Tuesday 31 July 2012

Sugoi! Japanese fireworks in July

Bam! Bam! Bam! Who doesn't like a good fireworks show?! Or hanabi, as it is called in Japan. The Japanese know their hanabi, real artisans are at work here. From hearts, smileys and all kinds of 'fire flowers' the professionals know what they're doing and keep innovating their art. As most fireworks in Japan take place during the hottest period of the year, August, I was lucky to find two firework shows in the Kansai area that took place in July. On the 22nd, a festival was organized in Ashiya, Osaka.
Because the Japanese won't only lit a few fire crackers, you can easily spend a good part of the day celebrating the matsuri with food stalls, little games and short performances from dancers, singers and even theater shows. Unfortunately the 22nd it was dreary weather. Not the kind of festival weather everyone had hoped for. Although my head was spinning with all the amazingly beautiful yukata (unlined summer kimono) I saw, there was no way to take pictures in the rain. So it was wonderful luck when the rain stopped at the start of the fireworks show!

A good thing I had bought a ¥ 2000 ticket for a seat that I could 'reserve' before walking around the festival grounds. In Japan is not strange to come early at an event and 'reserve' yourself (and your friends!) a good seat by placing personal items on a chair and come back hours later. These items could be fans, drinks, magazines, towels or even a handbag. No one will touch your stuff and your seat is there for you, and your personal belongings, when you get back. There's a positive side and maybe a negative side to this 'reserving' system that everyone respects. The best part of course is that everyone leaves your stuff alone (I ❤ Japan!).

It seemed me and my friends had claimed some great seats, and we could see the show perfectly. The fireworks were lit from the water, in the bay. Many people had taken their place on the beach on blankets and we had seats at the edge of the beach, a little elevated, with free sight on the spectacle. The most spectacular thing was an all-red fireworks piece with a lot of hearts in it after which someone asked his girlfriend to marry him. And she said yes! Aaaaaah, romantic!
After this, the organization took the time to educate the public a little bit with hanabi bingo. Every time just one arrow was shot in the air which you could find on your bingo card. With each new shot it was told what kind of firework you had just seen. But then the real fireworks started and it was amazing! Next year I should maybe plan to visit Japan in August to see more firework shows!

And what could be more festive on your birthday than to see a fireworks show? Osaka obliged and organized another festival on July 25th on the Okawa river. This 'matsuri' was even more extensive. Lots of boats were navigating the river by motor or by oarsmen. Many of the boats sported dancers, singers, musicians and other performers, some even traditional treasures. And all clapped the same simple rhythm to each other and to the people on the bridges: clap clap, clap clap, clap clap.... clap! It all contributed to very festive mood with a lot of calling out and merriment.
The river banks were lined by many yatai (food stands) with all kinds of junk food: karaage, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, Wiener wursten, frozen bananas, cream puffs and some even had fresh fruit or cucumbers. All the traditional Japanese festival food was there and also the little games for kids to play. To my excitement many girls came in the colourful summer dress of Japan, a yukata. It seems Osaka is trying to encourage visitors and inhabitants of Osaka to wear yukata and kimono more often, to enhance the attractiveness of the city. Well, it works for me!

Sunday 29 July 2012

The regal Lotus, viewings at Mimurotoji, Hōkongōin & Mizunomori

If you follow this blog for a bit you might know I'm sort of a flower-buff! In an earlier article I wrote about Ajisai, or Hydrangea, the flower of early summer. The Sanzen-in at Ohara, as well as Mimurotoji in Uji are famous places to see Ajisai. But, when the hydragea's power is wilting it gives way to another star in the flower kingdom, the Lotus. A very important flower in Buddhist religion, it's no wonder Buddhist temple Mimuroto is one of the best places to contemplate this iconic flower. Mimurotoji however, does not exactly sport that natural flower pond, which you would expect. But the square in front of the temple contains some oblong cement basins surrounded by big flower pots all around. It is not as natural an environment as one might wish for, but through the abundance and the beauty of the many blooming pink and white lotus flowers, it is one of the best picks indeed. Not to mention the hugely impressive bull frogs or amazingly beautiful big dragon flies! I never heard the sound of a bull frog before, let alone seen one. So when I heard one calling out from between the lotus leaves it gave me quite a scare for a second. When I realised that is was a bull frog, I was completely fascinated. It's a sound you should really hear, or even 'experience', at least once in a lifetime!

The good thing about the solution with the flower pots is that you can get up close and personal with the flowers and study them from every side. It's intriguing to examine the beautiful lotus from this close. Their hearts are tremendously interesting, it's almost sensual how they are created to attract insects.

After visiting Mimurotoji on July 9th, I wanted to see more of the queen amongst the flowers. So I planned for a trip to Houkongouin, in the west of Kyoto. The grounds of the Hōkongō temple are quite a bit smaller than of the Mimurotoji and are located in a rural area. What immediately stands out when entering the garden is the utterly ugly building, towering over the green fence of trees. A sore to the eye unfortunately. But when you succeed in ignoring this monstrosity you will find that 'natural' flower pond in front of the temple. And it's completely taken over by the huge leaves of the Lotus flower. Indeed, regrettably there were almost only leaves to admire. It must be a pretty great sight when the lotus flowers, but now I could only find one or two in bloom. There were also a few flower buds, but nowhere near of coming to blossom.

I understand that the Lotus has it's flowering peak around the first week of July and blooms till the end of August. So I thought I was right(ish) on time when I was visiting on July 18th. Maybe the pond gets a second peak period when the flower buds I've seen get to blossom. The garden however is rather charming, and has more to offer. For instance tiny waterlillies in their little basins and also Hydrangea (at their prime around the half of June). Otherwise it's not the most interesting temple in Kyoto. Which might be truly unfair, because Kyoto knows so many temples and shrines, it's hard to compete!

Knowing that the Lotus would probably be over it's prime, was it maybe a tad risky to take another Lotus trip? Perhaps, but I am glad I did. This time on July 23rd and the location was Mizunomori. Mizunomori is an 'aquapark' as they call it. A botanical garden, right next to an inlet of Biwa Lake, in the vicinity of Kusatsu and Otsu. You don't actually have to enter the garden to see the Lotus field in Biwa Lake, but why wouldn't you? It's a pleasant garden with a an abundance of flowers, specially the small types of multi coloured water lillies are really nice to see. Have a stroll through the garden en then exit at the back to see the Lotus field in the lake (You can re-enter Mizunomori). Indeed, a big part of the Lotus field was without flowers, but a good part on the east side was still blooming beautifully. It would have been a hugely impressive sight had the whole field been in bloom, but I was completely satisfied I had the chance to see it as it was.

Tip: The bus from Kusatsu drives up and down in 30 minutes to Mizunomori only once an hour.  Keep this in mind when taking the train, so you don't miss the buss by a minute or two (guess who did). Both the station square and Mizunomori have a cafe, so lunch and drinks are no problem. 
Take the same bus frequency in consideration for Mimurotoji in Uji, although you have to time your trip there even better, because there are no cafes near the temple.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher at the Sagawa Art Museum

How wonderful to see one of Holland's most famous graphic artists exhibited at a museum in Japan. I'm not surprised that the Sagawa Art Museum is proud to present M.C. Escher, because his work is truly something else! Japan has had a fast amount of works from this artist in their possession for a long time though. It was Huis Ten Bosch, near Nagasaki, that loaned these works of M.C. Escher to the Sagawa museum in Moriyama. So, if you do miss this exhibition, there's always a chance to see Escher's art in Japan.

Unfortunately Escher is not among us for some years now. He died in 1972, but throughout the world he is still known for the mathematical approach he took when designing his woodcuts, lithographs and mezzotints. These works often show situations and buildings that should be impossible but on the other hand don't seem to be. Eschers other subjects of interest as a graphic artist are infinity, architecture, and never ending spaces or forms. It is interesting to learn that in 1922 he traveled to Spain and was inspired by the Alhambra with it's decorative designs which are based on mathematical formulas and show repetitive interlocking patterns. Although Escher has lived in Italy, Switzerland and Belgium, most of his famous works date from the period after he returned back to the Netherlands. In 2002 an Escher museum was founded at Den Haag (The Hague) in Holland to remember the the man and his unique works.

Almost all of M.C. Eschers work is two dimensional, although the subjects are often three dimensional. So it was a wonderful surprise that this exhibition shows some of Eschers impossible constructions in 3D! A few glass boxes contain seemingly simple objects with very clever shapes that look impossible from one viewpoint, but the solution is revealed when looking at it from another viewpoint. Also a room was specially erected making the impossible possible by actually entering Eschers world yourself. In the pictures you can see that people walking from one end of the room to the other end seem to 'grow' or to 'shrink'. But in fact Escher works with depth, lines and patterns here to make the optical allusion a reality. This is the best interactive feature of the Escher exhibition I think, because after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Take a chance to visit Sagawa Art Museum, until September 2nd you can see M.S. Eschers work. But visit the museum also because it is a pleasant building to walk around in. I specially like the 'basement' where natural light comes down through the ceiling, filtered beautifully by the pond that surrounds the museum. It is a magnificent sight on a sunny day, when the light and the water have 'free play'.

Tip: The bus only drives to the museum once an hour, or less. Also the lunch room is too small to serve all visitors, but there are no other facilities in the vicinity. However strange this is, since the museum is next to Biwa Lake and it would be wonderful to be able to enjoy that view. So timing is everything when making this trip, or take a bento box :)

Sunday 22 July 2012

My home is my castle, a peek inside my mini-apartment at Kyoto

This post is looooong overdue! Some of these pictures were already made in March in preparation for this article. In the pictures of my street you can see the abundantly blossoming cherry trees of spring. Before today there was always something more newsworthy that had to come first. Since the upcoming stories are the last few from Kyoto, I wanted to take this time to show you where and how I have been living my blissful life in Kyoto. (I will, however, keep posting new stories on So Kyoto, since there is a lot more to tell than I could manage to put online every week).

In the meantime: Welcome to my home in Kyoto! I live on the 3rd floor of an five story apartment building in the neighborhood of Kamigyo-ku. Every neighborhood in Japan has it's own shrine it belongs to, and 'mine' is Kitano Tenman-gū‬. I recommend to visit the temple and it's antiques market when in Kyoto, they're both worth your time!

Furthermore, Horikawa dori, a main 'artery' of Kyoto is at the back of my building. Luckily the traffic noise does not reach me. I merely enjoy the positive side of living near this street, with the bus stop in front. And there are many different trees and flowers planted alongside plus a lowered river bed where you can have a nice walk. I even watched fireflies there last month.

As you can see on the pictures made inside, the apartment is little more than a tiny bedroom, with a tiny, tiny kitchen and an even tinier bathroom! In the bathroom everything is made of plastic, top to bottom. Easy cleaning, simple living. :) The kitchen is less of a sturdy luxury, being so small, there's no space to put a plate even. And it get's so hot when cooking, which was nice in the cold month of March, but soon became something of an in-house-onsen the following months (An onsen is a Japanese bathhouse). Which meant way more cheese grilled sandwiches for dinner. Or ah… way more eating outside than I had anticipated for. Poor little me!

To make it my own I put up posters of cool and beautiful art exhibitions and fun events. The best ones I find grace the kitchen cabinets, front- and bathroom door, even on the inside of my built-in closet! A few strings of postcards on strings of ribbon hang above the dinner table (if one can call it that) to enjoy while eating that cheese-grilled sandwich.

Apart from the colourful cards and flyers I also have a view to savour that I will never, ever forget! A nicely done small Japanese garden and a little further up, the mountains! Maybe hard to see in the picture, but easy to see from my window. Every day waking up, looking out and seeing those mountains…. bliss, bliss, bliss.

Somewhere between the little garden and those mountains I can see the happy flags flying of the neighborhood Uniqlo. Who doesn't want to live around the block from this wonderful Japanese fashion chain store? And as if that's not enough, there's my supermarket, Life (Pronounced 'Raifu' in Japanese) and up the road, around the corner there's also one of the two Muji stores in the whole city of Kyoto. And it doesn't stop there. You can find some very, very good restaurants which will make you want to come back. Isn't this all a dream come true? For me it is. And I will miss Kyoto so much!

Thursday 19 July 2012

A personal introduction to traditional Shinto ceremonial clothing

What better way to start joining the celebrations of Gion matsuri than with an introduction to the world of traditional ceremonial clothing? Although Gion matsuri is not a religious festival, but a folk festival, also here traditional clothing is indispensable. On top of that is my host of the day the designer of the happi of the Kakkyo Yama that is part of the Gion festival procession. A happi is a short Japanese straight-sleeved jacket worn at traditional festivals. To elaborate a bit more on the subject, a Yama is a wooden float assembled without nails, weighing 1,200 to 1,600 kg, about 6 meters high and is pulled by 14 to 24 people men (more about this later).

A warm welcome and the introduction to a very exclusive and wonderful part of traditional Japan was given to me by Hisashi Yoshida, family business owner and producer. A chance encounter led to an invitation to his workplace where Hisashi san showed the amazing fabric he designs and the ensembles of Shinto wear he creates together with the family businesses surrounding his own workplace. These businesses in the neighborhood called Kamikyo-ku in Kyoto, are specialized in wood work, metal, laquer and weaving, to name a few.

One of the exhibits of the traditional wear that Hisashi san showed me is the formal head piece in the picture. It is mainly made of silk and laquerware and worn by Shinto priest on special occasions. In Shinto religion every object of nature has a soul, even mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees and rocks for instance. Stemming from this belief naturally flows the strict practice to only use natural materials as wood, paper, silk, cotton and laquer (made from the resin of trees). The collar on the Shinto priests robes that Yoshida san has spread out, therefore is enforced with layers of paper in stead of plastic.

Hisashi san told me about the strict rules to follow when designing for Shinto clothing. As an example, each season other flowers bloom and Shinto follows these changing colours through the seasons, specially when it comes to clothing. A Shinto priest, for instance, owns many different robes, for each season an other set. Priests wear the traditional robes every day, and wear different ones with special ceremonies.

In March I attended the Girl's Day ceremony at Shimogamo Shrine where a girl gets dressed in twelve layers of kimono, just like a doll from the Heian period, called Juni hitoe. These layers of clothing can weigh up to twenty kilo's! People wearing these kind of clothes in the Heian period, and wearing them now for ceremony, are not expected to move around or walk more than a few steps. To get an experience how it feels to wear something beautiful like that, Hisashi san let me put on the outer layer of this ensemble. (Seen in the picture bottom left.) The yellow coloured layer is the lining of the orange robe, the purple fabric is 'only' trimming. That way one can add more colours, but keep the clothing as light as possible. And indeed, it was very light! And rather cool, plus very soft on the skin. Actually, why would you ever want to take it of? Well, I was only wearing one layer, not all twelve! Lucky me.

Thank you Hisashi Yoshida san, from the bottom of my heart, for this warm welcome to Japanese tradition. I am lucky to be able to share it here.

Other articles on So Kyoto where traditional Shinto clothing is shown: Yabusame Umashinji at Shimogamo Shrine, Kakeuma Shinji at Fujinomori Shrine and Bamboo Cutting matsuri at Kuramadera.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Early summer, the cool blue of Ajisai (Hydrangea) at Sanzen-in

Summer in Kyoto is getting hotter and hotter every day! Time to take a 'hike' and look for higher ground. Ohara, in the north part of Kyoto is up in the mountains and at least a few degrees 'colder'. Pfieuw I need a bit of that! So, on a sweltering hot day I thought it best to leave the busy city behind and visit this lush green side of Kyoto. Early summer, we've established now, the weather in Japan is very hot already. But it's also the time for Ajisai. This is the Japanese name for Hydrangea.

Ohara is famous for their Sanzen-in temple every day of the year, but even more so when the Ajisai are in bloom. What a wonderful combination when being all flustered and sticky with the summer heat to gaze upon the cool blue of Hydrangea flowers. Although I must admit under the piercing sun even the Ajisai seemed a bit listless in the garden of Sanzen-in. And to think I even 'dressed up' for the occasion, with my Ajisai-coloured nail polish!

Luckily the temple itself is wonderful, and I especially liked the charming little, moss covered Buddha statues with their smiling faces. Or what about a good taste of red Shiso juice I got for free in the garden? Shiso is one of my favorite flavours of Japan. A leaf belonging to the mint family, often served with sashimi dishes has a very unique and distinctive taste. If you've never tried it, find them, it's delicious! If you prefer a saver taste, you can drink green tea and peer over the blue ripples of Hydrangea beneath the tea house.

The Sanzen-in is not even the only thing to see at Ohara. It's got quite a 'touristy feel', this part of town, but only busy on special days. For instance Ohara-me, a festival I wrote about in this article in May. Because of the numerous tourists Ohara attracts through the year, many traditional Japanese restaurants grace the small, cobbled streets where Yuzu (an amazing tasting citrus fruit), red Shiso and other yummy food can be tasted. If you're a fan of Tsukemono (Japanese pickles), Ohara is a good place to stroll through and get a nibble here and there.

Mimuroto-ji temple in Uji, to the south of Kyoto, is also very famous for their Ajisai as well as the Lotus garden. When I went to Mimurotoji however, the Hydrangea were over their peak and many bushes already trimmed. I read that at this temple 10.000 Hydrangea bushes grow. Surprisingly, when I was there visitors were not even allowed to go into that part of the garden were the Hydrangea were still blooming.... But I could look into the garden and take a few snap shots. It does look promising doesn't it?

Later this  month I will post an article about the Lotus garden of Mimuroto-ji.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

ART Osaka: 50 galleries and me, up in the clouds

Earlier this year I visited ART Kyoto and this weekend it was Osaka's turn to bring together 50 galleries form all over Japan, i.e. Kanazawa, Gifu, Hokkaido, Nagoya, Tokyo and of course the  Kansai region. And some international flavour was added by art galleries from abroad, like Taiwan, Korea and China. With these great art events I'm attending these months I'm discovering a whole new world of contemporary art that was unknown to me before and I can't get enough of it!

Where in Kyoto Hotel Monterey was one of the locations for the fair, in Osaka Hotel Granvia's 26th floor was the main location for this event. Though the 26th floor is not a place I normally care to spend my time, (I get nauseous on speedy lifts), one apparently has to endure all kinds of hardships to enjoy art! But it was worth it, I had such a wonderful time! And once traveled with the speed of light, you are actually (almost) up in the clouds. Not only by seeing all this great art brought together, but also by the spectacular view! This event can only be a winner, with a location like this. And true, using hotel rooms is not the most practical choice, because it can get crowded very easy in the small rooms. More so when a gallery chooses to even use the bathroom to exhibit work. But I still like the quirkiness of it, the intimate atmosphere it creates and the fun. Visitors and gallery owners are literally brought closer together!

For instance I had such an interesting chat with artist Makoto Morimura about his 'Butterfly girls' project. In Japan a type of bar called 'host club' (or host bar/cabaret club) is well known here, but not so common in Europe. These bars have a rather steep entrance fee and high prices for their drinks. On the other hand you get to talk to beautiful girls, entertaining you and having drinks together, but no sex is involved. This type of entertainment reminds me strongly of the traditional geisha, only a contemporary adaptation. For his project, the artist picks up the flyers of these shot bars and cuts out the girls. From these tiny pieces of paper he folds traditional origami butterflies, since these girls are also known as 'butterflies of the night'. That brings the concept full circle I think. He warned me I should obtain a piece of his work now, before he get's famous and his work really expensive!

Furthermore, I found the work of Hiroshi Shinno just absolutely stunning. He makes fantasy insect creatures mixed with elements of plants and flowers with acryl on synthetic resin. The picture I took is not so great, but I love his bigger pieces anyway. Please have a look at his website, because his work is gorgeous. Other pieces of interest were by Ryoko Takahashi, who works with human hair. The sculpture of the girl in grey is by Jingab Jeong, the small sculptured clothes on the window by Nakanishi Yuki.

This year was the 10th anniversary of ART Osaka, and I hope they will continue to bring great art together for a long time to come.

Monday 9 July 2012

Milky Way on water: 50.000 LED lights on the Okawa river in Osaka

It was just pure luck I found this festival just in time to watch and even participate. A beautiful picture of lasts years spectacle in Osaka caught my eye just one day before the event. It made me think of the Panasonic LED 'fireflies' released in the Sumida river in Tokyo just a few months before. I wished then I could have seen the spectacle, so am I happy to have found this opportunity! So I rushed my behind on the Special Rapid Service to Osaka this Saturday.

Arriving there I watched 50,000 blue lights make a dreamlike landscape on the Okawa River. The blue lights even have a fairy tale name and are called inori-boshi (prayer star). Plus they all have a wish attached to them, which were written on paper strips people could buy at different shops in Osaka in the weeks previous to the event. Wishes are made for happiness, money or health, but also condolences for lost loved ones or people suffering in the Tohoku area. With this man-made Milky Way of lights, the star festival is celebrated, or “Heisei, the Legend of Osaka Amanogawa”.

Thousands of people visited the riverside to enjoy the one-night-only Milky Way. Most of the lights were gathered beforehand and released from small boats, by the organization. A little haphazard and a tad disorganized, it all contributed to the charm of the evening. Visitors could also embark one of the tourist boats (for 2000 yen) and get a 'wish star' to release in the river themselves. The embarking on different boats brought about quite some confusion, certainly for one who doesn't speak Japanese! But a friendly attendant is never far away, so it all worked out well in the end and I did not miss my boat (I'm on a boat!). I would have preferred to enter a open boat though, but that's probably for another life time, when I do speak Japanese and understand what the heck is happening. :)

All of this does not occur without thinking of the environment I'm relieved to report. The wishes are written on paper strips made of papyrus. This paper is made mainly from reeds which grow in Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto. Releasing these papyrus strips in the river helps to purify the water is what I understand. Even only one paper strip will purify approximately 54 liters of water! Of course the LED lights, that have a low electricity consumption, are gathered after the festival and reused. Hurray for Osaka's Milky Way Festival!

Here's a link to the article about the event in Tokyo.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Coa Café's home made baking & cooking, yummmm......

Another great one in the series 'Where to hang out in Kyoto' is Cao Café near Karasuma Oike subway station. Although you maybe would not expect home made baking and cooking from the contemporary looks of this cool cafe, you better believe it. Believe, because this café is something you don't want to miss when visiting Kyoto. The architecture as well as the interior design are minimalist, no no nonsense and hip as well as smart. Just a long sized space, beginning with a bar, ending in a wider space where café dwellers can lounge. All through the length of the building the traditional shape of a 'Western' house is maintained, although combined with some very Japanese aspects. For instance the black paneling combined with the white walls, the use of natural wood, and even a coat rack with a strong resemblance to a toko-bashira. The design of this wonderful space is by architect Tsujimura Hisanobu (I'm a fan now by the way).

Coa Café Ishikawa worries about the outside as much as the inside it turns out. And that the inside of their customers! If you tried one of their cookies, or sweet dishes, you will keep coming back for more. Everything you find on the menu is home made, and that is obvious in the taste. Just try their signature dish 'Cao Cocoa' and you will beg for more once you finished the last chocolicious bite. Please do take a cappuccino with that, because they will throw in some 'latte art' with an ease like it's Sunday morning all the time.

And it's not even all the yummy sweets that they're good at, they know their way around the savory stuff just as well. It's no restaurant, so don't expect to sit in for a full course dinner, but do take that crispy pizza or that fine hamburger and you won't be sorry, I'm certain. Itadakimasuuuuu!!

Monday 2 July 2012

Fun & games at Kamigamo Shrine Handmade Market

The open-air Handmade market (Tezukuri Ichi ) at Kamigamo Shrine, every 4th Sunday of the month, has absolutely everything in store for a fun day out! Kamigamo Shrine lies close to the Kamo river and offers splendid views on the mountains surrounding east Kyoto as well as providing a lush green 'woodsy' park and even an small stream. Young parents and their children lounge or picnic underneath the trees and play in the little stream, which gives a warm summer Sunday the perfect atmosphere.

I visited the market in June, the month of Gotanshin Sai. This is a festival where a large ring of fresh reeds is made at the entrance of many shrines. Walking through this ring in an eight-shaped fashion affords you protection against summer infections. On top of all this, a wedding just took place at the shrine and the beaming couple took the time to pose for me, Omedetou! (You can just see the ring behind them)

And as if these things do not bring enough amusement in itself, visiting the market makes for even more fun. And what a fast market this is! It sprawls over the temple grounds into the little nooks and crannies as long as the sellers can put up their booths.

So, what is there to see, taste and buy at Kamigamo Shrine? Well, I sampled some of the very best chocolates I ever tasted in my life! Thinking back even makes mu mouth water. Mr. Tsutomu Kitagawa, Chocolatier of Double Sept presented ganache chocolates at his booth with different kinds of liquor, tea, herbs and nuts. And I did not need a cold package to go with that. No, I ate them at the spot, hmmmmmmmm!

Furthermore there were a lot of tasty looking sweets, breads, savory items and drinks to be tried. As well as there was wonderful handmade wood work, clothing, toys, stamps, jewelry, postcards, ceramics, bags, mobiles, painted umbrella's, plants even and lots, lots more. I also liked the coffee stands nicely spread out over the market, so you're never short of a great ice coffee and a biscuit. Or maybe a cabbage… A cabbage? Well yeah, I opted to buy a funny looking pencil case but it turned out the lining was not finished yet. So the seller asked me if I had time to wait for it and stroll around a bit more in the mean time. Well, yeah! I got all the time in the world, no problem whatsoever to linger a bit longer on this gorgeous day. After coming back to buy the pencil case I got a complimentary cabbage, for having to wait! Well, what more could you want from a great day out in Kyoto?

Sunday 1 July 2012

Picasso & Yoshitomo Nara at Shigaraki Museum of Contemporary Ceramic Arts

There is still a week left of the wonderful exhibition called DOKI DOKI at the Museum of Contemporary Ceramic Art in Shigaraki (SCCP). I visited the exhibition a few days ago and I had such a fun day! The exhibit brings together ceramic art works of some really famous international and Japanese artists, living and diseased. Some of them normally do not use ceramics as a regular medium to express their art. Included in the exhibition were painters such as Pablo Picasso, or print artists as Tadanori Yokoo and Shoichi Ida (Ida just had a solo exhibit at MOMAK, I wrote about in the previous post).

Furthermore there were works of ceramics artists like the one form Naoki Koide, the Cloud Theater. A fun and humorous work that I loved. One of his other works I've seen at ART Kyoto, which I wrote about earlier this year (+ top left picture). Another work I was interested in is by the American Richard Shaw, Shigaraki 2001, where a house of cards is stacked on a tea cup, on a book, all of ceramics of course (similar to this piece). One of my favorite works in this exhibit is by the Finnish artist Kim Simonsson, called Alien Tattoo. It is a boy, life size, all in white with big anime-like eyes and hair, opening his shirt showing a tattoo. And of course I wanted to see the two pieces of the very famous Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. Not in the least because he is the famous artist of my dearest friend in the Netherlands. I am really sorry I do not have pictures of the exhibit, except from the wonderful ethereal work 'Harushuuu' by Haruki Takahashi. This was the only piece I was allowed to photograph (two bottom pictures, right). That is why I included all those links and the poster, front/back. I'm hope you'll have the opportunity to see for yourself this week!

After a visit to the museum I wandered around the Ceramic Park and got to meet briefly with Leiko Ikemura herself! A few of her works were exhibited at DOKI DOKI. Ikemura was now briefly over from Germany, for the opening of the Toyota museum, where her works will also be shown. She is an hugely accomplished lady, with an impressive resumé

Apart from a wonderful Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, the town is dotted with many ceramic shops, since 'Shigaraki ware' is what the village is famous for. From every shop the hundreds of tiny surrounding one huge tanuki stare you down. The biggest tanuki has rested it's huge bulk at the station square. Want to make a call? You have to dare with him looming over you! A tanuki is a legendary Japanese raccoon dog with magic powers. He's a shape shifter and can turn into anything! He's a mischievous and jolly creature so be sure you really buy a ceramic one and not take the magical creature home. That one can dissapear in to thin air once you leave Shigaraki :)

Accept for tanuki, and ceramic frogs, cats, vases and other paraphernalia, there's not much else to see in Shigaraki, but the wonderful mountains. However dull the village may seem, surrounded by this much beautiful nature, you leave Shigaraki with a happy hart!

PS: The vase/horse piece (bottom left) I've found in one of the office buildings of the Ceramics Park. It's by Keiko Matsumo. I am in awe of her work and dream to be able to visit a (solo) exhibition one time.

Friday 29 June 2012

Shoichi IDA, Prints at the National Museum of Modern Art

Last week I visited the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto for the first time, because it featured an exhibit that seemed very interesting. And lucky me, it was! Shoichi Ida was introduced to me. Unfortunately not the man himself, he passed away in 2006. Hmmm, there seems to be a pattern appearing here... When I was introduced earlier this year to the works of Ikko Tanaka, I also had to learn he passed away 10 years earlier. Both of them are very interesting Japanese (graphic) artists and I'm sorry I learned about them only after their death. But isn't it beautiful to leave such a rich heritage behind?

MOMAK focussus in this exhibition on Shoichi Ida's prints, showing works from the 60's, 70's and 80's. Ida, I learned, has had quite an international career and not surprisingly owned this spot in the limelight at Kyoto's national museum. Because it's Kyoto where he had his education at the Kyoto Municipal University of Art and it's where he had his base through the years. Ida got famous with his prints in the sixties when he was in his early twenties. I must admit that his work form those early years are the most interesting to me. His bold colours and shapes, minimalist almost, are very graphic head turners. In the years, or maybe I should say decades after, Ida worked with various media. For instance oil painting on canvas, ceramics, bronze, paper pulp and installations even. Here he entered the 'conceptual' sphere, in stead of the more straightforward printed media, in my opinion. Although even his earliest works were a channel to criticize contemporary art, as I understand it.

The MOMAK is a great museum, with a good atmosphere. I was very happy to see they let visitors take pictures! A thing you would expect to be not so strange in Japan maybe, Japanese tourists always having their camera's at the ready, but this is a modern myth. Picture taking in Japan is less favorable than you might think. Even the better MOMAK, or maybe Ida's family have a more open approach to this. All the better, so now I (and others) can introduce even more art fans to Shoichi Ida's work.

The museum also has a permanent (rotating) collection of Japanese 20th century art works, with the emphasis on artists of the Kansai region.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Where to buy English books in Kyoto

In the last four months I came across three book shops in Kyoto which stack a collection of English books, novels most importantly. Nice to know for the gaijin traveler, long-stayer and newly arrived expat. Specially if you did not transfer your reading to a tablet yet and did not find anyone crazy enough to carry tons of books for you, that you plan to read during your trip or stay.

The first book store is Junkudo, on the main shopping street. That this chain sells English books is not listed on their website or in the store. Even so you can find a few long rows of new novels in English on the 5th floor, near the pay desk. They might even have some other languages, I'll check that maybe next time. They have the biggest collection in Kyoto, what I have found. You can find the classics, the popular writers, many books-turned-into-a-movie and some special interest books even. For instance books for tourists 'where to find the most beautiful cherry blossom, the best gardens or other touristy things to do' in Kyoto, or Japan.

Junkudo Bookstore
BAL building Floor 5 ~ 8F
〒 604-8032 Kawaramachi
Yamazakicho, Nakagyo Ward

Another store selling books in English is called BookOff. This chain actually has ten stores in Kyoto. They sells games, DVD's and are known for their second hand sections. I tried two off their branches in Kyoto for an English section. One is at the top floor of OPA, a department store for teens. You can find OPA also in the shopping center. It has a smaller section of English books than Yunkudo, and they are all second hand, from 100 yen. On the same floor you can also find art books in English and special interest books. The other BookOff branch I checked with success for books in English is the one at Keihan Sanjo station. This branch also has novels and art books, although on different floors. I rather test my luck at one of the BookOff stores, because you can't really go wrong with these prices.

Bookoff at OPA Floor 8F

〒604-8026 Kawaramachi Shijo 
Kawaramachi, Nakagyo Ward

BookOff at Station Building Keihan Sanjo
〒 605-0009 Ohashi  
Ohashi Sanjodori, Higashiyama Ward

The last one is really more of a shop you would turn to in case of an 'emergency'. The bookstore can be found in the building of Kyoto Station, between the Shinkansen Central Entrance and the Miyakomichi fountain. It has just one small rack of new books, all more or less damaged because they don't actually fit in the rack... Do not expect a discount though, I tried! What I said, in case you're already on the station leaving for a long trip with the Shinkansen and just finished your book, you can go here for an emergency 'fix'.

Saturday 23 June 2012

The 41st Nihon-Kogeikai: the very best traditional Japanese arts & crafts of the Kinki region

This is a very unusual post in the sense that I do not have any pictures for you, only a poster (front and back) that's not even my own design. My defense is that this exposition is too amazing to miss and it was not allowed to take pictures, understandably maybe.

Anyway, this exposition is still two more days held at the department store Isetan Mitsukoshi in Osaka. The Nihon-Kogeikai (or Kogeiten) is a traveling exhibition of the very best traditional art & craft works of the Kansai region (or Kinki region, which is the same). Every item on display won prices earlier in another 'competetion' of a sort. That could be regionally or nationally, but all works are Japanese arts & crafts and belong to one of the following disciplines: woods & bamboo craft, ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles (kimono a.o.), dolls, glass, metal ware or 'miscellaneous'. The most exquisite of these art pieces were collected together to star at this 41th expo. Each of the 5 days of the exhibition a master in one of the art & craft forms will give a presentation, today a bamboo master is taking the stage. Even is you do not understand Japanese, go see the best the Kansai region has to offer, you will not regret it!

Every prefecture in Japan has it's own regional exhibition with the best works in the traditional arts. From these regional winners the best are hand picked to continue to the 'Nitten' exhibition. A national 'competition' for the very, very, very best in arts & crafts of Japanese traditional handwork. The Nitten is also a traveling exhibition. Unfortunately for me it has already visited these region's for this year exhibition, but I'm rooting for nest time I visit Japan.

Friday 22 June 2012

Slaying snakes for a 1000 years at Kuramadera

June 20th I visited Kurama-dera (Kurama temple) to attend the yearly Bamboo Cutting ceremony. Or, as the matsuri is called in Japanese 'Takekiri Eshiki', which takes place at the Kuramadera, a temple and national treasure of Japan, built high on the Kurama mountain.

Coming from the train at the foot of Mount Kurama, I got served instant happiness. The smell of the mountain, the pine trees lining the slopes, filled my nose immediately and I could not help but smile. The ride up there by train is a feast already, but the walk up the mountain let to even more great views. I come from a flat country, so the mountains fill me with awe every time I am near. The higher I got on Mount Kurama, the more giddy. Or was it just the mountain air?…

It took me quite a while to get to the temple up the mountain, because I just had to savor the view every time I got a glimpse through the trees. And to think I took the Cable train for a bit! (I am, and will be a city girl I'm afraid… although my legs don't bother anymore to count all the meters  they've walked in the past few months!) Anyway Mt. Kurama is 584 meters high, so to reach the temple that's one good climb! Lazy me, I took the short route. Literally. The Kurama railway is the shortest in the country, just 200 meters long. So it takes only 2 minutes. If you prefer to walk, what the temple recommends, you'll need about 30 minutes. A very steep climb that is, you are warned! And then you aren't even finished, there are even many more steps ahead of you. To make it all the more pleasurable, the ceremony is in June, when the weather is very hot and humid in Japan, so go figure. I admit, some malicious pleasure washed over me when I saw the unhappy and panting souls that had chosen the 'righteous' path…

The ceremony consists of two teams of priests who race to slay 'the snake' once again as their predecessor priest Minenobu has done a thousand years ago. The story goes that at Mt. Kurama a snake suddenly appeared in front of the priest and it was slain by using the power of Buddhism. Until this day a matsuri is held to commemorate this event, with a bamboo cutting ceremony to help destroy wickedness and the establishment of righteousness. (An appreciation for water is expressed as well.) During the bamboo cutting ceremony the monk Kurama, dressed as a warrior priest, foretells whether the harvest will be rich or poor, as he demonstrates how fast he can cut the bamboo.

I wasn't at all clear to me that it was supposed to be a race though, I had to find out afterwards when doing research. No less fun even so, it was rather an entertaining and clumsy sight seeing the monks pottering around with the 4 meter long bamboo stalks and which priest would stand where holding it! But when handling the swords…, another thing. You would want to stay on the good side with those priests!

As you might have noticed, the snake in the tale is replaced by long bamboo stalks. These have to be cut in pieces three times, for the 'snake' to be conquered. I have to say I'm quite pleased about the use of bamboo. I wouldn't have wanted to see real snakes cut to pieces. Having to warn Greenpeace and all that would have taken a bit of the pleasure out of the whole thing I imagine.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

June: The famous iris pond at Heian Jinja Shrine

As promised in my May article about 'iris viewing' I returned to the Heian Jinja Shrine garden this month. At exactly June 15th, as the gardener at the shrine promised the irises would be 'ichi ban' (the best). And he was right, it was a feast for the eyes. In June the rabbit-ear iris, kakitsubata, might have wilted but now it is time for hanashobu. Hanashobu is the Japanese name for the Japanese iris, a flower family that knows over 2000 cultivars! The iris might not be as popular as the cherry blossoms (sakura) in Japan, but the 200 gardens in this country displaying the iris get visited by two million iris-enthusiasts each year.

For the Japanese, nature is very important, even though they might transport nature to the indoors. Iris displays for viewing purposes is a seasonal past time in Japan. Irises in pots are displayed along the walls and some specimen are even displayed in the tokonoma. The tokonoma is the most important space in a traditional Japanese home. It's an alcove with a raised dais where special objects of art are displayed. These can be scrolls, figurines, and often ikebana arrangements or sometimes bonsai, thus also seasonal flowers like hanashobu.

The root that nature and the seasons are as important for the Japanese lies in their upbringing of the naturalistic Shinto religion that every (living) thing has it's own kami. A kami is a god in Japanese, for Shinto knows not one god, but many. Even though not all Japanese practice Shinto and many mix Shinto rituals with Buddhist religion, every Japanese person is brought up with the belief that every object and even phenomena have a spirit. A wonderful thing that is easily visible in their respect for nature. (On the other hand the Japanese are infamous for their lack of preserving nature as well, which is one of the many, many contradictions in Japanese society).

Private persons at least show their respect for nature by consequently picking up litter from gardens and any where else they encounter 'nature'. When viewing a display of irises at someone's home, guests kneel and bow, if they appreciate the form of the flower. The Heian Jinja shrine garden has many species to enjoy outside, I think I saw at least ten of them. The three most important varieties are the Edo, Higo and Ise type. Every one of these types displays the unique esthetic senses of the three Japanese regions. The Ise type shows a pendent flower (picture 1 & 2, from left to right). The Edo type shows a horizontal flower (picture 3). The Higo type is arched (picture 4 & 5). Even when one does not know this, the display of different shades of purple, pink and white is magnificent.

PS: I got the best information about hanashobu through this article by Hiroshi Shimizu.

Indulge yourself at Tokichi, with Uji's world famous tea for the modern tea drinker

Uji, bordering on the southern edges of Kyoto, is a great city to spend a whole day. The mountains surrounding  Uji and the Uji river allow for great views when taking a stroll. The city knows numerous historic sites, including many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines worth a visit. Uji is therefore, understandably, the subject of a very famous historic tale, 'the tale of Genji'. A book from the early 11th century considered the world's oldest novel. The last ten chapters of the famous tale unravel themselves in the city along the Uji river.

Uji is not only famous because of the oldest novel in the world, but has also been famous for it's green tea for centuries. The Tsuen tea shop is around since 1160 and is probably the oldest tea shop in Japan, maybe the world. Tea shop Tokichi has 'only' been around for 150 years. With their wonderful tea room at Tokichi Honten (headquaters) the family caters for the modern tea drinker. When they opened this wonderful café in 2001 they wanted to 'match tradition with innovation'. While the building is constructed with the same methods used for a Meiji-Taisho era tea manufacturing factories, it has a modern feel to it. With the tea room Tokichi aims for an 'adaptation to the modern lifestyle'. And a wonderful adaptation that is. Just pass through the tea shop, and you'll find an oasis of green set back from the street. Tokichi café is graced with an actual terrace to offer even greater enjoyment of the Japanese style garden. The black pine that almost covers the complete grounds of the garden is over 200 years old and even has a name, "Horai Funamatsu".  The pine is 6 meters high and 12 meters long and shaped like a sailing boat. It was planted wishing for the family's lasting prosperity.

Apart form a great view while sipping your tea, Tokichi offers great way's to indulge on your inner sweet tooth. Ice cream and cakes, combined with fresh fruit and sweets are on the menu in different combinations. A cold green matcha to match and you'll spend a wonderful hour, and maybe a half, just to savour the moment.

Tokichi also have a tea room at the Uji river, so instead of a garden, you can enjoy the famous river from the Tale of Genji when enjoying real Uji green tea! 

Friday 15 June 2012

Catching Kingfisher 'in the wild'

Even is you're not a fervent bird watcher, one can only be in awe of the beauty of this little one. And in Kyoto you only have to take a subway ride to see them 'in the wild'. Kyoto's Botanical Garden is obviously favorited by the colourful birds with their big head and long bill. When I reached the Nakaragi pond, two Kingfisher were flying on and of, catching small fish in flight. I approached carefully though. Another photographer, looking very serious, was aiming for them already. My presence with a meager 200mm lens was condoned however when I showed proper respect and kept quiet.

It seems this spot at the Kyoto Botanical Garden is well known amongst Kingfisher enthusiasts. When I went back a few days later I found not only one, but three photographers with huge camera's. One was as long as my arm and had a lens as big as my face! This one even had a sticker of the Kingfisher on his camera. After some time waiting together at the rainy pond with a gaijin woman in their midst  the three relaxed a bit and began showing me their pictures of the Kingfisher on their camera. Obviously beautiful pictures! Well, I could only show them mine, didn't I?! So, I showed them the picture above and I think they were a little impressed that I succeeded with my very small, unimpressive camera. At least it was Nikon, a Japanese brand! We waited some more, but the rain was maybe too heavy, the Kingfisher did not show itself.

Kyoto's Botanical Garden should be one of the most beautiful ones of Japan. Actually, I hope this is not true. The expansive grounds measuring 240,000 m2 might be a bit too much work for the gardeners. At the entrance I got a cold welcome with big lawns of concrete. After that I couldn't find the immaculate tidiness, which Japan is so famous for, anywhere in the garden. Even Wikipedia sums up 'well-tended' in the first sentence about botanical gardens, so not too much to expect.
Although there is beauty to be found. For instance the Ume (Plum) grove, the Japanese Iris garden and the Nakaragi pond are great. I expect the Lotus pond to be amzing when it is in bloom, or earlier in the year when it is lined with blossoming cherry trees. The Japanese style garden however was non-existent (!) and the Japanese Native Plants garden looked like it was forgotten for about a few years as well as the 'exhibition' of bonsai trees… Rather strange for a botanical garden in Japan.

The Kyoto Botanical Garden however lies in a nice neighbourhood, at Kitayama subway station. And it's only 200 yen, so there's nothing to loose (The conservatory is another 200 yen). You can also take a stroll along the beautiful Kamo river or take lunch at one of the various cafe's opposite the Kitayama Gate.

Thursday 14 June 2012

Better food & Cool Biz at Kyoto Tower's Beer Garden

June 1st I wrote a post about New Hankyu's Beer Garden. Last week I went up to the roof garden of Kyoto Tower to make a comparison. (What one has to endure to write a blog!) This is what I found after thorough research:
The food was much better, more choice, more taste and it was even better to look at. For mains and side dished there was so much to choose from, like fresh salmon and seared tuna, a whole range of kushi and fried dishes, rice and noodles, mini sandwiches, fries and Wieners and so forth. I could stuff myself on the fruit and cake bar only! Food might still be better at a regular restaurant, but those do not have Kyoto Tower, or a roof top for that matter!

Another great asset was the roof top awning, because the evenings in Kyoto can still be very hot. Eating in the blistering sun, and drinking for that matter, is no fun! Luckily I didn't need it, I had wonderful weather, actually just perfect, and look at that beautiful sky....

Ok, moving on. The third reason Kyoto Tower might be a better choice is just plain money. Kyoto Tower's Beer Garden will set you back 'only' 3000 yen and you eat and drink as much as you like between 17:30 and 21:00 o'clock. This price is valid until July first, after that, it's 3500 yen till September 1st. Then it's 3000 yen again. Kyoto Tower Beer Garden however does not make a difference between men and women. New Hankyu does make that difference and has an intricate table with prices going up every month, but being less expensive on certain weekdays. Men pay 500 yen more than women on any day. More info on their website.

The thing that could be said for New Hankyu however is the atmosphere. It's quite different since you'll be amongst business men, or as they are called in Japan 'salarymen'. It makes you feel more being a part of Kyoto's community. As for Kyoto Tower, it seems like it gets frequented by more tourists and there were definitely less ties and jackets. The latter could also be the result of 'Cool Biz' season starting, later turning into 'Super Cool Biz', where salarymen are allowed to wear more casual clothes because of the sweltering heat. (See Huffington Post).

I would say 'forget about New Hankyu Hotel's B-B Paradise! Join me at Kyoto Tower Beer Garden and keep off the cakes please!'

Sunday 10 June 2012

Pop culture and ancient tradition, all in one day at Takarazuka

Takarazuka is a one hour car drive away from Kyoto (or two hours by train). An otherwise unremarkable city that knows two tourist attractions that are complete opposites when it comes to culture. First, the Tessai Memorial Museum, a private museum within the grounds of a 1200 years old Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji temple, a token of ancient tradition. Second, the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum, the pride and joy of Takarazuka's more recent history of pop culture. Both of these locations are well worth a day trip, and why not combine the two for an interesting perspective?

Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum was founded in memory of their former resident Tezuka Osamu (1928 – 1989). Osamu was a Japanese cartoon- and manga artist, born in Osaka Prefecture and famous for creating Astro Boy, Black Jack and Kimba the White Lion. The last would later become the subject of great controversy between Tezuka's Mushi Production and the Walt Disney company. Disney never wanted to acknowledge that the movie, 'The Lion King' was based on characters and situations from Tezuka's 'Jungle Emperor'. The Walt Disney company states that the similarities are all coincidental…

Apart from this, there is a whole lot more interesting about the work of Tezuka Osamu since the 'Godfather of Anime' produced 700 manga in the 60 years he lived. Apart from being renowned for his work in manga and the inventor of the 'large eyes style', he was a well know activist for nature. He even started creating manga stories as a way to try and inspire people to care for the world. Something that he has been using as an important subject in his works all though his life.

The happy, little museum has a charming atmosphere, starting with rows of tubes telling the history of Osamu and Mushi Production (mushi means 'bug' in Japanese). The museum also has a library where you can actually read the manga, a screening room, temporary exhibits of Osamu's work, a Jungle Cafe, shop, manga workshop space and some more.

After a dose of pop culture it's time to take a trip to Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji temple complex up in the hills, for some Buddhist art (pictures below). A taxi will cost between 800 and 1000 yen, or you can take the bus, once every hour or so.

The complex is set in one of the most beautiful places I've seen for a temple. Apart from the food, incense and flower stalls leading up there, a quite and remote atmosphere takes hold of you once you enter through the San-mon Gate. I imagine it can get really crowded, but on a regular day, you're virtually on your own. Take a look around, specially at the Gohô-dô (Hall to protect Buddhist teaching). Here you'll find strings of hundreds of origami paper folded cranes hanging in colorful clusters.

The temple grounds hold two museums. The first you'll see is the museum of History and Art. A wonderful contemporary building existing of glass panels on all four sides. It is built to offer a relaxing place for body and mind, through the attention that went in climate control and lighting, but also coming from the the water panels and the lawn surrounding the glass building for instance.

If you then stay to the right and walk past the statue 'Mizukake Jizô', the path winds up to the Tessai Museum. A more stern looking building, with a tranquil atmosphere nonetheless and very exquisite although introvert through the use of the best materials, like wood, fabric and tiles. The Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji temple has had a strong connection with Buddhist calligrapher and painter Tassai Tomioka (1836-1924) and accumulated over a thousand of his works through the years. All year different exhibitions are held showing work of Tessai.
Personally Tessai's art is not my cup of 'cha', but I would recommend to visit the exquisite temple grounds and who knows? You can visit one or two exhibits and might like what you see there also!

Saturday 9 June 2012

Is 'stacking' the new planking or owling, or does someone need an anger management course...?

An surprising sight welcomed me when visiting Takarazuka this week. There was a huge pile of bikes in front of the station entrance! Someone must have gotten his (or her?) nerves racked for a loooooong time I imagine…. In all likelyhood someone looking out on the 'disorder' of bikes in the street every day. Or someone traveling to the station EVERY morning, getting more frustrated day by day with the bikes blocking his path.
It must have taken quite a while to built this 'artful stack of anger'. Rage gave this person some extra  strength too probably, it's no small feat to be piling all these bikes on top of each other!

If you're wondering what happened next, a few hours later I passed by again on my way home. And this time I was treated on maybe an even more astonishing sight: a whole squad of policemen cleaning up the mess, looking worried, and literally wiping the bikes down with a cloth!

(Sorry I did not take a picture of the policemen, I thought it respectful not to.)

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Fireflies in Uji, like magic from a children's book

Yesterday evening, around 19:30 o'clock I enjoyed one of the greatest experiences of this trip, at least! I went firefly viewing at Uji's Botanical Garden. A charming, small garden nonetheless, yesterday was all about the fireflies.

At the east of the garden a little stream flows pleasantly through the Maple grove (Momiji Bayashi) and the Konara oak Grove (Konara Bayashi). It  offers the fireflies a dense 'forest' with a lot of ground foliage where they can safely fly about. Look for the darkest spots, that's where you find them. Actually, the very best spot is at the right from the small pond at the far end of the Konara Bayashi between the low bamboo plants.

Each day, the website shows a summary of the day before, with the amount of fireflies flying and of cars on the parking deck. (Busses 240 and 250 also drive back and fourth between the Botanical Garden and Uji Station). Yesterday seemed the perfect evening, since around 8 o'clock the fireflies were ''flying a lot'' and the car deck was almost empty. What more can you wish for?

The best time of the evening is between 19 and 19:30 o'clock, when the first fireflies light up and the visitors and yourself, will murmur in excitement. Children are hushed kindly as not to disturb the magic of the evening. You will feel like a little kid in a children's book when the fairy like scene unfolds itself in front of you. Half an hour later is the busiest time with fireflies flitting above the stream and sometimes crossing the path so you can almost touch them.

Firefly Festival at Uji Botanical Garden started at May 26th and you can still enjoy the fireflies until the 17th of June. Extended opening hours apply during the festival, until 21:30 o'clock. In the Kansai region I know of three other spots that celebrate firefly festivals. I'll try and visit at least one of these other festivals and tell you about it at So Kyoto!

Keihanna Commemorative Park
At the Suikei garden at Seika Tow. Through June 17th.
I posted earlier about the Suikei-en, see this article.

Tanikawa Firefly Park
On the Minamitani River, at the Town of Ide. Throughout summer.

Kanbayashi-sanso villa
At the City of Ayabe. Mid-June.

PS: I know these pictures are definitely not the best firefly pictures out there! I do not have the proper equipment for  these hard conditions, being in... total darkness :) It's more about fun and imagination. And I needed some pictures to go with this story after all!

Monday 4 June 2012

Three times iris viewing in May, a flower worth a poem

Last month I visited three of the most famous spots in Kyoto for iris viewing, for the month of May is the perfect time for this flower that inspired poets in Japan since ages. One of the oldest poems, from the Heian period (794 to 1185) recounts about the iris at Ōta Shrine. The iris pond at Ōta Shrine, or Ōhta Shrine, is so famous and beautiful that it is a National Natural Treasure. These irises flowering early to half May are called rabbit-ear iris, Kakitsubata in Japanese:

''Kamiyama ya ōta no sawa no kakitsubata
Fukaki tanomi wa iro ni miyu ramu''

''Like the kakitsubata at Ōta Wetland, a God-sent heaven,
my trust in you can be seen in the color of their flowers.''

The famous irises create a cloud of purple which can't be matched (see no.'s 1). To realize that they have been showing their splendour to their admirers for over a thousand years is equally stunning. You can watch the spectacle day and night and you do not even need a ticket. Although a 300 yen donation is of course appreciated. You can just leave it in the donation box. When you've seen enough and can only see purple spots in front of your eyes, pray for good health or a happy marriage at the shrine that is dedicated to the god of plentiful harvests.

Starting at the top, every visit after this would have to be a letdown of course. Additionally, timing is difficult when it comes to nature. The timing at Ōta Shrine was absolutely perfect, on May 14th. But I can't help but thinking I was too late at Heian Shrine (May 16th, no.'s 2) and Umenomiya Taisha (May 17th, no's 3) to find the irises in their prime. Alas, no time left to visit the fourth most famous iris viewing spot, Oharano Shrine.

Fortunately I do have a second chance in June at Heian Shrine. Other species will bloom that moth, hanashobu and ayame. In May there was no cloud of purple, or yellow, or white... Just a few specks here and there. Luckily, Heian Shrine garden has other features that do make a visit worth wile. The garden contains three ponds, with great amounts of water lilies, which are also a raffle to see. The last pond does not even need flowers, but is magnificent through the beautiful bridge built over the water.

Umenomiya Taisha garden was less of a sight, so bedraggled it was somewhat funny and strange to walk through the rusty gate and rather unkempt garden. Although, when the timing is right, it could be worth the trip to this slightly out of the way place with a tower of sake barrels to worship. Umenomiya should at least be a showcase of the most species of iris when they're blooming (apart form Kyoto Botanical garden maybe). Well, June arrived and I'm ready for another round!

Friday 1 June 2012

B-B Paradise: Roof top Beer Garden at New Hankyu Hotel

Rather coincidentally I ended up, with company, in the Beer Garden on the roof top of New Hankyu Hotel, opposite Kyoto Station. It was a wonderful change from eating inside, which is almost unavoidable when eating out in Japan. On the roof top a nice breeze welcomed us at the end of on another very warm day. Mind you, I'M not complaining the rather cold month of March changed almost overnight in pleasantly warm summer-weather two months ago, speaking as a Dutch person. It is true the weather is getting warmer by the day, but I can not and will not complain. Even though Japanese inhabitants keep telling me I'm somewhat crazy wanting to spend the summer months in Japan! What I am curious about is the reason why Japan lacks cafe's and restaurants with an outdoor space (in the shadow mind you!). The Japanese seem to prefer to drink and eat inside, where the air conditioning happily blasts all your warm weather worries away. Well, maybe that's not so strange if you are used to the hot summers. Since I'm not, I greedily spend a lot of time outside and keep my eye out for possibilities doing this with a nice, cold drink in my hand, maybe even a bite or two.

What is surprising then maybe, is that the roof top Beer Garden was packed with jolly groups of 'salarymen' with here and there some couples and elderly people joining in the merriness. My company and I were the only 'gaijin' (this literally means 'foreigner' in Japanese), but not the only ones who craved some outdoors entertainment apparently. Or was it just the all-you-can-eat-and-drink offer that lured the Japanese out in the open? Which ever it was, the atmosphere was as happy as can be. Even though some groups got louder and louder and disproportionately enthusiastic with every new plate of 'Wieners' their colleagues brought over. Drunk the Japanese can still be courteous and the mood only gets livelier. (And funnier, see the girl in the picture above taking pictures of her beer)

This event started at the end of April and will last until the end of September! It is a not-to-miss experience. There should be about 5 or 6 of these Beer Gardens in Kyoto alone (I wrote an article about Kyoto Tower's Beer Garden here), so that should be enough to make your head spin.

For more information about the New Hankyu Hotel Beer Garden, visit the B-B Paradise website (Japanese).

Monday 28 May 2012

Suikei garden at Keihanna Commemorative Park

The phrase 'of the beaten path' is surely true for Keihanna Commemorative Park and it's Suikei garden. The trip to this garden therefore is not for the tourists with just a few days on their hands. However, if you have more time and are interested in gardens (I am!), a visit to Suikei-en is something different.

Keihanna Park is situated in Seika, a 40 minute train ride from Kyoto Station. At Seika, take the bus for about 15 minutes and get out at Keihanna Park. The park seems to be in the middle of nowhere since Seika is not the most beautiful village in Kansai, but it features one particular notable garden, Suikei-en ('en' means garden in Japanese). The garden is a showcase of traditional Japanese landscape techniques like I've never seen before.

What makes the garden notable for instance is the very impressive 150 metres long Ganshou (reef). A huge cluster of rectangular rocks about 7 metres high that 'recreates the wildness of nature'. The 500 rocks weigh between 20 to 40 tons each, the heaviest rock even weighs 70 tons. They originate from Inujima island in Okayama Prefecture (225 km and a ferry ride away) and are called Sabimikageishi.

Furthermore, there is an exhibition space, a walking lovely and mossy path that contains a few small and one big waterfall, a small rice paddy (depending on the season) and a lake with Suikeidana. These are a succession of stairs in the lake that provide it with an energetic sight. Rising up from the water stands a 4 metres wide, 123 metres long and 10 metres high bridge, a wonderful feature. During my visit the 'Kangetsukyo Bridge' was graced with two strings of huge koinobori. These are streamers of fish, the koi carp that Japan is well known for. I've written about koinobori before, in this article.

A tip that might be welcome: The park and garden do not contain a café, only a vending machine for drinks and ice cream as a short term solution. Would you like to go for lunch or diner after your visit, opposite Shin-Hosono station to the left, you'll find a great kaiseki restaurant, Kyo-Suigetsu. And the only one in Seika for that matter! Unfortunately I was too late to catch lunch (last order 14:30 o'clock) and was obliged to eat a snack at the shopping centre directly opposite the station. Not something I would recommend. So pack a nice picnic or get to the restaurant in time for a wonderful conclusion of your day.

For more information, visit the Keihanna Park website (Japanese).

Sunday 27 May 2012

‪A bustling antiques market at ancient Kitano Tenman-gū‬

Every month on the 25th at ‪Kitano Tenman-gū‬ an antique market engages the streets and little squares around the shrine grounds. Even busier then Tō-ji's antiques market (the 21st of every month), because it also buzzes with bus loads of young students coming to pray for success in their studies. The Shrine is associated with Tenjin, the Shinto god (kami) of education and therefore the shrine is also fondly called Tenjin. Because of it's linkage with Tenjin, specially in school trip season and during exam times, you see many students fill the shrine grounds. They rub the noses of the statue oxen and throw some change in for good measure and hope for the best.

Both the market and the Shrine are well worth a visit. The Shrine includes extraordinary beautiful buildings, many different aged stone lanterns and numerous red and white plum trees that all breathe ancient times. Not strange when you learn the Shrine was built in 947. Both during blossom season as during fall the Shrine grounds should be a splendour of colour.

Some would say the market on the 25th is a flea market, but that's not entirely true. The market offers almost the same sort of antique items as Tō-ji, and these are real treasures mostly. There are also quite some food stalls, kimono, tools, toys and plant sellers and a few handcraft booths to visit. It is even possible to find exact the same sellers and their wares as at Tō-ji. This could be a downside if your looking for a completely different offer, but it could also be an upside. Since it's possible to visit the one if you missed the other and maybe you didn't buy that one item you actually should have… you're not offered a second chance like this very often! There is a saying that connects both antique markets even ''Fair weather at Tō-ji market means rainy weather at Tenjin market". A saying that portrays Kyoto's fickle weather.
Lucky for me I chose to visit the markets in April and the weather was great on both days.

I couldn't say which of the antique markets would be my favorite. They are both great. ‪Kitano Tenman-gū‬ buildings and grounds are maybe more charming but the downside is accessibility. If you're not a really early starter, you might look at the frustrating aspect you have to stand in such a long queue that you have to let pass three busses before you can finally board (a very crowded!) one. And you could also look at the same fate leaving the shrine grounds. Tō-ji, fortunately, is just a nice stroll away from Kyoto Station, so you don't really need to take the bus. So if times do get busy, you have a great alternative. I know this is my favorite tip, but I'm gonna say it again: start early! If this was ever a good tip for an activity in Kyoto, now it is.

Website to Kitano Tenman-gū, in English.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Kyoto artDive #06, Art Festa with a high cuteness factor

Miyako Messe seems to offer Kyoto quite some different events to replenish the cultural and creative hart. I've attended a traditional crafts fair, kimono exhibition, and an antique books fair was held I wanted to attend to. This weekend, Kyoto Art Festa was held, the 6th artDive. Personally I'm not completely sure I would call the works on show art. But at least a lot of creative minds game together and offered a whole range of kawaii (Japanese for cute). For art with an 'A' I would recommend ART Kyoto. See my article about this event here.

Whatever the term used, it doesn't matter. There was something for everyone at artDive #06 with 220 booths and 330 creative people selling their works. There were paintings, 3D art works, jewelry, T-shirts, candles, wind chimes, wood craft, bags, furniture and lot's of illustrations! There was even an ARTs*LABo Postcard Exhibition, with 1000 postcards to choose from. So everyone literally could take home a little piece of art. Next to the Postcard Exhibition was the 'Sakura Exhibition', showing 230 Cherry Blossom pieces. A project to market and attract more international interest to the young and upcoming artists. Japan would like to attract the worlds attention to their artistic talent as Japans cherry blossoms already do. It was a great showcase of Japans illustration talent!

The talent on showcase was wonderful but I would have liked to see a bit more 'cool' and attitude. A big fan of kawaii articles myself, I wouldn't have minded for diversities sake to see some vinyl toys for instance or more booths with big art works. This time the girly girls ruled big time with small works, I hope autumn will deliver a little more 'swagger'.

Apart from art work already finished, Live Paint Booths gave a very interesting view on the creators method of working. Which was completely different for all of them. I especially liked that the booths were so conveniently placed opposite the artDive café. A perfect place to enjoy a B.L.T. and ice coffee and watch the art works come to life.

If you missed the artDive on May 19th and 20th, you don't have to wait for a year. The next will be held this autumn, October 20th and 21st. Would you like to go, here's a link to the website.

Thursday 17 May 2012

See Kyoto's maiko & geisha dance and get a glimpse of their mysterious world

Kyoto knows five geisha districts, namely Miyagawa-cho Kabu-kai, Ponto-cho Hanamachi, Gion Kobu, Gion Higashi Kabu-kai and Kamishichiken Kabu-kai. Geisha are formally called, geiko and apprentice geiko are called maiko. Each one of these districts in Kyoto have their own theatre where geiko and maiko perform their elegant dances every year. Four of the performances are held in spring, one in the fall.

At none of the stages it is allowed to take pictures unfortunately. But outside the theaters, in the geisha districts, there are enough chances to see maiko and geiko rushing to and from the theatre. You must be quick though, most are in a rush and are not really inclined to stand still for long. They are working of course, so don't try to stop them for your convenience of taking their picture (as many tourist would like to or maybe tries). If you are lucky some maiko and geiko attend the theatre as spectators themselves and meet friends or acquaintances in front of the theatre where you can snap them more easily, if you like to do so.

Dance performance at Miyagawacho Kabu-kai
The picture's above were taken at geisha district Miyagawacho Kabu-kai. The one picture of the stage is from "Kyoto Visitors Guide'. The spring dance of Miyagawacho is called the "Kyo Odori" (Kyoto Dance). The first performance was held in 1950 and enjoyed great popularity since then. After the fifth performance the stage was moved temporarily, but in 1969 the new Miyagawa-cho Kaburen-jo Theater was completed and the dance returned to its original location.

The dance is preformed only in the first two weeks of april. Tickets are quite easily obtained from the ticket office in front of the theatre. If you get there early in the morning to buy the tickets, you have more choice where to sit. The performance shows famous places and stories of Kyoto as a background. Traditional music will be played live on stage by the musicians. Not only dance, but some theatre, or musical-like performance, will be shown as well. Even some of the performers will dress up as men to play the roles necessary for the story. Which is a comical and strange sight knowing a very elegant and sophisticated girl is underneath the 'pomp' and 'swagger' the role of men ask for. The best part of the show is the end dance where every performer comes on stage and they dance all together in their colorful kimono using fans to emphasize their elegant movements.

Dance performance at Ponto-cho Hanamachi
The dance is called Kamogawa Odori (Kamo River Dance) and started in 1872 as part of the Kyoto Exposition. It has been performed annually since and provides a show with a wide range of fans. This is the last spring dance event, from May 1st -24th. So there is still a week to attend it this year!

Dance performance at Gion Kobu
The First performance, called Miyako Odori (Dance of the Capital), was held in 1872 to  the Exhibition for the Promotion of Domestic Industry. Kyoto struggled hard after the capitol of Japan was moved to Tokyo in 1869. Although the performance has a long history, each year the dance is different and this has made it very popular. Held from April 1st - 30th.

Dance performance at Gion Higashi Kabu-kai
The dance is simply called Gion Odori (Gion Dance) and was first performed in 1953. The dance is known for for its original planning and composition. This performance is the only one in autumn and held from November 1st - 10th.

Dance performance at Kamishichiken Kabu-kai
The performance is called Kitano Odori (Kitano Dance) and officially begun 1952. The Kitano Club and the Mando Club danced jointly in commemoration of the 1050th anniversary of Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine. It is known to be both elite and tasteful. Held from April 15th - 25th.