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.

Kabuki Dancer

Kabuki Dancer
Sawako Ariyoshi

When Izumo no Okuni comes to Osaka with some fellow villagers, all she wants to do is dance. Her rustic folk dances and songs quickly gain her a loyal following among the common folk, and she even gets invited to perform for high ranking samurai and court nobles. Her husband Sankuro, ever so interested in fame and fortune, would like her to dance only for wealthy patrons, but Okuni opts to move to Kyoto instead. There, at the banks of the Kamo river near Shijo street, her distinct and innovative style draws large crowds of spectators and, in time, competitors who imitate her. However, Okuni remains ahead of them all, and despite numerous setbacks, she remains “Best in the World” and single-handedly invents what is known today as Kabuki.

This book blends what is surely known about Izumo no Okuni with old tales and legends. The result is a gripping life story of a woman who did not always get her way, but nevertheless insisted on leading her own life amidst the turbulent last years of the Japanese warring period and the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

I greatly enjoyed this book about Izumo no Okuni that follows her life from the age of 17 until her death at 37. While much of her personality depicted here must be considered fiction, it is hard to conceive how a less strong-willed person would have been able to create an art form that is still practised (and innovated) today, 400 years after her death. Fans of Kyoto will recognise some of the places mentioned in this book.

Sawako Ariyoshi, born 1931 in Wakayama, developed an interest in the theater already as a student and her own plays are widely performed in Japan. She was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and became one of the country’s most famous female novelists who won the prestigious Akutagawa prize and a number of other Japanese literary awards. Her books deal with social issues like the depopulation of rural areas or the plight of the elderly that are as current now when they were written. She died in 1984.

If you’re ready for a fun historical novel that is set in Japan and does not feature any swordfighting – not real one, at least – get this book from amazon.

Nonomiya Jinja

Deep in the bamboo forest of Arashiyama lies Nonomiya Jinja, one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, dating back to the 7th century. Nowadays, it is a rather small shrine overflowing with tourists, but when it was established, it was literally a “shrine in the fields” (hence the name) dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Those imperial princesses who were meant to become priestesses at Ise, the main shrine of Amaterasu, first came here for a purification rite that took a year or more. Afterwards, they were sent off in a colorful procession, never to return to their family.

The first such saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of the Saga Emperor in the 8th century. However, the practice ended in the 14th century. Afterwards, the shrine continued to be used for a variety of imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, and probably its size as well, it is still maintained and visited by members of the Imperial Family until today.

Nonomiya Jinja lies in the evergreen bamboo forest of Arashiyama – the traditional meaning of bamboo is to ward off evil. The entrance to the shrine precincts is at the black kuroki torii which is made from oak with its bark left intact. This kind of “natural” torii is the oldest style of torii that has been used, but because they are nowadays seen very rarely since they are expensive to set up and properly care for.

The haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu is to be worshipped, lies only a few steps behind the torii. This is the main square of Nonomiya shrine and there are many ways to pray to the gods. For one, there is the large kame-ishi stone that looks like a turtle. It is said, that if you ask the gods for something and afterwards, with that wish still in mind, give the kame-ishi a good rub, the wish will come true within a year.

Here is also a spot to put up ema or to write your wishes onto prayer sticks, both of which will be ritually burned at special intervals. And if you buy one of the special mizu omikuji, there is a little well where you can float your water charms and see what is in store for you.

To the right of the haiden, there is a red torii that leads further into the shrine’s precincts. Here are the shrines for the minor gods that are worshipped here, like Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten who are responsible for good marriages and childbirth, and Shiramine Bezaiten and Ooyama Bezaiten watch over the arts and traffic safety, respectively.

There is also an interesting mikoshi portable shrine that looks quite different to the others that are usually used during festivals. I am not sure why this is, but it makes a nice motif for photos.

Another popular motif is the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small compared to many other shrine gardens, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.

Because Nonomiya Shrine lies within the rather dark bamboo forest and it carries the idea of parting from Kyoto, it has a rather sombre atmosphere which has inspired many painters and writers. For example, Nonomiya Shrine plays an important part in a chapter of the Tale of Genji, where prince Genji visits his lover – the mother of a saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a famous noh play by Zeami, called after the shrine Nonomiya (Shrine in the Fields). Of course, many poems have been written about the shrine and its suroundings, and it even plays a role in the book The Old Capital by Japanese Nobelprize winner Kawabata Yasunari.

Nonomiya Shrine is popular amongst women who look for relationships and marriage, or who come to pray for easy childbirth. There are beautiful enmusubi (tie-the-knot) omamori available, which show motifs of the long gone Heian era. Sadly, the goshuin stamp of the shrine is not very pretty, since it is only a red stamp without the usual calligraphy written in black.

Kyoto's Bamboo Forest, completely empty.I would not necessarily recommend Nonomiya Shrine on its own since it is rather small and there are too many people to enjoy the experience (if there’s no pandemic going on…) However, if you’re strolling around the bamboo forest anyway, it’s a nice place to step in. The big event at Nonomiya Shrine is the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession in October, where the ancient procession of the princess to Ise is reenacted, even though she only goes as far as the river these days.

Chrysanthemum Festival

September 9 is one of the special days in the Japanese calendar. It is the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival, also called choyo or kikku-no-sekka, and many shrines and temples have ceremonies to pray for health and, in particular, longevity. This is because 9. 9. is the largest single-digit day possible, and so there is a connection. Looking at the Japanese statistics of people who lived beyond 99 years of age, the prayers actually seem to work.

In Kyoto, the most famous Chrysanthemum Festival is at Kamigamo Shrine, where there is karasu sumo, a special event with kids performing sumo for the gods. I visited this event already in 2013, you can read about my impressions in the post I did then.

So, today I had to go elsewhere, partly also because the karasu sumo was cancelled because of Covid19. Many other shrines have cancelled their events too, so I decided to visit Kuramazaki Jinja who promised a special dance for the occasion. I have passed the shrine before, on my visits to Arashiyama, and it looked interesting, so off I went just before noon.

At Kuramazaki Jinja, the kikku-no-sekka ceremony started with the usual prayers to the gods, accompanied by gagaku music. Then, different types and colors of chrysanthemums were offered to the gods in a comparatively short but nevertheless solemn ceremony. Afterwards, there was indeed a dance performance by a female dancer who also held chrysanthemums in her hands during the dance. For some reason, the music for her performance came from a tape, I did not quite understand why, since there were gagaku players present. Finally, guests to the ceremony were allowed to make their offerings to the gods as well.

Altogether, the ceremony took about 30 minutes. I felt that it had been scaled down from its usual size. For one, there was no chrysanthemum sake offered to the visitors because of Covid19. Also, I believe there should have been more performances of music and dance after the religious ceremony, but whether they were cancelled because of Corona or because of the rain, I am not sure.

One thing that struck me immediately: There was a woman among the priests of the shrine. I have never seen this before. Usually, all the priests are male, and the only women allowed near the gods are the miko, the shrine maidens, who to this day have to be unmarried women. And here, there was a young female priest, and she even seemed to lead the ceremony. Slowly, slowly, even Japan is changing. Maybe.

Torarin

Japan is the land of mascots. Every prefecture has one, many cities have one, every government office has one, and even private businesses sometimes have one. They are called yuru-chara and most of them are cute – after all, they are meant as ambassadors and promotional tools.

Kyoto’s official mascot is Mayumaro. He’s based on a silk cocoon (because of Kyoto’s silk and textile industry) and has been doing public relations for Kyoto since 1969. But there are many other yuru-chara in Kyoto, for example Kyoto’s public transport offices have two – one cute little bus called Kyo-chan, and Miyako-kun who represents Kyoto’s subway.

One of the latest additions to the ranks of Kyoto’s inofficial ambassadors is Torarin, the mascot of Kyoto National Museum. Officially, this little tiger is called Kogata Rinnojo, but Torarin will do just fine, after all, he’s just 5 years old. The name is a portmanteau of Tora (tiger) and Rin (for Rinpa, a Japanese school of painting), and he is modeled after a famous ink painting by Ogata Korin. That’s also the reason why he’s black and white and not as colorful as many other yuru-chara.

However, he is absolutely cute, and on my last visit to the museum, I just had to buy him in effigy, I mean: a plushie which now sits on my desk and watches me writing this post… I came across him via the homepage of the Kyoto National Museum, where there is a link to Torarin’s youtube channel. There, he explores the museum, his home, with the help of the staff. Some of the videos have been translated into English, and while they are obviously made for kids, they are interesting for adults as well.

Of course Torarin also has a personal website (with an online shop for fans), a facebook page (as a “public figure” nonetheless) and a twitter account. He’s quite busy, obviously. Well, the next time I’ll visit the National Museum, I will try to see if I can match my schedule to his. Would be nice to meet him “in person”.

Obon Reduced

Today is the last day of Obon in Japan, the mid-summer period where the ghosts of one’s ancestors return to earth. During this time, many people return to the gravesites of their family to clean them and leave little gifts for the dead like flowers or foodstuffs. I once even saw a small beer can placed on a tomb, which I found rather touching.

In Kyoto, the evening of August 16 is the time for the Gozan-no-okuribi fires, or short: the Daimonji, where on 5 mountains surroundig Kyoto large bonfires are lit that spell out five kanji characters and are meant to guide the spirits back to the realm of the dead. Even though I am not religious, watching the fires being lit is very moving, and even I think of my family…

Anyway, although these fires draw large crowds every year, they do have a religious background, so it’s not a tourist spectacle. For this reason, they are always lit on the same day, regardless of weather or other outside influences. Only during WWII, the characters were drawn onto the mountains using white cloth, because making nightly signal fires for airplanes wasn’t a great idea.

This year, of course, things are different than usual because of Covid19. And because the fires draw so many spectators to only a few strategic points, the organisers decided to drastically scale them down: All except for the one on Daimonji Mountain were to be reduced to a single point.  So, here is the big “dai” 2020 as seen from my balcony:

I am torn about this to be honest. It was nice that the organisers went through with the fires – and if you know what the big dai should look like, it was easy to make out – but at the same time it felt very sad too, somehow. If Corona does not go away, how much of our culture will we have to sacrifice?

Tea Ceremony

Every year in August, Kodai-ji Temple holds a special Cool Night Yukata Tea Ceremony in the weekends and this year, I convinced a friend of mine to go together with me.

Of course, we both had to wear Yukata for the occasion, mainly because it is nice, but also because we wanted to get the 500 yen discount that was offered for people wearing yukata. Of course, if you’re wearing traditional Japanese clothing at a traditional Japanese event, you need to go all the way: When making the reservation, we were informed that we needed to wear tabi, white Japanese socks with separate big toe. This is actually standard since it is rude to enter a room (in particular one with tatami) barefoot.

So, one day before the tea ceremony, I went to a special tabi shop on Sanjo dori to buy me some traditional footwear. And: I failed. Problem is that tabi are made of relatively stiff cotton that is not flexible at all, so they are closed at the inside of the ankle with some sort of buttons, for lack of a better word. And, while my feet are the rather standard Japanese size  of 24.5 cm, my ankles are not…

Anyway, the next day in the evening I showed up at my friend’s place with the yukata she gave to me a few years back, a whole pile of assorted accessories including obi and geta and a pair of white socks to put on at the tea ceremony proper. I had hoped that my friend would be able to help me putting on the obi – which alone takes me 30 minutes every time – but it turned out that she hasn’t got a clue how to do this since she only wears a very simplified version that doesn’t require wrapping a piece of cloth the length of an anaconda around your waist… At least she could hold some of the pieces in place while I squirmed into them, her extra pair of hands did help.

Kodaiji in the nightWhen we arrived at Kodai-ji, it turned out to be a very small tea ceremony with only seven people in total. The setting was less formal that I had expected (and dressed for), we were sitting on little chairs on a low table instead of kneeling on the floor in seiza. The room was beautifully decorated according to the theme – glass – and all the tea utensils down to the tea scoop were made from glass (except the tea kettle, of course).

Since I had been at tea ceremonies before, I roughly knew what to do – there’s a lot of bowing involved – but once again, I completely missed the preparation of the tea. In tea ceremonies for larger groups, the main host is entertaining the guests by smalltalk or explaining the tea utensils or the art used in the tokonoma. Meanwhile, another person actually makes the tea for the top one or two guests, and all the other guests get their tea served from behind the scenes.

I found the sweets that were offered before the matcha a bit tasteless, but they looked like a heart placed behind glass to fit the theme. What I really like about tea ceremonies is that afterwards, you are invited to inspect the room and check out all the tea bowls and other utensils and the tokonoma as well. Sadly, I didn’t expect that it was allowed to take photos at that time, so I didn’t bring my camera…

Oh well. In any case I had fun and spent a nice evening at the temple, although it was very hot outside even after the sun went down. The yukata didn’t help with that either. One thing I still have to figure out is how my Japanese friend can look all cool and poised and relaxed at a hot night like this while I look like I’ve just emerged out of a steam bath and getting ready to burst into flame…  I shall investigate.

Corona Catches Kyoto

Sorry for being quiet, I’m fine, please don’t worry about me, but right now, everything is going downhill here, and pretty quickly too…

woman wearing a surgical maskLast Friday, the Kyoto city mayor as well as the Kyoto prefecture governor have urged the national government to include Kyoto prefecture into the state of emergency declaration. As of now, nothing has happened… It seems to be a typical Japanese response: If we ignore it, maybe it’ll go away!? Meanwhile, four more prefectures have declared their own state of emergency, which is not ordered by the national government, among them Gifu and Aichi (Nagoya). Kyoto’s governor is not ready to do that at this point, so we’re still in limbo. At the moment, there are 210 Corona infections in Kyoto prefecture as a whole.

Thus, the mayor of Kyoto has strongly urged people to stay at home and not go out unless absolutely necessary. Essentially all events have been cancelled, all four big department stores and most museums are closed, and even hotels will be shutting down in the next days. The Kyoto bus and subway systems had 70% fewer passengers last Sunday than usual and will shut down a number of lines that are geared towards tourists. I have seen photos of Shijo street taken last Sunday, where it’s essentially empty – Shijo dori between Yasaka shrine and Horikawa dori is one of the busiest shopping streets in Kyoto, usually.

So yeah… my business has essentially shut down too. Although some smaller events are still taking place, it’s a bit hard to tell people to go out at the moment… So, I have decided to ditch my usual daily event tips on facebook and take people on a “virtual tour” through Kyoto while everything is shut down. If you want to come along every day at 8, have a look here: https://www.facebook.com/whatsupinkyoto/

Other than this, I have given myself permission to take it extremely easy with respect to work. I have plenty of smaller things to do that keep falling by the wayside (both for work and privately), but honestly, it’s been hard to keep my motivation up the last weeks already. And it’s not going to get better… At least the prospect of writing for the “virtual tour” excites me, so that’s good.

Other than that… I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the blog here. Surely, you already have enough about people whining about Corona, so I don’t need to add to this. Maybe I should be taking it easy here too? I’m not sure… We’ll see how much writing motivation I can muster each day.

Signs in Kyoto

Kyoto is different from any other city in Japan, and even Japanese people – born in Kyoto or not – generally agree with me. Personally, I like to call Kyoto “the most Japanese city” of the country, whereas the other big centres like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Sendai… feel more generally Asian to me. The differences range from language (besides the special vocabulary that is common in any dialect, Kyoto-ben is considered more formal than any other local variety of Japanese) to customs, food, building styles etc.

Part of the latter are strict zoning laws for the city. For example, with the one and only exception of Kyoto Tower (131 m), no building may be taller than the 5-story pagoda of Toji temple. It measures 54.8 meters, the elevation difference of Kyoto’s Shichijo and Kitaoji streets. 

Anyway, I wanted to talk about another thing where Kyoto is quite different from all other cities in Japan, something most people don’t even notice. Look at these two photos below. Notice the difference? Sure you do, but what is it, exactly?

The signs are gone! Since 2013, Kyoto has implemented rigorous standards for company signs, ranging from sizing and placement to detailed rules for coloring. Nowhere in Kyoto will you find gaudy colors during the day or flashy neon signs at night. If you want to hang out your shingle, it better be a classy one.

Starbucks near Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto

For this reason, many Japanese companies had to come up with special color schemes for their signs just for Kyoto. And even multinational corporations like Mac Donald’s have to obey the rules. Not every company goes quite as far as Starbucks though, but then again, this particular cafe near Kiyomizudera is the exception there as well.

Many long-established Kyoto companies go the traditional route when it comes to their signage. Even on modern buildings you can see wooden signs, but the large carved ones are most often found on traditional buildings. There also, you may be greeted with a chochin lantern inscribed with the company name or with a logo-bearing noren in front of the main door, which, by the way, is a practical indicator of whether the place is open for business. 

Signs at the Shimadai Gallery

Yes, Kyoto is different! And with this rather small and insignificant change, the city government allows you to take your eyes off the blinking signage so you can focus on the things that really matter.

Yasaka Pagoda at night

All photos above are taken from the publication “Signs in Kyoto” by the Kyoto City Government.