Kyoto enjoys beautiful fall colors and spring cherry blossoms. It is equally infamous for its mushi atsui (sticky hot) summers and cold winters. The winter of 2012 was unusually cold. It felt particularly cold after 15 winters in Arizona. Moreover, our Kyoto home is a modified machiya (traditional Kyoto home) – 150 years old, drafty and without central heating. How wonderful to have a soaking tub! Every night we took our turns washing ourselves under the shower, and then relaxing in the tub. The heat of the tub (42oC, 107.6oF) stayed with us for much of the evening. We slept under layers of blankets and on top of an electric pad.
The rest of the days and nights were cold. A space heater warmed our combined kitchen and living room. We huddled next to small heaters in other rooms where we read or worked on computers. The whole time seemed sluggish and a bit frozen. We mostly stayed close to home in January, with work at the nearby Miyako Ecology Center, translation of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum signs and flyers, and a few trips to Biwako (Lake Biwa) to visit family and the museum/aquarium complex (Photo 1).
It snowed frequently this winter, but in small flurries. Only once, February 18th, did it really ‘stick’. We took a long walk that day through Yasaka Jinja (shrine of the Gion district), Maruyama Park and neighboring temples, on our way to see a children’s movie at Kyoto International Community House (Photos 2-4). Unfortunately for Marina and Ami, I misread the flyer; the movie was in Osaka (a different city). We had an extra round of hot cocoa instead.
The local Sosui canal that flows from Lake Biwa (Biwako) to the sea at Osaka, was drained and cleaned over the winter (Photo 5). We missed the herons and egrets that used to feed from the canal. It was filled again in March, but the herons have yet to return.
Kite day was celebrated January 15th at Fukakusa Shougakkou, the girl’s elementary school. Prizes were given and two giant kites were flown with the help of dozens of kids and adults (see Photos 6-8 and Video1).
Most traditional events at this cold time focus on the coming of spring. The end of the calendar year was celebrated with finishing the old and celebrating the new.
Setsubun, held the evening of February 3rd, similarly chases out the old and makes way for the new. Our girls celebrated Setsubun at Fuji no Mori Jinja, our local shrine. The shrine lit its fires to burn old papers and charms, as it had at the New Year. Unique to Setsubun are the evil oni (ogres). Children shouted and threw special beans at oni to keep these bad spirits away (see Photo 9 and Video 2). Setsubun overlaps the celebration of Groundhog Day and related holidays in western culture, a mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox (currently recognized as the start of winter and spring, respectively). According to the traditional Japanese lunar calendar, Setsubun marked the end of winter and the end of the year, with February 4th celebrated as the first day of spring and the New Year.
The day before Setsubun we travelled to the site of Rashoumon – the ancient southern gate of Heian-kyo – Kyoto’s name when it became the capital in 794. Rashoumon itself is long gone, but its memory remains due to a famous story and film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa. As ancient Heian-kyo began to deteriorate, the southern gate was used as a place to leave dead bodies. It seemed appropriate to visit while it was still winter. February 2nd was a frozen morning with light snow. The nearby To-ji (temple) from the same era houses one of Kyoto’s pagodas (see Photos 10 & 11).
Plum blossoms began to open in February –the first hint of spring’s arrival. Kitano Tenman-gu – a shrine from the Heian Period – has orchards of special plum trees, and an annual Plum Blossom Festival, Baikasai on February 25th. A large tea ceremony was held here in 1587, the Kitano no Ochakai. The event served thousands of guests and was personally directed by Sen no Rikyuu, the master of the Japanese tea ceremony. This event is recreated by the geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) and maiko (apprentice geiko) of the local Kamishichiken district. We went a week early to pick up tickets (3,000 available) and to enjoy the early plum blossoms. It rained for the Ochakai; the tea was frothy and hot (see Photos 12 & 13).
Tea originally came from China, but it has been grown in Japan, and specifically the Kyoto area, for nearly 1,000 years. Japanese Buddhists promoted tea cultivation. The drinking of tea in a religious context, suffused with Zen ideals of art, gave rise to the Japanese tea ceremony. The main elements came together in the 16th Century and were ultimately codified by Sen no Rikyuu. His descendants continue to lead Chanoyu – the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’ – in three similar, but distinct schools. One of these schools, Urasenke, is taught at RoHoEn, the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix. Urasenke also offers classes to foreigners at the Kyoto International Community House. After completing six months of classes, I had the privilege to serve tea at the March Ochakai (see Photo 14).
Reiko and I visited her distant cousin’s tea utensil shop, where I bought gifts for my two sensei (teachers, Photo 15). One of my classmates went with me to the Marukyu-Koyamaen tea factory in Uji City, on the southeastern border of Kyoto. They have manufactured tea for 300 years and have won many gold medals (Photo 16).
Last week I went to their teahouse in Kyoto, for my first bowl of Koicha – thick tea. The typical tea served in the Japanese tea ceremony is already quite thick; somewhat like espresso coffee vs. typical drip coffee. However, Koicha uses nearly three times the amount of macha (powdered tea) compared to the amount used in a typical tea ceremony. It looks and pours like a rich green enamel paint, with an intense taste of fresh tea leaves (Photo 17).
Ami celebrated her 8th Birthday in March with school friends and family (Photo 18). The spring equinox is celebrated as a holiday and the school year ended that same week, followed by two weeks of vacation. We visited Taiji, the whale town famous for it’s ‘Cove’ (more on that trip in a later post, Photo 19) and the new Kyoto Aquarium (Photo 20).
We spent most of spring vacation in Kyoto. We picnicked at Fushimi Momoyama Castle. The castle was built by the retiring Shogun, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, after unifying Japan at the end of the 16th Century. It was the last time Kyoto would be the capital of Japan. Nearby is the tomb of Emperor Kammu, who ordered the construction of Heian-kyo (Kyoto) for his new capital in 794 (Photos 21 & 22).
The sakura (cherry blossoms) open near the end of March and early April; everyone waits in expectation. First-year college students camp out at Maruyama Park in the Gion District, holding space for upperclassmen and their hanami (cherry blossom parties, Photo 23). Maruyama Park is home to the most famous cherry tree in Kyoto, a 65 year old Hitoe Shiro Higan Shidare Sakura (single petal, white, Higan, weeping cherry), whose health (poor) and status are reported on by the daily newspaper and TV stations (Photos 4 & 24). The blooms were a bit late this year, but lasted nearly two weeks. We had our large hanami at a local park on Easter and included a small Easter egg hunt (Photos 25-27).
The spring crop of Kyoto vegetables began to show up in April, including takenoko (bamboo shoots). We ate takenoko no ki no me ae (bamboo shoots coated with leaves of the Japanese pepper tree) everyday for three weeks, variously mixed with ika (squid) or tako (octopus). It tasted even better after we dug our own from a cousin’s bamboo forest (Photos 28-30).
We visited more temples and shrines when the kids were in school: Ryoan-ji (temple), famous for its dry garden, and the nearby Ninna-ji. Kodai-ji (temple) was built by the widow of Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi; it includes two Ochashitsu (tea houses) built by Sen no Rikyuu (originally for the Shogun’s Fushimi Momoyama Castle) and a dry garden with a dragon theme this year (Photos 31-35). Visitors swarmed kiyomizu-dera and its overhanging balcony at cherry blossom time.
In the last month we made as many visits as possible for sabbatical subjects outside of town, to complete the year of Ama harvests (reports to come), offer our thanks and make our goodbyes. None of my studies would have been possible without the expertise and hospitality offered by so many fishers in Japan. Domo arigatou gozaimashita!
I also made more dives in Kushimoto and in the Nihon Kai (Sea of Japan) where I photographed the smallest fish in my collection, a juvenile dango (Lethotremus awae, Cyclopteridae) less than one cm in length (Photo 36).
Many thanks to my dive buddies, Mori-san and Kim-san (Photo 37). They both began to dive when I first began my studies in Japan (Summer 2009). We celebrated Mori-san’s 100th dive on May 26 (Video 3). Most of our travels out of Kyoto were taken in Mori’s car – a huge thank you Mori-san!
While most of my subjects were outside of the city, Kyoto was our home and scene of our daily life. The first week of May was Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (the festival of our local shrine), including a parade-like event in which O-Mikoshi – portable shrines – are carried through the streets and right in front of our home. Participants include the young and old, men and women, representing historical photos and kami (gods). The pictures and videos were taken across the street from our home – mostly shuttered with rusty corrugated iron doors except for the open section with lace curtains (Photos 38-42 and Videos 4 & 5).
In this last week, Reiko and I splurged on a special dinner on the deck over the Kamogawa (literally ‘duck river’) that runs from north to south through the heart of Kyoto. Also, we enjoyed sustainable fish provided by Shokuichi at Shioriya Restaurant (Photos 43-46).
The science center of Kyoto offered free glasses to view the eclipse at 7:30 AM, Monday, May 21st, before the girls went to school. Saturday, June 2nd, their school – Fukakusa Shougakkou – had a special half-day for dads to visit. It was the girls’ final day here, after 14 months of school. Their classmates had parties and gifts for them the day before (Photo 47). We had a farewell party in our home the last weekend of May.
The annual events that began my visit have come again. This year I was able to walk beside Marina and Ami as they pulled the O-Mikoshi of Ebisu Jinja’s Matsuri in the Gion district (Photos 48-53 and Videos 6 & 7).
We had to leave the event a bit early so Marina and Ami could demonstrate their skills with the rest of their Aikido Dojo (Photo 54). They studied aikido twice a week for six months.
We could not attend the Enko Matsuri (festival dedicated to kappa) in Shikoku this year, but instead went to Kizakura Company’s Kappa Country restaurant and museum (Photo 55). Yesterday, our day before departure, we stopped by Ebisu Jinja for the last time, and then went to the Kamogawa where the girls went wading and then swimming with their friend Kaito (Photos 56 & 57). This morning, we made a quick, final visit to Fushimi Inari Jinja before our airport shuttle came to pick us up (Photo 58).
We will miss the beauty and urbanity of Kyoto: the green of small gardens and forested hills, canals with fish and birds, delicious artesian water. Also, I will miss the history and culture, tea, temples and shrines unique to Kyoto. Delivery trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, both old and young (an elementary school is half a block away) respectfully share the market street where we live. I never heard yelling from the traffic, and only the occasional tap of a horn. The shop owners along the street know us (and all our details) and wish us ‘O-kaeri’ – welcome home – as we pass by. A short stroll or bike ride takes care of most of our shopping needs – and all grocery stores sell fresh sashimi as well as other seafood; even convenience stores have packaged sushi and onigiri. For longer trips, the train is two minutes away. Everyone bows in Japan, a sign of respect. Even the ticket takers on a train enter your car with a bow, and exit with a bow. If you see me bow in Arizona, you will know why. How often and how long will I keep bowing?
On the other hand, I will not miss banging my head on the low doorways, nor my knees on the low tables. The girls look forward to being ‘home’ with their own room, backyard pool, and many friends they have missed this last year. Reiko and I look forward to being with our American friends again.
Although I write these words in Kyoto, by the time you read them I will be back in Glendale, Arizona, USA. I wonder if our impressions of Kyoto and Glendale will change once we are back? Some of my sabbatical studies have yet to be posted. Stay tuned for news of our transition home and the following subjects:
- A Visit to Taiji, Whale Town
- Ukai Fishers use Cormorants to Catch Ayu (sweet fish)
- Ama Divers: a final report (or two)