Showing posts with label tradition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tradition. Show all posts

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Obon in Kyoto - The Gozan Okuribi and a glimpse behind the scenes

The Japanese believe that the spirits of their ancestors return home for a reunion during Obon so many return to their hometowns for this "reunion", typically from 13 to 16 August. A number of companies and shops closed for business during the period since many people would take vacation leave anyway, to spend time with families, clean ancestors' graves or set up praying rites.  Obon is like a combination of Singapore's Hungry Ghost Festival and Qing Ming Festival.

Hidari Daimonji in the day. It is one of the mountains of Gozan Okuribi.
The Gozan Okuribi, literally translated as "Five Mountains Send-off Fires", is a signature Obon tradition of Kyoto. It is held every year on 16 August to mark the end of the Obon Festival. Giant bonfires are lit on five mountains surrounding Kyoto to guide the spirits back to their world.

The talk of the day among my friends in the lead-up to this anticipated event was where to see as many of the bonfires as possible; the fires would be lit in the form of certain characters and motifs. On 16 August at about 6pm (two hours before the bonfires), I made my way to Funaokayama Park which was said to offer a good vantage point.

Can you see the end of this narrow street? It was from 
that end where I noticed a crowd and so decided to walk
down this street to check it out.

As I was enjoying my walk, I saw a group of people congregating at the other end of a narrow side street I had just passed.  Having spent some years patrolling streets in my younger days, I have developed a propensity to check out assemblies of people along the streets. Naturally, I turned into the  narrow street which opened into a residential area. The group of people were obviously waiting for something to happen, as many of them were armed with cameras. I saw fire-fighters on stand-by as well.

I turned to a young lady to ask what was going on. "It is related to Obon but I don't know the details," came the answer. I noticed that amidst the row of houses before me was a small temple so I went in to see if I could obtain some leads. A monk was chanting and a group of men in happi and a couple of firemen were watching over the fire burning in a fire urn. As I pieced the images together, I began to understand.

People congregated outside a small temple which is amidst a row of houses,  
waiting for the Gozan Okuribi procession.
I went back to the lady I approached earlier and asked, "When the procession goes up the Hidari Daimonji to light up the bonfires, can all of us here go together?" Hidari Daimonji is the nearest mountain where one of the bonfires would be lit.  "I don't think the public is allowed to go up," she said. As I waited with the crowd, I overheard the conversation of two ojiisans beside me. One of them said he travelled from his hometown to witness this Kyoto tradition every year. 

Firemen on stand-by inside the temple where the huge fire torch standing
on the left would be lit.
"Excuse me, could you tell me what kind of event is being held here now, please?" I asked. "The procession up the Hidari Daimonji will start here. The fire on the mountain you will see later comes from this temple. There will be a huge fire torch brought up from here to the mountain," said the ojiisan, confirming my guess.
I had tried to research on the internet if there was a procession somewhere but didn't manage to get much information. Yet, by a fluke, I had stumbled upon it. Here was a chance to see the procession up close! And perhaps, perhaps there was a chance of going up the mountain too? It was a hot summer evening, but I shivered in excitement at the thought.

Heading for the Hidari Daimonji to light the bonfires. At around this time,
members of the procession to other mountains should be getting ready
for their hike up the mountains too.
By about 7.30pm, the street in front of the temple was crowded with onlookers, many of whom appeared to be part of  Japanese tour groups. At about 7.45pm, men in happi carrying small torches came running out from the temple. And then, the huge torch ablaze with fire appeared, carried by two young men. 
 "Ganbatte! Ganbatte ne!" the people lining both sides of the streets cheered. A number of them appeared to be families of the men carrying the torches, and they were shouting out words of encouragement to the men. I gathered later from internet searches that specific families in Kyoto took charge of maintaining the Gozan Okuribi custom on a voluntary basis.
As the men with the torches moved ahead, so did I along with some of their family members and other onlookers. I could not remember how far I walked before I realised that I was the only "onlooker" left following the procession. The group came to a stop at a small gate, which opened into a steep flight of steps leading up the mountain where the bonfire was to be lit. In single file, the members of the procession went up the steps. The words of the lady I met earlier came to mind. "The public is not supposed to go up the mountain."

I am going to be discovered, I thought. For a split second, I thought about giving it a go and see what sort of response I would receive. I had come this far afterall.  As I stood contemplating my circumstances, I sensed a pain in my knee. I had recently fell off my bicycle and was still nursing my injury. I looked at the flight of steps before me and reluctantly accepted the reality. Slowly, I retreated.

Back at the main street.
The members in the procession were holding torches of fire which lit up the area. As the last of them disappeared into the mountain, I suddenly found myself in the lonely darkness surrounded by trees. I didn't realise it could be so eerie in the early evening. Thankful that there was only one path before me, I hurried back to the main street.  If the fires were meant to guide the spirits back to the Other World, then I must be surrounded by spirits following the fires. The thought sent chills down my spine and drenched in cold sweat, I trudged on until I saw the reassuring figure of a police officer.

People lined both sides of the road.
Back at the main street with a direct view of  Hidari Daimonji, crowds of people were on stand-by with their cameras poised. An ojiisan perched himself on a ladder he had brought along for a better view. Concerned that I would miss the bonfires by the time I arrived at Funaokayama Park, I decided to join the crowd observing Hidari Daimonji. Slightly after 8pm, the bonfires began. Satisfied and still with some hope remaining, I left the spot at Hidari Daimonji heading for Funaokayama Park.

View from Funaokayama Park.
When I reached the peak of the park where the five mountains could be seen, most of the bonfires were already snuffed out.  I stood there for a while, superimposing the images of the fires from the travel guides that I had seen onto the mountains. Happy with what I saw in my mind, I left the park, eager to tell my story.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

When Orihime meets Hikoboshi in Kyoto - Tanabata Festival

In July, I wrote about the Tanabata Festival (七夕) being rather "low-key" in Kyoto. I was wrong.

At that time, I had the impression that the festival was celebrated in Kyoto on 7 July, instead of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month (i.e. August).  It turned out that while some did choose to celebrate Tanabata in July, it was actually celebrated extensively in August too.

Known as "Kyo no Tanabata" (京の七夕 ), the annual series of events in Kyoto celebrating the Tanabata Festival ran from 4 to 13 August this year. The events which mostly started from 7pm to 9pm, were held at Horikawa and Kamogawa. Admission to the events was free.

The main attraction at Horikawa was the light-up display, reminiscent of the Milky Way separating the mythical lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi. The stroll to the "Milky Way" took me a good 30 minutes due to the slow moving crowd ahead. Fortunately, the crowd movement was orderly, kudos to the ushers and the cooperative visitors.

Along the way, message lanterns and light displays such as art installations and Tanabata decorations kept the walk interesting.  The waterway beside the walking path was afloat with little blue spherical LED lights, adding a nice touch to the ambience. If the Milky Way were real, and Orihime and Hikoboshi were to meet on that August evening, I wonder how they would have felt, having so many people in their way.

Nearby, the Nijo Castle was open to the public for free in the evenings. Long queues could be seen outside the castle as people flocked to see the spectacular play of lights on the castle walls.

The illumination show on the Ninomaru Palace was especially captivating. Check out the magical play of light on the palace walls via this youtube video (0.53s onwards).

Over at Kamogawa river, it was less crowded. Visitors could pay to write wishes on tanzaku paper which would be hung up on the decorated bamboo leaves that lined the river bank. There were also other decorations on display but it was the lighted wind chimes on display inside bamboo baskets which I found fascinating. 

Check out this youtube video to experience the relaxing song of the wind chimes at the Kamogawa river during Tanabata.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

How to enjoy the Gion Matsuri

Hailed as one of Japan's greatest festivals, the Gion Matsuri is a month-long festival in July, with the festival highlights being the Yoiyama from 14 to 16 July and the Yama Hoko Junko Grand Parade on 17 July.
A ritual at Yasaka Shrine on 17 July 2012, just before the parade of the mikoshi
(portable shrine) that evening.
A tradition of more than a thousand years, the festival first started in 869 as a religious purification ritual at the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, decreed by the emperor then as a response to a serious plague. As the ritual had been deemed successful, the imperial court decreed that it be performed everytime there was an epidemic or disaster. Eventually, it became a yearly ritual to appease the Gods.

Just days away from the term exams,  my school mates and I  took time to bask in the lively atmosphere of Yoiyama, the "pre-party" to the Grand Parade. During Yoiyama, the downtown streets around Shijo and Karasuma were car-free. Food and game stalls were set up along the streets where the Yama and Hoko floats were on display. Throngs of people crowded into the streets in traditional yukata in the evenings, and the Gion Bayashi  (the festival music) filled your ears.

A day before the exam, more than half the class did not turn up at school.  They were watching the Grand Parade of massive Yama and Hoko floats. A classmate told me that truancy was necessary because watching the parade was a once-in-a-lifetime experience

While I missed some of the most exciting parts of the festival, I managed to see enough to draw a few learning points and I thought I should share them here.


Check out the floats but don't forget the traditional performances!

One of the massive Hoko floats on display.
There were many events during July as part of the Gion Matsuri from the first day of the month till the last. For example,  32 floats were on display across the streets during the Yoiyama, which meant alot of walking if you wanted to see them all. I didn't see all of them.   I think it should suffice to look at a select few for the craftsmenship and let the rest come to you during the Grand Parade instead.

There were also traditional dance, music and theatrical performances held at the Yasaka Shrine (free entry) so one should try to drop by Yasaka Shrine to catch these performances.  I didn't manage to watch these performances unfortunately, due to poor time management.

Soak in the evening atmosphere

I went to check out the Yoiyama in the afternoon trying to avoid the crowd. But on hindsight, I should have stayed till the evening to see the lit-up lanterns on the floats and on the streets in spite of the crowd. It was quite a sight, judging from the photos I saw from friends' albums.

Look out for treasures on display while walking through the streets

During Yoiyama, the old textile merchant homes and businesses on Shinmachi and Muromachi typically open up the front of their homes and shops to show off their antique folding screens and other treasures, a tradition from the ancient times.  I actually overlooked all these treasures!

Buy a yukata (remember to compare prices!) and wear it

Following the Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July 2012. A parade that
 was part of the Gion Matsuri.
If there was a good time to buy and wear a yukata, it had to be during the Gion Matsuri.

Forget Uniqlo which does not carry a yukata collection every year, and Rakuten which sells yukata sets with pre-set obi (the piece of cloth you tie around the waist).

Stroll the streets and look out for shops selling traditional yukata, obi and other accessories at great prices. Many shops lowered the prices because of the matsuri. Besides, it was the summer sale period too.

My yukaka cost 1800 Yen, my obi cost 800 Yen and
the pair of geta (free size) cost 800 Yen. It is possible
 to find yukata at 1000 Yen and  geta at 500 Yen
during this period.

I bought a yukata for a good price - at 3400 Yen (SGD 54) for a three-item set.  It was the first shop I came across and I recalled it was in Shinmachi. But there were yukata sets with even better prices as I walked further on.

Note the time of the last bus

I had friends who were so absorbed in their revelry that they missed the last bus and had to take a taxi home. It seemed that Kyoto did not extend the bus service hours even when there was a massive event such as this. Generally, many buses stopped running at around 11pm.

The Parades

Go early to get a good photo position

Having been to a few massive events here, I have learnt that
being a few hours early before an event  to get a good
spot is very common among the Japanese.

I did not get to see the Grand Parade in the morning of 17 July but I witnessed the Shinko Festival that evening, after class. It was a ritual in which three mikoshi (portable shrine) carrying the shrine deities that presided over the matsuri were transported from Yasaka Shrine.

View of the parade from the side of the Yasaka Shrine. It was too far away!

The ritual began at 6pm and I was there an hour earlier but the streets were already lined with people waiting. I had a position which was alright but decided to cross over to the side of the Yasaka Shrine. It turned out to be a mistake as the mikoshi did not exit from the main gate of the shrine. It might have been better to stay in the streets opposite the shrine.

I shall target to get onto the building in the background for a good photo op in future.
I also noticed there were many people on the roof-top of a building overlooking the road intersection so I figured that should be a prime position too.

I learnt my lesson after the Shinko Festival and managed to get a good photo position early for the Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July, which was a parade of large umbrella floats.

The Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession on 24 July 2012 in clear view.

Never stand near a police officer
Many of my photos had these men in blue in them.

Just as tourists and locals lined the streets to watch the parades, so did the the police officers. Many officers lined the streets yelling polite warnings at people and managing crowd movements. If you ended up at a spot near one, you would be beset with the most terrible misfortune of having these men in blue in every possible photo that you took of the parade. I think they look most out of place in the photos of a thousand-year-old festival!

Reflect on the festival

The skeleton of the Ofune-hoko float which was on display
at the Kyoto City Intangible Cultural Property Display Room
on the first floor of Yodobashi Camera in front of Kyoto Station. 

When my landlord spoke of the matsuri, he spoke about it with pride. And I felt the passion of the residents of Kyoto from what I saw of the matsuri. How could a city retain the traditions from days long past if not for the passion and conviction of its people? 

I came across the story of the Ofune-hoko float which used to be part of the Grand Parade in the ancient days. But as it had been destroyed a few times in the past, it had been excluded from the Grand Parade for more than 100 years.

The locals who have been taking care of this float have been trying to reconstruct it to its past glory. For 15 years, they worked hard on reviving the float. The good news is there is a possibility of seeing this float back in action in 2014.

I really like how the young people and children are always involved in the festivals.

When I reflect on the festival, from the music that I heard, to the craftsmanship of the floats that I saw and the people who made it happen every year, I could not help but feel glad that I was there. 

How could the Gion Matsuri be a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I have never thought that my ties with Kyoto would only last a summer.  

Friday, 17 August 2012

Japanese Wagashi: The Art of Five Senses

Wagashi made of white Azuki beans served at the tea ceremony which I
was invited to. The wagashi evokes the image of a fish swimming in a stream.
Two months ago, I was invited to a tea ceremony by a Japanese lady, N-san whom I met at my traditional Japanese dance class.  She brought me to Uji where her sister lives and after lunch, we set out for a popular tea room.

Uji is famous for the production and distribution of quality green tea, and the trip opened my eyes to another aspect of Japanese culture. During the tea ceremony, wagashi or traditional Japanese confection was served along with the tea. 

"Can you see that this is a stream?" asked N-san's sister, pointing to the wagashi that was served. She explained that Japanese wagashi often evokes images of nature and provides a sense of the season. 

I always thought that Japanese wagashi looks pretty but have never associated it to an art form. But the interaction with N-san and her sister that day piqued my interest and I read up a little on the internet on the history of Japanese wagashi.

When we savour a piece of wagashi, we may not have realised that the wagashi is made with the concept, the Art of the Five Senses in mind. Apart from the appearance of the wagashi, alot of thought also goes into creating a unique texture, taste and aroma which complement the context in which the wagashi is served. In addition, there is also the concept of sound that completes the whole concept of a wagashi. This refers to the name of the wagashi which is meant to evoke classic literature or images of the season.
Wagashi with poetic names in the window display of a restaurant at Kyoto Station. From left: The notes of water; Summer robe; Glory in the water.
Minazuki sold in supermarkets. 4 pieces for 420 Yen.
In the month of June, a common wagashi seen in supermarkets and confectionery is Minazuki (水無月). After I found out that the naming of wagashi evokes classic prose and poetry, I have been very curious about the name of Minazuki which in Chinese means "The water with no moon".  I thought it must have to do with the red beans blocking out the reflection of the moon in a triangular pond or something.  But what does the red beans signify?

After some research, I learnt that the name has nothing to do with the moon but more with the month.  As the character for "moon" and "month" is the same, I misunderstood one for the other. Minazuki  actually means the "Month of water".  In other words, June, the month in which the fields are irrigated. There is also another explanation which links it to the month of the rainy season but this second explanation is said to be erroneous. 

Minazuki is often eaten in June when summer begins. As it is made to look like a piece of ice, you supposedly feel cool after eating it. Apart from Minazuki, I also spotted a few other types of wagashi in the supermarkets. If you look at them, you will find the similarities with Minazuki, and generally many other types of wagashi of the season. They all have a translucent appearance which I believe is meant to bring about a sense of coolness.  

A variety of summer wagashi found in the supermarkets.
It takes some imagination to eat these wagashi and feel cool as a result I guess.  I tried Minazuki and it has no cooling effect on me. I still prefer ice-cream, or even better, ice kacang.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

When Orihime meets Hikoboshi at Kitano Tenmangu

7 July was the Tanabata  (七夕)Festival in Japan. Originating from China, the festival was adopted by Japan during the Heian period (794 - 1185) when Chinese influence on Japanese culture was very strong.
The story behind the Japanese festival is similar to the common Chinese story in which a weaver girl (known as Orihime in Japanese) fell in love with a herdsman (Hikoboshi) but were eventually torn apart from each other.  They were only allowed to meet once every year, on the 7th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar.
Bamboo leaves with tanzaku paper outside my favourite supermarket.

Interestingly, many areas in Japan do not follow the lunar calendar, celebrating this festival on a date based on the Gregorian calendar.  Also, unlike the Chinese who celebrate the festival like Valentine's Day, the Japanese write their wishes on colourful tanzaku paper and hang them on bamboo branches. The bamboo branches, often decorated with colourful papers, are placed outside houses or buildings.

After a few days of rain, the fine weather that Saturday was a surprise. I was glad as it meant the star-crossed lovers could meet afterall. It was widely believed that Orihime and Hikoboshi would not be able to see each other if it rained, and would have to wait for another year to meet.

The Tanabata Festival celebrations seemed rather low-key in Kyoto. I supposed Kyoto was too busy preparing for one of its signature festivals of the year, the Gion Matsuri, to do much about the Tanabata.  As I heard that the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was holding special performances as part of the Tanabata celebrations, I decided to check it out.

Kitano Tenmangu is one of my favourite shrines. It  creates an impression in a quiet way. No bright red torii, only dignified gray.  

Majestic stone torii gates, stone lion statues and stone lanterns line the path to the main hall of the shrine.  I love the quiet atmosphere which seems to overshadow the chatter of the visitors.

The shrine is especially popular among students.  Visitors can pay about 500 Yen to write their wishes on a wooden plaque known as 'ema' (絵馬).   It is common to see 'ema' being scribbled with wishes related to scholastic achievements, such as wishes for successful university entrance exams.

On Tanabata, tanzaku paper hung on bamboo leaves flanked the entrance to the main prayer hall of the shrine.

 As I read through the tanzaku, I was amused by an unusual wish from a primary school child. 

'I wish to be able to strike lottery,' he wrote,  while his school mates wrote about becoming a sportsman or entering university one day.

And then, as I walked through the grounds of the shrine, I heard children singing. So the special performances actually featured children!  Japanese children from various kindergartens in the neighbourhood were singing, dancing and playing a variety of musical instruments at the festival.

There were children who realised the significance of what they were doing and like celebrities, waved from the stage excitedly at their proud parents and grandparents.  And there were those who lost focus, and yet never lost too much of it to disrupt the singing and dancing.

It amazed me to see how children are so full of potential. They can achieve so much if you would just give them the opportunity. 

Before I left the shrine, I met my neighbour by chance. He shared that he didn't expect the performances to be of such a 'small' scale.  I had to admit that like him, I was expecting a massive cultural event with a larger crowd.

I missed the point then but I think I might have grasped the wisdom of it now.

How else can we best celebrate and preserve traditions if we do not get the kids involved?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Prologue: the first three months

When I first arrived in Kyoto on 26 Mar 2012, I wanted to start a blog as soon as possible to share my adventures and observations. But I didn't.

It was because it took me longer than expected to set my life in order in this foreign land.

I didn't speak  much Japanese; I had to look for an apartment; I had to furnish my apartment; I didn't have internet; I didn't have a mobile phone and I knew no one. It was winter then. I remember feeling rather gloomy because of the cold and loneliness. 


The semester started on 2 Apr. A flurry of orientation activities followed. There were the Japanese class placement tests to grapple with at that time, amidst questions on whether and how to get myself a bed, internet and maybe some friends, for a start.  I was kept busy.

By the end of the first month, I was plagued by a different set of concerns.  I couldn't articulate my thoughts in class. My proficiency level was too low. I thought the class placement was a mistake but I was not allowed to rectify it.  I couldn't keep up with everyone's pace.  My classmates are young, in their early 20s. I was too slow for my age. By trying to keep up, I spent most of my time in my apartment studying.

It was fortunate that the sakura trees were in bloom at that time. The transience of the beautiful flowers reminded me of my mortality. I felt blessed to be able to undertake this journey on my own, and in good health. More importantly, I found strength and optimism.


With the passing of the sakura,  the Golden Week - a series of public holidays in the first week of May - brought me my parents and my friends from Singapore. Their short stays with me dispelled my loneliness for a while.
But by the end of May, I started to feel disconnected from society. Every day, when I went to class, it felt unreal.  It didn't help that I live somewhere else while most of the people I would have loved to hang out with stay in the school dorm. I was hardly included in the social activities of people I know in school. 

I felt a desperate need to fill the emptiness that surrounded me after class. I needed to interact with people.  I wanted to contribute to society again. I started job hunting but couldn't make any headway with my low Japanese proficiency. I thought of getting a television but it didn't seem right to replace people with a box.

And so, I started to look beyond the school campus for activities targeted at working adults. I was afterall a shakai-jin (社会人).


Life becomes meaningful knowing you are able to help others. I eventually found a non-profit organisation with a mission I could identify with, where I volunteer my skills.

It is an organisation that promotes international exchange between Japanese children and children in other parts of the world. The founders of the organisation escaped death because of a postponed meeting that made them cancel the ill-fated flight on 11 Sep 2001. They felt that they had to do something for the chaotic world and set up the NPO.  These are people who dared to make the difference.  I was deeply inspired.

I also started searching for cultural activities that I am interested in. For two Saturdays per month, I am now learning Japanese traditional dance.  At the class, I met people who share my interests, understand my difficulties, and are willing to listen and advise. 

Not too long ago, a classmate who is returning to America generously gave me her bicycle.  The bicycle, in its orange splendour, seems to have a message for me. Every time I look at it, I hear the words, Do More, Feel Better, Live Longer!

It looks like life in Kyoto has just begun.