Every month, we present one event highlight and/or their respective venues. Here is a collection of all our previous event highlights, from the "Big Three Kyoto Festivals" to ancient shrines and great museums. Note that details like dates, times, and places mentioned below may be outdated and not correct anymore. Please check our main event calendar for current information!
2017 marks the first year of the What's up in Kyoto event calendar. Here, we presented the Top 12 Traditional Kyoto Events that not even the locals would want to miss. These traditional events often go back several centuries and have survived to the present day virtually unchanged. These events are free of charge and often draw large crowds of spectators, so if you'd like to be as close as possible to the action, we recommend to be about one hour early to secure your spot in the first row. Click the images below to learn more about each event.
First Shrine Visit in January
In Japan, the New Year - Oshogatsu - is the most popular national holiday of the year. Most people have several days off and this is the time to visit family and close friends. There are many traditions around New Year, but the most important one is hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. Most people simply visit the shrine in their own neighborhood, but shrines associated with the current year's zodiac animal are also popular, as well as the most famous ones enshrining the gods for health, love, wealth, etc. The best day for hatsumode is of course ganjitsu, January 1st, and most people will perform it until January 3rd; some say however, that any day during the first week of January is fine for hatsumode.
The first thing to do during hatsumode is to pray to the gods for luck, health, and happiness in the coming year. Then, people go and buy new ofuda or omamori. Both are charms, but omamori are meant for one person only, who should carry it with her if possible. There are a great number of different omamori, especially popular are those for health, love, academic or business sucess, and traffic safety. In contrast, ofuda are charms that are meant to protect the whole family, and they are usually put in the kamidana altar of the home. In general, ofuda are simple charms made from paper, but during the New Year period, shrines may sell hamaya, blessed arrows that have the power to destroy evil, which are also displayed in the home.
Another thing Japanese people often buy at this time are omikuji fortune slips. These small sheets of paper reveal your future in areas like love, health, business, study, etc. There are seven levels of fortune, five positive ones (great to ending blessing) and two negative ones (curse and great curse). Especially when receiving a curse, people tie their omikuji to special spots at the shrine, so that the curse will not follow them home. Good fortunes may be left there too - it is believed that those will double their powers.
Every shrine in Japan is open for visitors during hatsumode, and you can buy new charms after praying to the gods. Here are a few of our suggestions on what to do during hatsumode.
Kyoto has the largest number of shrines in any city in Japan, and many of them are the head shrines for a certain deity. Especially during hatsumode, these places can get very busy, because people from all over Japan come to visit at that time. In Kyoto, the most popular shrines for hatsumode are Fushimi Inari Taisha (where people pray for wealth and success in business), Jishu Jinja located at the grounds of Kiyomizudera Temple (love and relationships), Kitano Tenmangu (academic success) and the two oldest shrines of Kyoto, Shimogamo Jinja and Kamigamo Jinja. In these large shrines, where the queues in front of the prayer halls may be very long, there may even be food stalls set up during hatsumode, which gives the New Year in Kyoto a very festive and fun atmosphere.
Even without food stalls, many shrines may offer little extras for visitors during hatsumode, for example you can try sake with little gold flakes in it at Matsunoo Taisha, share sweet, nonalcoholic amazake with your kids at Heian Jingu, or take the opportunity to receive sacred fire from Yasaka Jinja and light your hearth at home with it.
Besides the first visit to a shrine, people in Japan are concerned with many "firsts" right after the New Year. Things like first snow are almost a given, especially in Kyoto, where it does not snow very often. Or try to remember your first dream in the new year, it may give clues as to what lies in store for you! Some shrines also celebrate the first time of doing something with special events. Here are some of them that draw many people each year.
This is the first calligraphy of the year. The idea is to prepare the ink with the first water drawn from a well on New Years day, then face a favourable direction and write an auspicious Chinese character or poem. Words often used are peace, prosperity, love, or a personal motto or goal for the coming year. The best place to go for kakizome in Kyoto is Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, where people of all ages create their first calligraphy and then present it to the shrine. They are collected and the best ones will be exhibited and may even receive a prize.
January 2 - 4, 10:00 - 16:00
Karuta is a popular card game that is played in many households during the New Year period. It involves the famous Hyakunin Isshu poetry collection, and players must remember each poem so that they are able to spot the correct card containing it as soon as it is announced. This fun and very dynamic game is played every year at Yasaka Jinja.
January 3, 13:00
In the Heian period, the game of kickball, where you need to keep the ball in the air as long as possible, was called kemari and played enthusiastically at the imperial court. A reenaction of a game, complete with people in Heian-style costumes, takes place at Shimogamo Jinja every year.
January 4, 13:30
No matter whether you go for your own hatsumode - to one of the big shrines drawing thousands of visitors, or a very small one that only the locals go to - it will be a wonderful experience, and the best way to start your New Year in Japan, of course.
Photo #5 courtesy of Yasaka Jinja, photo #6 courtesy of Shimogamo Jinja.
Ousting the Demons in February
February is the coldest month in Japan, so it may come as a surprise that the setsubun festival, held on February 3rd, marks the last day of winter. The festival does go back more than 1000 years, and in the old lunar calendar, it was in fact part of the New Year's celebrations. Setsubun literally means division between seasons and it is through this gap between winter and spring that evil spirits enter the world and need to be banished before the new year can be welcomed. This explains why the main event of setsubun is the driving out of demons: the demons and bad luck of the old year, and also the demons of winter.
And how to drive them out? With mamemaki bean throwing, which is great fun for kids (and adults as well), and is still done in many households of Japan. At mamemaki, one person wears a demon mask, and the other family members throw roasted soybeans at him all the while shouting oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi - out with the demons, in with the luck! As for the second half of this incantation, this also involves soybeans. Once the demons have been successfully pelted out of the door never to return (or at least, not until next year), people pick up the scattered beans - called fukumame, fortune beans, by the way - and eat them: One bean per year of age plus one for the coming year.
Many families, especially those with kids, do mamemaki in their homes, but this is also a ritual that is performed in many shrines and even temples of Japan. Usually, there is a religious ceremony at the beginning, followed by a dance of several evil oni, demons with different colored skin and frightening faces. The oni are then banished by throwing beans at them, and often, the visitors to the shrine may participate. After the demons have returned to their realm, visitors flock to the main stage of the shrine or temple, where priests throw packs of fukumame or smaller and larger presents into the crowds, which may push and shove to get their share of the luck. In some shrines, this part of the setsubun ceremony may be performed by local celebrities, famous Japanese actors, sumo wrestlers in Tokyo or maiko and geisha in Kyoto for example.
Cross dressing is a very old setsubun tradition that is not generally practised any longer. However, in the hanamachi districts of Kyoto, Maiko and Geiko still dress up as men and their customers are supposed to dress as women if they are being entertained on the evening of setsubun.
In contrast, a rather new setsubun custom that originated in Osaka, but has lately spread to all of Kansai and beyond, is eating ehomaki, a large, uncut roll of futomaki sushi stuffed with a variety of luck-inducing ingredients. The idea is to eat the whole sushi roll in a single sitting and without speaking while facing the lucky direction of the year. Ehomaki can be bought at the larger shrines that feature food stalls during setsubun, at convenience stores, and of course at sushi restaurants on February 2nd or 3rd. If you want to give it a try, here is a list of lucky directions for the coming years.
Most shrines and temples have special ceremonies to celebrate setsubun. Below are the most popular places for experiencing setsubun in Kyoto. For more information and current dates, please see our main calendar.
Yoshida shrine hosts the largest setsubun event in all Kyoto, and it lasts three days in total. The shrine precincts are packed with hundreds of stalls selling ehomaki and other foods, demon masks and mamemaki and toys for kids. You should definitely buy the little packs of lucky beans that contain tickets for the lottery where you can win prizes like TV sets, bicycles, household goods and many more.
Feb. 2 from 18:00: main setsubun ritual - banishing of the demons At Yoshida shrine, the demons come from the top of the mountain and are banished by a demon turned exorcist called Hososhi in the middle of the shrine.
Feb. 3 from 23:00: Karo-sai festival This large bonfire consumes old charms and amulets, but sometimes people bring personal papers and suchlike as well. If you have anything to burn, bring it to the shrine a few days before setsubun starts and watch the bonfire being built.
Find out more about Yoshida Jinja in our Highlight for February 2018.
Mibu Kyogen are traditional pantomimes designed to teach Buddhism. Born at Mibudera Temple, they are performed only three times per year. Setsubun is the only occasion to see Mibu Kyogen for free, and the play "Setsubun" is performed every hour. An important prop are the so-called horaku plates that are thrown off the stage during the performance. Spectators can buy the plates, write their names on them, and when the plates shatter, so does the evil attached to the person.
Feb 2 and Feb 3 from 13:00 - 21:00: setsubun kyogen performance every full hour
Yasaka Jinja is the shrine of Gion, one of the five famous geisha districts of Kyoto. This means that at this shrine Maiko and Geiko of Gion throw the beans to the visitors. There are also special Maiko and Geiko dance performances at 15:00 and 16:00 on both days of setsubun.
Feb 2 and Feb 3 from 13:00 - 16:00 bean throwing at each full hour
Learn more about the significance of Yasaka Jinja for the Gion district of Kyoto in our Highlight for January 2018.
The setsubun festival at Rozanji Temple is second to only that of Yoshida Shrine. It features three demons in red, green, and black who dance on the stage brandishing torches, axes and the like. Do approach the white demon that roams the temple precincts on that day. If you tell him of your illnesses, he will place his sword onto your body and pray for you in the oni no okaji ceremony.
Feb 3 from 15:00: demon dance The demons dance on a stage in the temple and will be banished by the priests. The bean throwing starts at 16:00.
The setsubun ritual at Senbonshaka-do takes a different route to banish the demons. Instead of brutally pelting them with beans, a kindly woman called Okame gently persuades them to see the error of their ways and to repent. You can see how this turns out in the kyogen play that is performed by the Shigeyama family. Before the play, Maiko and Geiko of the Kamishichiken district perform a traditional dance, and after the play, they and the actors throw lucky beans to the crowd.
Feb 3 from 15:00: setsubun dance and kyogen performance
Photo #4 courtesy of Yasaka Jinja.
Doll Festival in March
March 3rd marks the day of Hina Matsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival. Since around this time of the year it is getting warmer as spring approaches, the festival is also sometimes called Momo-no-sekku (Peach Festival), or Girl's Day. In the weeks leading up to March 3rd, elaborate displays of Hina Dolls are prepared, but they are not meant to be played with. Traditionally, dolls were seen as protectors of people, and ancient shinto rituals still use doll-shaped papers to ward off illness and disease. Even today, it is considered unlucky to pass on old hina dolls to one's children, so whenever a girl is born, she will receive a brand new set of dolls for herself. Nevertheless, there are many collectors of hina dolls, and many places in Kyoto have special exhibitions during March.
As mentioned above, the roots of the hina dolls can be found in shinto purification rituals, but the hina matsuri itself can only be traced back to the 17th century, the beginning of the Edo period. At this time, people began to display dolls on the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar, and over time, the displays became more lavish and the dolls bigger. So much so, that the government had to place restrictions on the sizes of the hina dolls! In the beginning, there were only two hina dolls - a male and a female - and these standing tachi-bina were relatively small and simply dressed. Later, however, the dolls were dressed in court attire of different periods and more and more servants and accessories were added to the display, until finally the Hinadan, a display with multiple tiers, had been created that is still in use today. For an excellent overview on the different types of hina dolls that were created in the Edo period as fashions changed, have a look at the interesting article "All about Japanese Hina Dolls" by the Kyoto National Museum.
Here you can see a typical traditional hinadan with seven tiers displaying hina dolls in Heian-style dress that was worn at the imperial court 1000 years ago. The two main dolls on the top tier, representing a couple of court nobles, are called the dairi-bina. One tier below are three ladies in waiting, usually holding cups for drinking sake. Yet another tier lower contains five court musicians with drums and flutes necessary for traditional gagaku music. Below them are the Minister of the Left and the Minister of the Right. You can distinguish them because the Minister of the Left is the higher court rank, so the person is usually older and sometimes has a white beard. Finally, at the fifth tier there are three footmen or soldiers the lowest retainers of the court. They sometimes carry brooms or rakes etc.
A hinadan would be rather empty without the necessary accessories for court life though. Between the ladies in waiting, there are plates with colorful rice cakes; which are meant as an offering to the gods. At the bottom two tiers of the display there are the goods for daily use in the household: cabinets and dressing tables with mirrors, trays for food and drink, as well as palanquins and oxcarts that would be used when going on a trip. These are miniatures of the real things, but for very expensive displays, they were made from the same materials and with the same decorations as their full-sized counterparts. The dolls are dressed in several layers of silk clothing and sometimes even real hair was used - another reason why a good sized hinadan can be very expensive.
However, in modern times, a full-sized hinadan with seven tiers is not very common anymore, mostly due to space restraints in the common Japanese home. At the minimum, most people still own a pair of dairi-bina and display them in March. There is a large variety of diari-bina to choose from, from large dolls in silk dresses that can cost thousands to small ones made of wood or ceramics. Kids also love their favourite anime characters dressed up as hina dolls, and those who prefer experiences rather than souvenirs can produce hina doll shaped sweets - and eat them rightaway.
The doll festival is a comparatively private festival, but there are special exhibions at museums and hinadan are on display in many shop windows throughout Kyoto. Some shrines and temples hold events related to hina matsuri. Here are a few of them; for more information and current dates, please visit our main calendar.
This temple is known as the doll temple, where people can bring their old dolls to have them ritually burned. The temple owns many dolls that once belonged to imperial princesses and displays them in their special hina matsuri exhibition from March 1 to April 3, daily from 10:00 - 16:00.
The exhibition's opening ceremony includes prayers and a dance by a tayuof the Shimabara district. It is held on March 1 from 11:00 - 11:30.
The Japanese Folk Doll Museum in Saga, Arashiyama, is home to dolls from all over Japan. Every year, the first half of their spring exhibition is dedicated to hina matsuri and beautiful dairi bina of all types dating back to the Edo period are on display. The exhibition typically opens around February 20 and lasts until March 31. For more information about the Folk Doll Museum and their collection of over 200.000 dolls, see our Highlight for March 2019.
On the day of hina matsuri, Shimogamo Jinja holds the ancient Nagashi Bina Ceremony, where special straw dolls are floated down the icy stream of the shrine to pray for the wellbeing of girls. After the official ceremony, visitors may buy their own nagashi bina and do the same.
March 3, from 10:00
Learn more about Shimogamo Shrine, one of the oldest shrines of Kyoto in our Highlight for July 2018.
The hina matsuri at Ichihime Jinja is a very hands-on experience. Not only is there an exhibition of hina dolls and accessories in the shrine itself, but opposite the street, you can take part in games that were popular during the Heian period like kai awase shell matching or toseikyo, a game involving fans. The highlight, however, is the Ichihime hinadan, where real people dressed in the famous court dress from the Heian period will take the places of the dairi-bina, the court ladies and the musicians. You can watch how the two dairi-bina are dressed in their many layers, and take as many photos as you like.
March 3rd, 13:00 - 16:00, dressing from 15:00
Kyoto's Nishijin district has always been the main area for silk weaving and kimono production. Some of the beautiful machiya houses of traditional silk wholesale merchants and artisans exhibit their own collection of hinadan, dolls, and accessories.
March 3 - 5, 10:00 - 16:30 On Omiya street just south of the crossing of Imadegawa-Omiya.
Photo # 5 courtesy of Shimogamo Jinja.
Cherry Blossoms in April
April in Japan is cherry blossom time. After the cold and dark winter, this marks the beginning of the warmer season. Although the Japanese cherries, called sakura, may have carried buds for a while already, it will take an exeptionally warm day for them to open up. On such a day however, all of them seem to explode at the same time! And what has been merely a brown bunch of gnarled trees the week before now lines the streets and riverwalks of Kyoto in blinding white or delicate pink.
At this time, even the Japanese open up a little. They put on their best outfits and loveliest kimono for spring and go out to admire the sakura. Many people of all ages and walks of life flock to the most scenic spots and take pictures of what appears to be every single cherry blossom. Honestly, those little white flowers indeed have their very special allure, no matter how many you may have seen before!
Once the sakura are in full bloom, it is time for hanami - literally: flower viewing - a picnic under the cherry trees. Couples young and old or large groups of coworkers, friends and family meet under the trees to eat bento, rice balls and sweets and drink beer and sake. At this time, everybody enjoys the lovely warm weather that coaxed the trees out of their hibernation and the people out of the house.
But hanami is not just a daytime activity! Some of the most popular spots for cherry blossoms are lit up during the evenings as well, and while a warm jacket or extra blanket is always a good idea, yozakura, the viewing of the cherries during night-time, always creates special memories.
The great thing about hanami is that you cannot miss it. Cherry trees are everywhere in Kyoto, and you can spend as much or as little money on your personal cherry blossom viewing as you like. Below are a few popular spots and things to do during sakura season. For details on lightups and other hanami-related events, check our main calendar.
You don't have to walk far to see cherry trees in Kyoto. Kamogawa river is lined with sakura, just like the Philosopher's Path and the canal at Horikawa. For a more out-of-town feeling, visit the Keage incline near the Lake Biwa Canal Museum, or go all the way to the Togetsukyo Bridge at Arashiyama or the Yodogawa Riverside Park near Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu. The hundreds of cherry trees in the Botanical Gardens and the Imperial Palace draw many visitors, but the most popular spot is probably Maruyama Park, where food stalls and places to sit are set up in peak season. The Shimbashi Geisha District is always a good place to visit, but it can get crowded. Some of these places are lit up during the night for yozakura.
If you prefer the scenery to move while you sit and take pictures, try the Jikkokubune boat ride. Small boats depart opposite the Lake Biwa Canal Museum and take you on a trip along the canals of Okazaki, which are lined with trees. A significantly longer trip along the waters of the Lake Biwa Canal takes you all the way to Lake Biwa. It's a good idea to bring a jacket, since a part of the trip takes place in tunnels. Speaking of tunnels: There is a tunnel created by sakura trees between Narutaki and Utano station on the Kyoto Randen Railway. During the hanami season, the trains will slow down to give passengers ample time to admire the cherry trees.
Finally, for an easy hanami/yozakura, where food is served while you're watching the trees, visit the Takase River. It flows through Kiyamachi, one of the liveliest spots in Kyoto.
Most shrines and temples in Japan have cherry trees on their grounds. In Kyoto, the number one shrine to visit during hanami is Hirano Shrine and its garden with 400 sakura. The shinen garden behind Heian Shrine is filled with cherry trees as well. Although the "spring mountain" in the gardens of Jonan-gu is dedicated to plum trees, the Momoyama part of the garden has lovely cherry trees. If you're looking for places that are a bit more quiet, Kamigamo Shrine with its impressive weeping cherry trees and the little Takenaka Inari Shrine are a good option.
During the time of hanami, many temples in Kyoto have special openings and/or sakura lightups in the evenings. Popular spots are Kodaiji and Entokuin Temple for their annual Spring Lightscape projections, as well as Toji and Ninna-ji for their special showing of temple treasures during the hanami season. Both Kiyomizudera Temple and Daigo-ji are famous for their many cherry trees within the temple grounds. A tip for insiders is the garden at the Shogunzuka, a separated part of Shoren-in Temple with a wonderful view over Kyoto.
Besides the special openings and lightups mentioned above, there are also a number of special events celebrating the sakura season. Here are a few of them; check our main event calendar for quite a few more such events and their current times and dates..
April 10, from 10:00 The festival at Hirano Shrine, with its 400 trees of 60 different kinds of sakura is said to be the starting point of all hanami festivals in Japan. It dates back to 985 and has been held every single year since then. Starting at 10:00, there is a ceremony at the shrine's honden, followed by a ceremony at the mausoleum of Emperor Kazan, who saw the very first festival. From 13:00, a procession with portable mikoshi shrines, accompanied by people in gorgeous costumes, will leave the shrine and walk through the neighborhood.
2nd Sunday, from 13:00 This festival dates back to 1589, when then-ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi threw the biggest hanami party Kyoto had ever seen. To entertain the more than 1300 invited guests, Hideyoshi had Daigo-ji Temple renovated and 700 cherry trees planted. After the procession, where Hideyoshi, his family and his guests arrive dressed in their best clothing, there are performances of music and dance, as well as action plays by actors from the TOEI Eigamura Studios.
4 days during sakura season, from 18:15 The best time to view the gardens of Heian Jingu is during the Benishidare Concerts (named after a type of cherry tree). Four days in a row, famous musicians from Japan are invited to play in an open-air concert. The music is broadcast throughout the garden, which lets visitors experience the sakura with all their senses.
from March 20 - April 17, 18:00 - 21:00 UNESCO World Heritage Nijo Castle is a great spot for cherry blossoms. In the evening during the Sakura Matsuri, the beautiful old buildings take center stage in a lightshow with musical elements that showcases the sakura.
Even though cherry blossoms are very fragile, and a strong wind or heavy rain will destroy their beauty immediately, there are different types of cherry trees that bloom at different times. So do not despair if you miss the sakura now, there are plenty of spots in Kyoto where you can catch them throughout April.
Wherever you go for your hanami, we hope you enjoy the spring season in Kyoto as it brings one of the most Japanese of all pastimes.
Photo #5 courtesy of Jonan-gu Shrine; photo #8 courtesy of Heian Shrine.
First "Big 3 Event" in May
The Hollyhock, Kamo, or Aoi Festival involves two of the oldest shrines of Kyoto and dates back to the 6th century, some 200 years before the capital of Japan and the imperial court were moved to Kyoto.
At this time, bad weather had led to a failing of the crops and a famine followed. The emperor was convinced that the deities of the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines in Kyoto needed to be appeased and so he sent a messenger to offer prayers and gifts. The weather promptly improved - and a new annual ritual was born. It was further strengthened when the same deities became the tutelary gods of the newly founded capital. Today, the Aoi festival is one of the three main festivals in Kyoto and draws hundreds of spectators each year.
The main event is a large procession with some 500 participants dressed in ancient costumes that starts out at the Imperial Palace. It is led by a man on horseback - the imperial messenger - who is to make offerings to the shrines and to pray for peace to the gods, and in return receives sacred letters. The other important figure of Aoi Matsuri is the Saio-dai, a young woman from Kyoto representing an imperial princess. In former times, the Saio-dai was sent to serve the gods at the shrine, hence the purification ceremony a few days before. The imperial messenger and the Saio-dai are accompanied by a large number of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting, either on horseback or on foot, and there are also solo horses among the offerings to the shrine, as well as oxen and two large ox carts filled with donations. The animals and carts are decorated with hollyhock (aoi) leaves, which gives the festival its name, and everybody participating in the parade wears some aoi leaves pinned to their clothing or headgear as well.
Once the procession has arrived at Shimogamo shrine, several rituals are taking place; for example the hiki-uma (the viewing of the sacred horse), the kemba (where horses trot in front of the gods), and the so-called azuma-asobi a ritual dance and music performance. However, most of the spectators wait for the horse race that is taking place in Tadasu-no-mori leading up to the shrine on this day.
Once the horse race is finished, the procession moves along the Kamo river to Kamigamo shrine, where the final ceremony of the day, the Shato-no-gi, is held.
What is usually meant with Aoi Matsuri is the procession with 500 participants and a length of 800 metres on May 15th. This colorful event counts as one of the three main festivals in Kyoto. However, there are many smaller events taking place in both Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrines in the two weeks leading up to the parade, including religious ceremonies, horse races, and mounted archery. These events are usually free but they can be crowded especially in nice weather.
The horses that will compete in the race on May 5th are checked and ranked, and the line up for the race will be finalised.
Men in court costumes of the Heian period take part in mounted archery.
In this important event, the Saio-dai, the main female participant of the parade and her female attendants undergo a purification rite at the shrine to prepare them for the main event.
This is a race where pairs of horses compete against each other. This ritual goes back to the year 1093 and has been called the origin of horse riding in Japan.
Priests are using bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits. Afterwards, a group of archers in traditional costumes engage in a contest.
Priests from Shimogamo go to Mikage shrine on one of the eastern mountains of Kyoto to welcome the spirit of the gods. More than 100 people take part in this procession, which is said to be the oldest religious procession of Japan. In the afternoon, Japanese dance and music is performed at the shrine.
This is the main event of Aoi Matsuri, a large parade of more than 500 people in traditional costumes from the Heian period. The procession starts form the Imperial Palace and visits both Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrine where a number of religious rituals are performed.
The parade starts at 10:30 at Kyoto Imperial Palace. It moves through the South Gate, Marutamachi Dori and Kawaramachi Dori to Shimogamo Shrine (planned arrival at 11:40). The horse race there starts at 13:00. At 14:20 the procession moves on via Shimogamo Hondori, Kitaoji Dori and along the Kamogamo river to Kamigamo Shrine (planned arrival at 15:30).
The best photo opportunities are in the Imperial Palace and the Shimogamo and Kamigamo shrine. Alternatively, the bridges at Demachiyanagi, Kitaoji, and Misono are good for watching the parade pass. The events are free, but to get a good spot at the shrines it is advisable to be at least 45 minutes early. At the palace and the shrines paid seating is also available. Tickets can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information Centre, through travel agents or at convenience stores. Seats at Kamigamo can only be bought at the shrine on May 15th, starting at 11:30. Note that in case of rain, the parade will be postponed, and tickets will remain valid.
Purification in June
June marks the beginning of summer in Japan, and also the end of the first half of the year. On June 30th, many Shinto shrines celebrate the nagoshi-no-harae ritual. This is an important purification rite that dates back to the Nara period (8 century). It is meant for people to atone for their sins of the first half year and at the same time to purify themselves and pray for health in the second half of the year.
The main ingredient of a proper nagoshi-no-harae purification is a large chinowa wreath made from miscanthus reeds. People must walk through this chinowa in a specific pattern resembling an infinity sign in order to purify themselves and ward off illness in the future. Some people even take out reeds of the wreath, make their own smaller version of it, and mount it at the entrance of their homes. These days, many shrines sell smaller sized chinowa wreaths as omamori talismans throughout June.
Another ceremony that is performed at some shrines involves so-called hitogata, little man-shaped pieces of paper. Depending on the shrine, people may have to write their ailments onto it or rub the paper doll onto parts of the body in a prescribed pattern. The dolls are then released into the sacred stream of the shrine or ritually burned in order to take the illness away.
Traditionally, the nagoshi-no-harae ritual was performed by the imperial court twice a year, at mid summer, and at the end of the year. However, the winter purification is not widespread any longer although some shrines still perform it; but the summer nagoshi-no-harae has spread throughout the country. Part of its attraction may lie in the legend that is told about its origins:
Once upon a time, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the brother of the sun godess, was travelling incognito through Japan. One night he was looking for lodgings, but was refused by the richest man in town. Instead, poor Somin Shorai offered his own little hut, and in the morning, the god gave him little chinowa wreaths and instructed him to wear it for protection. Promptly, Somin and his family survived the plague that was coming soon after.
Below are some of the most popular shrines for the nagoshi-no-harae in Kyoto, but many others also offer the rite on June 30th. There will always be a chinowa wreath to walk through (sometimes set up a few days early), but make sure to walk through it in the correct way. Some shrines also sell hitogata dolls for an additional purification that you can either do yourself or that is incorporated in the main nagoshi-no-harae ritual of the shrine.
The nagoshi-no-harae purification at Jonangu starts already on June 25. People may buy little hitogata and release them into the stream at spring mountain in the shrine gardens. The main ceremony with the chinowa wreath takes place on June 30th.
The main chinowa ceremony at Kamigamo Shrine is in the morning from 10:00. In the evening, from 20:00, people can throw hitogata paper dolls into the pond as a special form of purification.
Also at Heian Shrine, the chinowa is set up a few days later.
Kifune Jinja is a lovely little shrine in the cool mountains north of Kyoto. Here also, the chinowa is set up on the 25th. For the main ceremony, people receive hitogata that they should rub over their bodies, in particular at aching spots. They are returned to the shrine and the priests will scatter them into the river near the shrine after the main ceremony.
A chinowa is set up at the famous black torii of Nonomiya Shrine in Arashiyama.
Another ceremony involving hitogata takes place at Yoshida Shrine. Participants will receive a small chinowa wreath to take home.
At Kitano Tenmangu Shrine you can find the largest chinowa wreath in Kyoto, more than 5 metres in diameter. It is set up on June 25th already at the outer torii.
Photo # 1 courtesy of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Photo #2 © yasuhiro imamiya.
Second "Big 3 Event" in July
July in Kyoto means one single thing: Gion matsuri. One of the three largest festivals of Japan, Gion matsuri lasts the whole month, and its yamahoko parades on the 17th and 24th of July draw thousands of spectators from abroad as well as Japan.
Gion matsuri dates back to 869 when the Japanese people were suffering from a plague and the emperor dispatched a messenger to Gion shrine to appeal to the gods for an end of the plague and famine. Susanoo no mikoto - the brother of the sun goddess - is enshrined at Gion, and in order to relieve the sick, his spirit was carried in portable shrines (called mikoshi) through Kyoto. The plague promptly ended, and so the ceremony was repeated in times of need, until about 100 years later, when the Gion procession became an annual event.
Gion matsuri is associated with Gion shrine (also known as Yasaka shrine) and the wealthy merchants of the inner city. Throughout July, there are events of all sizes and many old machiya houses of the central district are open and their treasures are put on display.
The main events of Gion matsuri are certainly the two parades on July 17th and 24th, called the Saki and Ato Matsuri Grand Parade, respectively. Enormous hoko floats, 25 m high and weighing up to 12 tons are pulled through the streets by 30 - 40 men. On top of each hoko sit a number of musicians who play the characteristic Gion-bayashi tune of the festival on flutes, cymbals, and drums.
The smaller yama floats weigh about 1.5 tons and are elaborately decorated with priceless tapestries, many of them of foreign origin and dating back to the middle ages. On top of each yama float there is a scene from a well known Japanese or Chinese story depicted with life-sized wooden dolls, also elaborately dressed.
Other than this, there are many smaller events mostly at Yasaka shrine and throughout the inner city, as well as the famous yoiyama, a street festival that lasts three evenings where the inner city is transferred into a pedestrian area with lots of food stalls.
Let us have a look at the main events of Gion matsuri in July:
Yasaka shrine, from 10:00
The crew including the Chigo of the first float in the first parade will go to Yasaka shrine to pray for safety during the festival.
Yasaka shrine, from 16:30
A procession of men and children walk from Yasaka shrine along Shijo to Kawaramachi dori to welcome the mikoshi that will follow later in the evening.
Yasaka shrine, from 19:00
The three portable shrines which will house the gods during the festival will be carried to Kamogawa river and purified with its waters. Enormous torches made from straw and reeds will be carried before the mikoshi to purify Shijo street before them.
throughout inner city
The 23 yamahoko floats fo the first parade are constructed on the streets. They are made entirely out of wood - and without a single nail! Parts that are reused each year are stored in warehouses near Yasaka shrine or in the city.
throughout inner city
The people of each float community try pulling their hoko or yama. At this time, women and even children are allowed to do so as well - it is said to bring good luck to everybody who tries.
throughout inner city and Shijo dori to Yasaka shrine
The three nights before the Saki parade, the inner city of Kyoto turns into an enormous pedestrian zone. People are invited to see the finished yamahoko, and protective charms are available at each of them. The streets are lined with food stalls and souvenir stands; and this is one of the few times to see the Japanese letting their hair down, fully relaxed and at ease, and many wearing their summer kimono.
Shijo dori from 9:00
This is the first parade of Gion matsuri, where 23 yamahoko will pass through Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike dori. The official beginning is at 9:00 when the Chigo - a boy riding on the Naginata hoko - cuts a straw rope spanned across Shijo dori. The Naginata hoko always leads the Saki parade, and it is the only one that still has a Chigo riding it (some of the other hoko have dolls instead). After the Naginata hoko come the other 22 floats in the order of a lottery draw.
The best places to watch the parade are at the corners Shijo-Kawaramachi and Kawaramachi-Oike dori. There, the 12 ton hoko have to be turned by 90 degrees - with a lot of manpower instead of a steering wheel! For a good spot at a corner, you should be about one hour early. The whole parade may take up to two hours to pass any one spot on the route. Reserved seats (also for the Ato Parade on the 24th) are available at Oike dori in front of Kyoto City Hall and can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information center and the Kansai Tourist Information Center Kyoto.
Yasaka shrine, from 18:00
In the evening after the Saki parade, the three purified mikoshi of Yasaka shrine will be carried on different routes through the city to the Otabisho on Shijo dori, where they will remain for a week. This is the main religious event of Gion matsuri, and the one part that goes back more than 1000 years.
throughout inner city
The 10 yamahoko floats fo the first parade are constructed.
throughout inner city
The people of each float community try pulling or carrying their hoko or yama. Again, active participation is encouraged!
throughout inner city
This time, there are no food stalls, and no pedestrian party in the evenings, so the atmosphere is much more quiet. However, in the community houses of each yamahoko, folding screens, the original tapestries, and the yama displays can be seen up close. Usually, a small fee needs to be paid to do so. Souvenirs and protective charms are available at the houses again.
Oike Dori, from 9:30
This is the second parade of Gion matsuri, going in the opposite direction of the first one. It is traditionally ended by the large Ofune hoko, a float shaped like a boat, which has been reconstructed only a few years ago.
Yasaka Shrine, from 10:00
Some 10 large umbrella floats decorated with flowers depart from Yasaka shrine down Shijo dori. They will pass north through Teramachi dori and will immediately follow the Ato parade south through Kawaramachi dori.
Otabisho, from 17:00
The three mikoshi which have been on display at the Otabisho, will be carried back through the inner city to Yasaka shrine. When all of them have arrived there, the deities they carried, will be transferred back into the main shrine - in complete darkness. The Kanko Sai ends around midnight.
Yasaka shrine, from 20:30
As before on the 10th, the three mikoshi will be carried to the river to be purified before they are stored away until next year.
Yasaka Shrine, from 10:00
This summer purification rite marks the end of the month-long Gion festival. Passing through the chinowa wreath is meant as purification for the rest of the year.
Returning Ancestors in August
Obon is an ancient Buddhist rite to honour the spirits of one's ancestors. It is believed that the forefathers come to visit their former homes and thus, many people return there as well to pay their respects at the family grave. This makes Obon one of the busiest travel seasons in Japan, because even though Obon is not an official national holiday, many companies close and allow their employees a few days off.
In Kyoto, Obon takes place from 14th to 16th August, and it is all about lights and fire. On the first day of Obon, so-called chochin lanterns are lit inside houses or in graveyards as a welcome and guiding light for the homecoming spirits. In the countryside, people sometimes light little straw fires at the entrance gate to their properties to do that, but this is not customary (or rather: not allowed) in Kyoto city.
At the Higashi Otani cemetery, each tomb gets their own lantern when people visit their ancestors with offerings of food and sake. At night, the view from the top of the hill filled with lanterns down to the brightly lit inner city of Kyoto is spectacular.
During Obon, many temples in Kyoto hold special ceremonies called sento-kuyo or manto-kuyo (1000 or 10000 lights). People are invited to light candles or lanterns as prayer offerings to the Buddha and in remembrance of those who have passed away. Here are a few favourites, but there are many more smaller temples where this important event takes place.
August 5, lightup from sunset to 21:00
August 7 - 16, lightup from sunset to 21:00. On August 14, there is a special performance of Rokusai Nenbutsu dance/theater.
August 8 - 10 from 20:00 (light-up) and August 16 from 18:00 (send-off)
August 9 - 16, lightup from sunset to 21:00. At Mibudera, there are also performances of Rokusai Nenbutsu on August 9 and 16.
August 12, 18:00 - 20:00. During the Manto-e ceremony at Sanzen-in, the gardens are lit with many lanterns, and at the three halls of the temple a One Thousand Years of Prayer ritual will be held.
August 23, 24, from 17:30 - 20:30. Adashino Nenbutsu-ji is home to an ancient graveyard with hundreds of little statues and tombstones. In a touching ceremony, priests and visitors light candles at individual tombs. The local street leading up to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji is called Atago Furumichi and has a special lightup during this time with lantern designed by children.
Of course, it is always a good idea not to let the spirits linger for too long and to send them back to the land of the dead again sooner or later. Once more, this is done by lighting lanterns and fires, and in this, Kyoto overshadows all of Japan with the famous Gozan no Okuribi fires on August 16th, from 20:00.
Literally translated, Gozan no Okuribi means Five Mountains Sending Fire, but the ceremony is better known as the Daimonji, named after the mountain on which the first fire is lit. On five of the mountains surrounding Kyoto, huge bonfires in the shapes of Chinese characters and pictograms are lit to send the ancestral spirits off. The fires are lit in 5 minute intervals and burn for about 20 minutes each.
The first fire to be lit is the Dai - a character meaning great or large - on Mount Daimonji at 20:00. This is the most popular of the bonfires, and since it can be seen from all of Kamogamo river north of Sanjo bridge, it is very easy to get to. The best viewing spots for the Dai are at Demachiyanagi, which means it is very crowded there with Japanese wearing their yukata and sometimes even holding a picnic with food and sake.
The two characters meaning Myo-ho (wondrous Dharma) are lit at 20:05 on Mount Mantoro and Mont Daikokuten, respectively. The best viewing spots for these two fires are at the Takano river north of Takano bridge and Kitayama dori near Notre Dame University.
At 20:10 follows the Funagata fire in the shape of a large boat, on Mount Funayama. It can be admired from Kitayama dori again, this time north-west of Kitayama bridge is good.
The Hidari-dai, a smaller dai character located on Mount Okita, is lit at 20:15 and can best be seen from Nishioji dori near Kinkakuji.
At 20:20 the final Toriigata bonfire in the shape of a huge shrine gate is lit Mount Mandara in Arashiyama.This is the only one of the five fires that cannot be seen from the city of Kyoto, so you will have to visit the Matsuobashi bridge or Hirosawa pond in Arashiyama for the best view.
Since the fires are located on the mountains surrounding the city, there is no single point from which all five can be seen. Some of the hotels or companies in Kyoto offer special Daimonji viewing tickets for their roof terraces, however, from the top of Funaokayama Park near Kitaoji dori, the first four bonfires can be viewed for free. For the more adventurous, it may be possible - with a little planning and some sort of speedy transportation - to catch at least the first four fires from the places mentioned above in a single evening.
After the fires have gone out, there is one more, final Obon event: from 19:00 - 21:00 at the Togetsu-kyo Bridge at Nakanoshima Park in Arashiyama and at Hirosawa pond, paper lanterns are floated on the water, taking the souls of the ancestors with them and back to the realm of the dead. Why don't you go there and float your own lantern in remembrance of your loved ones?
Moon Viewing in September
Japanese people enjoy getting together for nature viewing, just think of the lively events around the cherry blossoms in spring. In summer, when the nights are hot, many temples and shrines host night time viewings of their gardens, lit up with colorful lights to emphasise their beauty.
The biggest nature viewing event during late summer is jugoya, often also called tsukimi, the viewing of the autumn harvest moon. Although all full moons are worth viewing, in Japan, the harvest moon is considered the brightest and most beautiful of them all.
The origins of this moon viewing event are unknown, but it probably comes from China and was introduced to Japan in the 8th century during the Nara period. From that time on, court nobles and aristocrats would meet for a boat ride to view the moon twofold, in the sky and in the lake, and tanka poems were made in celebration of the full moon. Traditionally, jugoya was held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calender, and the term ju-go-ya literally means the 15th night. When Japan introduced the solar calender during the Meiji era, jugoya was changed to be celebrated in September on the day of the full moon.
Note: Jugoya is tied to the full moon, so this festival has no fixed date. Usually, the jugoya celebrations take place in September during or around the full moon. However, the harvest full moon will fall into October in the years 2017, 2020, 2025, 2028, 2031, 2036, 2039. See our calendar for the current dates and times.
In the night of jugoya, and sometimes a day or two before or after, many shrines and temples perform special ceremonies in order to pray for a good harvest. They open their gardens during the night and provide entertainment like tea ceremonies or traditional dance and music performances. Just like in the ancient times, many Japanese like to visit ponds and take a boat ride, since it is considered very refined not to look at the moon directly, but rather to watch its image in the still waters of a lake.
As a special moonviewing snack, so-called tsukimi dango are sold, small sweet rice dumplings. Tsukimi dango are just white and round, just like the full moon, but there are other sweets shaped in the form of a white rabbit. After all, in the Asian tradition, it is a rabbit that lives in the moon. Children are taught a little song that goes like this:
Usagi, usagi nani mite haneru.
Jugoya o-tsuki-sama mite haneru.
Little rabbit, hopping around, what do you see?
When hopping around, I see the jugoya moon.
Kyoto boasts many wonderful places for moon viewing, and some of them were already popular in the Heian period. Here is our selection, but there are many more moon-viewing events in our calendar.
Kodai-ji offers a special moon watching tea ceremony in the weekends of the month of the autumn moon where you will be treated to tea and sweets and a wonderful view of the moon. This temple was founded in the 17th century and its garden is one of the Places of Scenic Beauty in Kyoto. A reservation for this tea ceremony is required. Check the homepage of Kodai-ji for more information (in Japanese).
The large Osawa pond of Daikaku-ji temple has attracted visitors for jugoya since the Heian period. A special ceremony will be held and you can take part in a dragon boat ride or tea ceremonies. The temple buildings, once home to a retired emperor, are open to visitors, and there are a food stalls on the temple grounds. Dragon boat ride and tea ceremony require additional tickets, they are sold on the day only and are available on a first-come first-serve basis. They may be sold out very quickly.
Another, more intimate place for a dragon boat ride is the pond at Shinsen-en temple. This often overlooked temple near Nijo castle is famous for its traditional water garden.
With its fantastic scenery of old trees, Shimogamo Shrine is the perfect backdrop for traditional dance and performances that change every year. Koto, shakuhachi, shamisen, gagaku music and dance are usually on the program. You can watch the performances for free, but if you but a ticket for a seat, you are also invited to a cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Performances start at 18:00. For more info about Shimogamo Shrine, see our Highlight for July 2018.
The beautiful garden of Murin-an, also designated as Place of Scenic Beauty, is another great spot for moon viewing. At Murin-an, you can enjoy a traditional moon viewing party with a light meal and a tea ceremony with a limited number of people. A reservation is required. Check the homepage of Murin-an for more information (in English and Japanese).
Third "Big 3 Event" in October
Jidai Matsuri is the last of the three great festivals that take place in Kyoto every year and feature large parades, after the Aoi matsuri in May and the Gion matsuri in July. Literally, Jidai matsuri means Era Festival, but it is more commonly translated into English as Festival of the Ages.
This festival is comparatively young - it first took place in 1895, 1100 years after Kyoto had become the capital of Japan, and only a few years after the Meiji emperor moved to Tokyo after the restoration. Like most festivals in Japan, Jidai matsuri is connected to a shrine, in this case to Heian shrine. Heian Jingu was built in 1895 as a 2/3 replica of the former imperial palace, and enshrines both the first and the last emperor that reigned from Kyoto, Emperor Kanmu and Emperor Komei, respectively.
Jidai matsuri was established to commemorate the history of Kyoto as capital of Japan, and about 2000 people take part in the procession each year, dressed in historical costumes that showcase more than a millenium of key events and famous people. The parade starts at noon at the Imperial Palace and is led by the mayor of Kyoto and other city officials in a horse carriage from the mid 19th century. From there, the parade literally goes back in time, from the Edo period - 250 years that make up the largest part of the parade - to the Muromachi period, and all the way to the early Heian period of the 11th century. At the very end of the parade there are two portable mikoshi shrines carrying the spirits of Emperor Kanmu and Emperor Komei back to Heian Shrine, from which they had come early that same morning.
Most of the participants depict warriors and famous samurai, for example Oda Nobunaga, a contemporary of the first shogun Tokugawa Iyeyasu and of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who is also present. However, famous women are also represented, among them Tomoe Gozen, a fearless female warrior immortalized in the Heike Monogatari. Of course, Murasaki Shikibu, writer of the epic Genji Monogatari as well as her imperial court rival, Sei Shonagon, writer of The Pillowbook, are part of the parade as well. Some of the most famous and elegant women of the parade are depicted each year by Maiko from Kyoto. Strewn throughout are many common people too in the appropriate attire and there are foot soldiers and pages, merchants and Ohara-me, women selling flowers and wood from the northern outskirts of Kyoto.
Many locals take part in the parade, and for each segment of the parade, a specific part of Kyoto city is responsible. The locals from there are responsible for producing and maintaining the costumes and props and in return get to choose who will participate in the parade itself.
What makes Jidai Matsuri so attractive to watch is the enormous amount of detail that goes into the costume design and the props that are used. From the clothing (some fabric is dyed according to ancient procedures) and the appropriate hairstyle down to the straw sandals and other accessories like helmets, jewelry, fans, weapons, and even the water buckets for the horses, everything has been meticulously researched and recreated, sometimes using very old traditional methods. It is like watching history unfolding itself - an occasion no real Japan afficionado should miss.
Insider tip: If you come to the Imperial Palace Gardens some time before the official start, you can see the participants gathering there before the parade. Most of them will be happy to answer questions and have their pictures taken from close by - go give it a try!
The procession of the Jidai Matsuri goes back in time from the Meiji period of the late 19th century to the Heian period. First there is the Imperial Army in the Meiji Restoration, followed by the patriots in the Meiji Restoration. Next, a deputy of the Tokugawa Shogun pays a courtesy call to the emperor, followed by ladies from the Edo Period. Moving on to the Azuchi–Momoyama period with the Procession of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Nobunaga Oda’s entry into Kyoto in 1658. Afterwards, a procession of the Shogunate of the Muromachi period is followed by ordinary people showing life in 14th century Japan. The Kamakura period is represented by general Masashige Kusunoki followed by ladies in medieval dress, and by yabusame archers. Court nobles, and famous ladies depict the Heian period of the 8th - 12th century, followed by warriors and nobles of the Enryaku Period, when the capital moved to Kyoto. Towards the end of the Jidai Matsuri procession are offerings to the deities of Heian shrine, two sacred ox-carriages and Shirakawa-me women with flowers dedicated to the shrine. A company of archers is the rear guard that ends the procession.
Departure at the Imperial Palace from 12:00 - Marutamachi dori - Karasuma dori ca. 12:30 - Oike dori ca. 12:50 - Kawaramachi dori ca. 13:20 - Sanjo dori ca. 13:30 - Jingu dori ca. 14:15 - Arrival at Heian Shrine around 14:30
The whole procession takes about 2 hours to pass any one point. The most scenic viewing spots are at the start and finish of the parade, in the Imperial Palace and at Heian Shrine. This event is free, but special paid seats are available at the palace, along Oike dori, and along Jingu dori in front of Heian Shrine. Standard tickets come with a pamphlet, but there are also tickets with an English audioguide for addional infomation as the parade passes by. Both types of tickets can be bought in advance at the Kyoto Tourist Information Center at Kyoto Station, the Tourist Information Center at Kawaramachi-Sanjo, and the Kansai Tourist Information Center Kyoto by JTB in Kyoto Tower. Note that tickets are not refundable - the procession will be postponed to the next day in case of rain.
Blazing Maples in November
Come November, autumn has arrived in Japan and it is slowly getting colder. There are still many beautiful sunny days with blue sky, but with the night temperature dropping further and further, the time for the koyo has arrived. Koyo is the Japanese version of Indian summer, and when the mountains are ablaze with yellow, orange, and red maple trees (called momiji), the Japanese go out to enjoy the last colours before winter. In fact, the momiji season is just as popular for travelling as are the hanami cherry blossoms in spring, and there are many people in hiking gear on the streets and in public transportation.
The maple leaves typically begin to turn after a sharp drop in temperature, and in Kyoto, the best time for momijigari - the hunt for the momiji leaves - usually starts in mid November and lasts some two or three weeks. During this time, many temples hold special lightups during the evenings to enjoy the momiji. The lights emphasise the different colours of the maple leaves and create dreamy landscapes that seem quite unreal.
Just like cherry blossoms in spring, the koyo are hard to miss and you don’t really need to hike long distances onto steep mountains to enjoy them. Just strolling through Kyoto is enough, but the best locations are along the mountains of Higashiyama and Arashiyama. Below are a few popular spots to admire the autumn colours. For details on evening lightups, check our event calendar.
Kyoto is filled with beautiful maple trees, and the Imperial Palace and the Botanical Gardens are a good place to start your momijigari. A popular destination in the Higashiyama moutains is Nanzen-ji temple and from there you can take the Philosopher’s Walk all the way to Ginkakuji Temple, and lots of private gardens along the way shoff off their beautifully coloured trees. The sprawling Enryakuji temple on top of Mount Hiei takes time to visit, but walking through the autumn forest is worth it. Arashiyama as seen from Togetsukyo Bridge is fantastic, but if you want it a bit more quiet, you should make your way to Adashino Nenbutsu-ji along a number of beautiful quiet temples.
For a more leisurely approach, try the Sagano Romantic Train. The track passes along the Katsura River with a wild scenery and through 8 tunnels to Kameoka. You can also take a boat ride on the river near Togetsukyo Bridge for a completely different point of view.
For a full koyo immersion, take the Eizan Railway to Kurama. Between Ichihara and Ninose stations, there is the so-called momiji tunnel, where trees from left and right the rail track form a colorful tunnel for the train to pass through. Don’t worry about missing it: there are special cars with glass ceilings, and the train goes extra slowly though the tunnel to make enough time for photos. The momiji tunnel is even lit up during the evenings.
Many a temple in Kyoto has maple trees in the garden. Visit Tofukuji, where Tsutenkyo Bridge spans a valley full of momiji, or Eikan-do, where the temple’s covered walkways allow a multi-level view on the trees. Ruriko-in at the foot of Mount Hiei and Jisso-in in Iwakura have polished dark floors that mirror the bright colors of the momiji. Kinkakuji and Ryoanji have extensive gardens that are particularly beautiful in autumn. Kogenji and Hogonin, both sub-temples of Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama, are filled with maples on mossy grounds.
Popular places for evening lightups are Kodai-ji and Entokuin, as well as Toji temple and Shoren-in. Or go all the way to Kiyomizudera, or even better, up to Shogunzuka for a nightly view that includes the eastern part of the city. The gardens are typically lit from sunset to about 21:00.
Ringing the Bells in December
December is probably the busiest month in Japan. Everybody is scrambling to find time buying End-of-Year presents, writing dozens of New Year's cards, and attending End-of-Year parties. Since Christmas is not celebrated in Japan and thus no public holiday, life only slows down in the last few days towards New Year's Eve.
New Year's Eve in Japan - and especially in Kyoto - is a quiet and spiritual observance, very far removed from the noisy parties and fireworks of the Western world. Most people visit their parents during this time - the first three days of January are national holidays - and together they may visit a temple to watch or even participate in the Joya-no-kane.
The Joya-no-kane is an important Buddhist ceremony. Almost all Buddhist temples in Japan have a large temple bell, and at Joya-no-kane at New Year's Eve, this temple bell is struck 108 times. This number represents the 108 worldly desires according to Buddhist teaching, and each time the bell is struck, those who listen to the bell are cleared from this particular desire. The ancient tradition dictates that the first 107 times the bell rings in the old year, and the final, 108th time takes place the New Year. Listening to the temple bells echoing through the cold and quiet winter night of Kyoto is truly a spiritual experience.
If mere listening is not enough, we can recommend the following places to watch or even participate in the Joya-no-kane celebrations in Kyoto.
December 31st, from 8 pm
Chion-in is the most famous temple for Joya-no-kane in Kyoto - the event draws some 30,000 visitors each year! The bell of Chion-in is one of the largest in Japan: with a height of 3.3 metres and a diameter of 2.8 metres. It weighs about 70 tons and ringing it requires 17 monks!
The temple gates of Chion-in open at 8 pm; there will be sutra readings at 10:20 and 10:35. The bell ringing itself starts at about 10:40, with intervals of about 1 minute. Note that there is a one-way path through the temple precincts and that the entrance gates will be closed again at 11 pm (or earlier if it is very crowded).
December 31st, from about 11 pm
As mentioned above, many temples celebrate the Joya-no-kane, and some of them even allow visitors to ring the bell! A popular spot for DIY Joya-no-kane is Kurodani temple near Heian shrine. The ceremony starts at about 11 pm, there are prayers in the temple's main hall throughout, and free hot tea and amazake will be offered to the participants.
December 31st, from about 11 pm
Nearby Kurodani Temple lies Shinnyodo Temple, where you can also help with the bell ringing. This temple is especially popular among foreigners living in Kyoto. Hot tea and amazake will be offered to the participants here as well.
Japan's ancient Shinto religion is still a part of everyday life, and shrines of all sizes with their vermillion torii are ubiquitous, even in the biggest cities. There are countless festivals that are celebrated in a unique way at every shrine in the country. Out of the hundreds of shrines in Kyoto, we picked the Top 12 Kyoto Shrines that are among the oldest in Japan. Some are popular and can get very crowded during big festivals, while others still have a very local and quiet feeling. What they have in common are the exciting traditional events that are taking place there throughout the year. Click the images and find out more.
At the Heart of Gion
Happy New Year! In the first three days of the New Year, Japanese people visit a shrine to pray for a healthy and successful year to come. One of the most popular shrines in Kyoto for this hatsumode is Yasaka Jinja, drawing millions of visitors each year.
Yasaka Jinja is conveniently situated in Kyoto's Gion district at the eastern end of Shijo dori. Locals call it intimately Gion San, and the annual shrine festival in July – Gion Matsuri – is the most famous and popular festival in Japan.
Originally called Gion-sha, the shrine was founded in 656, more than 130 years before Kyoto. Its main deity is Susano'o-no-mikoto (the brother of the sun goddess); his wife Kushi-inada-hime-no-mikoto and their eight children Yahashira-no-mikogami are enshrined here as well. As the main shrine for Susano'o-no-mikoto (with more than 3000 affiliated shrines), it became one of the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities in 994. During the Meiji Restauration, when a clearer distinction between Shinto and Buddhism was drawn, the shrine was renamed Yasaka, and between 1871 and 1946, it was among the Kanpei Taisha, the special government supported shrines.
The grounds of Yasaka Jinja lie between Higashioji dori and Maruyama park, a popular spot for hanami, cherry blossom viewing. The vermillion Romon gate from 1497 marks its Western entrance and the end of Shijo dori. It houses two statues of Zuishin warriors to guard the shrine together with two pairs of koma-inu lion dogs, a metal pair in front, and a pair carved from stone behind the gate. This imposing gate, overlooking Gion from the top of stone steps, is one of the most recognisable landmarks of Kyoto, and a popular meeting spot for both locals and visitors alike.
However, the official main entrance to the shrine is in the south, marked by a large stone torii. Constructed in 1646, it is 9.5 m high, and one of the largest stone torii in Japan. Stepping through the south gate, at the right hand side there is the Noh stage, used throughout the year for various events. Straight ahead lies the dance stage, where the three mikoshi portable shrines are placed at Gion Matsuri, and behind that lies the main hall of Yasaka Shrine. Built in 1654 on orders of Shogun Ietsuna (like all other current shrine buildings), it combines the honden inner sanctuary and haiden offering hall under a single roof. This makes the main hall of Yasaka shrine the largest of any shrine in Japan, and the only one to do so! By the way, the style of this unique building – with projecting roof not only in front, but also on the sides – has received the name Gion style.
Inside the precincts of Yasaka shrine are many smaller shrines devoted to other deities. For example, at the Utsukushi-gozen shrine, people sprinkle a bit of water on their faces to enhance their beauty. The Hamono shrine is for cutlery, knives, and swords. And the god of enmusubi residing at the Okuninushi shrine hears – and hopefully answers – prayers for love relationships, new and old ones.
The most striking feature of Yasaka shrine, however, are the many lanterns. The paper lanterns hung at the dance stage and the southern entrance gate all bear the names of the local businesses that have donated them to the shrine in hope to prosper. And throughout the shrine grounds, there are beautiful wooden toro lanterns, painted in bright vermillion. As one of few large shrines in Kyoto, the grounds of Yasaka Jinja are open 24/7. In the night, all the lanterns are lit and give the shrine a special atmosphere.
Why not visit Yasaka Jinja for your own hatsumode at New Year? You can pray to Susano'o-no-mikoto for protection and good luck throughout the year, of course. Don't forget to buy the special protective charm for your house that is only available at Yasaka Jinja!
Below are a few of the other events taking place in Yasaka Jinja over the year. You can find even more in our main event calendar. Enjoy!
01, 5:00 Okera-sai People light little straw ropes on the shrine's sacred fire and use it at home to light the first fire in their own hearth.
03, 13:00 Karuta Hajime Shiki Karuta is a traditional card game from Japan. This first game of the year – played by people in gorgeous old costumes – is dedicated to the deities of the shrine.
9 and 10 Ebisu-sha-sai Ebisu is one of the seven lucky gods. From 15:00 on the 9th, there is a parade of the seven lucky gods (shichifukujin) around Shijo dori, and on the 10th, there special prayers for prosperity and family security will be said.
2 and 3 Setsubun This festival is related to the old New Year celebrations taking place at lunar New Year. At 11:00 (only on the 3rd), 13:00 and 15:00, Geisha from all of Kyoto's hanamachi districts will dedicate dances to the deity and scatter beans and rice cakes. On both days, you can get lucky beans and sweet Amazake at the shrine. Find out more about Setsubun in our February 2017 Highlight.
11, 10:00 Kigen-sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan. Prayers for prosperity and happiness are said, and a special Seishin-ryu Ginbu dance will be performed.
14, 7:30 – 9:30 Mikagura-hono Kagura is a special, sacred dance and music. It is performed on this day early in the morning to honor the gods.
15, 10:00 Rei-sai Today is a special day connected with the deity, and a large festival is held. Again, Kagura dance will be dedicated to the gods. Later, from 15:00, there is a special performance of traditional tanka poetry.
Gion Matsuri – see our July 2017 Highlight!
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November
3, 10:00 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are said in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
3 Bugaku-hono Bugaku is dance and music that has been performed exclusively at the Japanese court for more than 1200 years. Opened to the general public only after WWII, this is a special dedication to the deities of Yasaka shrine.
28, 4:00 Sanka-shiki The chief priest of Yasaka shrine lights the Okera Toro lantern. This fire, produced with a mallet and mortar made from hinoki wood is kept burning in the shrine throughout the year.
31, 15:00 Oharae-shiki A ceremony to purify oneself from the sins of the preceding year.
31, 19:00 Joya-sai The Okera fire lit two days ago will be moved to two lanterns. People carry this fire home to ignite a candle on their own altar at home.
31, 22:00 Imamiyaebisu-jinja tai hono In this interesting ceremony, the last one before the New Year, the Imamiyaebisu shrine offers breams to Yasaka shrine.
All photos copyright Yasaka Jinja.
Tucked Away Under the Trees
February is usually the coldest month in Kyoto, and the ancient setsubun festival is meant to dispel various demons trying to invade the city. The most popular of Kyoto's setsubun festivals takes place in Yoshida Shrine on February 2nd and 3rd.
Yoshida shrine is quietly tucked away on one of the Higashiyama mountains, and its proximity to Kyoto University makes it a popular spot for students for a stroll or a quick prayer before an exam.
Yoshida shrine was founded in 859 by Fujiwara Yamakage. It is home to four main deities, the kami of Kasuga: Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto (the god of thunder) and Ihainushi-no-mikoto (who both ward off evil and grant good fortune), Ame-no-Koyane-no-Mikoto (a scholarly god) and Hime-gami (a goddess giving special blessings to women); the latter two are married and bestow their blessings on other married couples. In 991, Yoshida shrine was added to the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities. During the Muromachi period, so-called Yoshida Shinto was founded, with the goal to re-establish a clear distinction between Shinto and Buddhism. Thus, throughout the end of the Edo period, Yoshida shrine was granted the right to award ranks to almost all of the shrines and priests in Japan. Between 1871 and 1946, Yoshida shrine ranked among the Kampei Chusha, special government supported shrines.
Yoshida Shrine is located on Yoshidayama, a part of the Higashiyama mountains in the east of Kyoto. The precincts are extensive and embedded into the forest, which gives the shrine a very quiet, serene, and cool atmosphere. The honden of the shrine is accessed over steps at the eastern end of Higashi Ichijo Dori, which passes by Kyoto University. The main structure contains four smaller honden, each housing one of the four enshrined main kami. They are built in the traditional Shinto style with Japanese hinoki thatched roofs and red coloured wood beams.
On leaving this part of the shrine towards the south, there is the statue of a deer. Deer were seen as messengers of the gods, which explains their presence in large temple and shrine complexes like Nara or Miyajima. As for this particular one, the four kami of Kasuga first descended from heaven in Nara, and then rode further to Kyoto on a deer.
Walking further to the south, uphill, there is the Saijoshi Daigengu (literally: Ceremonial Site and Shrine of the Great Origin). The Daigengu, now a national treasure, was built in 1484 by Yoshida Kanetomo, the founder of Yoshida Shinto. This octagonal building with traditionally thatched roof is very unusual, and it enshrines all 3,132 kami of Japan. It is said that when praying there, one simultaneously prays to all the Shinto gods of Japan, a potent prayer indeed. Usually, the grounds of the Daigengu are closed to the public, but they are opened at New Year, Setsubun, and on every first day of each month.
As usual in Shinto, many smaller shrines can be found on the precincts of the shrine. For example, both Fujiwara Yamakage and Yoshida Kanetomo are said to be buried here. And, if you are into cooking, the Yamakage shrine is home to the god of cooking, and Kaso shrine to the deity of sweets.
Yoshida Shrine has close ties to Kyoto University, ever since the priests of the shrine performed the school's groundbreaking ceremony. Some people ascribe the great success of Kyoto University – a large number of Japan's Nobel Prize winners are its alumni – to the tutelage of the shrine. In any case, there is a popular dormitory song called Kurenai Moyuru, singing about the beauty of Mt. Yoshida. Its text is inscribed on the Kurenai Moyuru Monument that can be found on the grounds of Yoshida Shrine. It was erected in 1957 by the 3rd Higher School Alumni Association to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of that school – now known as Kyoto University.
Not only is Yoshida shrine popular among students, professors, and alumni, its quite central location and quiet surroundings attract many couples for their wedding ceremonies. And even though the shrine offices close at 17:00, the grounds remain open and the surrounding trees make strolling the mountain very pleasant at any time.
If you're in town for the setsubun festival, Yoshida Jinja is the place to go. If not, well, it is always wise to pray for more wisdom, of course.
Below is a list of more events taking place in Yoshida Jinja over the year. You can find even more in our main event calendar. Enjoy!
1, 7:30 Prayers for the New Year This is part of the hatsumode celebrations.
2 and 3 Setsubun The setsubun celebrations at Yoshida Jinja are the largest and most popular in Kyoto. More than 800 food stalls are set up each year in the shrine precincts, and the Daigengu is open for prayers on both days. Find out more about the setsubun ceremony in our February 2017 Highlight. On February 2nd, from 18:00, the ceremony to drive out the demons is taking place. And on February 3rd, from 23:00, an enormous bonfire will be lit, ritually burning old charms from the year before.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This ceremony takes place to commemorate the founding of the nation.
18, 10:30 Reisai Festival Catch a glimpse of the history of Yoshida Shrine in this very special and solemn ceremony in memory of the founding of Yoshida Shrine. Note that the public is not allowed to participate, but may watch from the back of the shrine.
19, 10:30 Kasojinja Festival This is the spring festival of the god for confectionaries. Maybe go and ask for less temptation?
8, 14:00 Yamakage Shrine Festival Yamakage Shrine offeres blessings and protection to Kyoto's restaurants and food industry. Today, a special ritual, the shiki-bouchou, is performed, where a large fish is cut using only knife and chopsticks to honor the gods.
30, 16:00 Nagoshi no Harae In this summer ritual, people walk through a large chinowa wreath to purify themselves for the rest of the year. More than 1000 people are taking part each year, and all participants will receive a small chinowa to take home. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
8, 10:30 Kencha-sai Tea Festival.
Last Sunday, 10:30 Kaguraoka Shrine Festival A lovely small festival where three mikoshi are carried through the neighborhood by students of Kyoto University, accompanied by local children. The mikoshi depart at around 11:00.
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November
3, 9:30 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are made in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
11, 11:00 Kasojinja Festival This is the fall festival of the god of confectionaries.
31, 15:00 Oharae-sai A final purification ritual takes place before the new year starts.
Photos # 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8 copyright Yoshida Jinja.
At the Source of the Stream
During March, winter slowly gives way to spring, and it is time to start preparing for the work on the fields. Even though it is still very cold in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, Kifune shrine celebrates the Amagoi Festival, a unique rain calling ritual, on March 9th.
Kifune Shrine is a lovely little shrine in three parts – the Hongu, Nakamiya and Okumiya – in the north-eastern part of Kyoto. Not easy to reach, its quiet surroundings and refreshing climate make it a great destination for those who want to leave the beaten tracks.
An exact foundation date of Kifune Shrine is not known, but it is estimated to be around 1600 years old. It is known, however, that in 818 the emperor visited the shrine to pray for the end of a draught. Kifune enshrines Taka-okami-no-kami and Kura-okami-no-kami (at the Hongu and Okumiya, respectively; both seen as the manifestation of one serpent dragon god, who controls water), and Iwanagahime (the goddess of matchmaking, residing at the Nakamiya). As the main shrine for the god of water (with some 500 affiliated shrines throughout Japan today), it became one of the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities in 965. And between 1871 and 1946, it ranked among the Kanpei Chusha, the second rank of government supported shrines.
The first thing one sees of Kifune shrine is a red torii on the left side of the road through Kibune. Behind it, there are prominent, lantern-lined stone steps, leading up to the Hongu outer shrine. Behind the gate on top of the steps, a little square opens up, and a few more steps lead to the honden, the main building of the shrine. The honden of Kifune shrine is built in the nagare zukuri style with a characteristic, beautifully curved roof. Most of the events of Kifune shrine take place in the honden, and this is also where you can buy omamori charms and omikuji fortune slips.
In the wall on the left side of the honden is a little spring called goshinsui. Its water is pure spring water, filtered by the mountains and forests surrounding the village. There are people who take it home for cooking or tea ceremony, and it is said that the spring has never run dry since the establishment of the shrine.
Leaving the honden and turning left, there are two large horse statues. In the old times, when the emperor still lived in Kyoto, he used to send horses to Kifune shrine as offering to the god of water. A black horse was sent as a prayer for rain to come, and a white horse was sent for the rain to stop. In modern times, it became troublesome to give and take care of many horses, so over time, wooden ema tablets with horse images started to be presented as prayer to the gods. Thus, this shrine is also known to be the origin of ema tablets.
Pass by the horses, leave the Hongu through its northern gate, and go further north in the village, and you will come across the middle shrine, called Nakamiya or Yui-no-yashiro. This is where Iwanagahime resides, the goddess of matchmaking. Rejected by a lover (her father sent both her and her sister to the man, but he sent Iwanagahime back), she angrily decided to help everyone else to find their match. And, many legends confirm her powers: Most famously, Izumi Shikibu, famed love poetess of the Heian period, prayed for love in a sad poem at the shrine, and was promptly reconciled with her husband. Her poem is now carved on a stone monument near the Yui-no-yashiro.
Note that the sought-for relationship need not be romantic, connections between businesses, getting a new job, even having children, count as well. In former days, people would write their wishes on thin green leaves and tie them onto the shrine, but nowadays – to protect the building – people write on green strips of paper and tie them onto a designated spot.
At the very end of the valley, and at the end of a lantern-lined foot path, lies the Okumiya inner shrine. This is the spot of the original Kifune shrine, until a flooding in the 11th century forced people to move the main hall to its present location. According to legend, Kifune shrine came into being as follows: The goddess Tamayorihime, mother of first emperor Jimmu, appeared in Osaka Bay, and commanded that, in search of the origin of this water, wherever her yellow ship would land, a shrine was to be built. And, lo and behold: Her ship went all the way via the Yodo and Kamogawa river to the end of Kibune valley, where spring water was gushing out from a well (the ryu ketsu dragon's cave) where indeed a shrine was built and called ki-fune, for her yellow boat. There is a prominent mound of stones, called Funagata-ishi, to the left of the entrance to the Okumiya, and legend has is that Tamayorihime's yellow boat is buried beneath it.
The Okumiya is a rather special building, since it is built above a well called ryu ketsu (dragon's). There are only two more shrines like that in Japan, in Nara and Okayama. Since the Okumiya is a the very end of the valley, it is a wonderfully peaceful place surrounded by enormous trees making the spot truly mystic, regardless of the season.
The shrine is very popular among people whose businesses have to do with water: agriculture, fishing, brewing, dyeing; but also people working in fire departments, and people related to the marine business and sailors come to pray to the god of rain and water for safety on their sea voyage. When visiting Kifune shrine, many people first go to pay their respects at the Hongu main shrine, then at the Okumiya inner shrine, and finally, on the way back, they pray at the Yui-no-yashiro. This is considered the traditional way of visiting all three parts of the shrine.
Kifune shrine is worth a visit in any season. Since it is in the mountains, it is always cooler than in Kyoto city, which means snowy winters and breezy summers. Don't forget to buy lucky charms! There is a special mizu mamori charm, or you could try a mizura omikuji to reveal your fortune – hopefully a good one – when placed in the water at the shrine. Don't worry if you don't speak Japanese – each fortune slip is equipped with a QR code which you can scan to hear your fortune in four languages!
There are many interesting and very special events taking place in Kifune Jinja throughout the year. Have a look below, or check our event calendar. Enjoy!
1, 2:00 Wakamizu Shinji New Year's Festival as part of the hatsumode celebrations.
7, 11:00 Wakana Shinji This is also part of the New Year's celebrations – rice porridge with seven herbs is prepared and served to prevent sickness in the coming year.
3, 11:00 Setsubun This festival is related to the old New Year celebrations taking place at Lunar New Year. Find out more about the setsubun ceremony in our February 2017 Highlight.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan by the first emperor Jimmu.
3, 11:00 Toka Shinji Peach Blossom Festival in celebration of Girl's Day.
9, 10:00 Amagoi Festival An ancient ceremony to pray for just the right amount of rain in the next year to ensure a plentiful harvest.
5, 11:00 Shobu Shinji Celebrations for Boy's Day.
1, 11:00 Kifune Matsuri This all-day festival celebrates the establishment of Kifune Shrine in grand style. From 11:00, there will be offerings at the main shrine including a sacred dance performance. The mikoshi will depart at 13:00 and be carried to the Okumiya. There, more rituals will take place, again including sacred dances plus an Izumo Kagura, reenacting an old story of the slaying of two water serpents.
30, 13:00 Nagoshi no Oharae Purification ritual involving walking though a large chinowa wreath. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
7, 10:00 Mizu Matsuri A festival to thank the gods for plentiful rainfall. Green tea is prepared for the gods, and a special ceremony of preparing fish without using hands (called shikibouchou) is performed. (Note: If July 7th falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the ceremony is held on the following Monday (as in 2018 and 2019))
7, 13:00 Tanabata Festival The festival of the star-crossed lovers that are only allowed to meet on this day. People write their wishes for love onto a piece of paper and tie it to bamboo. (Note: If July 7th falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the ceremony starts at 11:00 (as in 2018 and 2019))
July 1 - Aug 15, dusk - 20:00 Tanabata Decorations Light-Up The entire area will be decorated with Tanabata bamboo ornaments with lights for illumination. Write your wish on a paper tanzaku for 100 yen and tie it to one of the bamboos.
9, 11:00 Kikka Shinji A small cup of sake with chrysanthemum blossoms is offered to visitors.
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November
3, 10:00 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are made in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
7, 11:00 Ohitaki Fire Festival A large pyre is prepared at Kifune Shrine and ritually burned after prayers have been said.
31, 16:00 Shiwasu-no-Oharae End of Year purification ceremony to cleanse oneself for the New Year to come.
All photos courtesy of Kifune Shrine. Photos # 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14 copyright ©yasuhiro imamiya
Majestic in Okazaki
In April, we celebrate the awakening of Kyoto's cherry blossoms with outdoor picnics and leisurely strolls. One of the best places to view the sakura is the garden of Heian Jingu, which celebrates its most important festival – the Reisei Festival – on April 15th.
Heian Jingu is a large shrine situated in Okazaki, the eastern part of Kyoto. Its colorful buildings are replicas of ancient Heian Palace, giving the shrine a very imposing and stately atmosphere. Its large courtyard is used for a number of Kyoto's grand scale events, the most important being the Jidai Matsuri in October.
Heian Jingu is among the newest shrines of Japan. It was built in 1895 as part of the Industrial Exhibition Fair, to commemorate the 1100 year anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto, then known as Heian-kyo. The shrine was kept after the fair, and over time, more buildings were added. Also the main kami of the shrine grew over time. In the beginning, Heian Jingu only enshrined emperor Kanmu, the founder of Kyoto. However, in 1940, emperor Komei was deified and, as the last emperor to reside in Kyoto, was also enshrined here. The shrine is popular with the locals because it was a sign to halt Kyoto's decline after the capital had moved to Tokyo. So, when it burnt down completely due to arson in 1976, it only took three years to rebuild it - Kyoto's citizens had donated the money for its reconstruction. Today, Heian Jingu is among the Beppyo Jinja, the top-ranked Shinto shrines of Japan, and is also considered an Important Cultural Property.
Heian Jingu as a whole is a replica of the ancient imperial palace Daidairi, built at the founding of Kyoto, and destroyed in 1227. The shrine is built in the official compound structure style called Chodo-in, on a 5/8-scale of the original. The final designs were made by architectural historian Ito Chuta, and the colorful buildings and vast spaces have a distinct Chinese charm, that was very popular during the Heian period.
The first building to greet visitors is the impressive, two-storey Otenmon Gate in vermillion, green, and white, once the main gate of the Heian palace. However, the official entrance to the shrine is 500 m further to the south, at the huge torii, one of Kyoto's landmarks. Interestingly, it was erected only in 1929, when, with a height of 24,4 m and legs that boast a diameter of 3,6 m, it was the largest torii in Japan.
Passing through the Otenmon gate, the shrine opens up into a large courtyard, at the north of which lies the Daigokuden, the Great Hall of State, where once the emperor conducted the state affairs. The Daigokuden is divided into three parts: In the Gaihaiden front shrine, people come to worship and buy good luck charms. Behind it lies the inner sanctuary, which was once used only for imperial ceremonies, but today, shinto ceremonies like weddings or the popular shichi-go-sai shrine visits for kids take place here. At the very back lies the main sanctuary, where the shrine's kami reside and only the priests have access.
At the eastern and western end of the courtyard lie two towers called Soryu-ro (blue dragon tower) and Byakko-ro (white tiger tower), respectively. Those two animals are guardians of the east and west directions, and they adorn two fountains nearby the entrance. Of course, there are also guardians of the north (Genbu, a black snake-turtle) and south (Suzaku, a vermillion bird). Images of the four animals can be found on the iron lanterns present throughout the shrine.
A very interesting feature of Heian Jingu is its large public garden, 33.000 m2 hidden behind the buildings. It is particularly famous for its weeping cherry trees. Construction of the Shinen Garden, which is divided into four parts, started already in 1895, but it took 20 years to complete. Today, the entrance is at a gate at the western end of the courtyard, and directly behind it lies the South or Heian Garden, with some 200 species of plants that are mentioned in Heian era literature. It is also the resting place of Japan's oldest street car that once ran through Kyoto.
Further along the path lie the West-, Middle-, and Eastern Gardens. They were designed by famous Kyoto gardener Ueji VII (aka Jihei Ogawa), whose style is readily recognized. Unusual for a Shinto garden, Shinen is centered around large ponds that draw water from the Lake Biwa Canal, and are home to rare turtles and fish.
In the West Garden, Byakko-ike pond shows about 2000 Irises, representing the 200 species that grow in Japan. The Middle Garden follows with Soryu-ike pond that is crossed by stepping stones called Garyuko. Those stones were once part of old Sanjo and Gojo bridges built in the 16th century. However, the final East Garden is the largest one, with Seiho-ike pond at its center, and many weeping cherries all over. The big attraction here is the covered bridge Taiheikaku, a gift from the imperial palace in the 1970s. The ceremonial hall Shobikan, that is reached after crossing the bridge, was also an imperial gift, and today it is used for the weddings that take place at the shrine or the popular Benishidare concerts.
Heian Jingu is one of Kyoto's landmark shrines and should not be missed! And the gardens, while fascinating throughout the year, are especially beautiful during cherry blossom season.
Here are a few of the events taking place at Heian Jingu each year. Have a look below, or check our event calendar.
1, 6:00 Saitan-sai New Year's Festival as part of the hatsumode celebrations. Prayers for world peace and prosperity for Kyoto's citizens will be said, and the shrine's miko will dance a special dance.
15, 9:30 Seijin-sai Today is the national holiday Seijin-no-hi - Coming of Age Day. Young adults that turned 20 in the last year celebrate by visiting a shrine.
3, 11:30 Setsubun Heian Shrine dedicates all day to Setsubun, from the Kyogen performance starting at 11:30 and the demon chasing ceremony starting at 14:00 to the bean scattering at 15:00 and the final bonfire from 16:00. Find out more about the setsubun ceremony in our February 2017 Highlight.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan by the first emperor Jimmu.
4 evenings during Sakura Season Benishidare Concert During cherry blossom season, there is an evening lightup in the Shinen Garden. While strolling through the gardens, people can enjoy live music by renowned Japanese artists.
15, 10:00 Reisai Festival Day I The most important festival of Heian Jingu: It celebrates the ascension of emperor Kanmu to the throne in 781. Solemn prayers take place from 10:00.
16, 10:00 Reisai Festival Day II A continuation of yesterday's festival. From 10:00, there are a number of traditional events: Maiko dance, koto and gagaku music, tea ceremonies etc.
1 & 2, 18:00 Takigi Noh This is a special open air performance of Noh and Kyogen. See the official Takigi Noh Website for more information.
30, 13:00 Nagoshi no Oharae Purification ritual involving walking though a large chinowa wreath. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
19, 8:30 - 17:00 Free Admission to the Shinen Gardens
last Sunday, 9:00 Sencha Tea Festival The masters of Kyoto's sencha and kencha schools will perform a of tea ceremony for the deities of the shrine. After the ceremony, green tea will be served to the public.
22, 12:00 Jidai Matsuri The Festival of the Ages is the last of the three great festivals of Kyoto, and just as old Heian Shrine. A long parade of people dressed in period costumes walk through the city and finally arrive at Heian shrine at about 15:30. For more information about Jidai Matsuri, see our Highlight of October 2017.
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through November. The main ceremony is on November 15, 9:00.
3, 9:00 Meiji-sai Special prayers and offerings are made in remembrance of the Meiji emperor.
23 - 25Confectionary Exhibition In this exhibition, confectionary makers from all over Japan show their best sweets. You can also buy Japanese sweets at this occasion. On the 24th, there is a prayer ritual from 15:00.
31, 15:00 Shiwasu-no-Oharae End of Year purification ceremony to cleanse oneself for the New Year to come.
All photos courtesy of Heian Shrine.
Protected by the Mountain
May marks the onset of summer in Japan, and the hot weather leads people to celebrate. Matsunoo Taisha, for example, celebrates the return of its six mikoshi after their three week sojourn on the other side of the river in the Matsuo Matsuri Okaeri on May 13.
Matsunoo Taisha – lovingly called Matsuo-san by the locals – marks the western end of Shijo dori with its large torii. (At the other end, there is Yasaka Jinja, which we presented in the January 2018 Highlight.) It is one of the more quiet places to go in Arashiyama, and the stunning modern gardens invite contemplation.
Matsunoo Taisha was established in 701 by Hata-no-Imikitori, the head of the local ruling clan. The story goes that he saw a turtle (a sign of luck and longevity) in a waterfall and decided to build a shrine here. However, the people were worshipping a certain boulder (iwakura) on the mountain so the area had been sacred for a long time already. In any case, Matsunoo Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Kyoto, and the Hata clan was instrumental in moving the capital to Kyoto. The two main gods enshrined are O-yamagui-no-kami, the god of Matsuo-san, the mountain behind the shrine, and of brewing sake; and Ichiki-shima-hime-no-mikoto (also known as Nakatsu-shima-hime-no-mikoto), a female deity protecting travellers who may also bestow beauty on worshippers. In 964, the shrine became one of the 22 shrines of the guardian deities of Japan. Between 1871 and 1946, it was among the Kanpei Taisha, the highest rank of government supported shrines.
The main entrance of Matsunoo Taisha is at the large, 14m high torii at the western end of Shijo street. A smaller road leads to the main shrine, where there is another, smaller torii. From there, the path leads up some steps to the two-storey Romon gate, which is – like the one at Yasaka shrine across the city – guarded by two Zuishin warrior statues to the left and right.
Passing through the gate, at first, there is a small stone bridge to cross, and a few more steps lead directly up to the dance stage. At the left of it is a large display of sake barrels. While these are common donations to shrines, Matsunoo Taisha, as home of the god of sake brewing, has received a large number of barrels originating from sake brewers from all over Japan.
Behind the dance stage lies the long haiden outer hall where people worship and behind that, the interesting honden main hall. This is the oldest building of the shrine, dating back to 1397 (restored in 1542) and is designated an Important Cultural Asset. Its unusual roof – in the so-called Matsuo-zukuri style – forms porticos on the back as well as in the front of the building.
After praying at the haiden, go to the right and through the low entrance to the back of the shrine. To the right, there is the famous Kame-no-i well, where a large black turtle spews holy water. It is said, that this water will bring health and longevity to those who drink it. Even more importantly: If sake is brewed with even a small fraction of this water, it will not go bad. Therefore, many sake brewers as well as miso makers from all over Japan visit the shrine regularly to get some of the water, and to pray for business success. Further up the path lies the shrine's sacred waterfall Reiki-no-taki, which marks the spot where Hata-no-Imikitori watched the turtle swim all these years ago.
Nearby the Kame-no-i well lies the entrance to two of the three gardens that make up the Shofu-en garden of Matsunoo Taisha. They were created by the famous garden designer, late Mirei Shigemori just before his death in 1975. They cost a fortune (reportedly some 100 million yen) but are now considered the best modern gardens in Japan. Each of the three parts of the garden is representative of a Japanese era, and the opposing ideas of stillness and movement, represented by large blue-green rocks and water, respectively, are the central design elements.
The first garden behind the entrance is the Kyokusui garden, with a stream of water bending seven times around heavy rocks. The stream is framed by smaller stones, giving it the appearance of a dragon, a water creature in Japanese mythology. The Kyokusui represents the gardens popular at the Heian era, the time of the foundation of Kyoto.
Beyond the Kyokusui lies the Iwakura or Joko garden, where a number of large rocks scattered on a steep slope represent the ancient times when the gods roamed the lands, in particular the mountain tops of Japan. The two largest rocks on top of the slope represent the main gods of the shrine O-yamagui-no-kami and Ichiki-shima-hime-no-mikoto. Although this garden seems rather haphazardly arranged, it is interesting to know that the earliest “gardens” of Japan were considered sacred and constructed to attract the gods into the presence of mortals. Beyond this garden, there is a path further up the mountain where the original place of worship – the large Iwakurastone – lies.
The third, the Horai garden (the entrance lies next to the little restaurant outside the Romon gate) is constructed in the Kaiyu style, where a large pond shaped like a crane is the focal point. The underlying idea is the Chinese concept of paradise, where people do not get old or die. The rocks represent islands in the sea, and the only movements are contributed by the fountain of youth in the back of the garden and the many colourful carp in the pond.
Besides the extensive shrine gardens, which are a quite rare feature in Shinto shrines, Matsunoo Taisha also has two museums. The treasure hall is the main museum; it is situated between the first two gardens and shows 21 wooden statues. The three largest ones date back to the Heian period and are among the oldest and best preserved wood carvings of Japan. Although they are carved in the style of Buddhist statues, two of them are said to show the main deities of the shrine. These statues with their beautiful serene expressions are among Japan's national treasures and are alone worth a visit to the shrine.
The other museum lies near the entrance, on the way to the parking lot. The Sake-no-shiryokan shows old tools that were once used to produce sake. They were donated by sake makers worshipping the god of sake brewing here.
Matsunoo Taisha lies a bit off the beaten tracks of Kyoto's Arashiyama area, but especially during April and May, the 3000 yellow Kerria bushes in full bloom create a lovely scene that should not be missed. The shrine sells a number of unique lucky charms, for example one with a bright yellow Kerria flower. However, for extra luck, you should try to win your omamori at the game shooting arrows at empty sake barrels.
Here are some of the best events taking place at Matsunoo Taisha each year. Note that many of these events are flexible and often take place on a Sunday, so remember to check our event calendar for the exact dates.Enjoy!
1, 6:00 Saitan-sai New Year's Festival as part of the hatsumode celebrations. During hatsumode, gold leaf filled sacred sake is served to the visitors.
3, 9:00 Eto Shukuju-sai This celebration of the new year's Chinese Zodiac animal is also part of hatsumode.
3, 13:30 Setsubun After a prayer ceremony, two mamemaki ceremonies to drive out the demons will be held at 14:00 and 15:30. There will also be performances of special Iwama Kagura Dances. Find out more about the setsubun ceremony in our February 2017 Highlight.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan by the first emperor Jimmu.
3, 10:00 Hina MatsuriThe doll or peach blossom festival is celebrated on the third day of the third (lunar) month. In Matsunoo Taisha, there is a ceremony in the Kyokusui garden where little dolls are floated down the stream to bring luck to the girls. Find out more about the hina matsuri in our March 2017 Highlight.
11, 11:00 Brewer's Thanksgiving On this day, sake brewers from all over Japan visit the shrine to give thanks to the god of sake brewing for a successful completion of the sake brewing season.
Sunday after April 20, from 10:00 Matsuo Matsuri - Shinko sai This is the first half of the main event of Matsunoo Taisha. The shrine's 6 mikoshi portable shrines will leave the shrine and cross the river on boats to be placed in three different Otabisho for the coming three weeks. Four of the mikoshi will temporarily reside at the Nishi Shichijo Otabisho, and one each at Koromode Jinja and Sannomiya Jinja.
5, 10:00 Koinobori Ceremony May 5th is Children's Day in Japan, and there is a special ceremony at the shrine to celebrate the boys and girls of Kyoto.
3 weeks after Shinko-sai, from 8:00 Matsuo Matsuri - Okaeri sai This is the second half of the main event of Matsunoo Taisha. Today, the shrine's 6 mikoshi portable shrines will return home from their temporary resting places.
3, 10:00 Go Taue Shiki In this old ritual, new rice seedlings are planted in the shrine's sacred rice field by local children. Prayers for a good harvest will be said as well.
30, 15:00 Nagoshi no Oharae Ancient purification ritual involving walking though a large chinowa wreath. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
7, 18:30 Tanabata Festival The festival of the star-crossed lovers comes with lanterns and prayers to find love and happiness.
third Sunday, 10:00 Onda-sai In this interesting festival, which is designated as Kyoto City Intangible Folk Culture - prayers for a rich harvest are said, and special insect repellent rituals are carried out. As a highlight, three "evergreen maidens" holding fresh paddy rice are carried around the shrine on men's shoulders.
2, 8:00 Hassaku Festival This is one of the last summer festivals of Kyoto. Many events are taking place all day, like children's sumo wrestling, a women's-only mikoshi parade including boat ride over the river, taiko performances...
daily Shichigosai In November, children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the shrine. You can see little kids in their best outfits praying at the shrine all through the month.
7,10:00 Brewer's Supplications November sees the start of the sake brewing season, so many brewers from all over Japan come to pray for a good outcome of their efforts in this.
31, 15:00 Oharae Shiki End of Year purification ceremony to cleanse oneself for the New Year to come.
All photos (except for #1, ) courtesy of Matsunoo Taisha.
Photogenic Southern Beauty
In June, summer has come to stay, and it is time for the farmers to plant rice into their fields. If you are interested in this important work, why not head down to Fushimi Inari Taisha, where rice will be planted in their sacred rice field in the ancient Taue-sai ceremony on June 10th.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is probably the most picturesque of all the shrines in Kyoto, and its thousands of vermillion torii prominently feature in many movies. It lies a bit to the south of the main tourist spots, but as the main shrine for the god of rice and business, it is extremely popular throughout the year, in particular during the hatsumode New Year's festivities.
Mount Inariyama, where Fushimi Inari Taisha is located, has been a sacred site since ancient times. In 711, the powerful Hata clan first erected the shrine to worship the gods. Fushimi Inari Taisha enshrines Inari Okami, the god of rice, wealth, and business in five different incarnations: Ukanomitama-no-okami, Satahiko-no-okami, Omiyanome-no-okami, Tanaka-no-okami, and Shino Okami. After the Onin rebellion, where all buildings on mount Inariyama had been destroyed, the shrine was rebuilt in 1499. From 1871 to 1946, Fushimi Inari Taisha was among the Kanpei Taisha, the first rank of government supported shrines, and in 1909, it was designated a National Treasure (Important Cultural Property). Today, Fushimi Inari Taisha, as the head shrine of Inari Okami, has more than 30.000 affiliated shrines throughout Japan.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a sprawling shrine complex with an area of about 870.000 square metres, the main access point is right outside of the JR Inari station. Pass through the two torii at both ends of a long path, and you will stand in front of the two-storey Romon Gate, which was donated to the shrine by Hideyoshi in 1589. The story goes that Hideyoshi pledged a large sum of money to Fushimi Inari Taisha if his mother recovered from an illness. She did indeed, and with the money, the gate was built. Long considered not more than a legend, the story was confirmed when during renovations of the gate, a text was discovered dating back to 1589 and mentioning the pledge.
Beyond the gate there is first the stage where dance and other performances are offered and then the honden prayer hall where people can worship. This building from 1499, which enshrines the five main deities of Fushimi Inari Taisha and is designated as an Important Cultural Asset, is built in the so-called Uchikoshi Nagashi-zukuri style with 10.6 m high walls on either side. Its decorations are made in the style of the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the late 16th century: with gold roof plaques and decorations that cover the points of the wooden eaves, etc.
Further back at Fushimi Inari Taisha, there is the famous Senbon Torii (Thousand Torii) Gateway, comprised of literally 1000 torii densely packed and painted in the same vermillion red as the shrine's buildings. These vermillion torii are a feature of all shinto shrines, but they are especially numerous in Inari shrines. Here, they are donated by worshippers (their names and the date of donation is written on the back of the torii) and Fushimi Inari Taisha alone has more than 10.000 torii that have been donated by individuals and businesses since the Edo period and are located all over Mount Inariyama. If you are thinking of erecting your own, the prices range from 175.000 yen to more than 1.3 million yen, depending both on the size and the location of the torii.
At the other end of the Senbon Torii Gateway, there is the Okusha Hohaisho prayer building where people pray to the holy mountain Inariyama. The interesting part here are the two stone lanterns with two round stones on the top. Make a wish in front of the lanterns and pick up one of the stones. Is it lighter than expected? Congratulations, your wish will come true! Is it much heavier than you thought? Then your wish will probably not be granted this time, sorry.
Beyond the Okusha Hohaisho, you go simply further up the Inariyama mountain. Walking among more vermillion torii, you will first reach the Komadagaike pond, and then, after about 30 – 45 minutes, the Yotsutsuji intersection. From there, you will have a lovely view over Kyoto, and you can decide whether you want to make the final ascent to the top of the mountain. Most people do not, since a whole return trip all the way up can take some 2 hours, but it is a nice and quiet hike, and there are many more torii, some places to grab a quick snack or a drink, and many smaller places to worship.
Speaking of worshipping: One thing that is exclusive to all Inari shrines are the many statues of foxes that can be found there. The kitsune foxes, especially the white ones, are considered the messengers of Inari Okami; they guard the entrance to the rice granaries, holding the key firmly in their mouths.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a wonderful place to visit, in particular in the early morning or close to sunset, when the crowds have dispersed. The shrine is open day and night, but the mountain paths are scarcely lit, so you will need to bring your own flashlights.
When returning from the top of the mountain, why not buy omamori lucky charms or souvenirs? Many of them are in the shape of foxes, from lucky charms in various sizes, to fox masks made from Japanese washi which are very popular during festivals, or even quickly eaten fox-shaped rice crackers.
Have a look at our list below of the most interesting events that take place at Fushimi Inari Taisha throughout the year. Note that some of these events are movable according to the old Japanese calendar, so remember to check our event calendar for the exact dates.
1, 6:00 Saitan-sai New Year's Ceremony as part of the hatsumode celebrations.
5, 12:00 Oyama-sai Offering sake to Inari Okami at the Gozendani shrine on the mountain top (from 13:30)
12, 14:00 Hosha-sai A ceremony where evil spirits are cast out with arrows.
First day of the horse Hatsuuma Taisai Festival celebrating the founding of Fushimi Inari Taisha in 711.
Sunday closest to April 8, 13:00 Sangyo-sai Ceremony to pray for business success.
12, 11:00 Minakuchi Hashu-sai Rice seedlings are planted into nursery beds.
Sunday closest to April 20, 11:00 Shinko-sai of the Inari Festival Main event of the shrine, where portable mikoshi shrines are carried through the area to the temporary resting place.
3, 16:00 Kanko-sai of the Inari Festival The mikoshi shrines return to Fushimi Inari Taisha.
10, 13:00 Taue-sai In this ancient rice planting festival, the seedlings planted two months ago are now transferred to the sacred rice field of the shrine. Prayers will be said for a good harvest.
30, 15:00 Nagoshi no Harae A summer purification ritual involving walking though a large chinowa wreath. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight of June 2017.
Toward the end of the month Motomiya Festival Worshippers from all over the country come to the shrine to thank Inari Okami for blessings received. The shrine's precincts will be lit up with lanterns, and starting early in the evening, there are a number of traditional performances, like taiko and a special Motomiya-odori dance.
25, 11:00 Nukiho-sai The rice planted in the sacred field is harvested and a prayer of thanks to Inari Okami will be said. The rice will be offered to the deity in November.
8, 13:00Hitaki-sai This ceremony expresses thanks for a rich harvest and other blessings. The wooden hitakigushi tablets with wishes from worshippers will be ritually burned by the priests.
8, 18:00 Mikagura Ceremony A special ceremony of music and Ninjomai dance is performed by torchlight.
23, 10:00 Niiname-sai The sacred rice harvested from the shrine's rice fields last month will be offered to the deity.
31, 15:00 Oharae-shiki Winter purification ritual to cleanse sins and other uncleanliness from the latter half of this year.
Photos of events courtesy of Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Cool in the Forest
Gion Matsuri is of course the unchallenged #1 event in July. However, the traditional Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine towards the end of July is the perfect way to cool off in Kyoto's hot summer, and is a perennial favourite of the locals.
Shimogamo Jinja – formally called Kamo-mioya-jinja – is one of the oldest shrines of Kyoto. The two main enshrined kami are Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, the legendary ancestor of the local Kamo clan. His daughter Tamayorihime-no-mikoto is the mother of the thunder god Wakeikazuchi, who is enshrined at Kamigamo Jinja, Shimogamo's sister shrine further up the river.
The history of Shimogamo Jinja dates back more than 2000 years. Excavations in Tadasu-no-mori, the forest surrounding the shrine, have produced artefacts from as far back as the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE). The shrine's importance increased with the patronage of the local Hata clan, and the first buildings of Shimogamo Jinja were erected around 680. Already in the early Heian period, Shimogamo (together with Kamigamo) was designated as one of only two chief shrines of the Yamashiro province, and in 965, it became one of the 22 shrines of the Japanese guardian deities. From 1871 to 1946, Shimogamo Jinja was among the Kanpei Taisha, the top-ranked government supported shrines.
Shimogamo Jinja is situated just north of where the Kamogawa and Takano Rivers meet. Approaching from the south, you first have to pass through the Tadasu-no-mori forest. It is the hallmark of Shimogamo Jinja; some of the impressive trees are more than 600 years old, and the forest itself is designated a National Historic site, a Natural Heritage site, and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Today, Tadasu-no-mori covers 12.4 hectares, but it dates back to ancient history – so far indeed, that the precise meaning of its name is uncertain. It can mean either delta (referencing the location), or “forest of truth”, signifying an ancient custom of holding court here.
Finally, the forest opens up to the shrine precincts, which as a whole is designated as a Historical Site by the Japanese government and as a World Heritage site by the UNESCO. Wash your hands in the well at the right, pass through the first torii, and approach the two storied Romon gate, which, with its bright vermilion gives a colourful contrast to the green of the forest.
Beyond the Romon gate, there are a total of 27 sanctuaries, 22 of which are Important Cultural Properties of Japan. While technically, Shimogamo Jinja still practises Shikinen Sengu, where buildings are torn down and rebuilt completely every 21 years, nowadays, this is nowadays limited to regular renovations. We list only the major buildings in the following.
The Maidono, situated directly behind the Romon gate and dating from 1628, was the place where the emperors' messengers bringing gifts and prayers to the shrine were received. Only after the Meiji restauration in 1868 did all emperors personally enter the Maidono, and its large verandah is used as dance stage today as well. The style of the cypress-bark shingled roof is called irimoya-zukuri.
Left of the Maidono lies the Ooidono hall, where all religious offerings in the shrine are prepared. Its gardens have many aoi (hollyhock) plants, lending their name to the Aoi Festival in May as well as functioning as Shimogamo Jinja's crest. Behind the Maidono lies the Naka-mon middle gate, leading to the main buildings. The seven little shrines just before the main shrine are each dedicated to one or two of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, which govern a whole year. Altogether, these little shrines are called the koto shrine.
The haiden prayer hall is behind the koto shrine, and further inside, not open to visitors, is the honden main shrine. The honden is comprised by two buildings, the one on the west dedicated to Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, the one on the east to Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. The buildings exemplify the Heian period architectural style of nagare zukuri, where the gabled roof covers a porch on one side of the building.
Turning back from the inner part of Shimogamo shrine, and left outside the Naka-mon gate, there is the Mitarashi pond, and at its eastern end, Mitarashi shrine. Also known as Inoue-sha, this little shrine is dedicated to the god of purification and clean water, and it plays an important part in the Mitarashi festival in July, when people wade through the ice cold Mitarashi river and offer candles to the god.
When leaving Shimogamo shrine, turn right at the end of Tadasu-no-mori and pay a quick visit to the little Kawai Shrine. It is dedicated to Tamayorihime-no-mikoto (not identical to the main kami of Shimogamo Jinja), who is the guardian of women. Many women come here to ask for safe childbirth, and the mirror-shaped ema on sale only here are meant as prayer for beauty.
Since Shimogamo Jinja is so old, there are many myths and legends involving the shrine and the forest in which it lies. Different from other shrines, Shimogamo even has a mascot: Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow. The story goes that a prince from Kyushu set out to unify Japan. He fought bravely and won many battles, but he got lost in the big forest of Kumano. The god Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto transformed in the three-legged crow and led the prince safely to Nara. When the prince finally succeeded in unifying the country, he became Japan's first emperor Jimmu.
Even if you do not really believe in mythical creatures, Shimogamo Shrine has a mystical air around it that is hard to escape. When you visit, pray to your zodiac animal, and you should definitely buy a lucky charm containing sacred water from the shrine, or maybe a tshirt with an image of Yatagarasu.
Many interesting and unique events take place at Shimagamo Shrine throughout the year. In particular the many events leading up to and including Aoi Matsuri in May are worth experiencing. Note that some of the events mentioned are movable according to the old Japanese calendar, so please check our event calendar for the exact dates.
1, midnight Saitan-sai Shimogamo Shrine opens its doors to welcome worshippers for the first of three days of hatsumode celebrations.
4, 13:30 Kemari Hajime Kemari is a court game where players kick a ball of deer skin around, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible.
15, 11:00 Okayu sai Visitors are served a special rice porridge to keep them healthy.
3, 10:00 Setsubun Driving out of the demons of the winter by pelting them with beans.
3, 10:00 Nagashi Bina Ceremony In this ceremony celebrating Girl's Day, specially made straw dolls are released into the shrine's cold Mitarashi stream to pray for the wellbeing of girls.
Aoi Matsuri is the main event taking place at Shimogamo Shrine on May 15th. Many smaller events lead up to the main parade. Find out more about the Aoi Matsuri in our Highlight for May 2017.
3, 13:00 Yabusame Shinji Men in court costumes of the Heian period take part in mounted archery.
4, 10:00 Saio-dai Daigyokei-no-gi The Saio-dai, the main female participant of Aoi Matsuri and her attendants undergo a purification rite at the shrine to prepare them for the main event.
5, 11:00 Busha Shinji Evil spirits are cast out with bows and arrows. There is also an archery contest by people dressed in traditional costumes.
12, 9:30 Mikage Matsuri Priests visit Mikage shrine on one of the eastern mountains of Kyoto to welcome the spirit of the gods. More than 100 people take part in this procession, which is said to be the oldest religious procession of Japan. In the afternoon from 16:00, Japanese dance and music is performed at the shrine.
15 Aoi Matsuri The Aoi Matsuri Parade will arrive at Shimogamo Shrine at around 11:40. There will be a horse race from about 13:00 at the precincts.
6, 11:00 Plum Dedication People in old costumes present freshly harvested plums to the gods of the shrine.
Toward the end of the month Mitarashi sai In this popular 10-day festival, people wade through the ice cold waters of Mitarashi stream to light a candle and pray for health throughout the summer.
6, 18:30 Nagoshi Shinji In a quick, noisy, and wet ceremony, a group of local men compete to retrieve sacred sakaki sticks from the Mitarashi pond.
9, 13:30Hanjo Taikoku A kind of autumn harvest festival where people pray for a good harvest and success in business. At the end of the ceremony, free sake will be offered to visitors.
End of NovemberOhitaki-sai A large fire is lit in the hopes of inducing an early spring.
Photos # 7, 9, 10, 12, courtesy of Shimogamo Jinja.
Surrounded by Gardens
August is the hottest month in Kyoto, but don't worry, after Obon – celebrated with the big Daimonji fires – the heat will be more bearable. Why not have a look at quiet little Umenomiya Taisha with its fantastic gardens and lovely Saga festival on the last Sunday of August?
Umenomiya Taisha has a rather moved history – literally: It was founded about 1300 years ago by Agata Inukai no Michiyo (or Tachibana Michiyo) as a small shrine for her family ancestors, in Ide town, a little place in the present Tuduki region of Kyoto prefecture. With the rise of the Tachibana family, the shrine was moved twice before empress Danrin (of Tachibana ancestry) relocated it to Kyoto around the year 800, to the spot where it still stands today.
Umenomiya Taisha enshrines the mountain god Oyamazumi-no-kami and his daughter Konohana-no-sakuyahime, the goddess of life. Legend says, that Oyamazumi-no-kami was so pleased when his daughter gave birth to his first grandson, that he made sake from rice for the first time to celebrate the occasion. This is the reason why to this day, the shrine is popular with sake brewers.
In 994, the shrine received imperial patronage and became one of the shrines of Japan's guardian deities. And from 1871 to 1946, it was placed among the Kanpei Chusha, the second rank of government supported shrines. Today, it is famous for its gardens and the colony of cats that draw many photographers in search of the perfect catsonality.
The main entrance of Umenomiya Taisha is through the red torii and the two storey Romon gate in the south. The two zuishin warriors guarding the gate are rather common in shrines; the special feature of this gate are the sake barrels stacked on the second floor balcony.
Directly behind the Romon gate lies the haiden dance stage. Just like the gate, it was rebuilt in 1828 and is a Kyoto Prefecture Registered Cultural Property.
To the right of the Romon gate, there is a large pine tree whose stem has been twisted around itself by the gardeners. Nearby, there is southern end marker of the Hyakudo Mairi. If you have wish, you should first pray at the honden, then walk between the two markers 100 times, and then pray at the honden again to make your wish come true. Clearly, this is something you should reserve for your deepest and most important wishes only!
The honden prayer hall at the very north dates from 1700 and is the oldest building of the shrine, with a beautiful hiwadabuki cypress-bark roof.
Beyond the honden and surrounded by ancient trees are the actual sanctuaries of the gods. Also back there, and not generally accessible, lie the Matage-ishi stones, which have an interesting story: Empress Danrin, consort of the Saga emperor, had difficulties conceiving until she came to Umenomiya Taisha and stepped over the stones and was almost immediately blessed with a son. The story goes further that she took Ubu-suna sand from the shrine and spread it under her bed, aiding in an easy delivery. To this day, many couples seeking children visit the shrine to perform the Matage-ishi ceremony and take home some of the Ubu-suna in one of the shrine's charms.
Turning back from the honden, at the left side, there is first a small shrine for Inari, the god of wealth, and then there is the Higashi Mon, the eastern gate, leading to the shrine gardens. (Please buy a ticket at the shrine office to the left of the Romon Gate before entering.)
The Shin-en gardens of Umenomiya Taisha focus on two ponds: Directly behind the Higashi Mon, are the east gardens with Sakuya Ike, where different types of Irises and water lilies greet the visitors. Inside the pond, which is teeming with colourful koi carp, lies the little reed thatched tea house Ikenaka-tei, also known as Ashi no Maroya.
Further along the path, in the north garden, lies Magatama Ike. This pond has the shape of a comma, resembling the ancient magatama jewels made from jade. Again, it is filled with water lilies, and surrounded by Irises, there are also plum and cherry trees nearby.
There is no pond in the final west garden, but instead, there are many little paths among colourful hydrangea bushes and peaceful trees.
The best time to visit the gardens of Umenomiya Taisha is in the first half of the year. Especially in early spring, the shrine's 500 plum trees of 40 varieties make the gardens a colourful feast for the eye – from bright white to dark crimson. In summer and autumn, little benches tucked away on hidden paths in the west garden invite people to take a rest in the cool shadows of the large trees.
Umenomiya Taisha is a hidden gem and worth visiting for all those who'd like to experience the more quiet parts of Kyoto. As special souvenirs we recommend the sake made exclusively for the shrine, or the pickled plums from the shrine's very own trees. And if you can't catch any of the cats for a photo, you can buy many postcards featuring them!
Here is a list of the most popular events at Umenomiya Taisha. At many of them, sake or amazake (non-alcoholic) will be served to visitors. All these events can also be found in our event calendar, of course!
1, 8:00 Saitan-sai This is part of the hatsumode festivities. Until January 5th, there will be amazake for visitors of the shrine.
15, 12:00 Koshinnsatsu shonosai Bring your old new year's decorations or charms and have them ritually burned.
11, 9:00 Amazake Festival A ceremony to thank the gods for prosperity of the sake brewers. Afterwards, amazake (non-alcoholic) will be served to visitors.
first Sunday, 9:00 Plum and Childbirth Festival A ceremony that celebrates both childbirth and the new plum blossoms - in Japanese, both are called "ume".
third Sunday, 11:00 Sakura and Gagaku Festival This was once the main festival of the court of emperor Ninmyo, since his mother, empress Danrin, visited the shrine regularly to perform gagaku court music here. After the ceremony, there will be a music performance. Furthermore, free sake will be offered to visitors.
3, 8:00 Shinko-sai In this festival, the shrine's portable mikoshi shrines will be paraded through the neighborhood. The mikoshi will depart at 11:15 and return at around 18:00. There will be food stalls and free access to the Shin-en gardens.
third Sunday, 8:30 Empress Danrin Festival This festival is held in remembrance of empress Danrin, who brought the shrine to Kyoto and regularly performed music here.
30, 18:00 Nagoshi-no-Oharae Summer purification festival.
last Sunday, 8:30 Emperor Saga Festival In remembrance of emperor Saga, the third emperor living in Kyoto, a number of different events take place all day: After the ceremony, there will sumo with boys and girls; from 16:00, there will be drums and a brass band performance by local school children; and from 19:00, there will be dance performances.
daily Shichi-go-san Festival Children aged 3, 5, and 7 are presented to the shrine.
31, 17:00Toshikoshi-no-Oharae This winter purification rite aims to clear people from sins and uncleanliness for the coming New Year.
Photos # 1, 3, 5, 6, 9-13 courtesy of Umenomiya Taisha.
Hidden Gem in Gion
In September, the peak of the summer heat has passed, but still, there are many hot and sunny days, as if made only to enjoy walking around Kyoto. A perfect occasion to do exactly this is the wonderful comb festival of Yasui Konpira-gu, where women in classic hairdos and costumes that span centuries will have a parade in the streets of Gion.
Yasui Konpira-gu has been a sacred spot since the 7th century, when Kamatari Fujiwara founded a temple there for his clan ancestors around 670 and called it Fujidera. This Wisteria Temple was a favourite retreat of Emperor Sutoku, who repaired it in 1146. However, Sutoku was involved in a rebellion against his successor Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who exiled him to Shikoku, where he eventually died. The story goes that Sutoku's ghost appeared to a monk in the temple, which led Go-Shirakawa to build Komyoin Kanshoji in 1177 and enshrine Sutoku there. This is considered the true founding of Yasui Konpira-gu. The buildings burnt down during the Onin Wars of the 15th century, but were finally replaced in 1695 with a building transferred from Rengekoin temple in Kyoto's Uzumasa area. At this time, the shrine was called Yasui Konpira-gu. At last, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, when a clearer distinction between Shinto and Buddhism was desired, only the shrine remained.
Today, Yasui Konpira-gu enshrines three main deities: Emperor Sutoku, who saves people's relationships from evil influences and bestows happiness to all. Then there is Omononushi-no-kami, a god protecting travellers in general, and in particular sailors and other people working the sea. And the third deity is 12th century warrior monk and poet Yorimasa-no-Minamoto.
Yasui Konpira-gu is an inconspicuous little shrine in a typical residential neighbourhood of Kyoto. The main entrance lies on Higashioji dori, where a large stone torii and two statues of komainu (mythological animals resembling lions) first lead you through a parking lot. The shrine is behind it, and the temizuya well to the left marks the beginning of sacred ground.
If you keep walking, the shrine's main attraction will lie directly before you: The enkiri/enmusubi ishi. This large stone plays an important role in an old ritual to break and make relationships. The procedure is as follows: First, pray at the honden, then write your wish on a slip of paper called katashiro (a substitution charm, available behind the stone). Hold the katashiro in your hand and go through the hole from the front to the back. This will let you break with your bad ties. Then go from the back to the front to tie new and better relationships. Finally, paste the katashiro onto the stone. “Relationship” here is to be seen very broadly. Although many people come here to end or find a romantic relationship, others seek to break off unhealthy addictions to gambling or drugs, long illnesses, and even bad jobs! Don't worry to come here if you are in a happy relationship: they will only be strengthened by your visit to Yasui Konpira-gu!
Further along the path, there is the honden hall enshrining the main deities. It is possible to walk up to it and pray there, but most people pray at the building just before the honden. There, to the left and right, numerous wooden ema prayer tablets are hung, and again, many of them ask to end an unhealthy relationship, but there are also ones simply thanking the gods for their assistance.
The building opposite the prayer hall was once home to Yasui Konpira-gu's ema museum, which showed a large collection of beautiful prayer tablets, often written by famous people. Unfortunately, the building needs to be renovated, so the museum is closed for the time being. However, a few of the ema inscribed by famous writers or actors who visited the shrine can be found at the entrance to Yasui Konpira-gu, opposite the well.
Moving further along the path towards the torii at the northern end of the shrine's precincts, there is another large stone set a bit at the back. This interesting stone is a kushi-zuka, a kind of burial mound or memorial for, in this case, old combs. In the olden days, when all women wore elaborate coiffures, combs were considered an important part of any woman's possessions. An expensive comb made from ivory, tortoise shell, or lacquer, given by a man to a woman was nothing less than a promise of marriage! With Yasui Konpira-gu in the middle of Gion, were today's Maiko and Geiko still get their hair done in the traditional hairstyle, this is the perfect place for such a memorial, which lies at the centre of the yearly Comb Festival in late September.
These are the main buildings and attractions of Yasui Konpira-gu. If you haven't performed the enkiri/enmusubi ritual, you may want to buy an according omamori charm instead. Here is one of the few shrines where you can buy a set of two – one charm to break a relationship, another to form a new one.
Below is a list of the main events taking place at Yasui Konpira-gu. Also check our event calendar for current times and dates!
1, 7:00 Saitan-sai This is part of the hatsumode festivities. Until January 3rd, there is free green tea for visitors of the shrine.
10, 10:00 Hatsu Konpira-sai This is the first of the monthly days of the Great Deity of Konpira. If you have not succeeded in breaking off a bad relationship, this is the best day to try again.
10, 11:30 Shunki Konpira Taisai In this great spring festival, there is a ceremony at the main inner sanctuary from 11:30. From 13:30, old ema tablets are burnt in a special fire ritual.
30, 18:00 Nagoshi-no-Oharai Summer purification festival. Paper hitogata charms in the shape of humans are on sale which are meant to take people's impurities.
4th Monday, 13:00 Comb Festival In this lovely festival, thanks are expressed to combs and hair ornaments, before they are placed in the kushizuka. The ritual in front of the stone starts at 13:00. From 14:00, there is a procession through Gion of young women showing off historical clothing and hairdos from the Kofun era to present times.
Friday before Sport's Day until Sport's Day (Monday) Shuki Konpira Taisai This is the main festival of Yasui Konpira-gu, composed of many smaller events over several days. The deities of the shrine are transfered to portable mikoshi shrines on Friday before Sport's Day. On Sunday, there is first a prayer ritual to pray for safety and peace for everybody, which is ended with a shishimailion dance. Afterwards, the mikoshi are carried through the neighborhood of the shrine. For more details on times and dates, please see our event calendar
10, 11:00 Shuki Hitaki Taisai In this autumn fire festival, wooden goma sticks with the wishes of worshippers are ritually burnt. This is also a festival to say thanks for a plentiful harvest, and a prayer to get safely through the coming winter.
31, 17:00Oharai This winter purification rite aims to clear people from sins and uncleanliness for the coming New Year.
Photos # 7-10 courtesy of Yasui Konpira-gu.
Amidst the Bamboo
The first signs of autumn can be seen at the beginning of October, and towards the end of the month, the first leaves will start falling. Eternally green, however, is the bamboo forest in which Nonomiya Shrine is located. It is the perfect backdrop for the colorful Heian-style costumes of the Saigu Gyoretsu procession on the third Sunday in October.
Nonomiya Shrine dates back to the 7th century, when it was literally a shrine in the fields. It was built as a purification site for Saio or Saigu, imperial princesses who were chosen as priestesses for the main shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise. Once a princess was selected by divination, she would spend a year or more at Nonomiya Shrine to purify herself, before she was sent to Ise in a procession that took a week to reach the Shrine. Because the Saigu was not to return to Kyoto ever again, the shrine has an association of sadness and parting. The first Saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of Emperor Saga (8th century); the practice ended in the 14th century in a time of war during the reign of Emperor Godaigo. Afterwards, the shrine was still used for imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, it is still maintained and visited by the imperial family until today.
The two main deities of Nonomiya Shrine are Amaterasu Omikami (aka Nonomiya Okami), the Sun Goddess and main deity of shinto. Atago Okami is the God of Fire and Victory and people pray to him for good luck and fortune. Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten are responsible for good marriages and childbirth, and Shiramine Bezaiten and Ooyama Bezaiten watch over the arts and traffic safety, respectively.
Nonomiya Jinja is the smallest shrine on our 2018 Highlights list. The approach is through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama – the traditional meaning of bamboo is to ward off evil – and the shrine lies at the starting point of the popular Sagano Walk. The entrance to the shrine precincts is at the black kuroki torii made from oak with its bark left intact. This is the oldest style of torii, but because it is relatively expensive to make and replace, they are nowadays seen very rarely.
Step through the torii, and the haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu can be worshipped, lies straight ahead, and the honden main hall behind it. To the left of the haiden, there is a large black kame-ishi stone that looks like a turtle. It is said, that if you ask the gods for something and afterwards, with that wish still in mind, rub the kame-ishi, the wish will come true within a year. Here is also the spot where you can put up ema tablets to present your wishes or thanks to the gods.
Follow the path through the red torii to the right of the haiden, which leads further into the shrine precincts.
To the left, a mikoshi portable shrine is on display and at the end of the path lie the shrines for the subsidiary gods for childbirth and marriage. The last one in the line shows a note about the visit of the Imperial Prince Akishino and his wife in 1994. To the right of the path is the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.
Probably because of its sombre atmosphere, Nonomiya Shrine has inspired artists throughout the centuries. It is the backdrop of a chapter of the Genji Monogatari, where the protagonist visits his lover – the mother of a Saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a Noh Play by Zeami, called Shrine in the Fields. Many poems have been written about the shrine, and it even plays a role in the book The Old Capital by Japanese Nobelprize winner Kawabata Yasunari.
Nonomiya Shrine is popular amongst women who look for relationships and marriage, or pray for easy childbirth. There are beautiful enmusubi (tie-the-knot) omamori available, which show motifs of the long gone Heian era. Because of its location in the popular bamboo forest, Nonomiya Shrine can get very busy sometimes. However, it is one of the few shrines that are accessible 24/7, so there should be a time when you be there all by yourself.
Here are a few of the events taking place at Nonomiya Shrine throughout the year. But do check our event calendar for current times and dates!
1, 00:00 Saitan-sai This is part of the hatsumode festivities, the first ceremony of the New Year, to pray for safety for the area and family.
3, 11:00 Setsubun This festival is meant to drive out evil spirits. At Nonomiya Shrine, the ceremony lasts until 14:00. For more information about the Setsubun rituals, have a look at our Highlight for February 2017
20, 10:00 Saga Matsuri Shinko-sai The first part of the Saga Festival.
27, 10:00 Saga Matsuri Kanko-sai The mikoshi of Atago Shrine depart from the Otabisho of Daikakuji at 15:00 and reach Togetsu-kyo bridge at around 17:00.
30, 15:00 Nagoshi Oharae A large chinowa wreath will be set up at the shrine as a means of purification for the first half of the year. Read our Highlight for June 2017 for details about this important ancient ceremony.
third Sunday, 12:00 Saigu Gyoretsu Procession The leaving of the Saigu for Ise is reenacted with a large procession of more than 100 people. The procession starts at noon at Nonomiya Shrine, reaches the northern pier of Arashiyama port at about 13:30. From 14:00, there is the Gyokei-no-gi purification rite at the river, and afterwards there is a dedication of dance and gagaku music.
23, 15:00 Niname-sai to give thanks for a good harvest and to pray for future business prosperity.
31, 23:50Joya-sai ritual to give thanks to the gods for the good things of the previous year.
Photo # 10 courtesy of Nonomiya Shrine; # 3 courtesy of KimonBerlin; # 9 courtesy of Seven010.
Five Garden Styles
In November, autumn is here to stay, and as the leaves are turning, Kyoto puts on its most beautiful garment of the year. One of the best places to go this month is Jonan-gu shrine south of Kyoto with its colourful Heian-style poetry festival called Kyokusui-no-Utage on November 3rd and the spectacular fire festival on November 20th.
Jonan-gu literally means the shrine south of the capital, and it is said to have been established in 794 to protect Heian-kyo, the new capital of Japan. In 1086, retired Emperor Shirakawa built the villa Jonan Rikyu, that had a total area of about 2 square kilometres and Jonan-gu Shrine in the middle. This imperial villa quickly became a centre of Heian court culture and rule, and many people who visited here also patronised Jonan-gu shrine, where they held sacred dances and music events, but also Yabusame – equestrian archery – competitions. Both Jonan Rikyu and Jonan-gu were often the focal points of political turmoil. In 1221, retired Emperor Go-Toba unsuccessfully gathered warriors here to overthrow the first Shogunate in Kamakura. And in 1868, the pro-imperialist Satsuma troops had their camp here and – this time successfully – restored the emperor to power.
The main deities enshrined at Jonan-gu are Kuninotokotachi-no-Kami, one of the most ancient gods of Japan, Okuninushi, the god of nationbuilding, farming, and business and Empress Jingu, a mythological leader of the 3rd century. Furthermore, Jonan-gu is one of the 5 directional shrines of Kyoto (the others are Kamigamo Jinja in the north, Yasaka Jinja in the east, Matsunoo Taisha in the west, and Heian Jingu in the centre), and many people come here to pray for protection from calamity striking from inauspicious directions.
The main shrine buildings are completely surrounded by the extensive gardens of Jonan-gu. Passing through the torii at the eastern entrance, the shrine offices are first on the left, and the smaller Mahataki Shrine lies to the right. Walking further – and ignoring the entrance to the gardens for now, there is the small Kawatari Tenmangu shrine to the right, followed by an emasha, where old votive tablets (ema) are on display.
From there, it is just a few more steps to the red Jonan torii which marks the entrance to the main shrine precincts with the shrine's crest of sun, moon, and stars displayed on the top beam. Passing through the torii, the haiden prayer hall lies straight ahead, and at the right hand side are storehouses for the shrine's portable mikoshi shrines. Beyond the haiden, again to the right, lies the kaguraden where kagura – sacred dances for the deities – are performed regularly throughout the year.
The honden main hall where the deities are enshrined, lies in a straight line with the torii and the haiden. The honden is one of the largest in Kyoto, but unfortunately, like all the other shrine buildings, it only dates back to the 1970s, when it had to be rebuilt after a fire. Hence, none of the shrine's buildings are of historical significance. However, since Jonan-gu enshrines the deity of construction, the carpenters surely paid special attention when reconstruction the buildings!
After saying your prayers, turn left, pass the musubiden hall, where people may request prayers, and the little office where you can buy charms, to find the entrance to the gardens of Jonan-gu shrine.
The Rakusuien Gardens of Jonan-gu measure impressive 30.000 square metres. They were designed by famous garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the 1960s, and comprise five different garden architectures that each mirror a popular garden design of a historic era. Altogether, there are about 150 plum trees, 300 camellia bushes, and 100 maples, which give the gardens a changing atmosphere throughout the seasons. Furthermore, all the 80 plants that are explicitly mentioned in The Tale of Genji can be found in Rakusuien, and strolling through it gives the impression of taking a walk through time.
When entering through the gate at the west side of the shrine precincts, you will first encounterSpring Mountain, where almost all of the shrine's plum trees bloom in white and pink in April. In June, the so-called Hitogata Nagashi ritual takes place, where worshippers float little pieces of paper down the Misogi-no-Ogawa stream in order to purify themselves.
Pass behind the honden into the eastern part of Rakusuien, the Heian Garden, which is dominated by water: With a pond, a waterfall, and a little stream winding through, these types of gardens were popular among aristocrats of the Heian period. Twice a year, the Kyokusui-no-Utage, an old poetry game, is taking place here.
Further along the path, you must cross the main road of the shrine and enter the southern part of Rakusuien, which boasts three different garden styles. First, there is the Muromachi Garden, where majestic stones surrounding a large pond dominate the scene. There is meaning throughout: the quiet Medaki waterfall in the foreground is considered female, the big one in the back, Odaki, is male. Horaijima island, the island of the immortal hermit, features pine trees as symbols of longevity. And the three large rocks on the other shore are meant to be Buddha and two Bosatsu, residing in the ideal Buddhist World.
The second garden you will encounter is Momoyama Garden, whose large open lawn is meant as a reference to the Pacific Ocean. The trees at the back represent Japan's mountains, and the black rocks within it the Japanese islands off the coast. Notice the pine that looks like a ship at the back right, which symbolises a European ship coming to Japan – Japan's Momoyama era indeed saw the first Western people arrive from Europe.
Take your time admiring both Muromachi and Momoyama Gardens from the Rakusuiken Tea House that lies right between them. Enjoy the view from there with a cup of green tea and a seasonal wagashi sweet. When you are ready to move on, have a look at the small Suisekitei gallery, where exhibits pertaining to the history of Jonan-gu are on display.
On your way towards the exit, you will see Jonan Rikyu Garden, the third of the southern gardens. Again, this is a karesansui garden without water. This garden is meant to depict the time when Jonan Rikyu dominated the area, and again, there is a lot of hidden meaning in the design: The stones represent the river Kamo, the white pebbles the pond of the imperial villa, and the big rocks in the garden are supposed to be the old buildings.
The Rakusuien gardens of Jonan-gu are worth taking the trip down south at any time of the year. And because the shrine is a bit off the beaten tracks, there are rarely enough visitors to make it feel crowded. When you visit Jonan-gu shrine, make sure you get one of the omamori charms. The one for safety on commutes, shaped like a little school bag, is particularly cute!
Below are some of the annual events taking place at Jonan-gu each year. Also, in the weekends of February, March, May, and September, special seasonal kagura dance will be performed by the shrine maidens. See our main event calendar for the exact times and dates!
1-3, 8:00–17:00 Harae Kagura During hatsumode, the Shrine maidens will perform sacred kagura dances every 30 minutes during this period to pray for a good year to come. Kagura are dances done as an offering to the gods. Read more about the different things people do during hatsumode in our Highlight for January 2017.
20, 14:00 Yutate Kagura This is an interesting purification ceremony using boiling hot water that has been mixed with rice and sake. The boiling water is stirred with bamboo and then scattered around the shrine precincts and over the visitors as well.
3, 9:00 Setsubun An ancient ceremony to drive out evil demons and winter by pelting them with beans. Many people perform this ceremony at home, and it is great fun for kids. For more information about the Setsubun rituals, have a look at our Highlight for February 2017
11, 10:00 – 16:00 Nanagusagayu Day The nanagusa gayu that is offered to visitors is a special rice gruel made with seven herbs that can be found even in winter in Japan. Eating this rice gruel is meant to keep people healthy over the remnants of winter.
second Friday – Sunday Hoyoke Taisai Festival This is one of the biggest festivals of Jonan-gu Shrine with a lot of fun for everybody. Throughout the three days different traditional performances – among them sacred kagura dance – are shown each day at 10:40 and 13:40. Non-alcoholic amazake is available for free for visitors to the shrine.
29, 14:00 Spring Kyokusui no Utage The re-enactment of an old poetry game from the Heian era. See the entry for November below. During this day, the Rakusuien Gardens of Jonan-gu can be visited for free.
25–30, 9:00–16:00 Nagoshi no Harae This is an ancient mid-summer purification rite. At Jonan-gu's Spring Mountain gardens, a so-called Hitogata Nagashi ritual takes place, where worshippers float little pieces of paper down the stream in order to purify themselves. A purification ritual where people walk through a Chinowa wreath takes place on June 30th, 15:00. Read our Highlight for June 2017 for details about this important ancient ceremony.
3rd Saturday, 18:00 – 20:30 Cool Evening Kagura A special evening event with kagura sacred dances. Many small booths and food stalls will be set up at the approach to the shrine.
third Sunday, all day Jonan-sai Festival This festival dates back to the establishment of the shrine in the Heian era and is the main festival of the shrine. Three portable mikoshi shrines are paraded through the neighborhood to bring blessings to Kyoto and Japan. The mikoshi depart from around 12:00 and return from 16:20 – 18:20.
3, 14:00 Autumn Kyokusui no Utage This is a colourful event dating back to aristocratic parties of the Heian era. Local poets dressed in Heian-style costumes sit at the stream of the Heian garden and must compose a traditional Tanka poem to a given theme. During that time, sake cups are filled and then floated down the stream. When all poets are finished and have taken a sip from the sake, their poems will be set to a tune and dedicated to the deities. During this event there is free admission to the Rakusuien Gardens.
20, 14:00Hitaki-sai Ema and wooden sticks with the prayers of worshippers are ritually burned in a bonfire.
Photo # 4-10, 13, 15 courtesy of Jonan-gu.
Within the Plum Orchard
In December, when the last leaves of autumn have fallen, winter has finally reached Kyoto. As people prepare for New Year, this is a very busy month in Japan, however. Calm down a bit at Kitano Tenmangu and join their tea ceremony on December 1st, or visit the last Tenjin-san fleamarket of the year on December 25th. And for your own New Year celebrations, do buy the special ofuku ume harvested in the shrine and only available here, from December 13th.
At Kitano Tenmangu, a real historical person is enshrined, namely Sugawara-no-Michizane. Born in 845, he was a precocious child, writing poetry from a very young age. He became a renowned poet and scholar and eventually a bureaucrat at court, where he was supported by emperor Uda. However, after Uda's retirement, rivals from the Fujiwara family slandered Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was forced into exile in Dazaifu, Kyushu, in 901. He died there in 903 without returning to the capital again, and was buried there as well.
After his death, Kyoto was hit by earthquakes and thunderstorms, and a number of people from the Fujiwara clan and even the emperor's family met with illness and disaster. When in the 940s Shinto priests reported that Sugawara-no-Michizane had appeared in their dreams, the reason for all the misfortune seemed to have been found. In 947, Kitano Tenmangu was built to appease the angry spirit of Sugawara-no-Michizane, and he was deified and enshrined as Karai Tenjin, the God of Fire and Thunder. In 987, he was elevated to Tenman Tenjin, the God of Scholarship, and in the same year the Tenjin matsuri festival was set up, which has been celebrated every year to this day.
Kitano Tenmangu became one of the 22 shrines of Japan's guardian deities in 991, and the first imperial visit (by Emperor Ichijo) took place in 1004. Hundreds of years later, Toyotomi Hideyoshi held tea parties in the shrine's plum gardens, and the famous Kabuki actress Izumo no Okuni performed here. Between 1871 and 1946, Kitano Tenmangu ranked among the Kanpei Chusha, the second rank of government supported shrines. Today, Kitano Tenmangu is the head shrine of about 12.000 other Tenjin shrines all over Japan.
The main entrance to the precincts of Kitano Tenmangu is through the large stone torii directly at Imadegawa dori Street, south of the shrine. Walk along the road between the many stone lanterns and three more torii until you see the impressive Romon Gate, elevated by a few steps from the outer grounds. It is flanked by Komainu and Zuishin Warriors and is famous for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern.
Pass through the Romon Gate, and the precincts open wide. To the right, the Homotsuden, the shrine's treasure house, can be found. Ever so popular with aristocrats, samurai, and commoners alike, many valuable presents were given to the shrine over the centuries. Exhibited are historic documents and paintings, folding screens, lacquerware, swords, objects for tea ceremonies and alleged possessions of Sugawara-no-Michizane. The most important exhibit – and a national treasure – is the Kitano Tenjin Engi Emaki scroll dating back to the Kamakura period, depicting the origin of Kitano Tenmangu. Note that the Homotsuden is only open on the 25th day of each month and during the ume garden (February and March), ao-momiji, and momiji gardens (October - December) special openings.
To the left of the Romon Gate is the large Emasha Hall, where old ema, wooden prayer tablets presented to the shrine are shown. In January, the best New Year's calligraphies are exhibited there as well. Further along that path lie the famous Bai-en plum gardens of Kitano Tenmangu. Red and white plum trees are said to have been Sugawara-no-Michizane's favourite trees, and more than 1500 of them, comprising over 50 species, can be found at the shrine.
Walking straight ahead from the Emasha Hall, the path is flanked by more lanters and two large statues of cows or oxen. Since Sugawara-no-Michizane was born in the year of the ox (and on a day of the ox to boot), cattle are seen as the otsukai, messengers, of Tenjin. Probably for that reason, Kitano Tenmangu was founded on a day of the ox. Anyway, many people come here to transfer their illnesses to these nade ushi, stroking cows. The idea is that you rub your ailing body part and then rub its counterpart on the cow to transfer your disease and be rid of it.
Once you are done petting the statues, walk further straight ahead to the Sankomon Gate, the “Gate of Three Lights”, which is a wonderful example of Momoyama period architecture. It depicts colourful real and mythical animals as well as figures from Chinese mythology. Both the Romon and Sankomon Gates, as well as the main hall of Kitano Tenmangu were donated to the shrine by Toyotomi Hideyori, Hideyoshi's son, in 1607. In fact, Kitano Tenmangu as a whole is designated a national treasure.
Passing through the Sankomon Gate, a large courtyard opens up, with the haiden prayer hall in the north and the honden main hall right behind it. They are connected by the so-called ishi-no-ma hall, and all three lie under a single roof, a unusual style called yatsumune zukuri. Again, the building shows the style that is representative of the Momoyama era with vivid colours, golden decorations and finely detailed sculpting throughout.
Once you have said your prayers and maybe bought a few charms, turn left and exit the courtyard. Walking in the gardens, there are a number of auxiliary shrines for various deities. However, look for the steps in the western part of the garden with the large stone lantern on their bottom. They will lead you up the so-called Odoi, a designated a national historical site, and from there, you will have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji garden on the other with the Kamiya river flowing through it.
Kitano Tenmangu is an extremely popular shrine amongst both locals and visitors. The local youth flock to the shrine during exam season to pray for a good outcome of their entrance exams in particular. Many tourists enjoy the large Tenjin-san flea market that takes place in the eastern part of the temple grounds on the 25th day of each month and is one of the largest flea markets in Kyoto. The omamori charms available at the shrine revolve around scholarship: Little statues of Tenjin and his bovine messengers are available. Or why not go for something truly useful and buy a pack of pencils?
There are many other annual events at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, here are just a few of them. But note that the times and dates may change, so make sure to check our main event calendar as well!
1, 8:00–17:00 Saitan-sai In the beginning of the year, prayers are said for the nation, the imperial family, and the Japanese people, for a good and prosperous year. This is part of the hatsumode festivities.
2-4, all day Fudehajime-sai and Tenmagaki Since Kitano Tenmangu enshrines the God of Scholarship, people come here to write the first kanji of the year as dedication and prayer to improve in the coming year. From the end of January, some of the writings are exhibited in the emasha hall.
3,10:00 and 13:00 Setsubun and Tsuina-shiki An ancient ceremony to drive out evil demons and winter by pelting them with beans. Here, the pelting will be done by the shrine's priests from 10:00, and from 13:00, maiko and geiko from the nearby Kamishichiken district will throw lucky packages into the crowd. For more information about the Setsubun rituals, have a look at our Highlight for February 2017
25, 10:00 – 15:00 Baika-sai Plum Blossom Festival This festival is held in remembrance of Sugawara-no-Michizane's passing in 903. The shrine is famous for its plum trees (Sugawara-no Michizane's favourite trees), and during this festival, a tea ceremony once held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi is reenacted by maiko and geiko of the nearby Kamishichiken district.
15 Haru Matsuri During this spring festival, a special ceremony is held to thank the gods for an early spring.
Thursday before 3rd Sunday - 3rd Sunday Ayako Tenmangu-sai A festival where the portable mikoshi shrines are carried through the area.
25 Gotanshin-sai A ceremony in remembrance of the birthday of Sugawara-no-Michizane in 845.
25–30, 9:00–16:00 Nagoshi no Harae An ancient mid-summer purification rite. Kitano Tenmangu has the largest of all chinowa wreaths in Kyoto, 5 metres tall, which is set up on June 25th. The official purification ritual at a smaller chinowa takes place on June 30th, 16:00. Read our Highlight for June 2017 for details about this important ancient ceremony.
4 Kitano Matsuri This is the most important festival of the shrine, dating back to the establishment of Kyoto. Its portable mikoshishrines are carried through the neighborhood, and prayers for prosperity, health, and a good harvest are said.
early August Mitarashi-sai and Tanabata Festival The mitarashi-sai is a purification ceremony, where people purify themselves by walking through the cool stream of the shrine. Tanabata is a festival of lovers, and people tie their wishes to bamboo put up throughout the shrine.
1 - 5, all days Zuiki Festival Zuiki is the Japanese word for taro (stems), and this 5-day festival of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is held to celebrate the autumn harvest. The specialty of this festival, which is said to date back to the 10th century, are the mikoshi that are this time decorated with and partly made of all sorts of vegetables. There are different types of events each day of the Zuiki Festival. Please see our event calendar for details.
26, 11:45 Ochatsubo Hoken-sai In this interesting ceremony, the tea leaves used during the kencha tea ceremony on December 1st are presented to the shrine and dedicated to the gods.
1, 9:00 - 15:00Kencha-sai This ceremony dates back to 1587, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi held one of his tea parties at the shrine (on October 1st). The tea leaves that were dedicated to the shrine on November 26th will now be made into tea by one of the tea schools of Kyoto and offered to the deity. Afterwards, visitors may also enjoy a cup of tea for themselves. Tickets for this ceremony are available from early November.
from 13 Sale of Ofuku Ume Ofuku ume are dried plums that people drink in their tea on January 1st, to have a lucky year to come. Kitano Tenmangu's ofuku ume are from their own plum orchard and are sold in packs of 6 plums from December 13 until December 25 or until stocks run out.
Photo # 5, 9-14 courtesy of Kitano Tenmangu.
Kyoto is home to hundreds of museums that showcase the fantastic beauty created in more than 1000 years. In 2019 -- perfectly in tune with ICOM 2019 -- we asked 12 Private Kyoto Museums to introduce us to their exclusive collections. Marvel in the wonderful art and exquisite craftsmenship that you will not be able to find outside of Japan. Click on the masterpieces below and find out more.
Note: Most museums in Japan are closed on Mondays, but are open during the weekends and on public holidays. Especially in smaller museums like the ones featured here, you may have to take off your shoes. In Japan, it is considered quite rude to enter a building barefoot, so please do bring socks to wear inside, even in summer.
450 Years of Family Tradition
Nothing embodies Japanese culture more than the austerity and beauty of a tea ceremony according to the teachings of Sen-no-Rikyu. The chawan, the tea bowl, is one of the more important utensils of the art form. In particular, Raku ware, born in Kyoto in a style guided by Sen-no-Rikyu's own sense of aesthetics, is deeply connected to tea ceremony.
The habit of drinking green tea was introduced to Japan from China and quickly became a favourite pastime for nobility and clerics. In the 16th century, tea master Sen-no-Rikyu drastically reformed tea ceremony to create the form in which it is still practised today. To emphasise his new style, he approached Chōjirō, and had him produce a new type of tea bowl according to his specifications. The very first Raku tea bowl was made in the late 16th century by Chōjirō.
Chōjirō I: Black Raku cylindrical tea bowl named Kineore, Raku Museum Collection
At that time, these tea bowls were considered avant-garde and at first were called ima yaki “now wares”. Later, they were renamed – after the location of the family residence – juraku yaki “juraku wares”, which was eventually shortened to raku yaki. Finally, the family itself adopted the name “Raku” as their last name (probably towards the end of the 16th century), and has been called so ever since. Today, the Raku family is in its 15th generation, and the way of making Raku ware is passed down orally from the head of the family to the next generation.
More information on the Raku family and its history, as well as a family tree and photos of selected works of each family head, can be found on the museum's website. Also, in the museum itself, tablets are available for more information on how Raku ware is made. Both resources are extensive and in English and Japanese.
Raku Kichizaemon XV: Black Raku cylindrical tea bowl Yakinuki type named Tenʼa, Raku Museum Collection
The Raku museum celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018; it was opened in 1978 by the 14th head of the Raku family. The modern building is located next to the family residence, which was established at this very spot in the 16th century. Most of the pieces in the collection are family heirlooms comprising 450 years of history, consisting mostly of tea bowls, but there are also other ceramics and tea utensils collected by the Raku family.
There are four exhibitions each year. They usually show a small number of carefully selected pieces, with expert descriptions both in English and Japanese.
Additionally, there are special events where visitors may handle some of the collection's pieces or use them during a tea ceremony. For these exclusive events (held in Japanese only), reservations are required in writing at least one month in advance. See the Raku museum website for further details.
Address: Aburanokôji-dôri Ichijô sagaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0923 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 9, 12 to Ichijo Modoribashi; or Kyoto City Bus 50 to Horikawa Nakadachiuri.
Opening hours: 10:00 - 16:30. Museum is closed on Mondays (except National Holidays), between exhibitions, and during the New Year period.
Photography: Permission varies depending on the exhibition.
Wheelchair accessible: First floor only.
Parking: Free parking available, but very limited. Please consider public transport options instead.
This exhibition celebrates 450 years and 15 generations of the Raku family and their work, as well as the next 16th generation, Atsundo Raku’s works. It showcases select pieces of Raku ware and how these tea bowls embody the old family traditions while at the same time allowing, even inviting, change and innovation, that is, embracing the “now”.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the Raku Museum website.
As you know, 450 years ago, Sen-no-Rikyu approached Chōjirō to create a new style of tea bowl for tea ceremony. Since then, this tradition has been handed down from father to son. However, the full knowledge is not transferred step by step to the heir. In particular, the specific composition of the glaze is something each new generation has to work out and create for himself. In fact, the Todai [the current head of the Raku family, Kichizaemon Raku XV] believes that it is this constant innovation that keeps the tradition alive. In the Raku family, the best pieces of each generation remain in the family. In this way, just by looking at these masterpieces, the next generation will get a glimpse of how to make the glaze, etc.
Kakunyu XIV decided to build this museum as both a showcase of their best pieces, and to present the value of the Raku tradition to a wider audience. Before the museum, when he was invited to lectures for example, he would take about 10 tea bowls with him and let the audience handle them. This is an important part of the experience, since those are tea bowls after all and meant to be used. He liked this idea, so even today, there are special occasions when visitors to the museum may take part in a tea ceremony using Raku tea bowls.
The collection overall consists of about 1300 items, some 450 are tea bowls, and of those about 400 are made by the Raku family.
Essentially the shape, the form. The bowls are handmade without potter's wheel, so the style is very distinct and unique. After the overall form is made, a kind of spatula (called hera) is used to finalise the shape. The marks of the hera are an important feature that are more or less pronounced in different bowls. Raku bowls made by Ryonyu, the 9th generation, for example, have especially strong markings of the hera. There is a red Raku bowl shown in the current exhibition that is very distinct in this respect.
Essentially, it is the glaze. For the black Raku, a glaze made with “murasaki ishi” is used, a special stone found in the upper reaches of Kamogawa River. Red Raku is traditionally the color of the clay itself. The first generations used so called “juraku” clay, but this is not available anymore. Now, a white clay is used, and for the red Raku ware, a sort of cosmetic red layer is applied on top of this and then the bowl is finished with a transparent glaze. Because of the different glazes, the red and black Raku wares need to be fired at different temperatures, so there are two kilns as well.
Yes, Chōjirō was asked to make tea bowls. But does that mean they have no aesthetic value? They do possess an inner spiritual beauty that is in line with the Japanese concepts of wabi and sabi. You might think that the Todai's bowls are difficult to drink from, but if you drink from the right spot, this is not an issue. Remember, in tea ceremony, the tea master puts the bowl in front of you in just the right way. And in fact, the Todai tries each tea bowl himself to make sure there is a spot that is easy to drink from. Also, he does not think of utility and art as opposites, he believes these concepts are indeed in the same realm. Overall, however, the priority of the Raku family is to make tea bowls to use, not for the sake of art.
There is not a linear improvement or change even though we are talking about a family lineage. Every generation has its own interpretation of the art, and there is also an influence of what their times expected with respect to trends. The important tradition that has been handed down since the times of Chōjirō is the spiritual essence of the art, in a sense, the soul of tea ceremony embedded in tea bowls. This goes beyond the craft itself and is very hard to express in Western concepts.
This is the room for tea ceremonies in the Raku family home. This was a special occasion held at the beginning of every year to celebrate making the first tea bowl of the year. Usually, the bowls are made in the atelier, which is in a different part of the family home.
The Todai said that even though it does take a long time, it’s something he has never thought about. Today, the clay that is used dates back three generations, so it is very hard and needs a lot of preparation before it can be used. And sometimes, when he is preparing the clay to soften it, he may get an inspiration and start from there. As for the firing process, the kiln for black tea bowls is small and takes only one bowl at a time, which is finished in about 30 minutes. So, several dozen tea bowls can be made in one night of firing. There are two firing nights for black Raku and two or three for red Raku in one year.
There are many factors that come into play during the firing, like the humidity outside, the temperature of the kiln, etc. So yes, it happens that the bowl is not perfect in a sense. And it will be discarded because it's a failure from an artistic point of view.
Rather than a personal favorite, what I would like you to look at are the tea bowls that were made before the person took over as the head of the Raku family. All of these “juvenile” bowls stay in the family, and even here they are rarely presented to the public. So, in this exhibition, I would like to direct you towards the two bowls by Atsundo, the future 16th head of the Raku family.
Photos # 2, 3, and 5 courtesy of the Raku Museum.
Homage to Creative Genius
There must be something in the air in Kyoto, because it is the home of many craftsmen and artists. Many of Kyoto's artists work in traditional Japanese style, be it ceramics, lacquerware, paintings, etc. using methods handed down through the generations. Probably no other painter of Kyoto has been more instrumental in transforming Japanese paintings with his continuous artistic innovations than Insho Domoto.
Insho Domoto was born in 1891 as the third son of a sake brewer. He had eight siblings, and his three brothers were artists or craftsmen as well. He set out to be a craftsman himself, but eventually, at age 27, started studying Nihonga, Japanese style paintings. He was almost an instant success, and already his early paintings received prizes and recognition throughout Japan. From 1925 on, Insho was invited to paint works on fusuma sliding doors and ceilings in Buddhist temples throughout Kansai, and in the early 1930s, when he was in his mid-40s, he had established his own painting school.
After WWII, Insho began experimenting with modern, more abstract European style, and in 1952 he toured through Europe and met a number of French artists. This proved the turning point for him, and he turned towards fully abstract paintings. In 1961, Insho received the Order of Culture from the Japanese Emperor. Insho was not only a versatile painter, but also designed furoshiki cloths, tapestries, furniture and his own museum, which opened in 1966. He died in 1975, aged 84.
More information on Insho Domoto, including a timeline of his life and selected photos of his works, can be found on the museum's website in both English and Japanese.
"Self Portrait" (1935), DOMOTO Insho, Kyoto Prefectural Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts Collection
When Insho Domoto travelled through Europe, he was inspired by its culture and the museums to current, still living artists to build his own museum, and in 1965, the Corporation of Domoto Museum of Fine Arts was established. Insho personally designed the whole museum, from the building's exterior facade and the surroundings to the interior, where especially in the lobby many of his works can be seen in the form of stained glass windows, door knobs, tapestries, furniture etc. Already in 1966, the privately funded museum opened; it was built directly next to the family home, which still exists and can be seen from the museum's third floor.
In 1991, the museum was donated to Kyoto Prefecture, and in 1992, it reopened under the full name Kyoto Prefectural Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts. The building was recently renovated.
There are four exhibitions each year, focusing mainly on works by Insho Domoto himself.
Address: 26-3 Kamiyanagi-cho, Hirano Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8355 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 12, 50, 59 to Ritsumeikan Daigaku-mae.
Opening hours: 9:30 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Mondays (except National Holidays, then it will be closed on the Tuesday after), between exhibitions, and during the New Year period.
Photography: Allowed outside and in the foyer.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes. Wheelchair ramp into the foyer is at the right of the main entrance.
Parking: Bicycle Parking only. Please consider public transport options.
This exhibition showcases for the first time Nihonga by Insho Domoto and lacquerware pieces by Shikken Domoto, his older brother. Shikken produced traditional laquerware pieces from the mid-1920s, and was influenced by the artistic genius of his brother. Some of Shikken's pieces show designs created by Insho, but Shikken also pursued a more modern style of lacquerware design in his later years.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the website of the Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts.
The difference is in the materials used, which in turn require a special technique. First of all, Nihonga are painted on silk or Japanese paper. Second, the colors that are used come from natural sources like powdered shells, minerals, even semi-precious stones. Gold leaf and sumi [ink made from soot] are also often used. The main medium is water.
As for Insho Domoto, in his later abstract period, he mixed traditional Japanese materials with Western oils for example, making his work quite distinct from this point of view.
After WWII, when Japan had lost, the nation as a whole was in shock. This had a profound impact on art as well. At that time, many Nihonga painters felt that Nihonga were only relevant to Japan and did not live in a broader context. Insho went through a period of soul-searching and questioning himself. He wanted to find a way to make Nihonga more relevant to Western people, to the world as a whole. That was the time when he began to experiment with modern Western styles of expression.
When Insho visited Western Europe, he studied modern art as well as Renaissance art and the ancient art of the Greeks and Romans. He met a number of French painters and aestheticians, like Franco Garelli, Michel Tapié, and Franco Assetto, whose styles did influence his later works.
In meeting the French painters, he tried to find out what their interest was in Nihonga, what they found appealing. And it turned out that Europeans were very attracted to Eastern calligraphy. This is when he turned to abstract paintings that often have at their heart bold strokes reminiscent of calligraphy. One of his paintings in this style, and probably his most famous one, is Symphony from 1961.
When he went to France, Insho saw museums like the Picasso museum, where the artist was still alive, so he decided to open a private museum for his works. It is thought that his younger brother was instrumental in collecting private funding to build the museum. The museum was donated to Kyoto Prefecture in 1991.
Insho Domoto himself designed the museum's building. When the museum was opened, the building looked different than today: It was white, and on the roof were many statues. When Insho had travelled in Italy, he had visited the Vatican and saw the statues of saints on the roofs there. So he was inspired by them and created original statues for his own museum, and those statues even had names. However, because of the danger they might pose during earthquakes and typhoons, they were removed a few years after the museum's opening. Last year, in 2018, the museum was completely renovated and the original exterior was reproduced and the golden-yellow highlights were added to the facade.
The collection as a whole comprises about 2600 works, all of them by Insho Domoto.
Honestly, I don't know. We do know that he was a very prolific artist who did a great amount of work, so the whole body of his works may well be several thousand.
Yes, they did. There are a number of works in which Insho sketched a draft to which the lacquer work was done. In the early days, Insho was already famous, and in a sense, he took the lead. Shikken was more a craftsman than an artist, but he was inspired by the artistic expression of his younger brother.
Lacquerware is a traditional Japanese artform, but it is not the same as painting. Shikken experimented with lacquer to see if he could create something looking like a painting. In fact, this was a trend among other laquerware artists of the time, and was not unique to Shikken.
I curated the current exhibition and chose the pieces on display, so this is a bit difficult. But there is a set of soup bowls by Shikken decorated with a gold and silver crane design by Insho. These bowls are used for soup with the crane as a lucky symbol. Throughout his career, Insho liked to paint cranes, and in his Nihonga paintings, they were beautifully executed in a naturalistic style. But on these lacquer bowls, the cranes are depicted using elegant but simple lines only. I would like you to have a look at them and hope that you can appreciate the artistic skill and expertise of both brothers that went into these pieces.
"Bowl, Lacquered wood with maki-e" (1955), DOMOTO Insho, Private Collection
Photos # 2, 4, and 5 courtesy of the Kyoto Prefectural Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts.
Not Just Child's Play
On March 3rd, the hina matsuri is celebrated all over Japan with ceremonies in shrines and temples. However, this is mainly a festival for girls, where sets of beautiful dolls representing the imperial court are put up in private homes with daughters. In this month, many places show their collections of hina dolls, but the most natural one to visit is the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum in Saga, Kyoto.
In Japan, dolls have an important cultural significance that goes beyond simply being a toy for children. For example, at certain Shinto purification rites, thin paper dolls in human shape are used to take ailments of a person, and are then floated down a stream, taking all the bad things with them. And during the hina matsuri, displaying the set of dolls is meant as a wish for the well-being of the girls of a family. A large, seven-tier hina dan can be very expensive, and thus, these dolls are not meant to be played with. Definitely meant to be played with though are karakuri, mechanical dolls, that range from the very simple jack-in-the-box type to elaborate masterpieces operated in front of large crowds.
A Saga Doll, Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.
In general, however, Japanese dolls are different from Western ones. The meaning of the Japanese word ningyo is simply human form, although it is most often translated into English as doll. Thus, some Japanese ningyo are better described as figurines made for display, rather than soft and cuddly toys for little children to play with. The style of traditional Japanese dolls often differs according to the location where they are made. This makes them a popular souvenir or gift among Japanese and foreigners alike.
On the website of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum, there are many photos of different kinds of Japanese dolls.
A Gosho Doll, end of Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.
This museum is located in Saga, in the western part of Kyoto, where the famous Saga dolls originate, which were probably first made in the 16th century. The museum was opened in 1988 and has a total collection of over 200.000 pieces from the Edo to the Showa era; 3845 of them were designated as national registration or tangible folk cultural properties. Many different types of antique dolls or figurines from all over Japan can be seen in the permanent exhibition, but there is a focus on dolls made in or around Kyoto.
For example, there are the Saga dolls, which have a wood basis and are elaborately decorated with natural paints from (semi-precious) stones or shells, as well as gold leaf. Fushimi dolls are much simpler versions of these, they are made from clay and are thought to be the origin of all the different clay dolls in Japan. Especially valuable and sought after are the so-called Gosho dolls, white, life-sized baby dolls. They were originally given as presents to daimyo lords when they were visiting the emperor in Kyoto.
There are only two exhibition periods in this small museum, one in spring, the other one in autumn.
Address: Sagatoriimoto Butsushodencho 12, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8434 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 28, 91 to Saga Shakado-mae. The museum is about 10 minutes walk from there.
Opening hours: Two exhibition periods each year: Spring: End of February to May. Autumn: Mid September to mid December. During these periods, the museum is open from 10:00 – 17:00. Closed on Mondays (except when public holiday, then closed the Tuesday after).
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: Bicycle Parking only. Please consider public transport options.
In this exhibition, a large number of beautiful hina dolls, in particular the female mebina and male obina, which are placed on the top of the hinadan, are shown. With their elaborate costumes and serene expressions, these dolls give a glimpse into the past of Japan. Some of the dolls date as far back as the Edo period, and belonged to famous Japanese families. Since not many of these hina dolls have been kept, this exhibition is truly special. .
For a more detailed description about this exhibition (in Japanese), visit the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum website.
Photos # 2, 3, and 5: Courtesy of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.
Living Nishijin Textile Tradition
When the imperial court moved to Kyoto in 794, the city's artists and craftsmen were striving to supply the court and its aristocrats with exquisite goods for daily life and special occasions. The large amount of imperial ceremonies called for a variety of different robes and attires, and thus, the textile industry in and around Kyoto was thriving. Have a look at what can be done with simple coloured threads of silk at the Orinasukan textile museum.
Kyoto has been home to the textile industry since the 5th century, some 300 years before it became Japan's capital. At first, there were government-operated textile factories, but upon their decline in the first half of the Heian period, the main work of weaving and dyeing of fabrics was taken over by independent manufacturers. After the Onin War (1467 – 1477) that had devastated the city, many craftsmen returned to Kyoto and settled in the Nishijin area, which literally means western territory.
Textiles from different parts of Japan, Orinasukan Collection
To this day, Nishijin-ori is the general name of the textiles produced in this area of Kyoto. They range from delicate silk gauze for summer kimono or shawls to brocades made into costumes for Noh actors. Traditional patterns show birds, flowers, and other nature scenes; some weaving techniques look like embroidery; and the most elaborate obi contain real gold leaf. The whole process of weaving a bale of cloth for an obi – from the design of the pattern to the end product – is still largely done by hand. Although modern European looms (i.e., Jacquard looms) were introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, the weaver's work remains physically demanding. A single obi of 5 to 7 meters with an intricate pattern can take quite a long time to make since there are many different steps and craftsmen involved.
More information about Nishijin-ori can be found on the website of the Orinasukan (in Japanese).
Detail of weaving on a Noh costume. Restored, from the Orinasukan Collection
The Orinasukan was founded in 1989 to introduce the unique traditions of Nishijin dyeing and weaving to a broader audience. The museum is located in the Nishijin district, in an old machiya house built in 1936 as both home and shop for the first Bunshichi Watanabe, a manufacturer of obi under the company name Watabun. Most of the original features of the building survived the adaptation to museum, and they are still visible throughout.
The permanent exhibition of the Orinasukan consists of handwoven textiles from other parts of Japan and vintage kimono and obi that are more than 100 years old. Also, exquisite Noh costumes are on display. These are reproductions of historical, 250-300 year old garments owned by the Katayama family of Noh actors. Recreating a single one of these costumes involves a number of additional steps to the ones for making a new costume. Also, there are special exhibitions several times a year. See the website of the Orinasukan for more details.
Note: You will have to take off your shoes in the Orinasukan, and there are no slippers provided. In Japan, it is considered quite rude to enter a building barefoot. Please make sure you bring clean socks!
The Orinasukan Online: Website (in Japanese)
Address: 693 Daikokucho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, 602-8482 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 59, 201, 203 to Imadegawa Jofukuji; or Kyoto City Bus 46, 59, 206 to Senbon Kamidaiuri.
Opening hours: 10:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Mondays (except when public holidays, then closed on the Tuesday following) and during the New Year period. The factory can be visited during the opening times of the museum, but it is closed on weekends and public holidays.
Photography: Only allowed in the museum and exhibition rooms, but not in the factory.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: Free parking available, but very limited. Please consider public transport options instead.
Next to the Orinasukan lies a textile factory that is part of the Watabun textile company. Adjacent to the museum, 10 weavers produce fabric for obi and other uses on 12 traditional looms. The work floor can be visited during the opening times of the museum (not on weekends and public holidays) for no extra fee. Note that this is a live factory and those visits are subject to the workload at any given time. Special hands-on weaving experiences are available with prior reservation (duration about 3 hours, additional fee).
Please find out more about the weaving experiences on the Orinasukan website.
The use of already dyed silk for the warp. That means the pattern is woven with colored thread from the very beginning. For most modern fabrics, the pattern is produced by dyeing the finished cloth, so Nishijin-ori is very special.
There are essentially five steps involved: First, the planning of the obi design is done, essentially how the combination of warp and woof must be to create a certain effect. This design is made into a so-called mon, which guides the loom during the weaving process. Second, the needed materials are prepared, which often means dyeing the silk and preparing the gold leaf parts, if any are used. Then, the looms are set up, which means that the silk threads for the warp are threaded into the machine and the mon is transferred to a computer that will move the warp according to the pattern. Only the fourth step is the actual weaving, and when this is done, the obi is sewn together and is then ready to be worn.
In fact, we are still using Jacquard looms, but instead of the traditional cardboard punchcards to transfer the pattern to the loom, a computer device is used nowadays. Before the introduction of the Jacquard looms, the weaving process needed two people: The weaver itself, dealing with the woof, and a second person who sat on top of the loom and would lower or raise the threads of the warp according to the pattern. Obviously, the work then was very time consuming and exhausting, for both people involved.
That is really hard to say, because of the all the different steps involved, as I mentioned. Also, it depends on the intricacy of the pattern. The weaving process alone can take up to one month if the pattern is difficult. Also, every obi made by Watabun is unique. We may change the colors sometimes, but we do not make the very same obi twice.
This is a very old measure, dating back to the Edo period. It is the average width of a woman's back. That means, if you wear an obi in the otaiko style (N.B. literally, "drum", this is the rounded form of an obi knot mostly adult women wear), the obi should be as wide as your back. Nowadays, people have become taller, which means that the sleeves of a kimono are shorter, if the traditional width is used. It is possible to make a kimono to measure by increasing the width of the cloth, but around 60 cm is the maximum.
Obi made by the Watabun obi factory.
Photo # 5 courtesy of the Orinasukan.
After the Meiji Restoration, there was a lively exchange of arts between the West and Japan. One of Kyoto's most renowned artists of that period, Yasuyuki Namikawa, was not working in Japanese arts, but in cloisonné, using a technique that was recently developed.
Yasuyuki Namikawa was born in 1845 in Kyoto as the third son of a samurai family. At age 10, he was adopted into the Namikawa family, who were lower rank samurai who were in the service of an imperial court noble family. In 1873, after the Meiji Restoration, Yasuyuki Namikawa began working on cloisonné, and thanks to his exquisite craftsmanship, he quickly became known as the foremost cloisonné artist of Japan. He worked exclusively in the so-called wired cloisonné technique, and his pieces of art are characterised by a hitherto unknown brilliance of color and an exquisite level of detail.
His colorful works struck a chord in the West, a majority of his works was sold to foreigners and many pieces can be found in museums today. Already in 1875, he received a Bronze Award at the Kyoto Expo, afterwards he was awarded Gold Medals at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. In 1896 he became one an Imperial Household Artist. Unfortunately, international demand declined during the Taisho period, and since national demand was not enough to sustain the workshop, the shop was closed for good in 1923. Yasuyuki Namikawa died four years later, in 1927.
Find out more about the interesting life of Yasuyuki Namikawa on the website of the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum (in Japanese).
Blue Vase with Wisteria, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection
The Namikawa Cloisonné Museum was opened in 2003 and exhibits the works of Yasuyuki Namikawa, including vases, plates, incense burners etc. Besides the finished works, there are also design drawings as well as family photos. The museum's collection as a whole has been designated as Registered Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government.
The museum is located in the former Namikawa family home and workshop, in a building from 1894. After Namikawa's success at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, the building was greatly enlarged. Around that time, the beautiful garden was designed by Jihei Ogawa VII, one of the leading garden architects of the time. Although purely Japanese in style, Namikawa referred to it as the “Paris Garden“, in gratitude for his success there. Part of the living quarters and the workshop with the kiln have been preserved and are accessible to the public.
The museum is open for two exhibition periods in spring and autumn.
The Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Online: Website (in Japanese)
Address: 388 Horiike-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0038 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 5, 12, 46, 86, 100, 101, 201, 202, 203, 206 to Higashiyama Sanjo or the Subway Tozai Line to Higashiyama Station (Exit 1).
Opening hours: 10:00 - 16:00. Museum is closed on Mondays and Thursdays (except when public holidays, then closed on the following day) and between exhibitions.
Photography: Only allowed in the gardens.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: There is no parking at the museum or nearby. Please consider public transport options instead.
The current exhibition showcases exquisite pieces from the Namikawa Collection, including rare vases with delicate landscape motifs.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum website.
Note: The museum will be open daily throughout the entire holiday period from April 27, 2019 - May 6, 2019.
At that time, the Namikawa family had no children who could carry on the family name, so they adopted a son to ensure the family would not become extinct. This was traditionally a common practice in Japan and even nowadays it does happen on occasion. You must not think that the Namikawa family adopted a complete stranger though. Yasuyuki was the third son in another branch of the family who also lived in Kyoto.
The Namikawas were samurai in the service of the aristocratic Kuninomiya family. That means that essentially, they lived off a stipend from the government, which did not make them rich, but allowed them a comfortable life. This all changed with the Meiji Restoration when the samurai lost their privileges. So, the Namikawa family needed to find another source of income, and they tried various things – chicken farming for example – but unsuccessfully. At the same time, the production of cloisonné was popular in Nagoya, and Shikisaburo Kirimura, a colleague of Yasuyuki, suggested to Yasuyuki to give it a try. That's the reason why he picked it up in the first place.
I mentioned the Kuninomiya family before who were a branch of the Imperial family, so there was the connection already from the beginning. Of course, connections are not enough, he was indeed the foremost cloisonné artist of the time. He put a lot of time and effort into experimenting with colors and he even invented a new type of black glaze that can be found as a background in some of his works. The development of a good black glaze was very difficult, but he was able to invent black glaze that looked like lacquer.
Black Vase with Momiji, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection
Actually, cloisonné work was found in Kofun tombs (N.B. Tumuli constructed between 300 and 700 CE) but the origin of these pieces is not known. During the Edo period, cloisonné was used to make small items like tsuba swordguards or nail covers to hide the nails used in carpentry in elegant rooms. After the Meiji Restoration, Western art was very popular in Japan, and at the end of the Edo Period an artist from Nagoya studied old cloisonné and started to make them. From there, the art spread throughout Japan, including to Kyoto and the Namikawa family.
The basis of cloisonné is a copper object, so that has to be made first. Then, the design is painted onto the metal and onto the lines of the design, thin strips of silver or gold are glued and then fixed with a first layer of glaze. Then, colored glass glaze is filled in to the spaces formed by the silver and gold and the piece is then fired. These two steps of glazing and firing are repeated three to five times. At the end, the glaze is higher than the metal wires, and it is polished down carefully using more and more fine pumice. Making a single vase can take several months, depending on the size and the level of detail of the design.
His role was that of a supervisor and producer, meaning that he took care that everything went smoothly and met his expectations and standards. Only the best works would leave the workshop to be sold. Personally, he fired the pieces. Because time it takes the glass glaze to develop color is only about 10 minutes, it is very important to remove the piece from the kiln at the right time. This takes a lot of experience, and Yasuyuki Namikawa did not let anyone else do it.
The museum holds about 130 pieces of Namikawa cloisonné. This does not sound much; the reason is that his work was very popular and most of it was sold, often abroad. These 130 pieces were left when the workshop was closed in 1923. Note that the collection as a whole is a Registered Tangible Cultural Property.
Oh, that's difficult... If I have to choose, I think I'll go for the white vase with the motif of Heian Jingu. This is one of the rare examples of a work with a landscape, and I find it very beautiful.
White Vase with Heian Jingu Motif, Namikawa Cloisonné Museum Collection
Photos # 3, 5, 6, 7 courtesy of the Namikawa Cloisonné Museum.
Little Accessories for Men
Fashionable accessories are not a modern invention. Often, they evolved from utilitarian objects and underwent a transformation to express the wearer's style. The Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Art Museum is devoted to little accessories for men from the Edo period: Netsuke.
Netsuke are small, palm-sized objects that were used to fasten small pouches (like boxes for pills or writing utensils or tobacco pouches) to a man's obi. They were attached to one end of a string holding the pouch that was slipped through the obi. Netsuke originated at the beginning of the Edo period, when the samurai liked to carry useful things with them, but still wanted to keep their hands free. Over time, as netsuke became more popular, they turned into art objects and were intricately carved from materials such as ivory or wood.
Go Player, collection of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum
The art reached its peak in the mid to late Edo period when many men would wear netsuke and they were made from metal, ceramics and lacquer as well. Other than with colours and fabrics for kimono, which were restricted to show that the wearer belonged to a certain class, everybody could wear netsuke that were made to his own taste.
Find out more about netsuke on the website of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum (in English).
Netsuke shaped like a writing box, collection of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum
The Seishu Netsuke Art Museum – Netsukekan for short – was opened in 2007 and is home to more than 5200 netsuke, both antique and modern ones. Besides exhibiting the netsuke the museum is also dedicated to support contemporary artists in producing modern netsuke by having created the Golden Netsuke Award, which is awarded once a year.
The Netsukekan is housed in the former residence of the Kanzaki family, who were part of the local “Mibu Goshi” samurai family. The house was built in 1820 and, since it is the last samurai residence that still exists in the Rakuchu area of Kyoto, it was designated as a tangible cultural property by the City of Kyoto. The rooms have been carefully renovated and together with the beautiful garden and the netsuke on display they exude the spirit of old Japan.
The museum shows about 400 of its netsuke as permanent display that is changed every three months. Additionally, the works of one (contemporary) netsuke artist are showcased every month. There is also a short movie that illustrates the making of netsuke.
Address: 46-1 Mibukayougosho-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8811 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take City Bus 8, 11, 26, 28, 91, 203 to Mibudera-michi.
Opening hours: 10:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Mondays (except when public holidays, then closed on the following day) and in the New Year period.
Photography: Not allowed.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: There is no parking at the museum or nearby. Please consider public transport options instead.
Motomasa Kurita is a contemporary netsuke artist from Japan. who especially enjoys carving all kinds of netsuke animals. He has great regard for the classics, which inspires him to create contemporary works.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum's website.
Netsuke started to be worn at the beginning of the Edo period (1603 – 1868). At first, many men started to wear pieces of wood or gourds as stoppers to fasten things to their clothing, but during the middle of the Edo period they became really popular and spread among rich merchants and other commoners too.
Traditionally, they were made from boxwood trees or deer antlers and the most popular material was ivory, but because of the Washington treaty, this has become impossible. Contemporary netsuke artists also use modern materials like resin, but with these we do not know anything about their long-term durability.
Until the Showa period, artists essentially copied old motifs. After WWII, contemporary artists began to make netsuke after modern motifs and things, for example telephones or pachinko machines with traditional Koban coins. Some of them are quite whimsical.
It happened both ways. Inspiration could come from everywhere, own experiences or literature etc. In the case of the Netsukekan, the director may give the young artists a theme and ask them to make a netsuke fitting the theme.
Netsuke with two cats, collection of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum.
Yes, there were artists like that and rich people might ask them specifically to make a netsuke for a particular kimono or a special occasion, or their zodiac animal etc. At the same time commoners who had the right skills were making netsuke for their friends, often just for fun. Netsuke were not tied to any particular class, practically everybody could make and use them, and people had lots of fun with them.
This is very difficult to say because there are also many fakes. Sometimes it is even difficult for us to make sure. Before we purchase an antique netsuke, we ask about 10 experts about their opinion. If even one says the piece might be dubious, we will not buy it. But if you like the netsuke and you're happy with the price, why not buy it and have fun with it. It may not be a real antique, but if you are aware of that, then it's okay.
The Netsukekan was established because the director had a private collection of netsuke himself. Even many Japanese don't know much about netsuke, so the museum is a way of spreading the word. As far as we know, this is the only museum focusing on netsuke in Japan. Another objective of the museum is to support contemporary netsuke artists and to help passing on the old traditions. This is why we established the Golden Netsuke Award in 2013. As for the building, it was chosen because it was built in 1820 at a time when netsuke were most popular. It seemed to provide the appropriate surroundings to showcase the beauty and variety of the netsuke.
We have around 5200 netsuke, about 20% of which are antiques.
This is very hard to answer, because it is difficult to say when somebody is a professional netsuke artist. Altogether, there are probably 120 – 130 netsuke artists today, among them are women and even foreigners.
This is very difficult for me to choose, since practically every netsuke we have has a little story that comes with it. Still, I guess my personal favourite is the one I am using myself. [N.B. At this point, Date-san removes a little pouch from his belt that he has fastened there with a netsuke.] It is a white sleeping cat, made from the tooth of a hippopotamus.
The netsuke used by Date-san in the shape of a cat.
Photo # 5 courtesy of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum.
An Artist's Home and Workshop
Since the olden times the neighborhood around Gojozaka has been the area where Kyoto's pottery industry is located. One of the most renowned Japanese potters of the 20th century had his house and workshop there as well, and if you are yearning for a quiet afternoon to get away from all the hustle and bustle you should visit Kawai Kanjiro's House.
Kawai Kanjiro was born in 1890 in Yasuki City in Shimane prefecture. When he was only 16, he decided to become a potter, and eight years later, he graduated from the Department of Ceramic Industry of what is today the Tokyo Institute of Technology. At the college as well as at the Kyoto City Ceramic Research Institute, where he studied upon graduating, he accumulated his basic scientific and chemical knowledge and skills. However, Kawai Kanjiro was not satisfied with the purely theoretical approach at university and began to teach himself natural glazes and methods. In 1920, he acquired the noborigama climbing kiln in Kyoto's Gojozaka area and produced works in line with techniques from China and Korea. This became later known as his first period.
Kawai Kanjiro in his later years.
However, he soon became dissatisfied with his work and together with Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada Shoji, Kawai Kanjiro started the Mingei Movement (the Japanese folk art movement), and in 1936 he established the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. In this second period, he produced pieces reminiscent of Japanese folk art in both design and technique, and he also began to write essays and poetry. In his third period after WWII, his focus shifted again towards more abstract forms. In this time, he became proficient in wood carving and produced a number of large-scale pieces.
White Vase by Kawai Kanjro, collection of Kawai Kanjiro's House.
When Kawai Kanjiro died in 1966, he was recognised as one of the leading pottery artists of the Mingei movement in Japan. However, throughout his life he declined many honors the Japanese government wanted to bestow on him, like being named a Living National Treasure. He did not place much value on such awards. He did receive 2 Grand Prix Prizes for his works at international exhibitions, but both were submitted by his friends, not by Kawai Kanjiro himself.
If you'd like to know more about the thoughts of Kawai Kanjiro, we recommend the little book We do not work alone containing selected poetry and an essay about the master. It is in English and available at the museum.
Woodcarving of Hands with Face by Kawai Kanjro, collection of Kawai Kanjiro's House.
The former residence and workshop of Kawai Kanjiro is loced in the Gojozaka neighborhood, the traditional potter's district of Kyoto. It was designed and remodelled by Kawai Kanjiro himself in 1937 and opened as a museum in 1973. It differs from the many machiya merchant houses of Kyoto because it was modelled after classical rural cottages, but it also shows some Western influences. The large room near the entrance, for example, has a wooden floor on one side and slightly raised tatami on the other, with a traditional irori sunken hearth as the centerpiece. The house is quite large, and most of the rooms are accessible. At the rear of the house lies Kawai's workshop where he created his pottery together with his son and apprentices. Also preserved and accessible is the large noborigama climbing kiln that has eight chambers and was built on the slope behind the house.
Kawai Kanjiro's House Online: Website (in Japanese)
Address: 569 Gojozaka Kanei-chō, Higashiyama-ku, 605-0875 Kyoto (Google Maps)
Directions: Take City Bus 86, 100, 106, 110, 202, 206, 207 to Gojozaka.
Opening hours: 10:00 – 17:00 Closed every Monday and in the periods from August 10 – 20 and December 24 – January 7.
Photography: Allowed. Please sign the book at the reception before taking photos.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: There is no parking at the museum or nearby. Please consider public transport options instead. Please tell the staff if you arrived by bicycle.
Note: You must remove your shoes upon entering the house. Slippers are provided, but must not be worn in the tatami rooms. Please bring clean socks just in case.
There are no special exhibitions held at this museum. However, the permanent exhibition which is on display throughout the house and consists of Kawai Kanjiro's personal items and works – both pottery and wood carvings – is changed every three months. Furthermore, the house still contains beautiful items and furniture that was used and partially even designed by Kawai Kanjiro himself.
Upstairs living room with artwork in Kawai Kanjiro's House.
A Poetic Retreat
The sights of Arashiyama draw a large amount of tourists every day, but there are many quiet spots as well. One of them is the home of the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture (SAMAC), a new museum dedicated to art related to Arashiyama.
The Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture (SAMAC) is a relatively new addition to Kyoto's museum scene. It was originally founded in 2006 as the Shigureden, dedicated to the Hyakunin Isshu, a famous collection of early Japanese poetry. However, it was recently renovated and reopened its doors in November 2018 as the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture, with an expanded scope. There is now also a cafe that is freely accessible.
The permanent exhibition of the SAMAC shows the history of the Hyakunin Isshu from original documents of the Heian era to modern playing cards. The special exhibitions – there are four each year - show fine art that is related to Arashiyama or Kyoto. Both permanent and special exhibitions have extensive descriptions in English and Japanese.
Find out more about the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture on their website (in English).
The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is one of the most famous collections of ancient Japanese poetry. It was compiled in the 13th century by Fujiwara-no-Teika and consists of 100 waka poems, each written by a famous poet of the time. The collection soon became a classic and even today, Japanese school children learn the poems in the traditional Japanese. During the Edo period, the Hyakunin Isshu has been turned into a card game called karuta, and a recent manga has led to a boost in popularity of both the poems and the game. The website of the SAMAC hosts a database where the Hyakunin Isshu can be searched by poet, poem or certain themes, both in English and Japanese.
Every year in January, the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture holds the National Karuta Competition. You can watch a video on how the game is played in the museum. Also, the museum gives introductory lessons to the game - please make a reservation beforehand if you are interested.
Picture Album of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, 17th cent. Collection of the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture
Address: 11 Sagatenryuji-Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, 616-8385 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 11, 29, 93 to Arashiyama Tenryuji-mae (Randen Arashiyama Station).
Opening hours: 10:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Tuesdays (except when public holidays, then closed on the following day) and in the New Year period. The cafe is freely accessible during opening hours of the museum.
Photography: Allowed, except for specially marked exhibits. Please don't use flash.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: There is no parking at the museum or nearby. Please consider public transport options instead.
Note: Please bring clean socks to wear in the second floor tatami gallery.
What are birds made of? Fluffy feather and wings flying to wherever!
Birds are ubiquitous in Arashiyama and they have inspired many a poet and painter of Japan. In this exhibition, paintings of both local and exotic birds are on display, from the simple black and white ink paintings of Nagasawa to the colorful chickens of Jakuchu.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the website of the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture.
When the museum was built in 2006, it was dedicated entirely to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Even the old name, Shigureden, was a reference to the collection. Its editor, Fujiwara-no-Teika, had a villa in Arashiyama where he wrote poetry himself and this is where the Hyakunin Isshu was born. So, in a sense, it was a “back to the roots” when choosing the place for this museum.
Fujiwara-no-Teika was a member of an important noble family of the time. The collection endured partly because of his own fame, and partly because it became a kind of textbook to teach waka poetry to young poets, up until today.
This is a game that became popular in the Edo period, and it's essentially about memory. Each player has to memorize all of the poems and must be able to recognize them after only a few syllables. The cards are spread out in front of two players and show only the second half of the poems. A reader reads the poem and in order to win, you must pick the correct card very quickly. In the end, the winner is the one who has won the most cards. It is a very dynamic game and you can watch a video in the permanent exhibition.
Yes, the game is often played during the New Year period, and this is when we hold the competition in the gallery on the second floor. In 2020, for the first time, the competition will have men and women compete together, a perfect reflection of the collection itself, where 20 of the included poems were written by women.
That would be poem number 89 by Princess Shokushi, who was secrely and unfortunately, unhappily in love:
Should I live longer I could not bear this secret love Jewelled thread of life, since you must break – do it now.
We strive to create a “museum where you can meet art and culture related to Saga Arashiyama.” Many artists lived in Arashiyama and even in the Edo period, it was a popular tourist spot. Our collection includes many relevant artists and motifs and we are proud to present them to the public.
Yes, we are trying to make this an all-round experience. When you scan the QR code next to the exhibit, you will hear the song or call of the birds in the picture. So the next time you walk around and hear a bird calling out, you know what to look for.
It is the ink painting "Cranes Over Mt. Fuji” by Nagasawa Rosetsu. I especially like the composition and the soft curve of the flock of cranes as they fly across the painting.
The painting "Cranes over Mt. Fuji" by Nagasawa Rosetsu. Private collection.
Ancient Art of Tie-Dyeing
Kyoto is the leading Japanese city when it comes to traditional textile arts. One of these is shibori, an intricate tie-dyeing technique that was lifted to new heights by the craftspeople of Kyoto. The Kyoto Shibori Museum is a unique museum dedicated do preserving the craft for the future.
Shibori is the Japanese name for tie-dyeing, which came to Japan in the 7th century. This old handicraft technique was further refined in Japan, and during the Edo period shibori was produced in many cities. Nowadays, the two main production areas for shibori are Nagoya and Kyoto. In Kyoto, where shibori is produced almost exclusively on silk, it is called Kyo Kanoko Shibori.
Japanese shibori is characterised by its great level of detail and attention to design and colouring. There are around 50 traditional shibori techniques that can be differentiated by the way the fabric is bound before dyeing. Each of these binding techniques is done entirely by hand and it requires many different steps and a number of expert craftspeople to complete a piece of shibori.
In the Kyoto Shibori Museum, you can watch a short video (8 min) or buy a DVD (40 min) explaining some of the many intricate shibori techniques.
Shibori Image of a Kyoto Maiko. Collection of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
The Kyoto Shibori Museum was opened in the year 2000 and aims to preserve old shibori techniques while at the same time developing new ones. The permanent exhibition features examples of shibori fabric in various stages of the binding and dyeing process, as well as some of the tools needed to produce shibori. A video (in English) explains the steps and techniques of shibori. Every year, four special exhibitions showcase beautiful examples of shibori art.
The Kyoto Shibori Museum also offers shibori classes (in English and Japanese), where you can create your own shibori textile using simple techniques and dyeing methods. Length and prices for classes vary, please see the museum's website for details and how to book a class.
The museum also has a large shop where handmade shibori items of all sizes can be purchased. An online shop and international shipping is available.
Address: 127, Shikiami-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8261 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 9, 12, 50, 101 to Horikawa Oike or the Subway Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae (Exit 2).
Opening hours: 9:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed irregularly, for example during Obon and the New Year. Please check the website for details.
Photography: Allowed in the museum, but not in the shop.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: Parking available but very limited. Please consider public transport options instead.
Note: Please bring clean socks to wear in the museum.
This exhibition shows four large shibori screens that depict famous Kyoto sights during the four seasons. The screen for summer, for example, shows the five Gozan-no Okuribi fires of Obon in August.
The museum is closed on Oct. 1, Nov. 1, and from Nov. 29 - Dec. 3.
For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
Tie-dyeing is the oldest method of decorating fabric. People would just crumple up a piece of cloth before dyeing and so created a pattern. This can be traced back to 3rd century India. The tie-dyeing technique then spread to China, and from there it reached Japan in the 7th century. Here, the technique was refined to what we call shibori today. The art reached its peak during the Edo period.
It's the level of detail in the binding. The most difficult one, called hon-hitta shibori, has beads that are only 2 mm large when tied. This is all hand-made, and the craftsperson can only tie about 300 of these beads a day. A whole kimono of this type of shibori takes around three years to complete.
Effectively, it's only about 30 these days. Unfortunately, for some of the techniques, there is only a single artisan left who can do it, and many of them are well past retirement age. Altogether, there are maybe 200 – 300 shibori artists left in Japan.
That depends on the pattern of course. Basically, we design the pattern and produce a stencil to copy the design onto the fabric. Then the fabric is tied and dyed. Afterwards, the strings used to tie the fabric are removed, and the piece is steamed to straighten it. Each of these steps requires a specialist, and if the pattern calls for more than one shibori technique or several colours, these steps have to be repeated accordingly. A very intricate kimono may be touched by up to 10 people before it is complete.
Shibori Image of a Dragon. Collection of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
Only the very simple techniques. When I was a boy, I would visit the craftspeople working for my father's company to learn from them after school. At that time, children as young as four years old would start to learn the craft, and by the time they were 20, they could produce professional work.
I was invited to give a talk at Doshisha University about Kyoto crafts and shibori in particular, and how to transmit these ancient crafts to future generations. That's when I realised that I really should put my money where my mouth is. At that time I retired from the company to open this museum.
First, we are supporting shibori artists by buying their works or commissioning special pieces for the museum. And second, we offer shibori classes to teach the craft. Initially, we thought these classes would only be interesting to Japanese people, but we get many foreigners as well, and some of them take the skills they learnt here to make it their own and produce something unique at home.
You can choose from five shibori classes and even more patterns to produce a scarf, a fukusa or a furoshiki. We will teach you the whole process – from binding the cloth to dyeing it – and at the end, you can take your finished work home with you. These standard classes take from 30 – 90 minutes, but we are now experimenting with longer classes where an artisan teaches more involved techniques.
I especially like the screen depicting autumn in Kyoto because it was the very first piece I commissioned for the museum. It is 6.5 x 3.5 m in size and took two years to complete. Completing all four screens took eight years in total.
Detail of Shibori Screen "Kyoto in Autumn. Collection of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
Photo # 6 courtesy of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
Meiji-Era Fine Arts
It is easy to overlook this little museum among the many shops and cafes that line the ascent to Kiyomizudera Temple. However, it is home to the most spectacular private collection of Meiji art in Japan, so you should not miss a visit to the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum was established in 2000. It focuses on Japanese artwork that peaked during the late Edo/early Meiji period, in particular makie, cloisonné, metalwork, and Satsuma ceramics. A part of the pieces in the collection were created by masters of the art who were appointed “Imperial Household Artists” during the Meiji period. Not only did these people receive special recognition from the Imperial Family, but their exquisite artworks were also sought after by collectors worldwide, then as much as today.
The museum's permanent exhibition, located on the first floor, shows selected pieces from the collection together with an overview of how these artworks are produced. The second floor is dedicated to the special exhibitions, four every year.
More information about the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, in both English and Japanese, can be found on their website.
Makie Lacquerware Although lacquerware is produced throughout Asia, the technique of makie is unique to Japan. Gold powder sprinkled onto lacquer while it is still wet creates magnificent images with a special flair. Cloisonné Japanese cloisonné dates back to the Momoyama period about 500 years ago, but the art reached the peak of its popularity and artistic refinement in the Meiji period. Metalwork Already more than 2500 years ago, metalwork was produced in Japan. Growing out of technology accumulated during the Edo period, the late 18th century saw the birth of a new art form. Kyoto Satsuma Ware Satsuma ware can be traced back to Korean potters working in Kagoshima Prefecture. It received highest praise abroad and was one of the major Japanese export articles of the Meiji Period. In the permanent exhibition room on the first floor you can watch a short film about how to create the first three of these artworks (in Japanese, with English subtitles). The Japanese versions are also available on the museum's website.
Makie Lacquerware Although lacquerware is produced throughout Asia, the technique of makie is unique to Japan. Gold powder sprinkled onto lacquer while it is still wet creates magnificent images with a special flair.
Cloisonné Japanese cloisonné dates back to the Momoyama period about 500 years ago, but the art reached the peak of its popularity and artistic refinement in the Meiji period.
Metalwork Already more than 2500 years ago, metalwork was produced in Japan. Growing out of technology accumulated during the Edo period, the late 18th century saw the birth of a new art form.
Kyoto Satsuma Ware Satsuma ware can be traced back to Korean potters working in Kagoshima Prefecture. It received highest praise abroad and was one of the major Japanese export articles of the Meiji Period.
In the permanent exhibition room on the first floor you can watch a short film about how to create the first three of these artworks (in Japanese, with English subtitles). The Japanese versions are also available on the museum's website.
Incense burner with design of domestic fowls by Shoami Katsuyoshi. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
Address: 337-1 Kiyomizu-sanchome Sanneizaka Kita-iru Kiyomizudera-monzen, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0862 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 86, 100, 106, 110, 202, 206, 207 to Kiyomizu-michi.
Opening hours: 10:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, except when national holidays.
Photography: Not allowed.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: No parking. Please consider public transport options.
This exhibition on wood and ivory carvings and sculptures is the fourth in a series about Imperial Household Artists. During the Meiji period, the Imperial Family appointed and supported Imperial Household Artists in different fields of traditional arts and crafts. These artists were charged with the refinement and teaching of their technique to future generations, as well as with the creation of pieces for the Imperial Household.
Works of Takamura Koun and Ishikawa Komei are spotlighted; both were appointed Imperial Household Artists in the field of carving in 1890.
For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
That was about 35 years ago, when I went to an antique mall in New York City. In one of the shop windows, some Japanese inro (n.b. pill boxes) were on display, and they immediately caught my eye. Before I knew it, I had already bought two... or three... and I never looked back, really.
Yes, I had been collecting china, like Viennese picture plates and similar. This is why I went to that antique mall in the first place. But then I stumbled upon these fantastic Japanese pieces, and my life literally changed forever.
It was not planned at all. In the beginning, I focused only on inro and makie pieces. After a year or so, I became interested in other artworks of the Meiji period and slowly expanded my collection. Today, the museum holds more than 10,000 pieces of art from the late Edo, Meiji and early Taisho period (n.b. around 1860 – 1920).
Makie Inro with Chrysanthemums by Shibata Zeshin (detail). Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
When I started collecting 35 years ago, there was not much interest in Meiji art in Japan, and most of the first rate artwork had been sold abroad long ago. At some point, I wanted to show people here what has been lost in a sense. The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum is the first and only museum in Japan that is entirely dedicated to artwork from this period. Lately, things are changing though, and when a really good piece of Meiji Kogei (n.b. Meiji artworks known for their extraordinary, unmatched techniques) is sold at auction for example, very often it goes to a Japanese buyer.
I look at many different criteria. For example, I prefer pieces in mint condition, and because most of the best work from that period was exported in the Meiji and Taisho eras, I often buy abroad. As there were few famous artists who made those pieces, this is less important to me. As long as the craftsmanship is superb, I may consider a piece. At the end of the day, however, this is my private collection, and the most important thing is whether I personally like something or not.
Kyoto Satsuma Tea Set with Chrysanthemums and Arabesques by Kinkozan Sobei VII. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
In the Edo period, many artists had patrons like the government, wealthy samurai, or merchants. An elaborate piece of makie can take months, if not years to complete, so sponsorship was necessary for many artists. After the Meiji Restoration, many of the wealthy people either lost their status or turned to buying Western art. The government also shifted financial support to the industrialisation of the country, and people flocked to the new factories. The demand from the West kept things going for a while, but around 1900, the foreign market was saturated too. With few young people taking up the art, the craftsmanship died out eventually and quite literally.
As I said, interest in Meiji artwork is increasing in Japan, but if modern artists will ever reach this level of expertise again is hard to predict.
Yes, I am definitely planning more in this series!
That's a very difficult question. No, that's too difficult for me to choose a single one. I hope that visitors would enjoy the whole selection on display right now.
The Departure of Lao Tse by Takamura Koun. Collection of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
Photos # 3, 5, 6, 7 courtesy of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum.
Focus on Rinpa
The enormous diversity of Japanese art has attracted fans and collectors, from Japan and abroad alike. The passion of art collecting lies in the Hosomi family, and the items collected over three generations are on display at the Hosomi Museum in Kyoto.
Rinpa or Rimpa is a traditional school of Japanese painting that was born in 17th century Kyoto. Most of the paintings of the Rinpa school feature birds, plants, flowers or similar motives from nature, and the background is often filled with gold leaf. Rinpa flourished in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, and many important works can be found on sliding doors of folding screens in the old temples of Kyoto.
Hon'ami Koetsu (1558 – 1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (ca. 1570 – ca. 1640), famous for the folding screen Wind God and Thunder God, a national treasure, are considered the founders of the Rinpa school. The style was consolidated some 50 years later by the the brothers Ogata Kenzan and Ogata Korin, whose two folding screens depicting Irises are national treasures. Other notable painters of the Rinpa school are Nakamura Hochu, Sakai Hoitsu, Suzuki Kiitsu and Kamisaka Sekka. The Hosomi Museum Collection contains artworks by all of them.
"Puppies" by Nakamura Hochu of the Korin school, 1802. Private collection.
The Hosomi museum opened in 1998 and showcases the collection of Hosomi Ryo (Kokoan). Besides the world-renowned paintings from the Rinpa school, the collection also contains Buddhist art from the 4th - 16th centuries and decorative arts like makie, lacquerware, and tea bowls. There is also a large collection of 16th - 19th century paintings, notably by Katsushika Hokusai and Jakuchu Ito. Out of the currently ca. 1000 pieces of the collection, 30 have been designated as Important Cultural Properties.
The museum is located in a modern building designed by Tadasu Oe. It unfolds it unique open structure with 3 floors above and 2 floors below ground upon entering. Besides the exhibition rooms, there is the ART CUBE SHOP selling souvenirs and unique museum goods and the CAFE CUBE, an Italian restaurant famous for its pasta. Both the ART CUBE SHOP and the CAFE CUBE are on the bottommost floor and freely accessible. The KOKO-AN tearoom on the third floor offers tea ceremonies while overlooking the neighborhood (reservations required).
The Hosomi Museum has 5 special exhibitions each year. For more information, please visit their website (in English and Japanese).
Address: 6-3 Okazaki Saishojicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8342 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take City Bus 32, 201, 202, 203, 206 to Higashiyama-Nijo/Okazaki-Koen-guchi.
Opening hours: 10:00 - 17:00. Museum is closed on Mondays, except when national holidays, and during the change of exhibitions.
Photography: Not allowed.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: No parking. Please consider public transport options.
Hochu Nakamura, born in Kyoto in the late Edo period, was a painter of the Rinpa school. Active in Osaka, where he had friends in the local literary circles, he is known for composing haiku and illustrating them, as well as for his bold paintings of flowers.
For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of the Hosomi Museum.
Photo # 2 courtesy of the Hosomi Museum.
Master of Tea Ceremony
Like no other traditional Japanese art, the tea ceremony, handed down through generations, embodies Japanese life and thought. Like a little box of exquisite jewellery, this museum is dedicated to one of the greatest and most influential tea masters of Japan, Furuta Oribe.
Born into a samurai family in 1543, Furuta Oribe was a retainer of Oda Nobunaga and later of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He studied the way of tea under Sen-no-Rikyu, and after Rikyu's death, Oribe was appointed tea master to Hideyoshi. From 1600, he taught tea ceremony to Hidetada, the second Tokugawa shogun. His own style of tea ceremony, called Oribe-ryu, became very popular among the samurai class, and by 1610, he was considered the greatest tea master of Japan. However, after being accused of orchestrating a coup d'etat in 1615, he was ordered to commit suicide. Just like his teacher Sen-no-Rikyu, he died by his own hand.
Tea Master and Samurai Furuta Oribe (1543 - 1615).
Furuta Oribe's influence on the tea ceremony cannot be overstated. He introduced what is now known as Oribe-gonomi, a style that includes new designs for both tea houses and tea gardens. For the latter he even created a new type of stone lantern, called Oribe-doro. However, Furuta Oribe is best known for his distinctive style of tea bowls and other ceramics. The deliberately warped shapes with the beautiful green glaze seem very modern and have kept their appeal for over 400 years.
Find out more about Furuta Oribe at the website of The Museum of Furuta Oribe.
Teabowl, Six Waves Pattern, Black Oribe Style. Collection of The Museum of Furuta Oribe
The Museum of Furuta Oribe opened in 2014, 400 years after Oribe's death. Next to the entrance to the exhibition room a small garden showcasing an Oribe-doro lantern has been created. On top of a collection of Oribe ware and other utensils made or used by Furuta Oribe, the museum also holds a number of other important items like calligraphies created by his contemporaries. Among them are Sen-no-Rikyu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his son, as well as Honami Koetsu, a tea student of Oribe's. In total, the collection comprises around 2000 pieces, 200 of these are Oribe-ware ceramics.
The Museum of Furuta Oribe holds three exhibitions each year. For more information check the website of the museum.
Address: 107-2 Kamigamo Sakuraicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8054 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take the subway Karasuma Line to Kitayama Station. 5 min. walk from Exit 4.
Opening hours: 9:30 – 17:00. Museum is closed during the New Year Period (January 1 – 3) and between exhibitions.
Photography: Not allowed.
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: No parking. Please consider public transport options.
As the title suggests, this exhibition showcases the most important pieces from the museum's collection. Tea utensils of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Hideyori as well of other samurai and walthy merchants are on display as well as their calligraphies, swords and armor.
For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of The Museum of Furuta Oribe.
Photos # 2, 3 courtesy of The Museum of Furuta Oribe.
With the Tokyo Olympics 2020, there are many reasons to go out in the evening, hopefully to celebrate rather than to drown your sorrows. Whether you want to party or not, here are the Top 12 Kyoto Event Venues where you can enjoy music, dance, theater,... both traditional and contemporary Japanese or with international roots and performers. Click the logos below and find out more.
Multidisciplinary Art Space
Kiyamachi street between Nijo street and Shijo street is one of the most popular spots for Kyoto's night crawlers. Filled with restaurants, bars, and event venues, there is something for everybody, and the UrBANGUILD is right in the middle of it!
The UrBANGUILD, located on the third floor of the New Kyoto Building just south of Sanjo Dori at Kiyamachi, is an excellent place to get to know Kyoto's independent music and art scene. Since 2006, the UrBANGUILD has been open to all kinds of artists, and you can see local bands, dance and other performances, as well as special events like the popular Pecha Kucha Nights Kyoto.
Almost every day, there is a different kind of event that you can enjoy while having a few drinks and a bite to eat. You can also come after the events have finished and enjoy the open bar until 25:00, a perfect opportunity to meet & greet the performers of the evening.
UR Radio, a quarterly talk show featuring a variety of Japanese artists – actors, painters, stage directors, musicians... The next show will be recorded live on January 20, 2020, from 19:00; this time, UrBANGUILD's ryotaro speaks with Wada Hiroshi, lawyer and butoh dancer.
Old shows are available on the Kyoto UrBANGUILD youtube channel for all of you who speak Japanese and are interested in Japan's independent art scene.
Wed. 8, 19:00 – 22:30 Butoh Night Vol. 14
Butoh is Japanese modern dance, developed in the 1950s. The moves are heightened by the white body paint, giving the dancers an unearthly appearance. Dancers are: Masami Yurabe (accompanied on the accordion by ryotaro), Ima Tenko, Hifu, and Frauke.
Mon. 13, 18:00 – 21:00 Taiko Drum Rock Band BATI-HOLIC
BATI-HOLIC are a local band from Kyoto who produce a perfect blend of traditional taiko drum with modern Rock on electric shamisen. In this special “Kimono Rock Party”, everybody wearing a kimono will receive a special gift. Don't miss the afterparty!
Fri. 24, 19:00 – 22:00 Ur食堂LIVE!
Have a relaxing evening with cumulus (violinist Saikou Miyajima and accordion player ryotaro) followed by guitarist Kota Yamauchi.
Wed. 29, 19:00 – 22:30 FOuR DANCERS Vol. 157
UrBANGUILD Signature Event: Enjoy an evening of contemporary dance with 4 dancers or dance groups from Japan or abroad. Dancers for Vol. 157 are: Shigemi Kitamura, Neko The Ghost, Manaki Uno + You Kizaki + Mizuho Ari, and Akinori Senba.
For more great events taking place at the UrBANGUILD almost every day, check out the UrBANGUILD event calendar on their homepage!
Address: 3rd floor New Kyoto Building, 181 - 2 Yagikicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto 604-8017 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 17, 32, 59, 86, 104, 205 to Kawaramachi Sanjo.
Opening hours: Almost daily in the evenings, depending on event.
Seats: max. 160 persons (standing)
Reservations: Recommended, see the link at each individual event page. Depending on the event, ticket prices may include 1 drink ticket; otherwise add 600 yen for your first drink (also for otherwise free events).
Food & Drinks: At every event; open bar until 25:00, food last order at 24:00. See the menu here (in Japanese), English menu available.
Photography: Depending on event.
Smoking: Depending on event.
Wheelchair accessible: Elevator to the 3rd floor, assistance possible.
Parking: No; paid bicycle parking nearby. Please consider public transport options.
All photos courtesy of the UrBANGUILD Kyoto.
Hot Live Music Venue
If you're planning an exciting evening out, don't look further than Kiyamachi street. Here you find restaurants, bars, and live venues tightly packed in a small side street between Nijo and Shijo streets - and one of the live venues is the exciting Live Spot Rag.
The Live Spot Rag opened its doors back in 1981 and has since become a beloved institution for all live music fans in Kyoto. Located at the 5th floor of the Empire Building just south of Oike Dori, it is a cosy venue for a wide variety of live concerts, from Japanese and International top artists of all musical styles to budding as-yet amateurs from Kyoto.
Come at 18:00 when the doors open and have dinner before the performance. After the concert, the bar is open until midnight and you may be lucky to have a private chat with the star of the evening.
Passport Discount: Foreign tourists get 500 ¥ off the ticket price when showing their passport at the entrance.
Membership: If you stay longer in Kyoto, you should become a Rag Member. It gives you special perks like discounts and early pre-order tickets, priority seating at selected concerts, the chance to win free tickets... Check this page to become a Rag Member for one year.
Sat. 8, 19:00 Sarah Maeda x Jyunki Kaseda
FUSION This evening, sax player Sarah Maeda who explores her own music based in gospel holds a two-man project with Jyunki Kaseda, talented guitarist from the popular instrumental funk band "Natural Killers". Special guest: KenT and his saxophone.
Sat. 14, 19:30 Machiko Watarumi Samba musica bratileira
BRAZILIAN Have a relaxing Saturday night with the acoustic duo consisting of Michiko Watarumi, a samba bossa-nova singer highly praised even by top Brazilian players, and Yutaka Yamada, virtuoso of the seven-string guitar.
Fri. 21, 20:00 Luciano Ghosn
El Flamenco de la Nueva Ola Flamenco guitarist Luciano Ghosn from Spain has been attracting attention as a young guitar virtuoso. With a flexible musicality nurtured through collaborations with jazz and another genre music players, he will deliver a music world of his own in this performance together with Chinese Erhu.
Fri. 21, 23:30 Midnight Jazz Live
Live Spot Rag Signature Event: Twice a month on Fridays, the Live Spot Rag opens their stage after the live music hours for local Jazz musicians. This free concert that often turns into a jam session is a great start into the weekend for the night owls of Kyoto. On these days, the Live Spot Rag closes at 2:00.
Thu. 27, 19:30 Tommy's Live
JAZZ Tommy is an extraordinarily gifted and powerful trombone player.This night, Tommy and special guests from Kansai are playing cheerful and beautiful music. On stage are: Tommy (trombone), Tsutomu Takei (ts), Toru Nakajima (piano), Tetsurou Aratama (bass) and Daishirou Kajiwara (ds).
For more great concerts happening at the Live Spot Rag almost every day, check out the schedule on the homepage of the Live Spot Rag!
Address: 5th floor The Empire Building, Kiyamachi Dori Sanjo Agaru, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto 604-8001 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 17, 32, 59, 86, 104, 205 to Kawaramachi Sanjo.
Opening hours: Almost daily until 24:00; on "Midnight Jazz" Fridays until 2:00. Opening depends on event.
Seats: 100 persons (with tables), max. 150 persons (seats only)
Reservations: Recommended. Tickets can be pre-purchased on the respective event pages.
Food & Drinks: Required order of 2 drink/food items during live performance hours; after event open bar until 24:00. See the menu here (in Japanese), English menu available.
Photography: Depending on event.
Smoking: Depending on event. From April 1, 2020: No.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes; elevator to the 5th floor.
Parking: No; paid bicycle parking nearby on Oike Dori. Please consider public transport options.
All photos courtesy of the Live Spot Rag Kyoto.
Centuries of Tradition
Lovers of traditional Japanese entertainment should take an opportunity to see Noh theater. It is performed today at the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater in Okazaki just as it was in front of the emperors of the 14th century.
Noh theater was developed 650 years ago almost single-handedly by Kan-ami and his son Zeami. Its roots lie in Chinese theater played at the imperial court, in pantomimes for common folk and even in Shinto performances for the gods of Japan. All these influences come together in a Noh play, with its music, chants, dance, and storytelling, perfectly highlighted by the precious masks and elaborate costumes. Noh is highly formalised and many of its plays draw on serious themes like death, revenge or repentance and may feature gods or ghosts.
The serious Noh dramas are contrasted by the light-hearted Kyogen plays. Even though the roots are the same, Kyogen have evolved into short sketches that often have a satirical undertone and make fun of society. Although Noh and Kyogen can be staged independently, they are often performed together. Then, the Kyogen often provides commentary or special insight to the Noh play which it accompanies.
Nohgaku – the combined term for Noh and Kyogen – has been designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. To learn more about Noh, visit the Nohgaku Performer's Association (website in Japanese) or the-noh.com, a comprehensive guide to all things Noh in English.
Kanze Noh is one of the five schools that trains shite main characters of Noh, with a history of more than 600 years. Like in all modern Noh theaters since the Meiji period, the interior of the main hall of the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater features a traditional Noh stage, complete with hashi-gakari bridgeway and hon-butai main stage, all underneath a cypress roof.
The Kanze Noh Theater in Kyoto usually stages Nohgaku in the weekends and national holidays. Besides the performances of the Kanze and other professional Noh groups, there are also regular performances by amateurs, which you can watch for free.
Caption Service: “Noh Support” is available where visitors can rent an electronic device that provides captions in multiple languages to enhance their experience of the play.
Subtitles on your smartphone/tablet: You can also receive subtitles for the performance onto your smartphone or tablet.
These services are available only for selected performances. See this English page for details or ask at the reception.
Sun. 8., 11:00 Su-utai & Shimai To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been postponed to July 24.
Su-utai is a narrative singing without music, and Shimai means a simplified extract of a longer Noh play. Both are performed without masks and costumes, an excellent opportunity for the actors to showcase their talents. Today, you can see excerpts from the plays Chikubushima, Tadanori, Sumidagawa, and Ukai.
Sat. 14, 13:00 Inoue Noh Performance To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been postponed to August 15.
Inoue is another of the professional groups that regularly perform Nohgaku at the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater. The Noh plays Awaji and Uneme are staged on this day, with the Kyogen Shatei in between.
Sun. 22, 11:00 Kanze Noh March Performance To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been postponed to July 11.
Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater Signature Event: Once a month, the Kanze Noh performers stage three Noh plays and one Kyogen. This time, you can see the Noh plays Tamura, Yuya, and Kurama Tengu, with the Kyogen Chikubushimamairi between the first and the second Noh play. Kurama Tengu (Long Nosed Goblin in Kurama) is set in the mountains north of Kyoto. The story tells how famous warrior Yoshitsune is trained by a mountain goblin when he was still a child. This play will be subtitled.
Sun. 29, 11:00 Performance by the Japan Noh Society To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been cancelled.
The Japan Noh Society performes three Noh plays on this day: Tamura, Yoshinotennin and Shakkyo. The Kyogen play after Tamura is called Nio.
Address: Enshojicho 44, Okazaki, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto 606-8344 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 5, 46, 100, 110 to Okazaki Koen Bijutsukan/Heianjingu-mae.
Opening hours: Opening hours depend on event. Usually, the theater opens 30 minutes prior to the performance.
Seats: 452 seats (first floor: 337, second floor: 115)
Reservations: Recommended. Online and telephone bookings available on the website of the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater.
Food & Drinks: Only allowed in the Gojo Cafe on second floor or in the lobby. The cafe is open during performances only.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Paid parking east of the theater. Free bicycle parking at the entrance. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 3, 4, 5 courtesy of the Kyoto Kanze Noh Theater.
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