only movements are contributed by the fountain of youth in the back of the garden and the many carp in the pond.

Horai Garden of Matsunoo TaishaBesides the extensive shrine gardens, which are a rare feature in Shinto shrines, Matsunoo Taisha also has two museums. The treasure hall is the main museum; it is situated between the first two gardens and shows 21 wooden statues in total. The three largest ones date back to the Heian period and are among the oldest and best preserved wood carvings of Japan. Although they are carved in the style of Buddhist statues, two of them are said to show the main Shinto deities of the shrine. These statues with their beautiful serene expressions are among Japan’s national treasures and alone justify a visit to the shrine.

The other museum lies near the entrance, on the way to the parking lot. The little Sake-no-shiryokan shows old tools that were once used to produce sake. They were donated by sake makers worshipping the god of sake brewing here.

Kerria bushes at Matsunoo TaishaMatsunoo Taisha lies a bit off the beaten tracks of Kyoto’s Arashiyama area, but especially during April and May, when the shrine’s 3000 yellow Kerria bushes are in bloom, it has a distinct charm that should not be missed. The shrine sells a number of unique lucky charms, for example one representing a bright yellow Kerria flower. However, for extra luck, you should try to win your omamori at the game shooting arrows at empty sake barrels.

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Dainenbutsu Kyogen are short theatre performances that were originally meant to teach Buddhism to the general population of Japan. In Kyoto, there are three major such kyogen performances: Mibu Kyogen (in Mibudera Temple), Senbon Enmado Kyogen (in Injo-ji Temple) and Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen.

The latter ones, shown in spring and autumn in Arashiyama’s Seiryo-ji Temple, originate in a ceremonial event called Dainenbutsu-e that was initiated by the monk Engaku in 1279. In modern times, their history was a bit rocky: In the 1960s, these plays went through a crisis when the number of actors declined and performances had to be cancelled. In 1975, volunteers founded the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen Hozonkai organisation to train new actors and keep the art alive through regular performances. In 1986, the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen were designated as a Japanese Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and today, the performances have become an integral part of Kyoto’s cultural calendar.

the servant stereotypeThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes, where a set of (male) actors dressed as certain stereotypes (like the young woman or man, the monk, the servant, etc.) breathe life into the story that is performed on a simple stage with barely any stage design and only a few necessary props. The actors – called kyogen kata – share the stage with musicians – hayashi kata – who play a special, 9-hole yokobue flute, kane bell, and small taiko drum. There are only two basic patterns of alternating the bell and drum, it is more of a rhythm than a melody, and is played throughout the performance. Also on stage is a supervisor – koken – who may help the actors with props etc.

Musicians and supervisorThis is necessary, because in the Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen, all actors wear full face masks in the style of Noh masks, a tradition going back to the Muromachi era (14th – 16th century). These wooden masks have only very small eye holes through which the actors can see, which makes finding small props or immediately reacting to another actor quite challenging. Thus, the actors sometimes clap their hands or stomp their feet as a sign for the others who may wait at the edge of the stage for their next action that the play has progressed to a certain point. It is possible that two unrelated scenes that are taking place at the same time but in different places, are acted out simultaneously on stage.

Monk and woman with childThe Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen has a repertoire of about 20 plays. Not all kyogen are funny, or “soft” Yawarakamon plays, about half of them are more serious or “hard” Katamon that have their origin in Noh. Up to three plays may be grouped together and performed in one afternoon, usually the focus lies on the funny Yawakaramon though.

surprising the monkThe atmosphere around these plays – whether soft or hard – is very relaxed, it is an outdoor performance in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are pleasant. Because the plays were developed to teach laypeople about Buddhism and they work without any speech, the stories are very easy to understand and transcend time and culture. Universally funny, they are definitely worth watching!