Photogenic Cat Exhibition

We had a holiday today, the autumnal equinox. I’m still very busy with work; there are four projects I’m involved in right now with European clients; with steep workloads and tight deadlines. However, somehow this week all four got delayed for some reason or other, and when I hadn’t received a single job this morning, I jumped at the occasion and took the day off.

I now have to admit that I was very naughty. Instead of staying at home reading, as I would have done otherwise, I joined friends of mine on a day trip to Otsu on Lake Biwa. Why naughty? Because we’re still under a state of emergency until the end of the month; we shouldn’t travel at all, and definitely not across prefectural borders…

However, all four of us have been fully vaccinated; the venue is less than 30 minutes drive away from my place (and 11 minutes by train from Kyoto station); and I guess that half of Otsu’s population work in Kyoto or Osaka anyway. “Dear God, please make sure I always have an excuse handy.”

This is why we didn’t think twice when Kosuke Ota announced his exhibition “The Story of Biwako Cats”. Ota-san is a retired war photographer who worked in the Yugoslavian war, in Iraq etc. In his retirement, he moved to Otsu and documents the feral cat population that roams the area around the Biwako Otsukan, where the exhibition was held.

Taken from Ota-san’s blog: http://uchino-toramaru.blog.jp/

We met the photographer there, who kindly signed two of his books for my friend. And afterwards we had delicious Belgian waffles in the restaurant on the first floor. Towards late afternoon, we met some of the cats starring in the exhibition and took some pictures of our own (not quite so masterfully though).

I had a great day, and it was worth going out. This is the first time I left Kyoto since last October, when I went on the Lake Biwa Canal Cruise – for which, I now see, have never posted any pictures… Well, it’s been almost a year, so it’s time for that soon.

Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen

I had a great day yesterday, spending some time in Arashiyama. It was not as busy as it used to be, no wonder, all the foreigners are yet to return… The reason I went yesterday were the performances of Saga Dainenbutsu Kyogen at Seiryo-ji Temple. I wrote about them in detail before, but this time, probably thanks to COVID-19, somebody had recorded the plays and put them online. These are the two kyogen that were shown yesterday:

The first play was called Shaka Nyorai and it’s a funny or “soft” Yawarakamon play. The title refers to a Buddha statue that is set up in a temple by a priest. When a beautiful woman comes to worship, the statue turns his back. The priest and a samurai (or worker?) at the temple ask her to worship again so that the Buddha will turn his back and face the proper side once more. Instead, the Buddha lays his arm around the woman and leaves with her. The priest takes the Buddha’s place and the same thing happens with the woman’s beautiful daughter. Finally, the worker at the temple tries the same – will he succeed in finding a wife too?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTUjgGQpeLs

The second play was the famous Funa Benkei (Benkei on a Boat) and it’s a serious or “hard” Katamon with an origin in Noh, or rather, in the Heike Monogatari. The story tells how famous warrior Yoshitsune is urged by his friend Benkei to leave the city to save his life. He first takes leave of his lover, Shizuka Gozen before he reluctantly boards a boat together with Benkei. When they have sailed for a short while, the ghost of Taira no Tomomori appears and tries to kill Yoshitsune in revenge for his own death. The two fight but almost draw until Benkei recites prayers that send Tomomori back to the underworld.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iw-V_5zx5D0

All Dainenbutsu Kyogen are pantomimes that need no words, but it does help if you know the story. They are rather slow moving with stereotypical costumes and accessories and the players – all male – wear beautiful masks. In the background, music is played, a simple beat that speeds up at the most exciting parts like fight scenes. Enjoy! (I have no idea why the embed is not working, but the links should).

Bamboo Weaving

A few weeks ago was Design Week Kyoto, a period of 10 days each February, where art studios and small factories producing Kyoto crafts are open to the public. It’s an eclectic mix of things like textiles, paper, ceramics and bamboo crafts, but also swordsmiths, a producer of artificial limbs, and a firm dealing with traditional architecture for shrines and temples are on the list of places you can visit. And some even offer short classes to learn the very basics of a craft.

Personally, I have been interested in bamboo weaving, that is, making baskets, for a while. So, together with a friend, I took the opportunity to produce one at the bamboo store Takenoko that took part in Design Week. Here’s what I started out with and what I was supposed to have produced after 90 minutes of work or so (and I did pretty well, actually):

This is the simplest basket of them all because the top is woven too instead of cut and as you can see, the bottom, which is the most difficult part, was already prepared for us. The bamboo pieces had all been prepared and they had to be rather wet to make them easy to use. I was surprised at the change of color of the material. Wet, the bamboo was almost orange, but now that it is thorougly dry, it is a light beige only.

Overall, the weaving itself was very simple to do, but at the same time, it is hard to be precise. Of course, like with everything else, it is a question of time and routine to make good pieces, but it must take years of effort to produce some of the exquisite crafts I saw in the shop of the Takenoko.

Anyway, I would love to pursue this is a hobby, but sadly, the shop doesn’t offer classes beyond this one. Which means that I’ll have to look for a good teacher elsewhere in Kyoto because I don’t think this one is easy to learn on your own. Oh my, so many interesting things to learn!

Yes…Noh

Just as promised in my last post, I went to the Yes…Noh event at Murin-an garden last week with a friend of mine. My friend was semi-happy about it, since she is not really into Noh, but she likes the garden, so this was a good compromise. And I had fun, even though the Noh was not quite as I expected.

yes...nohI thought that maybe we’ll see a few scenes with a fully dressed actor, but no, it was a su-utai performance. Here, the actor sings his role (or part of it) but there is no accompanying music, no costumes, no mask. The only accessory he has is his fan. This kind of performance feels very raw, and because of the venue it was very intimate too. The actor sat in one of the rooms of Murin-an and sang  while looking out into the garden. And for two more acts, he stood in the garden and performed there.

We got a short introduction to the play the songs were taken from, it was Yuya, suitable for the sakura season. The play was well-chosen, not just to fit the season, but it also is set nearby, at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple. Like many of the Noh plays based on the Heike Monogatari, it is said to have a true core. Anyway, here is a summary of Yuya:

Yuya is a concubine to Taira no Munemori, one of the most powerful men in the country. She receives word that her mother is sick and begs to return home. But Munemori refuses twice, he wants her to be present at a cherry blossom viewing. There, a little rain makes the cherry blossoms fall, Yuya composes a poem on the fly and Munemori finally relents and lets her go.

A lovely sentimental play for a lovely time of the year (even though Murin-an is not famous for its cherry blossoms…) And there’s more to come: Apparently, this is now a monthly feature event at Murin-an. I’m looking forward to more!

Performance

Last Sunday afternoon, so as not to get too anxious while waiting for the election results to come in, I did something unusual for me: I was watching paint dry. This is not a joke, I mean it literally!

There was a performance by a young woman called Shintaku Kanako. Essentially, she covers her body with paint of different colors, waits motionless until it dries through body heat, which takes about 20 minutes, and then applies another layer of paint etc. That’s all she does throughout the performances, she just sits on a chair and uses her hands to put paint over her body. Sometimes she’s stretching too (I guess the chair is uncomfortable) but she does not speak or anything. And her performances are long, this one was 3.5 hours in total.

So… yes, that’s what I did last Sunday: watching paint dry for about 1.5 hours. The performance is rather boring to be perfectly honest, the other visitors were most interesting. Another artist from Hikone struck up a conversation, and there was the old guy who took about a gazillion of photographs of her – I found him rather creepy. That’s what is really exciting about the performance: the resulting photographs of her painted body are absolutely stunning. Something is in there that is hard to define, but I find it very compelling. My favourite one is at the main page of Shintaku Kanako’s website. Feel free to check out her other photos there or on instagram.

Nishijin Asagi Museum

As I mentioned in my last post, I fell down a craft hole last week, and one of the places I visited was the Nishijin Asagi Museum, one of the very small private museums that are often only accessible via prior reservation.

As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Nishijin weaving, an old Japanese handicraft where colored threads of silk are used to produce patterns in the final fabric. This technique is not unique to Japan, mind you, but Nishijin ori takes the whole thing up a notch – and has done so for centuries. Besides carefully dyed silk, the use of real gold, silver, or platinum is one of the hallmarks of Nishijin ori. This makes the coloring of the fabric last for a long time, but also prevents an obi or kimono from being washed.

Rimpa paintings - nishijin oriNishijin ori is known for its delicate images that are woven into the fabric, and the Asagi Museum has a large collection of fantastic pieces that look like painted. In fact, many of the pieces on display are recreations of famous paintings from the Japanese Rimpa school to Buddhist images to Western Impressionism.

It’s a bit hard to talk about the topic, so I will just share some of my images. If you want to know more about the museum, or see many more pictures, here’s their homepage (unfortunately only in Japanese…): http://asagi-museum.jp/

Rimpa school - irises - in nishijin ori

The above is a reproduction of a famous painting by Ogata Korin. These two folding screens “Irises” from the 17th century are a National Treasure and rarely exhibited; in the original they each measure 1.5 by 3.3 meters, and to be  honest, don’t look quite as neat as these here.

Van Gogh Starry Night in nishijin ori

Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a famous painting, and this is a reproduction in silk fabric. It was displayed in a darkened room with only fluorescent light, hence the interesting coloring of this image.

Clothing with Nishijin Fabric

This is taking Nishijin fabric into the modern age. Pieces of different fabrics were used to make these clothes. I did not dare touch them, but I am wondering how they would feel to wear; my impression of Nishijin fabric is that it is rather stiff. It’s probably okay for the jacket in the middle (I could see myself wearing this), but the dress, I’m not so sure.

Shibori

Shibori is the Japanese method of tie-dyeing, a type of resist dyeing where parts of the fabric are prepared (in this case: tightly tied with thread) before dyeing so that the tied parts of the fabric remain the original color.

Shibori, or rather: tie-dyeing or resist dyeing methods have sprung up all over the world and can be traced back to as early as the 2nd century. Simple methods of resist dyeing meant simply crumpling up the cloth before dyeing, but methods have evolved to include the use of wax or stencils etc. Tie-dyeing came to Japan from China in the 7th century and has been refined to create the art of shibori.

A multi-colored piece of Shibori

Shibori with its tiny and delicate patterns reached its peak in the Edo period, where shibori fabric was produced in many places of Japan. Especially farmers would work in the shibori industry – meaning: binding the cloth – during the off-season when there was not much work to do on the farm. Unfortunately, nowadays, shibori is only produced in Nagoya and Kyoto, and because it is still largely a very time-consuming handicraft, the number of craftsmen and -women who can do it is declining.

Shibori comes in many different forms, depending on the way the fabric is tied. The most delicate type of binding the fabric is called hon-hitta shibori, the finished tied beads are only 2mm in size; this is entirely handmade and an experienced craftsperson can make around 300 of these beads per day.

This was the standard type of shibori before the machine-type hari-bitta shibori was introduced, “machine” being simply a metal holder with a needle to help pinching the fabric before tying it. While the process is still a handicraft, this tool has sped up production to about 3000 beads per day.

Tool for needle shiboriOther methods that fall under the shibori umbrella are tie-dyeing with larger objects like plugs made from wood or acrylic; using wooden boards like a stencil; sewing patterns into the fabric with strong thread etc. Probably the most interesting one is where the cloth is placed carefully in and outside of a wooden tub, the parts inside the tub remain white while the ones outside will be dyed in the respective color. This so-called oke-shibori technique can produce very striking, large-scale patterns.

Tub shiboriThe shibori process is very involved and takes a number of steps, each of which is carried out by a specialist. First, a pattern is created and from it, a stencil is made. Using the stencil and a special type of water-soluble dye, the pattern is transferred to the fabric. Then, the fabric is tied according to the pattern. If there are different types of shibori to be included, each one is given to a specialist in the respective type of binding. However, no matter how large the piece is, one type of binding is always given to a single craftsperson because to achieve a uniform appearance in the final piece, the strength of the binding must be the same throughout.

Once all the fabric is tied it is called a shirome and now it is given to the person who is actually dyeing it. Again, this is a handicraft, and the color depends on factors like the type and heat of the dye and the amount of time the fabric stays in it. Only after the piece is completely dry will the fabric be unbound (again by an expert) and afterwards, it will be steamed to make it flat. With this method, a finished piece of shibori will never be completely flat but will retain a bit of a 3D structure, which is the hallmark of good shibori.

Simple Shibori FabricAs mentioned above, nowadays shibori is only produced in Nagoya and in Kyoto (and a few surrounding places). Nagoya shibori is made on various materials including cotton, but the kyo kanoko shibori of Kyoto only uses silk fabric. Because of the fact that they are still handmade, shibori items are rather expensive, but it does depend on the pattern and the dyeing. The more intricate the pattern, the more colors, the more expensive. Still, given that a whole kimono done in hon-hitta shibori can have up to 200,000 of little tied beads and can take years to complete, the prices are understandable.An affordable shibori kimono.For more information on shibori, visit the Kyoto Shibori Museum. Their exhibits are stunning and they also offer short classes to make your own (simple) shibori piece.

Yama-no-hi

Today is a holiday: Yama-no-hi or Mountain Day. The idea is to give the Japanese a (or rather: another) reason to go hiking in the mountains. The largest mountain ranges of non-volcanic origin in Japan lie in central Honshu, the main island, and encompass the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains. These mountain ranges include the highest mountains in Japan (except Mt. Fuji) with a height of more than 3100 m. Some of them even have what are called “active glaciers”, meaning their ice is flowing.

Anyway, the tallest mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji. Since ancient times it has been the most revered mountain in Japan, and since 2013 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, drawing even more people to its top on a sort of modern pilgrimage.

Anyway, I’d like to share a picture of this fantastic gold screen painting of Mt. Fuji that was on display at the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture when I was visiting it for their last exhibition. It was painted by Shibata Gito (1780 – 1819) from Okayama, which means so much as “edge of the mountain”, which is quite fitting the theme, don’t you think?

Golden Screen with Mt. Fuji by Shibata Gito

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.

Making a Katana

This here is a really interesting video about how to make a katana, a traditional Japanese sword. The guys from “Man at Arms” start out with getting and melting the iron ore, and then show all the steps necessary to forge a katana. I’ll leave it to you to discover the intricacies, I surely learned something new!

Don’t be put off by the Kill Bill reference, I guess they just needed an interesting hook for the video. 😉 The video is 18:40 long and safe for work. Enjoy!