Season’s Greetings: Autumn in Kyoto

Fall has been a wonderful season in Kyoto. The mushi atsui (sticky hot) of summer disappeared literally over night on the equinox, the start of fall (September 23). Warm days and gradually cooler nights persisted through October, with Kyoto’s ‘fish-scale clouds’ overhead (uroko gumo Photo 1). As temperatures dropped in November, the leaves began to change (Photo 2). While I was often away from Kyoto in the summer, I was more ‘at home’ this fall in Kyoto. Marina and Ami were back in school (Photo 3) and I took the opportunity to enjoy some of Kyoto’s culture.

Fish Scale Clouds

Photo 1: Uroko Gumo (fish-scale clouds) over Sanjusangen-do (33-beam Temple), October.

Sosui Canal

Photo 2: View of the Higashiyama (eastern mountains of Kyoto) from the north end of the Sosui canal. The Higashiyama contains dozens of temples and shrines (e.g. Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari). The Biwako-Sosui (canal) brings water from Biwako (Lake Biwa), through the eastern mountains to Kyoto, and on to the sea at Osaka. It was an important transportation route in earlier times. We live a block from the canal in Fushimi-ku, the southeastern ward of Kyoto.


Photo 3: Ami points to her strawberry plant, a school project at Fukakusa Shougakkou (Fukakusa Elementary School).

Kyoto, the ancient capital, is most famous today as the center of traditional Japanese culture. Many sects of Japanese Buddhism are centered here, with their beautiful temples and gardens (Photo 4). The city also hosts hundreds of shrines (e.g. Fushimi Inari, as described in an earlier blog) and parks (Photos 5 and 6). Over 30 million tourists visited Kyoto last year. Although these visitors arrive throughout the year, the greatest numbers arrive for the cherry blossoms in the spring, and for the red maple leaves of fall. While I look forward to the spring blossoms, it is hard to imagine any scene surpassing the fall colors of the Higashiyama (Photo 7).

I posted more photos of temples and shrines visited this fall on my Flickr site.


Photo 4: Chion-in is the main shrine of Joudo-Shuu (Pure Land) Buddhism, the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan. The Sanmon (main gate) is the largest surviving gate of its kind in all of Japan. I walk by here and the neighboring Maruyama Park each Tuesday on my way to and from Tea Class.

Maruyama Pond

Photo 5: Maruyama Park in November. This park in the Gion district borders Chion-in (to the north) and Yasaka Jinja (to the west), all part of the Higashiyama.

Maruyama Tree

Photo 6: Maruyama Park’s oldest cherry tree. This park fills with visitors at cherry blossom time. This particular tree is honored for its century of displays.

Eikando Pond

Photo 7: Pond within Eikando Temple, northern section of the Higashiyama, November.

Japanese Zen Buddhism developed in Kyoto. It gained favor with the nobility and warrior class (shogun and samurai), and thus influenced many aspects of Japanese culture. Two of the three schools of Zen are centered in Kyoto. Myoshin-ji is the largest temple complex of Rinzai Zen, set in eastern Kyoto. One of the sub-temples, Shunko-in, offers a guided tour for westerners with zazen (seated meditation) and macha (green tea). We visited early in November (Photo 8). Surprisingly, the vice abbot, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, spent four years as a student at ASU. After visiting so many ancient temples, it was enlightening to speak with an active practitioner. He is the fourth generation of his family at this temple. About 150 years ago, during the Meiji Restoration, there was much turmoil in Kyoto (and the rest of Japan). The nobility were losing their land, and Buddhism was under attack. The noble who owned this temple lived in Ise, 200 kilometers (120 miles) away. He sold the temple to Rev. Kawakami’s great grandfather. It has been handed down to him, although many of the artifacts are owned in part by the larger temple (Myoshin-ji) and various levels of government. As we viewed the larger temple, three young women asked me a few questions, a common assignment for junior high school students (Photo 9).


Photo 8: Shunko-in, a sub-temple within the Myoshin-ji temple complex. Shunko-in offers guided zazen (meditation) in English. Myoshin-ji is the largest temple complex of Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

School Girls

Photo 9: These three junior high school students asked for a brief interview, a common assignment for students in English class (in Myoshin-ji temple). Behind us a monk carries his special red shoes. The monks of Myoshin-ji had just completed a special ceremony held once a year.

The Japanese tea ceremony evolved from Zen practices. Sen Rikyu unified the elements of this ceremony in the 16th century. Tea practitioners express four qualities in the serving and taking of tea: wa, kei, sei, and jyaku  (peace, respect, purity and tranquility). His descendants branched into three schools of chado (the way of tea). The Urasenke school remains centered on Sen Rikyu’s ancient estate in Kyoto, and is led today by Grandmaster Sen Shositsu XVI (Photo 10). Urasenke has spread its message internationally, including a group that practices tea at Ro Ho En, the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix. The fall is considered the best time of year to appreciate the way of tea. When I found out that Urasenke offers reduced-fee classes to foreigners I enrolled. We practice chado each Tuesday afternoon for two hours (Photo 11).

Konnichian Urasenke

Photo 10: Konnichian, the ancestral property of Sen Rikyu and home of the Urasenke school of tea today.

Kimono Tea

Photo 11: Taking a bowl of tea.

In addition to its traditional culture, modern Kyoto embraces the international community and environmental ethics. The Kyoto International Community House hosted an event for Culture Day in early November, with the Mayor in attendance (Photos 12 and 13). Groups of foreign students created booths to share their home cultures; many booths sold food. All the food vendors served on reusable plastic plates and cups. Used dishes were returned and washed on site by volunteers (Photo 14). The Kyoto Protocol testifies to the importance of the environment to the people of Kyoto. As described in an earlier blog, Kyoto has set high standards to reduce garbage by reducing waste and increasing recycling. The city’s ‘Do You Kyoto’ slogan is part of Kyoto’s 10-point plan to reduce carbon emissions, ‘Do you do something for the environment?’ The ‘Do You Kyoto’ mascot shows up at many public events around the city (Photo 15). The Miyako Ecology Center opened shortly after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted. Its hand’s on exhibits and kid-friendly workshops help promote the cities environmental goals (Photo 16). We visited several times this fall, and will be more focused there in the winter. They also hosted ‘It’s a Small COP’ in time for the latest round of climate change negotiations.

(Kyoto Protocol Update: A last-minute effort at COP17 produced an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol, but in its current weak form. As predicted at the ‘It’s a Small COP’ workshop, Japan did not sign on to this extension.)

Okinawa Santa

Photo 12: An Okinawan Santa Claus with jyamisen welcomed visitors to Culture Day at Kyoto International Community House. Posing with Santa are Rika and Reiko.


Photo 13: Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa at Culture Day, with Rika, Reiko and myself.

Reuse, Recycle

Photo 14: Food was served on plastic plates at the Culture Day event. Used plates were returned to this station (photo) and washed for reuse (not shown).

Do You Kyoto Mascot

Photo 15: Kyoto’s ‘Do You Kyoto’ mascot at the monthly market of Fuji no Mori Jinja (our local Shinto shrine). The mascot is very huggable, obscuring the ‘eco’ written on the shirtfront.

Bike Check

Photo 16: Miyako Ecology Center exhibit allows Ami to experience the different energy requirements of three types of light bulbs: LED, fluorescent and incandescent.

Japanese cuisine has a tradition of eating local, seasonal foods. Our neighbor farm, Daikichi (Large Fortune) produced corn, cucumbers and okra in the summer. Currently it produces broccoli, napa cabbage, spinach, green onions and daikon (large radish). It spans both sides of the rail tracks, just north of the Fuji no Mori station (Photo 17 and 18). Eating local produce in season reduces waste and energy expended on packaging and travel. Tsukemono (Japanese pickles) are traditionally preserved vegetables. One of the local tsukemono shops teaches a how-to class that includes a bucket, starter culture and four vegetables. We have been pickling ever since (Photos 19 and 20).


Photo 17: Daikichi (Large Fortune) Farm spans the Keihan railroad tracks just north of Fuji no Mori station (our stop). In the photo are two rows of daikon (a large radish, left rows the left), a center row of (unknown), a row of broccoli and a row of green onions. The produce stand is on the other side of the tracks (right of photo).


Photo 18: Daikichi (Large Fortune) Farm produce stand with owner Mrs. Mitsuko Ooyabu. She runs the farm with her husband Mr. Yoshio Ooyabu (3rd generation owner) and their son Mr. Yoshinori Ooyabu.


Photo 19: Ami and I with our tsukemono (pickle) starter kit.


Photo 20: Our first batch of tsukemono (pickles): daikon (large radish), eggplant, cucumber and napa cabbage. Crunchy and tasty!

The environment in Kyoto is surprisingly healthy for a city of 1 million. We walk a stretch along the Sosui canal daily (Photo 21). The canal supports fish and long aquatic plants bent over in the current. Early in November we found a great blue heron fishing the canal, below the bridge where we cross to the train station. He has been there most evenings since, catching and eating fish (Photo 22).


Photo 21: Biwako-Sosui canal near our home in Fushimi-ku, southeast Kyoto. The red-leaved trees are cherry trees. Imagine how they will look this spring.


Photo 22: This great blue heron fishes nightly near the bridge over the canal closest to our home.

We did not celebrate major Japanese holidays this fall. We did attend our friends’ barbeque in the southeastern suburbs of the city (Photo 23). A flower arrangement workshop in October turned out to use pumpkins as the centerpiece (Photo 24). They also sold us a large pumpkin that we carved at home, an unexpected treat. However, our girls were too embarrassed to wear their witches’ hats outside of the house, even inside an English-style pub. Chicken nuggets did not do well as a turkey substitute for Thanksgiving, but sushi on Friday made up for it. Christmas is celebrated in Japan, at least by the retail industry and in popular culture (Photo 25). Downtown Kyoto is decked out with holiday lights and Christmas decorations, though to a lesser extent than American cities. Last week we shared the escalator with two maiko (apprentice geishas) shopping for gifts. They are usually shy when not working, but willing to pose if politely asked (Photo 26).


Photo 23: View from the second floor of an open house (for sale), looking across the street at our friends’ home and BBQ party. Homes lack yards, but include a balcony to dry their clothes.

Pumpkin Kids

Photo 24: Marina and Ami with their flower arrangements.

Tanuki Santa

Photo 25: The Tanuki (badger) character in Japan is depicted with a large bottle of sake and a pile of bills. Statues are commonly found near the entrances to restaurants, also by homes and in gardens. This tanuki stands outside our local Okonomiyaki restaurant along the canal. His Santa suit was added by the restaurant’s owner.


Photo 26: Two maiko Christmas shopping at Takashimaya department store, downtown Kyoto. Maiko are young geiko (geisha in Tokyo). These young women were not in full dress. Their faces would be covered in white make-up before going to work.

We had many adventures outside of Kyoto this fall; some described in earlier blogs, others yet to be written up. Twice we visited Yamashita-san, an ama diver, to watch her work (see previous blogs). I met ama from all over Japan at the Ama Summit (Photo 27) and look forward to more work with them next year. We also visited an oyster farm, cormorant fishers (ukai) and nori (seaweed) farmers; reports to come.


Photo 27: Ms. Naomi Suzuki, Ama-san from Chiba Prefecture. Ms. Suzuki is a younger ama diver. She had a love of water and dolphins before deciding to be an ama diver. This photo from the Ama Summit, October 30, when she and other ama released young abalone along the coast of Osatsu Town, Toba City.

As this year comes to an end, my sabbatical reaches the halfway point. I returned to the Ebisu Jinja for a seasonal greeting (Photo 28). Our family holidays begin early, with Marina’s birthday party last weekend (Photo 29). I will end the year with this post, prepare for my tea class ‘exam’ (presentation), and be ready to enjoy the holidays.

Holiday Ebisu

Photo 28: Ebisu Jinja in Gion (district). Ebisu is the god of fishermen and divers (e.g. ama). I started my sabbatical with a visit to this shrine and returned in early December, the mid-point of my sabbatical. On my wrist is an orange band distributed at the Ama Summit. Its message is: ‘Share the ocean’s health by diving’.

Marina's Birthday

Photo 29: Marina celebrates her 9th birthday with Ami and four of her school friends.

Wishing you all a safe and Merry Holiday Season! See you again in the New Year!

Reavis Family

Our Christmas card photo for 2011, taken at Kushimoto this summer while studying the fish community. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Reavis Family!


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