Going Out

Ever since I started my company, I have been teaching English to two retired ladies in their early 60s. Most of the times we just meet in the shopping mall nearby my place (because it has free parking), but sometimes we go out and do something special.

Like today. A common friend of ours is an artist. He makes shin-hanga woodblock prints, and this week he has an exhibition of his prints of spring flowers. Most of his pieces are flowers, actually, and he has a very distinctive style, not really naive, but not realistic either. I had seen much of his work – so I thought – and I was surprised that I could find something totally new to me. The picture below consists of four single prints, close-ups of seasonal flowers, from spring at the left to winter at the right. The coloring is interesting – the warm colors for spring and winter, and the coldest blue for summer.

Woodprints: Seasonal FlowersAfter visiting his exhibition, we went to a nearby cafe. We wanted to go to the cafe “Independant” in the basement of an old, Western style house that was built in 1928 and is still used today. Unfortunately, that cafe is closed in the afternoon for someStaricase to the Cafe Independant reason, but we could at least go downstairs and admire the lovely mosaic staircase. The basement itself is a single room with very high ceilings, heavy pillars, and typical vault architecture – it is definitely worth going there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in another cafe on the second floor of the same building, eating chocolate cake and iced creme brulee and drinking tea and coffee. We were chatting about this and that – just like old ladies like me enjoy doing. I had a great afternoon!

Nail House

You have heard of nail houses or holdouts, right? Those are houses or rather the property on which it stands that did not become a part of a larger development (a shopping centre, public building, etc) because the owners refused to sell. Nail houses is a relatively new term for these properties, many of them are in China and there are plenty of photos online.

Recently, there is a lot of building going on in Kyoto. Lots of beautiful old buildings, many with large gardens, are torn down to make room for a brand-new mansion – I positively hate them! Often, a number of houses in a neighborhood are bought up by a developer to be able to build even bigger mansions… When you are walking down the roads in Kyoto in 20 years or so, all you will see are mansions and parking lots, with a few convenience stores strewn in between, I swear. The old buildings that will be left at that time will feel like a zoo because nobody will live in them anymore, they will be just cafes and souvenir shops…

Anyway, I wanted to write about a nail house near the old place where I lived. The owner refused to sell to one of those huge mansion developers, and now her house is surrounded on three sides by the mansion, the fourth side is facing the road. While I commend her guts to stand up to the guys with the big money, I have to say I wouldn’t want to live like that…

But then I realised that there is an even more prominent nail house in Kyoto. It is smack on one of the busiest corners in inner city, at Shijo-Kawaramachi, and it is this:

Kyoto Takashimaya Building, 2006The big building is the Kyoto Takashimaya, one of the largest department store chains in Japan. It was founded in Kyoto in 1831 and moved to this prominent spot in 1948. And at that point already, the owner of the little house on the corner refused to sell to the big developers, and you can see what happened then: Just like what would happen nowadays. You see, in Japan, it’s all about tradition… 😉

Reporting

When I was about 15 years old, I wanted to become a journalist. Since I liked writing and listened to music virtually all day, I thought music journalist would be a good match for me. Obviously my life didn’t quite turn out that way, but still, about 25 years later, I had my first journalistic adventure today.

Sponsored by Kyotogram (thank you!) I went to the Kyo-ryori exhibition that is held today and tomorrow at the Miyako Messe. The theme is Kyoto cooking, that is: kaiseki: expensive dishes with nothing but the best and freshest ingredients, styled to absolute perfection. It is the haute cuisine of Japan, and prices for dinner start at 15.000 YEN for the cheapest meals, drinks not included.

Since it is December, many exhibits were centered around O-sechi ryori, the meals you eat on the three holidays of New Year’s. Kaiseki already means exquisite styling of the food, but in O-sechi, the bar is yet raised a bit higher. The main ingredient of both kaiseki and O-sechi is fish and seafood of all kinds, and I think I saw only a single dish with meat.

Besides the food exhibits, there were sellers of food related items like expensive ceramics, kitchen utensils, etc. as well as tea, sake, and beer. There was also a place where you could take part in a (simplified) tea ceremony and a food court where you could order some lunch, standard Japanese fare though. There was also extra entertainment: The portioning of a whole tunafish (I came to late for this one to get decent pictures, but I had seen it once before), an extremely interesting demonstration of the ritual cutting of fish without touching it (something religious I guess, I’ll have to look it up), and a maiko dance performance (can’t go without that in Kyoto).

I did not have time yet to sift through all the pictures I took, but here are two of the most striking ones: a seafood rooster for New Year since next year is the year of the Rooster, and below: a fugu phoenix… Mind you: this is not plastic, this is real fish! How can anybody eat this!

A rooster made of seafood. A phoenix made of fugu sashimi.

Hakusasonso

Kyoto has lots of beautiful Japanese gardens, and there’s only so much time to visit them all. Last week, in the peak of the momiji season, I took time out to visit Hakusasonso, a private garden near Ginkakuji temple. I had passed by there many times before, but now I finally went in.

Teahouse in HakusasonsoThe Hakusasonso is the former residence of Kansetsu Hashimoto, a nihonga painter of the Taisho and early Showa period. He bought the site in 1913 when it was nothing more than rice paddies. Until his death in 1945, he worked on the 7400 square metres that make up the gardens now and most of it – including the buildings – are unchanged. Today, the garden is still in possession of the Hashimoto family.

Buddhist temple in Hakusasonso.There are five old buildings in the garden, two small tea houses, one private Buddhist temple, and the old residence that is now used as an expensive kaiseki restaurant. The most interesting building is called zonkoro, it is essentially one very large hall that Hashimoto used as his studio. All four walls have large glass windows, and you can see almost all of the garden from the studio.

Zonkoro StudioNot only did he paint, Hashimoto also designed the buildings and the garden himself. He collected stone lanterns, pagodas, and Buddha statues (many from China) and placed them throughout the garden. Especially lovely is the little hill where Buddha statues meditate underneath large bamboos.

Meditating Buddhas in Hakusasonso.At one end of the garden there is the museum, a modern, two storey building where Hashimoto’s works are displayed. From the second floor of the museum, one can overlook the whole garden, and with the borrowed landscape of Mount Daimonji in the back, the scenery is made perfect. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Nihonga was a special style of painting that combined Western painting methods and ideas with Japanese materials and aesthetics. Nowadays, most Japanese painters work in truly Western style, and the distinction to Nihonga has all but disappeared.

Monkey by Hashimoto Kansetsu

Open Day

Last Saturday I was woken up by loud music from a brass band. It originated from the neighbours – some sort of garbage facility. I didn’t think much about it, but when people started to give speeches, I just knew I had to take a look. And indeed, it turned out that they had an open day.

Well, it is not so much a garbage treatment facility – the place is way too small for this – but rather a garage for garbage trucks. And those were in fact the stars of that open day, which was mainly geared towards children. Kids were allowed to put on heavy gloves, throw garbage bags into the truck and push the button to make them disappear. There was also the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a truck and have somebody take a picture of you. Yet another moment where I regret not being a small child any longer…

Kyoto city garbage truckIn any case, being the nerd I am, I found out that all over Kyoto, there are 7 such garages, with a total of 188 garbage trucks (mine only has 15), and each truck has a capacity of 2 tons. For a city like Kyoto with 1.5 million inhabitants, that does not sound like very much, but remember that those trucks are on the road almost every single day, with only very few holidays, for New Year, for example.

Back to the open day: Besides the trucks, there were little games set up for the kids where small prizes could be won, and there was a second hand clothing exchange. A few booths with small gifts and food were there as well, and a large stage with various acts. I did not stay very long, but I caught a cosplay performance by girls in brightly colored albeit a bit skimpy clothing. They did not look very enthusiastic though – probably there are better venues than a garbage truck garage? cosplay performance

Daimonji 2016

I’m feeling quite tired these days and not very motivated… Last week we suffered through a heat wave of 35+ degrees each day (and around 25 in the night), and although there was a nice breeze through my apartment in the first few days, the last weekend was pretty bad.

This is quite usual in the days before and on Obon, and today was the final event of Obon in Kyoto: the Daimonji, or officially the Gozan no Okuri-bi, the 5 mountains sending fire. I have written about it before, so I will not give any details this time. The nice thing about the daimonji festival is that I can watch it from my own balcony. I can see the large dai, as well as the ofune boat and the hidari dai from my south balcony. Today, I wanted to go to the nearby Kitayama bridge to see the myo-ho fires close up as well, but things don’t always go as we’d like them to.

The whole day was nice and hot but slightly overcast. That would not have been a problem, but about one hour before the start of the first fire it started raining. No, it started pouring down as from buckets. I got slightly worried, but still hoped for the best. At 8:00 pm, it was still pouring, I went out to my balcony to watch the first fire being lit, and there was nothing. Nothing at all. A few times I thought I could see something, but then I was not sure after all.

After a while, on the other side of Kyoto, the ofune boat fire was lit – and it was clearly visible through the pouring rain, as was the smaller hidari dai that was lit 5 minutes later. I have no idea what happened with the large dai, but I am sure could not have missed it, since it is so close and I have the perfect view from my balcony. I kept going outside every 10 minutes or so until now, but there is still nothing happening, and by now they will not start it anymore I am sure. I will ask my friend if he knows what happened, but for now, here’s a photo from this year’s ofune fire, which is my favourite, by the way.  ofune fire of the daimonji

Saki Parade

Today was the Saki Matsuri parade of Gion festival. A friend invited me to her home on Oike dori, where we could watch the parade from her balcony. It was a nice Gion matsuri party with food, drinks and air conditioning inside, because even though it was overcast and hazy, both temperature and humidity were quite high. I even made the effort to properly honour the occasion and wore a yukata, a Japanese summer kimono – but I’ll write about this experience some other time.

I have written before about Gion matsuri and the parades in quite some detail, so this year I’ll simply post a handful of photos from a different view-point. Enjoy!

Gion matsuri Saki parade - Naginata hoko and 4 moreSitting on the roof of a hokoLooking down Oike dori towards Karasuma doriKamakiri Yama - an alltime favouriteDancingthe final two floats in the parade

Chosen

We’re in the middle of Gion matsuri already! Today is yoi-yoi-yoiyama, 3 nights before the Saki matsuri parade on Sunday. When you go to town these days, every shop plays Gion bayashi – the rather unmelodious festival music with flutes, cymbals, and drums, and the Gion lanterns are everywhere.

chigo

The other day I talked with a friend about Gion matsuri, in particular about the chigo, the young boy that has numerous duties during this month and rides on the first float of the Saki matsuri. I now know that he is considered sacred throughout this month, which means he is not supposed to touch the ground. Also, he is not allowed to come into contact with women – his mother included. For a boy of 10 years of age, this is probably not very easy, and I wonder if all the attention is really worth it.

It is definitely worth a lot to his family. In general, what you hear is that the chigo is chosen among the families of Gion. This is true, but the important word often omitted is wealthy. My friend said that the one-month honour of your son being the chigo comes with a price tag of some 30 million YEN, which can buy you a nice house in Kyoto. A healthy donation to Yasaka shrine is only a part of the costs, there are all sorts of other gifts to consider, as well as food and drink for the people coming to your house throughout the month, in particular those affiliated with the Naginata hoko.

Certainly, there is a lot of prestige coming with these kind of things, but still… Is such a high price worth it?

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!