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Japanese Earthquake Relief: Donation Links

I’ve been asked several times over these last few days to suggest ways of donating to Japanese Earthquake relief, so I thought I would post a few links.

Since money contributed to various local charities sometimes takes weeks or even months to arrive at the destination, the best and most direct way to contribute to the immediate relief effort is to donate directly to JEN (Japanese Emergency NGOs). A link to their English-language homepage is shown below. The donations button is shown in Japanese yen with a drop down menu to select multiples of ¥1,000. Exchange rates do fluctuate, but at the current rate, a donation of ¥1,000 would be approximately $12.25. Online donations can be made with all major credit cards.

For those who would feel more comfortable donating through a familiar charity, another reliable and well organized relief effort is being handled through the Japanese Red Cross. Donations can be made through the American Red Cross: Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Relief: Again, online donations can be made with all major credit cards. Donations made through this program will be divided up among several relief projects in Asia.

Japan Info: NHK World Service links

To recap events to date: On Friday, March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan. It was originally graded at 8.8, then revised upward to 8.9 and now to 9.0. The earthquake generated tsunami, which struck the coastline ten minutes later. Ensuing aftershocks have in turn generated subsequent tsunami. Whole villages have been submerged and the death toll is expected to be high, but confirmations will take considerable time.

There are five nuclear energy plants in the affected area. I understand that three have been closed down safely, but problems remain at two: explosions and a partial meltdown have occurred. The level of nuclear disaster is currently being rated as 4 on an international scale of 0 to 7. (For reference, the 3-Mile Island disaster in the US in 1979 was rated as 5 on the same scale. Only one of multiple epidemiological studies performed during the 25 years since that accident has suggested any impact on longevity.)

Kyoto is a considerable distance from all of this disaster. I didn’t even feel the quake locally, though a friend of mine living here said she did feel it. My son lives in Tokyo and since the phone lines immediately went down, it was frightening to be unable to reach him for several hours, but he, his wife and my grandson are all safe.

The situation is of course, still evolving. In particular, the situation with the nuclear reactors seems to be evolving so quickly that the information becomes outdated by the time a spokesman can get on tv to deliver the update. For those who would like to keep in direct touch with developments, here are two links to NHK World Service in English.

On-line streaming television:

iPhone app for streaming tv:

Plum Blossoms!

plum blossoms
I can’t tell you how welcome it is to see plum blossoms! Like jonquils and crocuses in the west, seeing plum trees burst into blossoms is a most welcome sign of impending spring. I’ve never been a great fan of winter, so the late snow fall we had last week was enough to send me scurrying back into hibernation. But this week the plums are blossoming at Kitano Tenmangu, can spring be far behind?

It’s still blustery and cold outside, but late yesterday afternoon I bicycled over to Kitano to join the crowds who came to view the temple gardens in bloom. Although it might be better known for its monthly fleamarket, Kitano shrine has the largest collection of flowering plum trees in Kyoto. And as you can see in the photos below, it’s hard to decide whether the temple architecture provides an elegant backdrop for the flowers or the flowers make the architecture more ethereal.
plum blossoms
One of the largest and oldest Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Kitano was built in 947 to honor the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane, a renowned Heian court scholar, politician and advisor to Emperor Uda. It is said that Michizane was so brilliant that jealous rivals in the Fujiwara clan, fearing his continuing rise in power, spread rumors of disloyalty that made it necessary for Michizane to flea into exile. In one of the tragic episodes of loyalty, heroism and honor from Japanese history, Michizane’s servants and retainers tried valiantly to defend his wife and infant son who remained in Kyoto, but all were brutally murdered—a story that has been retold in countless Noh and Kabuki performances.
plum blossoms and stone lanterns
Two years later, Michizane died in exile. And shortly thereafter, Kyoto was beset by a series of natural calamities. Legend has it that in a series of dream sequences, the Emperor became convinced that these disasters were caused by Michizane’s angry spirit haunting the court, seeking vengance for the many injustices against him, his family and his household.

To protect the court, the Emperor ordered that efforts be made to placate the angry ghost. To that end, he sent emissaries to Kyushu to retrieve Michizune’s bones, so that they might be re-buried with highest honors in Kyoto. In keeping with the tradition of the time, a Shinto shrine was constructed to house his remains. In the decades that followed, the status of Kitano was increasingly elevated and the spirit of Michizane received the post mortem name “Tenjin” and is now recognized as a guardian kami or spirit.

plum blossoms
Because Michizane was said to have loved plum blossoms, the temple gardens were filled with beautiful red and white flowering plum trees. It is even said that one type of plum tree called Tobiume (flying plum) reciprocated Michizane’s love to the extent that while he was in exile, the falling petals of the plum blossoms flew on the breeze all the way to Kyushu just to bring him a brief smile.

stone plum blossom
Plum blossoms are so identified with Kitano that even when the trees are not in bloom, a large stone monument serves as a reminder. The bases of many of the statues that grace the garden also depict plum branches in bas relief and the noren that hang above the entry to the main shrine buildings are also decorated with an abstract five-petalled plum motif, as shown in the photo below.

There’s even a plum blossom festival in late February, serving whipped green tea and delicate Japanese wagashi in the shape of a plum blossom, of course! And if you visit in August, you will see the courtyard filled with large tables of salted plums drying in the sun. (Though less publicly produced, plum wine is also delicious!)

noren curtains with plum blossom design
Another notable feature of Kitano is the rows and rows of lanterns. Bronze lanterns hang from the eaves in one of the photos above; stone lanterns line every pathway and walkway through the garden.
plum blossoms
But perhaps the more surprising feature is the number of stone and metal oxen scattered throughout the garden. Under the Chinese system of indicating years using twelve animals, Michizane was an ox (like me!) Maybe that’s another reason I enjoy Kitano so much. Persons born in an ox year are thought to be notably intelligent. And so, to further honor Michizane’s spirit, these oxen where placed throughout the garden. Children are encouraged to touch the sculptures in the hopes that a bit of the intelligence will “rub off” onto them and it’s common to see parents with infants pat the animal’s head and horns, then rub their baby’s head. The elderly can also be seen rubbing the strong back or legs of the ox and then touching their own back or knees, hoping to add an extra bit of magical strength to their own limbs.
numerous stone oxen from the garden at Kitano Shrine
As a center of literature and knowledge, Kitano had at one time in its long history attracted the paper-making industry to the surrounding neighborhood. Although I understand that there is little of the traditional industry left in that neighborhood, a few years ago Kitano hosted a conference on Japanese paper-making traditions that several of my friends attended.

And because of its association with a patron of such high intelligence, Kitano has become a place where school children ask for blessings on their studies. At shrines across Japan, it’s common to buy an ema, a small wooden placque on which one writes their hopes or wishes. And after writing the request, the placque is tied to a wall of the shrine. At Kitano, one can see placques inscribed with childish handwriting that say things like, “please, please, please, I want to pass my math exam”. The picture below shows a schoolgirl standing before one of the many sub-shrines in the garden.
plum blossoms
As for me though, all I’m hoping for is the early spring that the plum blossoms have promised me…

Akemashite, Omedeto Gozaimasu

white rabbit

Welcome to 2011, the year of the white rabbit.

Many of my friends have been complaining that the economy being what it has been, the ferocious Tiger of 2010 has left them feeling a little mauled. And so this greeting comes with my wish that the gentle white rabbit of 2011 be a bit kinder to us all.

Indeed rabbit years are known as times when persuasion is acknowledged to be better than force and fortune favors people who act with discretion, making reasonable concessions without too much difficulty. The rabbit is also very much about good taste and refinement. So let this be an elegant year for everyone.

But the metal element that gives this year’s rabbit it’s white color, also gives this year plenty of spunk, spirit and tenacious resolve. So reach out there, and make this the year that your dreams come true!

(Many thanks to for the wonderful rabbit image shown above.)

The Cat’s Meow

It’s hard believe it’s November already. The summer days that passed so slowly, now seem to have fled quickly after all. The multiple days of drenching downpour in early summer gave way to a seemingly endless procession of high heat and even higher humidity. Each day one of my co-workers would remind me of the record-shattering duration of the heat-wave that blurred from one day into the next. And so the summer dragged by with most days best spent in in-door hibernation. And though I can say I honed my sewing skills to a higher polish, there were seemingly few adventures to write about.

Perhaps though, a lucky cat crossed my path at Isetan Department store, where I saw a series of 19th century woodblock prints that comprised an exhibition called Nyanto mo Neko Darake (Cats of Many Varieties). In the west, it is said that a cat has nine lives, but in Japan, cats are thought to have a thousand lives and all 1000 lives were on display in this show.

A Japanese Cat

It may seem strange to think of museum quality art being exhibited in a department store, since the average consumerist mentality might not readily pair art-viewing with shopping. But department store art galleries are a common and charming feature in Japan. In Kyoto, all 4 of the major department stores contain galleries that host high quality traveling exhibits that range widely from historic to contemporary, foreign and domestic art and crafts of all kinds. All of which offer afternoons spent in a languorous mixture of gallery hopping, cafe lunches and shopping. And I must hasten add that those department store galleries supplement the National, Prefectural and City Museums as well as a plethora of privately funded museums and galleries. All of which combine to make Kyoto an art-lover’s paradise serving up a constant and every changing menu of visual treats.

Here I present a few of my favorite prints from the show. If you click on each image, there’s a larger pop-up version so the exquisite details will be a bit easier to see. Though in truth, no reproduction could really do them justice.
Pet Cats shown as the 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1848-1854)Pet Cats shown as the 53 Stations of the Tokaido (1848-1854)
One of the artists featured most prominently in the show was Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who was legendary for his love of cats. It is said that his studio was overrun with them and cats figured prominently in many of his works, like the panels shown above. These are two of the three panels of a triptych called “Pet Cats shown as the 53 Stations of the Tokaido”. The Tokaido, which translates as East Sea Road, was a much travelled road connecting Tokyo with Kyoto. Travel was mostly by foot and the 53 stations were designated rest areas for travelers walking this long journey. The Tokaido was an enormously popular theme in Edo period art and poetry. So while we might only see a collection of cute cats, Utagawa’s contemporaries would have been more amused by this droll wit in using a cat pose to capture the individual sense of each of these rest stations.

32 Aspects of customs & manners (1888) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Many of the images in the exhibit portrayed bijin (beautiful people) with their pets. The image at left is by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who was actually better known for his graphic violence and ghosts than for bijin. But here he has portrayed a courtesan pampering her pet, but looking closely you can see that the cat’s collar is made from the same fabric as the collar of the woman’s kimono. Pictured with her back arched as she bends over her little darling, one can wonder which one of the two is being represented as the pampered pet.

(1847) Utagawa Kuniyoshi
At right, another print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi shows an obviously less pampered woman supervising her child’s music lesson, feeding the family pet and tending to the housework all in the same moment.
Typical Types of Manly Fellows in Kuniyoshi's Style (1845) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

While images of beautiful women comprised a lucrative genre for printmakers, not all of these portraits were women. Kuniyoshi did an extensive series called “Typical Types of Manly Fellows in Kuniyoshi’s Style”, one example of which is shown at left. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), government censorship extended even to woodblock prints and other forms of popular art. But it has been suggested that this censorship only served to further spur Kuniyoshi’s imagination. In seeking ways to circumvent the government bans, Kuniyoshi developed an inventive graphic subtext that carried throughout many of his works, which became known as hanji-mono (“riddle pictures”). And to further confound the censors, some of these riddles seemed to contain political metaphors while others appeared to be purely for entertainment. Can you find the cats in the image at left? Click on the image and then look closely at the skull pattern that decorates the man’s kimono.

Cat's Enjoying the Cool of Evening by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

In fact, Kuniyoshi was considered unique in his mastery of action-packed images drawn from history, religion, folklore, and myths of Japan, China, and other Asian countries; he also experimented with European techniques of visual representation, such as linear perspective, as well as exotic foreign subject-matter. He was also known for his comical pictures of animals impersonating humans, like the one shown decorating the fan at right.

Cats forming the word for fish (fugu) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi And here in another of Utagawa’s works, a series of cats form the dots and strokes of the hiragana letters ふぐ (proounced: fugu), a seafood delicacy pictured in the upper right corner of the sign along with the name of the restaurant for which the sign was made.

But cats also have a darker side to their mythology, and there were many artists who focused their attention on the occult of the cat. The wonderful print by Utagawa Yoshifuji shown below is aptly entitled Tale of the Cat Monster. Note the wonderful bells for eyes and collection of crouching kittens arranged to make the face.

Tale of the Cat Monster by Utagawa Yoshifuji

There is a section of Japanese mythology in which cats have supernatural powers with the ability to shape shift and control the mind. Cats are also considered to have power over the spirits of the dead and spectral cats can grow to gigantic size capable of terrorizing whole villages, even though they are barely visible. Such wonderful goblin stories of course made their way into Japanese kabuki plays and since theatre scripts were a popular form of e-hon (picture books), images from kabuki made its way back into woodblock prints used to illustrate those books.

The Cat Monster of Saga by Yoshu Chakanobu

A scene from one such play called “The Cat Monster of Saga” is illustrated at left by Yoshu Chikanobu. As the story goes, Nabeshima Naoshige takes over Saga castle by brutally slaughtering the entire Ryuzoji family, including the pet cat named Tama. The ghost of Tama then becomes an vengeful spirit, seeking a terrible retribution for the deaths of his owners.

In every print throughout the show, whether it depicted a playful kitty or a powerful demon, the elegance of the woodblock carvers’ skills gave exquisite expression to the elegance of the cat. In some cases, the lines were so delicately drawn one would think they had been individually painted using a brush with only a single hair. It was almost inconceivable that such delicacy had been carved in wood and repeatedly printed hundreds of times hundreds of years ago.

The Ikeda Collection

It’s been a long time since my last post. Life has streamed by in a blur of cherry blossoms, rainy days and mad sewing sessions as I prepared for my annual trip to the American Embroidery Conference in Marietta, Georgia. And then of course, the return from my travels was followed by the inevitable battle with jet lag, but when I saw the announcement that the Kyoto Museum would be hosting a kimono exhibition from the Ikeda collection, my little soul just perked right up.

Shigeko Ikeda has spent a lifetime collecting the most beautiful antique kimono and now portions of her collection are occasionally exhibited in museums throughout Japan. One of my goals is to visit her gallery in Tokyo someday, but until then I savor any opportunity to see any portion of the collection that finds its way down to Kyoto for an exhibit.
women's kimono
One of the things that sets an Ikeda exhibition apart from others is that the kimono are displayed not flattened out like beautiful wall hangings in isolation from their context, but on mannequins fully accessorized in every glorious detail as they would have been worn by the very stylish people who originally owned these garments.

women's kimono
Not only is it possible to observe the choice of color combinations and coordination of motifs, but also the exquisite attention to detailed craftsmanship that makes each component of the ensemble a work of art in itself.

little girl's kimono with inset showing close-up of her little bird purse
This child must have looked just darling on some special occasion when she was all dressed up in her little kimono, complete with a bird-shaped purse that complements the bird motif on her clothing. A close up of the purse is shown in the inset so that you can see it a bit more clearly.

Purses, in fact, were a special focus of this particular exhibit. With many many glass cabinets filled with numerous elegant examples on which to feast my eyes.
kimono purse

kimono purse
The two clutch purses shown above could so easily be evening bags with any western outfit. I especially love the butterfly embroidered across the front flap of the purse in the lower panel.

But my embroiderer’s heart was really stolen by the antique wallets shown below. If you look back at the pictures of the woman’s kimono above, you can see how she wears one of these wallets tucked into the front overlap of her kimono just above the obi. In other examples, smaller wallets were tucked downward into the obi itself.

kimono purse
Notice on each of these how the embroidery on the band closure matches the imagery on the flap. This particular bag also has metallic butterfly embellishments.

kimono purseAnd here on this orange wallet, there is even a tiny detail trailing off the left corner of the flap onto the body of the purse.

kimono purse
But this one, I thought, was the pièce de résistance. Though I couldn’t show it here, the tail feathers trail across the top and over to the reverse side. And of course, those multiple tassels in metal and knotted cording are just amazing. I will have to follow up with some friends to find out whether these serve some particular purpose or are purely decorative.

All in all, I dream of trying my hand at replicating some of these little bags. At least, I think it would be so much fun to try.

The Little Indigo Museum

Traveling a bit further up the road from the Cedar Museum in Kitayama, there’s a village called Miyama with a wonderful thatched cottage that houses the Little Indigo Museum. Not simply a museum but also the studio and workroom of master indigo dyer and museum owner Hiroyuki Shindo, this is another gloriousl little treasure trove of experiences that makes this part of northern Kyoto well worth the repeated visits.

A wonderfully gracious host, Shindo-sensei invited us directly into his studio and explained its operation. In the picture shown below, you can see the dyer’s vats with wooden lids sunken into the floor in the foreground to the left, while on the right, white linen has been folded and wound around large spools, then tied tightly in preparation for shibori dyeing.

indigo dyeing studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

Indigo dyeing is unique among natural dye processes. Rather than requiring large amounts of fuel to generate heat, the energy for the dye process comes from fermentation. And since the herb needed to produce the dye grows easily, the dye can be produced in quantity. These two facts combined with the rich beautiful blues produced have made indigo dyeing popular throughout history and around the world.

dried indigoIn Japan, indigo dyeing has been traced back at least to the Nara period (~700 AD) and through the centuries, the process has been handed down among dyers’ families as an oral tradition.

The indigo plant itself is first harvested and dried as shown at left. Then the plants are composted for 100 days to produce the rough pebbles shown in the bucket. These pellets are then used to establish an indigo dye pot.

Clustering the pots and submerging them into the floor is another energy conserving technique. Preparation of a dye pot can take 7-10 days as it involves a natural fermentation process and can not be rushed. The dried composted pellets are immersed in water and lye ash is used to make the solution alkaline, then rice bran is added periodically to feed the bacteria. Since the mixture must be kept warm, burning charcoal may placed in the spaces between the pots in order to keep the dyepot warm in winter, though in summer, ambient temperatures are adequate to keep the fermentation going. Gentle stirring is necessary, but exposure to excess air or sunlight can diminish the dye’s effectiveness, so the dyer’s judgement grows with experience. With careful nurturing, a skilled dyer can keep the indigo pot “alive” for 3 months or longer.

indigo dyeing studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

When the pot is ready, the dyeing process begins. Since the rich blue color develops not only by immersion in the vat but also during the drying process, repeated cycles of immersion and drying may be required, another area where judgement and skill develop with experience.

Shindo-sensei explaining the shibori indigo dyeing process to Australian textile artist Wendy Carroll

Of course, every dyer develops his or her own working process. Here Shindo-sensei is explaining the shibori indigo dyeing process he uses to Australian textile artist Wendy Carroll. And Shindo-sensei admits that indigo dyers can become quite passionate about the beautiful blues they create. Shown below is a patchwork sampler of some of the beautiful shibori effects that Shindo-sensei has achieved over his 30 years as a dyer.

indigo sampler from the dye studio at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

In addition to a wonderland filled with examples of his own dyework, Shindo-sensei maintains a collection of historical examples of Japanese indigo as well as a number of pieces from Africa, other regions of Asia and even woad-dyeing from Europe. Housed in the second story, the various samples hang from the rafters below the thatched roof.

Shown below is one of several beautiful indigo-dyed tapestries from Shindo-sensei’s collection.

antique banner at the Little Indigo Museum in Kitayama

I, karakuri

I don’t think there is another group in Kyoto that I enjoy half so much as the Asian Studies Group. I’ve written about some of our gatherings before and since the ASG offers so much enrichment to my experience of Japan, I doubtless will be writing about them again and again. We had our annual New Year’s sake tasting again this January and it was just as wonderful as it was in years past. But I don’t like to repeat topics, so having written about last year’s sake-tasting, I decided to forego a description of the 2010 shinenkai. Here I’ll talk about February’s gathering: A wonderful presentation on the history of mechanical toys called karakuri.
lecture on karakuri
Our lecturer, Murakami Kazuo is a freelance journalist who specializes in the history of technology in Japan and the author of many works on karakuri. Shown here at right before the lecture began, Murakami-san outlined the earliest development of automated devices in Japan.

Karakuri” is variously translated as “automata” or “mechanical puppet” (although not every karkuri device was given a human form). However, the word also carries the meaning of “to tease or trick or surprise”. This is because the mechanisms that powered these automata were generally hidden or disguised, which gave their actions a magical entertaining quality. As shown in the print below, an Edo period family is being entertained by a variety of performing mechanized dolls. The small figure in the foreground of the right panel is the most famous of the karakuri known as the “tea-serving doll”. Powered by a spring device and containing a balance mechanism in the arms, the doll could hold a cup of tea and move forward to the guest, who would receive the tea. Lifting the cup from the doll’s arms, would cause the device to stop moving forward. Then the guest would drink the tea and return the empty cup to the doll. The lesser weight of the empty cup would cause the doll to turn around 180° and move back to the host—a charming facilitation of the hospitable interactions between host and guest.

edo period family being entertained by karakuriThe Edo period (1603-1868) marks approximately 250 years during which Japan was completely isolated from the rest of the world. And during this time, Japan’s unique cultural heritage developed away from outside influences. There was however some limited trade with China and the Netherlands, though the latter group was isolated to the port of Nagasaki. Although the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan during the Edo period, established strict control of not only foreign trade but also the internal population, the period saw a great rise in wealth among townspeople and merchant classes. Accompanying this increase in wealth came a desire for lavish and more accessible forms of entertainment. And against this background, the karakuri culture of the Edo period flourished.

A hundred years before the most stringent trade restrictions were introduced in 1663, the earliest Portuguese missionaries had already brought European clocks to Japan in 1551. But however curious and interesting these mechanical clocks might have been, the European system of marking time differed from the existing Japanese system. As these new-fangled clock mechanisms were explored and adapted for Japanese timepieces, the mechanical springs and interactions that powered the clocks were also put to a more whimsical use as they became the technology that powered some of the most popular karakuri.

Examples of the tea-serving doll are shown below. The “unclothed” version on the left shows the intricate wooden scaffolding that housed the spring mechanism and indeed traditional Japanese carpentry skills played an equally great role in the development of karakuri. Different types of wood were used to make specific parts, with some locally native woods only appearing in karakuri manufactured in that region of Japan. The cut of the grain of the wood is very important, for example the grain of the wooden driving gears is radially arranged to provide equal strength in all directions. The schematic shown on the right is an illustration from the three volume set, ‘Karakuri – An Illustrated Anthology’ published by Hosokawa Hanzo Yorinao in 1796. The anthology explains the making of four types of Japanese clocks and nine types of mechanical puppets and provides precise diagrams. Thanks to these manuscripts, knowledge of how these mechanical devices were constructed has been preserved.

tea serving doll of the edo period with construction diagram

demonstration of karakuri
Following the lecture, we were treated to a demonstration of numerous antique karakuri. Minasaki Sougo, shown at left, is a specialist in mechanical devices of the Edo period. He also restores these devices and is also one of the few remaining craftsmen who still make these automata, mainly dolls, today.

Though I’ve spent considerable time describing the tea-serving doll, which is considered the most popular and best known of the karkuri, it was by no means the only type. Sougo-san demonstrated quite a wide range of performing dolls—archers, dancers, tumbling acrobats. Not all of these were powered by the spring mechanisms described above. The acrobats, for example, often contained a capsule of mercury within their hollow wooden bodies. When movement was initiated with a slight tap, the inertia of the mercury movement within the doll provided the momentum that kept the doll tumbling forward.

But karakuri should not be dismissed as merely curious playthings from history. Some of the most famous karakuri makers were the greatest engineers of their day, interested and involved in a wide range of technology. Tanaka Hisashige, perhaps the best known karakuri maker, also experimented with pneumatics, hydraulics and was interested in astronomy. Sometimes called the “Thomas Edison of Japan”, Tanaka designed and built Japan’s first domestically made steam locomotive and steam warship even though he had only read reports of steam engines and seen but one demonstration of a Russian steam-driven device. His family business, the Tanaka Engineering Works, later evolved into the company that is now known as Toshiba.

The legacy of karakuri culture has not only had an impact on industry but also a continuing impact on Japanese popular culture, on Japanese attitudes toward mechanical devices—particularly those taking human form. The Japanese love of robots is rooted in karakuri culture, which encouraged a belief that robots are a friendly, benevolent and entertaining way to facilitate positive human interactions.

Farewell to the Ox and Greetings to the Tiger

Farewell to the oxHere it is the first week of January 2010, and I find I’m still lingering over a last farewell to the Ox of 2009. It was after all my kanreki and a year filled with so many sad and sweet memories that it deserves a lingering stroke as I say my last good-bye.

A sip of sake at the shrine on New Year's Eve New Year’s Eve in Japan is particularly magical night. The tradition is to pass midnight ringing the bells at a Buddhist temple or having a drink of sake at a Shinto shrine. Though a huge percentage of Kyoto residents choose Yasaka shrine in the city center, there are more than 1600 temples and shrines to choose from, each with it’s own particular variation on the midnight rituals. My own preference is a tour of the local neighborhood venues.

It was -4°C and the snow was flurrying as we set out walking around my neighborhood, so the bonfire was a particularly welcoming discovery when we entered the shrine garden. In exchange for New Year’s prayers, sake was served in wonderful little square wooden boxes. A bit difficult to drink from, but a delight on a cold winter’s night. After enjoying the warmth and comraderie around the bonfire, we moved down the street to ring the bell at the local Buddhist temple.

Buddhist Temple Bell Mind you, it’s not just this temple, but every temple in the city rings it’s bell 108 times at midnight—a deep resonating sound of a massive bronze bell struck rhythmically to ring out the 108 delusions of human kind. The significance of 108 is derived from the six senses (the five we recognize in the west plus the mind as the organ in which the senses are perceived) multiplied by the past, present and future, but since the past also has its own past, present and future and the present has a past, present and future and the future likewise has its own past, present and future, the calculation is derived not as a simple multiplication of 6 times 3, but as six to the third power representing all of the dimensions of delusion from which we should seek to become free.

And so we lined up, each to climb up the platform and take a turn at swinging the rope that guides a large wooden clapper against the massive bronze bell.

Welcoming the year of the Tiger Next on our mini temple tour, we dropped by Go Jinja, home of the giant ema. Normally ema are just small painted wooden plaques that fit in the hand. Prayers or hopes for the coming year can be written on the back and every shrine has a version that they sell for New Year’s, always fancifully decorated with the animal representing that year. Go Jinja goes a step further by decorating their garden with a giant ema that makes a great photo op, thus ensuring that the shrine will see a steady stream of Kyotoites throughout the early weeks of the New Year.

Of course, New Year’s Eve is just a beginning. Japan has a lovely custom of continuing the New Year’s celebrations throughout January. Since each time you meet a friend for the first time in the new year, it becomes a cause for yet another celebration.

Kitayama Cedar

Kitayama village Nestled in the mountains north of Kyoto, there is a cedar-logging village called Kitayama. Kitayama cedar is famous throughout Japan as a treasured and elegant building material. Shown here against a backdrop of growing cedars are the traditional thatched roof cottages of forest workers’ families. Sadly there are fewer families who maintain the painstaking forestry management practices required to produce Kitayama cedar. There is however a local Cedar Museum that memorializes the dying craft of Kitayama Cedar production.

cedar tree pruned to create sustainable cedar harvestSections of the mountain side are successively cleared and replanted in a sustainable fashion. It is said that a forestry worker harvests the trees planted by his grandfather and that he in turn must plant trees for his grandson. As the trees grow, those destined to become the greatest logs are pruned of their branches so that the central trunk grows tall straight and sturdy. Trees destined to produce slender logs for lighter and more delicate constructions are pruned of their central trunk, as shown in the picture at right, so that the branches of a single tree can produce numerous small logs.

These of course are just good forestry management practices for sustainable production, but the real magic of Kitayama begins with molding of the living trees prior to logging.

As shown by the manikin displayed at the Cedar Museum, a forestry worker climbs to the very top of the tree and then begins wrapping the tree with straw-like forms made of hard plastic tied tightly against the tree with wire. The wrapping continues for the entire length of the tree from tip to base. And when complete, the the tree is allowed to grow for two years before before it is harvested.

mannikin showing molding of cedar tree to create Kitayama cedar

The cross section below shows the concentric rings of the tree’s initial growth and then the outer layer develops a rippled texture as it grows into the spaces between the plastic molds wedged tightly against it. It is this molding process that creates the elegant forms for which Kitayama cedar is so famous.

cross section of molded Kitayama cedar log

mannikin showing polishing of Kitayama cedar log

Afterlogging, the fresh trunks are stripped of their bark and cured and then polished to a high sheen by rubbing with wet sand. This latter task was frequently performed by women, children and the elderly members of the family. Another manikin display at the Cedar Museum shows a woman in the traditional costume of a forestry worker’s wife, polishing a cedar log using wet sand rubbed into the log with her bare hands.

Although there was no indication on any of the signs, I did wonder how many hours of such polishing were required to transform the raw logs into the beautiful glowing wood that we saw on display throughout the museum.

To produce varying effects, a number of different sizes and styles of molds could be applied. Several typical samples are shown in the picture below. The friends with whom I toured the museum included another textile artist who wondered aloud whether this molding process should be considered a form of “shibori for woodworkers”. The thought did make me laugh, but perhaps there is some validity to the comparison.

pegs for molding cedar tree to create Kitayama cedar
Of many sample logs on display, polished but unstained logs are shown on the left, while those that have been stained after polishing. Such beautiful wood would be used for decorative interior architectural details in a traditionally constructed aristocratic home.

polished Kitayama cedar logs

But as much as I loved learning something about Japanese woodwork, I am a textile maven at heart. So I was immediately drawn to the luscious pale colored silks I saw displayed toward the end of the exhibition. The amazing range of peach, coral, rust, and even blues and silvery greys were all achieved using different mordants with cedar-based natural dyes.

various textiles dyed with natural dyes made from cedar

Kitayama Village is a daytrip north of Kyoto, but visiting this area is well worth the effort.