Shimabara’s Last Tayu

Together with maiko and geisha, the tayu are traditional female entertainers of Japan. And yet, they are much less known to the (foreign) public, partly because today, there are even fewer of them than there are geisha, and partly because of their origin: In the Edo period, tayu were courtesans.

At that time, prostitution in Japan was legal and strictly regulated. The three largest cities – Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka – had city districts dedicated to the love for sale. In Kyoto, this was the Shimabara district, which lies near Kyoto station and still maintains some of its charms (if not the prostitutes). In Edo, it was the famous Yoshiwara district, and old photographs show women sitting in rows behind wooden lattices, ready for work.

You would search in vain for a tayu among them, though. Just like their geisha sisters in the hanamachi, tayu were highly trained and honed their skills in dance, playing instruments, and seductive banter for years. As a tayu, the top-ranking courtesan of the town, she commanded the highest prices for a meeting, and her lovers counted among the country’s elite, financial or in society.

And so were the tayu. In old Japan, the views on prostitution differed greatly from that in the West. It was simply another job. In fact, the young women in the photo above may have come to the Yoshiwara only temporarily to help with family finances. When they returned home, their reputations – and even marriage prospects – were untarnished.

In Kyoto, the famous Yoshino Tayu is revered to this day. She is said to have been the most beautiful tayu in history, and she is featured in kabuki plays and Japanese novels. Her wealth was such, that she could afford to donate a new front gate to Joshoji temple in Kyoto. She was laid to rest there, and has a festival in spring dedicated in her honour.

Kyoto’s Shimabara district and its entertainments are long gone, and although there is still a tayu in Kyoto, she doesn’t usually perform in public. However, I was lucky to see her dance at an exhibition with photos of her, and it was truly special.

As you can see, the style of her dress is so much more flamboyant than that of any geisha – notice the colour red everywhere! The obi is tied in front where it is easy to undo – a nod to her work of old. I was quite surprised by the dragon painted on her outer kimono (which is a family heirloom, possibly more than 100 years old, btw.) as dragons are usually associated with men. Her hairstyle with the dozens of kanzashi pins must be very time-consuming to maintain, and yes, this is her real hair. She also has blackened teeth, something that was normal for married women in the Edo period.

The dance, at first, seemed not much different than the ones that geisha perform. A fan, a letter used as props to tell a story, delicate hand gestures, little kicks to get the long kimono out of the way. And yet, her dance seemed so much more erotically charged, and I’m not sure why. Was it the smiles, the raised eyebrows? The shy looks flashed to the audience from behind the fan? Or her naked toes peeking out from beneath her red underkimono?

I guess, where a geisha means to symbolize an almost maiden-like modesty, a tayu is seen as a grown woman who knows what she wants – and how to get it.

Takigi Noh

As mentioned, I went to see this year’s Takigi Noh, a two-hour-long Noh/Kyogen performance on an outdoor stage set up at Heian shrine. The surroundings with vermilion buildings reminiscent of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace lend a special ambience when stacks of fire and paper lanterns are lit just before dusk to light the stage. After all, Takigi Noh means “outdoor fire-lit Noh”.

The Takigi Noh at Heian Shrine was first staged at the end of May 1950. From 1955 on, the dates were fixed to June 1 and 2. On these two days, 8 plays are shown, two of them are kyogen. Japan’s top actors are invited each year to make this event truly special. However, this is not the only firelight Noh performance, merely the biggest. In Kyoto, Shiramine shrine has a pretty famous one too, and many other shrines show Noh plays at special festivals.

In fact, Takigi Noh has its roots more than 1000 years ago, at Kofukuji temple in Nara, where religious ceremonies called Shunigatsu-e were held in the 2nd month of the year. At that time, Takigi-sarugaku performances took place, early precursors of what later developed into the Takigi Noh theatre of today. Takigi Noh reached the peak of its popularity in the Edo period, fell out of favour after the Meiji Restoration, and was revived again after WWII.

Heian Jingu’s Takigi Noh features 8 plays, and often, there is a common theme that runs through one day. For example, the plays I have seen all had the overarching theme of “heavenly intervention”. It’s not just the atmosphere that makes this Takigi Noh special. The plays are condensed to their most visually exciting parts. Written synopses of all plays are available – even in English – and if you miss getting a leaflet at the entrance, the plays are introduced by two kyogen players who manage to weave in a commentary of current events. Finally, the speech that is given after the fire lighting ceremony is translated into English, something I was especially grateful for.

Unfortunately, taking pictures during the performance was not allowed, that’s why you’re just getting this year’s poster as illustration… Anyway, overall, I had a great evening, and I’m really considering making this a regular occurrence.

Ikenobo & Ikebana

A few weeks ago, I visited the Ikebana Spring Exhibition at the Ikenobo Headquarters in Kyoto. On no fewer than 8 floors, there were hundreds of flower arrangements, so many that at the end, they all blurred together. I wish I had done a bit of research earlier, but better late than never. The photos below show flower arrangements from that exhibition, I’m afraid I chose not overly traditional ones (because they are more fun).

The Ikenobo is the oldest school of flower arrangement in Japan. It dates back to 8th century Kyoto, and its headquarters are still at the same spot, at Rokkaku-do temple in the heart of Kyoto. Rokkaku-do itself was founded by Shotoku Taishi in 587, long before the capital was moved here. The temple’s priests lived in a hut (bo) at a nearby pond (ike), and over time, the people began to call them ike-no-bo. The priests made flower offerings at the temple every day.

So, Ikebana has its roots in such flower offerings at Buddhist altars, and as such, it is an import from India and China. However, at first, these offerings took the simple form of putting flowers into a vase in front of the Buddha, whereas Japanese ikebana over time developed into a style with dozens of formal rules.

These rules crystallized during the Muromachi period into tatehana, a simple style that presented flowers as they occurred in nature, meaning “standing up”. At this time, flower arrangements were quite large and therefore only shown in temples and the homes of wealthy aristocrats.

The term ikebana – it means arranging flowers or living flowers – can be traced back to the 15th century, however the oldest book on the subject, the Sendensho is dated 1445 and already gives very detailed instructions for arrangements for special occasions.

In the first half of the 16th century, Senno Ikenobo wrote another book on the art, called Kadensho. There, he mentions the importance of finding the inner beauty of plants through the arrangement, instead of merely appreciating beautiful flowers. At this time, the style of rikka became popular, and Senno Ikenobo was not only its main artist, he also formalized the style as a combination of fixed elements that needed to be present in every arrangement. In this manner, virtually everybody could produce pleasing arrangements, but on the other hand, artistic expression was rather limited.

In the 18th century, a simpler style was created that used a reduced number of the parts in a rikka arrangement. This style is called seika or shoka (pure flowers), and its significantly smaller end results found their way into private homes of fairly wealthy but common people as well.

In the Meiji era, Japanese traditions lost their appeal under the influences of new art and lifestyle introduced from the West. However, through new styles like the nagairebana (thrown-in flowers) and moribana (piled-up flowers), as well as permitting Western flowers in the arrangements, ikebana saw a renaissance. This was reinforced when ikebana, together with tea ceremony and calligraphy, was seen as essential in the education of women, especially of the upper classes.

So far, the last innovation in ikebana was the introduction of the jiyuka style (free flowers) after WWII. As the name suggests, there are no more rules and the focus lies on creativity, so much so, that even non-flower materials are permitted.

Over time, dozens of new ikebana schools have been formed, all with slightly different rules for their arrangements and a varying emphasis on formality and creativity, respectively. Today, ikebana is taught worldwide, but nowhere else has it such a recognition as in Japan. In Kyoto, the birthplace of ikebana, the Ikenobo school operates an entire college dedicated to it.

Uemura Shoen

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.

Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum

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.

On the way home, drop by at the shop on Shijo dori and get some sweets – definitely worth it as well! https://www.kagizen.co.jp/en/store/


My Favourite Painting

I want to express my symphony in the painting by interpreting a musical score in my own way.

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?

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!