My Favourite Dragons

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Japan (all over Asia, actually), and dragons are a popular motif in Japanese art. They have a special connection to Zen temples, where dragons are often depicted on the ceilings of their main halls. Since they are considered to live in water, placing their image there is a prayer for protection from fires (not very successfully, as history shows). Dragons are also thought to protect the Buddhist Dharma and to keep a watchful eye over the priests and congregation below them.

My favourite dragon painting is that of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. In contrast, the painting was only created in 2000, so it has a very vibrant and modern feel to it and provides a stark contrast to the old temple hall. Here it is:

It’s actually two dragons intertwined instead of only one; one of them with mouth closed, the other one with mouth open, reminiscent of the guardian lions that can be found at many temple and even shrine entrances. They seem to fight over one single ball of treasure, which one of them holds proudly in a 5-clawed paw, something that is rare in Japan. Most dragon paintings here have only 4 or even just 3 claws, the use of the 5-clawed dragon was reserved for the Chinese emperor.

Anyway, the painting is stunning and whenever I go there, I spend some time sitting down and following the bodies of the dragons, trying to find all the parts and figuring out to which dragon they belong. Sadly, Kennin-ji has become very touristy (I remember when I first visited it, there was nobody there), so it’s less peaceful than it once was 10 years ago.

Out & About

Just a wee bit late… Yesterday, my friend from Tokyo visited Kyoto for a short day trip. We went to no less than three museums, one of them even for free and unofficially, because we arrived between exhibitions and the nice lady downstairs let us in anyway.

We had ramen for lunch and coffee and sweets as final act of the day before my friend returned home again. I always enjoy our outings, she’s curious and flexible and very happy to try and experience all sorts of new things with me.

After our outing, I found myself at Kitaoji Bus Terminal and decided to buy a new IC card for public transport. Of course, I have one – a so-called SUICA I bought years ago in Tokyo – and while it’s still perfectly valid and functional, the Kansai region has recently introduced a discount system for commuters and other heavy users that only works with the local IC cards PiTaPa or ICOCA.

I thought I could simply buy one of these and be done with it after registering my address, but it turns out that the PiTaPa is only available via (online) application, because it is in fact a post-paid card that requires a connected bank account for automatic payment at the end of each month.

In any case, it took a while to explain to the two people at the information counter what I wanted from them; in turn it took a while for them to explain to me the requirements… Finally, I got the advice to “research PiTaPa on the internet”.

“Is there a URL,” I asked, “can you please write it down for me.” This is the note I received:

I think I discovered peak stupidity.

Garden of Fine Arts

Today, I took advantage of the free admission to finally visit the “Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto”. It lies next to the Botanical Gardens on Kitayama Dori, which is probably the reason why there isn’t a single plant in sight…

Instead, it is an outdoors gallery on three underground levels, created with massive concrete slabs and pillars by architect Tadao Ando. It is home to eight large-scale ceramic reproductions of famous pieces, among them Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and Leonardo’s Last Supper. Because of the way the gallery has been set up, the art can be viewed from several levels and perspectives, giving new insights along the way (literally).

Throughout the place you can hear the gushing of water as it flows along walls into pools at the very bottom. You make your way down on gentle slopes and there are benches to sit and view the art pieces.

I’m not a fan of this kind of architecture, to be honest, and the Western art at least didn’t touch me either. I’m not sure why, maybe because the surroundings were so much different that what I’m used to. Also, there is the age of the reproductions to take into account, even though ceramic should be able to withstand quite some abuse. I couldn’t find anything definite, but apparently the gallery opened in the 1990s.

I did like the Choju Jinbutsu Giga, a long scroll from the 12th/13th century depicting frolicking animals; it is often called the first Japanese manga. Because these tiles lie under the walkways, they seem to be in better condition and that you can get really close is definitely a plus.

Overall, I’m not sure if I can recommend the Garden of Fine Arts. If you like Tadao Ando’s work, do check it out, it’s currently only 100 yen to view it. If you’re not into grey concrete slabs, you won’t miss much if you pass.

1200 Years of Toji and Shingon Buddhism

Sorry for not writing yesterday, I was out all afternoon and came home soaking wet after dark. But since it’s a holiday today (Sports Day), I had some time for a recap. As you may know, thanks to WUIK, I count as “member of the press” and so I got a preview for the special exhibition “All About Toji” that started today. The preview lasted four hours, and it was worth every second, despite all the rain. Below are my impressions and some photos I took yesterday.

From 794, Toji, the “Western Temple” and its 5-story pagoda marked the entrance to Heian-kyo, the then-new capital of Japan. Today it still stands (unlike its sister temple to the east) just south of Kyoto station, and this month, it celebrates the 1200 anniversary of Shingon Buddhism.

The monk Kukai, after his death revered as Kobo Daishi, was given Toji temple in 823 and expanded it greatly. He also oversaw the construction of several buildings, among them the pagoda that is now a landmark of Kyoto. Although there are several large temples in Kyoto affiliated to Shingon Buddhism, Toji remains the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism to this day.

Sadly, most of the temple’s original buildings were destroyed one time or another by earthquakes, typhoons, or fires. They have been rebuilt, however, sometimes even according to old plans, and many now count among Japan’s National Treasures.

The preview started out with a short press conference in a building adjacent to the abbot’s quarters. While it looks fairly recent outside and has a lovely garden, I was taken by the modern paintings on top of the fusuma. They reminded me of Insho Domoto, but were actually by a contemporary artist called Taisuke Hamada.

We were then free to walk the temple grounds. First stop: The Miedo, aka Daishi-in, which was originally the residence of Kobo Daishi, even though the current building is from 1390. Instead of a Buddha, it has a statue of Kobo Daishi; people come and worship him all the same.

The Homotsukan temple museum is home to temple treasures. This time, letters from Kukai are on display, as well as letters from emperors to the temple and some treasured mandala. For me, however, the most spectacular exhibit was on the second floor: an enormous 6m-tall statue of Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, with her 1000 arms. The statue was once housed in another building, but was greatly damaged when a fire destroyed the hall. It took years to reconstruct her, and one can only imagine how impressive it must have looked like before the fire.

The sub-temple Kanchin-in was home to the temple’s guest house, built in 1359. It is a very large complex with interlocking building and boasts wall paintings by one of its famous guests: Miyamoto Musashi. The eagle painting shows its age, but the bamboo still looks fresh. I liked the little gardens that are fit between the buildings, and in a more modern part that has several tearooms, there were more paintings by Taisuke Hamada, this time depicting seasonal scenes.

The main part of Toji Temple consists of three buildings in a large garden: The Kodo Lecture Hall was established by Kobo Daishi in 825; the current building is from 1491. Inside is an unusual three-dimensional mandala with 20 Buddhist statues, also created by Kobo Daishi and all centred around a seated Dainichi Nyorai. Personally, I prefer the statues of the so-called Wisdom Kings, they are much more dynamic in expression and posture than the serene seated Buddhas.

Three Buddhas make up the entire interior furnishings of the Kondo Main Hall, just south of the Kodo, which was commissioned by Hideyori in 1603. It shows the distinct architectural style of the Momoyama period.

The 5-storied pagoda is the symbol of Toji Temple and one of Kyoto’s landmarks. The current one is from 1644, built under the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu. Its shock-absorbing construction is said to have inspired similar designs used in Tokyo’s Skytree. On the ground floor, are four seated Buddha statues, each facing a different cardinal direction. The interior of the pagoda is covered in colourful patterns and paintings, in stark contrast to its dark and sombre exterior. I wonder what the other floors may have inside, but these are off limits at all times.

Finally, there were two more exhibitions of beautiful close-up photographs of statues and buildings of Toji temple which I greatly admired – I wish I could take photos like these. There were also two brand-new mandalas by a contemporary artist, which, to be honest, I didn’t find that good, but they were dedicated to the temple on this day.

For me, the best things were the Kannon statue, the 3D mandala and the interior of the pagoda as well as Kanchiin House as a whole. It was my first time entering the buildings of Toji Temple and I can wholeheartedly recommend it!

If you’re in Kyoto this October, do take the time to visit this exhibition “All About Toji” where you can see all this with a single ticket and a special audio guide in English.

Nuit Blanche Kyoto 2023

More outings last weekend! After our moon viewing on Friday, my friend and I decided to spend Saturday on the Nuit Blanche events. This art and performance festival has its roots in Paris, but many cities all over the (francophone) world have taken over the concept.

Originally, Nuit Blanche really was a single night, but since Corona, the program has been stretched to avoid congestion at the venues. I’m not sure this is a good thing. When hearing Nuit Blanche, I expect all events to be on that day/evening, and this wasn’t the case; I’m not going to remember to return in 3 weeks time. Anyway, two events stood out to my friend and me.

First, “Une Monde Parfume”. A young woman in a red dress sat on a high chair, with her velvet skirt draped all over the floor. Visitors were invited to approach the artist underneath the 15 m long “skirt”. But once at the chair, there were cushions, a lamp, and notebooks in which you could leave your impressions. Performance art – where the spectators do all the performing.

In contrast, a photography exhibition by Daisuke Takashige, a young man from the island of Tanegashima. A nearby, uninhabited island is being transformed into a naval base for Japanese troops, and he is documenting the changes it causes in his own community. Besides a clear environmental impact, the lines between those who oppose and those who welcome the military base run through families. Takashige says he’s the only one against the base in his family, which can’t be easy.

There was also a surprising bonus concert, and I felt as if it was just set up for me. When we arrived at the ROHM square, we found out that the performance we wanted to see was scheduled in 3 weeks. Instead, we were treated to a short concert by KING-BATIHOLI, the “next generation BATI-HOLIC”, or, in other words, Kuro-chan and two of his students. I’ve met one of the students before, but never heard him play, and I was really impressed by the boys. Of course, they have been playing for 10 years now… The boys (and Kuro-chan and one other BATI-HOLIC) will perform again at the World Music Festival on October 14. Just sayin’.

Besides these, we went to a number of other exhibitions that we found of varying interest, had sweets at the Tamayuran and a Chinese dinner. Unfortunately, late evening wasn’t as nice as the one before. Just when I wanted to cycle home, a thunderstorm arrived and forced me to sit at a hotel lobby for almost an hour until the rain stopped. In the end, I came home slightly damp at 12:30 in the morning, and Pumpkin wasn’t happy about my fun day out…

Photos above were taken by my friend, thank you! 😉

Moon Viewing

It was full moon last Friday, and because this harvest moon is considered the most beautiful in Japan, there are moon viewing parties at many shrines and temples in Kyoto. This time, my friend from Tokyo joined me for the kangetsu at Matsunoo Taisha all the way out in the Western part of Kyoto.

It started off with a fairly short religious ceremony with prayers and a dance ritual by a miko shrine maiden. These dances are meant to attract the gods to the shrine, so they can take part in the ceremony and can later enjoy the performances that are put up for the gods (and earthly visitors as well). While those can vary and include martial arts or theater for example, at Matsunoo Taisha, visitors usually are treated to concerts for moon viewing.

First, there was a shakuhachi – bamboo flute – concert. I like shakuhachi very much, and they do have a plaintive sound that is essentially built-in. Still, I felt that the music wasn’t chosen well, it felt more appropriate for a slumber party, and that’s not the point of moon viewing. Something more upbeat would have suited the occasion better; surely there must be fun modern pieces for shakuhachi as well.

Afterwards, a koto & shinobue duo came on stage, and the mood lightened considerably. As I’ve explained before, koto is a zither-like instrument, and the shinobue is also a bamboo flute, but much smaller and with a higher pitch. The combination was fun and light-hearted, exactly what my friend and I expected.

At last, the main attraction and the reason why we went all the way out to Matsunoo Taisha in the first place: Wadaiko drums. I had planned this the moment I found out that one of the Bati-Holics (lead singer Nakajima) would perform with his students, and I was not disappointed. Altogether there were five groups performing one song each, and finally, there was some power behind the music, literally.

By then, the moon had risen over the dance stage and the shrine was packed with fans and friends of the players (mostly female laypeople except for the teachers) and the atmosphere was very lively, as always when taiko are involved. The free cup of sake did help too, I’m sure. Of the five pieces, one of them stood out to both my friend and me, and we were later told by the owner of the taiko school who organizes these concerts every year that it was his wife’s song (sorry, Nakajima-san).

We skipped the haiku contest at the end, but it was a lovely night just as well. The weather was pleasant, and even though I only got home past 11, I didn’t need the jacket I brought. My friend was also glad she came; it was her very first traditional moon viewing in a shrine. Things are indeed very different in Kyoto and Tokyo…

Gion Matsuri Goodies

I was quite busy last Saturday, out and about for almost 12 hours.

First, there was the yoiyoiyama of Gion Matsuri’s Ato Parade, and once again, I volunteered at the Ofunehoko. They adapt shift lengths every year to try and make it as easy as possible on the volunteers who have to stand there in the heat. This time, I chose the exceptionally short afternoon shift from 2 to 4:30 because I had plans for later.

It wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be, in fact, this year feels less humid overall. Of course, this may also be because I stay on my mountain most of the days. Some friends came by to cheer me on (and buy chimaki), so the shift was over very quickly. And, for the first time, they also had an English pamphlet for people who entered the Ofunehoko, and I was in charge as the “English-speaking lead” of the shift.

Anyway, a friend picked me up at the very end, and we looked at a few more of the yamaboko. We caught several just at the time they were playing the Gion bayashi music – rhythms with flutes, gongs, and drums that are unique to every hoko of Gion Matsuri. It was fun.

And then we made our way to the Bati-Holic Kimono Rock Party. It was a one-man-show, a concert with just Bati-Holic this time, and it had been sold out weeks prior. They are always very energizing, and it was nice to see them play in front of a house full of fans. Some people I recognized from earlier concerts, and I made a few new connections, which is always nice.

About the goodies mentioned in the title: All volunteers at the Ofunehoko get one chimaki for free, it’s a protective charm that you put up at the entrance of your house. The reason I chose this particular shift was that I had to wear a yukata – and as the name suggests, the “Kimono Rock Party” was all about kimono/yukata, and people dressed in such got a tenugui towel as a special gift.

I’m not sure why it had to be pink (rock band and all), but Pumpkin seems to approve regardless.

Coffee Culture

As an Austrian, I am very much into coffee culture, and I don’t even drink coffee! The great thing about Austrian “KaffeehĂ€user”, in particular those in Vienna, is that you can order a glass of water, grab one of the newspapers offered there for free and stay for hours without anyone bothering you further. While you can choose from dozens of different coffees, sweets, and often even small meals, the “consume or leave” attitude is considered rude.

I’m glad that Japan has embraced this idea of coffee culture. While it is uncommon to stay after dinner at a restaurant, and some of the fanciest bars allow you only an hour or two to get wasted, in a good cafĂ©, they leave you alone.

I made a list of my favourite cafĂ©s for a coffee, ahem, a work break, before I moved. Sadly, the Mo-an on top of Yoshida hill has new owners who decided to go the lunch-only-with-reservation option. It’s all quite complicated now, and I haven’t been there since.

On the other hand, I have discovered the Very Berry Cafe on Kitashirakawa. It’s all about American food in a space that is reminiscent of Hawaii. I haven’t tried their lunch or dinner yet, but their smoothies and milkshakes – all in “American size” – are to die for. They also make 3D cakes for birthdays and have cookies and cakes for take out. A great place to meet friends, if not quiet enough to work.

However, my number one is still the café in the Ogaki bookshop. I go there regularly to write, and most other patrons do some work there too. There are students with thick textbooks doing their homework. People of all ages study languages, mostly English but even Chinese. Graphic artists create manga or anime on fancy tablets. And of course, people are just coming in with their latest purchase and start reading over a cup of coffee.

I go there so often that not only the staff knows me by now (and most of them are part-time students), but in turn I also recognize some of the other regulars. One of my former neighbours comes in the afternoon for a coffee and a newspaper read. The blind man and his grandson (I guess) who come here for lunch. The old man who is bent over almost double, so he walks very slowly, but his eyes light up when he takes out his brand-new books, which he caresses like a true lover. The boy who twirls his hair while he stares at his phone. Everything is relaxed and quiet, and you can stay as long as you like, even if you nurse your one cup of coffee and the glass of water it comes with, for hours.

It’s just like cafĂ© culture in Austria, where a good “Kaffeehaus” can be your home away from home. This is what I feel when I go to a cafĂ© or kissaten, as they are called here, in Japan. Isn’t it wonderful!

Kurodani’s Buddha

At the cemetery of Kurodani temple (the official name is Konkai Komyo-ji) is this unique Buddha statue.

It is called the Gokoshiyui Amida Statue, but, for obvious reasons, it is better known as the “Afro Buddha”. The story goes that this Buddha had such an incredibly long period of training/meditation that the hair grew to this size and shape.

And indeed, the name “Gokoshiyui” can be translated to “5 kalpa thought”, where a kalpa is an aeon, an incredibly long time. Interestingly, while there are definitions of the length of a kalpa in Hinduism (4.32 billion years), Buddhism prefers to use analogies rather than explicit numbers. Wikipedia states that in some definitions, a regular kalpa is 16.8 million years, and there are small, medium and great kalpas as well, the last one being about 1.3 trillion years.

I guess after such a long time of meditation, you can be excused for having a bad hair day. His face also has a wonderful, serene expression, and I wonder what stories he might tell…

The Priestesses of Ise and Kamo Shrines

Tomorrow, the Aoi Matsuri is taking place, the first of Kyoto’s three big festivals. For the first time in 4 years, a parade will leave the Imperial Palace, visit Shimogamo shrine, and then go on to its final destination, Kamigamo shrine. Of the 500 or so people taking part in the parade, the Saio-dai, who rides in a special palanquin, is the heart of the Aoi Matsuri. These days, she is chosen from among the best families in Kyoto, but in ancient times, she was a daughter of the reigning Emperor.

The Saio Dai in her palanquin

The practice of sending an Imperial Princess as priestess to Ise shrine started – according to the ancient Nihongi, whose accuracy is doubtful – around the year 92 BCE. The Nihongi states that at that time

“The gods Amaterasu and ƌkunidama were formerly both worshipped in the Emperor’s Palace Hall. But the Emperor SĆ«jin was frightened of having so much divine power concentrated in one place. Accordingly, he entrusted the worship of Amaterasu to the Princess Toyosuku-iri, bidding her carry it out in the village of Kasanui in Yamato.”

Subsequently, Amaterasu expressed a desire to be moved to Ise.

Becoming a so-called Saigu at Ise shrine was more involved than a mere appointment, at which time the Saigu was around 12 years old. The preparations and purifications took three years, during which the maiden lived at Nonomiya shrine outside of Kyoto in today’s Arashiyama. Only when she was properly prepared, was she allowed to return to the Palace for one last time. There, she received the “Comb of Parting” from her Imperial father, whom she would never see again. This is because her office lasted until

  • the Emperor died or resigned
  • the Saigu died or became disabled
  • either one of her parents died
  • or ceased to be a virgin (or worse, became pregnant).

Once Buddhism was introduced from China in the 8th century, it quickly took hold at the Imperial Court. However, Ise shrine was the centre of Japan’s Shintoism, and in order not to offend the old gods, a number of interesting speech taboos were imposed upon the Saigu and everybody else in her retinue. For example, Buddha was called “The Centre”, priests “hair-long”, and temples became “tile-covered places”. Other words with changed meaning revolved around death (recovery), tombs (earthen heaps), illness (taking a rest), and blood (sweat).

The tradition of sending a Saigu to Ise shrine ended in 1342, however, even today, Imperial Princesses take an important role in the worship of Amaterasu at special ceremonies.

The Saio or Saiin – the Imperial Princess serving at the Kamo shrines – was modelled after the Saigu of Ise. It is said that during the Kusho War between the Saga and Heisei Emperors, the former prayed to the gods of Kamo. He promised to send a daughter to the shrines if he would win the war. Subsequently, the first Saio was sent to Kamo in 818, and the practice continued until 1204.

In Kyoto, Aoi Matsuri is the largest festival connected to the Saio of the Kamo shrines. However, in October, the Saigu Gyoretsu Procession at Nonomiya shrine re-enacts the sending of a Saigu to Ise shrine, as she travels through the famous bamboo forest and purifies herself in the river.

Both festivals are unique to Kyoto and provide a fascinating glimpse into times long past. Definitely worth watching!