Mountains

A friend of mine is an artist who makes woodblock prints in the shin hanga tradition, and his flower prints have a very distinctive style. He is also teaching people the art of shin hanga woodblock printing, and some time back in June, I went to his yearly exhibition of prints made by his students.

Art is something very personal, and my approach to it is straightforward: Either I like something, or I don’t. I don’t care for big names or current movements, if something doesn’t strike a chord within me, that’s it. I guess I would neither make a good art critic, nor a good art collector… Anyway, I went to my friend’s students’ exhibition without big expectations and I was not disappointed. Some pictures I just passed by, others I recognised because they were of places in Kyoto I had been to myself, and a handful or so were really fantastic.

My favourite print was a scene from the Japanese Alps, somewhere in the central provinces: A high mountain range during sunset. It instantly reminded me of home; the bare rocks of the mountains, the gleaming colors of the sun lit slope… I returned to this picture two or three times, and I talked about it to the people at the entrance (also students of my friend), and then I left. And nothing more happened.

Until a few weeks ago when my friend announced that the student who had made the mountain scene had decided to give it to me. Just like that…

Evening sun at Kitadake.It’s called “Evening Sun at Kitadake”, which is the second highest mountain in Japan with 3193 m elevation.  It’s a very simple image but very powerful, to me at least, who loves mountains. And that’s exactly the way the Austrian mountains look like – it makes me almost a bit homesick! I now only have to frame the picture and then I will hang it on a wall in my new home to remind me of my old home one and a half continents away…

Worried

Today, I came home after a hard day that started off with killing cockroaches in front of my door (again) and that ended with being squeezed into a packed tourist bus after having to go to the station for (scanner) shopping. And just when I was getting ready to unpack my new scanner and try it out, I glimpsed at the news… Here’s a link to the (English) Japan Times, just in case you don’t know what I’m referring to: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/08/29/national/north-korea-fires-missile-japan-reportedly-breaks-falls-pacific/

Apparently, around 6:06 this morning, dear leader Kim Jong-un has fired an intercontinental missile somewhere into the Pacific, straight across Japan. And since then, North Korea’s action has been condemned virtually everywhere from Japan to the US (who say they stand 100% behind Japan), to China, and the EU, and even Russia is on our side for once.

And I’m standing here without knowing what to think, really. In my view it’s unlikely that North Korea will attack Japan directly, since Japan with their doctrine of “self-defense” will not shoot first. However, if they attack either South Korea or – gods forbid – the US itself, then Japan will probably get drawn into the conflict one way or the other, not something I’d like to see up close.

The main problem is that both Kim and Trump are essentially overgrown children who like to throw all their toys out of the pram, and who are more or less immune to any reasoning or advice. And it does scare me as to what could happen if they are both unleashed at the same time… Nothing the world needs right now (or ever), really.

Below is a graffiti in Vienna by the artist Lush Sux. I’m not sure it has a name, but let’s call it “Kim Jong Trump”. Kim Jong Trump

 

Sento Kuyo

In August, when the Japanese celebrate Obon – the festival of the dead – there are many related events, and not all of them take place during the few days leading up to August 16th, when the dead are sent back to the underworld again. The Sento Kuyo or Manto Kuyo festivals take place at temples throughout Japan, and they are meant as memorial services for ancestors long gone.

Tonight, there was the Sento Kuyo (literally: 1000 lights memorial service) festival at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple. This temple from the Heian period, located in the Arashiyama mountains west of Kyoto, is famous for its approximately 8000 stone monuments. Many of them are quite small and have been found during excavations in the area – which has long been a graveyard – in the early 20th century and relocated to the temple grounds. Some of them are in the shape of small Japanese tomb stones, others may have once been Jizo statues; it’s hard to say because they are heavily worn with age.

8000 Monuments at Adashino Nenbutsu-jiWhatever their former purpose, they now stand densely packed in a walled part of the temple grounds, with a large stone pagoda and Buddha at the center. And this garden of stones lies at the centre of the Sento Kuyo ceremony. In the beginning, the monks chant sutras in a small building adjacent to the cemetery. Then, the first candles are lit before the central Buddha in the cemetery and the monks pray there, before making a round through the cemetery.

Temple staff will now light the first candles and distribute them throughout the graveyard, there are little iron spikes everywhere, on which the candles are placed. When the first candles have been lit, visitors to the temple are now invited to also light a candle at one of the stones. I have seen many people doing this and saying a little prayer there, even though it is not known whom the stone belonged to – or if it was ever meant as a tomb to begin with. Lit candles during sento kuyo festivalThe ceremony starts at 18:00 and there is chanting all the way through until the temple closes again at 20:30. It is very nice to watch as dusk is falling and the candles are (almost) the only thing lighting up the graveyard in the end. I think it was a beautiful and spiritual sight, but the Japanese friends I talked to say to them it’s just creepy. Maybe that was part of the reason why the ceremony attracted relatively few people. At least it did not feel crowded at all, even though the part where the ceremony took place is relatively small.

After I had decided to have taken enough photos, I left, and downstairs, on the street passing the temple, there was another, more profane light up: Large hand painted lanterns lined the street on both sides, and here and there, huge oval lanterns were hung up and served as a focal point. Many of the lanterns were painted by kids, but there were a few really artistic ones as well. The backdrop there were old houses; apparently this is part of a special preservation area at Arashiyama.

Lightup in ArashiyamaIn any case, I had a nice evening watching the ceremony. It was touching to see people coming and praying over their candle that they had just placed somewhere… I really should go there again at some point and have a closer look at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and its surroundings – during daylight hours.

Half Dan!

I haven’t written about it for a while, but I am still pursuing the goal of getting a first dan grade in soroban. So far, I have made two attempts, one back in May, and the other last month, in July. In May I failed pretty clearly (you need at least 100 points in 6 of the 7 categories, and I passed only a single one), and I wasn’t very hopeful for the July test either.

Results of my last soroban testHowever, last Sunday, at our monthly soroban meeting, my Sensei presented me with a certificate for a “jun-shodan”, half a first dan grade. This you get for at least 80 points in 6 categories, and I was very surprised to receive this at all. But then I remembered that for the dan grades, not only the latest test results count, but also the results of the two previous tests. And since I had more than 80 points in 4 categories in May, and more than 80 points in 4 different ones in July, I passed this test in only two trials.

So, one more level to go. It won’t be easy of course, but with those new rules it might not be quite as tough as I had thought. Wish me luck!

Daimonji

Yesterday was the final day of the Obon festival, where the dead, who have returned to earth during the last few days are sent off to the underworld again. In Kyoto, this sending off is celebrated with 5 enormous fires that are lit on mountains surrounding the city, called the Daimonji festival (or, officially, the Gozan-no-okuribi).

This year, I had wanted to go to Arashiyama to see the large torii, which is the only one of the five fires you cannot see from the city. However, I started a project in the afternoon and overlooked the time and because it takes about an hour from here to Arashiyama, I would not have made it on time to see the fire (each one only burns for 20 – 30 minutes or so.)

So, I decided to stay local and go to the myo-ho, which is not one, but two fires about 20 minutes from my apartment. They are on rather low mountains and other than the big dai on Mount Daimonji and the lovely boat-shaped funegata, I cannot see them from my balcony.

However, even here, I was too late because I underestimated the amount of people who would be in the area. The myo-ho fires can best be viewed from a little road that is usually completely devoid of traffic, but last night it was full with people! While I could see the first one of the fires, the ho, I was just a little bit too late to see the myo character. When I finally had made my way through all the people there, the fire had already gone out…

The "ho" character of the Daimonji festivalOh well, at least I could see the big dai and the funegata on my trip. And next year I know to either be very early, or to take a different road a bit further south where there are (hopefully) no people. Or maybe I’ll make it to Arashiyama to see the torii after all.

Summer Purification

Last weekend, there was a very interesting summer purification rite at Shimogamo Shrine. This time, we random spectators were not allowed to participate, but it did involve the Mitarashi Pond at the Shrine again. When I arrived in the early evening, there was a circle of arrows stuck into the pond, and some fire places were set up and a table for a prayer ceremony.

A circle of arrows in the Mitarashi Pond of Shimogamo ShrineEventually, two priests came to pray in front of the little shrine you see in the back of the above photo, and when it became dark, the fires around the pond were lit. There was quite a bit of waiting, but when it was really dark, two groups of men arrived together with a number of priests. The men took their seats on the steps leading down to the pond on both sides, and there was more praying and a blessing of both groups.

When this was done, a sign was given, and all of a sudden, both groups jumped up and into the water and tried to get as many of the arrows as possible. While they were splashing about, the priests were throwing yellow pieces of paper into the water and onto the participants.Everything was over in two or three minutes when there were no more arrows to be grabbed. The participants, now all wet, sat down again for another blessing, and then left quickly, and the whole ceremony was over.

Nagoshi no Harae ceremony at Shimogamo ShrineThis ceremony is meant to pray for health for the rest of the year, and getting one of those arrows is meant to be extra lucky. I could not find out what was happening after the official ceremony, and what purpose the arrows have, but I guess they will be put in the houses of the participants who won them. However, the yellow paper was in the shape of humans, and on each piece was written a name and the wish of that person for the rest of the year. Those paper dolls were fished out of the water rather unceremoniously in the end, I guess they were thrown away or maybe burnt afterwards.

The most interesting part of the ceremony was that there was one woman amongst all the guys competing for the arrows. Never before have I seen women participate in this sort of religious events (other than as helpers somehow), so I don’t know if this was an exception or common at Shimogamo. Maybe Japan is changing after all?

Pottery Festival

Every year from August 7 – 10, there is a pottery festival in Kyoto. Along both sides of the eastern most bit of Gojo dori, between the Kamogawa and Higashiyama, hundreds of stalls are set up by people from all over Japan selling pottery. And that’s on top of all the pottery shops that already line that part of Gojo dori.

I am not a huge fan of pottery, but I was in the area yesterday anyway so I dropped by. I was hoping to maybe find a few of those tiny dishes that Japanese use for soy sauce or similar, but I didn’t find anything I liked, so I returned home empty-handed.

There were a few truly stunning pieces though, for example rather large black vases that looked like hewn from lava stone, with a crane motif painted in gold and silver, for some 350000 yen each. I could imagine that you buy this kind of vase for a tea room or something similar formal. Not for me this time. I did contemplate buying one or two little ceramic airplanes, which the seller had displayed on a shelf looking like an aircraft carrier, which was a cute touch.

Anyway, a bit off the main street at an entrance to a shrine there was this: Taoist god fighting a devilIt depicts a Taoist god fighting the devil on the left, and both are made with old ceramic plates and cups of all sizes. This was a project of students of one of Kyoto’s art universities, and they said it took them three months to complete. It was a very interesting art installation, and we talked a little, they also had a questionnaire asking for input for next year’s project. I said maybe something really Kyoto like one of the temples, or at least a temple gate, or something Japanese, like a Shinkansen or similar. Thinking about it now, I should have suggested Kyoto tower or maybe the Sky Tree… Oh well, next year then.

Otsu Hanabi

What a day! After my Japanese class I went to a lovely exhibition of handmade glass items (pity I couldn’t afford anything), then I was off to my weekly business meeting. And from there, I went straight to Otsu, a little town some 30 km east of Kyoto, situated on lake Biwa.

This was the highlight of my day, because today was the Biwako Hanabi – fireworks! Japanese fireworks usually happen in summer, and it’s always a big festival with drinks and food on the streets. Different to the West, a fireworks display is not part of a bigger event, it IS the event, and it can last an hour or even more.

I went there with a friend whose friend lives in Otsu and was up even earlier than me this morning and reserved a spot for a picnic in the very first row directly on the lake. This is necessary since there are very few places available where you won’t have to pay for your seat, and apparently, Otsu draws some 350.000 spectators for the fireworks each year. The train going there (2.5 hours before the event) was already packed, and upon leaving (my friend was driving) there were long, long queues in front of the train stations…

After the heavy rains yesterday, the weather was nice and cool, perfect to bathe your feet in the water, have a sushi bento and a beer, and watch the fireworks above you. We sat exactly opposite one of the two spots in the lake from which the rockets were shot, and this year’s theme was also water, by the way. There were fireworks depicting fish, umbrellas, and water melons, for example. Unfortunately it is notoriously difficult to photograph fireworks without a tripod, but I did get a few good pictures. Here’s one of them before I’m off to bed. Enjoy! Otsu Hanabi 2017

Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen (A manga)
Keiji Nakazawa

Cover of the first volume of "Barefoot Gen"Gen Nakaoka is a boy from Hiroshima. He is six years old and goes to school where he has friends – and foes, of course. Gen is a normal but a bit mischievous boy and sometimes gets himself and his poor parents in trouble. Following Gen and his family through the early summer, this could be a nice kid’s book.

But it isn’t. It is the summer of 1945, and the Japanese troops fight all over the Pacific islands. Gen is excited about the war efforts – other than his father – and he cheers when his big brother goes off to join the Navy – other than his father.

And then, on August 6, 1945, the US air force drops an Atomic Bomb onto Hiroshima. Thousands are killed in an instant, and although Gen and his mother survive, they cannot save his father and younger siblings, who are trapped beneath their house and die in the subsequent fire. From there, we follow Gen, his mother and his baby sister, born only hours after the bomb fell, through Hiroshima where they meet other survivors who just try to figure out what’s next…

Barefoot Gen is a series of manga that describe – in a very graphic way – the life of an average Japanese family until the atomic bomb attack and the horrifying aftermath including the American occupation until about 1947. First published as magazine serial from 1973, Barefoot Gen was published in book form from 1975. There are 10 volumes altogether.

Keiji Nakazawa, manga artist and writer, was born in Hiroshima in 1939 and survived the atomic bomb attack together with his mother. He moved to Tokyo in 1961, and started to write about his experiences in Hiroshima after the death of his mother in 1966. Barefoot Gen is considered his masterpiece; it was turned into animated as well as live action movies and was translated into many languages. Nakazawa died in 2012 from metastasized lung cancer.

Check out the book – or better, the whole series – from amazon.