Gagaku by moonlight

Gagaku performance at Shimogamo Under the gorgeous full moon a few nights ago, my friend Judith Clancy and I attended a gagaku concert in the garden surrounding Shimogamo shrine. Areas of the garden were lit with flood-lamps, which guided our way as we walked through the large gardens toward the stage outside one of the main buildings of the shrine. Though the autumn nights are definitely getting cooler, it was still lovely to join the audience clustered before the open air stage. Many in the audience had also attended Tea Ceremony before the concert and were still dressed in kimono.

Gagaku is the oldest form of classical music in Japan, having been brought to Japan from China in the 7th century A.D., a time when Japan was busily assimilating extensive amounts of Chinese cultural and political practices. The word gagaku translates as “elegant music” and is played by an ensemble of 3 percussion instruments and 3 wind instruments. As the tradition developed in Japan, gagaku was performed by hereditary guilds of musicians and even today many members of the Imperial Palace Music Department are descendants of the old guilds.

Gagaku performance at Shimogamo

Gagaku is often accompanied by a classical dance called bugaku. And of course, the spectacular costumes worn by both the muscians and dancers, as well as the draperies gracing the stage, added a visual treat to the evening’s entertainment.

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

An interesting Gaijin

Gaijin is the word used to describe foreigners in Japan. Literally translated, the word simply means “outsider”, but can be loaded with undertones depending on the attitude of the speaker. And just as in every other country, Japanese attitudes toward foreign immigrants run the political spectrum from conservative to liberal. Dai Media - preparing to film

Often our unfamiliarity with Japanese customs sometimes leaves people annoyed or shocked and sometimes just amused. But there is also curiosity: Why did we foreigners come here? Why do we stay? What do we like about our lives in Japan? And to address those questions, local television shows sometimes like to interview “an interesting gaijin“.

So all of that gives a little background of how I wound up taping a segment for Japanese TV this week. The show will air in mid-October, but the taping took place at my house yesterday afternoon.  Shown above are Hiroko Hayashi, who translated for me and the director, Takashi Matsushita as they prepared to begin taping. I admit to being quite nervous at the start but both Hiroko-san and Takashi-san were such wonderfully charming and delightful people that I soon relaxed. Sharing my love for Kyoto and talking about how much I have learned from Japanese design made conversation easy.

Computer embroidery is a highly developed commercial industry in Japan, but home embroidery machines don’t seem to be as popular here as they are in other countries. Perhaps that’s why the producers found my efforts to digitize so surprising. As he left, the director said he thought it was one of the better segments he had filmed and promised to send me a DVD of the finished segment. So I suppose in a few weeks, I’ll see how it turned out.


It’s been so hectic these last few weeks that I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone open my beautiful bundles of haori that have patiently waited for my attention for almost two weeks now. But hectic as its been, I still squeezed in the time to enjoy the Kazari exhibition at Kyoto City Museum before the show closes.

jomon potteryKazari is a Japanese word meaning “adornment” and this exhibition was devoted to the history of the Japanese penchant for adorning object surfaces with beautiful and intricate designs and then arranging those objects to adorn public and private spaces. The world of Japanese design is so often renowned for it’s brilliant minimalism and yet intricate elaborations of surface design also play a strong role as shown by the items selected for inclusion in this exhibition.

The elaborate Jomon pottery shown at left dates back some 10,000 years to the earliest hunter-gathering societies of pre-historic Japan. Although its peaked and coiled form may defy practicality and its uses remain uncertain, this vessel is but one of the hundreds of such archeological finds from that era.

Arita porcelain jarIn contrast, the Arita porcelain jar shown at right was produced several millenia later in the 18th century Edo period, yet it reflects an equal penchant for elaboration. In this case, however, the form has been simplified while intricately painted glazes provide the design interest.

With dozens of examples in each category, there is of course no way to reprise the entire exhibition for you here on my little blog — pottery and porcelain, saddles, swords and armor, lacquered boxes, hair ornaments and altar pieces, each decorated exquisitely with painstaking attention to the finest detail. But of course, my favorite pieces in any show are always the textiles. Below are a few of the exquisite little embroidered pouches. The two sets shown immediately below feature bamboo and chrysanthemum designs, respectively, would have been used by a man to carry his tobacco and pipe in elegance and style. Japanese tobacco pouches

embroidered Japanese purse The purse at right might have been carried to Tea ceremony. Notice the the tiny carved bird that forms the clasp in perfect complement to the embroidered swallow.

And of course, kimono. With so many many many gorgeous examples it was hard to choose a favorite. This one from the early 20th century features birds among bamboo in the snow, dyed and accented with embroidery.

embroidered kimono But the intent of this exhibition was more than simply a display of beautiful relics. Rather, the emphasis lay on the transformative nature of Kazari. In the preface to the catalog, the curator writes, “We are delighted to be able to present to you the timeless world of kazari, where functionality, beauty, the sacred and the secular collide to form an unexpected unity. The act of kazaru (adorning) momentarily lifts one’s spirits from the everyday realm. Efforts to adorn (kazaru) have at times revealed a surprising disregard for practicality but have proven to be a profound motivating force in Japanese culture.”

And even though I had an insufficient amount of time to spend surrounded by such beauty, I went away uplifted.

Sunday was a wonderful day

furoshiki wrapped bundles of newly purchased kimono Sunday was a wonderful day spent in my favorite way — pawing through colorful silks, inspecting and selecting vintage kimono at my dealer’s warehouse. At right you see my bundles of purchases, wrapped in the traditional way in extra large squares of fabric called furoshiki. (So much more charming than a shopping bag!) You can see one of my purchases in bright turquoise silk peaking out of the top of one of the bundles.

Sunday’s shopping spree focused on a particular part of a kimono ensemble,haori. These are kimono jackets or coats. Haori can be made of silk, silk cotton blend, or wool and feature patterns that are just as lovely as those on kimono themselves. But since haori are jackets, they are much shorter — ranging from hip to knee length — and they look great with western clothes. Awhile back, I gave a lovely haori to a girlfriend in San Francisco and heard that she paired it with black silk trousers to make an absolutely glorious outfit that she wears to the opera.

Sadly though, this is Monday morning and I must trot off to work. My bundles must remain bundled till later in the week when I can begin cataloging and photographing them to post on my vintage kimono site. As I start to post my new acquisitions for sale, I’ll e-mail notices to those who have requested it. If you’d like to be on that mailing list, click on the “Buy Vintage Kimono” link on the menu bar above, then click the link on the kimono page to sign up for e-mail notices. You’ll be among the first to know when these treasures go up for sale.

First birthday

my first birthdayIt’s hard to believe that my little blog is celebrating its first birthday, so I thought I’d mark the occasion with a picture from my own first birthday party. There I am between my two older sisters Susan and Paula on the right and left.  And now here I am, a long long way from there.   

August has flown by in a blur of heat an humidity and I’ve barely found time to post, but despite the aggravations of the climate, it’s been a wonderful month of good times with great friends, lots to enjoy and lots to celebrate even though I failed to find time to blog about it all.  

Noh Robes

Noh kimonoWith temperatures regularly reaching 35°~39°C/95°~100°F and humidity between 60 and 80%, summer in Kyoto can be rough, which makes the archeological textile rooms at local museums a particularly favorable summertime outing. Not only are the rooms temperature and humidity controlled to preserve the ancient fibers, but also the dimmed lighting that protects the ancient dye offers a welcome relief from the summer glare. So of course, when I saw a flyer advertising an exhibition of Noh kimono at Sen-Oku Hakuko Kan, I jumped at the chance to see it. Admittedly, I’m an avid kimono fan who would have jumped at the chance in midwinter as well, but my little museum excursion did make a particularly nice respite from the afternoon’s heat.Noh kimono

Noh is one of several theatrical traditions in Japan and dates back to the Muromachi period (c.1400-1500 AD). It’s thought that Noh evolved from a complex performance of acrobatics, dancing, music and singing that blended both the public performances presented to commoners and the solemn music, dance, and ceremonial performances at the imperial court and aristocrats’ residences. Due to its immense popularity, Noh plays drew large audiences and thus the costumes tended to feature bold graphic designs that helped to distinguish the role being played by reflecting some attribute of the character being represented.

Many of the kimono on exhibit dated from the Momoyama period and as such represent prototypes from which the tradition evolved.Noh kimono Noh robes also tend to be quite voluminous with relatively small sleeves. To some extent that reflects the prevailing structure of garments in the Momoyama period, but presumably this loose fit also facilitates quick costume changes for performers playing multiple roles. And although many of the designs appear to be embroidered, quite often they are the product of an intricate weave that manipulates dozens of shuttles to float variously colored weft threads across the patterned area. Although some of the oldest garments show a loss of pattern on certain sections as these threads have worn away, it’s truly remarkable how carefully these treasures have been preserved in a climate as humid and changeable as Japan.Noh kimono

Another unique feature of Noh robes is the use of color blocking as part of the design. It was the friend I saw the show with that drew my attention to that. Neither of us could recall seeing other types of kimono with such bold blocks of color that seemed to form a large checkerboard underlying the pattern. Though the example shown at left features an overall cherry blossom pattern in the foreground, many of the robes used those color blocks to bridge the seasons by placing a spring/summer pattern on one color block and a fall/winter pattern on the other, allowing greater versatility in the costume’s use throughout the year.Noh kimono

As suggested by all of what I’ve written so far, Noh costumes are among the most elaborate kimono still made. Noh is a living tradition that continues to be well loved by the Japanese people. The fabrics for modern Noh kimono are still woven here in my neighborhood of Nishijin and a new Noh theatre was recently constructed a few blocks down the street near my home. Performers wear not only these elaborate costumes but also intricately carved wooden masks. Painted with pigment and burnished to a pearl-like sheen, it is said that there are 60 basic types of masks, representing specific character types: men and women of various ages, demons, elders, warriors, ghosts and sprits etc.Noh performer

Despite the elaborate costume and mask, very few stage props are used in telling the story. Thus, the full weight of characterization relies on the actor and costume. Colors and graphic patterns in the kimono and the type of mask worn, signal the nature of the character. From there, the story unfolds in the imagination of each audience member through movement and gesture, acting and singing. Each of the performer’s gestures and movements involves an elaborately ritualized choreography and it is said that the audience’s experience of the performance is dramatically affected by the position of their seating — not just closeness to the stage itself, but also whether the seat is positioned on stage left or stage right. As with so much else in life, each position offers a uniquely individual experience.

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….

Preparing for Gion

early stage of constructing the Gion Matsuri floats With barely time to sweep up the remains of Tanabata, Kyoto has jumped into preparations for one of the largest oldest and most treasured festivals in Japan–Gion Matsuri! On side streets and main streets throughout downtown Kyoto, construction has begun on the 32 massive floats that will comprise the Gion Matsuri parade.

Matsuri actually just means “festival”, and Gion is a goryo-e, or protective festival meant to fend off medieval plagues and epidemics 1200 years ago, but it soon grew into a way for craft guilds and merchant families to compete in showing off their wealth and taste. Music, dance, comic plays, and artistic treasures had all become part of the celebrations by the close of the 10th century, creating a true feast for the senses. And in order to parade their accomplishments through the city, each group constructed huge wheeled carts decorated as sumptuously as their means and skills allowed. That tradition along with all of the accumulated artifacts have been carefully preserved and handed down so that once a year, each year these beautiful relics of the past can be brought out and reconstructed for the continuing celebration of Gion Matsuri.

Over these last few days since July tenth, the various groups have swarmed with activity in the sweltering July heat to begin putting these floats together. Although the floats can be several stories high, no nails are used in the construction. The enormous beams are simply lashed together with ropes as shown below. lashings used to construct the Gion Matsuri floats And at right, you can see the skeletal structures beginning to take form. Small streets are entirely blocked off, while major streets become restricted to a single lane that allows traffic to slowly crawl around the float during these festival days.

supervising the construction of the Gion Matsuri floats And of course we Kyotoites take a keen interest in the progress of the construction. As the floats grow, so does the festival atmosphere. Sight-seeing increases with each day as does the number of vendors selling cold drinks and a variety of souvenirs. Members of the “team” involved with each float can be recognized in the crowd because of their distinct summer kimono. At this particular float, the team members sport an indigo blue with a white carp design.

Within a building near each float, the float committee displays the fabulous artifacts that will eventually be used to decorate the completed float. From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto’s merchants, artwork from China, Persia, and even Europe were transmitted eastward along the Silk Road until they found their way to the capital of Japan.

Many of the floats are decorated with Gobelin tapestries that are thought to have come from Holland in the early 17th century. I have been told that these remain the best preserved Gobelin tapestries in the world with European scholars frequently seeking a chance to examine them. Below is a photo of the “treasury” of the Koiyama (Carp Float) Preservation Society. Note the large carved wooden carp on the left of the photo. This carp, placed on top of the float, is the obvious source of the float’s name. Behind the carp is a section of Gobelin tapestry. The orange torii gate in the center of the picture, the candles on the altar and the folded paper streamers on the right are symbols of the purification ritual that preceded the beginning of construction for this year’s festival.
decorations for one of the Gion Matsuri floats
Preparations will continue for another several days, and then the grand parade itself takes place on July 17th.

Summer in Kyoto

Kamogawa river in summer It’s hot and humid and typically summer in Kyoto. The mountains that surround the city hold in a stagnant cloud of heat that settles over everything. Children and families and friends try to cool off by wading in the the Kamogawa river that runs down the east side of the city. Those who can try to excape the summer’s heat with foreign travel and since many of my friends are English teachers and college professors, I’ve had a week of good-byes as I see them off on their travels. They’ll be back in September when school starts up and the weather begins to cool.

For those of us who stay, summer holds a series of holidays beginning with Tanabata, the Star Festival. Occuring on July 7th, it is one of the five double-fortune days: January 1st (01/01) is the solar new year, February 2nd (02/02) is the lunar new year, March 3rd (03/03) is girls’ day, May 5th (05/05) boys’ day and July 7th (07/07) is Tanabata.

Tanabata wishes Tanabata celebrates two stars that appear to meet in the mid-summer night sky, although they normally remain quite distant through most of the year. According to mythological tradition, these stars represent Ori-hime (the weaving princess) and Hiko-boshi (the farmer), archetypes of skills needed by society. Through most of the year they busy themselves with their work, but take a summer break from their labors to enjoy each other’s company, then return refreshed and renewed, and re-doubled in their skills. To celebrate this holiday, Japanese adorn bamboo branches with colorful paper streamers and make wishes for acquiring or improving some personal skill. Traditionally, boys wish to improve their farming skills, while girls wish for better sewing skills, making it one of my favorite holidays all year.

For about a week before the 7th, there are bamboo branches set up throughout the city. The photo above was taken at my local shopping arcade and the wishes were probably written by local school children, who appear to have adorned their streamers with self-portraits.
Tanabata in front of the Kyoto police stationThe photo at left was snapped in front of the Kyoto police department. One can but wonder what skills they wished to improve…

As for me, I celebrated Tanabata with another Kyoto tradition – Tea ceremony. Tea was served in Koko-an, the tea room on the top floor of the Hosomi Museum. The lovely okashi sweets were served by Nishimura-san, while the elegant tea preparations were performed by Sakano-san.
Tea ceremoney for Tanabata As always the case with Tea, the preparations and utensils reflect and rejoice in the present moment. The utensils were carried into the room in a chabako, typical of the season and the bowl in which tea was served is decorated with bamboo fronds and Tanabata streamers. It was a beautiful way to enjoy a summer’s afternoon.