Hideyoshi’s Hanami

It is cherry blossom season – hanami – and there are plenty of occasions to go out and watch Japanese look at the Japanese sakura cherry trees, most likely through a camera lens.

One of the oldest versions of hanami is recreated each year at Daigo-ji temple. In 1598, the de-facto-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had 700 sakura trees planted all over the temple precincts, and then hosted a party underneath the trees with more than 1300 invited guests. The procession starts out from Sanbo-in, an exquisite garden also designed by Hideyoshi. The gate already is interesting: The chrysanthemums on the outside represent the Imperial house, while the Paulownia in the centre are the family crest of the Toyotomi.

main gate of sanbo-in gardenFirst in line are samurai with a fierce look on their faces, and they are followed by court musicians, other nobles, and priests of the temple.

first in line: samuraiOnly then comes Hideyoshi, the only one not on foot, and he graciously waves to his subjects. At the time of the famous hanami, Hideyoshi was 62 years old, so the age and the appearance of the man on the dais is accurate.

Hideyoshi ToyotomiBehind him, at the end of the procession, follow Hideyoshi’s wife and his consorts. This was quite normal at the time, especially since marriages were more of a political than a love affair. He is said to have been extremely fond of his consort Yodo, the mother of his heir Hideyori, who was five years old at the time of the hanami. He did not follow the modern procession though.

Hideyoshi's womenThe procession took the short path of the lower part of Daigo-ji, and then entered the middle part of the temple through the  niomon gate.

entering through the niomon gateBeyond this, there are a number of temple buildings and a beautiful pagoda; but for the hanami, an extra stage is built for music and dance performances. Unfortunately, I did not see them because you need an extra ticket, but the music could be heard throughout the temple complex, so I think there was quite some party going on… court musicians in the procession

Hina Matsuri

March 3rd marks the day of hina matsuri, the doll festival. Since this time is more or less the beginning of spring, it is also called momo-no-sekku or peach festival, or, since this day is meant to celebrate the girls of a family, it is simply called girl’s day or festival. In the weeks leading up to March 3rd, elaborate displays of dolls are prepared, but since many families have inherited those dolls, the girls are not meant to play with them anymore.

traditional hina matsuri displayThe above is a typical traditional hinadan with five layers containing dolls and other accessories. They are made to resemble court nobles and retainers of the Heian era, when Kyoto first became the capital of Japan, some 1000 years ago. On top you see the two main dolls, the dairi-bina. One step below there are three ladies in waiting, usually holding cups and accessories for drinking sake. The center of the display above shows five court musicians with drums and flutes. Below them are the minister of the left – the one with the beard, since this is the higher rank and thus the person must be older – and the minister of the right. (Here, those dolls should be switched since the “left” refers to the viewpoint of the dairi-bina). Finally, at the lowest layer, there are three footmen or samurai, the lowest retainers of the court, and these are called the whiny, the angry and the merry drinker, interestingly.

Between the ladies in waiting, you can see two plates with colorful cakes; these are mochi and meant as an offering to the gods. Of course, the hina matsuri has its roots in religion, in this case in the ancient belief that the illnesses, bad luck, and general impurities of their owners would be transferred to the dolls when touching them. Very simple dolls made from straw were displayed throughout the year on the household altar in the kitchen, and on March 3rd, they would be thrown into a river or directly into the ocean in order to take away all the negativity of the past year. This practice still survives in the rituals of some shrines, where you write your wishes on a piece of paper shaped like a doll, and then throw it into the shrine’s stream.

modern hina matsuri displayNowadays, the dolls are not thrown away any longer but carefully packed away during the year, a bit like Western Christmas decorations. This practice goes back to the first shoguns of the Edo period, when the dolls were given as presents to daughters of the nobility. Once the merchant class became rich as well in the late Edo period and Meiji era, the dolls became more and more elaborate and expensive and hina matsuri spread throughout Japan. Today, new sets of dolls in traditional styles can be very expensive, I have seen some dairi-bina costing a million yen and more.

dairi-binaThe reason for this is that all dolls are very elaborately dressed in fine silk garments, but the biggest amount of work goes into the dairi-bina. They are the centre piece of the display and the most important, or in some cases, the only part.  On the right side sits the male obina, and on the left side there is the female mebina. They are dressed in Heian-style clothes, which means that the mebina wears a junihitoe, twelve layers of kimono, an elaborate Chinese crown, and a tiny folding fan, whereas the obina wears a traditional headdress, a sceptre, and a large ceremonial sword. The couple above sits in front of a screen made with real gold leaf, just like the emperor and empress would, but the Japanese usually do not refer to the dairi-bina as such. They prefer calling them taishi-sama – imperial prince – and hime-sama – lady; when you remember that the emperor was a god until the last century it should be clear why.

a girls dowryThe dolls are accompanied with all sorts of accessories in miniature. While the dolls are usually bought together in a set, or at least per layer, the other accessories can be bought at any time. This explains the difference in size that is often seen in the diplays. The above picture shows parts of a girl’s dowry: A mirror stand, a cabinet with utensils for tea ceremony, a sewing box, and a tansu – a chest of drawers for kimono – at the back. These are the standard items a girl would get from her parents upon her wedding, and with these things she would enter the house of her husband. Below you can see some more household necessities: a palanquin and an oxcart, but especially the latter was for the use of nobility only.

palanquin, ox cart, and go boardsAlso other practical things can be included in the display, for example lots of dishes, trays, sets of bowls etc. You can see the go-boards above, and below is a tiny hibachi, an oldfashioned heater where charcoal would be burned, not more than 5 cm in diameter. What is interesting about these items is that for the most expensive displays they were made from the same materials and were just as meticulously produced and as elaborately decorated as the real sized originals.

miniature hibachi with iron chopsticksAll in all the displays are beautiful, and even as an adult I need quite some time to take it all in. I can only imagine what a small girl would have to say to these dolls. Well, as I said, probably the same as one of our girls in front of a Christmas tree…

Otsu Matsuri

Last Sunday I spent in Otsu, the capital of Shiga province, which lies on the shore of Lake Biwa, maybe 30 minutes east of Kyoto. Otsu, for a short period in the 7th century the capital of Japan, is still home to the largest harbour on Lake Biwa, which itself is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. However, the city is rather stretched out along the shore, and thus has the feeling of a little town despite its 350.000 inhabitants. There are a number of famous sites there, but I did not do any sightseeing this time.

Instead I went to enjoy Otsu matsuri with some friends of mine. Otsu matsuri has its origins at the beginning of the Edo period at the turn of the 17th century; the first time it was officially recorded was 1624. It is similar to Gion matsuri in that there are large floats that are paraded through the city, but there are also differences. All floats of Otsu MatsuriThe hikiyama of Otsu matsuri are about two storeys high, that’s somewhere between the size of the yama and hoko floats of Gion, and they are similarly decorated with beautiful tapestries on the outside. They only have three large wheels, which makes them more easy to manoeuvre by the people who are pulling them – yes, I have seen some women doing that as well!

A hikiyamaOn the second floor of the hikiyama, which can be reached by a staircase at the inside, only men are allowed though. Traditionally, only the first sons of families that lived around the storage house of each hikiyama were allowed to take part in the matsuri, but this has changed recently, and other young men may now participate too. When the floats are moving, they play a tune with flutes and drums that is similar to the one at Gion matsuri – to my ears, at least.Young men playing flutesThe most interesting part of the 13 hikiyama however, are the wooden displays on the second floor. Those are karakuri ningyō, mechanical dolls, and they depict, or rather, act out, a scene from a well-known fairytale or story, mostl of them originating in China.Saikyo Sakura Tanuki Yama One of the exceptions is a float with a doll representing Murasaki Shikibu, the authoress of the famous Tale of Genji. It is said that it was in Otsu – more precisely in Ishiyama Temple – where she began writing on her novel some time in the beginning of the 11th century. Murasaki ShikibuWe were invited to one of the houses that “own” one of the floats, and we could go to a second floor balcony and watch the parade from there, meaning that we were eye-to-eye with the dolls and the men playing the instruments. From such an elevated postion you can see that the dolls were operated manually as the men crouched down, but that did not take away the beauty of the performance. I especially liked the one depicting how to catch a Tai (a lucky fish of golden colour), and because each performance was repeated twice in front of our balcony, I could even catch the decisive moment on camera. Catching a fish

Deja vu

Today was the Aoi matsuri, the hollyhock festival that takes place at the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. When I came to Japan two years ago, this was the first festival I went to, and I have written about it then at length. Today, I had the opportunity – thanks to a friend – to see the parade again, this time from the special seats in Shimogamo Shrine.

It was just as I remembered, almost a deja-vu, but now the beautifully dressed men and gorgeous women on foot or on horses were passing underneath the large trees of Shimogamo Shrine instead of the open space of the Palace, which gave the parade a whole different feeling. I also think that it was a bit more compact than the first time I saw it – whether this was due to the different location or because of different timing, I cannot tell. The weather was nice and warm, but not really sunny, so I still have to wait for my first sunburn this year.

After the parade had passed the long sandy road up to the main buildings of Shimogamo Shrine, my friend and I had lunch at the few food stalls that were permitted at the shrine. We had yakisoba – grilled noodles with bacon and cabbage – and as dessert kasutera – a sort of small sweet buns made of pancake batter – and ichigo daifuku – sweet rice cakes with a strawberry on top.

This year, I did not stay for the horse race as I had promised another friend to see her, but it was nice to go to the Aoi festival again. There is still a part I have not seen yet, the one from Shimogamo to Kamogamo Shrine, so there is something left to explore for next year. I am already looking forward to it!


Yesterday was the matsuri of Yoshida shrine, which I consider “my” shrine, as it is less than 5 minutes away from Ebisu’s. It was a matsuri as many others I have seen before, but on a much smaller scale, it felt almost intimate.

As I got the timing wrong, I was very early and could see the preparations. Some things were ready: The main mikoshi had been prepared and the seats for the priests, the musicians, and the local dignitaries who would be present during the religious ceremony. The three carts that would be carried or drawn through the streets: a large cask of sake, a small mikoshi, and some sort of sacred tree, decorated with paper. Mikoshi of Yoshida shrineOthers were still in the making: Four Taiko drums were set up at the main square of the shrine and carefully covered to shield the skins from the sun before the performance. People who would be participating in some way or the other, would get dressed: the dignitaries mentioned above, the students, both male and female, who had the honor to carry the mikoshi through the streets, the children who would accompany the parade. little samuraiThe two students who would play the important role of the lion got into their costume – and into their role. I could ask them a few questions, they were highschool students and it was not their first time. The lion – shishi – who accompanies the parade is performing a lion dance – shishimai – and part of that dance is to chase and bite little children, in order to bring them luck in the next year. Apparently their parents like that idea better than the kids though… mask of a Japanese lionFinally, the preparations were over, and as a sign that something would start happening, the musicians took their seats. Then, the dignitaries formed a lane through which the priests – five of various ranks, distinguishable by their robes – would walk toward their seats in front of the musicians, then the dignitaries – all dressed in black ceremonial kimono with gray hakama – would take their own seats opposite the priests.

The ceremony started with the usual bowing and consecration rituals. Then the priests got up and went to a small shrine, and, while the musicians played a tune – well, a single tone, actually, that sounded both creepy and hallowed – they transferred the kami of that shrine into a little portable shrine, and from there to the large mikoshi that had been prepared. Then, more bowing followed, and each of the dignitaries made a small offering to the kami in front of the mikoshi. When that ceremony was over, the people gathered for the parade. start of the paradeUnder the drumming of the taiko the parade started out from the main shrine, uphill past four other, smaller shrines (I am never sure whether they have anything to do with Yoshida shrine or not) and then, the parade meandered through the neighborhood, with a drum upfront, the two mikoshi behind – carried by a large group of girls under many washoi-screams – and the lion doing his dance to scare, I mean, bless the children. Yoshida matsuri parade

Comb Festival

It was a great autumn day today, 30 degrees, sunny, with a clear blue sky… I celebrated by going to a quite unique festival in Yasui-konpiru-gu shrine: The comb festival or kushi matsuri. Similar to the needle festival I visited last year, here people bring their old combs and hair ornaments to the shrine where a ceremony is held for them. Detail of Japanese hairstyleApparently the idea behind these ceremonies is, that when an object has been used for a long time, they possess spirit – imbued by their owner’s or their own – and it is thus proper to send those spirits back to the gods instead of just tossing the item. Such ceremonies are held in various shrines and temples for a number of things: needles, combs, calligraphy brushes, dolls,… Unfortunately, I could not find out what would happen to the combs and hair ornaments that were brought to the shrine, but the thing in the back of the image below is called the kushi zuka, the comb mound, so maybe they are interred there, or at least, at some former time may have been. used combs before the comb moundJust like last year, there was first a ceremony and afterwards a short dance performance called “black hair dance” as an offering to the gods. The special thing about this ceremony at this shrine, however, is the attendance of about 50 young girls sporting the hairstyle of various periods in Japanese history. Of course, they wore beautiful kimono of the appropriate time as well, but the show piece were clearly the various coiffures. Japanese hairstylesI asked one of the girls in an elaborate Edo period hairstyle whether this was all her own hair. In case you consider me rude: Geisha very often have rather short hair and wear wigs for their performances, so I was curious.Japanese hairstyleShe said her hairstyle was about half-half, that some of the longer parts were hair pieces, made in the way they had been produced in the Edo period. It was very well done, and practically impossible to distinguish the pieces from her real hair, but, taking a closer look, especially from behind, you could see for example pieces of black paper that were used to style the hair.Japanese hairstylingShe also said that finishing her hairstyle would take about 3-4 hours – she must have gotten up very early this morning! After the ceremony and the dance, the girls formed a long procession through Gion, but I did not go with them, I had had plenty of photo-opportunities in the shrine already.Japanese hairstyle

Ato Matsuri

Yesterday was another busy day, it was the day of Ato Matsuri, the second parade of Gion Festival. It has ten floats, somewhat smaller than those of the first, the Saki Matsuri parade that happened one week prior, and although it takes the same route, it does so in the other direction. At the very end of the Ato Matsuri parade, there was a newly constructed O-fune yama, a boat-shaped float that always comes at the end of the procession. It is based on the traditional O-fune yama which unfortunately had burnt down a number of years ago and, as there was already a Fune-yama to end Gion Matsuri, it was not needed for the last 50 years and thus had not been rebuilt. This year, however, it had its reappearance and a new boat was built – for a total of 120 million yen – and decorated with some of the old tapestries that had survived the fire. You could immediately tell that there was something special about this float – you could still smell the new wood used in its construction.The boat shaped O-fune yama ending the procession

Right after the ten floats, there came the floats of the so-called Hanagasa, the flower hat or flower umbrella procession, which starts from Yasaka shrine, goes through the inner city, joins the Ato Matsuri parade for two streets and then returns to Yasaka shrine. In the beginning, there were a number of small children carrying small mikoshi, probably some of the many deities that reside in Yasaka shrine. It seemed that the kids had big fun, and they even tried to emulate the mikoshi carrying of the adults by lifting the mikoshi onto their shoulders. Small mikoshi carried by children

Behind them, there came a number of more serious adults dressed in beautiful kimono or other traditional garb and accompanying little floats decorated with flowers and umbrellas. They were beautiful, but, to be honest, I would have preferred to see real flowers rather than the obviously artificial ones that were used.A float of the hanagasa procession

I met with a friend at 8:30, one hour before the start of the procession, and although there were not so many people as a week ago, we were lucky to still get a place in the third row at one of the street corners. The whole parade took about 2 hours to pass us by, and once again my friend was very taken by the turning of the large hoko around the corner. Unfortunately, after standing in a tight spot for all but three hours, I had developed a terrible backache, and I was very happy that the parade was over and we could go to lunch – sushi again, in the same restaurant as the week before.

My friend then went home to Kobe, until Osaka he planned to ride his bike along the river, I hope everything turned out as he had planned. I went home also, and because of the backache (which lasted well into the night, I am obviously getting old), I did not attend soroban class that evening, and I also skipped the Kanko-Sai, the returning of the three mikoshi to Yasaka shrine in the night.


The last three days were very busy, I was on my feet – literally – for more than eight hours each day… When I came home last night I was so tired, I went to bed at around ten, hence the delay in my report, but here it is, finally:

Wednesday night was the last evening of the yoiyama for the Saki matsuri parade. Just like last year, from 6 pm the streets of the inner city where the floats had been built were closed for traffic, and were turned into a huge pedestrian area. It was very crowded; when I looked from Yasaka shrine over Shijo street, it was filled with people, the heads of the Japanese turning the space into a black mass. It had been a very hot day and it was a lovely night, but because it was so crowded, the feeling was more hectic and much less relaxed than last year.

I had fun though, trying out new street food: pancakes made from takoyaki batter, rolled up and then topped with all sorts of condiments. I had one with mayo, parsley, dried fish flakes, and ketchup, thus each bite tasted differently. Altogether, there were at least four different types. For safety reasons I did not try the one with the fried egg on top: although seemingly delicious, the yolk still looked rather runny… Also, I have to admit that I succumbed to shopping and bought a tengui, a traditional, thin Japanese towel, that was sold at the stand of the boat-float, which always comes last in the parade. I bought this one because I really liked the phoenix on it, what do you think:Japanese Towel called "Tengui"

The biggest novelty – and one that my inner treehugger is especially happy about – were the ECO-stations placed at exits and large crossings of the pedestrian area. When I bought the pancake, I received it in a little dish made from very sturdy plastic and I already thought it was a shame to throw it away after single use. Only then did I discover the ECO-stations, where one could return these dishes to have them washed and reused directly. What a wonderful idea! I hope they’ll keep it up and they can be seen at many matsuri to come!

Thursday started very early and ended very late… A friend of mine came up from Kobe and because we wanted a decent spot on a corner to watch the parade, we met at 8 am – and were still about 30 minutes late for the perfect spot, which was reached by the parade only at 9:30… My friend was amazed by the big fuss that was made to turn the naginata hoko around the corner. However, she was not quite as patient as I had been the year before, and so we gave up our front row spot after about an hour of watching, and we walked along Shijo dori towards the other floats of the parade. I showed her my favourite one (topped with the praying mantis), and she was especially excited about the boat-shaped Ofune hoko, traditionally ending the parade, because it looks so different from all the others.

We then had sushi for lunch, and when we left the restaurant at 12:30, we could still see the last floats leaving Kawaramachi street. We then went through Gion to my favourite temple where we relaxed a little before she went to the station where she had booked a tea-ceremony, and I headed back home.

After a nap that felt hardly longer than 10 minutes, I was up and about again to go to my soroban class – it was the big exam day, remember! We conducted it almost like we do a normal class; first a short mental calculation warmup, then the test. It went well, no big surprises, although I was a bit nervous. I could leave right after the test was over as I was so tired, it must have shown. I think at that time my sensei already knew whether I had passed or not, but he said I would get the result only next Tuesday. You are thus still allowed to keep your fingers crossed!

Yesterday, on Friday, I went to a friend’s place at 10:30. She had an invitation for the opening of the summer exhibition at MIHO Museum and had invited me to come along. Miho museum is about a 90 minutes drive from Kyoto, situated in the middle of mountains. it is a privately owned museum, founded by and named after what was at that time the richest woman of Japan. The special exhibition centres around two large tapestries (probably two metres by one), depicting a Kwannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – and a sitting, pensive Buddha. The tapestries were hand-woven for the museum after two old images, and you can see the original paintings as well as statues and other related objects of art.Flyer of MIHO museum

The permanent exhibition is exquisite, albeit small. They have a beautiful little statue of Horus, made from silver, gold, and lapis lazuli, that apparently was once the main deity of an Egyptian temple. There was also a standing Buddha statue, some 2.5 metres high I guess, upper body leaning forward just a little bit. It gave me the impression of a father stooping down a little to his children. I really enjoyed the trip although it took much longer than I had expected. The museum is certainly worth a visit, even though it is a bit far from Kyoto.

Now, those were my last three days. Today I had planned a rest day; from Monday on there will be the second yoiyama before the Ato matsuri parade. It should be much more quiet though, but I hope the friend with whom I will watch it will like it too.


I have just returned from the last evening of yoiyama where I – and approximately 10.000 other people – went to the city to have a look at all the floats that will be presented in the big Saki matsuri parade tomorrow. I went around through the city for about 6 hours and I am very tired right now…

Tomorrow, I will meet a friend to go and see the parade, and I’ll have to get up quite early for this one, hence, I will not write much more tonight.

You will get a big summary of this year’s Saki matsuri and preceding yoiyama on Friday. Good night!


It is mid July – and that means that for a whole month Kyoto is in the grips of Gion Matsuri! Even with the Grand Parade having been split into two parades, the Saki parade on the 17th and the Ato parade on the 24th, I would still say that the main event – the Saki matsuri – is happening this week.

In fact, today is the first day of yoi-yama, the three days, or rather, evenings, that lead up to the Saki matsuri on the 17th. I was not planning to go to town tonight, mainly because I am not sure whether there will be the large pedestrian zone during all three nights, or only for the last one. Also, there have been short but heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also now in the evening, and I am still hoping for better weather.

I did go to Yasaka (or Gion) shrine in the late afternoon though, because I know that the food stalls there are open already and I wanted to have something nice for dinner. It turned out that I came at the right time: Just when I arrived, there was a long row of people waiting at the entrance to Yasaka shrine. It turned out that those were the members of the Naginata-hoko group (the one float that will lead the Saki matsuri parade on Thursday) and that they, together with the chigo (the most important boy during Gion matsuri, he will perform a number of rites throughout this month and will ride on the Naginata-hoko) went to Gion shrine to pay their respects to the Gods – meaning that they would go to each and every shrine in the precincts to offer a short prayer. I am not entirely sure, but I would guess that the other groups from the other yama and hoko floats will be doing the same in the next two days.

Of course, this would not be Japan if there would be no big group picture, and I also got a few of my own… In the back you can see the three mikoshi that will be moved from the shrine to the Otabisho on Thursday evening, which is the main event of Gion matsuri, from a religious point of view.

Members of the Naginata-hoko posing before the three Mikoshi