Trip to Omuro

Today is doyo ushi no hi – the midsummer day of the ox – traditionally considered the hottest day of summer. This year however, it’s comparatively cool; on most days the thermometer stays under 35 degrees, where we normally have 37 and more around this time. One of the tradtional things to do today is to eat eel (unagi), and in Kyoto, people flock to Shimogamo Shrine for the yearly Mitarashi-sai, which I will do tomorrow with friends. But I decided to do something special today.

So, I took the day off to make a trip to Omuro, the neighborhood of Ninna-ji and Myoshin-ji. I didn’t go there though since I had visited both often before. My goal was the Kyutei Omuro. This is one of Kyoto’s old suburban villas, a National Tangible Cultural Property, and it’s open to the public on special occasions only.

The house was built in 1937 at the foot of Narabigaoka hill, which, interesting enough, does not have a shrine on top like many other hills in Kyoto. The house has a traditional stone garden near the entrance and a lush garden at the back that allows you to climb up the hill a little. There stands a tea house that overlooks the garden and house below. I spent almost an hour looking at the house and wandering through the garden! I’m planning a full report with more photos this weekend.

Afterwards, I went to a small cakeshop/cafe nearby that I had wanted to try for a long time already. I had their signature cake for lunch (“Pampelmousse”, very nice) together with iced caramel milk (so-so). The place was tiny and quiet except for the Randen Railway that passed by directly next to the shop and made the whole house shake every time it did so. Before I went home, I bought some shou-creme for breakfast tomorrow.

It was quite a trip to visit the Kyutei Omuro, it took me almost an hour by bike, but it was so worth it! I even met the owner, a lady around my age. It seems the house has been lived in for longer than I had expected. But: more on Sunday!

Yoiyama 2021, Part 2

This week is the second yoiyama of Gion Matsuri, the three days leading up to the Ato Matsuri Parade on July 24th (which has also been cancelled this year). Only 6 of the 10 yamaboko that take part in the Ato Parade were constructed. I visited “my” Ofune Hoko, where I usually help selling souvenirs, but this year I was just a guest because I can’t stand on my feet for 5 hours with my hip problem…

It was nice seeing my friends again and they even got me free entrance to the top of the Ofune Hoko. This is the first time I noticed all the names and numbers on each and every piece the Ofune Hoko is constructed of.

There are more than 600 pieces for the main boat and the large dragon that sits at the front of the float is made from 12.

Just like last week, the Daimaru Department store, which is nearby where the yamaboko are built, showed miniature versions of them. They are maybe a meter high (excluding the poles) and are made in loving detail. These look like antiques, so they are probably priceless. I couldn’t find out whom they belong to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are owned by one or more of the old merchant families of Kyoto that have been involved in Gion Matsuri for centuries (literally).

As usual around the time of the Ato Matsuri, it is very hot. Today it was around 35 degrees and the inner city streets were stifling. I went out pretty early and still got myself a nice sunburn… And yet, it is comparatively cool, several degrees below what is usual. There was even a slight breeze today and I haven’t used my fan a single time yet. Maybe tonight’s the night?

Yoiyama 2021

Today is the third day before the saki parade of Gion Matsuri on July 17. It’s the day of the yoi-yoi-yoiyama, when the yamaboko floats have been finished and the inner city is closed for cars during the evening. So far the theory, but for the second year in a row, Gion Matsuri has been limited severely, thanks to COVID-19.

Most of the events that draw large crowds have been cancelled, including the two parades on July 17 and 24, and of course, the yoiyama parties as well. However, this year, 12 of the yamaboko for the first parade will be built (or already have been), and 6 yamaboko of the second parade. There will be the usual sale of chimaki charms, tenugui towels and other souvenirs there, at least during the day from around 10:00 – 19:00.

Usually, my friends and I visit Gion Matsuri together sometime during yoiyama, in the afternoon. We’ll be having lunch tomorrow and see where we’ll take it from there. I have been invited during the second yoiyama next week to visit the Ofunehoko. I worked there at the booth for two years before, but I”m not up to standing for 5 hours this year because of my hip problem. However, I will say hello to my friends who are there, and I have been promised that I may enter the Ofunehoko this year again, which is a special treat because it’s not open to the public because it’s too small a space.

I will report on this year’s yoiyama(s) next week.

Kinkaku-ji, Plain

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavillion, is probably one of the best-known tourist attractions of Kyoto. The two top floors of the temple are covered in leaf gold; the third floor with the main Buddha relics is gilded inside as well (and not accessible to the public).

However, the temple as you see it today – I’ve written about it before – is not the same one as built in the 14th century. The original building was set on fire by a novice monk of the temple in 1950, and was restored in 1955. At that time, gold leaf was added quite liberally to the top two floors, and some people question whether this is historically accurate.

At any case, here is an image of Kinkaku-ji from some time in the Meiji period. It has been colored by hand and does not show much golden sparkle, but this may be just because of the age of the building. It’s absolutely stunning, and, compared to the modern building, it feels much less sterile. What do you think?

An old photo of Kinkaku-ji

Kyoto’s Three Dainenbutsu Kyogen

Super short weekend post today. I was out all afternoon and came home later than I expected. I was watching Dainenbutsu Kyogen – short pantomimes that often have a religious theme but are mostly meant to be funny – by the three most famous groups in Kyoto, all in one afternoon and all in one venue and for (almost) free to boot!

I will give you a more detailed report next week.

Sunset

While looking for photos for my work, I found this amazing one. The location is at Kitaoji Bridge over the Takano river, looking south, just 5 minutes away from where I live. I wish I could take photos like these!

Kitano Tenmangu Shrine

Kitano Tenmangu is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, among locals and visitors alike. Not only does it have a huge flea market (Tenjin-san) each month on the 25th, but many students of all ages visit before an important exam to pray to the God of Wisdom that is enshrined there. The year 2021 is an especially good year to visit Kitano Tenmangu because of its connection with the ox, this year’s zodiac animal.

Wooden Statue of Sugawara-no-Michizane.Kitano Tenmangu enshrines a real historical person, Sugawara-no-Michizane as its main deity. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a courtier, where he was supported by Emperor Uda. However, after Uda’s retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later without returning to the capital, and was buried in Kyushu. Now, the story goes that after his death, Kyoto was hit by natural disasters and a number of Fujiwara courtiers and even the emperor’s family met with illness and personal tragedies. In search for the reason, Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams. Thus, in 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of around 12,000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan. 

The approach to Kitano Tenmangu from the south starts at a large stone torii and follows a path lined with stone lanterns. At the end lies the shrine’s impressive romon gate, a bit elevated from the outer grounds and the main entrance. It is flanked by the common statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern right above the path.

On the other side of the gate the precincts open wide. To the left lies the emasha exhibiting large wooden tablets, typical presents to shrines. During the New Year’s period people come here to write their very first calligraphy of the year, and the best ones are exhibited afterwards. Further down this path lies the plum garden of Kitano Tenmangu. These were the favourite trees of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and more than 1500 trees can be found in the precincts. The fruits are pickled and sold in December, to be put into tea on New Year’s day as a good luck charm.

To the right lies the shrine’s treasure house, where many valuable gifts that were presented to the shrine over the centuries are stored and exhibited. The most important treasure is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll below which depicts the origin story of Kitano Tenmangu.

Painted Scroll showing the founding of Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto.

However, the main buildings of the shrine lie straight ahead from the romon gate. You must pass through the sankomon gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, behind which lies a lovely courtyard with the outer and main prayer halls straight ahead. At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, these two prayer halls lie under a single, wood-shingled roof, which is very unusual and called the yatsumune zukuri style. The two main gates and the main hall show the typical architecture of the Momoyama period with intricately painted carvings, golden ornaments and pretty lanterns. They were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori in 1607, and the main reason why Kitano Tenmangu is designated as a National Treasure.

Another historically important feature of Kitano Tenmangu is often overlooked by the casual visitor. It’s the so-called Odoi, a slightly elevated hill at the western end of the precincts that was once part of the city’s fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which a little stream flows. As can be expected, this part is especially beautiful during the the koyo in autumn and the aomomiji fresh leaves in spring.

Okay, enough teasing: What’s the connection with the ox? Well, Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox, and thus, oxen or cows are seen as his messengers. Another story goes that when he was supposed to return to Kyoto, he died on the way, and the ox that was pulling his cart lay down on the street and would not get up anymore. In any case, throughout Kitano Tenmangu, you will find many statues of cows. These are called nade ushi, stroking cows, and the idea is that you first rub your ailing body part and then its counterpart on the cow to transfer your malaise to the statue and get rid of it for good. Definitely worth a try!

Statue of a black cow with red bib in Kitano Tenmangu.

Because it is visited by so many high school kids preparing for their university entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is very busy throughout the year. Like at all other shrines, you can buy goshuin stamps and omamori charms, mostly related to scholarship. Since I like useful stuff, I bought a lovely wooden box of pencils with the shrine emblem and wise sayings on them. Not sure it helps with the wisdom though…

The Tragic Loves of Gio-ji

While I was out and about in Saga for the Dainenbutsu Kyogen last weekend, I also veered a bit off the beaten tracks to a tiny temple called Gio-ji (emphasis on the o). Well, it’s not really a temple, more of an hermitage, with a single building. There is one Buddha statue in a room that is not bigger than most modern living rooms. In fact, the temple is mostly garden; huge maples and other trees in a bed of moss with the occasional lantern or memorial stone. Right now is not the best time to visit, as you can see below. The moss is at its prime during the rainy season and the temple shows off its beauty when the maples are blazing in autumn, of course (as in the last two photos).

Gio-ji was not alwasy that small though. Once it was part of a larger temple complex called Ojo-in which is said to have reached all the way up the mountain. This temple was allegedly founded in the late 12th/early 13th century by a disciple of Honen, he himself founder of Jodo-shu Buddhism. Be that as it may, this large temple fell into disrepair, and all that’s left today is the little hermitage and the moss garden.

However, Gio-ji is more than just a remnant of another temple, and it is more than just another pretty spot for moss and maples in the Arashiyama mountains. What makes Gio-ji famous is the story behind its name, the story of a woman. The following is a story as related in the Heike Monogatari:

Gio was one of the most beautiful women of the 12th century. She was a shirabyoshi, a dancer, and, as beautiful women often do, she had numerous admirers. One of them was Taira-no-Kiyomori, the military leader of Japan in the late Heian period. This powerful man took a liking to Gio and, as powerful men often do, wanted to have her all for himself.

Gio fought hard. She resisted with everything she had, brought up a younger sister and an ailing mother she had to take care of. But Kiyomori insisted, sent poems, beautiful robes, and other gifts. Eventually, Gio’s defenses broke down. Besides, what could go wrong as the mistress of the country’s de-facto leader? So, Kiyomori installed Gio in the palace. She had traded her freedom for the easy life plus all the attention a dancer could crave. But of course, it couldn’t last forever.

Gio’s luck ran out when that of another woman started: Kiyomori had cast his eye on a new, younger dancer called Hotoke. And the story repeated itself: Kiyomori courted Hotoke with all he had and eventually installed her in his palace. And Gio had to leave.

Stone lantern at Gio-ji temple surrounded by moss.

Even though Gio was only in her 20s at the time, she decided to become a nun. And it is said that she together with her sisiter and mother, took up residence in the little hermitage that today is Gio-ji. This is why you will find not only Buddha, but also statues of several nuns in the little room at Gio-ji. And among the temple’s graves are that of Gio and her family.

Is the story true? Probably. It is told to us in the Heike Monogatari, one of the epic tales of Japan, that dates back to at least 1330. We can expect that the story was embellished over time, of course; a Noh play, and many other retellings of the story did help with that. No wonder, it’s a timeless story that we have all heard one way or the other…

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).

Putting up the Shutters

Every two weeks now I have been visiting the Kyoto Tourist Information Office on Kawaramachi/Sanjo to scout out events for What’s up in Kyoto. They have lots of flyers for traditional events, garden illuminations and museum exhibitions, and also pretty much all the booklets, newsletters and papers written for tourists coming to Kyoto. And for the hapless foreigner, they also offer services like restaurant bookings etc. I don’t remember when I first found them, it must have been years ago. The staff are super friendly, all speak English, and over the years, we got to know each other. But after today, I will probably never see them again…

Thanks to the COVID-19-induced travel restrictions, there haven’t been any foreign tourists for a year, and even national travel has dropped considerably during that time. Therefore, the city has decided to close this office, and everybody working there will be out of a job tomorrow morning.

I was shocked when they first told me. Of course, with Europe in the throes of the third wave and vaccinations only really proceeding in the US and Isreal, it’s unlikely that there will be many foreign tourists in Kyoto this year either, at the very earliest in autumn. But I thought there were enough Japanese tourists who would use the service, but apparently that’s not the case, not even now, during hanami. Still, I didn’t expect them to close, but on the other hand I cannot blame the city for cutting costs left and right.

Where will I get my event flyers in the future? Today, I was told that a small space with flyers remains open at Kawaramachi/Sanjo, just the office that lies behind will be closed. And there’s always the main office at Kyoto Station, even though it’s a bit out of the way and it takes me twice as long to get there… Oh well, I’ll figure something out!

As for the staff at Kawaramachi/Sanjo, I hope they’ll find new jobs soon. Thank you for all your help during the years! Sayonara!