It was a busy week with a great finale! Yesterday was Okafes, the World Music Festival in Kyoto’s Okazaki, and I spent most of my day there. The Okafes is an outdoors festival that invites musicians and dancers from Bali, Korea, Thailand, and of course, Japan to perform traditional music. It’s fun to watch and learn something new!

The highlight this year was Apetunpe, a female duo from Hokkaido singing Ainu tunes. Interestingly, they had no instruments, and the songs they brought along were canons (aka rounds) with a strong rhythm, which surprised me. Of course, they sing in the Ainu language, but even though I couldn’t understand anything, their soothing music touched me deeply.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Apetunpe on youtube, but it seems that they are a part of a larger group called Marewrew, and they do have a few albums online. Here is Sikata Kuykuy, with a significantly more happy sound than what they performed yesterday.

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…

Home Improvements

Over the quiet and hot days of summer, I had some time for smaller improvements in the house. I can’t afford anything substantial, but it’s nice to clean things up a little and make them look better at least.

First thing: I painted my toilet. Directly opposite the door was an old hole with an anchor still inside, and every time I had to use the toilet in the evening, it scared me a little. It was just the right size and dirty color for a small spider…

So, out came putty and paint, and because the toilet is very small, this turned out to be the perfect project to finish over the weekend. The walls now look much smoother than before, except for a small bit where the previous owner tried to close a crack with something that feels like glue and the paint didn’t stick properly on top of that. I’ll have to go over this spot once again.

I also closed some other holes in the stairwell, but I’m out of paint now, so the final finish will have to wait. Also, I’ll need to figure out how to reach all the walls in the stairwell without falling to my death while painting, so we’re probably looking at some time next spring.

Second thing: I mended some tears in the fusuma in the upstairs living room. This didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped, mostly because are essentially hollow inside. They use the same underlying wooden frame as shoji, just with opaque paper on both sides. In other words, without any firm ground to glue the paper onto, it’s really hard to fix torn fusuma paper properly.

Many people just stick some paper on top of the hole, but even though this is easier, I don’t think it looks as neat. And since my fusuma are already anything but clean, there’s no need to bring any further attention to that. To me, it still looks better now.

I would love to say that I made some progress in my garden, but I didn’t. Even though I trimmed some smaller trees in spring, other plants took advantage of the increased light and shot up to new heights. Not to mention the prolific vines I have in one end of my garden that seem to be difficult to kill. I would have to weed almost weekly to get rid of those, I guess. Well, it’s getting cooler now, so I can give it yet another try…

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders
Soji Shimada

Japan, 1936: The testament of excentric painter Heikichi Umezawa reveals his disturbing fascination with his own daughters. He describes his plan of killing all seven of them and to use the most beautiful body part of each to create Azoth – the perfect woman. Since Heikichi is dead, nobody is taking this seriously – until the Umezawa girls suddenly disappear and their mutilated bodies are found exactly where Heikichi had planned.

Japan, 1976: For 40 years, the nation has been obsessed with these so-called “Zodiac Murders”, but they are still unsolved. Then, amateur sleuth Kazumi Ishioka gets his astrologer friend Kiyoshi Mitarai onto the case. Together, they try to unravel the mystery and follow the leads where they take them – to an unexpected solution and one final death.

The first 24 pages of the book – Heikichi’s testament – are, quite frankly, terribly written, and I struggled to get through them. In hindsight, this was on purpose, though. Because once the story turned to the two amateur detectives, things did look up. It was interesting to watch them decipher the hints, even though the actual solution happens off the page, which I don’t particularly like. However, the final reveal of the by now aged killer and the motive came as a shock to me.

Twice towards the end of the novel, the author inserted himself with notes in which he challenges the reader: “All pieces are in place, can you solve the puzzle?” I didn’t care for that at all, but other people may enjoy this.

Soji Shimada was born in 1948 in Hiroshima prefecture. “The Tokyo Zodiac Murders” was his first book in 1981, and it was shortlisted for the Edogawa Rampo Award, a Japanese prize for crime fiction. Since then, Shimada has published numerous books and short stories, including the case books of the two sleuths on which this books focuses. In 2009, aged 61, he received the Japan Mystery Literature Award for his lifetime achievement.

If you’re in for a locked room mystery with a twist at the end, get this one from amazon.

Bear Warning!

One of the things that struck me when I first moved to Kyoto were the many butterflies out and about throughout summer. Sure, I lived in a fairly green part of the city then, but still, their number astonished me. Not to mention the size.

But besides the pretty things – and the nasty ones I have written about in detail, several times – there are also a few dangerous ones. Thankfully, Japan is blessed with a fairly benign fauna, unlike Australia where essentially everything has evolved to kill people.

In Japan, there is one species of poisonous snakes, and the local centipedes can become dangerous for small children. As far as I know, that’s all. Yet, Japan is a vast country with lots and lots of mountains, and there are all sorts of large animals hiding in them. Like bears.

And believe it or not, just a couple of weeks ago, a bear was sighted in the late afternoon not far from where I live. It didn’t come down into the inhabited parts here but stayed on a hiking path through the woods. Still, this is not an encounter I’d want to have, whether day or night. Let’s not forget that Kyoto is a city with 1.5 million inhabitants.

It is known, however, that in the northern parts of Honshu, bears regularly visit smaller towns and cities. They are active at dusk and dawn when there is not much traffic or noise, but they can become a nuisance, if not outright dangerous, to the population.

What to do about that, I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of shooting everything that moves just because, but there must be a better way than putting out neighborhood circulars that say “hey, we’ve seen a bear, be careful.” I wonder how other countries like Canada deal with something like that.

I’m Back!

Yes, holidays are over here too, but it was a nice summer, and pretty hot too. Pumpkin suffered from the heat as much, if not more, than me, he often hid inside the oshiire all day. In the evenings, he would come out and sleep on my desk until it was time to go up to bed. At least in the night, it seems to be much cooler up here than in my old apartment, so I could sleep almost every night. There are also fewer cicadas in the area for some reason, so it gets fairly quiet after sunset.

Work was fairly quiet as well, but of course, it didn’t shut down completely, and What’s up in Kyoto did keep me busy throughout summer. There were two press previews for exhibitions in my time off, and I could convince a friend to come along as my interpreter.

The big thing, however, was the unveiling of the above painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu, which was thought lost since 1971. It resurfaced at an art dealer in Osaka and was bought by the Fukuda Museum in Kyoto after being certified as genuine. The painting of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, was first presented to a group of journalists (including me) and will be on public display at the museum from Mid-October. This was definitely a summer highlight for me!

A personal highlight was an old friend from university days who made his way to Kyoto after a conference. We met up for dinner and a day at Kurama, a tiny mountain village north of Kyoto with a lovely temple. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet talking to him felt like picking up where we had left off just yesterday. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, a sign of true friendship, for me at least.

Anyway, I’m back, and I’ll try to keep this blog – and you – updated with my whereabouts.

Taking a Break

Summer has arrived in Kyoto, and we’re having 35 degrees and more every day. The last few days, night temperatures were at 28 degrees officially, but it’s much hotter in my bedroom underneath the roof, which makes it hard to sleep.

Even Pumpkin is affected by the heat, he likes to sleep on my desk and other cool surfaces, and during the day he hides in the oshiire in my office.

All this is to say that I don’t have much energy, neither physical nor mental. So, I’m taking the summer off from this blog until the end of August. It’s not my first time, so I guess we’re good. And maybe I have new fun things to talk about after summer. It’s always nice to have a breather.

I wish you all a nice summer too and great holidays as well – see you soon!

Beautiful Visitor

I found this moth a few weeks back in my garage. It was about 10 cm long and just sat there at the top of the wall close to the ceiling.

It is beautiful, but still I prefer it outside. It wasn’t there the next day, so I’m happy I took the photo rightaway.