Sokushinbutsu

When browsing youtube the other day, I found an extremely interesting video about Japanese monks who turned themselves into Sokushinbutsu, Living Buddhas.

“Living” is not a good word though, since these monks practised extreme asceticism in order to have their body mummify after their death. This was an extremely rare religious practice to enter Nirvana and to thus help the people who stay behind on earth.

It is said that this practice originated in China and the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi), brought it to Japan upon return from his studies. It is believed that hundreds of monks attempted to become Shokushinbutsu, but only 24 mummified Japanese monks are known. Some of them can be visited in Northern Japan, in Yamagata prefecture, where most of these monks lived.

Here is the video (6:52), but be warned: it’s graphic!

Since I do have an interest in anything morbid, I can definitely recommend Caitlin’s channel. She is a funeral director in Los Angeles and has written a number of books related to death.

Exhibitions

As I mentioned some time in the beginning of the year, this year I’d like to learn more about art. Part of it is work-related: The monthly highlights on my What’s up in Kyoto event calendar page this year are the small museums of Kyoto. And part of it is simply personal interest; my highschool was a sort of vocational school for business, so we didn’t do much into art or general knowledge (I’m sketchy on history too, but that’s something to tackle for another year).

Flyer of "Compete in Beauty" ExhibitionSo, I’m visiting Kyoto’s museums and exhibitions left and right… This week, together with a Finnish friend of mine, I went to see an exhibition of Ukiyo-e paintings. Yes, paintings. Neither my friend or I had been aware that ukiyo-e doesn’t just mean woodblock prints, but also genuine, original, one-of-a kind paintings, often produced by the same artists. Most of the paintings we saw depicted beautiful women, which is a subcategory of ukiyo-e called bijinga.

It was a fascinating exhibition with paintings spanning more than 100 years, and there was even a display case with wigs showing different hairstyles of women of different ranks throughout the Edo period. One of the attendants told us that we should look for cherry blossoms in the paintings – those were used to emphasise that the woman in the picture was regarded as especially beautiful. It’s little things like this that you need to know to really understand the meaning of paintings. I love to find out more over time!

Going Out

I just came home with the last bus. A friend of mine wanted to see an exhibition this afternoon, and we went together and after dinner we decided to try out a few bars she had heard of. It was a nice evening with fun and many cocktails… Interesting tidbit: Some bars in multi-storey buildings don’t have a sign on the door…

Green Tea

Even though more and more Japanese people enjoy drinking coffee – specialty cafes are everywhere now – the staple drink is still green tea in all its forms. Come summer, the Japanese will drink it as their main refreshment when out and about, and in many restaurants, you get free green tea as a drink right away upon being seated.

The first tea seeds were imported from China back in the 9th century, and green tea was first used as medicine. Around the 12th century, aristocrats and monks picked up the habit of drinking tea, and finally everybody did it. Note that here I don’t mean powdered matcha, this is a completely different animal I will talk about some other day.

There are a few different types of tea plants, but mostly, the Japanese green tea you can buy is blended from the Yabukita cultivar leaves grown in different regions in Japan. What is most important with respect to taste is whether plant grows in the shade or in the sun. Tea that is grown under protective black netting is said to taste sweeter and also has a stronger green color. This type of tea can be very expensive and is often used to make matcha in Japan.

Picking fresh green tea leaves

Now, how to make green tea? First, there is the tea picking. Fresh leaves begin to come out in April/May (called: first flush, usually the most expensive tea is first flush) and what is picked is not more than the top two or three leaves of each branch. These leaves should be light-green and relatively small compared to the larger and darker leaves towards the bottom of the tea-plant.

The freshly picked leaves have barely any smell at all and as the very first (traditional) step, they are roasted at 180° C in a pan for example. This prevents the leaves from oxidation and is an important step of making green tea instead of black tea.

Making green tea - roasting the leaves

Cooling the tea leaves and reducing the heat of the pan to about 80° C, the next step is called “tea rolling”. Traditionally, people would pick up the tea leaves from the pan and roll them with their hands, all the while keeping the leaves nice and hot. This rolling is meant to break up the leaves and reduce their moisture, and even for very small quantities, it can take 20 minutes and more.Manual tea rolling

After the tea rolling, the temperature is reduced to about 70° C and the tea is slowly and fully dried. The leaves have now a uniform size and they give off the typical smell of green tea. They may be rolled and dried again, but in principle, no further steps are necessary, and the tea can be drunk right away or blended into special brands.

Matcha – powdered green tea – is made from dried tea leaves as above by simply grinding them to a powder. Other than standard sencha, matcha is rather delicate and cannot be kept for too long. This is why matcha is sold in rather small quantities.Freshly dried green tea

Even today, the three steps above are still done by hand for the most expensive brands. On an industrial scale, the heating of the tea leaves is mainly done by steaming in Japan. Still, overall, the procedure of making green tea is quite simple, and there are many opportunities in Japan to pick and produce your own tea.

Each year, Japan produces about 85 000 tons of green tea (exclusively). As mentioned above, there are a number of regions where green tea is produced, but most tea comes from Shizuoka prefecture. In Kyoto, tea from Uji has a special ring to it; Uji is very close to Kyoto and there, the first tea plants were grown from the seeds brought from China. Tea from Uji is mostly made into matcha that is used at Kyoto’s many tea ceremonies.

Both matcha and standard green tea come in many price ranges, but I have yet to find out where the difference lies. In the meanwhile, I can definitely recommend green tea as the perfect souvenir from Japan, no matter the price.

My Sweet Request

As I mentioned about a month ago, during my fasting I kept buying chocolate because Meiji had those special wrapping entitled “my sweet request” for my favourite chocolate bars.

As you can see on the outside, there is a picture of something people may want, and on the inside of the wrapper, there is written a “sweet request”. There were in total 36 different wrappers for the hi-milk, standard, and bitter chocolate bars, but since I don’t eat the latter, I did not buy any of them except for a single one that said “I would like to live with a cute cat.” Yeah, definitely true that one!

meiji hi milk chocolate

It took me a while to gather all 12 different requests on the red Hi-Milk Meiji chocolates, and it took me yet more time to eat all that chocolate to find out what the sweet requests actually were (no cheating allowed!) Here they are – can you guess to which wrapping they belong?

  • I want to take photos inside the Hiroichi flower garden that continues to the Ikedaira line.
  • I want weird T-shirts.
  • My dream is to live in a house with a pool.
  • If you only had one day off, where would you like to go?
  • Would you like to have a relaxing chat at afternoon tea?
  • I want to become a person who looks good with a trendy tote bag.
  • I would like to live with a stuffed toy that is more merry than myself.
  • I have a stiff shoulder – I’m glad if somebody has a look at it.
  • Everything is fine, so I’m waiting for the best thing in the world.
  • I want you to invite me on a date where we go to a concert where we have to dress up.
  • I want to squeeze a cute dog.
  • I will cry for joy when I can go and see the big baobab trees.

Preoccupied

Flags of Austria and JapanI had a great Saturday – I went to a small city near Nara to pick tea – right until the moment when I came home late at night and decided to check emails and news online. And what news there were!

Austria’s vice-chancellor had just resigned over what is now known as #ibizagate – just look it up. Finally there was something grave enough even he couldn’t just shrug it off (although he and his party definitely tried and keep trying!)

So, in light of the developments, I spent the night watching Austrian news and reading live tickers about the affair while drinking a bottle of my favourite Austrian wine. (Now that I think of it, I always drink that wine when there’s something political going on in Austria… hmmm…) Rinse and repeat on Sunday and Monday, and i would have done the same today had it not been for several appointments.

As you might guess, I’m a bit preoccupied with Austrian politics at the moment. It has already been decided that we’ll have new elections in September. It can only go uphill from there!

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!

Going Pro

8 strokes of eternity

taken from www.japanvisitor.com

As I probably mentioned somewhere, for the last two years or so, I have been going to Japanese class once a week with a very nice and dedicated teacher. We have gone through several book by now, focusing on the detailed aspects of Japanese grammar, mostly. By now I can more or less survive the daily intricacies of life, ask for help if needed, and in extreme cases where I have time enough to prepare for I am still handing out written requests.

Still I feel that I’m not getting anywhere with my language skills. Part of it is certainly that I am not very good at studying. I do my homework mostly, but then there’s always something to do for work and by the time it’s evening I am too tired or whatnot. I am very good at making excuses!

However, it cannot go on like this. This is my 6th year in the country and I really need to get up to speed with the language. I want to live here, after all, and even more so: I want to work here. My friends are very helpful, but I cannot keep relying on them forever.

So, I have decided to make my Japanese studies a part of my daily work routine. I am now setting aside one hour each workday to study Japanese. At the moment, work has slowed down a little, so this is easy; clearly I cannot keep it up if I ever get another month of 13-hour workdays, but that’s not for now to worry about. I am not sure if I should set myself a goal, like taking the JLPT Japanese test in December. For now, I just need to get back onto that horse again and get my studies going properly again. We can discuss testing later.

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. 😉

The Beginning of Reiwa

Yoshihide Suga , Chief Cabinet Secretary announces the name of Japan’s forthcoming new eraYesterday a new era has begun with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the chrysanthemum throne of Japan. The era name  is Reiwa, and there is much hope that it will be just as peaceful as the preceding one.

Usually, the ascension of a new emperor is a somewhat solemn affair because it also means the death of the previous emperor, so you don’t really know whether to celebrate the occasion or not. This time, people were free to celebrate: They stayed up all night, celebrating at midnight at May 1st; they visited popular spots to watch the sun rise in the new era, which is a popular thing to do on New Year, by the way; or they visited the imperial palace in Tokyo to try catch a glimpse of the new emperor and his wife.

I’m wondering if and how things will change with the new emperor. I am especially curious which role the new empress will take. She didn’t have an easy time adjusting to the ceremonial overload in the palace, but now her status has changed and she may just be able to go out and expand her role beyond the traditional ones. Time will tell if she becomes just as beloved as the Michiko, Empress Emerita.