Category Archives: holidays

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.)

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.

and a Happy (belated) Girls’ Day!

March the third was Girls’ Day in Japan and as I said in my previous post, the occasion is marked by elaborate displays of dolls representing the Emperor and Empress and in the most elaborate displays, their full court of attendants on a graduated dais covered in red felt.  A full set of dolls displayed by a wealthy family might appear similar to that shown below.Hina Matsuri dolls
In a time when marriage was a woman’s only option, such displays were thought to encourage the daughter to aspire to a prosperous match. On Boys’ Day, celebrated in early May, helmets, armor and warrior dolls were displayed to encourage young boys to see the glories of military service as a man’s duty.

Since Hina dolls have been displayed annually for so many centuries, the historical collections of dolls being displayed in museums this month are a doll lover’s dream. While I’m not certain of the age of the pair of dolls shown below, the elaborate padded costumes are a beautiful contrast to the simplified faces.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Of course, not all families could afford the most elaborate displays and so these simplified dolls also developed. Details such as the hat, hair and tassels were added to the carved and painted wooden base. A display of dolls like these might have been accompanied by a flower arrangement or hanging scroll, but carried no less fervent desire for their daughter’s successful future. Note that the plum blossom theme has been incorporated in the painted decorations. Hina Matsuri dolls
This pair of dolls dates from the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan emerged from feudal society to the modern era. Although Japan had previously imposed limits on contact with foreign governments and cultures, Commodore Perry backed by the US Navy had successfully demanded the opening of Japan in 1853. In the years that followed, Japan underwent enormous social and cultural changes and these were even reflected in the Hina dolls of that period. Although the Empress remains in classical kimono, the Emperor doll is shown in western dress and the surrounding display elements mimic the western furniture being newly introduced at that time.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Subsequently though, dolls reverted to a more traditional appearance and the sets currently on sale in department stores appear much more similar to the set shown at the top of the post. But some displays have taken a very creative approach to replacing the red felt covered dais, as in this boating display shown below. Note that they’ve managed to include a few branches of plum blossoms in the background of the display.
Hina Matsuri dolls

Still others have taken a more humorous approach as with these chubby little dolls. Although there are no courtiers in this set, there is an offering of fish, a plate of rice balls and other props to help create that sense of prosperity. Note that the painted backdrop features a combination of pine trees and plum blossoms.
Hina Matsuri dolls

For those who can afford the most elaborate displays, as well as dedicated collectors, there are numerous precious details to choose from—miniscule dishes, tiny lacquered storage boxes and a whole range of precisely scaled musical instruments.
Hina Matsuri dolls
There are even sets of tiny dog dolls to romp through the royal court.
Hina Matsuri dolls

With such a rich tradition, Hina Matsuri has also become a theme for modern Japanese art quilts. Two such quilts are shown below. The first focuses on the family joy in setting up the annual display. Note again the plum blossoms in the upper corner of the quilt. These were beautifully done in 3D, adding great dimensional presence to the quilt.
Hina Matsuri quilt
While the image in this small quilt hanging is heavily abstracted, it retains the much more formal qualities of a full display of dolls.
Hina Matsuri qult

So for those of you with daughters, March is a month to give her especially big hugs. And even though women’s options have grown exponentially (thank goodness!), tell her how much you want the absolute best for her.

Last gasp of winter and the promise of spring

Kyoto daimonji with a dusting of snowThough it was frequently freezing cold, winter in Kyoto was relatively snowless this year. We usually get at least one good snow storm, but this year we were limited to a few snow flurries and a lovely dusting of the great “dai” symbol on the mountain slope overlooking the east side of the city.

Known as “daimonji”, it is one of the iconic images associated with Kyoto. The symbol is carved by carefully controlled bonfires set on August 16th of each year to celebrate the end of O-bon. A total of five such bonfires are set on different mountain sites encircling the city and the visual effect of this summer festival is magical. Daimonji is the most easily visible from several vantage points throughout the city and its iconic presence remains just as potent even in the throes of winter.

plum blossoms at Shokokuji temple But winter has never been my favorite season, and I must confess delight in feeling the weather pass into spring. Earliest of the spring signs, I found these plum trees blossoming in the garden of Shokokuji temple last week. Starting in mid to late February, Kyoto is blessed with plum blossoms ranging from pale pink through deeper shades of rose and even red. The flowers shown at left are the pale pink variety and from a distance may appear much like cherry blossoms, but those won’t bloom until April.

In Japanese art, even the most stylized representations of plum and cherry blossoms can be easily distinguished by a dimple at the outer edge of the cherry blossom petal, whereas plum blossoms have fully rounded petals.
And though it may seem surprising, plum blossoms are considered more feminine. This association comes from the plum’s ability to bloom against the adversity of winter, a subtle acknowledgement of the social constraints that often make the lives of Japanese women difficult. Cherry blossoms, on the other hand, were associated with the samurai warriors, who adopted cherry blossoms as their symbol of the brief but glorious life of a soldier slain honorably in battle.

Of course, the Japanese love of cherry blossoms is legendary, but the beautiful plum blossom, loved for both its seasonality and representation of femininity, is also loved for its association with Hina Matsuri. Popularly known as Girl’s Day, Hina Matsuri is celebrated on March 3rd. Though in earlier times, the third day of the third month was a purification festival, the form of celebration changed during the Muromachi period (1333-1573 AD) and has continued since that time to involve an elaborate display of dolls. The styles of dolls have evolved over the centuries and many public displays of historical doll retrospectives will be on view this month. Among my personal favorites are the dairi bina (Emperor and Empress dolls), such as the pair shown below.

dairi-bina, Emperor and Empress Hina dolls

All in all, I expect March will be a glorious month gliding ever futher into spring.

On your mark, get set…it’s time to throw beans at the devil

setsubun oni poster This year setsubun is February 3rd. Considered the “turning point” between winter and spring, setsubun literally translates as “seasonal division”. Soon Kyoto will be enjoying plum blossoms as a first early sign of spring. But just in case some mischief-making oni, like the one shown on that poster above, tries to sneak through the crack between the seasons and turn your luck all topsy-turvy throughout the rest of the year, get ready to pelt him with a fist full of dried soybeans while chanting:

        “Oni wa Soto; Fuku wa Uchi!”
        “Demons out; Good luck in!”

setsubun makisushiAfterward it’s traditional to feast on makisushi like those shown at left and all the sushi shops around the country do a brisk business during this holiday. For this holiday, giant sushi rolls stuffed with a wide variety of egg, eel, cucumber, fish roe, and other treats are rolled in a layer of vinegared rice and seaweed. And at the end of the night be sure to place an image of a treasure-ship beneath your pillow to ensure dreams of good fortune in the coming year.

Japanese oni image
In Shinto mythology, oni comprise a wide range of ambivalent but powerful spirits, capable of behaving in unexpected ways — at times, demonic, at other times mischievous, and still others benevolent. The four-eyed demon named Hôsô is actually considered a good guy, who will assist mere mortals by helping to chase evil demons away. Interestingly, his image is painted on the saké cask at right. So if throwing beans doesn’t get rid of your demons, there is presumably an alternate path.

Still welcoming in the New Year…

Entry way to sake bar YoramuIn Japan, there is a lovely tradition of celebrating whenever you meet an old friend for the first time in the new year. Of course, the first celebrations are with family and closest friends, but like ever-widening circles rippling across the surface of a pond, a succession of parties called shinnenkai or New Year’s gatherings continue throughout the month of January.

This weekend I met up with friends at the Asian Studies Group for our annual shinnenkai at Sake Bar Yoramu. The ASG is a wonderful group that has added untold joy to my life in Kyoto. Comprised mainly of university professors, graduate students, and anyone else with a lively curiosity about Asian history, music, art, culture, religion and literature, the group sponsors monthly lectures that have taught me so much on all of these topics as well as many others.

Halle O'Neal supports Obama And given the propensity of this group to revel in the details of history and subtleties of philosophy, it’s no wonder that our annual shinnenkai would be a sake-tasting at Yoram’s Sake Bar.

Catherine Ludvig at sake bar Yoramu

Halle O’Neil, a doctoral candidate from the University of Kansas, came dressed in her “Japanese Art Historians for Obama” t-shirt to celebrate that world-changing event taking place this week on the other side of the planet.

As I was arriving, Reggie Pawle, a doctor of Buddhist psychology, was thoughtfully considering some point being made by Catherine Ludvik, a Buddhist art scholar from Toronto fluent in both sanskrit and Japanese and specialist in Benzaiten, the goddess of art and literature. Later in the evening, Reggie told me of a cosmology discussion group in Kyoto that he’d recently heard of. With so many colleges and universities in Kyoto, there are just countless groups and sub-groups focusing on so many different ways to stimulate the mind.

But for this evening’s party, the agenda was not cosmology but the enjoyment of sake — good sake, sake with a robust range of flavors. And for that purpose, Sake Bar Yoramu is the best place to be. A delightful little vest-pocket bar with limited seating, half the length of the narrow room is taken up by the glorious stepping stone entryway shown in the top photo. This pathway leads you back to Yoram himself and a seat at his bar. An Israeli ex-pat, Yoram is a long-term Kyoto resident and has had this sake bar for the past decade.

Yoram of sake bar Yoramu
Sake is essentially a simple beverage made from rice, water, yeast and koji bacteria — four ingredients and a world of flavors. Or at least it could be, if sake brewing weren’t controlled by a handful of large breweries that have filtered, blended, pasteurized and stifled it into a bland standardized and flavorless alcoholic drink. I was never a great fan of the stuff, until I met Yoram. An expert in the family-run microbreweries of Japan, Yoram has carefully selected each sake he serves for its distinctive character and can recount the details that not only make it different from each other sake but also very different from anything you’ve tried before.

food served at sake bar Yoramu

In previous years, I’ve sampled a wonderful lemon-y flavored sake brewed by a recipe dating back to the Kamakura period (~1200 AD) and milky white nigori sake that still contains bits of the rice it was brewed from.

This night’s tasting started with a genmai (brown rice) sake made in Saitama (near Tokyo). And to complement the sake, we were served a plate with bite-sized pats of cream cheese drizzled with a mix of soy sauce and wasabi, top right. This was definitely non-traditional, but definitely a taste treat.

This was followed by an unpasteurized, undiluted, somewhat sweeter, full-bodied brew from Shiga, the prefecture next to Kyoto. And accompanied by roasted green peppers (fourth picture down).

And then we had Karadahanke, a slightly sour, slightly acidic sake from Chiba (also near Tokyo). This was a natural yeast sake brewed by a multi-stage process, served with nanohana, a green vegetable popular in Japan, flavored with sesame seeds. (second picture from the top).

For our fourth taste treat, we had a slightly sweeter sake accompanied by the most interesting dish of the night (shown as the middle image). A salad of shredded daikon with a rice vinegar dressing topped by salt-preserved cherry blossoms. Simple but amazingly elegant in its presentation and equally amazing to taste.

And then the night was capped by a 10-year-old sake that just rolled across the palate, accompanied by steaming bowls of “wafu risotto”. Yoram’s own recipe for a hearty Japanese-flavored risotto with mushrooms.

Can mere words ever do justice to such a multi-sensory experience? But perhaps the best part of the evening was the way our normally staid and erudite academic group turned into a bubbly, chatty and slightly giggly group of friends renewing our friendships for 2009.

Toka Ebisu Festival — Prayers for the world economy

waiting at the Ebisu shrine —prayers for good business Once again I’ve had a lovely and langourous start to 2009, enjoying many of the Japanese rituals for welcoming each new year. Several were documented in my posts last year, but one that seemed to need particular attention this year is the Toka Ebisu festival on January 10th.

Ebisu is one of the seven lucky spirits, popular in northeast Asian mythology. Each of these seven deities represents a particular virtue and is the patron of one or more occupations. Traditionally, Ebisu was associated with the sea, sailors and fisherman, but became the patron of commerce and business during the Edo period. On the 10th day of the New Year, Kyotoites flock to the Ebisu shrine at Kenninji to say a prayer for good business in the coming year. This year, the shrine was filled to capacity with long lines of people waiting to say prayers for a more prosperous 2009. A limited sense of how crowded it was may be seen in the photo above, although you won’t quite feel the jostling of actually being in the midst of the throng.

giant tuna on the altar of Ebisu shrine The altar was laid with a giant tuna and behind the altar, bottles of sake line the shelves. The crowds wait patiently as each individual takes their turn in ringing the altar bell loudly to attract Ebisu’s attention before saying their prayers and tossing a few coins into the collection bin.

Ebisu - good luck charms for businessBut of course, no shrine pilgrimage would be complete without purchasing an omomori to carry home.

Although loosely translated as “good luck charm”, omomori actually function as a surrogate-self or double. When there is danger, illness, bankruptcy or other problems in the air, these nasties are attracted to the brightly colored omamori rather than to the individual or in this case, their business.

For that reason, the omomori is returned to the shrine the following year, so that omomori and all of the problems it has absorbed during the year can be ritually destroyed. Then of course, a new omomori must be purchased for the coming year.

The circular bamboo platter shown at top is decorated with images of both Ebisu and Daikokuten, the patron of farmers, as well as fish, rice, gold and a crane for longevity.

Below that is a similarly decorated bamboo rake. The rake is a favorite luck symbol for business people, since in Japanese as in English, the implied association is “May you rake it in!”

The red mobiles shown next represent crowds of customers flocking to your business. And then, for those who prefer a customized “charm”, there is a veritable smorgasbord of items to select from. These are attached to a bamboo frond that has been blessed by the dancing shrine maidens shown below.

shrine dance at Ebisu shrine Of course, all of these luck charms carry fees that range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. If the luck can be purchased, you would already have to be fairly lucky to afford some of the larger omomori.

leaving Ebisu shrine
The final ritual before leaving the shrine is to pound the wooden wall along the back route out of the shrine. Ebisu is a prosperous old fellow and variously thought to have grown a bit deaf in his old age, a bit lazy with his success or a bit drunk on his many bottles of sake. Either way, Kyotoites believe it’s necessary to wake up old Ebisu and remind him of their prayers one more time before leaving. And this year the wall rattled thunderously as many hands gave the wall repeated and resounding thuds to wake old Ebisu up.

May 2009 be a better year, bringing prosperity and good fortune to us all.

Cows in Kimono overrun Kyoto

Cow in kimono
It’s New Year’s Eve and the city has spent the last week preparing for this magical night as the Year of the Mouse turns to the Year of the Ox. Everywhere I look, little cow decorations are dressed to the nines ready to celebrate their turn in the Chinese horoscope. According to tradition, the Year of the Ox represents prosperity through fortitude and hard work, but these features are a bit less apparent in the whimsical party favors popping up in the stores this week.

Many people are, of course, familiar with the Chinese Horoscope as a 12-year cycle of animals, but the full cycle actually takes 60 years, as each of the animals cycles through each of the five element/color sequences: Wood/green, Fire/red, Earth/ yellow, Metal/white, Water/black. Thus, 1997, the last Year of the Ox, was a Red Ox (dynamic, volatile, impulsive), while 2009 is a Yellow Ox (stable, grounded, sincere) and will take on a different character. What it becomes will even depend, even more than in other years, on the work we are willing to put into it.

May all of your efforts bring you great rewards! Happy New Year to all.

As autumn begins…

higanbana blooming at Shokokuji temple The beautiful red O-higan-bana are blooming in the gardens of Shokukuji temple near my house. Known as “red spider lilies” in English, O-higan-bana translates literally as “the equinox flower” since it blooms suddenly but briefly, around the time of the Fall Equinox in late September. They spring up almost overnight in clumps and clusters throughout temple gardens and along the narrow paths through rice fields, a last showy gasp of fiery flowering color before the full onset of autumn.

Wendy Carroll helping to measure kimono widths The equinoxes, both of them — spring and summer, are national holidays in Japan. So Tuesday was a day off my normal work schedule and a chance to do a bit of catching up. Which means it was finally time to unbundle those bundles of haori that I bought a few weeks ago and prepare them to be posted on the Vintage Kimono section of my website. That involves quite a bit of work behind the scenes, so I was really grateful for the help of Wendy Carroll, good friend and dear heart, for spending part of her holiday helping me get started with the measuring and cataloging that needs to be done.

bundle of haoriWith a friend to help the task speed along, each colorful piece of this jumbled bundle was tagged and measured by the end of the day. Next comes the photography, trying to show the color, the details and making sure to identify any flaws. But making pictures of garments on a homemade scarecrow appealing must require a special talent, and thus far such talent has eluded me. But I will keep trying and soon, I hope, these lovely little kimono jackets will be listed for sale. blue haori kimono

Gion Matsuri

And today was that ever-so-exotic feast for the senses known as the Gion Matsuri parade….Gion MatsuriNone of these carts are motorized.  Rather they are pulled forward with ropes by teams of young men, whose efforts are directed by the men holding fans riding at the front of the float.  Those sitting inside the float are musicians playing flutes and cymbals.  I only wish I could have also captured the music and dancing and all the festivities to go along with these few pictures….