Matsuo Taisha Grand Shrine

After a week of remaining glued to my giant bean-bag with an incendiary fever and the flu that I had been wrestling with, I felt up to taking a small trip. Nishida-sensei, my old boss, was taking a few of his students on a tour around Arashiyama and asked if I could join them. I thought I would be too sick so cancelled in the morning, but then heard my old supervisor Ishii-san would be there too and so doubled my efforts to get outside into the fresh air. It had been four years since I saw him last and I was really excited to revisit the two men that first shaped my life in Japan. Like most of the weather this year, the day seemed moody and changeable. Great banks of storm clouds rolled in, but the rain stayed away while the sun was still up. Matsuno Grand Shrine sits against the far South Western corner of Kyoto, close to Katsura Imperial Villa and the great sward of land about the Katsura River. Hopping off the train, Rhod and I walked through the giant torii gate and up the cherry-tree lined avenue. The blossoms are almost out, making it the season in which you either get drunk to survive the crowds or else shut up shop and flee for the mountains.
Matsuno is famed for its clear water (perfect for sake brewing and miso paste), unusual gardens (most are only a few decades old, built around 1975) and ancient wooden statues of the three enshrined deities (Oo-yama-gui-no-kami, Nakatsu-shima-hime-no-mikoto, and Tsukiyomi-no-mikoto). A lord of the Hata clan had been riding in the region when he came upon a turtle swimming in the stream at the base of Mt. Matsuo (Wakeikazuchi no yama). He founded the shrine in 701 (making it one of Kyoto's oldest) and aidid in moving the capital from Nagaoka to Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Turtles are revered in Japan as emblems of good fortune, health and long life. Many figures of turtles remain scattered around the shrine precincts. Matsuno remains protector of Western Kyoto, celebrating a cycle of festivals and observances throughout the traditional rice-growing, agricultural year. Even on a bustling Saturday afternoon, the shrine remained calm and peaceful, the trees brightening up the grey and chilly day. It is always nice to know that when I meet Nishida-san things always seem as unchanged and comfortable as always. He is one of the biggest things I will miss about Japan when I leave.

31 03 07 - 13:34 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Where the wee beasts sing

Hundreds of people were lining up to get in to Suzumushi-dera (The Bell-Cricket Temple), all to see the insects singing. After paying our money, we were led into a hall where we were given green tea and sugary cakes while a monk gave a short presentation. Before him were glass cabinets filled with singing bell-crickets, all strumming their wings and feeding on aubergine.
Although the insects are seasonal, the monks breed them all year round. The monk said that humans should learn a lot from these crickets. Despite their short lives, they greet each day with renewed energy. There was also a joke about the dead insects being mushed up into the sugar cakes. The small jizo statue outside (wearing straw sandals) is said to grant each person one wish. Although the temple is unremarkable, it is thus hugely popular.

31 03 07 - 13:15 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Parting shot

There was an archery game at Matsuno Shrine, so... ...Rhod challenged Nishida-san and Ishii-san to a competition. The idea was to get the bulbous-headed arrows into pots.
The game is set up next to the shrine shop, with shinto prizes as incentives. On his last shot Ishii-san hit the bullseye, winning everyone a present. Rhod was given a small ceramic turtle that you place in your wallet to bring fortune and wealth.

31 03 07 - 13:03 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Ki's Two Hour Temple Run

I found myself at a loose end this morning. Opening a road map of Kyoto, I pointed at random... ...and cycled to where my finger was at.
Dragons glaring down from the kondo of Kennin-ji. The stone garden outside the Abbot's Hall (hojo), Kennin-ji. A mask of Ebisu looks down from the torii gate of Ebisu Shrine.
Fortune papers tied to the branches of a willow at Rokkaku-do. The kondo of Rokuharamitsu-ji. The hexagonal hall of Rokkaku-do, where ikebana was born.
Rokuharamitsu-ji can be found in all junior high school Japanese history textbooks. A spitting turtle at Mibu-dera. Mibu-dera is well known for its ancient Mibu Kyogen (a kind of pantomime performed to teach about Buddhism).
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26 03 07 - 06:56 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Where's Wally?

Rhod poses with Osamu Tezuka's famous creations. After falling in love with his series of graphic novels illustrating the life of Buddha, I have been hooked on his work. To say he is the Disney of Japan would mislead, for although he is certainly the foundation upon which Japanese manga and anime is built, he was far more prolific and his works often epic masterpieces dealing with subjects Disney himself most likely would have quailed at (Ode to Kirihito being a prime example). I have just begun reading Tezuka's tales of three men called Adolf (including Hitler himself), which may seem rather an odd topic for a comic, but is a look at the world through German and Japanese eyes in the lead up to WWII.

For a long time we had been meaning to take a look at Osamu Tezuka World in Theatre Land, Kyoto Station. We followed the little statue of Astroboy, helpfully pointing us on our way into...into...a shop! Confused, we walked about the foyer, mostly booking offices for the theatres upstairs and restaurants. The shop was obvious, and also a minute theatre showing clips of Tezuka's work. But a few garish statues, a memorandom on Tezuka and a billboard for people to have their picture taken. That was it. I think 'World' was overselling it somewhat. Purchasing a few cool items, we left a bit bamboozled. Takarazuka (between Kobe and Kyoto) is where the true museum is, Tezuka's birthplace. It should have been titled 'Tezuka Shopping Opportunities'.

24 03 07 - 08:07 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

On games journalism...

[UPDATE: I just found this review of 'slitherlink', a lovely puzzle game, getting a 10/10 in the UK's most popular game website. Not everyone sucks.]

At this year's Game Developers Conference, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto gave a fairly straightforward, mostly bland keynote speech about how he personally perceives the success of his games (using his 'wife-o-meter'), and perhaps the biggest cheer went up when he suggested that game reviewers need to add a category for how much fun a game is to new gamers, or for those people who've not played countless games before.

That got me thinking. The sentiment is certainly something I agree with, but I think he should have gone further and slated the whole game review 'industry'. Most reviewers are failing gamers, failing game makers, and failing game publishers. (more)

24 03 07 - 02:44 - rhod - Photostory| one comment - §

Youngest gamer ever?

At the Game Developer's conference two weeks back, amid all the hi-tech bravado and realistic physics demos of the expo floor, the thing that made me happiest to work in games was a group of twenty something nerds standing around singing 'I will survive' on Playstation 2's 'SingStar' karaoke game. To cheers and whoops from their peers.

And then today I saw this video of this kid having so much fun with Wii sports, and it made me smile. Loads.

It's for these smiles that I love games. It's for these smiles that I always want to aim with the games I make.

22 03 07 - 13:25 - rhod - Photostory| No comments - §

Fierce hairdresser battle: the aftermath!

Spring arrived on schedule this week in Kyoto, making it that little bit more pleasant for me to go along with Kieren's neverending cultural bike rides. Our recent adventures have taken us to mostly memorial sites as opposed actual cultural assets; the original location and remaining stones of the old Emperor's Palace, the site of the famous southern entrance to Kyoto (the centrepiece of Kurosawa's 'Rashomon'), and the sister site to Kyoto's beautiful Toji, now only remembered by a raised stone pillar in the centre of a child's playground. But as always, the journeys are a huge part of the experience, and on Sunday our journey took us past the most macabre of sites. Enough to send chills through fans of eighties romance movies.

Bags and buckets and dumpsters filled with mannequin heads.

Despite their clear distinction from real heads, it was still weirdly upsetting to see all the de-bodied models lying there with their gazes fixed. Japan is overrun with 'hair make' salons - within two minutes of our door you can get to four different hairdressers - and often when you pass at night time you see the staff, clearly lacking in customers due to the saturated market, practicing their art on these mannequin heads. They're often training until past midnight, whilst also polishing up the trophies. There must be some fierce rivalry in the hairdressing industry here, and these poor heads are the casualties.

21 03 07 - 11:47 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

1) A Short Guide to the History of Kyoto: The Beginning



Nigastu-do Temple (Second month temple).
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19 03 07 - 06:15 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Graduation smiles

Although I captured shots of the preparations for graduation, the decorative red and white colours of the gym, the arduous speeches and parading students, when I sat down I realised that none of the photos really realise the high spirits of the day, the celebratory feelings and over-emotional goodbyes. These more simple portraits of students as they mingled about the school gates before bidding farewell to the comfort of Junior High show a lot more that any of the official ones that will soon be plastered across the local newspapers.

These students made a difficult year wholly bearable. More than that, they managed something I thought improbable: they made it a pleasure to teach English. Especially the students you can see here I want to thank for not only making me feel welcome, but also being friends and having the courage to chat with me, confide in me and generally tease the hell out of me. Congratulations to you all and all the best wishes I can muster for you at your new schools.

The three teachers in the middle row are Ito-san (Nori-kun...my second grade teaching partner), Ueda-san (Ai-chan...math teacher and one of the sweetest teachers at school, who is also a semi-professional dancer and was homeroom teacher to 3-4), and Araki-sensei (PE teacher, looking stunning in kimono and incredibly kind although she cannot speak a word of English) homeroom teacher to 3-5.

A final note about the colourful display in the bottom middle picture. Some students went home after graduation and returned wearing eye-wateringly bright clothes. They are a cross between primary-coloured school uniforms and those uniforms cheerleaders in Japan wear. As these students are regarded as trouble-makers, I assumed they were in some kind of gang. No-one could explain why they were dressed up this way, though I have a suspicion they are part of a dancing troupe (I kid you not). Many of the teachers had to go inside they were sniggering too much. They looked quite...um...distinctive, but added a jovial spirit to the end of a rather happy-sad day.

13 03 07 - 11:20 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Goodbye, not-quite-cat

Sadly this picture is all too real now, as Esti died today and joined Rhea chasing frogs and terrorising dogs somplace else, hopefully somewhere better for her. For the first time since my mum and dad married, there will be no cats padding around the house and our dog will be awfully lonely.

Named after a blonde waitress that used to serve us at our hotel in the small town of Lovran, Croatia, Esti (the almost-blue-Persian) was always a strange addition to our family. Terribly sick as a kitten, she grew up tremendously nervous around everyone and although she would often sleep on my brother's lap, she also went rock hard when picked up. It was as if you were holding a stiff toy most of the time.

The truth of the matter is that she really did not see herself as a cat at all. Her meow was a non-existent chirrup, a strange brrr as if she had just leapt out of an ice cold pond. Then there was her brave unconcern for water, in fact she was infatuated with it. If it rained she would frolic amongst the grass, if the bathroom door was open she would sit patiently in the dampness of the bath. Esti also loved frogs and while not killing or eating them, would hook her claws under their skin and toss them about like raggedy dolls.

She likely saw herself related not to Rhea, but to our dog. They seemed relaxed about one another, though she was clearly the alpha dog, guzzling at Bob's food and occasionally draping herself over his sleeping form. When Rhea died she seems to have just wasted away without little explanation. Maybe time had simply come around, and we will selfishly miss her a lot. Sleep well Esti.

13 03 07 - 10:27 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Spanish odyssey / American odyssey

Welcome back to Misako and Akko after their Spanish odyssey. Their ten day holiday took them to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Madrid. Soccer players, flamenco, paella, beer, Miffy and shopping at a familiar named store.
And welcome back to Rhod after his sojourn in San Francisco. He'll no doubt be blogging himself soon, but for now here are some photos. Hanging out at Fishermans Wharf with the seals, Alcatraz in the near distance.

11 03 07 - 13:17 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Cellphone snapshots

I found a few more photos on my cellphone from Hanatouro. In this picture Misako is standing in front of the food stalls set up just inside the entrance to Maruyama Park. These may be a little more interesting because in the second photo you can just make out a young couple (in traditional costume) marrying in Yasaka Shrine within Maruyama Park. It seemed a little late to be getting married, and the light-up festival had brought a large crowd of people who eagerly watched and took photographs.

11 03 07 - 06:00 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Hanatouro

From the menacingly impressive gate of Chion-in to the famous raised-verandah of Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto city has lit up a stretch of the Eastern Hills, highlighting the more well-known temples and shrines. As Japan collectively holds its breath for the cherry trees to blossom, the city has decided it needs a magnet to pull in tourists while the days are still cold enough for scarves and gloves. As there is very little colour, the light up (Hanatouro) adds something jovial and festive to the chilly March nights, much like bonfires and fireworks on November the 5th in the UK.

No sooner had we started the walk through Gion to Maruyama Park, than a freezing sleet began to come down. As it was the first day of the light up there were already throngs of people, though the bad weather seemed to be taken its toll making things more bearable. We snapped some photos around the park and cut through the narrow streets and alleys that had once been home to Kyoto's ceramic industry. Eventually Misako and I thought better than to brave the icy rain and so hurried back to the nice warmth of a chilled beer in the pub.

The lantern is advertising battered balls with octopus inside (takoyaki). They were delicious. Kind of like a chewy Yorkshire pudding with spicy sauce, mayonnaise and chopped spring onions as dressing. The statue is of Sakamoto Ryoma, who led a movement to try and overthrow the iron-fisted and conservative Tokugawa Shogunate. Murdered at the age of 33, many still look to him as a role-model and hero who wanted to speed Japan away from feaudalism towards equality for all.

11 03 07 - 05:50 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

A Short Picture Guide to the History of Kyoto

This past year has presented wonderful opportunities for me to practise public speaking. I have given speeches and made presentations to Osaka Board of Education, the Association of Osaka English Teachers and other groups of varying size and importance. While I was not given the option of backing out of speaking, as my name was both put forward and used without my prior knowledge, I have had little problem with public speaking to large crowds. When Japanese is thrown into the mix, then my nerves seem to get the better of me, but once I am on the familiar terrain of English then I am a lot more relaxed, letting the subject pretty much run on automatic in my head.

For the last three speeches I have been upon more solid ground, talking about the United Kingdom, about education and internationalisation. But for the next one my footing will be a little more uncertain on the marshy footfalls of Japanese culture. For a rationale that really escapes me, I have been asked to address the city government in English on an aspect of Japanese culture. It is more of a learning tool for teachers and administrators that anything relevant to education. Thus I will be presenting a short history of Kyoto, as I am happier with history that any one element of Japanese culture and happen to live conveniently within the city. I get to have my speech broadcast to schools over the internet, I also get to meet some influential men in the world of education and participate in a long seminar with them. All for the purpose of...of? Well the exact reason escapes me, and no-one seems able to explain what the whole series of meetings is about. An expensive English lesson? A look at how foreigners perceive Japan? A big joke at my expense?

So I will be writing 'A short picture guide to the history of Kyoto' over the next few months. I inserted the word picture, for I will be posting most of it on the blog as I go along so that I can see how the structure is developing, so that I have to go into less detail generally, to show everyone who lives abroad what the heck I am talking about, and so that I can make a selection from the hundreds of photos Rhod and I have gathered over the last two years.

The picture below is taken from Mt Iwata in early October of last year. Kyoto is spread out beyond the forked twist of the Katsura River. Iwata is famous for its fat and greedy monkeys, suitably unwild and bickering at one another above a city that was Japan's capital for more than a thousand years.

10 03 07 - 05:56 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Big bro to lil' bro

Thanks for the pictures dad, but Con is going to kill you if he sees them here. Got to show him off on the blog though, it'll be a first. It is pretty rare that I get to see photos of my little bro or what he has been up to, but glad to see he looks great. Happy Birthday Connal. Sorry I missed your birthday again. All grown up with a house huh! How the hell did we grow up so fast?

08 03 07 - 11:35 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The verdant hills of home

Louisa's photograph of Colley Hill on a wintry morning.

And it conjures up the exact picture I have in my head of England when people ask me what it is like. That wallpaper-lie that smoothes over all the ugly high streets and urban decay, replacing them with solitary trees defiantly surviving the years, watching over the folds of green hills and woodland. A Jane Austen England.

And an England that will have to wait a little longer before my return. If plans made were easily laid then I would be flying home in a few weeks, but as so much in life it comes down to money. And while I have a secure job, I should really save as much as possible for the difficulties that lie ahead in pulling up roots and switching countries. Japan lost its shine a long time ago, but there are still things to see, things to learn and people yet to meet. And so England, wait just a little longer. I know you aren't going anywhere.

06 03 07 - 04:50 - Kieren - Photostory| three comments - §

Mist and missed

As Rhod looks down upon the Shaky City from the Golden Gate Bridge, so I am looking up at the stormy mountains of Arashiyama from the Togetsukyo Bridge. It will be a long week, as strangely it is the longest time Rhod and I will have spent apart. And for all my grumbling about his late night game-playing and bed-hogging, I will miss him more than a little bit. He is in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference for the week. Hopefully he will get to meet some of his heroes at Nintendo.

At Tenryu-ji there is a grand picture of a mischievous yellow-eyed dragon, glaring out from the swirling gloom of the malicious River Oi. It sits protected by glass, forever looking upon the calm garden created by the master Zen priest Muso Kokushi. While it is supposed to represent the angry soul of Emperor Go-Daigo as dreamt by Ashikaga Tadayoshi, it appears to be much more contented, flying through smoky grey whirls of cloud.

Which seems appropriate, as the weather today has been moody and the clouds have been clawing their way down the mountainsides, so close that is feels you could reach up and into them. Spring seems to be doing battle with the aching cold of Winter, rain pushing the temperatures up and blowing away the gut-wrenching chills of Kyoto. Across Japan people have been scratching their heads. Cherry blossoms are early, Winter never really arrived and already Spring has brought with it rainy weekend after rainy weekend.

With a misted up camera lense, I took the empty tram to Arashiyama to look at the famous dragon I have seen so many times on postcards, but always avoided as tourists crowd too heavily there on weekends and holidays. With the weather drizzly, blustery and unwelcoming, I found the small tourist town quite deserted and only a handful of people wandering through the tatami rooms of Tenryu-ji. The weather added a lot more magic to the riverside than I could have hoped for.

And with all the mist and fug and clouds, I was reminded of San Francisco's Summer fogs, chill and sudden, that sweep up from the Bay. And I am waiting for the week to pass quicky so I can take Rhod to see the dragon.

05 03 07 - 05:32 - Kieren - Photostory| two comments - §

Where dragons roam

Ashikaga Tadayoshi dreamt of a golden dragon, fierce and monstrous, that burst from the broiling waters of the River Oi and carried in his claws the souls of the thousands slaughtered in the civil war that had only recently ended. It was an ominous sign of things to come. His brother, the new shogun (Ashikaga Takauji 1306-52), was increasingly worried about his own salvation after the bloody wars he himself helped spark. After aiding his friend Go-Daigo in taking back the throne by force, Takauji then betrayed him and seized power for himself, stealing the title of shogun. Go-Daigo had faced a lifetime of conflict and banishment, and after this final blow soon passed away (1338). He was found clinging to a sword with one hand and holding a sutra in the other. The influential Zen priest Muso Kokushi was deeply troubled by all these strange, mixed messages.
Beside the River Oi on the rolling foothills of Arashiyama sat the Imperial Villa. In happier times Go-Daigo had grown up in this summer palace, far from the centre of brewing trouble at the Imperial Palace within the city. As the dragon was believed to be the spirit of Go-Daigo it was decided to dismantle the villa and in its stead build a temple to appease the monster and the army of dead that had been unhappily slain in the civil war. The Temple of the Heavenly Dragon (Tenryu-ji) was crafted and built by Kokushi and Takauji to lay Go-Daigo to rest and spare them their own immortal souls. Through trading ships (before Japan's isolation) the temple grew exceptionally wealthy and won the jealousy of Enryaku-ji's troublesome and violent monks. Numerous times it was burnt to the ground, but remains one of the most beautiful (and understated) of Kyoto's temples.

05 03 07 - 05:19 - Kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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