Monthly Archives: September 2009

Red Glow over Tokyo

Last week I reached my kanreki and here in Japan, that calls for a great celebration with family and friends.

Kan” refers to a “cycle” and “reki” means calendar and together “kanreki” means a full cycle around the calendar or more precisely around the Chinese zodiac. Along with the 12-animal Chinese Zodiac, each person is born under one of 5 elemental signs (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water). The animal that represents the year changes with each new year, while the element changes every 12 years after one full revolution through all of the animals. These two cycles take 60 years (12 animals x 5 elements=60 years). This year 2009 is not simply an Ox year, but more specifically a yellow or Earth Ox, just as it was 60 years ago when I was born. Thus I have seen a full cycle. This is my kanreki year.

To celebrate, the person turning 60 years old usually wears red clothing that traditionally includes a red hat (e-boshi) and a sleeveless red vest (chanchanko). The color is symbolic since the word aka-chan or literally, “red one” means baby in Japanese. A 60-year-old person is once again a “baby” who is about to embark on their next 60-year cycle. It is a rebirth. Wearing red symbolizes that renewal of life as the second cycle begins. Sixty-year-olds are expected to use their kanreki as a year of reflection. They are to look at their lives and achievements and then plan which direction they would like to take as their lives begin a second sixty year cycle.

And so this weekend, I celebrated my birthday in Tokyo with my son and his family. And in a blend of American and Japanese traditions, we painted the town so red that even the astronauts looking down from the space station had to ask, “Oh, what is that red glow over Tokyo this weekend?”

And now life begins all over again.

red glow over tokyo

Shimogamo book fair

Poster advertisement for the Shimogamo used book fair, KyotoIt’s pouring rain today and will probably continue all weekend. Staying safe and dry at home could easily end in cabin fever by Sunday night, except for one little thing — I went to the annual Shimogamo book fair a few weeks ago.

Unlike the monthly fleamarkets at Kitano and Toji, the Shimogamo book fair occurs but once a year. Used book dealers from all over Japan, set up booths in the garden of Shimogamo Shrine for a book-lovers’ festival that goes on for four days. And to a book maven such as myself, it is a treasure trove of delight.

So on this rainy weekend, I can curl up with my treasures very much like the child in the festival flyer shown at right.

Shimogamo shrine, KyotoShimogamo is a Shinto shrine located about 5 minutes from my house by bicycle. It dates back to the 17th century and is a world heritage site. Shimogamo Shrine was built within the Tadasu no Mori,”the forest of truth.” And despite the encroaching urbanism of modern Kyoto, a portion of this forest is preserved within the temple garden, some of the trees being marked as particularly sacred by a wrapping of straw rope. According to legend, all lies will be exposed in this forest.

Used book fair at Shimogamo shrine, KyotoThe particularly rainy summer we had this year made the garden a lush green contrasted sharply by the vermillion Torii gates that mark the transition from the profane world into the sacred space of the garden.

And once inside, there beneath the canopy of trees in the forest of truth was all the books that book lover could ever love.
Old jazz LPs at the used book fair at Shimogamo shrine, Kyoto Collections of magazines that span the last half century, books on every topic imaginable. Whether you are a music fan, a sports fan, a car enthusiast, history buff, or poetry lover, you will find a treasure waiting there to feed your soul.

Of course, there are also a few other bits of soul food, like the vintage LPs for the jazz aficionado at left. Overall a nice lot of cool and hot jazz. Great opportunities to add some vintage jazz to your collection.

Vintage patterns at the used book fair at Shimogamo shrine, Kyoto
And among my personal favorites, there are sometimes a few vintage patterns from the 40s and 50s — in Japanese, of course.

Last year I was able to buy a collection of kimono style books from the Taisho period (circa 1910). Kimono style books contain line drawings of various kimono styles available from a certain kimono dealer. Since all kimono are made to order, the customer and dealer would discuss the drawing shown in the style book as a starting point for the order. The line drawings are uncolored since color would be one of the choices to be discussed, but the motifs to be dyed or woven into the kimono are clearly shown in the drawing. Old style books are a great resource for designers, so it was my hope to find yet another collection this year.

A young book-lover at the used book fair at Shimogamo shrine, Kyoto Still you never know what you may find and wandering around, perusing the choices is part of the fun.

Definitely, that’s a sentiment shared by my eager little friend at right. You’re never too young to begin a love affair with books. It was fun to see one so little enjoy himself that much. He and his mother eventually left with quite an armload containing books for each of them.

My own purchases from the used book fair at Shimogamo shrine, Kyoto And me? What did I buy? Well, I didn’t find that vendor with all the wonderful old style books again — maybe he decided not to come this year. But I was thrilled to find a catalog to a wonderful museum show I had seen 4 years ago. I had always kicked myself for not buying a catalog at the time, but now 4 years later I found it! And another fabulous book on kimono of the roaring 20s.

But my pièce de résistance was a large six-volume set entitled Japanese Design in Art and that should keep me inspired — at least until next year’s fair!

Lotus Inspirations

Entrance to the Koryo Museum in KyotoI guess you could say I’ve had a relatively wordless summer as I quietly worked on my stitchery, but it was never been my intention to allow so much time to pass in silence. Yet here it is September and I’m just now posting about some of the delights of my summer.

I did manage to find some time to spend at the Koryo Museum. It’s just a little place tucked into the north west corner of the city. Dedicated to traditional Korean art, their exhibitions are always a delight and this summer’s fare, was lotus-themed art. For this exhibition, they assembled a lovely collection of temple bells, rubbings, etchings, stone work, woodwork, metal work, textiles, paintings and ceramics that each featured the lotus in some part of the design.

Candlestick carved in the shape of a lotus plant, Koryo Museum, Kyoto, Japan

Though many people are familiar with the lotus through Buddhist art, but the lotus actually has a history that well predates the introduction of Buddhism. Lotus plants are known to have existed in the Cretaceous period (140—165 million years ago) and for at least a millennia, lotus leaves have been used as wrappers, their edible roots and seeds appreciated throughout Asia and ancient literature described its flowers in the most poetic terms. It’s only natural that they would also have become a favorite decorative motif for a wide range of crafts. And as these images were transmitted down through generations, the motif evolved to become an elegant representation crossing through the cultures of an entire continent.

In keeping with its mission to display traditional Korean art, the pieces exhibited at the Koryo Museum were all from the Koryo (918—192 AD) or Chosôn (1392—1910 AD) dynasties of Korea. Koreans have always been renowned as particularly exquisite craftsmen and women. Korean potters, embroiderers, weavers were highly valued in the courts of Korea’s more powerful neighbors, China and Japan.At right is the lovely wood carving that graced the entryway to the exhibition proper, a candlestick in the shape of a lotus plant—it’s broad leaf forms the base, the blossom holds the candle and there’s even a cute little frog crawling up the stalk.

Korean painting, Koryo Museum, Kyoto, Japan
Alongside the king, there was a class of men known collectively as the yangban, who helped to govern Korean society during the Chosôn dynasty (1392–1910).

The yangban was comprised of civil or military officials, with civil positions being considered more prestigious. Members of the yangban were expected to hold public office, follow the Confucian doctrine of study and self-cultivation, and help cultivate the moral standards of Chosôn society, in essence, they comprised the literati of Korean society at that time. And in keeping with the dictum of self-cultivation, many in the yangban class were accomplished artists, practiced in calligraphy and ink painting, which were traditionally considered the two media most appropriate for the literati.

Creating paintings like the image of fish swimming among lotu at left would have been a favorite pastime of this group. And along with the creating the painting, a proper literati was expected to own an assortment of simple yet beautiful instruments, such as porcelain or wooden brush holders (11.142.1) and porcelain water droppers as well as an inkstone, brushes, and paper. These small accessories, along with refined yet unostentatious wooden furniture, were not only for personal use but also for display as indicators of his station in life. Which naturally led to the commission of even more elegantly crafted items, such as those displayed in the rest of the exhibit.

Round flask with lotus design carved into white slip coating, Koryo Museum, Kyoto, Japan The ceramic flask at right is stoneware, covered with white slip and then carved to expose the darker clay body underneath. Quite typical of its time, this style is called buncheong ware, and was created in the southern part of Korea. This particular style was quite admired for Tea ceremony in Japan and imported as Korai chawan or Korean teabowls.

But perhaps the most famous style of Korean pottery would be celadon. The technique was orginally developed in China during the tenth century and later transmitted to Korea, but as Korean potters adopted and refined the technique, it evolved into a truly exquisite and uniquely Korean form.

Celadon tea cup in the shape of a lotus resting on a celadon saucer shaped like a lotus leaf, Koryo Museum, Kyoto, Japan Of all the art in this exhibit, the teabowls are among the most elegant and refined. The tea bowl and saucer set shown at left was made from a delicately carved clay body, with incised designs that were inlaid red or white clay slip and then coated with celadon glaze and fired. When removed from the kiln, the inlaid slip appeared as white or black beneath the green glaze. On the cup at left you can see faint flower images on each carved petal that comprises the tea bowl, which in turn rests upon a beautifully carved lotus leaf saucer.

Lotus shaped incense burner, Koryo Museum, Kyoto, Japan And as another celebration of beauty, this carved celadon incense burner dates from the Koryo dynasty and is thought to predate the teabowl shown above. Although there is only a minimal effort at the incised multi-colored slip inlay, it still features intricate carving and delicate humorous touches such as the “pedestal” of bunny rabbits on which the lotus leaf base rests.

Of course, being surrounded with so much lotus inspiration, how could I help but spend a good part of my summer making a bit of my own lotus-themed art? Last month I opened an extension of this site to sell my digitized embroidery designs. So far, my sets include not only Lotuses but also egrets and morning glories and more yet to come. May I invite you to visit my shop next door, simply by clicking here.