The cicadas are chirruping, the sun is blinding, and it is time to pack up the sunscreen, beach towels and bathers for a trip to the Hozugawa. Picking up Andy, Etsuyo and Misako we took the train for fifteen minutes into the Western mountains. The train stops on the immense steel bridge that spans the vast gorge in which the noisy ribbon of the Hozugawa runs. We jumped the barrier, scrambled down the steep embankment filled with the smells of a BBQ and settled on a group of rocks that reach out into one bend of the river.
Rhod stripped down in the blink of an eye and leapt into the cool waters. The far bank was crowded with rafters eating their lunch boxes, their dinghies piled up on a beach that would have been perfect for sunbathing, but is impossible to reach without boat. Dangling our legs in the river we watched as old men fished, as the wide tourist boats were punted down the rapids, as orange-tanned boys BBQ'd and fought with giant bees, and as a motorcyclist took a break to cool down in the mountain stream that gushes down from the forests.
No swimming is permitted in the Hozu, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to the warnings. A few drunken people were killed a couple of years back, but rather than making sure there is life-saving equipment and a river patrol, the city seems to have felt banning swimming is the wisest course. Which it is not. With no beaches and so few deep rivers in Kyoto, it is little surprising that no-one cares about the rules and regulations set down.
As the afternoon ticked on with its brutal heat, we watched the fish and snails and frogs, and forgot the bustle of the city for a while. Rhod and Andy (who had a problem with his ear later, and went to the doctor to have it cleaned out only to discover a perforated ear drum) played ball, dove and climbed the far cliffs. And all was well for the day.
A month ago Rhod and Andy entered a competition to win the chance to buy a limited edition, custard yellow, Pikachu DS. A couple of weeks later they both found out they were successful and thus went off to purchase their prizes. All very well, but I think it should have been a proper competition. Still, it looks very cool.
Chigo are the 'sacred' children of the Gion Matsuri. They are dressed up to parade with the mikoshi, hoko and yama. Certain rules govern what they can and cannot do in the lead up to their 'parading': many pray at Yasaka Shrine and eat specially provided food. Often they cannot tred on the ground during the actual festivities. Thus the horse or special bearers. We were lucky to catch this one as he waited for the mikoshi to arrive.
Rhod came up with this shot of costumed men waiting for the mikoshi parade. Because our camera is not strong enough to shoot great night pictures, the blurring sometimes looks rather more ghostly than intended. This was my favourite.
If you were wondering who Etsuyo is, then this is she. She has been travelling around Kyoto visiting sightseeing spots and temples with me over the last couple of months and I seem to mention her a lot. Rhod took this photo at Kanko-sai.
On the 24th July, the gods are carried back from their temporary home in the Otabisho to Yasaka Shrine. For a week they have watched over the city and all the festivities of GionMatsuri, but sadly it is time for them to return and turn their backs on the city, safe in the knowledge that they have exorcised the evil spirits of plague.
Rhod, Andy, Etsuyo and I stood impatiently by one of the chigo (sacred festival children) as he patiently sat on horseback, waiting for the mikoshi procession to reach us on Horikawa-dori. A week earlier I had come out of my work to discover hundreds of people crammed onto Nijo-dori, men shouldering a portable shrine and chanting to much merriment. They were bringing the gods into the city from Yasaka-jinja. Today, those same gods were being taken back home. In the stuffy evening heat, it wasn't pleasant to be hanging around waiting for the much delayed mikoshi.
Further up the street we caught sight of one of the mikoshi parades. As there are three mikoshi, all taking different routes, there is a lot of choice over where to go and what to see. Each experience is very different and depends on being at the right spot at the right time. We raced to our bikes and cut through the side streets, heading towards Shinsen-en Garden. As we turned the final corner we were stopped by two policemen. With the greatest of luck we found ourselves directly outside Nijo-jinya (the old Daimyo house that had been built to hide a maze of secret passageways and exits) and the mikoshi was being carried to us. From the barrier of a car-park we stood back as the scantily clad shrine bearers swarmed and poured and jostled down the street. The mikoshi bounced along on their shoulders with cheers of "Hoito-Hoito". The feeling was much like Pamplona during the bull-running season. We were pushed and shoved, and loved every moment of it.
And then the shrine was put down, the crowd clapping three times in succession to placate the gods. By sheer chance we had ended up where the small troupe of bearers were due to take their dinner, and it gave Rhod time to snap some wonderful (albeit difficult in the dark) pictures of the shrine close up. Lanterns were hung, onigiri were eaten, and we merrily wished the local community good evening. It was a magical moment, when so easily it could have been us merely standing and watching from afar.
Cockle picking is popular in Japan. Many families often drive to the coast to collect the shell-fish during the spring and late autumn. These old women pick cockles for a living. The photo was taken on Angel Road, Shodoshima Island.
Suma is without a doubt the dirtiest beach in Kobe, but it is still very close to my heart. Two stations and a short walk away and I could be playing in the litter-laden sand or swimming in the oil-scummed water with the tetrapods. Now I am very far from the sea, I miss being able to fight for a patch of grey looking beach. The triangular building in the photo is the aquarium, which has the biggest turtles I have ever seen in the smallest tanks. Good times. The whole experience was always a sorry affair that had me coming back for more and more each year. Especially I loved the slimy feel and odd stench after a quick bathe in Osaka Bay. But a beach is still a beach*.
In amongst all the unimaginative buildings of Osaka's urban sprawl, there is an odd work of genius. Something that looks like it belongs in a child's toy box. A strange building block, a lego building with a huge whole in the middle. An old friend once told me that after the two main towers had been completed, they began to raise the ceiling section by immense crane. For a few months the third part was stuck half way up, causing the architect and builders a nightmarish period of brainstorming and desperate measures.
Rhod and I have visited Sky Building with family and friends more than a few times, and it happens to be one of the few things to do in the city centre that is not shopping.
Ms. Rowling, you haven't disappointed. I laughed and cried, and didn't want it to end. Well, not until the epilogue, which perhaps could have ended before it began. If only books five and six had been close to this good. Mrs. Weasley leads the pack of characters who had been begging to get their moment in the limelight, and who shone brilliantly when they were put there in The Deathly Hallows.
I heard the oddest sound coming from the pond at Hokongo-in. We had arrived to look at the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom, as had dozens of other people. No sooner had the noise started than it stopped. Through the peace the moo persisted. As we walked closer to the water's edge Etsuyo explained that it was an ushikaeru, a cow toad. The large creatures live in the mud, their size projecting a voice that sounds like a cow. I was desperate to see one, but the foliage was too thick to see much of the pond. The contradition between when Rhod and I had visited in the Spring and now was stark.
In a matter of weeks, the lotus plants erupt from the mud, their leaves expanding to the size and shape of inside-out umbrellas. The flowers open in the morning and close again come evening. The whole spectacle turns Hokongo-in from a pretty but plain temple into a paradise. Flowers fill up the gardens. Lotus grow freely in the pond, are cultivated in pots, stand beside the temple, beside the path and smother the small grounds. Photographers were everywhere, enjoying the plants short blooming life. So much so, that it is easy to forget the quite stunning statues that lay in the reliquary behind the main hall.
Because I had seen it so many times on the map, I thought I would take a look at the Nishijin Textile Centre. Walking through the doors was like skipping back to the 70s. The decor is unchanged, dated and slightly tatty after all these years. The first thing that confronted me were three coach loads of Chinese school children on tour.
'Furoshiki are a type of traditional Japanese wrapping cloth that were frequently used to transport clothes, gifts, or other goods. Although possibly dating back as far as the Nara period, the name, meaning 'bath spread', derives from the Edo period practice of using them to bundle clothes while at the sento (public baths). Before becoming associated with public baths, furoshiki was known as hiradazutsumi, or flat folded bundle. Eventually, the furoshiki's usage extended to serve as a means for merchants to transport their wares or to protect and decorate a gift.' This furoshiki was on display at Gion Matsuri, used to advertise a souvenir shop. It was about the size of a house.
Few festivals can compete with Gion Matsuri's history, tradition and scale. Lasting for the month of July, it begins on the first of the month and culminates in the 17th festival parade before the gods are carried back to their home shrine on the 24th.
The story of Gion is one mirrored throughout the country at the time. In 869 a plague raged in the city, sparking fears that a vereeking
ngeful ghost (Gozu Tenno) was reeking havoc upon the populace. In desperation, the emperor decreed that special prayers be said at Yasaka Shrine (one of the city's protector shrines) and that the country's 66 provincial hoko (pikes) be paraded through the city. The hoko were erected first in Shinsen-en Gardens, blessed and then sent out across Kyoto. The parade and prayers seemed to work. From 970 the parade became an annual event, slowly growing in status until it reached the spectacular form we see today.
Despite wanting to hate Gion Matsuri, I came away feeling happily exhausted. There is much to dislike, but there is also much to love. Etusyo and I waited on the final corner of the parade route, where the floats would turn before hurrying back to their home positions. Crowds raced after them so that they could see the floats dismantled quickly, preventing the spirits of disease from having a chance to escape.
One of the most popular stalls at summer festivals in Japan are the 'flipping for goldfish' booths. Long tanks of water hold hundreds of small goldfish. You pay for a small plastic loop with paper pasted across the ring. Using it, you try to flip the fish into a bowl of water. When the paper gets wet it tears and so it is very much a game of skill. You can keep the fish you catch. All of this I accept with a sort of mesmerized horror, but the cruelty now seems to extend to crabs. At Gion Matsuri one stall had crabs instead of goldfish. Children fished for the small creatures by using a potato chip attached to the end of a string. The crabs would try to snatch at the crisp with their claws, and the children would reel them up. I have no idea what the parents do with the crabs when they get the home. My heart fears they end up as tasty snacks.
Starting from July 1st, a number of important festivals and ceremonies are held for Gion Matsuri. The traditions have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years and are sprinkled throughout the month. Click on 'read more' for a look at the dozens of rituals. Maybe it is more advisable just to look at the pretty pictures.
Gion Matsuri was born in Yasaka Shrine, the cluster of buildings that mark the entrance to Maruyama Koen, that eternally disappointing area of ground, desolate when the cherry blossoms are not blooming. We came to pray and look around the shrine that essentially created the largest of Kyoto's festivals. Everyone else had the same idea: an official tea ceremony (where tea masters pray for success in their business) had attracted dozens of smartly dressed women in kimono. Because the shrine sponsors the parading floats and official ceremonies of Gion Matsuri, it is a hive of activity during July, clearly bristling with a mixture of haughtiness and pride. We edged through the people, all on holiday for the 'Day of the Sea' bank-holiday. Countless times have I walked through the shrine without stopping, today it was nice to stop and see that there really is a lot more to Yasaka than meets the eye.
The Yoiyama refers only to the festivities on night of July 16th, the day before the grand parade of Gion Matsuri. However, each float nighbourhood lights its komogata lanterns and displays various treasures around the float from the 14th on. The float organisers decorate the area around their float in unique ways, providing seating in the larger hoko floats, and in the first floor of houses close to the smaller yama floats. Children sell chimaki* (wrapped rice cakes, placed above doorways to ward of pestilence) and gofu amulets (each charm is dedicated to the god of the float and so each has its own meaning and benefits). Traditional music blares out from some of the floats.
Yoiyama is also called Byobu Matsuri. Byobu are folding screens, and in many of the houses you can see these valuable paintings on display along the ground floor at street level. Many homes charge an entrance fee to view the priceless treasures, others are more generous and allow you to glance on the deities and antiques for free.
Many men and women wear summer yukata and wander through the crowds to view the floats, take part in the fun-fair rides and attractions, or else eat from the hundreds of food stalls lining the streets.
As of next week it will be six years since I arrived in Tokyo for the welcoming JET conference. A week of embassy functions and lectures later and -together with a group of British JETs- we were on the shinkansen bound for Osaka. One long bus journey into the heart of Hyogo (Yamashiro) for a Board of Education meet and the next day I was excitedly meeting my school supervisor. We drove the two hours to Kobe, where I got to meet old friends and stay with my new school principal. He didn't know a word of English and I was bamboozled by the Japanese. Fun times. I thought I would take a look back at Kobe -my home of four years, and in many ways Japanese home forever- and sort through some of the photos that never made it onto this blog. As I only got to grips with my digital camera a few months before meeting Rhod for the first time, many pictures have been lost in computer crashes or sit in my bedroom at home in photo form. Over the next few weeks I will be taking a look at Kobe and what makes it so distinctive from other places in Japan, so very much a part of my early adult life.
Byodo-in was meant to recreate heaven on earth, a paradise beside the Uji-gawa and below Mt. Asahi's shadow. When one stepped into the gardens, you were meant to shun your mortal coil and enter the after-life, beneath Buddha's slight smile.
After his father had passed away, Fujiwara no Yorimichi transformed the beautiful summer villa into a temple. The Phoenix Pavilion epitomised the beauty and style of the vast precincts of Byodo-in. By the Kusunoki Hatakeyama War the temple was in ruins, burnt to the ground. Rather ironically the Phoenix Hall remained, surviving the flames for seven centuries. Now it is all alone, its sister buildings all destroyed.
The old attendant that sits watch over Senbon-Shakado is a very friendly and very talkative man. As there were no other visitors, he was keen to tell us all the secrets of the hall, describe the temple's festival -when the Shaka Nyorai Buddha is revealed to the public on August 8th- and show us the sword marks from the Onin War. As the city burnt, the temple was at the heart of fierce fighting, but in spite of this it survived. In fact the main hall (1227) has survived all subsequent fires that swallowed up its precincts. It is the third oldest building in Kyoto and the oldest Buddha Hall.
With a toot of trumpets at a somewhat muted E3, Rhod's next game has finally been revealed. Da-daaaaaaaaaah. PixelJunk Racers will be the first title in a series of downloadable games for the PlayStation3. Rhod has taken a more pivotal role in the creation of this game and so a lot more blood, sweat and tears will have gone into it by the time the final product gets handed over to Sony. And so with this PS3 project, Rhod has completed a gamer's hat-trick; producing games for Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. A gamer whore to be sure, but a pretty impressive feat nonetheless.
Yesterday some photos surfaced that I thought I had long since lost. They are of Shodo-shima Island, a place that I loved so much I returned there with Rhod three years later.
'Waking up at 4.30, cycling like mad to catch the first train, riding the bus while the sun was still a glow on the horizon, cold and tired, I wondered what the hell my friend Aki was doing dragging me along for a three day trip. Piling onto the ferry, we threw our bags into one of the tatami rooms (no furniture, just a carpeted floor for stretching out and sleeping on) and went on deck as the ship pulled out into Osaka Bay. Slowly we skimmed the edge of Kobe city, the water perfectly still and the morning gently warming as a brilliantly orange sun broke free.'
Himeji's castle was never stormed, it was never besieged, was never tried in battle nor suffered the humiliation of defeat. The ingeneous designs of its battlements and strength of its keep were never tested. But that is not really the point at all. Many could argue that the reason it was never attacked was because of its obvious invulnerability. But again you might be missing the point. Himeji was as much a psychological sign of power as it was a working fort. It represents the pinnacle of Japan's warlord era, their prestige and their wealth. As Dan Cruikshanks rightly suggests, it is one of the 80 greatest achievements of man ever, not merely in Japan, but in the world. I would rightly agree with him. Himeji-jo is perhaps Japan's greatest building, the elegance of temple mixed with the needs of a country in turbulence.
There was a time when Himeji was a quick forty minutes train ride from my front door and I have been a constant visitor over my time in Japan. Arriving at the city's station, the castle continues to dominate and tower above the dwellings of the common people below. Himejiis its castle: a castle town that is still just that. The city also shyly promotes a few other places that should be visited: a castle garden and a bus ride to Engyo-ji should be on any tourist's list.
As we sat slurping cold noodles and hot stew, our clothes dried and we forgot about the storm raging outside. When we stepped off the tram the mountains were sheathed in clouds, a gentle drizzle cooling the heat of day. But each step we took saw the rain get heavier until it was thrumming so hard upon our umbrellas that it had started to leak through the material. Bravely we ventured into the hillsides, determined to keep to our original plans. Rainy Season is wet: it is of course a fact that you can't escape. No matter how much you try, staying dry evades your every effort. Whether it is the sogginess of your belongings from the rain or the dampness of your clothes from your sweat, you stay wet wet wet. Humid, muggy and surprisingly chilly all at the same time. Not until the summer proper will the mustiness and discomfort evaporate.
So we struggled on until lunch, bags soaked inside and out, the camera needing its flash as the day was dusky and close. After a stomach warming meal we decided to press on. And this was the biggest of mistakes. The rain did not stop, it simply grew angrier and more impatient with us. Soon it was pooling in the streets and cascading from the rooftops. Thus our visit to Nison-ji was cut short, the first time I have had to abandon doing something because of rain alone. We miserably trudged back to the station and the promise of a foot spa.
I took a trip to Tofuku-ji before work today, and stupidly left my camera at home. Looking back through the photos I found a selection from three or four years ago.
The famous beauty and poet, Ono-no-Komachi (825-900), who was said to have been propositioned more times than there are raindrops in a storm, lived at Tofuku-ji for many years. She commissioned a sculptor to carve her a small buddha, called Tamazusa Jizo. There is an opening in his back, where it is said Ono kept the hundreds of amorous letters and poems she received. You can still see the Buddha nowadays, unfortunately minus the love letters.
I know I am about half a year to late for this post, but I have been strangely missing Christmas all day. Maybe it is the lack of good cheer, or the wish for cooler weather and festive goods. When talking about Kobe there are two things that have become unavoidable. The first is the earthquake and the second was a response to the earthquake: the Kobe Luminarie.
Talk to the hand (attitude from Arashiyama's statues)
The smiling weatherman promised me there would a light rain around lunch-time and so I dutifully packed my umbrella. The little bugger underestimated the rain by about three inches. It rained so hard it hurt.
In the absence of people, it was quite fairytalesque wandering through Arashiyama's bamboo forests and stumbling upon murky ponds and groves of wildflowers. Houses hid behind large fences and ghostly taxis rolled by in the gloom, carrying the affluent to the temples. With soggy-footed steps we looked up at Jojakko-ji and fumbled around with our wallets and umbrellas to pay the attendant. By the time we had climbed and struggled and pulled ourselves up the hillside, we could look down on Arashiyama shrouded in mist. And not one inch of me was dry. By this time water was freely pouring down my spine, freezing cold, and dripping into my pants. All because I was desperately trying to snap photos while holding my bag and umbrella. Etsuyo, meanwhile, had her own problems, battling with particularly voracious mosquitos.
As usual, Rainy Season has been mysteriously absent through June, and only rears its thunderous head now the big parade of the Gion Matsuri is mere days away. The rain has been coming in violent waves all day long, going quiet and drizzly, before growing louder and louder until it is almost impossible to keep your umbrella up under the weight of water. The clouds have been skimming low across the city, ugly and broiling and turning the day as dark as dusk.
I had an embarrassing moment this rainy evening, on the way home from work. It was one of those events where everything seems to go quiet, and both the shop assistants and I froze unable to work out whether it was ok to laugh the whole thing off.
For Tanabata, the priests at Shiramine hold a kemari contest. I say contest, but in reality they half-heartedly display the ancient court sport, while spectators snap away. In essence it is a crude form of football, hundreds and hundreds of years before the English even contemplated the sport. Actually, the whole sport is quite difficult to get your head around: it does not have winners, losers, or competition between players.
The Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, also known as the Pearl Bridge, crosses the busy shipping lanes of the Akashi Straits; linking Maiko in Kobe and Iwaya on Awaji Island. It is the longest suspension bridge in the world* to date at almost 4 km. Strangely, the bridge was stretched one metre by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.
July 7th is Tanabata -the Festival of the Weaver Star- in Japan. Have you noticed the relevance of many of Japan's festivals, placed on auspicious days: New Year's Day (1st January- 1-1), Doll's Festival (3rd March - 3-3), Childrens Day (5th May - 5-5) and Tanabata (7th July - 7-7). People write their hopes and wishes upon colourful strips of paper (tanzaku), then tie them onto branches of bamboo. Many streets, shrines and shops are decorated with bamboo covered in bright ornaments.
Shimogamo Shrine rests in Tadasu no Mori, 'the Forest of Truth', a primeval forest that is supposed to have never been burned or chopped down. It sounds like the start of a fairytale, and that is what it might as well be, for the origins of Shimogamo are woven from folk tale and fact, blurred into a mysterious whole. Tomomi's house rests beside the forest and shrine, and there is a haunting quality about the small parcel of land wedged between the Takano and Kamo Rivers.
After watching Tom Cruise murder another perfectly good movie, his death about two hours too late into the film, I remembered that Kyoto had gone crazy during production of The Last Samurai. Fans would eagerly await as Tom was flown onto location by helicopter. Strange man really: trained to be a priest, became an actor and then went barking mad with Scientology, wrecking poor Katie Holmes career along the way (she showed so much potential in Batman Begins and then went and ruined it all with a baby!). Most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand, but some scenes were shot at Chion-in's grand stone staircase and on Mt. Shosha. It got me to thinking about how the crew had painstakingly been forced to glue cherry blossoms and autumn leaves to the barren trees to represent the changing of seasons. And then I noticed that the temple I had forever believed to be Enryo-ji, was in fact called Engyo-ji.
So I looked back at some of the photos and recalled how very beautiful the temple is. Equal perhaps to Enryaku-ji in Kyoto, the mountain is stunning. I have fond memories of the sweltering heat, empty halls and a foolish accident I had while climbing down the mountain path: lucky not to break my ankle, I sliced open my shins to a shocking explosion of blood. Good times.
Rakushisha is the small cottage of the Genroku poet Mukai Kyorai. Kyorai was one of the ten disciples of the famous haiku poet Matsu Basho. Basho once referred to Kyorai thus: 'In Kyoto there is Kyorai, who is in charge of haikai in Western Japan'. Kyorai was the most important poet in continuing Basho's authentic style of writing.
Struggling up the rain-slick steps of Nimon-ji, I noticed something frolicking at my feet. Bending closer, this little fellow hopped onto the back of my hand. Incredibly small, I wanted to take him home in my pocket, but in the end tossed him back into the underbrush.
I seem to have returned home with a hangover. After three sips of sake at the Gekkeikan Okura Museum (pictured) and I appear to have skipped happy drunkeness to sledge-hammer, morning-after feeling. Part of it may be the toxic mix of spirits, but most of it must surely be my poor dehydrated body after sweating what must equal pints and pints of the salty liquid.
Fushimi-Momoyama is a microcosm of Japanese culture and history thrown together in a small town. If you were only allowed to spend a single day in Japan and wanted to see and experience as much as possible, then Fushimi would be the perfect answer. From the morning, when we stepped off the train, we visited castle, tomb, shrine, temple, water spring, inn, merchant boat and sake factory. And we didn't have to flag down a taxi or wait for a bus, everything was in walking distance. Though, now I think about it, the day has pretty much wiped me out. June is no season for walking any considerable distance. Clothes get soaked and your skin sizzles with sunburn and mosquito bites. If there was one thing I was not keen on today, it was the extraordinary amount of insect life that thrives here.
There is a perfect symmetry to Momoyama. When you step off the train and walk up the gentle slope towards the castle you first come to Emperor Kanmu's mausoleum. His decision to move the capital led to the birth of Kyoto. By the time you leave the mountain, you exit down an immense set of stone steps. Here is the grand tomb of Emperor Meiji. It was under Meiji that imperial power was restored. It led to the death of Kyoto as capital. From this time forward Tokyo would be Japan's imperial city and centre of power.
It was at this small Japanese inn on the outskirts of Kyoto that a sortie occured. The scuffle would spark an all out rebellion that would rid the country of the Tokugawa government and restore the emperor as the nation's leader. The revolutionary radicals from Satsuma and their allies gathered at Terada Inn on April 23rd 1862 to plan a coup d'etat against the central government. Terada-ya was a small port inn on the Yodo River, a major traffic route connecting Kyoto to Osaka, frequented by Sakamoto Ryoma and like-minded young revolutionaries. He was to change the course of Japanese history.