Encounters With Kyoto

I have reason to celebrate: I can now call myself a “published author”. Yay!

As I mentioned before, since last November, I am a member of the group Writers in Kyoto, as the name suggests, a small group of writers who live in (or around) Kyoto or have some other connection to Kyoto and who write in English.

This year, for the third time altogether, the group has put out an anthology to which the members of the group were invited to contribute. There was also a writing competition that was free for everybody to join. About half of the Writers in Kyoto members have sent in short stories or poems or non-fiction essays – and I’m one of them!

Cover of Writers in Kyoto Anthology, Vol. 3And, our book “Encounters With Kyoto – Writers in Kyoto Anthology 3” is now available on amazon in paperback! An e-book version is in preparation and there’s lots of fun stories to read. For example, there is a very interesting non-fiction piece on ropes made with human hair that were used to lift the wooden beams of Higashi Honganji Temple – some of the ropes are still on display there. Or the lovely poems full of childhood memories by a local Kyoto lady. And then there’s my essay about a Japanese garden I was not supposed to enter… My personal favourite is a fun piece on an encounter with yakuza – in the sento to boot!

Last Saturday the group met for the official book launch in Umekoji park near Kyoto station. We had sake and local and international snacks and then some of the authors went on to read their pieces from the anthology. It was my first time at a group meeting, so I decided to read my piece by way of introduction. People seemed to like it, or at least the liked my reading, so we had something to talk about afterwards, thank goodness.

It was fun to meet other English speakers in Kyoto, some of whom have lived here for decades, some of whom have just arrived; some of whom I have heard about from friends, others I would have never known otherwise. And it was fun to meet so many different people – and to find out interesting things we have in common regardless.

I realise that this self-promotion is a bit of an unusual book post for a Sunday, but I really enjoyed working on my essay and reading the other contributions. If you’d like to check it out – and I promise there are better writers in it than me –  as I said, it’s available internationally on amazon.

Reinvited

I am so excited! Just yesterday, I received a phone call where I was once more invited to help out during Gion Matsuri! Just like last year, I will work at the Ofunehoko, the very last float in the second parade on July 24th. I will sell chimaki and tenugui and put people’s shoes away when they enter the building from which you can enter the hoko itself…

The boat shaped O-fune hoko ending the procession

It doesn’t sound like much, but I am really excited! Last year, I met a member of the Writers in Kyoto group which turned out very nice indeed (more about that in the weekend), so who knows whom I will be meeting this year…

Cafe Breaks

With summer approaching and my apartment still being without aircondition, I will probably be forced out of my home every now and then in the coming months. I am slowly building a list of cafes where I can go and work in dire circumstances because I don’t want to go to the same ones all the time. So far, my favourites are the following:

  • The Cafe in the Ogaki Bookstore on Kitaoji Street. It’s the closest to my home, they have small meals and excellent matcha latte. When I need a break, I can simply walk among the books in the store. Con: No wifi.
  • The Mushiyashinai, a vegan cafe near Ichijoji Station on the Eiden railway to Kurama. While I don’t care much that it’s vegan as such, their soymilk lassi is absolutely addictive. They have nice little cakes to take home too, and as a bonus: the young man working there is very cute… Con: a bit expensive.take-home fruit cake from the Mushiyashinai
  • The Nama Chocolat in Okazaki, run by a friend of mine. Pretty quiet (except for weekends) and located in a lovely old house. Excellent home-made chocolate, a real treat together with matcha. Con: I always end up chatting with my friend rather than working…
  • The Mo-an Cafe on top of Yoshida hill. Rustic and quiet atmosphere, with a nice view over Kyoto. Serves small meals for lunch, not many people (busy in the weekends and during lunch time though). Con: Tricky to access by bicycle. You should leave it somewhere at the foot of the hill.
  • Matsunosuke near the Museum of Kyoto. A bit far from my place but their sweets are worth it. Best pancakes in town. Con: Not really a place to work since it’s quite busy. Pancakes are delicious but take an eternity to make…
  • The Lec Court Cafe in the Kyoto Hotel Okura. Excellent desserts, excellent service in very stylish ambience. Tea is served in large pots to about three cups. Con: Expensive. And they would probably frown upon laptop use – not that they would complain though!
  • The Lipton Tea House on Sanjo Dori. Fluffy cakes to die for (and for takeout), a large selection of tea and wonderful hot chocolate. Refined ambience, friendly staff and reasonable prices. Con: Like in the Okura, it doesn’t feel right to take out a laptop. Bustling with tourists.

These are my favourite cafes in Kyoto when I want to work away from my office, or when I just want a break. There are hundreds more that want to be tried of course. The nice thing about cafes in Japan is their great Austrian approach to it: Order one coffee, and you can stay forever. I prefer not to go on the weekends when these places are usually busy with many customers, but during the week, when there’s nobody else, they are fair game. Who knows, I might be seeing you there!

Gotōchi Formcard

A modern post office goes beyond selling stamps and being a place where to send parcels and letters. Nowadays, you can also buy stationary, postcards, cardboard boxes to pack your stuff in it…

In Japan, every post office in a city that is frequented by tourists – whether Japanese or from abroad – sells special postcards called gotōchi forumukādo (ご当地フォルムカード). Literally that means “local formcard”, and these are fun postcards that depict some of the most iconic tourist spots or things of that particular city and are often shaped accordingly.

In Kyoto, these formcards of course have something to do with Geisha, and there are also a few of Kyoto’s most iconic temples and even tsukemono, which are pickles and the main souvenir from Kyoto, for Japanese tourists, that is. What do you think of these? Do you recognise the two places?

Gotoji Formcards from KyotoPostage varies according to size, but these cards can be sent abroad as well. However, the clerk at the post office suggested using an envelope for destinations outside of Japan, just to make sure they arrive unharmed.

Sugimoto Residence

As I mentioned in my post last Tuesday, the highlight of my extra long Golden Week vacation was my visit to the old Sugimoto family home to see an exhibition of Boy’s Day decorations. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos in the house, but here is the homepage of the Sugimotoke with a lovely gallery of the building and its gardens:

http://en.sugimotoke.or.jp/about-sugimoto-residence/introduction/

The Sugimoto family were merchants who sold fabric for kimono and their old machiya – built in 1870 is open to the public at very special occasions only. The house is quite large, even for a wealthy family, and it has a number of special features that I haven’t seen elsewhere before:

A special room where a visiting priest could wait and get changed into formal clothing before praying at the family altar. This room lies on the other end of a corridor which, to honor the status of the priest that came from the Nishi Honganji Temple, is laid out with tatami. This is highly unusual, since corridors in kyo-machiya or other old houses tend to be from wood.

The room with the family altar is considered the main room of the house, and having a private prayer room in a commoner’s house is highly unusual. The altar is located in a small two-tatami space that can be closed with fusuma and seems to me rather usual, but the interesting bit is the room itself. It has a small cellar underneath made from stone, where the altar could be moved in case of a fire. Basements like this are very rare, especially in such an old house, but this one was – thankfully – never needed.

The other interesting feature of the house was in the large main guest room, and I don’t even mean the lacquered tokonoma that was only uncovered at special occasions. The guest room is an already impressive 10 tatami room, and as usual, just by removing the sliding doors to the adjacent room, it can be enlarged by another 6 tatami. The interesting part is that the wooden grooves for the fusuma (in Japanese they are called shikii), can be taken out of the floor. The tatami from the adjacent room would be moved up and thus create a space of 16 unbroken tatami for very large events. When the event was over, the tatami, grooves, and fusuma would be put in place again, and normal life could be resumed.

There is also an interesting Western-style drawing room near the entrance that was built in 1929 and has cork flooring, modern furniture, and a piano. The low ceiling was taken out and the room now covers what has once been two floors at once, with an extra window on the former second floor. This makes the room feel very spacious, airy, and bright.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter the gardens or to see the three kura storehouses. Still, just sitting in the rooms gazing out the large windows grants a nice and relaxing frame of mind.
The Sugimoto Residence is one of the largest kyo-machiya still existing in Kyoto. In 1990, the house was designated as a Tangible Cultural Asset by Kyoto City and in 2010, it was designated as a National Important Cultural Property. One year later, its garden was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.
As I said, it is only open for special occasions and it’s not possible to take photos inside. But if you are in Kyoto and even remotely interested in old houses, this is definitely one to visit!

End of Hiatus

Hi, I’m back – remember me? Sorry for not posting last week, I needed a break from writing for a while… I’m fine so don’t worry and now I’m back in full glory and with a bit more energy – hopefully even enough to start my weekend posts again…

My Golden Week holiday turned out to be a mix of work and fun stuff. In the first weekend, I went with friends to Kyotographie, a large international photography exhibition event. And because said friends came from Kobe and Osaka, we were determined to see all the venues in just two days. And we managed: 11 venues with art by various international photographers, all in less than 30 hours. It was fun – and very exhausting, but we’re planning to go again next year!

Later that week, I visited three exhibitions and one traditional event at Yoshida Shrine. This was a so-called shiki bouchou ceremony where a large fish is cut and offered to the gods – in this case, the God of cutlery. The interesting twist here is that the fish is only touched with two large metal chopsticks and a large knife. There are a lot of specific movements and (forgive my language) waving of the knife before the first cut into the fish is made. At the end, the fish is put onto a plate and served to the gods.

Offerings to the gods

I had seen a shiki-bouchou ceremony before and to be very honest, I was slightly disappointed. When I saw the ceremony the first time, the movements and cuts were very smooth and executed with a lot of confidence. This time, I had the feeling that the priest performing the ceremony was very nervous, and although I did not have the best view, I could see his hands tremble on occasion. Whether this was because he was unfamiliar with the task or because of the film team directly in front of him, I can only guess.

The ceremony was a relatively small affair, but the first two rows of seats were reserved for dignitaries somehow connected to Kyoto’s food industry, like the “Head of the Kyoto Kaiseki Organisation” and suchlike. They were allowed to pay their respects to the gods at the end of the ceremony, obviously in return for making a significant donation to the shrine.

The ceremony took about one hour overall, and afterwards my friend and I were left wondering what would happen to the food that was just offered to the gods, the fruit, rice, and vegetables in particular. I guess nowadays it would just be thrown away, but I would not be surprised if, in the olden times, the priests would eat the leftovers after the gods had partaken…

Anyway, although I had fun at this ceremony, it was not the highlight of my last two weeks. That one came at the end of the Golden Week: A visit to the Sugimoto Family Residence. However, this one deserves a post of its own, possibly in the weekend. 😉

Intimidating

A new year brings new challenges, as usual. You may have noticed that over at What’s up in Kyoto, my monthly highlights for this year will be 12 of the many little museums in Kyoto. There are many serious museums (like this month’s Raku Museum and several others dedicated to one artist, one that focuses on netsuke, one for kimono…) and one or two that are more fun (there is a museum for the wigs Geisha are wearing, and one for nagajuban, traditional underkimono). I will have to go to all of them, introduce myself and try to convince them to let me feature them on my webpage.

neon sign spelling ARTAnd: This time I’m doing this on my own. Last year, with the shrines, I had help from a friend of mine, but she has been busy during Decemberand sent me off alone with a “you can do this!” I can definitely see what she’s doing here, and in a sense, I am grateful. She won’t keep doing me favours forever, and eventually I must be able to handle these sort of things myself.

Another reason for her keeping in the background is more Japan/Kyoto related: She thinks that with my foreigner bonus, I might have an easier time approaching these museums. Many of them are family-run or very small businesses, and they probably like to be approached in the proper, roundabout way by introduction through other people that is so common in Kyoto especially. My friend says that if she goes there, she will be expected to know how to do this, while foreign me can just barge in and say “Hi, here I am, and that’s what I want.” So far, it has worked out fine. I have approached two museums already and they were very forthcoming, and I will visit a third one tomorrow.

While I understand her reasoning, and while the first efforts have been encouraging, it is also hugely intimidating, mostly because I don’t know the proper way to do things. One of my life’s mottos is “Rules are there so that you think before you break them” (courtesy of Terry Pratchett), but an important part is knowing the rules first. And better Japanese would help too. We did prepare documents in both English and Japanese of course, but I still have to explain the procedures and what I’m expecting and everything. And while the Raku Museum had one person communicating in excellent English, I had to fumble my way through in Japanese at the first one I visited. I still believe that most Japanese do understand English better than they let on though.

Anyway, I’ll keep trying. My friend says it’s important to stay friendly and hopeful and make the best out of things. And now I have to think about the questions I will be asking the curator of the Raku Museum in my interview with her on Thursday…

Emperor Meiji’s Tomb

The Meiji EmperorJapan’s Meiji Emperor reigned over the country in one of its most turbulent eras. When he was born, in 1852, the Shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty had ruled a secluded country for around 250 years. When he ascended to the throne, in 1868, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had abdicated, both under pressure from Japanese uprisings as well as threats of foreign power. And when Emperor Meiji died in 1912, he had ushered in an era of rapid technological modernisation, cultural renewal, state reform, and governmental participation – penning the first constitution of Japan and in Asia as a whole.

A great man like this is often revered beyond his death, and emperors in Japan usually get a special honour upon their demise: They become one of Japan’s many kami. The Meiji Shrine is located in Tokyo at a place he liked to visit during his lifetime, and it is a very popular spot for hatsumode in the few days after New Year’s Day. However, his tomb is where he was born, in Kyoto, and it is quite spectacular, even when taking into account that the Meiji emperor was still seen as a true descendant of the gods.

The tomb of the Meiji Emperor is located in the southern part of Kyoto, but very easy to find. From Fushimi Momoyama (Keihan) or Momoyama (Kintetsu Nara Line) simply follow the road uphill until it takes a sharp turn to the right. Straight ahead, a broad gravel road starts, leading further uphill. It is lined with beautiful, large cedar trees that are impressive even now, although the forest has suffered quite a bit during typhoon Jebi in September 2018. After a while of gentle ascent on the softly curving road, the top is reached, opening up to the view below.

Entrance to the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorTo the right, there are a few modern buildings that are not very interesting, but moving further along, a large square opens up, and to the left is finally the tomb of the Meiji Emperor.

Tomb of the Meiji EmperorIts dimensions are hard to gauge from this picture, but the first torii is about five to six metres high. The dome-shaped tumulus, probably 25 metres at the back, holds at its base the emperor’s remains. In fact, this type of tomb is very old and can be found in Korea as well. Turning around, there is a steep staircase leading up to the plateau, and from this height, there is a nice view over the southern part of Kyoto, even though it is a bit obscured by more trees.

View from the Tomb of the Meiji EmperorA small but quite steep road leads further on, where a smaller version of Meiji’s tomb can be found. There, his wife, Empress Shoken is buried. There is no view at all from her tomb, since it lies lower on the hill and the spot is completely surrounded by trees.

The Tomb of Empress ShokenThe whole complex is enormous, and apparently it was very expensive to build. So much so, in fact, that Meiji’s successor, the Taisho emperor, had to promise to build himself a much more humble abode for his afterlife. Since he lived only until 1925, and was much less popular among the Japanese people, this request was perfectly justified in the end.

Kyoto Sake Experience

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity (through What’s up in Kyoto) to take part in a sake tasting in Fushimi, a southern part of Kyoto. The experience is well worth sharing – and recommending! – so here are the details:

I had made an appointment with Kotaro, founder and CEO of Kyoto Sake Experience, who conducts most of the sake tastings himself. We met near Fushimi Momoyama station, and first talked briefly about what I could expect – and about Kotaro himself. He grew up in Fushimi and spent a few years in Australia, so his English is excellent. He is very passionate about sake and was happy to answer, and could sometimes even preempt, my questions. In fact, he recommends taking a sake class as the very first thing to do in Japan, so people have time to find out what type of sake they like best and to be able to fully enjoy it on their visit – and take a few bottles of their favourite back home in the end!

Saketour - Gekkeikan Sake Brewery MuseumAnyway, after our brief talk, we headed to the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest and oldest sake breweries of Japan. They have a sake museum, and Kotaro uses its exhibits to explain the intricacies of sake, starting out with the rice. Rice meant for sake is different from rice meant for eating; it has longer stalks and contains more starch, both of which makes it about twice as expensive as food rice.

Once the rice is harvested, it is polished, and since the flavour lies in the hull of the rice, the smaller the remaining grain (i.e., the higher the polishing rate), the more pure starch is there, and the better (that is, sweeter and more fruity) the resulting sake. The highest grade for sake, daiginjo, has a polishing rate of 50% or more.Different grades of polished rice

As first step the rice is steamed and cooled down to 30 degrees before adding koji mold. This mold is meant to break down the starch into sugar, and many breweries have their own type of carefully guarded koji. Only very little is needed to start the procedure, but since the koji is very temperature-sensitive, it must be checked every couple of hours. After two days, the procedure is finished and we have kome koji, mouldy rice.

Now it is time to make moto, a mixture of kome koji, fresh steamed rice, water and yeast. There are about 30 different yeast cultures that are shared property of all sake breweries, and each culture gives a certain flavour in the end. Making the moto takes about two weeks, this is essentially the starter culture for the final fermentation that starts afterwards.

To the finished moto is again added more kome koji, fresh steamed rice, and water, and now the fermentation can begin in earnest and in very large barrels. In this step, the koji continues to produce sugar so there is constant supply of food for the yeast that turns the sugar into alcohol. However, after 27 days when the alcohol content is 22% (genshu sake), this process comes to a natural end and the sake is finished.

Busily fermenting sakeTechnically, that is, because now the raw sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurised, and diluted in a series of different steps. Special types of sake are taken out of this process early, for example namazake is not pasteurised. However, the sake that is usually available at stores or restaurants underwent the whole process. It has a final alcohol percentage of around 15% and is divided into several types, according to the original polishing rate of the rice.Pressing the sake.

We have for example daiginjo with a polishing rate of 50% or more, or ginjo with 50-60% of the grain remaining. Daiginjo often has a fruity taste, which is enhanced by adding distilled alcohol. Pure rice sake, consisting only of rice, water, yeast, and koji, has a somewhat stronger taste and gets the prefix junmai.

That was already an enormous amount of information, and my head was spinning before the very first cup! But now the sake tasting started, back at the place where we started. There were 7 different types of sake waiting for our return, three special ones and four standard ones, for two rounds of tasting.

In the first round I was to drink the sake pure, and my favourite turned out to be the daiginjo with a very fruity taste, and, unfortunately, it is the most expensive one. Remember that the polishing rate is highest, so there is more sake rice needed to produce it. I also liked nigori, a type of sake that is not fully filtered (it reminds me of Austrian Sturm, another story).

Seven types of Sake during the testingIn the second round, the same sake was paired with different types of food, and here it shows that Kotaro had been working as a chef. This time, the winner was much less clear. Like with European wine, it is important to balance food and drink, so that they are either balanced in strength of taste (daiginjo with soy beans has a very delicate taste) or strongly complementary (a 5-year-old sake together with cream cheese led to a taste explosion). The difference in the taste of sake together with the food compared to without it was phenomenal, and even though I am not a gourmet, it was obvious.

Kotaro inspecting the almost done sakeAltogether, I spent three hours with Kotaro and his sake, and I found it a very intoxicating experience in all respects, and I cannot recommend it too highly. The only complaint I have is that the name is not well-chosen: this was not just any standard sake experience, it was a master class! I now know exactly what to look for when buying sake (for myself and others) and I feel like the only way I could learn more about sake would be by making it myself (which is not on the agenda. For now.)

If you are coming to Kyoto and want to know more about sake, and especially if you want to find the right sake for you, do take Kotaro’s Sake Master Class. I promise, you will never need another sake tasting again!

Disclaimer: I received a free sake experience in return for an honest review. A much shorter version of this will be posted on What’s up in Kyoto as well.

Vortex

Last Saturday, I took some time out to visit the 3rd Kyoto Student’s Art Auction. I came across it through What’s up in Kyoto, and because there was one piece of art I really liked, and because everything was in English and Japanese, I decided to give it a try.

On Friday I went to see the exhibition of all 25 pieces made by 12 or 13 students from Kyoto’s Art Universities, and while my favourite looked even better in real life, there were two others that impressed me, so I filled out the form to register as a bidder, and then returned on Saturday afternoon.

This was my first auction, so I had no idea what to expect. I came early, was given documents along with my paddle and then was shown into the auction hall. There was a table with drinks (champagne, sake, and some non-alcoholic ones) and snacks (cheese, crackers and chocolates), and in the back the art was put up. The students were already there and ready to chat with the people who had come – including me, and it was great fun talking to them.

When the auction finally started, I was surprised at the formality of it. Everything started off with a short talk by the mayor of Kyoto and the rector of one of the universities. The auctioneer then took over, starting with a joke about how he had considered donning a suit, but how this would be unthinkable for an auctioneer in Japan, and he ended up wearing kimono and hakama (just like the mayor) as usual. We then got a short introduction on how to show our paddles, where the bidding would start (10.000 yen) and how much it would increase per bid (5.000 yen), how to pay, etc.

Upon finishing, he looked straight at me – the only foreigner in the room, clearly distinguishable by the red turtleneck sweater from all the guys in black suits – and asked: “Do you need English assistance?” As if I needed help embarrassing myself in public… Anyway, he said he would call in English and Japanese the pieces for which I was bidding so that was a good compromise.

When the bidding came to my favourite piece, it seemed that it was the favourite piece of many people. The very first moment, bids were up to 35.000 yen – and I had to pass, that was over my budget already. Besides, the person who finally bought it for 50.000 yen gave the impression that he would get it for any price. I bid for another one as well, but had to bow out there too, but the third piece I liked was mine – and for the minimum bid of 10.000 yen too!

After paying – and making everybody nervous with my foreign-ness – I could take it home immediately. I have already chosen where to hang it in my office, but I will leave it as a Christmas present for me. My first piece of “real” art. What do you think about it?

"Vortex" by Ismael Franco Alvarez

It’s called “Vortex”, and was made by Ismael Franco Alvarez with ink and pen on Maruman paper. It is very well done, when you try to follow any of the lines, the picture does suck you in – like into a vortex… Ismael is from Mexico and studies Japanese painting at Kyoto Saga University of Arts.

For more of his works, check out his instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/ismairu/