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!

Sweet Day

A week or so before Christmas, I took a day off to go to a museum and to run a few errands in town. It was rather cold and my leg was hurting in the morning already, so I took public transport. That means that on walking to the different stops, I can take a look at places I usually notice only in passing, if at all.

The first thing I saw when I walked from the museum to the subway was the “Hofbaeckerei Edegger-Tax”. Not the real one of course, that one’s in Graz, but its little brother in Kyoto. Even though it was too early for cake, I had to check out the first Austrian bakery I had come across in Japan. Sadly, they were closed, but I got a word in with the owner – German words to boot! And when I asked him if he could make REAL Sachertorte, he gave me a piece as a present, complete with whipped cream. It’s a bit far from my place for daily visits (which may be a good thing after all) but a friend of mine lives nearby and I already promised to be back. What a find!

Just before lunch, I passed by the Matcha House, a small cafe – 16 seats or so – near Kawaramachi/Shijo. As the name suggests, they specialise in everything matcha, and they are extremely popular with young people. Usually, there’s a long line in front of it, people are willing to wait an hour and more just to get in! On that day, however, there was nobody waiting, and I decided to see if they are really worth the hype. Well, they are!

Their matcha tiramisu is a dream of fluffiness and the green tea I had with it was just perfect. The tea came with a thermos can and a tiny cup and a little clock so you can prepare the tea properly: Pour out the boiling water into a small bowl and let it cool to about 40 degrees (takes 9 minutes), then pour it into the teapot containing the tea for 1-2 minutes and then it’s ready to drink.

I got 6 tiny cups out of the thermos and it was interesting how the taste of the tea would change from the super strong first cup to the last one that could use the full 2 minutes of steeping. So yes, that’s a recommendation from me, even though I wouldn’t wait for an hour just to get in.

I had a perfect sweet day just before Christmas and with the Sachertorte I got I could even extend it to a perfect breakfast on the next day.

Sweet Apples

There are countless Japanese sweets. Some are made exclusively for tea ceremony, and others are eaten as desserts. Traditionally, many of these sweets are made with heavily sugared anko red bean paste or they involve matcha. Since I am not a big fan of red anko, I am happy whenever I find sweets that don’t have it. Like these palm-sized apples:

Crimson Apples dessertThese are called beniringo – crimson apples – for obvious reasons, and they are delicious. At first, I thought they would contain white anko (which I do like), but no, it gets better: they have an apple filling! They are a perfect afternoon snack, just two or three bites and very sweet. I have returned to the shop twice now and handed these sweets out to friends, and I’m actually tempted to buy another batch before they start the winter season with their sweets and I have to wait another year.

These wonderful apples are made by Kogetsu, a traditional Japanese sweets shop from Kyoto that opened back in 1945. Today, they have 16 stores in Kyoto and their sweets are sold in 69 shops (including department stores etc.) throughout Japan. If you’re coming to Kyoto and interested in Japanese sweets, both traditional and with a modern twist, I recommend you check them out.

Weather Woes

Isn’t it time to complain about the weather again? Last week I wanted to write about how cold it has gotten and that I need to get my winter clothing out. Today, I can write how warm it is during the days – up to 20 degrees and more – and how much I enjoy the sun and the blue skies.

Every year, there seems to be a cold spell at the end of October/beginning of November, and then the sun comes back again until December or so before winter really comes for good. I remember it was the same last year, so this time around I sat it out and did not consolidate my apartment into a single room just yet.

I am still feeling rather depressed though, so I haven’t been out to see the koyo yet. However, I have plans for Friday to go with a friend to Eikando, one of the temples in Higashiyama that is famous for the autumn leaves and usually very busy. I hope the weather will be okay, for now the forecast says it will be raining (and then the momiji are no fun).

Two weeks ago, I went to the special opening of Honen-in, a temple nearby Ginkakuji that is mostly overlooked by tourists and only opens its doors for two weeks every year. Definitely worth a visit!

Kyotographie 2020

I spent a great weekend with a friend of mine at Kyotographie 2020! This is an annual international photo exhibition that usually takes place in spring, but has been postponed by half a year because of Covid19. My friend always comes to visit and together, we try to see as many of the exhibitions as we can.

As usual, the exhibitions were very far apart at various venues, but because this year the scope was much smaller than usual – 12 exhibitions with 3 associated programs – we were able to see all but four of them, and we weren’t even overly stressed. My favourites are below, you can even “walk” through the exhibitions online – check out the links!

It’s hard to pick my favourite this year. I liked Mari Katayama’s photos of her body covered with gold glitter. Atsushi Fukushima’s photos of old people and their homes was very touching and made me wonder if I myself would one day end up like this – single woman that I am. Pierre-Elie de Pibrac from France captured the sheer beauty and opulence of the opera in Paris. And in the old Assembly Hall of the Kyoto Prefectural Building, Omar Victor Diop staged his own assembly with famous figures from African history who have something special in common.

I had a great weekend with my friend, and although it was raining on Saturday and there was a lot of walking involved on both days (for which I paid with leg pain throughout Sunday and Monday), I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this. As a bonus, I was taken home by the Kyotographie shuttle on Sunday afternoon when my friend got on the train back to Kobe – a perfect end to the weekend!

Whether it was the exhibition or meeting with my friend, it did help me get out of my funk a little. I’m feeling rather depressed these days (sorry for not writing, and I still owe you some pictures). I’m not sure what the cause is of all this – that I have practically no work, that I see even fewer people than usual, that I don’t go out much…? Atsushi Fukushima’s old people come to mind again – is this just what I’ll be facing 35 years from now, nothing to do but plenty of depression? Better come up with coping strategies while I still have full brain capacities…

Pleasure Cruise

Sorry for not writing on Sunday – it’s weird how Sunday is creeping up on me and then I have nothing prepared… In this case, I have some sort of excuse though: I was busy working because I took Monday off.

Already back in March, I wanted to take the Lake Biwa Canal Cruise, a litte boat tour from Otsu on Lake Biwa to Kyoto. I had booked everything and then, just two days before my trip, it was cancelled because of Corona… However, they have opened up again on October 1st for their autumn season, and this time I booked extra early to make it happen.

And I have to say: It was worth every minute! When you get to the terminal, you get to see a short film of the canal and its history, and you see the main locks in the beginning of the canal. Then you’re ushered into the little boat that has only 12 seats and except for a glass roof, is otherwise open. And the first tunnel is just a few meters past the boarding point!

What I found interesting were the many insects inside the tunnels where it was slightly warmer than outside, even though it was a bright day. In the first tunnel, we even got fog! In between the tunnels, the canal runs through quiet areas of Otsu and Kyoto, there are forests on one side and a path with big trees on the other. You can see the occasional temple and many birds along the water, and most of the people come and wave when the boats pass by.

I will add a few pictures tomorrow, the trip was really beautiful, especially from my seat in the very front. (Foreigner bonus, I’m sure).

To make the trip worth my while – after all, the cruise takes only 55 minutes, I went to Otsu a bit earlier to visit Miidera Temple, one of the largest temples in all Japan. Even so, it was blissfully empty, but maybe that’s because the precincts are so large that you wouldn’t meet many people anyway.

I will post a few pictures of my trip tomorrow, and I promise to write in depth about Miidera and my fantastic pleasure cruise on some other Sunday.