Autumnal Equinox: Kyoto

Autumnal Equinox: Kyoto – September 23, 2011

Spring has sprung, fall has fell, now it’s summer . . .

Actually, today is the Autumnal Equinox, thus summer is finally over. Happy Fall!

Typhoon 15 (aka Typhoon Roke) blew threw Kyoto Wednesday, closing schools, bringing much rain, and cooling us off. Fortunately there was little damage here, whereas rain in other parts of Japan caused mudslides. Last night, we filled our soaking tub for the first time in months and slept under heavy blankets. I put on socks this bright, cool morning. Fall arrived in Kyoto right on schedule.

Japanese culture pays more attention to seasons than we do in America. Today is a national holiday Shubunnohi; schools, banks, and government offices are all closed. The local Shinto shrine, Fuji no Mori Jinja, hosted a festival to support the people of Tohoku (Fukushima and Miyagi). The local dealers sold sake from Fukushima (see photo 1). Other vendors sold fresh vegetables, various cooked foods and macha (the thick tea used in ceremonies, photo 2). Singers, dancers, and swordsmen demonstrated their skills. The ‘Do You Kyoto?’ folks promoted recycling, while Kyoto’s Mayumaro mascot greeted kids and hosted activities (photo 3).

Photo 1: Sake vendor kids at Fuji no Mori Jinja selling sake from Fukushima.

Photo 2: Reiko with macha and sweets, the typical service of the tea ceremony.

Photo 3: Mayumaro with Marina, Ami and friend, Kaito Sato (his mother Rika studied at GCC for two years). Mayumaro is a new mascot of Kyoto, a character based on the silk work cocoon (mayu) and a term of status (similar to a royal ‘we’ –maro).

This time of changing seasons provides an opportunity to reflect and celebrate. I have been in Japan for more than a season (four months now). Although my sabbatical ‘work’ is primarily related to marine biology, I live in Kyoto, two hours from either coast. Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan and the world, full of gardens, temples and shrines (see photo 4). Its role as ancient capital has been transformed into the center of traditional Japanese culture. The city is also alive with children, as I experience with my girls and their school friends.

Photo 4: Ami, Marina and Reiko with me at Kiyomizudera Temple, Kyoto.

Summer in Kyoto

Summer in Kyoto is famously hot and humid, mushi atsui. I got used to my shirt sticking to my body about as soon as my first cup of coffee brought me to consciousness each day. A quick bike ride down hill wonderfully cooled me off, until I stopped. Travelling by foot, bike, train or bus (none of my family here have a car) brought me into closer contact with the city and its people.

A trip to our closest supermarket, Daiei, takes us by several family shops (fresh produce, flowers, bakery, liquor, clothes, men’s hair, women’s salon), a small farm with vegetable stand run by a woman in her 80’s, the train station (Fuji no Mori), a train crossing, and a stretch of the Sosui canal – a beautiful walk at any time (see photos 5 and 6). I will long remember stopping for the train at these crossings on a summer evening; watching the bats begin to fly over the Sosui, while waiting for the train to pass.

Photo 5: Mother and ducklings on the Sosui canal behind our home in Kyoto.

Photo 6: Marina, Ami and Kaito en route to Fuji no Mori Jinja.

Early August is Obon, one of the most famous festivals in Japan and especially Kyoto. During Obon dead ancestors return to their families for a short visit. Families get together and visit the temples where the ashes of their ancestors rest. They pray and make offerings. At the start of the event in Kyoto, many people visit Rokudo-san temple in Gion. This temple is named for ‘six paths’ that may be travelled by the dead. These paths range from various versions of hell to a more pleasant afterlife and rebirth (photo 7). Behind a well in this temple is the gate to the underworld.

Photo 7: A painting of ‘The Six Paths’ of the afterlife, exhibited at Rokudouchinnouji temple (aka Rokudo-san).

We visited Rokudo-san early on August 10th with our girls and Reiko’s mom. There was already a long line extending out of the temple and down the street, of people waiting to say their prayers. Afterward, Reiko’s mom took us through the many small streets and alleys of her childhood; she grew up in Gion, famous for its Geiko (known as Geisha in Tokyo). We eventually made it to the family tomb, where we left some flowers and food.

At the end of Obon, great fires are lit on the hills around Kyoto to send the ancestors back to the otherworld. The morning of August 16th we brought food and flowers to our local temple in Fukakusa, and then went to Ginkakuji (temple). At Ginkakuji, Reiko’s mom wrote the family names of her ancestors on three pieces of wood, one each for her husband, her mother, and her mother’s mother (photo 8). These were taken up the mountain to be burned in a spectacular bonfire that night. We walked back on the ‘Philosophers Path’, a beautiful stroll along a canal that passes several famous temples (photo 9). On the way we were serenaded by semi (cicadas) – another common feature of Kyoto summer (see photo 10, see and hear video 1).

Photo 8: Noriko Yasui (Reiko’s mother) writing her family names on wood for the Obon fire; Marina and Ami watch.

Photo 9: Reiko with her mother, Marina and Ami; Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher’s Path).

Photo 10: Semi (cicada, Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) on tree along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher’s Path).

Video 1: The sound of semi (cicada, Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher’s Path). Note the semi visible on the tree in this video is not the source of the song.

That night, we watched the bonfires from the roof of Reiko’s brother’s apartment. Typical of modern apartments in Kyoto, there are 9 floors. City law prohibits buildings above that height to protect the view of Obon fires. There are five different bonfires, most famous and lit first is the large dai on the eastern mountain (photo 11). The last fire lit depicts a fune (boat) to carry the ancestors peacefully away (photo 12). The whole city stops to watch these fires and special viewing areas are set aside along streets and parks.

Photo 11: ‘Dai’ bonfire on the eastern mountains of Kyoto.

Photo 12: ‘Fune’ (boat) bonfire on the north of Kyoto.

A final Obon activity – Jizobon – is unique to Kyoto. Local associations organize the event for their neighborhood children (photo 13). In Fukakusa, kids gathered Saturday evening for an introductory lecture and prayer by the local monk; a bit surprising for its fire and brimstone message of the afterlife if you are bad in this life! They returned after dinner for games, bingo and the passing of a group-sized jyuzu, the string of beads normally used by a Buddhist monk in prayer (video 2). The event continued the next day with more games and lots of snacks. It also marks the end of summer vacation; school started the following week.

Photo 13: On the way to Jizoban; Marina and Ami with their cousins Kurumi (Ku-chan) and Suzuka (Su-chan).

Video 2: The passing of the giant jyuzu at Jizobon. Marina is seated next to her younger cousin Ku-chan; Ami is next to her older cousin Su-chan.

The last few weeks have been busy with family affairs: a late-summer vacation with our extended family, getting the girls back to school, and Reiko’s brief trip to Arizona to update her Green Card. She returned to Kyoto Monday night with a double case of jet lag, but safe and otherwise sound.

I am grateful to have spent a summer in Kyoto.


As I finish this post I hear the crickets chirping. Reiko tells me they are a sure sign of fall. Kyoto has four distinct seasons. Fall is reputedly as pleasant as the summer is mushi atsui.

Coming up this fall: Miyako Ecology Center in Kyoto, diving with ama (lobster season in October, sea cucumbers in November), photographing the start of nori production and returning to Kouei Suisan to watch the oysters grow. Still working on translations of interviews with Ukai and fish of Kushimoto. More soon.

This entry was posted in Japan Sabbatical by Robert Reavis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

4 thoughts on “Autumnal Equinox: Kyoto

  1. i miss you dr reavis looks like your family is having a blast especailly with the grandparents
    the pictures are gourgeous i love how your kids are getting involved

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