Happy Year of the Dragon!

(Fireworks as seen from our balcony in Tübingen.)

On my way to Germany in December, I flew through Shanghai, and a Chinese woman about my age sat next to me on the first leg of the journey from Tokyo. We found we had a lot of things in common. She has lived in Japan now a little longer than I have, she is a student in Tokyo like myself, and we were both on our way to spend the holidays with our families.

A more random commonality she and I shared was the cultural heritage of setting off fireworks at New Year’s. I remember the first night of a trip I once took to Shanghai years ago was the last night of the lunar Chinese New Year celebrations, and private citizens were setting off fireworks in the streets as I watched from our high rise hotel window. The same, my seat mate said, happens in China on the western calendrical New Year. And so, said I, at New Year’s in Germany, and she looked at me surprised.

So, here is a photo of some private fireworks I saw at midnight on January 1, 2012 from our balcony, which overlooks part of Tübingen, Germany. If it hadn’t been for the vigorously chiming bells throughout the city or the colorful stars bursting in the sky, the incessant explosions, shouts, and billowing gunpowder smoke throughout the city might have lead one to believe there were a war underway. Perhaps for the people setting of the fireworks, it was a moment of cathartic ecstasy. But I was so tired from staying up past midnight that I somehow fell asleep despite the ongoing blasts, hearing sirens through the haze of my encroaching dreams.

I wish you all a happy 2012!

This Year’s Cherry Blossom Festival. . . Cancelled?!

(Last minute flower viewing at the Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo.)

Yahoo.co.jp showed a photo today announcing the cancellation of this year’s cherry blossom festival in Chiyoda (part of Tokyo). That means the evening illumination of the flowers will not happen, say festival organizers. We all need to save electricity, certainly, but we may also need to celebrate the blossoms more this year than any other. It’s a chance to spend time with friends and family in beautiful natural settings with plenty of food and alcohol to grease the cogs of social harmony.

When I visited the company I used to work for in Kyoto, which provides luxurious accommodations in Kyoto townhouses, they said that although the houses had been booked solid for the sakura season, mostly by foreigners, cancels from abroad were pouring in. The tourism industry is hurting this cherry blossom season, even in parts of the country that were unaffected by the disaster and that rely on tourism revenue to sustain their economies.

Just today, I went to a party for the new graduate students in my department at the University of Tokyo. Most years it is a flower viewing party, but the food and drinks were served indoors this year. I have no idea who made that decision. However, at the end of the event, one professor suggested we go outside to view the blossoms, and we all tromped outside just as the sun was setting, lighting up the flowers magnificently. I love them now, just before they burst into full bloom in almost overwhelmingly fluffy pink clouds.

And thus the new academic year begins. . .

Happy St. Nikolaus!

(Mt. Adams at 6 am from “the Lodge” living room last year.)

Today is St. Nickolaus Day and the real beginning of the holiday season for me.  About a week ago, I put up my Santa flying over Mt. Fuji wall hanging, so my room is just about ready, but I will be going back to Oregon for the holiday and for New Year’s.  (That means, of course, that I miss yet another New Year in Kyoto.  We’ll have to remedy that maybe next year.)

In any case, to get the blog into the fun, I turned on the snow, although, of course, it is not actually snowing here in Japan. (My window is open for some fresh air on a sunny morning, but my feet are getting a bit cold.)  If, however, your computer has difficulties producing so much snow, you can be your own weather forecaster by turning it on and off here:

Stop snow.

Start snow.

Have a happy happy holiday season and enjoy all the festivities!  No matter what religion, family, sect, persuasion, feel the warmth!

Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri


Shrine priestesses dance kagura to open the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri dance performances.  The kagura piece pictured above is entitled Sensai or One Thousand Years.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in December, I took the trains to Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and a center of Japanese religion ever since.

I had set my mind on seeing the Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri since I had first read the 1349 records of the shrine festival.  That year, a shrine priestess named Otozuru Gozen performed Okina, which in the contemporary repetoir of Noh is performed exclusively by men (see my previous entry about Okina here). In 1349, Okina was the first dance of the day’s performances.  Okina’s position at the beginning of the program shows the religious weight of the piece.  Even 650 years later, contemporary performances of Okina are always at the beginning of a program, and it is said that a god decends and inhabits the dancer during his performance.  Now Okina is not performed at the Onmatsuri, but priestesses dance kagura to open the day’s performances (see picture above). Kagura are shrine dances, and the titles of the four dances performed all indicate the celebratory nature of kagura. Continue reading “Kasuga Wakamiya Onmatsuri”



My performance of “Yuki” as the host of the thin tea ceremony (usuchaseki)

I’m a little behind in my posting. On January 14, 2007, I had my first major performance as host in a tea ceremony for hatsugama. Hatsugama is the first tea ceremony of the year, with much pomp and circumstance, at least with my teacher, Matsumoto Soei. To effectively pomp myself up for the performance, much effort went into my outrageous hair and trailing sleeve “furisode” kimono.

Usually, hatsugama tea ceremonies take place at a teacher’s home or in a traditional Japanese setting. However, my teacher and her older sister have continued a tradition established by their mother by holding their hatsugama at hotels in a effort to adjust to the times and to accommodate the many students and their guests efficiently. In this version, guests usually sit at tables and the host will perform on a small stage. Afterwards, a full course meal of French cuisine is served and the students do skits, perform a sort of talent show, and have party games in a banquet hall to top off the occasion. Continue reading “Hatsugama”

Alex’s Birthday Party

Kameoka mist

Remembering a dream the night before – mist over the rice paddies in Kameoka

When I heard Alex Kerr’s birthday party was to be held at his home in Kameoka with many guests and fine entertainment, I could not quite imagine what it would be like. I had only read of his house in his book, Lost Japan, and created a fairytale image of aesthetic perfection in my mind. Since beginning work at Iori, the company of which he is chairman here in Kyoto, I’ve learned that aesthetic perfection is second nature to Alex. I’m reminded of a time shortly before guests were supposed to arrive in our arts dojo, when Alex transformed our driveway into a garden lounge. In the arts dojo itself, Alex kept a set of two gorgeous crane folding screens from the Edo period (roughly 17th century) until recently. When we prepare for a full-scale arts program, Alex takes the arts dojo as his canvas and creates within it a balance of art and space that becomes a stage for Alex’s magic. With this in mind, my excitement of seeing his home at its finest only increased my excitement for the party. Continue reading “Alex’s Birthday Party”

Gods and Men

men and shrine

Every so often even gods of small neighborhood shrines need to be taken out for a stroll. Many men assemble, wearing all white or close to nothing and in the early morning swagger around the shrine as they wait for the procession to start. It seems the most clean-shaven middle-aged men with conservatively groomed hair and designer glasses appear for this kind of event in the least amount of clothing, even going so far as to wear a sumo-wrestler-like loin cloth with the shrine-provided traditional white over shirt and cotton sweatband wrapped around their head. They chant the loudest and have the biggest smiles. Younger men with long orange hair, instead, look bored and self-confident; for them it is just another display of machismo. These are the men who will carry the portable shrine into which the god is laden for the festival. They come from the neighborhood. They come to break their regular, perhaps monotonous daily routines. This is a highly special occasion.

Having seen posters announcing this occasion a little over a week earlier, I got up as early as I could on the morning of Sunday, May 21, to view the once yearly festival at the neighborhood shrine, Shimo-Goryo Jinja, right on Teramachi street, south of Marutamachi. It was beautiful weather after a string of damp, rainy days. The god must have been pleased by the prospect of an outing.

I thought I would arrive in time to view the first procession at 10. Yet upon my arrival, very little was going on at the shrine and among the festival stands that were just opening up, except that many men in white were lounging around the streets. I must not have missed anything, I thought, as I went into the shrine to give my respects to the god and admired the ancient-looking portable shrine that was made ready in the central raised platform. It had gold tori gates on its sides, behind which curtains of gold pieces chained together hung. The top of the shrine was covered in a red cloth emblazoned with the imperial crest. Certainly a well-backed god this is, I thought.

As I wandered back out of the shrine, I could hear chanting out on the street. Continue reading “Gods and Men”