Kyoto – Miyako Odori Spring Dances

Today, it was farewell to the Diamond Princess and Choo, our very helpful and unobtrusive cabin steward. We left him a little recycling to take care of when we left… one week’s worth of sake that we ‘smuggled’ onto the ship by very cleverly putting it in our backpacks or our shopping bags and putting it through the ship’s scanners as we re-embarked in each port. Now, everyone, knows transit days suck balls… big hairy sweaty ones on occasion, and this is why the No 1 Golden Rule of Travel is: Never plan to go sightseeing on transit days!  So what did these very well travelled individuals plan for today?  Well, we broke the stupid rule and planned to disembark the ship in Yokohama, take a train to Kyoto, put our luggage in storage, and go to the famous Minamiza Theatre in Gion to see the Mikayo Odori Spring Dances.  It’s barely a 20 minute trip on the Shinkansen from Osaka to Kyoto, and ideally, we would have come back at some point over the next week to see this uniquely Japanese cultural experience – but the season quite literally ends today, and we were able to buy tickets for the second last performance for 2019. So here we were, breaking the Travel Rules.

Here’s some Shinkansen info for players at home – if you are ordering a Japan Rail Pass online from home (for unlimited rail use for a specified time) you can NOT reserve seats on specific journeys the way you can if you are just purchasing a single trip… so what happens is you will turn up to the train station with your Rail Pass and have to make your way down the platform of the train you want to catch and line up to try and get into one of the unreserved carriages (usually the first three carriages of each bullet train which goes every 3-5 minutes).  At about 90 persons per carriage, that sounds like a lot of unreserved seating is available – and with a 2 hour journey ahead of us, I’m not capable of contemplating a standing journey of that duration.  But alas!  It is not so!  The train we were attempting to board in Yokohama was coming from Tokyo station and each train was full by the time it arrived in Yokahama.  After seeing about three or four trains come and go where our options were to take a standing position or wait for another, we decided to switch platforms and go backwards to Tokyo station and get on where the trains were starting out from.  This turned out to be a good move – most of the trains were leaving Tokyo totally full and people jumping on to stand, but we were able to wait and get a seat for the journey… the lesson here is: it sure helps travelling with someone who knows the ins and outs of public transport sometimes!

With only a small delay of about forty minutes, we arrived in Kyoto and made our way to Kyoto Central Post Office which has a very convenient luggage service – cheaper than the DIY coin lockers that are scattered throughout Kyoto station and it is manned until 19:00… Just in case you ever find yourself in Kyoto and in need of storage solutions.  They also do a hotel delivery service for Y1500 per piece, which sounds like a brilliant idea if you have limited time to enjoy the city and can’t check into your hotel until late afternoon.

We hopped a cab down to the Gion district, and having rushed off the ship at 07:30 we thought it was time to find some breakfast now that it was well past midday.  We found a wee strange okonomiyaki place not far from the Minamiza Theatre and stopped in for some quick and delicious okonomiyaki and sake, while enjoying the kooky pop culture decor.  I didn’t remember to take a photo of this, but several of the tables in the restaurant had life-sized mannequins, dressed in traditional yakuta seated at the tables?  I realised as we were leaving that diners who happened to be eating solo were sitting next to the mannequins and looked immediately like they were dining with a friend!  It was bizarre, but I guess if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t enjoying eating out alone, maybe it works?  Who knows?  🙂 The Miyako Odori spring dances have been held at the Minimaza theatre (which was built in the 1600s) since the late 1800s.  The place has quite a history and each year the dances are designed to celebrate the spring/cherry blossom season and to show off the talent of the maiko – the apprentice geisha who grace the Hanamachi, (the ‘Flower Town’ pleasure district) of Gion that is full of historic ochaya (teahouses) and okiya (geisha houses).

There is quite a lot that can be said about the Miyako Odori, and the Minamiza Theatre, but rather than bastardise it all with my interpretation – here is a blurb from the official website for this year’s dances:

“Highlighting the springtime atmosphere, “Miyako Odori” is performed in the newly renovated Minamiza Theatre where festive kaomise kabuki marked the end with a great success.
In order to celebrate the reopening of the Minamiza Theatre located in the birthplace of kabuki, this year’s theme is entitled “Miyohajime Kabuki no Irodori” (displaying places of interest of Kyoto in the new era, depicting scenes especially related to the theatre, and geiko and maiko perform a dance with a wish of happiness and prosperity of the new Emperor to be enthroned in May.)
“Miyako Odori first held in 1872 is a beautiful dance performance of eight scenes which begins with the unique loud call “Yoi Ya- Sa-” and all performers dance together in front of sliding screens put on silver foil, representing a court noble house. The dance, this year, progresses from the scene of “Shijo Kawaramachi” the birthplace of kabuki, “Katsura Imperial Villa.” “Gian Chaya.” and other places of scenic beauty and historic interest in the vicinity of the Minamiza Theatre and in connection with the Imperial Family, and the finale comes with a scene of cherry blossoms in full bloom at Daikakuji Temple.

“Miyako Odori” featuring Kyoto’s four seasons has been shown for more than 140 years; please enjoy the elaborate stage by maiko and geiko in the traditional Minamiza Theatre.”

I remember these kimono from when we were last in Kyoto in 2015 – we visited an exhibition called ‘The Maiko Story’ that highlighted the history and traditions of the lives of the maiko and geiko that grace Gion. Today we would get to see the maiko dancing in them.  That ‘Maiko Story’ is HERE if anyone is interested.

Inside the newly renovated theatre, we found our seats with some assistance – we were situated in the third balcony and as you might expect, accommodations are not as generous as we have become accustomed to in modern public theatres.  Our seats were up steep steps and even though I am barely 5′ tall, my knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me.  Mr K at 6′ tall didn’t have a hope… even manspreading couldn’t help him. He ended up watching the performance sitting to his side with his legs in the aisle beside him. There is no photography allowed in the theatre during performances, so I have ‘borrowed’ some images from official promotional material and ever helpful Wikipedia.  The costumes were lovely, the dancing was precise, graceful and exactly what I expected to see from these highly trained artisans.  The music, however, was at various points during the performance ear piercingly painful!  The flutes, they’re so high!  Ouch.  The singing too, while not as bad as the caterwauling we experienced at various cultural performances in China, was likewise not always ‘pleasant’.  Still, it was quite the visual spectacle and it was wonderful to add this quintessentially Japanese experience to our ‘When in Rome’ List.
The final scene was quite the spectacle with all the performers returning to the stage and dancing in unison – except for two obviously very senior geiko who seemed to be marching to their own tune. After the performance was over we hopped another cab back to the Post Office to collect the luggage and made our way back to the Shinkansen to catch a train to Osaka.  Thankfully, we didn’t have much trouble finding seats – it is the Tokyo to Kyoto segment that seems to be super popular at the moment and we were not surprised given it is Golden Week.

We made our way to our hotel, called Hotel Samurai, which was chosen less for its location (I usually make all accommodation choices based on location!) and instead was chosen for its size.  We are here for a whole week and have some work to do whlie we are here, so there is no way we wanted to be doing it in an APA Hotel shoe-box of a room. Our suite turned out to be about the size of my living room/study at home – about 6m x 4.5m – and has a king sized bed, a double sized bed, a futon bed a kitchenette and a huge ensuite bathroom with a spa bath tub.  It was booked so long ago I forgot about all that! After we got settled, we were a bit shattered to be honest (that is what you get for breaking the Travel Rules), so Keith popped out for some milk to make tea and some sake for well,…for obvious reasons really!  Eventually, we opted to go out for a late dinner and we ended up at a restaurant called Shinanosuke Ueroku, located across the road from the Osaka-Uehommachi train station. It was the over the top display of sake bottles at the front door that sucked us in! Dinner was a delicious boat of fresh sashimi, some takoyaki and yakitori and of course sake! (If it looks like I am using alcohol to help me sleep in the absence of some of my medications and my own bed – that is probably because I am!)
The place has a lively atmosphere, a lot of laughter from the rabbit warren of individual little dining rooms, and the free-flowing liquor.  If it weren’t for the Japanese propensity to let people still smoke cigarettes in these types of restaurants, I’d say it was a perfect fun spot with great food and we’ll be back – but, there are too many other places to try and if we can find great food sans smoking, we’d much prefer it. Then, it was time to head back to the hotel, write all this guff up before we have new adventures tomorrow and I forget all about the details of today.

In short, we totally broke the Travel Rule of Transit Days today – but it was totally worth it!  I’m going to sleep like a log tonight.

Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nijojo Castle

Oh Great Lonely Planet!  Why hast thou forsaken us?!

We set off this morning to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace. According to the Lonely Planet, we needed to arrive at the Imperial  Household Agency 30 mins before our preferred tour time (tours guided in English are at 10am and 2pm) with passports to acquire a permit to allow entry to the Imperial Palace. Only we arrived at 9:25am to find a sign saying the tours were fully booked and the next available tour was at 3:30pm and was not guided in English.  Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.

Turns out that tours can be booked online and usual sell out month in advance.  Thanks Lonely Planet.  Bastards!

So here is what we saw of the Imperial Palace.

imperial-palace-kyoto-1.jpgWe wandered around the Imperial gardens for a while – Read: embarked on a 2km sweaty and disgusting trudge through the gravel paths (that is horridly similar to walking in crunchy sand!) that surround the Palace, propelled by equal parts disappointment and determination, headed vaguely in the direction of a bus stop that would take us to Nijojo Castle.  On the way we found a lovely little shrine – name unknown, no English signage and it wasn’t on our map… But very quaint.

imperial-palace-shrine-1.jpgI have come to quite like the guard dogs at the entrance to all the shrines… The one on the right always represents being born and coming into the world crying loudly. The one on the left is always depicted with his mouth closed, as this is how we leave this world… Still and quiet. imperial-palace-shrine-2.jpgimperial-palace-shrine-3.jpgimperial-palace-shrine-4.jpgimperial-palace-shrine-5.jpgWe noticed a New Year theme in the offerings at this little shrine – symbols of horses, monkeys, sheep, goats and other animals associated with the Chimperial-palace-shrine-6.jpg

We eventually made it to the bus and after getting on one heading in the wrong direction for two stops first, found ourselves at Nijojo Castle.  The castle was originally built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu.  Nijojo is considered the finest example of early Edo period and Momoyama culture in Japan as it is designed in the typical Edo style but also has many lavish paintings, sculptures and carvings that Iemetsu commissioned.

In 1867 when Yoshinobu the fifteenth Tokugawa Shogun returned sovereignty to the Emperor, the castle became propert of the Imperial family.  In 1884, it was donated to the city of Kyoto and renamed Nijo Castle (Nijo-jo) in 1939.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1994).


Inside the roof of this main gate is an excellent example of the wood working that we saw at the Kyoto Traditional Handicrafts Museum yesterday.  Absolutely gorgeous!!

nijojo-castle-3.jpgnijojo-castle-4.jpgThe Ninomaru Palace is constructed in the shion-zukuri architectural style, which was favoured by the warrior class.  It consists of many linked buildings connected by corridors.  The entire floor area of the palace is 3,300sqm, has 33 rooms and over 800 tatami mats.  The golden wall paintings were done by prominent members of the Kano School (the originals now housed in a climate controlled gallery within the complex, and reproductions are within the building).nijojo-castle-5.jpg

All the corridors in the Ninomaur Palace are designed to ‘chirp’ when you walk on them to warn people of intruders or people coming in their direction.  These are called ‘nightingale floors’ and they do actually sounds like birds tweeting with lots of people moving over them.nijojo-castle-6.jpgnijojo-castle-7.jpgnijojo-castle-8.jpgnijojo-castle-9.jpg

Ohiroma Ichi-no-ma.  In October 1867, the fifteenth Shogun, Yoshinobu summoned the country’s feudal lords to this very rom and declared that sovereignty would be restored to the Emperor.  In effect brought 270 years of Tokugawa Shogun military rule to an end.nijojo-castle-10.jpgnijojo-castle-11.jpgI found the ceilings fascinating inside the palace, in each different section of the palace, a different design had been used to decorate the ceiling.  The were approximately 15′ high, and constructed of a lattice work and featured repeated painted designs.  *cough cough*  Yes, there is no photography inside this building.

nijojo-castle-gardens-1.jpgnijojo-castle-gardens-2.jpgnijojo-castle-gardens-3.jpgnijojo-castle-gardens-4.jpgnijojo-castle-gardens-5.jpgThe Seiryu-en Gardens surrounding the palace were only constructed in 1965, and it is divided into two parts – one is this Japanese garden with a large pond, and the other part is a spacious lawn area containing two tea houses, Kountei and Waraku-an tea houses, which are used as reception centres for honoured guests.  Wish there was some information on what was here before the ’60s.nijojo-castle-gardens-6.jpgnijojo-castle-gardens-7.jpg






Maiko Story in Gion

Hanamachi is a Japanese geisha district. The word’s literal meaning is “flower town”. Such districts contain various okiya (geisha houses) and ochaya (teahouses).  A summer tradition around the time of the Gion Festival for the Kyoto hanimachi is to distribute personalized uchiwa (flat fans) to favoured stores the maiko and geiko frequent.  These feature a crest of the okiya on the front and the geiko’s name on the back (house name, then personal name).  Establishments in the hanamachis that have many geiko and maiko clients often accumulate many of these fans, and proudly display their fans as a sign of quality.maiko-story-gion-kyoto-8.jpgmaiko-story-gion-kyoto-6.jpg

The Mikyako Odori – Ushering in the Spring
When we begin to feel the first breath of April air, the Gion area is suddenly abuzz.
This is become the Gion, Miyako Odori, which is now intimately associated with springtime in Kyoto will soon begin. When ‘setsubun’ ends in February, the geiko (full geisha) and maiko (apprentice geisha) begin training in earnest in preparation for the four daily performances of the Miyako Odore which will be held for capacity audiences for a month from April 1 at the Gion Kubu Kaburenjo Theatre.  The annual dance performances are called the Miyako Odori and this year represented the 143rd presentations of the spring dances.

The Miyako Odori has its origins in performances held for the first Kyoto Exposition in 1872. These gorgeous and stately performances are organized around a different theme every year, and involved a huge cast of geiko and maiko and jikata (???), there will be 139 performances over the season.

As April approaches, the geiko and maiko have o-chaya send programs called ‘bangumi’ to their clients. These programs are addressed to “Mr…, danna-sama,” The more popular the client, the ore bangumi that he receives, or so it is said.
maiko-story-gion-kyoto-9.jpgThe client studies the bangumi that he receives, checking for appearances by his favorite Geiko and Maiko, fretting over issues such as what he should send as a congratulatory gift, and how he should approach the question of gratuities.
The geiko and maiko who will be presiding over the tea ceremony for each session are also decided in advance, and so he will also need to think about sending an elegant boxed lunch or temptin gsweets when his favourites will be appearing. You can be sure that popular restaurants and confectioners will be busy with arrangements.

And exactly like hanami, the parties held to enjoy cherry blossoms in spring, the partons will come with guests to admire Gion’s ‘o-hana’, or “flowers”.  In the hanamachi, when we speak of the o-hana, of course we are speaking of the geiko and maiko.

maiko-story-gion-kyoto-14.jpgMokuroku – Adding colour to celebrations in the hanamachi
Even if you are a regular visitor to the hanamachi , mokuroku are something that you won’t often have the chance to see.
On days of celebration, such as omisedashi, when a girl debuts as a maiko, and ‘erikae’, the ceremony in which a maiko becomes a geiko, poster-size sheets of noshi, or wrapping paper, brilliantly decorated with hand-painted pictures, are hung at the entrance of okiya (geisha houses) and o-chaya (tea houses) in the hanamachi. These sheets are called mokuroku.

Let’s consider the day of a maiko’s omisedahi (debut). On this day, the okami of her okiya visits the o-chaya at which the girl used to entertain customers as a minarai (an apprentice maiko). The okami offers each o-chaya a set of gifts to celebrate the minarai’s transformation into a maiko. These gifts include noshi, suehiro, matsuuo ryo, a pair of cups called shimadai, and the collar of a kimono, all of which are presented on a traditional tray called a hirobuta and wrapped in a yellow-green wrapping cloth.

In return for these gifts, the o-chaya sends gift money to the okiya, wrapping the money in noshi paper.  On the day of the celebration, patrons and geiko also send the okiya gift money, together with mokuroku.  For the patrons, the sending of mokuroku is a very stylish thing.

Each mokuroku is adorned with beautifully painted pictures in gorgeous colours which symbolize the celebration and add colour and decoration to the event. Pictures of auspicious motifs including treasure ships, red sea bream, bells (which serve as lucky charms), sake cups for toasting, otafuku, and uchide-no-kkozuchi, or lucky mallets, add colour to the entrance of the okiya and o-chaya, setting the mood for the celebration.

Tradition is highly valued in the hanamachi, and the use of mokuroku has therefore been passed down over the years as a traditional way of expressing congratulations.

Unfortunately, today Gion’s okami are apparently worried about the decline in the number of craftsmen who can paint mokuroku, putting this tradition in danger.

Omisedash – Debut as a maiko.
There was a time when Gion faced a shortage of maiko, causing concern for the future. More recently however, the number of maiko has been increasing year by year probably refelcting the influence of movies and novels.

A girl who comes to Gion seeking to become a maiko will enter a house called an ‘okiya’, where she will live and be taken care of in every aspect of her life.

These okiya may differ from each other in aspects such as their specific traditions and conventions but they all become the homes of the girls who enter them.

A prospective maiko, is initially called a ‘shikomi-san’. As a shikomi-san, she will begin by following the senior geiko, geiko and maiko around. She will also do the household chores for her okiya, and at the same time attend dance lessons and learn how to powder her face and how to put on a kimono. In this way, she will gradually familiarise herself with the hanamachi.

After spending about a year as a shikomi-san, she will finally begin wearing a special costume, and will be allowed to entertain customers at a zashiki as a minarai-san. After completing a period as a minarai-san, she arrives at her omisedashi – the day when she makes her debut as a makio.
On the day of her omisedashi, the new makio wears a black formal kimono and attends a ceremony at which she and her seniors drink a cup of sake in turn as a way of giving thanks and congratulations. This ceremony is characterized by a a sense of both tension and celebration that is difficult to describe.

Colourful hand painted posters, mokuroku, are hung up at the entrance to the okiya, adding vibrant decorations to the celebration. These posters are offered by o-chaya, patrons and others to congratulation the maiko on her omisedashi.
The new makio’s very frist job on her first day is to make courtesy visits to o-chaya. Looking exquisite, she makes her way around the hanamachi, visiting the -chaya in turn and offering graceful greetings at each one.

The tension she feels on her first day, combined with the traditional etiquette which her training has made an essential part of her, adds a sense of dignified elegance to her freshness and innocence.


Erikae – Graduation to full Geiko.
The transition from maiko to geiko is called erikae, which literally means ‘replacement of the collar’.
Although there are a number of theories as to the origin of this term, it seems most likely that the advancement to geiko states is called erikae becaue the maiko repaces her red collar with a white one make of Chinese brocade when she becomes a geiko.

Having spent the latter half o her teens as a makio, when a girl passes the ago of 20, it is time for her erikae.
When she has her erikae, the young girl is transformed from a cute maiko into an adult, fully-fledged geiko with all the changes in style and appearance that this implies. But these changes do not take place in a single day. The day of a maiko’s erikae is scheduled in advance and in her remaining days as a maiko, she will wear a special hairstyle called ‘sakkou’, and appear at zashiki in a black kimono. Maiko from some okiya also paint their teeth black, a custome called o-haguro. The maiko usually performs a dance entitled ‘Kurokami” (Black Hair) in this period.

When the maiko finally becomes a geiko, her own hair will be covered by a traditional Shimada wig. She will wear kimono with sleeves of normal length, shorter than the sleeves of a maiko’s kimono, and will no longer wear the darari no obi, the long obi belt which is unique to maiko. She will no longer use the obi clips called pocchiri which will be replaced by decorative cord for holding her obi belt in place. She will also stop wearing the tall sandals called okobo.

In the evening of her last day as a maiko, she returns to her yakata and performs ‘Kurokami’ for her regular customers and other people in the house, saying goodbye to her days as a mako. In her very last moments as a maiko, her chignon is cut with a blade in order to let down her hair. The okami of the yakata where she has been taken care of, as well as her seniors and juniors from the same okiya, join in this ritual giving her thanks for all the efforts she has made. In some cases her regular customers will be invited to witness the ritual, but this is rare.

The new geiko has endured hard training which began in her mid-teens and she is now finally becoming an adult. She sheds tears of happiness, but tempered with a certain feeling of sadness. In her last moments as a maiko she is lovely, but the sight is also a moving one because her days as a maiko are gone forever.

To be a geiko is to be judged as a moving work of art.

Kyoto Handicrafts Museum… not to be confused with the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre.

Aunty Mary and I set off this morning looking for the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Handicrafts… and decided to go via taxi seeing that it wasn’t far away and it was going to be ¥630 by taxi and about ¥480 by bus but with a walk in the god awful heat we are experiencing.  I did my due diligence and copied the address of the !centre into a note on my phone (in both English and in Japanese characters) and showed it to the little taxi driver. ‘Hai!  Hai!’ and off we went.  All was well and he let us off at two large buildings marked the Kyoto Handicrafts Centre.  Cool.  We go in and discover we are actually at a different place all of 400m away from the Kyoto Handicrafts Museum!  Oh well, they have a roster of craftsman working in their studios and today was showing up traditional Damascene work, so we went in and had a look around.
damascene-kyoto-1.jpgI had never really heard of Damascene work before, being more interested in Japanese woodblock printing and in Japanese tattooing, but this was really interesting. They use a series of intricate chisel tools to make marks on a steel foundation and then apply a design with gold and silver leaf.  The surface is then oxidised and then baked with a lacquer.  After which the gold and silver are polished out with charcoal.  Detail is added by using engraving techniques and the end result is extremely delicate metalwork done in precious metals.damascene-kyoto-2.jpgdamascene-kyoto-tools-.jpgdamascene-kyoto-craftsman-.jpgThese pieces are the results of hundreds of hours of very careful and delicate work… hence the AU$2,000.00 price tag for this piece which measured about 6cm Kyoto Handicraft Centre also had one of the most remarkable gift shops attached to it, full of work that is created on site when the different craftsmen are scheduled in to demonstrate their skills.  There was doll making, which was considered an art for the nobility.  The delicate ceramic work, embroidery and extremely fine painting that goes into these dolls is evident in the entirety of the piece. The doll maker is a bit of a jack of all trades working with textiles, ceramics, hair and paper. These dolls are about 35cm in height and so ridiculously detailed.doll-making-2.jpgdoll-making-.jpgSuch beautiful tiny embroidery on this maiko’s dress, she had a price tag of AU$800, and I can see why.  We saw lots of dolls similar to this style, in the tourist stores down the main street in Gion and through various Tokyo outlets, but nothing to the quality or standard.
I haven’t seen anything quite like this doll (below) anywhere else we have been so far – so much work and so much detail.  He has a AU$500 price tag and stands only about 25cm high, but you can see how much work has gone into making each and every piece of his costume.doll-making-3.jpgI absolutely adored this suit of armour – and thought it would look very well in my living room.  😉  I also thought it would appeal to my friend Nathaniel – and if I had the spare AU$70,000.00 on the price tag I would have found some way to get it home! surmurai-armour.jpgsamurai-armour.jpgLove the detail – just gorgeous!samurai-armour-detail-.jpgThere was also a range of swords for sale – though unfortunately I was unable to read the information on the tags other than the AU$10-15,000 price tags.  I would love to know a bit more about them but, compared to Tokyo, the customer service staff seem to have very little English so we have to just suffer in our ignorance.
*another self recrimination for not having spent the last six months learning conversational Japanese*samurai-swords-1-katana-.jpgsamurai-swords-katana-2.jpgThe Handicrafts centre also had a great deal of lacquerware on sale – mostly bowls, boxes, sake sets, various  serving dishes and these rather shiny and beautiful little dust gatherers… at about AU$100 each they were probably one of the only things I could afford in the store!  😀  But I really don’t need little lacquerware dolls.
I found out in the lacquerware actually came to Japan from China with the adoption of Zen culture during the Kamakur period (1185-1333AD) and these items were treasured as ‘karamono’ (objects from China) and were displayed in major temples and homes.  laquerware-dolls.jpgAlso loads of ceramic ware including this lovely little tea set, and many small sake cups.  The sake cups with intricate designs on them started around AU$75 each and this tea set which is quite plain was about AU$400.  I love this sort of thing, but faced the same dilemma in Turkey – buying breakables is always a quandary… you have to nurse it all the way home or if you put it in your luggage risk opening your bags to smashed treasures.
tea-sets.jpgAfter we had a good look around the Kyoto Centre of Traditional Handicrafts, we decided to make our way around to the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Handicrafts… where I was hoping there would be some history of these crafts and skills available.

Kimono are the real treasures of Japan and they have been worn since ancient times.  They are made from several techniques – dying, weaving, painting with dye, stencilling and embroidery.  They have traditionally been made to ingeniously adjust to suit the hot, humid Japanese summers.  Different garments were worn in early summer, midsummer and late summer marking the fleeting seasons with specific forms of dress.  Summer kimono are either hitoe (unlined silk) or katabira (unlined ramie), with the former worn during early and late summer and the later worn in midsummer.  Japanese culture’s profound appreciation of the seasons can be seen in their kimono which employ colours, and designs that are evocative of the season for which the kimono was designed to be worn.kimono-dying-.jpgkimono-.jpgThe paper lanterns that we have been seeing everywhere are called ‘chochin’.  They were first used during the Muromachi period (14thC – 18thC) to light the way when walking at night.  The Chochin did not become common in Kyoto until the Edo period (17thC – 19thC) when they were starting to be produced en masse for the Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples in the regions as religious adornments.  Today they are used as decorations and religious adornments and are made using a method called ‘ipponkake-shiki’ in which individual pieces of bamboo are connected in a circle to serve as the lantern’s frame.paper-lanterns-.jpgNihonshu – Japanese sake!  Blessed with good quality water and a climate ideal for making sake, Kyoto has a long and distinguished history as a major sake producer.  A sake producing bureau – the ‘Mikino-tsukasa’ – was created within the Imperial Court during the Heian period (8thC-12thC) and produced sake using the most advanced technology of that era.  The skill and knowledge of sake production eventually spread to Kyoto’s outlying areas and Fushimi also became a well known leading sake producing area.  After the Meiji Period, theopening of the Tokaido Line railway allowed for Kyoto and Fushimi to produce and distribute sake all over Japan, and they reamin the two most prominent areas for sake.japanese-sake-.jpgStages of porcelain production.ceramics-.jpg

Woodcarving, gilding and painting… this is the technique used on a lot of the temples, gates, shrines and other significant buildings done in traditional architectural styles.  You can see how a flat piece of wood is carved, then lacquered, then gilded, then painted for dimension and effect.  I’ll come back and add a picture of this in situ somewhere when I hunt down a good example.  It was used in buildings and on furniture.

Like this piece… the coloured paintwork is hard to see with the sheer amount of gilded wood and plated metal work added to it, but this home shrine demonstrates these woodworking/lacquering/gilding and painting

Gion Festival in Kyoto

Information on what to expect at the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri), IN ENGLISH is really kinda sparse, and often quite contradictory, so we had no idea where we should go or when to check out the festitivites.  We knew that the Shijo-dori St.would be closed to the public on Wednesday and Thursday night, and our host kindly told us that there would be food stalls and games set up… from 6pm.

street-closed.jpgtheatre.jpgSo we head down to Shijo-dori St, Gion at about 6pm and look around wondering how they are going to pull this off?  There is plenty of traffic making it’s way down the street and it doesn’t look anything ilke a street at home would if it was being pedestrianised for a market environment. Eventually police emerge from who knows where and start directing traffic around the area and the street closes down, however… as we anticipated, no stalls emerge.  We pottered around doing a bit of shopping and looking at all the lovely ladies walking around in their kimono, you don’t see that much in Tokyo.  And I have to admit I was tickled by all the young girls in their lovely traditional kimono shopping to their hearts content at the dedicated Hello Kitty stores!  I have the impression they are mostly Chinese tourists getting into the swing of the festival.

kimono-hello-kitty-2.jpgKimono-hello-kitty1.jpgblack-velvet-painting.jpgEventually we decide to go have some dinner and wait for the stalls and things to be set up.   So we stop in for some mystery donburi bowls, volcanically hot curry bowls and suprise noodles and emerge to a street with people walking everywhere but… no maket stalls?  We made our way all the way up Shijo-dori St towards the Yasaka-jina Shrine… where we found markets!  I have no idea why they have closed off the street – there are plenty of people around, but it’s not busy enough to warrant closing off a major four lane street?  Yes, the footpaths would have been a bit of crush if they hadn’t, but it still seems kinda odd.
street-entertainment.jpgIt was all up around the Shrine that we encountered the markets.  The walkways around the shrine are wide enough for a car to drive through and give berth to pedestrians, but when you put a market stall on both sides and add hundreds of people, it was a little squeezy.  Thankfully with this Typhoon Nangka heading our way there is a bit of a breeze up (yes, did I mention that our host messaged us to let us know there was a typhoon coming and we should be careful?) else it would have been quite disgustingly hot and sticky.

So we found the meat-on-a-stick festival – crab-on-a-stick, chicken-on-a-stick, beef-on-a-stick, confectionery-on-a stick, and had a few things to eat.  Should have tried the takoyaki, but was full up of crab-on-a-stick considering we had already had dinner!  Love the hand operated ice shaving machine making far superior frozen drinks than what the Frozen Coke machines at the cinemas have been making back home lately.  🙂


The Yakaka Shrine looked very pretty all lit up at night, there were policemen around stopping people taking photos – here are the few I took.  The golden portable shrines you can see in the centre were not there a few days ago, so were out on display for the festival.  We understand tomorrow night there is supposed to be a show of some sort, a performance? happening here… but the typhoon outlook does not look good, and we may find ourselves prevented from coming back out Thursday night.  Friday from 9am is when the big parade is scheduled to happen… but we’ll be back on the bullet train heading for the ship by then.

The big parade is apparently on Friday – IF, and that is a big ‘if’ apparently, Typhoon Nangka behaves itself.  It is headed our way and likely to cross the coast tonight somewhere towards Osaka, so we’re battening down the hatches.  It’s a Cat 2-3 at the moment but should down grade a bit, they hope.

The Gion Festival takes place every year in the Gion District of Kyoto and has done since 869AD.  The parade, which is the finale of the festival, was originally a religious purification ritual designed to appease the gods that were believed to cause fires, floods and earthquakes.  People suffering from plague and pestilence was also attributed to the rampaging deity Gozu Tenno who was also to be appeased by the parade.  At some point, the Emperor Seiwa ordered that people pray to the god of the Yaaka Shrine (named Susanoo-no-mikoto) and 66 stylized and decorated floats were made representing each of Japan’s 66 provinces.  The ritual of the parade was done whenever large scale fire, floods or earthquakes or plagues appeared.  Some time around 970AD, it became an annual event.  Over time the wealthy and influential merchant class have made the parade, and the entire festival, more elaborate and by the end of the Edo period… Edo period, Edo period… Ah! Here it is 1603-1868), the elite used the parade to display and increase their status.  So it’s been going on for a very, very long time.

Anyway, we were back down in Gion today and managed to get a glimpse of people building the parade floats for the big parade whenever it ends up scheduled for.  They are really tall and look very traditional, with lots of timber, fine fabrics, and fresh hemp rope used in the construction.  No doubt will look amazing when the parade kicks off on Friday.


Oh and I should mention that unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans where floats are either converted vehicles or pulled by tractors, these floats are pulled by people.  Which in this heat and the length of the parade route must be quite a feat of stamina.