Posts Tagged ‘traditions’

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.

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Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.

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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!

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There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.

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There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.

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We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).

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We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.

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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.

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Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.

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On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.

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On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.

Dogo Onsen (道後温泉) Matsuyama

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Ever since I first read Soseki’s Botchan, I have wanted to visit Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama. I did a lot of research into bathing at the famous Dogo Onsen Honkan, but not, as it turned out, quite enough.

My husband and I are very, very British. We don’t like taking our clothes off in public. As I was researching a trip to the Honkan, I became convinced that there was a private bath option available.

Come enjoy the public bathhouse atmosphere of the “Kami-no-yu”. Upstairs, you’ll find a large, open area made for onsen-goers to change into a “yukata” cotton bathrobe and relax while sipping tea and eating sweet cakes. The “Tama-no-yu”, on the other hand, is an elegant facility featuring private hot baths and famous for its Botchan Dango rice dumplings and chic atmosphere. (Rates for private baths vary.)

So said the official tourism website for Matsuyama City. I double checked on the Honkan’s own website, where I think I misunderstood “Private Room” to mean private bath. The consequences of all this turned out to be quite stressful!

Dogo Onsen is a hot spring resort to the east of central Matsuyama. It is thought to be the oldest hot spring in Japan, being referred to in the Nihon Shoki Chronicles. The symbol of the town is the Dogo Onsen Honkan, which was built in 1894. At the top of the three story building is a small tower with a white heron on top. This is the shinrakukan. The tower is glazed in red, and a lamp is lit inside in the evening to guide customers to the spring. Inside there is also a drum called Toki-Daiko (time drum). Every day at 6 a.m., the drum is beaten to announce that the Honkan is open. It is also beaten at noon and at 6 p.m.

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There is a legend about the heron that links to the discovery of the healing properties of the hot spring. The heron is said to have had an injured leg and was seen splashing about in a spring in an area called Sagitani, close to Dogo Onsen, on a daily basis. After a few days of this behaviour, the heron flew away and the local people saw that its leg had been completely healed. They started to bathe in the waters as well, and found them to be very relaxing. People with ailments also found the waters restorative, and so the onsen was born.

As well as the Honkan, there are plenty of other things to see and do in the small town. On the day we decided to visit, it was raining. We’d spent the morning at the Ehime Museum of Art looking around the Studio Ghibli exhibition about the making of When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー). We hopped on a tram that took us out to Dogo Onsen, which was a pleasantly winding journey on an old fashioned street car.

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We arrived at a charming period-style station that evoked the era of Botchan. There was something Ghibli about it, in its clapboard styling and muted colours. Despite the rain, it was a pretty sight.

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On our walk from the station to the Honkan, we passed the famous Botchan Karakuri clock, alongside a public foot spa in Hojoen Square. The clock is automated and “performs” every hour. We made a plan to come back later to watch the show.

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To the side of the clock is a covered arcade that leads up the hill to the Honkan, passing Tsubaki no Yu, the secondary bath house in the town. At the end of the arcade was a plaza and the Honkan.

As well as featuring in Botchan, the Honkan is also famous for being the inspiration for the bath house in Spirited Away. It is a beautiful building. It was smaller than I was expecting, but perfectly proportioned.

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There were plenty of people around, some of them in matching yukata with matching jackets over the top and towels around their shoulders, ready to strip off and slide into the hot spring. We went to the ticket counter and asked to buy two tickets for the Tama-no-Yu private bathing. Unfortunately for us, there is limited availability for this private bathing experience, and we were told that we would need to try again later.

We spent a little time wandering around the shops in the arcade, where we met a ginger cat who wanted to be our friend. Perhaps he was drawn to my akage-no-otto (赤毛の夫).

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We bought a few bits and pieces as souvenirs and looked at the Botchan train. We also found a statue of the writer Masaoka Shiki, who was born in Matsuyama.

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Back at the Honkan, we purchased our tickets, left our footwear in the lockers, and were shown up to the third floor. The building is amazing inside, a warren of corridors and steep staircases, with people bustling around. The private rooms are on the third floor. We were given yukata decorated with white herons and hired some lovely thick towels, then we were shown to our private room. We changed into our yukata and locked our belongings in the cupboard, then rang the bell for our assistant to collect us.

She showed us down to the second floor, and this is where it got messy. As I mentioned above, I had become convinced that there was going to be a private bath that my husband and I could share. When the attendant showed us the laminated explanation sheets and instructed us to go separately to the men’s and women’s private baths, I asked where our private bath was. He didn’t understand me, and told me again to go to the women’s bath, the private one, and then down to the lower women’s bath afterwards, the public bath. I tried to say to my husband that I didn’t understand the attendant and he didn’t understand me and we were going to have to go with the flow, but we were busily being ushered to our respective baths, so I think my message across the room got lost. I headed to the women’s Tama-no-Yu and assumed that my husband had headed to the men’s bath.

I am very short sighted, so I told myself that this would be an experience, and if people decided to stare at me because I am Western, I wouldn’t be able to see without my glasses on, and then I got on with it.

It was quiet in the Tama-no-Yu bath. I had read up on onsen etiquette on a couple of sites, and there were also instructions on a travel blog about visiting Dogo Onsen Honkan. There were further instructions in the changing room, too. I took off my yukata and put it with my glasses into the locker, then slipped the locker key onto my wrist. I sat on a small wooden stool in the shower area and rinsed my body, then used the deliciously fragrant orange blossom soap to wash myself before rinsing again.

I made my way to the bath. There were three women already in there, and they made space for me to slide into the bath. I dropped my towel and made it sopping wet, so one of the women indicated that I should place it onto the window ledge. That was all the interaction I experienced.

The water in the Tama-no-Yu bath was hot but not scalding. I sat on a small ledge initially, to get my body used to the heat. The water felt like silk. Gradually I immersed myself fully and bobbed about a bit close to the edge. The other women were crouching in the water, walking around a little. I copied one of them and got out of the bath partway through to shower and soap again, then got back into the bath after rinsing myself off. I struggled with the showers, which were on a timer tap, so I couldn’t rinse off as quickly as I wanted to. I felt pretty exposed, crouching and waiting for the water pressure to build again for the shower.

I managed a few more minutes in the bath, and eventually there was only me and another woman, so I was able to move next to the open window to cool down a little. Then I dried off and put my yukata back on, using the hairdryer in the changing room to try to get my hair under control. It didn’t work, and I became the frizz queen as I usually do when I don’t have access to conditioner and hair straighteners!

I made my way up to the second floor and tried to get up the stairs to the third floor to meet up again with my husband and find out how he had got on. I wasn’t allowed to return to the private room, though. The attendants were very insistent that I should also enjoy the larger public bath, the Kami-no-Yu. I really didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I headed off down the stairs and across the corridor to a large public changing room.

Fortunately, there weren’t many people in there, and I found a quiet corner to slip out of my yukata, trying to cover my modesty with my towel. I went through the sliding door into the steamy large public bath. I repeated the rinse, soap, rinse ritual and then got into the bath. It was incredibly hot. So much hotter than the water in Tama-no-Yu. I didn’t last very long, sitting by myself, feeling as though I was slowly being boiled alive. I started to feel light headed and decided that enough was enough.

I found the experience in the public bath a lot more difficult than that in the smaller bath upstairs. I think the fact that only a handful of people could use Tama-no-Yu at one time made me feel less like I was having the experience alone. Surrounded by families and groups of friends enjoying the hot spring water together, chatting and having a laugh, made me very aware that I was in there on my own and I had nothing to do. While I like my own company, I’m not very good at solitary pursuits where I can’t read or write or listen to music. Sitting in boiling water, unable to focus on anything, trying not to gaze at the blurry forms around me, made me feel oddly lonely.

I returned to the changing room, dried off and put my yukata back on, then headed back upstairs. My poor husband was sitting in the room, very dry, and not looking too happy. He hadn’t gone through to the bath and had been sitting in the room, waiting for me to return. It was a sad end to what should have been a lovely experience that we shared together. Talking to our friend who is Japanese when we returned home, he told us that there are places where you can have a private bath, where couples can share the bathing experience, and asked us to let him know next time we would be in Japan so that he could help us to find somewhere.

We had our green tea and ate our Botchan Dango dumplings, but didn’t linger in the room. Outside later on, we saw that people opened up their shutters and stood out on the balconies enjoying the view as they sipped their tea. I wish that we had done that, but we were both too stressed by the unexpected turn our visit to the onsen had taken. We even left without taking the tour of the Emperor’s private bathing rooms, we were so shellshocked!

We cheered ourselves up with a slice of Matsuyama Tart and made our way back to the Botchan Karakuri clock. The show is quite something. The clock expands upwards and outwards to display different scenes from the novel, and it plays music and dialogue. I was transfixed, pointing out the different scenes to my husband. It was the perfect end to a strange afternoon!

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In putting together this post, I found a question that someone else asked on the Trip Advisor forum, about whether there are private baths at Dogo Onsen Honkan. I wish I’d found it before we went there. But then again, I wouldn’t have had the experience that I did have, and I enjoyed relaxing in the smaller, quieter bath. I also liked how soft my skin felt after the bath, and the smell of the soap. It was a good experience, just not the one I was expecting.

If you’re brave and don’t mind getting your kit off in front of strangers and then getting into a bath with them, I’d say do it. If you’re a little shy in the public nakedness stakes, then maybe give it a miss. But if you do decide to visit Dogo Onsen Honkan, I really recommend the private room experience if only for the tea and dumplings at the end, and the chance to lounge around in a tatami room with sliding shutters, imagining you’re in a scene from Botchan or Spirited Away.

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)

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I recently read Marcus Jansen’s history of modern Japan and learned that Kanda used to be a mountain, but it was levelled by Ieyasu in order to provide the earth needed to infill Tokyo Bay to create the modern port. We’ve wandered around Kanda and Jimbocho a couple of times on previous visits to Tokyo, and in 2014 our Akihabara apartment was a short walk from Kanda Myojin. The hill that the shrine stands on is still pretty steep.

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We visited the shrine on a sunny Sunday during Golden Week. Before we headed up the steps in the photo above, we watched two lads race each other to the top. We walked up after them, and I think we were more out of breath when we got to the top than they were!

Kanda Shrine started its existence in the Otemachi area of Tokyo. It was originally built in 730AD, but ended up in the path of Ieyasu’s planned expansion of Edo Castle. So, in 1603, the shrine was moved to the Kanda ward. It moved again 13 years later to the top of the hill where it still resides. The current structures on the site aren’t original. It suffered extensive fire damage in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and was reconstructed in 1934.

I thought the shrine was beautiful, with its bright vermillion woodwork and its lion dogs, nestling on the hilltop amidst the urban sprawl.

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The frieze pictured above is on the Zuishin Mon, the copper-roofed main gate to the shrine. It depicts a blue dragon and a black turtle-snake, which are two of the four Shijin (Taoist gods) alongside the red phoenix and white tiger.

The shrine is home to three kami – Daikokuten and Ebisu, who are both members of the 7 Lucky Gods crew and considered to be particularly lucky for business people, and Taira no Masakado, a Heian-era samurai who led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto and whose head was brought to Tokyo. Local residents in the Shibaraki area, the destination for Masakado’s head, respected his defiance so much that they enshrined him at Kanda Myojin.

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.

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Instead of Ebisu being depicted in his usual form as a fisherman, this statue refers to Ebisu’s childhood. Ebisu was the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the many islands that make up Japan. He was born without bones and, unable to walk, he was put into a boat of reeds and cast adrift on the sea. The statue shows Ebisu in his boat riding on the crest of a wave, surrounded by turtles and fish. He washed ashore in Hokkaido and was adopted by an Ainu fisherman. His bones grew and, aged three years old, he became a god. I didn’t know that story before I visited Kanda Myojin.

The shrine, perhaps because of its proximity to Akihabara, is also associated with IT and with manga. We saw a couple of lucky charms in sticker form on sale that you could affix to the back of your tech to ward off system failures, data loss and identity theft.

More spectacularly, though, the shrine is full of ema plaques decorated with manga.

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In 2012, an anime/manga/idol project started, called Love Live! which is set around Akihabara and features Kanda Myojin as one of the key locations. It’s quite something to walk through the stands of ema and see the creativity of visitors to the shrine. Some of the ema are pre-printed, but the vast majority look hand drawn and coloured. It was one of my favourite things about the shrine.

My most favourite thing, though, was the miniature pony.

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Because we love Parks and Recreation, we named this pony L’il Sebastian. It turns out she’s a girl pony called Akari, and she is the shrine’s sacred horse. She’s there to carry the gods if they want a trot out. I expect that Baby Ebisu is fine riding a miniature pony, but I’m concerned about Daikokuten. Let’s not even think about how the severed head of Taira no Masakado gets on the back of a miniature pony. Akari can’t be expected to carry him in a mikoshi, surely?

I bet she takes part in the Kanda Matsuri every May, though. We were in the wrong year for the big festival and also too early in the month. The big festival, which is one of the biggest shrine festivals in Japan, takes place in odd years, with a smaller festival in the even years. In the big festival, 100 mikoshi and 300 people parade through the streets of Tokyo, around Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Marunouchi.

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

Sanjusangendo/三十三間堂

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I am still in contact with my first Japanese teacher, 中村りつこさん, and before we headed off on our sixth trip to Japan in 2015, she had put up on Facebook some photographs of a trip she took with her family to Kyoto. Among the places that she visited was Sanjusangendo. Her pictures looked amazing, and so I determined that this trip we would make time to visit. Especially since the machiya we were staying in was literally around the corner. There was no excuse not to!

Of course, in the same way that we rarely make time to visit the cultural attractions on our doorstep in Manchester, we behaved as though we lived in Kyoto and had all the time in the world to pop to the temple up the street from us. We finally visited on our last day in Kyoto.

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It was a sunny day, hot but not as humid as the rest of the week had been, and a visit to a cool shady temple was just the ticket. Sanjusangendo roughly translates as Hall with 33 Intervals, which is an accurate description of this 120 metre long temple building. Its official name is Rengeo-in (蓮華王院), which means Temple of the Lotus King.

The outer walls and gates of the temple are stained a brilliant vermillion, and create an impressive barrier both to entry and to seeing the buildings inside. They’re quite forbidding from the inside as well.

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A school group had arrived at the temple at the same time as us, so we took some time to enjoy the gardens before we headed into the hall. The gardens are really beautiful, and include a couple of pools, a large bell, and a purifying fountain said to sound like a child crying in the night.

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Known as the Midnight Crying Stream (pictured above), the story goes that its location was revealed to a priest in a dream, and people believe that the water has the ability to stop children crying at night.

Photographs inside the hall aren’t permitted, so here are some more of its exterior.

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After our wander around the outside, we were feeling pretty warm and in need of some shade, so we headed into the hall. As with all Japanese buildings, we had to remove our shoes before entering. As photography isn’t allowed, we decided that we would also stash our bags in the lockers near the ticket gate. We left our shoes in the pigeonholes at the entrance to the hall, then followed the other visitors inside.

The temple was founded in 1164. It was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt around a hundred years later. As well as being Japan’s longest wooden building, it is also the only surviving example of a Sentai Kannon-dõ. This is the real attraction of Sanjusangendo, and the reason photography isn’t permitted inside. The hall is home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Ranked around the central Senju Kannon (1000 armed Kannon) are a further 1000 Kannons, arranged in 50 rows of 10 on either side of the central National Treasure. The 1000 Kannons are designated as Important Cultural Properties. 124 of the statues date from the founding of the temple in the 12th century, and the remaining 876 are from the period when the temple was rebuilt in the 13th century. The Kamakura Period sculptor Tankei carved a number of the statues, with the others completed by his apprentices and later craftsmen. Each statue is slightly different, depending on who carved it. Some are signed by Tankei.

The atmosphere inside the hall was quite special. Some of the doors between the 33 bays were open and a cool breeze wafted through, stirring up the smell of incense. The lighting was dim, to protect the statues, which are covered in gold leaf. The train of people making their way through the hall moved slowly, and it all combined to create a sense of reverie. Close to the central Kannon, visitors can pay for prayers to be written out by the priests and offered up to the Kannon in the daily ritual. Visitors can also offer up incense to the goddess.

In front of the Kannon statues are statues of Raijin, the god of thunder, and Fujin, the god of wind, who are imposing figures with faces contorted by wrath. They stand on cloud shaped pedestals. Alongside them are 28 other deities, whose role is to protect Kannon. The ferocity of their expressions is in stark contrast to the serenity seen on the face of Senju Kannon and her 1000 companions.

I’m glad that photography wasn’t allowed. It enabled me to spend more time actually looking at the statues and thinking about their significance to people who follow Buddhism, rather than thinking about angles and lighting and how to take the best shot. I have more of a sensory memory of the visit as a result.

Goryo Shrine, Kyoto (Kami Goryo Jinja/上御霊神社)

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In May 2015, we were staying in a machiya in the East of Kyoto and were thinking of things we hadn’t done in Kyoto before. My husband has long wanted to visit a flea market at a temple. The only time we’ve sort of done this before is when we went to Kitano Tenmangu, where a very small flea market was being held among the food stalls and plastic tat aimed at children.

I read up on shrines in Kyoto that hold regular markets, and discovered that Kami Goryo Jinja in the north of the city had a monthly market that fell while we were in Kyoto. I wish that the information I’d found had included this site, because then I would have known that the flea market isn’t held in May!

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Instead, the 18th May is the date of the shrine matsuri, which is one of the oldest continuously held matsuri in Japan. The shrine has a long history, dating back to 794. It was built on the site of a former Buddhist temple which had served the local population as a family temple until the imperial court moved from Nara to Kyoto and Emperor Kammu ordered that a Shinto shrine be established on the site. Kammu dedicated the shrine to eight spirits of people who had died violently, and Kami Goryo Jinja became the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace. The role of the shrine became one of protection, with the kami driving away vengeful spirits which threatened the safety of the capital.

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Things didn’t work out so well with the kami, as the 15th century Onin war started in the forest around the shrine, and the shrine itself was burned to the ground during the decade long battle. (We’d learnt a little about the Onin war as a result of our visit to Ginkakuji.)

A century later, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the shrine. Under the Shogunate, Kami Goryo Jinja ceased to be the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace and reverted to being a family shrine, protecting the local population.

The matsuri has been held at the shrine since 863, and features three mikoshi, a variety of ox carts, taiko drummers, dragon dancers and local children dressed in Heian era costume. The spectacle more than made up for the lack of a flea market!

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We arrived just as things were getting started. Small trucks and wagons were parked up in the street in front of the shrine entrance. Among the wagons was a beautiful ox cart. A couple of men were inspecting the cart to make sure it was ready for the procession.

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The man on the right noticed us taking photographs and walked over to chat. One thing we learned about the Kami Goryo Jinja matsuri is that the local people are incredibly proud of the festival, and were pleased to see tourists visiting. We had a short conversation in Japanese about what was going on, and he gave us some advice on where to stand to see the mikoshi pass by once they left the shrine precincts. We thanked him and then made our way into the shrine, because we could hear flutes and bells, so thought something must be happening.

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How right we were! The purification ceremony was just beginning, and we joined the local people in watching as the shrine priests waved a willow wand over the mikoshi and then offered sake, mochi, fish, vegetables and fruit to the kami in their temporary homes.

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The ceremony was beautiful to watch, executed with solemnity and grace. It felt like a privilege to be there, witnessing it. We only saw three other Western visitors, which interested me because the shrine is located not far from Kyoto University. When we’ve wandered briefly around the Demachiyanaga area, we’ve noticed a reasonable number of Western students, but perhaps they don’t live in the area near the shrine.

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After the blessings and offerings, the shrine carriers started to prepare. They were dressed in dazzling white happi coats. Among the crew for one of the mikoshi was a Western man. What an honour to have become such a part of the community around the shrine that he was part of a mikoshi crew! I think he’s on one of the videos I recorded, but I didn’t get a photograph of him, unfortunately.

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Around the other side of the shrine to where we were standing, musicians sat and accompanied the ceremony.

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I always think that traditional Japanese music has an eerie melancholy about it. It fitted well with the ceremony, somehow.

Also standing around the shrine, watching the mikoshi crews get ready, were children dressed in Heian era costumes. The head priest passed through the crowd with his willow wand and blessed the children.

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Less benign were the dragon dancers who snapped their mouths and threatened to bit the heads off the children. One small boy burst into tears at their antics, but the two young ladies dressed in red took the abuse stoically!

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At one point, while I was wandering around, I got a little too close to the ropes that would be used to tie the mikoshi to their carrying poles. One of the mikoshi crew warned me not to step too close. When I stepped back and said, “はい、わかりました,” (yes, I’ve understood what you’ve told me) he nodded back to me and gruffly said, “ごめん”. Judging by the expression on his face, I think he meant that he was sorry that he had scolded me!

Suddenly the mikoshi were ready, and with a lot of call and response, the mikoshi crews put on a great performance of bouncing the portable shrines off the main shrine platform and out into the street. The mikoshi are decorated with bells, so there was a lovely jingling to the movement, and this mixed with the shouts of the men as they bounced the shrines on their poles. It was amazing to see.

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The mikoshi were carried out through the East gate, so we headed back through the South gate to the spot pointed out to us by the ox cart checker earlier that morning. He was right about it being a good place. We saw the ox arrive and be harnessed to the cart, then a parade of costumed people, followed by the first mikoshi, which was put onto its wagon right in front of us. That was a precision operation, getting it to sit right.

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I really loved this matsuri. It felt cosier than the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa that we stumbled upon during our honeymoon. As we left the streets around the shrine and started to walk towards the river, looking for the vegan restaurant Mamezen, we could hear the procession making its way along the streets that encircle the shrine. As we crossed a bridge over the river, a man cycling the opposite way shouted over his shoulder to us, “祭り、祭り!” (matsuri, matsuri!) and gestured at the parade behind us. “はい、見ました、凄いです!” I replied. (Yes, we saw it, it’s amazing!) He seemed to be satisfied with that response, and cycled on his way. How lovely, though, that he was so proud of his local festival that he stopped some random strangers he thought might be missing out and urged them to turn back.

If you’re in Kyoto on the 18th of May, any year, then this matsuri is definitely worth a look. We took the Karasuma line on the Kyoto subway to Kuramaguchi station, then walked through back streets to reach the shrine. The circular flat fare 201 bus will drop you off at the Karasuma Imadegawa subway station as well, and you walk north from there. 楽しんで下さいね! (Enjoy!)

Mifune Matsuri/三船祭

Whenever we head to Japan, we always check to see whether there will be any festivals on local to where we’re staying. In 2015, we discovered that we would be in Kyoto at the right time to see the Mifune Matsuri in Arashiyama. We love Arashiyama and have visited it a couple of times.

We caught the train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama on the JR line. The train was already at the platform when we reached Kyoto station, and was pretty crowded. We’d read that somewhere in the region of 100,000 people visit Arashiyama to watch the festival each year, so we were expecting the train to be full. We managed to get seats, then more people piled on until it was standing room only. It turned out that we were on a local train and not everyone was heading out to the festival.

We arrived at Saga station around lunch time. It was pretty quiet. We guessed that most people must already be at Kurumazaki shrine, getting ready for the procession to the Togetsukyo bridge. As we walked down into town, we passed a sign for a vegan café called Prunus.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and an opportunity to eat healthily instead of scavenging for onigiri in a combini had presented itself to us. So we climbed the stairs to the empty café. We sat at a table in the window and ordered from the extensive menu. Gradually the café began to fill up with customers, and I started to worry that we had missed the festival. We shared a plate of vegan gyoza and a salad, both of which were delicious. The salad was particularly good. I could almost feel the nutrients adding benefit to my body! I don’t know if there was an offer on, but we also got a free slice of savoury pound cake. Savoury cake, you might ask, what the heck is that about? It was surprisingly delicious.

We paid up and headed back out into the sunshine. The route into town still seemed quiet to me, further adding to my worries that we’d missed the show. It was around 1 p.m., and the procession from the shrine should have reached the river. Fortunately, when we got to Togetsukyo bridge, we found plenty of people lining the banks of the river, and plenty more rowing around in small blue boats. Huge boats were ferrying camera crews up and down the river as well, and covered boats were carrying groups of tourists along the river.

 

We crossed the bridge and wandered up the river bank. The narrow path was pressed with people, but we found a spot beneath some trees that gave us a good view across the river to the landing stage where the festival boats were gathering. Some kind of ceremony seemed to be happening in an area alongside the landing stage, and costumed people were starting to get into the boats.

 

We watched and waited for around half an hour, and then the action started. Boats started to leave the landing stage and were propelled up river by oarsmen in the prows. We could hear ghostly court music in the distance, and then the first of the festival boats started to move back down river along our bank towards us.

First a group of women in Heian-era court dress.

 

Then a wide open bird-prowed barge with women dancers in priestly dress.

 

The women performed a fan dance, accompanied by flautists and drummers.

 

A dragon-prowed barge followed on their heels, containing warrior-like young women who danced forcefully with extravagant arm gestures.

 

It was a serious business.

The Heian Court ladies returned and began the tradition of floating colourful fans on the surface of the river.

People who had hired the blue rowing boats jostled for position, as close to the barge as they could safely get, ready to swoop in as the barge moved off to claim a memento of the day.

 

Somehow, as we’d been focusing on the fan activity, another open barge of men in colourful costume had made its way past us and was crossing in front of the bridge down river from us.

With that, the festival seemed to be over, and people started to make their way off the river bank and back over the bridge into town.

As we crossed the bridge, we could see that there was still some activity up near the landing stage, so we headed up along the opposite bank of the river to stand behind the landing stage with other, more elegant hangers on.

We were rewarded with a clearer view of the Heian Court ladies, still floating their fans on the river, and smiling graciously at the spectators.

 

Further up the bank was a man with a set of carp streamers (koinobori/鯉幟), enjoying the spectacle as much as we were.

 

A few moments later, the barge that we had missed on the other side of the river made its way towards us. Two young men in bright orange costumes were performing an elegant dance.

The whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. The festival itself has an interesting story. Some websites describe it as a re-enactment of an Imperial boating party that happened on the Oi river in the Heian period, but an article on the Matsuri Times website remembers that there is a spiritual element to the festival as well. The soul of the 12th century scholar Kiyohara Yorinari is enshrined at Kurumazaki-jinja and every May is taken out in a mikoshi shrine to tour the neighbourhood. The mikoshi is transferred to a boat which then sits in the middle of the river, while the other boats travel around it, carrying the performers who pay their respects to the soul of Kiyohara Yorinori through song, poetry and dance. Mifune refers to the three main boats that feature in the festival (the Gozabune carrying the mikoshi, the dragon-prowed Ryutosen and the bird-prowed Gekisusen), but it also refers to the three performance arts of music, poetry and dance. I wish I had known this before we went, because I would have looked harder for the Gozabune. It must have been further up the river from where we were standing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Arashiyama, making a return visit to the bamboo groves, and popping in to look at Tenryu-ji, of which more later.

I always enjoy visiting Arashiyama, but seeing the Mifune Matsuri made our 2015 visit even more special. One of the better festivals we’ve visited in the Kyoto area.

Aizen Kobo/愛染工房

While we were in Kyoto in May 2015, we decided to go for a wander around the Nishijin textile area in the west of the city, using the Old Kyoto book as a guide. It was a bit of a grey old day, and a tad drizzly and humid, not really conducive to wandering. We took the chikatetsu (地下鉄) from Kyoto station up to Imadegawa, and tried to orientate ourselves using the map in the book. It isn’t a particularly accurate map, so it was good that we had pocket wifi and access to Google maps to help us on our way.

We saw some interesting buildings and street art along the way.

Our main target, though, was the workshop of Utsuki Kenichi (宇津木健一), a master craftsman in the art of indigo dyeing. The workshop is called Aizen Kobo (愛染工房), and is located in the heart of the old textile district. We found the narrow street without too much trouble and paused to take a photograph of the front of the workshop. The building is over 130 years old and has always been a textile manufacturing workshop. I first found out about it through photographs posted on Flickr by Rosewoman.

According to the Old Kyoto book, it didn’t seem as though we needed to make an appointment, but when we rang the bell we were asked to wait a couple of minutes.

While we waited, I read up again on the history of the workshop. I was interested to visit because I’m from a textile manufacturing town in the north west of England, and the machinery, and to some extent the cotton and calico printed goods, produced by my home town are among the items that affected the history of the owners of Aizen Kobo. I was interested to find out more, if I could, about the change from the family’s original trade to its current one.

The Utsuki family were originally obi weavers, masters of the tsuzure-ori handweaving technique that produces intricate brocade patterns laced with gold and silver, typically used for the finest Kyoto-style obi. Mechanisation of the weaving process through use of jacquard looms meant that demand for the handwoven obi declined, and the Utsuki family had to decide what to do with their business.

Head of the family in the 1920s was Utsuki Shozo. He was friends with the leader of the Mingei movement, the potter Kawai Kanjiro. The Mingei movement celebrated traditional crafts, and Kawai persuaded Utsuki to take up indigo dyeing (aizome/藍染). Kawai was certain that the taste for Western mass-produced textiles would fade and Japanese consumers would one day begin to appreciate again the beauty and quality of fabrics dyed with natural indigo dye. Utsuki Shozo was persuaded, and changed his obi business into a workshop for producing woven cotton and linen and natural indigo dye.

A very elegant woman opened the door to the shop to us and invited us in, apologising profusely for keeping us waiting. She was Utsuki Hisako (宇津木寿子 – the kanji for Hisako isn’t quite the same as is on her business card, すみません), the wife of Utsuki Kenichi. We started to look around the shop, and she asked us some questions about where we were from and where we were staying in Kyoto. We confused her slightly by describing the apartment we were staying in, in Higashiyama. It transpired that she was expecting a group of people staying at the Hotel Granvia, and had thought we were them.

Undaunted, she began to explain the layout of the building to us, and introduced various fabrics, products and yarns on display in the shop. After I explained that I work in a museum that includes exhibits about the textile industry, she invited us through to the inner showroom and small museum.

A shrewd saleswoman, Mrs Utsuki quickly assessed that I was too large for the dainty Japanese sized women’s clothes in the showroom, and instead persuaded my husband to try on a traditional indigo dyed jacket (a samu-e jacket of the kind worn by Zen priests, which the workshop is most famous for). Her flattering words of how tall he was and how “not too fat” he was did the trick! She explained how durable the fabric is, and how the jackets and their accompanying trousers improve with age and become family heirlooms, passed down through the generations. She also explained that indigo dye helps to ward off mosquitoes. My husband wasn’t swayed. I don’t think he could envisage himself walking around Manchester in a traditional Japanese jacket, and we don’t have many mosquitoes round our way.

The women’s clothes are very contemporary, and it’s a very good job that I am both too tall and too wide to fit into Japanese clothing, or I would possibly have bankrupted myself over one of the dresses in particular, or a blouse similar to the one worn by Mrs Utsuki. I later read that Mrs Utsuki designs the female clothing range. A talented lady indeed.

I took a look at some of the indigo and madder dyed silk scarves on display. I wanted to buy something traditional on this trip, as I had with my Japanese umbrella on a previous visit, and I had my ‘treat money’ with me. I picked up an indigo dyed one that cost 12,000円, and Mrs Utsuki started to tie it around my neck. She leaned back and assessed it, and then picked up the scarf dyed with madder. “This will suit you better,” she said, and started to tie it in a bow for me. As she tied it, she explained how natural dyes give a better colour than modern chemical dyes, and that madder was used to dye the clothes worn by Japanese princesses. After a little primping, she leaned back again. “Charming!” she decreed. That was me decided, and I said I would buy it. At that point, the door chimes sounded, and Mrs Utsuki headed off to see who had entered the shop. My husband hurriedly removed the samu-e jacket. The price tag said 50,000円. That’s around £275.

On Mrs Utsuki’s return, we went into the museum room, and were treated to a history of the workshop and how it got its name. Starting with the same history that I had read in the book, Mrs Utsuki narrated the change from obi weaving to indigo dyeing and the influence of the Mingei movement on her husband’s father. Then she pointed at a framed calligraphy sign. “This is the name of the shop,” she told us. “Aizen Kobo. Have you heard of the writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?” I said that I had, and we had a short digression about how wonderful a book The Makioka Sisters is. “Jun’ichiro Tanizaki gave the name Aizen Kobo to Utsuki Shozo,” Mrs Utsuki told us. “He named the workshop, and this was painted by Kawai Kanjiro, the potter.”

Remembering that I worked in a museum, Mrs Utsuki told us with much pride about how her husband’s work is included in the collection at the British Museum in London, and how an exhibition had been held at the V&A museum celebrating the work of Aizen Kobo. She is a wonderful ambassador for the history of the shop.

The door chimes earlier had heralded the return of Mr Utsuki, and we headed back into the shop. Mrs Utsuki packaged up my scarf, and very kindly slipped in a couple of articles about the workshop and her husband’s work. Just before we left, I asked whether it would be okay to take their photograph. They posed beautifully for me, but as I clicked the shutter I realised that I hadn’t changed the settings from outside, so the shutter closed very slowly. The photograph is consequently a little blurry, but I was too shy to ask them to pose for another.

I love this picture. I love how they are both wearing something made in the workshop – Mr Utsuki is in a samu-e and Mrs Utsuki is wearing one of her blouses, dyed madder. My scarf is the same colour as this blouse, and I recently wore it for the first time on a trip to Paris, where it helped me to feel more chic than I actually am!

As we left, Mrs Utsuki presented me with her card, and asked how long we would be staying in Kyoto and to please call her if we wanted to return.

After leaving Aizen Kobo, we wandered around Nishijin some more, hoping to hear the sound of looms clacking, and trying to find a yuba shop I had read about, but it was closed. We also passed the Nishijin Lifestyle Museum, a museum in an old kimono maker’s house, but decided not to go in because it seemed to mainly be about trying kimono on. Maybe next time.

Aizen Kobo was a highlight of our visit, though, and I’m really pleased that we visited. I’m also really pleased with my Aizen Kobo scarf (not tied as elegantly as Mrs Utsuki did it, sadly!).

Aizen Kobo scarf