Shimabara’s Last Tayu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takigi Noh

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

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

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

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

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

Bankruptcy Pending

Japanese currency

Big news: Kyoto is broke. Kyoto city makes a lot of money from tourism – be it hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops etc. – and after 2 years of COVID-19, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. Foreign travellers are still standing at closed borders, and although domestic travel has picked up lately, it cannot fully compensate for the loss.

However, there are other reasons at play here as well. With very few exceptions – Nintendo and Kyocera come to mind – Kyoto isn’t the seat of big companies whose taxes from profits or employees could help with the city’s finances. These companies are all in Osaka, if they are located in Kansai at all. Instead, Kyoto’s business landscape is dominated by small to medium-sized businesses, that often have a long history and have been in the hands of the same family for generations.

And then there are the shrines and temples. Thousands of them, literally. Places like Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizudera and Higashi/Nishi Honganji not only draw countless tourists each year. They are also the headquarters of a specific deity worship (Inari is the god of wealth) or of a Buddhist sect (Jodo-Shinshu), respectively. Sounds like a good source of revenue for the city? Technically, yes, if they weren’t all tax-exempt…

Of course, there is not much the Kyoto city government can do about that. I firmly believe that this image of the town with its queer wooden shops and ancient temples helps attract visitors, especially from abroad. However, it seems that the city also has a habit of spending tax money like it’s going out of fashion. And when you hear that the city hall is currently being renovated and upgraded with stained-glass windows and damask wall coverings… Well, my sympathy levels are dropping, and I do see Kyoto’s mayor in a new light now, even though the spending spree dates back to before his terms.

Good to know that the city is already doing their best to remedy the situation. Day tickets for public transport have become more expensive, and my employee’s taxes for this year were raised by 10%. Also, as a matter of course, subsidies for the poor or elderly have been reduced. I just hope that Kyoto will find a way to curb their excessive spending too…

Murin-an

One of the many designated places of scenic beauty in Kyoto is the garden of Murin-an near Nanzen-ji temple. Built in 1894-96, the villa with its garden give us a glimpse into upper-class lifestyle of the Meiji era. Murin-an is one among many garden villas in Okazaki, but the only one that is open throughout the year, and yet, it is mostly overlooked by tourists visiting the area.

The name Murin-an means No Neighbor Hermitage, and when it was built in the mid-Meiji period, this was largely true. Of course, there was Nanzen-ji to the east of it, but many of the daimyo’s villas that stood there before the Meiji Restoration had been abandoned or demolished by that time. With the opening of the Lake Biwa Canal in 1890, the area was redeveloped, however, landmarks like the Kyoto City Zoo (1903), the Prefectural Library (1909) and the Municipal Museum of Art (1928) shaped Okazaki then and to this day.

Anyway, back to Murin-an. It was built for and partially designed by Prince Aritomo Yamagata, a top politician and twice prime minister of the Meiji and Taisho eras. He was born in today’s Yamaguchi Prefecture and wanted to recreate the rural landscape of his home in Kyoto. While he had a knack for garden design and made some very unusual choices for Murin-an, he hired one of the top garden designers of his age to shape his vision: Jihei Ogawa VII.

Jihei Ogawa was born in 1860 and became the head of the Ogawa family – garden designers for generations – at the age of 19. Some 15 years later, he was already famous. He would create gardens for a number of villas in the Nanzen-ji area, as well as the Heian shrine gardens and Maruyama Park. But because of Yamagata’s influence, Murin-an became a very special work.

First, the most unusual feature of Murin-an is its flowing stream that adds a certain liveliness where typical Japanese gardens prefer the quietude of a pond. The water springs from a large waterfall at the back and crosses the whole garden before being piped underneath the street to the neighbor’s property.

The second focal point of Murin-an is the large expanse of grass at the center of the garden. Or rather: Yamagata wanted it to be grass, but Kyoto’s ubiquitous moss eventually overpowered the grass. In any case, the center of the garden is rather empty and gives the illusion of a seemingly endless space.

This illusion is only underscored by the borrowed landscape of the Higashiyama mountains that visually close the garden at its eastern side. Although the surrounding trees cannot shut out the noise of the adjacent street, they are meticulously trimmed so that none of the surrounding buildings can be seen from the best viewing spot – the main house.

The main building of Murin-an is a beautiful traditional Japanese house. Its two largest rooms have tatami and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allow for a full view of the garden, even more so in summer, when they are entirely removed. There is another large room on the second floor, but it is not always accessible, and the view is somewhat impeded by the boughs of a large tree.

Of course, a Japanese garden is not complete without a tea house. The one at Murin-an is a replica of a famous tea house that the tea master Furuta Oribe is said to have favoured. Occasionally, special tea ceremonies are held in the tea house, but in general, it is not accessible to the public.

Prince Yamagata was for a time educated in Europe, and to follow current fashion, he also had a Western-style house built at Murin-an. The second floor shows an interesting mix of Japanese wall paintings and Western upholstery and even has central heating. This room saw one of the most decisive events of Japan’s history: In April 1903, Japan’s prime and foreign ministers met with Yamagata and Ito Hirobumi, another elder statesman, to discuss the deteriorating relationship with Russia. Although the details are unknown, this “Murin-an Conference” set the scene for the Russo-Japanese War that began in 1904. While the second floor room has been preserved in the state of that date, the first floor gives an overview of the garden and its current management.

But the main attraction of Murin-an remains the garden with its many small details. Follow the paths all the way up to the waterfall. Look for the large round stepping stones that are said to provide the best views. Read the inscription on the memorial of the Meiji Emperor presenting Yamagate with two trees for his garden (and see if you can find where they once stood). And marvel at the enormous rock that Yamagata secured for the garden, some 300 years after Toyotomi Hideyoshi had attempted the same – and failed. But above all, take some time to relax and enjoy Murin-an as a peaceful retreat from the busy world outside.

Note that thanks to Corona, a visit to Murin-an currently requires a reservation at least one day in advance. See the Murin-an homepage: https://murin-an.jp/en/

Jakko-in Temple

Ohara is a sprawling rural community situated in a wide plain (hence the name) northeast of Kyoto. It still belongs to Kyoto, even though it lies more than 30 minutes by bus outside of what I would consider the city limits. Ohara is famous for its oharame – local women who used to peddle firewood, flowers or produce in Kyoto – Sanzen-in Temple with its beautiful moss gardens, and the former nunnery Jakko-in.

Jakko-in is a tiny temple that lies in the opposite direction of Sanzen-in at the end of a little valley. The walk there is very pleasant, it leads first along a little stream, then though the community. Judging from the number of souvenir shops and cafes on the way, it must be less popular than Sanzen-in. And had it not been mentioned in the Heike Monogatari, I guess it would have been forgotten long ago.

But let’s start at the beginning, in 594, when the temple was established by Shotoku Taishi to pray for the soul of his father, Emperor Yomei. At that time, Buddhism had only recently been introduced to Japan. Therefore, one of the first nuns of the country (who also happened to be the wet nurse of Shotoku Taishi) moved to the temple. Subsequently, Jakko-in became a retreat for nyoin, female members of the Imperial family and daughters of other high-ranking families. It seems, however, that taking vows was not a requirement to live there.

According to the temple, the third nun only moved there in 1185, and it’s because of her that Jakko-in is famous to this day. Her name was Kenreimon-in Tokuko, daughter of Taira-no-Kiyomori and mother of Emperor Antoku. Sounds familiar? The Taira (or Heike) fought against the Minamoto (or Genji) clan in the Genpei War (1180–1185), which was immortalized in the Heike Monogatari mentioned above. Sadly, the entire Taira clan was wiped out , and even Emperor Antoku, a mere boy of 6 was killed. Kenreimon-in spent the rest of her days in Jakko-in praying for the souls of her son and relatives.

From the temple’s entrance, stone steps lead straight up to the main hall. It is home to a statue of Rokumantai-Jizoson, the protector of children. There are also wooden statues of Kenreimon-in and her servant Awa-no-Naishi, only the second nun ever to live at the temple. Her garments are said to have been the model for the oharame’s clothes.

Sadly, none of this is original, not the building, and not the statues either. The temple was burned down in an arson attack in May 2000, and all you can see are reproductions. The main statue especially looks very modern; it is dressed in a colorful garment that I would call garish to the point of kitsch. However, on asking, I was told that that this is the original look of the statue when it was – supposedly – created by Shotoku Taishi himself, according to old documents.

To find out more about the temple, the nuns, and the arson attack, you can visit the treasure house which holds a lot of artifacts. The most interesting of these are more than 3000 wooden statues of Jizo, roughly 10 cm tall, that were all found inside the main statue after the arson. The original, badly burned statue, an Important Cultural Asset, is not usually on display.

Since the temple is so small, the gardens are not very extensive. The ones surrounding the main hall are the most beautiful, and there is a stump of a 1000-year-old pine that sadly did not survive the fire. It is said that this part has been maintained since the time of the Genpei War, and right now, you can hear tree frogs croaking in the little pond beneath the former pine. Another pond with koi carp and a little waterfall lies to the north of the main hall, and on a lower level, there is a tea house with yet another pond in front of it.

Kenreimon-in is still present at the temple. Just south of the main hall, a marker indicates her former residence, and once you leave the temple and take the steps uphill just outside of it, you can visit her tomb.

All in all, I found Jakko-in a nice experience. I like to visit places that are not overrun by tourists, and being just a bit off-season does help as well in this respect. The staff are very friendly and happy to answer questions.

Greenery Day

Happy national holiday!

The purpose of today’s Greenery day is for people to enjoy the great outdoors of Japan – and also to remember Emperor Showa, who, despite all his shortcomings, had a great love for nature.

So do I, as long as nature doesn’t manifest itself as insects in my bedroom…

Daigo-ji in Kyoto by David Emrich on unsplash

Uemura Shoen

There must be something in the air in Kyoto that is especially conducive to artists. Clearly, while Kyoto was the capital of Japan, this was the place to be if you wanted to make a living as an artist, or even as a craftsperson. But even today, Kyoto is a hub of Japan’s art world and many people with strong ties to the city become leaders in their fields, be it ukiyo-e, paintings, calligraphy, ceramics etc.

One of the most famous Japanese artists – and a woman to boot – is Uemura Shoen (1875 – 1949). She stands out as one of the few female painters from the Meiji/Taisho/Showa eras of Japan who rose not only to national but even to international fame during her lifetime.

When she was born in 1875 as the second daughter of a tea merchant in Kyoto’s Shimogyoku district, she was named Tsune. Her father had died two months before her birth, so she grew up in a household dominated by her mother and aunts. Tsune’s mother ran a popular teashop called “Chikiri-ya” which attracted affluent clients purchasing tea and other items for tea ceremony.

Little Tsune loved to draw from an early age and impressed her family so much with her talent that she was sent to the Kyoto Prefectural Art School to study when she was only 12 years old. Just three years later, her painting The Beauty of Four Seasons was sent to an art exhibition and was promptly bought by Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, who was visiting Japan at that time. From one day to another, the young girl now known as Uemura Shoen became a celebrity.

At that time, this was highly unusual. Even though many women, especially of the higher classes, learned how to paint (mostly in the traditional Japanese style), they practised the art as a pastime rather than as a profession. While other professional female painters did exist at the time (for example, Ito Shoba and Kajiwara Hisako), most of Japan’s art scene was dominated by men, in particular outside of Tokyo. Uemura’s international success – a version of The Beauty of Four Seasons won an award at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago – was unprecedented.

Uemura Shoen studied under several teachers (Suzuki Shonen who gave her the first kanji of his name, Kono Bairei and Takeuchi Seiho) and in her work integrated the traditional Maruyama Shijo, Kano, and Sesshu schools of painting. She also drew influences from ukiyo-e and Chinese landscape paintings.

The majority of Uemura Shoen’s works are so-called bijin-ga, paintings of beautiful women, doubtlessly influenced by all the women who visited her mother’s teashop. Their bodies often take up most of the painting and draw the focus towards the intricate details of their kimono and hair ornaments, painted with unparalleled delicacy. Many of her works were inspired by Noh theater. Even though women are not allowed to perform, Uemura’s paintings of Noh show women in classical dance poses and with a strong and determined mien.

When Uemura was 27 and unmarried, she gave birth to a son, Uemura Shoko, who later became a painter himself. She raised him and his sister, born a few years later, as a single mother, and never revealed the name of their father. It is speculated, however, that it may have been her teacher, Suzuki Shonen. Not only did he allow her to use the first character of his name in her own pseudonym, but he also accelerated her education and let her learn and practice the painting of figures in his own atelier instead of at school. Already at that time, people suspected an affair between the two, and her reputation took a downwards turn. However, in the long run, her exceptional talent silenced all critics, whether of her work or her private conduct.

In her later years, Uemura Shoen’s status as outstanding female painter was officially recognized. She became the pioneer in numerous top-ranking awards: first female painter accepted in the Imperial Art Academy (1941), second female court artist to the Imperial Household Agency (1944), and first woman to receive the Order of Culture (1948). Her painting Jo no mai of a female Noh dancer was the first painting by a Japanese woman rated as Important Cultural Propery. Uemura Shoen died in 1949, aged 74, still painting until the very end.

Uemura Shoen was a very prolific painter. To see a wide range of her pieces, you don’t have to go far (from Kyoto, that is): The Shohaku Art Museum in Nara focuses on her works, as well as those of her son and grandson.

Personally Busy

For now, all my work assignments have dried up completely, and I’m not expecting the next one until next week, Tuesday. So, I’ve been catching up on a few personal things I’ve wanted to do, at times for years already!

First of all, I went to see the current exhibitions in my two favourite museums, the Insho Domoto Museum and the Sannenzaka Museum. I love going to museums and learning about (Japanese) art – something I never thought I would like to do. I’m very surprised about myself here.

This year, I also scored a free ticket to the Ikenobo Ikebana Spring Exhibition. The Ikenobo is the oldest ikebana school in Japan, and it has its headquarters in Kyoto, at Rokkaku-do temple and an adjacent modern building. Altogether, there were more than 1000 flower arrangements on 8 floors! It was a bit overwhelming for me, at the end it got a bit much, and the arrangements started to blur into each other… There were surprisingly many people for a Monday, and many of them were deep in conversation about one piece or another. No wonder, ikebana was touted as one of the female graces in the Meiji and Taisho period. More about that at another time.

And then, a friend of mine invited me to a recital of Noh; it was a group of laymen, so there were no masks or costumes, but I found it just as amazing as the professional performances. I also splurged on tickets for a bunraku performance – Japanese-style puppet plays for adults. I thought I could understand what was going on, but the play, based on the Heike Monogatari, was very complex, and even reading the synopsis afterwards didn’t help at all. However, it was very interesting, and I’m planning on seeing another play – with proper preparation, next time.

Two weeks ago, I also had a house-warming party with some friends, and it was lovely, even though my kitchen is still not finished. This is also an official shout out to all my non-local friends who sent me gifts in the last few months: Thank you very much! Your selections of sweets, wine, and cat-related items were very well received. 😉

Now what? There’s still half a week to go, after all. The cherry trees at my shrine next door still need a day or two, but it’s hanami at other places in Kyoto already. So I want to go out a bit and enjoy the sunshine. There is also the kitchen begging for its wallpaper, and I’m out of preparations… Somehow, I am quite daunted by this, but I guess it’s just a question of rolling up my sleeves and getting it done. Also, I’ve spent much of this week writing for some personal projects of mine, and I want to get one or two of them completed. I guess you’ll hear more of those on this blog as well…

Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum

I found out about this new museum recently and just had to check it out (I love my job). It’s always special to find something brand new in Kyoto, where everything else dates back hundreds of years and even people are not considered “real” Kyoto people unless their family moved to Kyoto “before the war” – the Onin War of 1467, mind you…

The Zenbi Kagizen Art Museum in Gion was established last year, and it is housed in a newly-built building in zen-like style, very minimalistic. An effort has been made to make it fit among the surroundings, which also show a traditional exterior.

This little museum is a private one, founded by the Kagizen Yoshifusa, a maker of traditional Kyoto sweets that dates back to the Edo period. Usually, sweets shops like these cater to monks and tea houses, since traditional kyo-gashi confectionary is most often used at tea ceremonies or to offer to guests. However, back in the Showa period, the then-head of the family, Zenzo, managed to establish the Kagizen as a salon for artists, writers, researchers, in short: the intellectual crowd of Kyoto. Their sweets have been immensely popular among general citizens as well.

So, said Zenzo, the 12th generation head of the family, made lots of connections to the local art scene, and especially the mingei movement (folk art) headed by Kawai Kanjiro was favoured by him. He also established a deep friendship with Tatsuaki Kuroda, a wood craftsman and lacquer artist, who designed pieces for the Kagizen store and teahouse. This friendship laid the foundations of the museum’s collection, and I wish I had found the museum already last year, because the very first exhibition was about the connection between Kuroda and Zenzo – and I love lacquerware.

But their current exhibition on wooden molds for sweets is equally fascinating, because it explores the history of the Kagizen Yoshifusa as sweets maker famous for higashi, dried sweets. These tea-ceremony favourites are often nothing more than sugar, sometimes colored, and pressed into molds to create a large variety of shapes. Chrysanthemums and other flowers are common, as are seashells and fish. For weddings etc. there are auspicious cranes or turtles, and each new year sees the appropriate zodiac animal.

I was surprised by the variety of the shapes, and how delicately the molds were carved. Of course, this is a job for an expert, and besides molds used by the Kagizen over the years, there were also some from a collection of a 3rd generation artisan sweet-mold maker. My favourite? The astronauts!

So, if you’d like to check out this lovely new museum, here’s their website: https://zenbi.kagizen.com/ The exhibition on the sweets molds is on until April 10, 2022.

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


Winter Wonderland

Today, I wanted to write about something completely different. But then, weather happened… It has snowed several days this winter already, which is quite unusual for Kyoto. Here’s Saginomori Jinja in the snow from last Friday. The snow has gone from the streets now, but it’s still pretty cold. Pumpkin does not approve and neither do I…