Old Houses

Last weekend, I indulged myself – once again… There was an open house near Kyoto University, and since the house was a semi-traditional Japanese one built some 80 years ago, I just had to see it.

In fact, it was not just one house, but three buildings on the same plot of land. There was one very large main house with 10 rather large rooms on two floors. Then there was a much smaller house with three rooms in total, and some sort of shed in the back of the garden. Here are some pictures from the agent’s leaflet:

Fujii House photosIt turned out the house was built for a professor of Kyoto University by a quite famous architect of that time, Koji Fujii. Fujii was one of the pioneers of ecological building in Japan, and he certainly had a keen eye for details. The ceilings are restrained but beautifully decorated with differently colored wood; There are tiny windows at the right spots, and there is even a reading room/office with built-in desks right at the windows, still original.

It is not a truly traditional Japanese house, but it is not one of the westernised homes with European exterior that were so popular in the Taisho era and among the university professors either. It is a very well designed Japanese house with modern influences, and this fusion is so well done you don’t even notice them. For example, on the ground floor are rooms with normal wooden floors as well as rooms with tatami. The latter are raised significantly higher as usual than the former, so that if you are sitting in seiza on the floor, you are at eye level with somebody sitting on a chair outside.

The state of the house is not good, unfortunately, but not quite as bad as the last one I visited. On the other hand, since it is more traditional, the interior is rather dark with the small windows and the paper covered shoji, and the wood which is mostly painted dark does not help much to be honest.

Still, I hope there is somebody who buys the house and renovates it properly instead of simply tearing it down and building another bloody mansion on top… I wish I could save this house from certain destruction, but I don’t quite have the money for it. Anybody who has a spare million Euros for me?

Kyoto State Guest House

Entertaining guests – especially if one is determined to do it well – is not an easy thing to do. Raise it to the level of state guests, and walking the delicate line between entertainment and representation almost becomes an art. Heads of state and other dignitaries are treated to intimate views of national landmarks, personal meetings with local celebrities, and a walk past a military guard; all of these usually accompanied by numerous cameras. But once they are turned off, the guests are briskly whisked away – but where to?

In Japan, one of the places such illustrious guests are taken to is the Kyoto State Guest House. Situated in the park of the Imperial palace, the house – or rather, the complex consisting of several buildings on two floors – consists of some 8.000 square metres of floor space on each level, located in a separate, walled-in park of more than 20.000 square metres. Usually, the guest house is off-limits to the public, but a few times a year, special openings are held where the official part of the building can be admired.

Kyoto State Guest House gardenHaving passed through the main entrance and the Juraku-no-ma lobby, one enters the conference room called Yubae-no-ma. The room itself is in a rather sober Western style, but each of its short sides is decorated with a tapestry 2.3 x 8.6 metres high, depicting the moon over Mount Hiei on the east wall, and the sunset behind Mount Atago on the west wall, mirroring Kyoto’s true layout.

State dinner set for 1 personBeyond this is the Fuji-no-ma Banquet Hall, the largest room in the guest house, which can seat up to 120 guests. Again, a huge tapestry of 3.1 x 16.6 metres adorns the main wall and behind a number of sliding doors hides a stage, where music or dances are performed as dinner entertainment. A table setting like the one above is used at such dinners, coordinated to the latest detail. The embroidery on the napkin shows the Japanese state seal by the way, a stylised image of a Paulownia, going back to at least the 17th century.

hallwayFrom here a dark and comparatively narrow hallway reminiscent of old Gion leads to the Kiri-no-ma, a small, almost intimate Banquet room in Japanese style. This room with its tatami and low chairs seats only 24 people, but it does so extremely stylishly on a 12 metre long, black-lacquered table made from a single piece of wood. The low chairs again bear the Paulownia seal on their backs.

Kyoto State Guest House small banquet roomThe rooms beyond that – in particular the private guest rooms – remain closed, so from this final room that is open to the public, visitors are led back to the entrance. On this last path one has the opportunity to admire the large garden with the obligatory pond that lies at the centre of the whole complex. The design concept behind it is complete harmonisation of the garden and house, and it has been accomplished very well indeed.

detail of sliding doorInterestingly, the house, built only in 2005, is made of reinforced concrete, but the traditional Japanese interior design with its paper sliding doors, wood panels and floor lamps easily conceals this. Still, when you think of it, this is nothing more than a hotel, so the feeling conveyed is cool understatement, and the furniture and other decor are functional and sparse. At the same time, the devil expecting to impress hides in the details, only for the initiated to find and appreciate: The furniture is handmade using traditional craftsmanship, the decorations on sliding doors and furniture are pure gold, the strategically placed artwork only comes from the most renowned Japanese artists, and the lacquered table you see in the picture above must have taken years to make and is doubtlessly worth a fortune.

I have only posted very few pictures of my own this time, but in fact, you can take a video tour of Kyoto State Guest House yourself; it even includes one additional room we were not allowed in. Have a look here – enjoy!

New Endeavours

logoWell, I thought I’m not busy enough these days, so I started another webpage. It is meant to become a one-stop-shop for everything that’s up in Kyoto, from sights to events, from how to get around to where to eat and sleep… I’m hoping for the best, meaning: some income, but obviously, we’re talking about a work in progress right now. Check out the page – and watch it grow before your eyes!

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha is the largest shinto shrine in Japan dedicated to Inari Okami, one of the principal kami or gods of Shinto. Inari is the Japanese god of rice and agriculture as well as industry, and people visit one of the countless Inari shrines to pray for general prosperity and success in business. This is the reason why Inari is vastly popular all over Japan, there are said to be more than 30.000 Inari shrines, that’s more than 1/3 of all the shrines of Japan. The main shrine at Kyoto attracts some 3 million visitors – during the three days of New Year only!Entrance to Fushimi Inari Taisha, KyotoFushimi Inari Taisha, situated in the south of Kyoto city is the oldest of all Inari shrines. It was allegedly founded in the 8th century – some 100 years before Kyoto became the capital of Japan – by a local family named Hata. Worship of Inari, a local god of agriculture going back to the 5th century, spread quickly however, and around 950 this shrine was chosen to be one of only 22 to receive imperial patronage. In the 15th century, during the Onin wars, the entire shrine complex burnt down, and it took 30 years to rebuild it.

Main gate donated by HideyoshiToday, Fushimi Inari Taisha’s main complex is at the foot of Inari hill. There is a beautiful two storey entrance gate, donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1589. Behind it there is the main hall of the shrine, where five different kami – different representations of Inari – are enshrined and can be worshipped. Torii lining the paths up Inari hill

The most interesting and probably best known part of the shrine however, is the hill behind the main structures. Several paths lead up the hill to three more, somewhat smaller shrines where people can worship. The most important one is of course the one on the very top, but the 2 hour hike up there can be strenuous in hot weather, and not all of the worshippers make it, even though there are small restaurants on the way. Additionally, on the higher parts of the hill there are graveyards, which is interesting insofar as Shinto does not usually deal with death – this is the realm of the Buddhists. In olden times however, the distinction between Shinto and Buddhism was blurry, and this is just one of many occasions where it can still be seen today.

Smaller shrines on Inari hillAs mentioned above, Inari shrines can be found everywhere and their distinctive feature are their vermillion torii. Whereas other shrines may have only a few, Inari shrines have numerous torii that are often placed behind each other to form a dense archway on the road to the main place of worship. Most of these torii have been presented to the shrine as gift, and at their back, the name of the sponsor (either a personal name or a company) as well as the date of the donation is inscribed in black, which gives a striking image when returning from prayer. Fushimi Inari Taisha, as the main shrine, has some 5000 torii that line the paths up the mountain, all donated by various businesses from all over Japan. Depending on the level on which they are placed and on their size, a torii can be bought for as little as 100.000 YEN, and go up to 4 million YEN or more. Torii on the way down Inari hillAnother characteristic that is unique to Inari shrines is the fox. Lots of statues of foxes can be found there, in various sizes and finish, from tiny ceramic foxes to huge stone ones. They can also be bought as lucky charms. The image below shows a fox statue with a key in its mouth – the key is supposed to be one to a granary. Although in ancient Japan foxes did the job of hunting mice – hence the granary reference – they still have a somewhat ambiguous image. Since they can transform into a human being, foxes are seen as mischievous and sometimes dangerous. They are also believed to be Inari’s messenger, and if you treat a fox well, you will be rewarded by the god. But beware if you are cruel to a fox, punishment will be swift!Fox statue at Fushimi with key

Kaleidoscope Museum

kaleidoscope museum flyer When you were a child, did you have kaleidoscope? You know, that cylinder with the pearls on one side which, when the cylinder is turned, form myriads of symmetrical patterns in never-ending succession…

Kaleidoscopes were invented (or discovered?) by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster in 1815, while researching optics and polarisation. Nothing more than plane mirrors in a dark tube with a box of beads on one side and an eyepiece on the other, the kaleidoscope became extremely popular at the time, amongst children and adults alike.

While this beautiful toy is all but extinct in the West, superseded by video games and smart phones, kaleidoscopes seem to be still very popular in Japan. I have seen many toy booths at local matsuri, where kaleidoscopes are sold, often in a tiny size, to be dangling from a smart phone. In Japanese, kaleidoscopes are called mangekyo, the three kanji (万華鏡) literally mean ten thousand flower mirror.

kaleidoscope museum postcardIn Kyoto, there is a museum devoted to kaleidoscopes. Even though it is very small – only two rooms, one of them the shop – it boasts many interesting exhibits. Altogether, the museum owns about 150 different kaleidoscopes of all sizes, and some 50 are on display at any given time. Once the excitement of looking through them has worn off a little, you begin to pay attention to their outside; and all of them have been expertly handcrafted. There are the usual paper tubes, kaleidoscopes in Tiffany glass, with strips of cloth instead the beads…

As a recovering scientist, I found it a bit disappointing that the technical aspect of how kaleidoscopes actually work was only very briefly explained, and that only in Japanese. But even so, what’s going on inside the cylinder is not hard to grasp, and even if you do not, it does not diminish the beauty of the toy.

The museum is well worth a visit. Once an hour, there is a video projected onto the walls of the exhibition room. In the shop, you can buy kaleidoscopes of all sizes and qualities, and there are even DIY kits to make your own. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos of the exhibits, but postcards are sold portraying some of them.

The museum: http://k-kaleido.org/e-information/
Book about the Kaleidoscope by Sir David Brewster, from 1858: The Kaleidoscope, its History, Theory, and Construction

Haiku

Wild Geese in Autumn

A friend of mine wrote down this (famous?) haiku for me on a restaurant napkin when we went to lunch today. I am not sure whether the translation is accurate (google translate is useless of course), but I like the poem. I can see Mount Hiei – the highest mountain on the chain surrounding 3/4 of Kyoto – from my bedroom window…


此処よりは

比叡尖りて
秋の雁

From the northern part of Kyoto
Mount Hiei looks sharp
autumn’s wild geese

 

Komai House

A few weeks ago, I have once again indulged my love for old houses by visiting Komai House, one of the designated cultural properties of Kyoto. It was built in 1927, in the second year of Showa, by the American William M. Vories, who was a bit of everything: educator, missionary, entrepreneur, and architect. In Japan, he was mainly working as the latter and his style was some sort of fusion between Western and Japanese style, which was very popular in that time. Komai house - view from the gardenThe owner of the house was Taku Komai, a Japanese biologist and geneticist, who was working for Kyoto University. He only died in 1972, and although the house was used by the American occupation forces after WWII, and somewhat remodeled by them, the building is in almost original state.

The house has two floors; on the ground floor are the public rooms: livingroom and diningroom, as well as a tatami room in front. There is also the main bathroom and the kitchen, and, unusual for a Japanese house, a large terrace leading out into the garden. livingroomOn the second floor are the private rooms: guest room and bedroom, formerly with tatami, and an attached verandah, formerly a balcony, from which you can see the neighbour’s house. This neighbour was also a professor from Kyoto university; in fact, the whole neighbourhood was some sort of professor’s village since it was, and still is, situated conveniently close to the university. View from the verandahOn the second floor also is the professor’s study, and on the left hand side, there is a large bookcase, filled with books about genetics in many languages from the obvious Japanese, to English, French, and even German. The red blinds are not original, they are used to protect the books, which are still in their original place where the late professor put them, from direct sunlight. Study with deskThe house is quite large, with three rooms upstairs and four downstairs, and all of them have a good size, even by modern standards. Additionally, there is a large annex building, which was used as a kind of student’s dorm – at that time, professors were obliged to take really good care of their students, including providing lodgings at their own houses! And then, there is also a greenhouse, which Komai had built because Darwin also had one. It was used as a cafe at some point. GreenhouseThe garden is quite large too, and when the house was built, the surroundings must have been very peaceful. You can even see directly to the daimonji hill, it must be fantastic watching the fire from so close. However, what I liked best about the house were the little details, testimony to the architect’s good eye. There are arched windows with stained glass, roof tiles were used as ornament in the balustrade at the entrance, and, especially cute: door knobs from purple crystal. Doorknob from purple crystalThe house is lovely, and as I said, in a very good state. One could move in immediately, it has a very pleasant, almost modern feel to it. Yes I know… hey, a girl can dream, no?

Strandbeest

This weekend, from the 15th to the 18th of October, the Kyoto International Art and Film Festival takes place, only the second edition of the festival which has been created to balance all the things that happen in Tokyo. If you are interested and in Kyoto, the schedule is here: http://2015.kiff.kyoto.jp/en/schedule/

Like many of these things here where you already have to know about them to find them online, I have stumbled upon this festival by pure chance, yesterday, when I was in town. There is a wonderful exhibition on the square in front of City Hall, in fact this is a mixture of art and science: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest. Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist cum scientist who builds large, autonomously moving mechanisms which he calls Strandbeesten, Beachbeasts. Those animals are propelled by the wind and he sets them free on Dutch beaches where they may wander around as long as the wind is blowing, and yes, it is blowing there very long, hard, and often… Strandbeest in KyotoI came across the strandbeesten about 4 years ago when I was on summer holiday in Japan and I watched TV at a friend’s place. The interesting thing is that the whole mechanism moves purely kinetic, the legs are constructed in a way that there is a single degree of freedom, and they are essentially only folding over to create the movement. Think of a simple folding rule with only two parts – if you hold it at one end and then gently swing it left and right, the lower part will move as well, but only in a very specific way. Anyway, I bought a small assembly kit online at that time and stunned the students in my class on folding with this odd thing that moves. I was very happy to see a real one for once, and they move quite as beautifully – although you need quite a bit of wind…

If you want more information, including a video with several of the strandbeesten, here is Theo Jansen’s homepage:
http://www.strandbeest.com/index.php
and here is his youtube channel:
https://www.youtube.com/user/strandbeestfilm

And no, I’m not getting anything for this advertisement – I’m just a fangirl. And I think I’ll be off playing with mine for a while… 😉

Welfare

Returning from my trip to Korea, I had to go through my mail, and once again I had received a letter from Kyoto city government. Like the one elevating me to random Kyoto citizen, this one also came in several languages: I received a form to apply for a temporary welfare benefit for 2015.

The accompanyiKyoto city temporary welfare benefit formng letter explained, that the increase of the Japanese consumption tax to 8% in April 2014 may have caused a financial burden for low-income people. As countermeasure, Kyoto city government has decided to pay a one time lump sum of 6.000 YEN to people who meet the eligibility requirements for temporary welfare benefits. Only those who lived in Kyoto at the beginning of this year, and who did not have to pay municipal taxes for the fiscal year 2015, may apply for these benefits.

Obviously, I fall into both those categories; into the second one because in order to pay municipal taxes you must have had an income the year before – which of course I did not. It’s nice to see that Kyoto city government is able – and willing too – to distribute some of the received tax money to its poorest residents, regardless of where they are from – as long as they are in Japan legally.

For a moment I was tempted to apply, but then again, I have plenty of money to fall back upon. Even though my application was perfectly legal – I would not have received the form otherwise – it would not be fair to those who really need the money.

Deja vu

Today was the Aoi matsuri, the hollyhock festival that takes place at the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. When I came to Japan two years ago, this was the first festival I went to, and I have written about it then at length. Today, I had the opportunity – thanks to a friend – to see the parade again, this time from the special seats in Shimogamo Shrine.

It was just as I remembered, almost a deja-vu, but now the beautifully dressed men and gorgeous women on foot or on horses were passing underneath the large trees of Shimogamo Shrine instead of the open space of the Palace, which gave the parade a whole different feeling. I also think that it was a bit more compact than the first time I saw it – whether this was due to the different location or because of different timing, I cannot tell. The weather was nice and warm, but not really sunny, so I still have to wait for my first sunburn this year.

After the parade had passed the long sandy road up to the main buildings of Shimogamo Shrine, my friend and I had lunch at the few food stalls that were permitted at the shrine. We had yakisoba – grilled noodles with bacon and cabbage – and as dessert kasutera – a sort of small sweet buns made of pancake batter – and ichigo daifuku – sweet rice cakes with a strawberry on top.

This year, I did not stay for the horse race as I had promised another friend to see her, but it was nice to go to the Aoi festival again. There is still a part I have not seen yet, the one from Shimogamo to Kamogamo Shrine, so there is something left to explore for next year. I am already looking forward to it!