There must be something in the air in Kyoto that is especially conducive to artists. Clearly, while Kyoto was the capital of Japan, this was the place to be if you wanted to make a living as an artist, or even as a craftsperson. But even today, Kyoto is a hub of Japan’s art world and many people with strong ties to the city become leaders in their fields, be it ukiyo-e, paintings, calligraphy, ceramics etc.
One of the most famous Japanese artists – and a woman to boot – is Uemura Shoen (1875 – 1949). She stands out as one of the few female painters from the Meiji/Taisho/Showa eras of Japan who rose not only to national but even to international fame during her lifetime.
When she was born in 1875 as the second daughter of a tea merchant in Kyoto’s Shimogyoku district, she was named Tsune. Her father had died two months before her birth, so she grew up in a household dominated by her mother and aunts. Tsune’s mother ran a popular teashop called “Chikiri-ya” which attracted affluent clients purchasing tea and other items for tea ceremony.
Little Tsune loved to draw from an early age and impressed her family so much with her talent that she was sent to the Kyoto Prefectural Art School to study when she was only 12 years old. Just three years later, her painting The Beauty of Four Seasons was sent to an art exhibition and was promptly bought by Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, who was visiting Japan at that time. From one day to another, the young girl now known as Uemura Shoen became a celebrity.
At that time, this was highly unusual. Even though many women, especially of the higher classes, learned how to paint (mostly in the traditional Japanese style), they practised the art as a pastime rather than as a profession. While other professional female painters did exist at the time (for example, Ito Shoba and Kajiwara Hisako), most of Japan’s art scene was dominated by men, in particular outside of Tokyo. Uemura’s international success – a version of The Beauty of Four Seasons won an award at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago – was unprecedented.
Uemura Shoen studied under several teachers (Suzuki Shonen who gave her the first kanji of his name, Kono Bairei and Takeuchi Seiho) and in her work integrated the traditional Maruyama Shijo, Kano, and Sesshu schools of painting. She also drew influences from ukiyo-e and Chinese landscape paintings.
The majority of Uemura Shoen’s works are so-called bijin-ga, paintings of beautiful women, doubtlessly influenced by all the women who visited her mother’s teashop. Their bodies often take up most of the painting and draw the focus towards the intricate details of their kimono and hair ornaments, painted with unparalleled delicacy. Many of her works were inspired by Noh theater. Even though women are not allowed to perform, Uemura’s paintings of Noh show women in classical dance poses and with a strong and determined mien.
When Uemura was 27 and unmarried, she gave birth to a son, Uemura Shoko, who later became a painter himself. She raised him and his sister, born a few years later, as a single mother, and never revealed the name of their father. It is speculated, however, that it may have been her teacher, Suzuki Shonen. Not only did he allow her to use the first character of his name in her own pseudonym, but he also accelerated her education and let her learn and practice the painting of figures in his own atelier instead of at school. Already at that time, people suspected an affair between the two, and her reputation took a downwards turn. However, in the long run, her exceptional talent silenced all critics, whether of her work or her private conduct.
In her later years, Uemura Shoen’s status as outstanding female painter was officially recognized. She became the pioneer in numerous top-ranking awards: first female painter accepted in the Imperial Art Academy (1941), second female court artist to the Imperial Household Agency (1944), and first woman to receive the Order of Culture (1948). Her painting Jo no mai of a female Noh dancer was the first painting by a Japanese woman rated as Important Cultural Propery. Uemura Shoen died in 1949, aged 74, still painting until the very end.
Uemura Shoen was a very prolific painter. To see a wide range of her pieces, you don’t have to go far (from Kyoto, that is): The Shohaku Art Museum in Nara focuses on her works, as well as those of her son and grandson.
For now, all my work assignments have dried up completely, and I’m not expecting the next one until next week, Tuesday. So, I’ve been catching up on a few personal things I’ve wanted to do, at times for years already!
First of all, I went to see the current exhibitions in my two favourite museums, the Insho Domoto Museum and the Sannenzaka Museum. I love going to museums and learning about (Japanese) art – something I never thought I would like to do. I’m very surprised about myself here.
This year, I also scored a free ticket to the Ikenobo Ikebana Spring Exhibition. The Ikenobo is the oldest ikebana school in Japan, and it has its headquarters in Kyoto, at Rokkaku-do temple and an adjacent modern building. Altogether, there were more than 1000 flower arrangements on 8 floors! It was a bit overwhelming for me, at the end it got a bit much, and the arrangements started to blur into each other… There were surprisingly many people for a Monday, and many of them were deep in conversation about one piece or another. No wonder, ikebana was touted as one of the female graces in the Meiji and Taisho period. More about that at another time.
And then, a friend of mine invited me to a recital of Noh; it was a group of laymen, so there were no masks or costumes, but I found it just as amazing as the professional performances. I also splurged on tickets for a bunraku performance – Japanese-style puppet plays for adults. I thought I could understand what was going on, but the play, based on the Heike Monogatari, was very complex, and even reading the synopsis afterwards didn’t help at all. However, it was very interesting, and I’m planning on seeing another play – with proper preparation, next time.
Two weeks ago, I also had a house-warming party with some friends, and it was lovely, even though my kitchen is still not finished. This is also an official shout out to all my non-local friends who sent me gifts in the last few months: Thank you very much! Your selections of sweets, wine, and cat-related items were very well received. 😉
Now what? There’s still half a week to go, after all. The cherry trees at my shrine next door still need a day or two, but it’s hanami at other places in Kyoto already. So I want to go out a bit and enjoy the sunshine. There is also the kitchen begging for its wallpaper, and I’m out of preparations… Somehow, I am quite daunted by this, but I guess it’s just a question of rolling up my sleeves and getting it done. Also, I’ve spent much of this week writing for some personal projects of mine, and I want to get one or two of them completed. I guess you’ll hear more of those on this blog as well…
I found out about this new museum recently and just had to check it out (I love my job). It’s always special to find something brand new in Kyoto, where everything else dates back hundreds of years and even people are not considered “real” Kyoto people unless their family moved to Kyoto “before the war” – the Onin War of 1467, mind you…
The Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum in Gion was established last year, and it is housed in a newly-built building in zen-like style, very minimalistic. An effort has been made to make it fit among the surroundings, which also show a traditional exterior.
This little museum is a private one, founded by the Kagizen Yoshifusa, a maker of traditional Kyoto sweets that dates back to the Edo period. Usually, sweets shops like these cater to monks and tea houses, since traditional kyo-gashi confectionary is most often used at tea ceremonies or to offer to guests. However, back in the Showa period, the then-head of the family, Zenzo, managed to establish the Kagizen as a salon for artists, writers, researchers, in short: the intellectual crowd of Kyoto. Their sweets have been immensely popular among general citizens as well.
So, said Zenzo, the 12th generation head of the family, made lots of connections to the local art scene, and especially the mingei movement (folk art) headed by Kawai Kanjiro was favoured by him. He also established a deep friendship with Tatsuaki Kuroda, a wood craftsman and lacquer artist, who designed pieces for the Kagizen store and teahouse. This friendship laid the foundations of the museum’s collection, and I wish I had found the museum already last year, because the very first exhibition was about the connection between Kuroda and Zenzo – and I love lacquerware.
But their current exhibition on wooden molds for sweets is equally fascinating, because it explores the history of the Kagizen Yoshifusa as sweets maker famous for higashi, dried sweets. These tea-ceremony favourites are often nothing more than sugar, sometimes colored, and pressed into molds to create a large variety of shapes. Chrysanthemums and other flowers are common, as are seashells and fish. For weddings etc. there are auspicious cranes or turtles, and each new year sees the appropriate zodiac animal.
I was surprised by the variety of the shapes, and how delicately the molds were carved. Of course, this is a job for an expert, and besides molds used by the Kagizen over the years, there were also some from a collection of a 3rd generation artisan sweet-mold maker. My favourite? The astronauts!
So, if you’d like to check out this lovely new museum, here’s their website: https://zenbi.kagizen.com/ The exhibition on the sweets molds is on until April 10, 2022.
Today, I wanted to write about something completely different. But then, weather happened… It has snowed several days this winter already, which is quite unusual for Kyoto. Here’s Saginomori Jinja in the snow from last Friday. The snow has gone from the streets now, but it’s still pretty cold. Pumpkin does not approve and neither do I…
I’ve been exploring my new neighborhood, and there are some interesting sights nearby my house. I have visited the shrine a few times now, first time during the koyo, last time this afternoon. That’s why the trees go from full color to bare and back in the following photos.
Saginomori means “Heron’s Forest”, and the shrine itself dates back more than 1000 years, to the beginning of the Heian Period. It was established at a different site at the foot of Mt. Hiei (which is not far from here), where it served as the ubusunagami (guardian deity of one’s birthplace) for seven villages. It was relocated to the present location in 1689. The shrine is dedicated to Susanoo-no-mikoto, the younger brother of sun goddess Amaterasu.
It is a relatively small shrine with a single dance stage and a worship hall at the end of a long access road that leads up the hill. The trees surrounding it, however, are majestic and look very old.
An interesting feature is the bridge at the southern entrance to the shrine. This little stone bridge was once part of Shugakuin Villa (not far from here either) where it spanned the Otowa river in front of the entrance. Many emperors walked over this bridge when they came to relax at Shugakuin, but today it’s for the likes of you and me, who take the shortcut to Manshu-in Temple via the steps right after it.
The collection of ema votive tablets – one for each of the 12 zodiacs – is very cute. I plan to buy one when I go there early next year for my hatsumode.
The shrine also boasts a large yaegaki stone wall and says that whoever touches it will be blessed with “good marital and romantic relationships”. Always worth a try, isn’t it?
This is “Symphony”, a 1961 nihonga painting by Insho Domoto (1891 – 1975), one of the most versatile and prolific painters of Kyoto. In his life, he had essentially three great periods of paintings: The earliest, where he produced traditional nihonga paintings. The middle one, after WWII, is characterized by Western-style paintings, reminiscent of the art produced in Europe at that time. Finally, when already in his 70s, he turned to fully abstract art like the one above. I will talk about him in more detail in another post.
When I first saw this painting – as a postcard-sized reproduction to boot – it touched me deeply. And last Friday, when I went to the Insho Domoto Museum and saw it “for real” for the first time, it moved me to tears.
What you cannot see in this reproduction is that the black ink strokes are textured, like seams of coal that have been excavated from the earth with shovels. The large golden dots to the right of the center stand out of the painting like buttons.
When I stood before it on Friday, I thought that the black figure in the center is a bird; the head the large slanted stroke to the left, connected to the feathery body with a long neck, like a black heron. I find it very hard to describe what I feel when I look at this painting. It overwhelms me, somehow, and I had to step back and go elsewhere three or four times while I was looking at it, almost to calm my nerves. I think this is a masterpiece, but do I think so because of its artistic value or because of the feelings it invokes in me?
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, around this time last year, I took a pleasure cruise on the Lake Biwa Canal from Otsu to Kyoto. I’m finally ready to share a few pictures and a bit more info on this marvel of Japanese engineering.
The Lake Biwa Canal was constructed from 1885 to 1890 and was mainly meant to ease transportation of goods from Shiga to Osaka, one of the biggest centres of business in Japan then and now. Additionally, the canal’s water was – and still is – used as water supply for the city, to produce electricity in the first commercial hydroelectric plant in Japan (for the very first electric tram), and to provide water to a number of gardens near the Keage incline (like Nanzen-ji or Murin-an and even the Imperial Palace) and to rice paddies in the north of Kyoto.
When it was built, the canal was quite the engineering marvel, even more so because it was built entirely by Japanese people, from the cheap day labourers to the head of engineering. It soon attracted many tourists who wanted to walk along it or even take a cruise on the canal. In the 1950s, the canal was not being used any longer and everything was shut down, but a few years ago, it was revitalised, and now again you can take cruises in spring time during the cherry blossoms and in autumn during the koyo. So, let’s go!
Right after you board the ship, the first of three tunnels begins. With 2,436 m, this is the longest tunnel, and it was constructed from three sides: The excavating would start from the two ends of the tunnel and from a 47 m deep vertical shaft in the middle of it. This was the first time this method was used in Japan, probably because the chief engineer, Sakuro Tanabe, learnt it from his Scottish professor at university. Yes, Tanabe was only 24 years old when the construction started. I doubt that any fresh graduate would get such an important job today.
The tunnels have interesting features. On top of the portals on each end are large stone inscriptions penned by important elder statesmen of the time, and they surprisingly poetic. Halfway through the first tunnel, there is a very large tablet with the words of Kunimichi Kitagaki, the third governor of Kyoto Prefecture. It reads “The Imperial Throne is eternal”.
It is interesting to note that the canal is very shallow. Obviously, there were no motorboats around when the canal was built, so the boats carrying goods and passengers were propelled forward by long stakes, like the gondolas in Venice. A slight decline of 4 meters from Otsu to Keage keeps the water flowing and the boats moving. However, what surprised me most on the trip was the fog in the first tunnel. It was a nice and warm day outside, but it cooled down quite a bit inside the tunnels. There were also many insects, obviously attracted to the light of the boat.
When you exit the first tunnel, you find yourself in a very quiet part of Kyoto. Most tourists never visit Yamashina, even though Bisshamon-do temple is quite famous, and especially lovely in autumn. The Shinomiya Dock is surrounded by large trees and must be very beautiful during the momiji. As you can see, I took the trip too early, but it is still a lovely sight. The dock was once a resting place for the workers on the canal, and even now, you could get off the boat here. I guess not many people do so, though.
Right after the dock is the so-called Moroha tunnel. It was only built in 1970 when the nearby railroad was straightened out and part of the canal had to give way to it. Beyond it lie a number of bridges to get to Yamashina, and there is a long walking path that follows the canal until the second tunnel, the shortest with only 124 meters. The red bridge below is the Seichaku bridge, and it leads to Honkokuji temple, which is connected to Nichiren.
The final and third tunnel is 850 m long and leads to Keage in Kyoto, near Nanzen-ji temple. Directly next to it is a beautiful Western-style building, the former Imperial Palace Water Pump Station. From here, the water of the canal takes a 30 m or so plunge to the Keage Power Plant to produce electricity for Kyoto. This Keage Incline, where the boats were brought down on rails, is famous for its cherry trees in spring. Another branch canal takes water to the nearby aqueduct of Nanzen-ji temple. From there it also feeds the canal on the Philosopher’s Path.
I really enjoyed going on this trip and I recommend it to everyone. With only 12 passengers per boat plus two staff members, it is an almost intimate experience. For 55 minutes, you’ll see a part of Kyoto and hear of a history that even many Japanese are not aware of. You should give it a try! This year, the schedule has been greatly reduced (thanks, Corona), and it may be hard to get a spot on one of the boats. Alternatively, you can also walk or cycle along the canal, and while the perspective is different, it’s still something very special to do.
For more info on the Lake Biwa Canal and decidedly better photos than mine, check out their homepage here: https://biwakososui.kyoto.travel/en/ By the way: I recommend not just taking the cruise, but going to Otsu a bit early and spending time there and on Lake Biwa for a nicely rounded day trip.
Today is doyo ushi no hi – the midsummer day of the ox – traditionally considered the hottest day of summer. This year however, it’s comparatively cool; on most days the thermometer stays under 35 degrees, where we normally have 37 and more around this time. One of the tradtional things to do today is to eat eel (unagi), and in Kyoto, people flock to Shimogamo Shrine for the yearly Mitarashi-sai, which I will do tomorrow with friends. But I decided to do something special today.
So, I took the day off to make a trip to Omuro, the neighborhood of Ninna-ji and Myoshin-ji. I didn’t go there though since I had visited both often before. My goal was the Kyutei Omuro. This is one of Kyoto’s old suburban villas, a National Tangible Cultural Property, and it’s open to the public on special occasions only.
The house was built in 1937 at the foot of Narabigaoka hill, which, interesting enough, does not have a shrine on top like many other hills in Kyoto. The house has a traditional stone garden near the entrance and a lush garden at the back that allows you to climb up the hill a little. There stands a tea house that overlooks the garden and house below. I spent almost an hour looking at the house and wandering through the garden! I’m planning a full report with more photos this weekend.
Afterwards, I went to a small cakeshop/cafe nearby that I had wanted to try for a long time already. I had their signature cake for lunch (“Pampelmousse”, very nice) together with iced caramel milk (so-so). The place was tiny and quiet except for the Randen Railway that passed by directly next to the shop and made the whole house shake every time it did so. Before I went home, I bought some shou-creme for breakfast tomorrow.
It was quite a trip to visit the Kyutei Omuro, it took me almost an hour by bike, but it was so worth it! I even met the owner, a lady around my age. It seems the house has been lived in for longer than I had expected. But: more on Sunday!
This week is the second yoiyama of Gion Matsuri, the three days leading up to the Ato Matsuri Parade on July 24th (which has also been cancelled this year). Only 6 of the 10 yamaboko that take part in the Ato Parade were constructed. I visited “my” Ofune Hoko, where I usually help selling souvenirs, but this year I was just a guest because I can’t stand on my feet for 5 hours with my hip problem…
It was nice seeing my friends again and they even got me free entrance to the top of the Ofune Hoko. This is the first time I noticed all the names and numbers on each and every piece the Ofune Hoko is constructed of.
There are more than 600 pieces for the main boat and the large dragon that sits at the front of the float is made from 12.
Just like last week, the Daimaru Department store, which is nearby where the yamaboko are built, showed miniature versions of them. They are maybe a meter high (excluding the poles) and are made in loving detail. These look like antiques, so they are probably priceless. I couldn’t find out whom they belong to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are owned by one or more of the old merchant families of Kyoto that have been involved in Gion Matsuri for centuries (literally).
As usual around the time of the Ato Matsuri, it is very hot. Today it was around 35 degrees and the inner city streets were stifling. I went out pretty early and still got myself a nice sunburn… And yet, it is comparatively cool, several degrees below what is usual. There was even a slight breeze today and I haven’t used my fan a single time yet. Maybe tonight’s the night?