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.

Iris season at Heian Jingu

Early in my life here in Kyoto, I had an apartment about two blocks east of the main entrance gate to Heian Jingu. In those days, I worked evenings teaching English and each night I would bicycle home, passing by this gate lit up with flood lights that made the orange glow brightly against the inky blue night sky. And every night, as my heart sang with joy in the presence of such majestic beauty, I blessed the day I had chosen to live in Kyoto.
Heian Jingu
Heian Jingu is an imperial Shinto shrine on the east side of Kyoto. Although Shintoism is the oldest Japanese religion, predating Buddhism by several centuries, Heian Jingu is one of the newest religious structures in this city, having only been built in 1885 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as the capital of ancient Japan. After passing through the massive gate shown above, one enters the immense courtyard, only a corner of which is shown in the photo below.
courtyard at Heian Jingu
Within the walled enclave of the shrine, it’s easy to loose track of time and place. Inside there are few traces of modern Kyoto or its 1.5 million people bustling about their daily lives; no modern buildings tower above the various halls and shrine buildings that rim the courtyard. Only a few trees and the eastern mountains appear in the distance. I am told that the shrine architecture is intended to replicate the design of Kyoto’s original Imperial palace, destroyed by fire in 1227, and perhaps that accounts for the overwhelming sense of grandeur that permeates the site. The shrine itself honors two emperors: Kammu (737-806), who founded Kyoto in 794, and Komei (1831-66), the last emperor to live out his reign in Kyoto before the capital was moved to Tokyo.

stone lantern by the edge of a pond in Heian Jingu garden Surrounding Heian Jingu on three sides, there are a series of gardens that are considered the finest of those laid out in the Meiji period (1868-1912). As is typical of such gardens, there are weeping cherries that blossom in springtime, irises and water lilies to nourish the soul during summer and a brilliant pageantry of maple leaves changing colors throughout the fall.

This being summer, we are in the height of iris season. Most Japanese irises today are ornamental water irises called hanashobu in Japanese. These grow in shallow marshes and along the edges of ponds and rivers, so the network of artificial riverlets and ponds constructed in the shrine gardens provide a perfect venue for these flowers. The meandering pathways that follow the water ways have been so artfully constructed within a relatively contained space that it is possible to wander along without quite realizing that the path has actually doubled back on itself to form a small circuit that can be repeated again and again with the joy of new observations.

irises by the edge of stream in the garden at Heian Jingu

white irises in the garden at Heian Jingu The romance of the Japanese iris stems from Tales of the Ise, a mid-10th century collection of lyrical prose and poems, which among other stories, recounted a heartsick lover composing poetry to a wild iris (called kakitsubata) in place of his lost love. Thereafter, images of wild irises coupled with zig zag wooden bridges became indelibly linked as a romantic motif that was repeated in Japanese art and literature for the next several centuries with some particularly exquisite examples appearing in the 17th century lacquerware and painted screens by Ogata Korin.

irises in the garden at Heian Jingu Another interpretation of the iris is suggested by the recently published diary of Abbess Kasanoin Jikun. Entitled In Iris Fields: Remembrances and Poetry, the book is a compilation of essays and poems by Abbess Kasanoin Jikun (1910-2006). These irises were the ayame type that bloomed at Daishoji imperial convent where she was cloistered. Being a female child of aristocratic lineage, Kasanoin Jikun was sent to an imperial convent at age 5, designated to be raised to become its abbess. Those who enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha may find an entirely new set of insights into the life of a Japanese woman trained in an utterly different environment for a totally different task during roughly the same time period. In Iris Fields is a translation of essays and poetry written by the Abbess herself, in which she shares memories of her childhood and stories of her friends and relations as she moved from court to convent during times of tremendous social upheaval in Japan. Those interested in further information about the book should click here.

A day at the Miho

I’ve been working hard of late, busily trying to re-organize large sections of my life. But sometimes you just need to stop for a break. And so when I was invited out recently for a day at the Miho, the seduction of the moment was just to great to refuse.

Miho MuseumOne of the world’s most beautiful museum buildings, the Miho Museum is nestled in the hills of Shiga prefecture about an hour’s drive from Kyoto. Approximately 75% of the building designed by I.M. Pei is actually underground to minimize any disruption to the forested hillside on which it is built, yet the rooftop constructed largely of glass floods the interior with natural light, while the steel crossbeams provide and intricate interplay of shadows across the floors and walls.

Silla goldwork The current exhibit called “Eurasian Winds Toward Silla” focused on archeological treasures from the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, one of three monarchies that arose on the Korean peninsula around the 3rd century AD. (as shown in the map below) The city of Gyeongju, once the capital of Silla, is now home of the Gyeongju National Museum in Korea, which supplied a collection of artifacts showing the influence of migrating central Asian tribes on the art and culture of the far east.

3 kingdoms of KoreaThe fall of the powerful Han Dynasty in China around 220 AD had allowed nomadic tribes from Central Asia to roam across northern China and subsequently migrate eastward into the Korean peninsula, bringing with them advanced techniques in glassmaking, metal smelting, pottery as well as Mediterranean and European motifs that had an impact on the early culture of Silla. In particular Silla, became known for its intricate goldwork as reflected by the crown shown above and the filligree cap shown below.

Silla goldwork It’s not certain precisely how the crown was worn, but the “duckbill” hanging downward may have formed a visor while the side panels encircled the head. There may have also been some form of cloth head covering that has not survived the centuries. Small pailettes of beaten gold are attached with twisted wires to both sides of the structure, perhaps to emulate feathers or perhaps simply to add shimmering glints of reflected light as the wearer of the crown moved his or her head. The cap on the right is fairly small object and thought to have been cover for long hair that had been twisted into a top knot.

The elegance and skill with which these pieces were fabricated is fairly obvious even in these reproductions and thought to be reminiscent of Scythian goldwork hundreds of years earlier in the region ranging from the Caspian sea to the Baltic coast. As the Scythians were displaced in the around the second century BC, portions of the population moved southward influencing artistic developments in Greece, while other sections of the population migrated eastward across the Asian steppes, bringing their skills to the Pazyrk tribes of Siberia and then downward into China. It was this type of migration, not only of Scythian technology but also that of other Eurasian tribes, that the exhibit attempted to describe through a careful reconstruction and juxtaposition of the archeological evidence.

Silla pottery In addition to goldsmithing, the exhibition explored the development of Silla culture through artifacts that included glassware, goblets and other forms of metal work. The introduction of new forms of kilns allowed higher temperature firing of ceramics and the production of Roman-style glass.

botanical arabesque design from Korea With the rise of the Tang dynasty, Silla was able to form new alliances with the Chinese in order to emerge the victorious conqueror of its immediate neighbors, uniting the Korean peninsula under its rule. And from this powerful new position, unified Silla facilitated the further spread of not only technical processes but also Mediterranean and other east European motifs across two continents to the rim of the Pacific Ocean.

A Mother’s Touch

Japanese sewing boxRecently I caught a lovely little exhibit called “A Mother’s Touch”, focused on the interaction between sewing and mothering across China, Korea and Japan.

Along with all sorts of lovely little toys and trinkets that women sew for their children, the exhibit included an assortment of sewing boxes and baskets used in various parts of Asia.

sewing basket The beautiful wood grained box shown above is one of the styles typical of Japan, while the heart-shaped basket at right is from China. The sewing tools below are from Korea.

Korean sewing tools
Whether a simple basket, a fold of paper or an elaborate wooden box, each of the displays reflected the attention women paid to caring for their needles and threads. And both the containers and their contents often revealed not only the cultural differences but also the cross-cultural universality of sewing.

handsewn Japanese cloth toys

But the main focus was on the wide variety of hand sewn children’s clothing and cloth toys women made for their children in the countries covered in the exhibit, hence the name “A Mother’s Touch”. Shown at right is a collection from Japan featuring pouches in various styles as well as a few traditional rag-doll babies, all made from an assortment of kimono remnants.

Below is a young boy’s kimono from solid and checkerboard indigo beautifully embroidered with elaborate sashiko designs showing the mother’s wish for her child to be blessed with both wealth and longevity. Note the use of white thread against the blue and blue thread against white.

A child's kimono with sashiko embroidery Sashiko is one of the Japanese embroidery techniques that has become better known in the west. It consists of small evenly spaced running stitches outlining the design and may be purely decorative, as shown in the example at left, or may be used to patch, repair, reinforce or quilt layers of fabric for use in clothing and housewares.

Photos of women stitching, like this Chinese grandmother, were sprinkled throughout the exhibit.
Chinese woman sewing

Chinese baby wearing an embroidered hatIn Guanzhong Region of China, infants and young children are adorned with fabulous little hats embroidered with animal faces. As in many agrarian societies, the mortality rate is high for young children giving rise to a mythology that when demon-spirits looked down and saw a beautiful child, these demons would become jealous and snatch that child away. Thus, the animal hats were an effort to disguise the children, to hide and protect them from jealous demons. Of course, knowledge of disease and medicine has supplanted such mythology, but the tradition of these cute little hats has continued, though I am told that it is, like so many other hand arts, on the edge of disappearing as technology advances.

Chinese papercut pattern for embroidery The individual hat designs are derived from papercuts like the one at right. Folded paper is cut freehand to develop a symmetrical design based a combination of abstract and natural forms. The resultant design is then colorfully re-interpreted with needle and thread making each work a unique piece of art.

Assortment of embroidered toys and children's clothing from China But the application of this technique is not limited to children’s hats. At left are a few more examples of little slippers, stuffed toys and pillows. It’s a beautiful folk art that I’d like to investigate further.

With each piece in the exhibit, you could feel the love that added with every stitch—a visual celebration of the bond between mother and child.

And with that thought, may I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day!


There’s been a long hiatus since I last blogged and Hisashiburi! is the Japanese greeting between friends who have not seen each other in a while.  During the past 6 weeks, I’ve traveled back to the States, said good-bye to my dear brother, grieved his loss and visited family in Arizona and Maine.  I attended the annual American Embroidery Conference in Georgia, exchanged warm hugs with old friends and learned a few new tricks for mixing computers and thread.   After returning to Japan, I spent some time with my son, daughter-in-law and grandson in Tokyo to renew my spirit and enjoyed warm spring days playing in the park with my grandson.

And now I’m back to my life in Kyoto.  Hisashiburi!

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.