The Lion, the Witch and the … What?

Last week, I mentioned that there is no good place in my new bedroom for a Western-style wardrobe. When some of my friends came over a while ago for a very belated house-warming, I told them the same thing, to which one of my Japanese friends responded with the following:

When he was a child, he read the Narnia books. There, the whole adventure starts when the kids step through an old wardrobe. My friend said that he couldn’t understand the concept of “wardrobe” at all. And indeed, Japanese people – at that time at least – didn’t use wardrobes like we know them.

Several different Tansu

Instead, there was the tansu, a traditional chest with drawers – but obviously, it’s a bit hard to “step through” to the other side. Then, there are oshi-ire, built-in closets that are found in almost every traditional room. But they have a shelf halfway up as well, and are used chiefly for storing futons during daytime – also not very convenient for a quick “stepping through”, although it would be conceivable for a small child to do it.

Anyway, this then led to my question: How did you store things that are usually put on hangers, like suits? Answer: Neatly folded inside the box they came in, inside a tansu or oshi-ire. Just like kimono, hakama, and other traditional garments. All of them require a special way of folding before they are wrapped in paper and stored for the next time.

Thinking about this, I found it interesting how our own cultural experiences shape the understanding – or lack thereof – of other cultures, and that from a young age, apparently. Even though I read stories from all over the world as a child, I can’t remember any grave misunderstandings like the above. I wonder if it never happened (maybe there were always plenty of illustrations at hand) or if my mind just filled in the blanks with familiar shapes, clothes, sounds… It’s probably the latter, but I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

Daitoku-ji

In the north of Kyoto lies Daitoku-ji, the “Temple of Great Virtue”. It is not one single temple, but rather a sprawling complex of 22 subtemples located on 27 hectares of land. Daitoku-ji belongs to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and in fact it is the headquarters of its own branch of Buddhism.

It was founded around 1315 by the monk Daito Kokushi with imperial support as a small monastery. Like many buildings in Kyoto, the temple was destroyed during the Onin Wars of the 15th century but was rebuilt later. Therefore, the main buildings of Daitoku-ji – altogether National Treasures – date back only to the 15th century.

The main buildings of the temple are the vermilion Sanmon Gate, the Buddha and Dharma Halls, the Abbot’s Quarters, as well as a Bathhouse and a Sutra Library. In front of the Sanmon Gate lies the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger Gate) that was moved here from the Imperial Palace.

These buildings, although they are not usually accessible, can all be viewed from the main path that leads through the temple and is lined with large pine trees. Smaller paths lead to the gates of the different subtemples that are all more or less independent and were added to the complex over time, often founded by noble families.

Daitoku-ji saw a boost in prominence in the late 16th century when Hideyoshi donated land and money and had the remains of Oda Nobunaga and his closest family buried in the specially founded subtemple Soken-in. I’ve posted about Soken-in before, to my mind it’s not the most exciting of all the temples of the complex.

Daitoku-ji is also connected to tea master Sen-no-Rikyu, who had the vermillion Sanmon Gate renovated. A popular story has it that he placed an image of himself in the second floor of this gate, which enraged Hideyoshi so much that he ordered him to commit seppuku.

To this day, the whole temple complex is a living monastery, where monks learn, teach, and practice Buddhism. Therefore, many of the subtemples are generally not accessible to the public, except for short viewings during select times.

One of the most important subtemples is Shinju-an, which was founded in 1491 in memory of Ikkyu Sojun, who was essential for the rebuilding of Daitoku-ji. He was a rather eccentric priest, and Shinju-an treasures his memory with fusuma paintings by contemporary artists. It is also the place where the fathers of modern Noh, Kan-ami and Ze-ami, are buried.

The subtemple Daisen-in is one of the most important Zen temples of all Kyoto. It has fusuma paintings by Zen monk Soami, but the important thing to see is the dry landscape garden that stems from the Muromachi era. It depicts the Chinese idea of paradise, and its pebbly waters flow all around the main hall.

Juko-in is the family temple for Sen-no-Rikyu and his descendants, and thus plays an important role in Kyoto’s tea world. All the heads of the three main family branches of tea ceremony are buried here. Juko-in is also famous for its16th-century fusuma paintings by Kano Eitoku.

Most of the subtemples of Daitoku-ji hold important treasures of Japanese history, may it be their buildings themselves, their fusuma paintings, or Buddhist statues or other relics. While they may seem all alike to the casual observer, it is worth looking at the little details that make all the difference.

As mentioned, the subtemples are only accessible at select times. On most days, 2-4 subtemples are open to the public. Daisen-in, Zuiho-in, Koto-in, and Ryogen-in are open throughout the year, many others for short periods in spring and autumn or during special occasions. This makes Daitoku-ji one of the quieter places to visit in Kyoto and fun to explore.

Finished/Furnished: Bedroom

Another room I can declare as “finished”: my bedroom upstairs. To be perfectly honest, because of my limited budget I didn’t do much with it, plus it has been finished for a while already. The reason I’m showing it only now is that during winter time, I was sleeping in the living room upstairs, which is smaller and easier to heat. So, the bedroom has only been a bedroom again for a few weeks.

Anyway, here’s the state before I moved in:

It looked pretty good already, so it needed only smaller changes, first and foremost: new tatami, like all the rooms upstairs. The two green things are a) tape over an air condition outlet, and b) a string attached to the lamp to turn it on and off while laying in bed. Interestingly, none of the rooms upstairs have light switches, very traditional indeed. The rectangular thing is a cover for a fan like the one I have in the kitchen.

At first, my plans were to remove the fan and close the hole in the wall to make it warmer in the room, but this was surprisingly expensive, so I scrapped it. These holes are the main reasons why I sleep next door in winter, even though I could fill in the smaller hole with cork coasters from IKEA. I also moved the curtain rails that are directly above the window in this photo all the way to the ceiling, partly to disguise the peeling wallpaper, and partly because my curtains would have been too long otherwise.

Unfortunately, the problem with the peeling wallpaper is not solved yet. It has something to do with the traditional walls underneath are not a good ground for (this kind of) wallpaper, so even new wallpaper will peel eventually. A solution would have been to cover the whole room with wooden/MDF board (like the new walls underneath the big window), but that wasn’t in my budget either. So, here we go:

I think it looks pretty good, with new, clean shoji, my futon in the middle and the lovely chest I bought in Hong Kong. A new addition to my bedroom is the large coat rack that lived in the genkan in the old apartment, but there’s no space for it there now. I also bought a new nightstand, which is actually, ahem… a stand for plants. Not only that, I turned it upside down to create a bowl shaped space at the bottom where I keep glasses, pens, bookmarks and other useful stuff elderly ladies cannot be without at night.

As pretty as the room is now, if you look closely, there’s one thing missing: A wardrobe. That’s why I use this self-made open shelf instead, with a door to the living room. Yes, the thing at the left of it is some sort of plastic curtain-door, but it looks and feels icky, and I don’t want to touch it, really. Now that I think about it, I could just remove it and install a standard curtain there.

Anyway, the reason for the nonexistent wardrobe is the nonexistence of a wall against which to put it. Three walls have a window, door, or oshi-ire in it; and putting the wardrobe against the fourth wall would block half of the first window pane, not to mention the entrance door… So, on my list for my next renovations is: remove the fan, close the window and make a wall suitable for a decent wardrobe. Until then, I’ll have to live with my open shelves, the little oshi-ire, and my boxes. It could be worse. At least Pumpkin is happy about the boxes, he sleeps on/in them in summer.

The Nakano Thrift Shop

The Nakano Thrift Shop
Hiromi Kawakami

When Hitomi starts working in Mr. Nakano’s store, he tells her right away that they do not sell antiques, but rummage. It is a quiet store and every so often Mr. Nakano goes out with young Takeo to buy now old merchandise. Between old ashtrays, life-size advertisements cutouts, odd ball customers and old vases, affection slowly grows between Hitomi and Takeo. As both have been burnt by love before, their relationship is an awkward to-and-fro, with moments of intimacy and periods of rejection. And all between that, we hear of the women in Mr. Nakano’s life; about his current lover, but also about his ever present sister Masayo and the love of her life.

The Nakano Thrift Store is the thread that weaves through a number of episodes in the lives of the protagonistst, all of them centered on love in one way or the other. However, the decision of Mr. Nakano to open a real antiques shop in a more upscale neighborhood tears apart the fragile web between the characters, and leaves a sense of loss in its wake.

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and started her career as a writer with science fiction stories, directly after graduating from college. She has since received numerous Japanese literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Yomiuri Prize.

This lovely book of people that are still trying to find their own path in society is available from amazon.

Hanami 2023

What a day! An Austrian friend of mine visited Kyoto just in time for this year’s hanami. We did a lot of walking together, only partially avoiding the crowds (and on a Wednesday, too!)

We went along Philosopher’s Path, passed Eikando on our way to Nanzen-ji, then took a somewhat hidden path from the aqueduct to Keage Incline (one of my favourite places for many reasons). After a short break for lunch at the steps in front of the Kyocera Museum, we walked past Shoren-in and Chion-in and through the crowds at Maruyama Park. Onwards, upwards, and towards Kiyomizudera, we stopped at the Sannenzaka Museum for their current exhibition on Edo/Meiji metalworks. Afterwards, we were both exhausted and decided to call it a day, even though my friend initially wanted to see the evening lightup at Kiyomizudera.

It was a glorious, sunny day with lots of people everywhere, both Japanese and foreign tourists. The rest of the week looks promising as well, and I already have my first (thankfully mild) sunburn of the year. I’ll add a photo tomorrow, for now, I’m off to bed.

First Sakura!

Sorry for not writing on Sunday, I went all the way to the other, western, end of town and back – on the bicycle… We were having some great sunny days lately, and it’s warm and pleasant all around, the perfect spring weather. Rainy days are still cold and nights, too, but Pumpkin now sleeps on top of the duvet during the night, so it’s warm enough for him at least.

Anyway, while I was out and about, I was looking for signs of cherry blossoms. It’s a bit too early, yet there are blooming trees here and there. This one caught my eye, for example:

I took several photos from the street, when the lady of the house appeared and invited me inside! She said that this so-called benishidare zakura – weeping cherry – is a very early bloomer every year, and I could see how proud she was of it. And rightfully so!

So Cool!

As I mentioned, I gave myself a 10 mm buzz cut about a month ago. And just the time I save every morning by not having to style it or wait until it’s dry has me convinced that I’ll keep it this way for a long, long time…

So far, reactions were split across the gender divide.

Men don’t seem so care, really, although I did notice some stares from across rooms and even streets. Only my doctor, whom I’ve been seeing for 10 years now every three months, seemed to be genuinely shocked. First thing he said at our last appointment was, “so… you got a haircut…” to proceed to the practicalities of the how and to finally end at the why – and if the cliché of women changing their lives with a haircut is true. I told him to pay attention if his wife ever shows up with something drastic like this; the next thing she may want to change may be him… He also asked the best question of them all with “Isn’t it cold?” (It’s indeed a bit chilly on the bicycle.)

Women on the other hand are almost vicariously excited about it, in particular younger ones. I’ve heard “that’s so cool!” several times now, and just today, I got compared to Annie Lennox. Of course, Annie is even now, at almost 70, so much more beautiful than I’ve ever been and ever will be. No contest. And now, I have her “Little Bird” fluttering around in my head…

Yoshida Brothers

Somehow, I fell into a Japanese music hole on YouTube the last couple of days… and here I emerge with the Yoshida Brothers.

The brothers from Hokkaido began to play Japanese shamisen from a very young age, and started performing when they were around 20 years old. Their music mixes elements of Tsugaru-jamisen (a very rapid but still traditional style of playing) and western influences. Their first album sold 100,000 copies, and they have performed even internationally. This is one of their latest uploads to their YouTube channel, a dedicatory performance for the Buddha (sound isn’t perfect):

They also have an English website through their record label: https://www.domomusicgroup.com/yoshidabrothers/

Taiko Class

Two weeks ago, I was invited to a Japanese drum class to review it for What’s up in Kyoto (I love my job!) Japanese drums are generally called wadaiko, but there are many different sizes that all have specific names. I’ll do a bit more research on this – looks like a weekend post on drums is coming up! But let’s talk about the lesson.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings somewhere between excitement and apprehension. I have zero musical talent and couldn’t hold a tune if my life depended on it, and after I had to quit the recorder (flute) in primary school, all I’ve been playing were LPs and later CDs. So, there was a base level of embarrassment to begin with, which grew exponentially when I entered the classroom and saw that it was set up for a single student only. Yay.

Thankfully, we started easy: raise the drumsticks high and just drop them onto the drum. Tap the edge of the drum. Play loudly and then very quietly. Interestingly, the stance to play wadaiko with slightly bent knees and straight back reminded me of the basic stance in Aikido. I wonder if this is because the strength for playing should not come from the arms and shoulders, but from the hara, the centre of the body (just like in Aikido).

In any case, the class moved to basic rhythms and, finally, to a real song (is it a “song” if it’s just rhythm? Serious question) with a beginning, middle and end. My teacher and I played together and took turns with improvisations in the third part, and although I wasn’t very good at those, it was fun to watch him play.

The lesson took one hour, in which I had great fun thanks to the teacher who was very encouraging. Unfortunately, I felt quite conscious of my body throughout the class, partly because I was the only student as mentioned and thus felt under constant scrutiny, but also because I was facing a huge mirrored wall all the time… Overall, however, the fun definitely outweighed my body issues and I felt extremely energized after the class, so much so that I couldn’t sleep at all that night.

Things that surprised me: the drumsticks were very light; apparently, there are different weights and sizes, not just for smaller and larger drums (obviously), but heavier drumsticks make it less tiring to play for longer periods. Also, where the drum is hit makes a difference – dead centre sounds different from closer to the edge. Now that I had time to think about it, the reason is probably the added interference/overlay of the soundwaves near the edge, but that wasn’t clear to me at first. Finally, you need to hold the drumsticks quite tightly to avoid them bouncing and hitting the drum twice – no wonder I ended up with blisters on both my thumbs.

Before I tell you my final verdict, I must mention the teacher: it was Kuro-chan (real name Shugo Kurosaka), the blonde frontman of Bati-Holic. (Since I’ve fangirled about the band already.several.times, I’ll spare you today, but do check them out, they’re great!) We got to talk after a concert, and he mentioned that he’s teaching too, and I jumped on the occasion. He began learning taiko when he was 12, and when he entered university in Kyoto, he started a taiko club there (which still exists today!) He said he quickly found out that there was money in this, and since he wanted to do something music related anyway… The rest is history. Because he has so much experience teaching and also works with kids, he’s very patient, and we were both laughing a lot during the lesson, which speaks for his relaxed attitude.

Final verdict, or: Where is this going? Well, one of my goals in Project 50 by 50 is to “start a new hobby.” And because this whole music thing is so far out of my comfort zone, it may just be the right challenge – and I’m here for it. For various reasons, I can’t start right away, but I hope I can make it happen after summer at the latest. I’ll keep you posted.

Daigo-ji Temple

Daigo-ji lies a bit off the beaten tracks in Fushimi, but for those who like everything super-sized, this is the perfect place to go in Kyoto: On the precincts of 300 hectares (mostly forest of Mt. Daigo) 80 different species of birds can be found, 1000 cherry trees, and more than 100,000 artefacts are kept in the temple’s museum. Many of its 80+ buildings are designated as National Treasures, and the 5-story pagoda is the oldest building in Kyoto. I went a day after it snowed in Kyoto, which makes for especially beautiful photos. The road to Kami-Daigo was still closed, but I probably wouldn’t have attempted it anyway, it’s too long a hike…

This temple dates back to 874 when the monk Shobo (posthumously named Rigen Daishi) built a small hermitage close to a well on Mt. Daigo. This part of the temple near the mountain top is nowadays known as Kami Daigo, and three successive emperors donated buildings there. Emperor Daigo moved here after his retirement, and after his death (when he was named after the temple in which he had lived for many years), the pagoda was completed at the foot of the mountain (Shimo Daigo) in 951 in his honour.

Unfortunately, the 15th-century Onin War destroyed most of the buildings of Daigo-ji. However, since the temple’s head priests managed to maintain good relationships to whomever was in power at the time, the temple was rebuilt several times and continued to grow through the centuries. When Hideyoshi came to power, Daigo-ji received his special patronage. He restored the Sanboin (originally from 1115) and had 700 cherry trees planted.

In the Edo period, Shugendo yamabushi began practising at Daigo-ji, and to this day, part of their training and worshipping consists of long, meditative walks around the temples’ precincts. The temple’s prosperity declined during the anti-Buddhism movement of the Meiji period. However, dedicated head priests could preserve the precincts and the numerous temple treasures until today.

As mentioned above, the vast precincts of Daigo-ji can roughly be divided into three parts. The Sanboin-Reihokan area lies directly behind the Somon main gate of the temple. The Sanboin on the left side is the former residence of Daigo-ji’s head priests. Just inside the gate is an enormous cherry tree called “Taiko Shidarezakura” that is 160 years old. The Sanboin itself was founded in 1115, but the current building dates back to 1598, when it was reconstructed and enlarged for Hideyoshi’s famous hanami party. The beautiful Karamon gate with golden imperial chrysanthemums and Hideyoshi’s own paulownia crest on black lacquer is a National Treasure.

So is the Omote Shoin, the main drawing room of Sanboin. It is constructed in three parts, each one a bit higher than the previous; the lowest part can be used as a Noh stage when the mats are removed. From the Omoto Shoin, the whole garden can be seen, a masterpiece of Momoyama garden designs, created by Hideyoshi himself. The main hall of Sanboin with a Buddha statue and statues of Kobo Daishi and Rigen Daishi that lies a bit to the back is not usually open to the public.

Opposite the Sanboin lies the Reihokan, the temple’s museum. Opened in 1935, it is home to over 100,000 Buddhist statues, paintings, and other artefacts. Around 75500 National Treasures are collected here and trace the history and culture of Daigo-ji back to its beginnings. There are special exhibitions in spring and autumn.

On passing through the Niomon Gate (erected 1605; the Nio statues are from 1134), visitors enter the Garan or main temple area. Here lies Daigo-ji’s Kondo or main hall, with a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha who heals illnesses. Both kondo and the pagoda nearby are National Treasures.

Opposite lies the famous Goju-no-to, a five-story pagoda that stands 38 meters tall. Built between 936 and 951, it has survived wars, earthquakes, and fires, and is now Kyoto’s oldest building. On the first floor are culturally significant wall paintings, but the building is not usually open to the public. Interestingly, the special construction of this pagoda makes it almost automatically earthquake-safe, and it inspired the similar construction of Tokyo’s Skytree.

Further uphill lies the Kannondo, which is the 11th temple of the Saikoku 33 Kannon pilgrimage. It enshrines a Juntei Kannon that is said to grant wishes to have children. Next to it is the Bentendo hall for Benten, the goddess of music. While this may not be the most culturally significant building of Daigo-ji, its beautiful colours mirrored in the pond easily make it the most photogenic one.

Beyond the Bentendo and its pond and garden lies the third part of Daigo-ji, called Kami-Daigo. It takes about one hour to reach it, but the views from the top of the mountain are certainly worth the hike. Furthermore, Kami-Daigo is the oldest part of the temple, and most of the buildings there are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Among them is Daigo-sui, which marks the spot of Rigen Daishi’s original hermitage. The Kaisando from the Momoyama period (1606) is the largest building on Mt. Daigo. When it was first built in 911, it was dedicated to Rigen Daishi, and his statue there is from the Kamakura period.

The vast precincts of Daigo-ji make this temple a great place for hikers and people who like to explore on their own. Since Kami-Daigo takes a while to reach on foot, it does not see many visitors throughout the year, but the other areas at Shimo Daigo can get quite busy during hanami and the autumn colours.