Hagi Matsuri

Last weekend was the Hagi Matsuri (Bush clover Festival) at Nashinoki Shrine. Nashinoki Shrine is rather small and lies next to the Imperial Palace, and it is full of bush clovers. One thing that people do during this festival is to write short poems and tie them to the bush clovers of the shrine.

The main attraction throughout those days, however, are the performances of traditional Japanese arts. There are three performances per day, and they show different types of art – including martial arts.

I went there on Saturday afternoon with a friend, where we caught the last bit of the Iaido (sword drawing) performance. At the end, there was the cutting of reed mats, something that seems to be surprisingly difficult.

cutting reed matsThen we took part in a tea ceremony. It must have been my third or fourth, and still, I don’t know how the tea is prepared! There are so many other things I need to pay attention to during the ceremony – it is pretty hard to be a guest even.

I went again on Sunday morning for a kyogen performance where I understood a bit here and there, but not enough to get the whole picture. It was funny though, the facial expressions alone could make you laugh.

kyogen playAfterwards there was a short shakuhachi concert. I love the tone of the bamboo flute, and the first song that all three players did together, was my favourite. I am tempted to learn it myself eventually… But maybe I should finish my soroban degree first!

I did not return on Monday, the last day, so I missed the Japanese dance and the archery. However, it was fun to watch so many different traditional arts in such a short time span.

Monument of Gratitude

Memorial/tomb of KyodaiWhat do you think this is?

A tomb maybe?
It does look like one, and the sheer size of it (about two storeys high and with a diameter of perhaps two metres) would suggest a very important personality. But this is not on a graveyard, but in the middle of a standard residential neighborhood. Imperial tombs, the very old ones at least, are large and located all over the city, however, they have a distinct look that is very different from this here.

A memorial perhaps?
Could be, but there is a meadow around it with a stone fence, and it is not publicly accessible.

So, what could it be? memorial/tomb of Kyodai, closerIn fact, it is both a tomb and a memorial. It belongs to Kyoto University and is meant for the people who donated their body to science.

I am not sure whether this monument really hold physical remains – that is, a few bones of each person – like a normal Japanese tomb, or maybe just a list of names, or other things that are more symbolic. But just the fact that somebody took the time and effort to build something like that, does show an enormous amount of gratitude. It makes me happy.


When looking for events for the What’s up in Kyoto event calendar, I came across a tiny little exhibition in an old machiya in Kyoto. And because me and my English students all are interested in old houses, we went there this afternoon and had a look.

Yoko Hoshino ExhibitionIt was a tiny exhibition of only three pieces of furniture, made as a graduation project by a student of one of the local art universities. There was a large round floor lamp (made from very thin wood that let the light shine through just a little), a small round table with lacquerware and a large chaise longue type of chair (with cushions made from an old curtain. Really!). The motto of the exhibition was “Waiting for the Moon Life” and the designer played with light and shadows in the furniture and in the house itself.

The house was a machiya, some 100 years old, with a typical part in front, then an inner garden, and a tea room in the back, that belonged to the designer’s family. She said that she remembers coming here as a child when things were still a bit different, the house was gently remodeled in the 1970s, and sadly, a parking lot now replaces the front garden.We were allowed to see all ground floor and finally ended up sitting in the living room where we were chatting with a cup of tea.

What I found so interesting was the fact that she deliberately kept the lights off in all the house. The darkness indeed had a calming effect on all of us, and always surprising, the house was almost completely quiet, even though there was a big road with heavy traffic nearby. She said that Japanese houses were meant to be pretty dark inside, lit only by candles, and that this was the way she wanted to exhibit her work in the first place. Only now that she has done it this way, she feels her work is complete..

A fun thing was that she was talking about a book by Junichiro Tanizaki “In Praise of Shadows”, where he describes the influence on darkness and shadows on Japanese culture. Fun because this is the book I am reading right now! Small world, full of coincidences…

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.