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 Note that details like dates, times, and places mentioned below may be outdated and not correct anymore.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. 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. All of them 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 find out 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 that will protect you for the year after praying to the gods. Ideally, however, you visit the shrine(s) of the respective zodiac animal, either the one of your birth year, or that of the current year. The cycle starts with the Year of the Rat and repeats itself every 13 years. If you can't make it, you can visit Shimogamo Shrine, which has small shrines for all the zodiac animals.
|Year||Zodiac Animal||Associated Shrine or Temple||Year||Zodiac Animal||Associated Shrine or Temple|
|2020, 2008, 1996, 1984, 1972||Rat||Otoyo Jinja||2021, 2009, 1997, 1985, 1973||Ox||Kitano Tenmangu|
|2022, 2010, 1998, 1986, 1974||Tiger||Ryosoku-in Temple||2023, 2011, 1999, 1987, 1975||Rabbit||Okazaki Jinja|
|2024, 2012, 2000, 1988, 1976||Dragon||Takio Jinja||2025, 2013, 2001, 1989, 1977||Snake||Nittai-ji Temple|
|2026, 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978||Horse||Fujinomori Jinja||2027, 2015, 2003, 1991, 1979||Sheep||Kokuzo Horinji Temple|
|2028, 2016, 2004, 1992, 1980||Monkey||Sarumaru Jinja (Tsuzuki District, Kyoto Prefecture)||2029, 2017, 2005, 1993, 1981||Rooster||Miyake Hachimangu (Doves, actually, but close enough)|
|2030, 2018, 2006, 1994, 1982||Dog||Sokujo-in Temple||2031, 2019, 2007, 1995, 1983||Wild Boar||Goo Jinja|
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 and slightly different 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 exceptionally 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 garden illuminations 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..
Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu is a shrine in the south of Kyoto, and there, you can celebrate the sakura for more than a month. Almost every day there are special events, ranging from performances of traditional music and dance, to tea ceremonies, ikebana exhibitions, martial arts performances, sake offerings... And then there are of course shinto rituals and the sakura in bloom. If you want to go all-out for your hanami, this is the place to go.
From vernal equinox in March to April 30
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.
April 10, from 10:00
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.
2nd Sunday in April, from 13:00
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.
4 days during sakura season, from 18:15
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.
from March 20 - April 17, 18:00 - 21:00
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 selected and a preliminary race is held to determine the line-up. The jockeys wear traditional clothing and already give their best to succeed in this trial race. Before the race, there is a religious ceremony in the shrine.Kamigamo Shrine, 13:00
Men in court costumes of the Heian period take part in mounted archery at full speed.Shimogamo Shrine, 13:00
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.Shimogamo Shrine, 10:00
A shinto ceremony is held to purify the horses for the Aoi Matsuri parade. Prayers are offered to the gods together with offerings of rice, sake, irises and other special goods. Afterwards, the horses that will be used during the Aoi Matsuri parade on May 15th compete pairwise in a race. Two horses start with a distance between them - if the distance widens, the first horse wins, if the distance closes, the second horse wins. The jockeys wear colorful traditional costumes and give their best as they try to win. This ritual goes back to the year 1093 and has been called the origin of horse riding in Japan.Kamigamo Shrine, 10:00
Priests are using bows and arrows to ward off evil spirits. Afterwards, a group of archers in traditional costumes engage in a contest.Shimogamo Shrine, 11:00
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.Shimogamo Shrine, 9:30 and 16:00
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 of the Palace on to 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.June 25 - 30; chinowa ceremony on June 30th from 15:00
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.June 30th, 10:00 and 20:00
Also at Heian Shrine, the chinowa is set up a few days before the main ceremony.June 30th, 13:00
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.June 30th, from 15:00
A chinowa is set up at the famous black torii of Nonomiya Shrine in Arashiyama.June 30th, from 15:00
Another ceremony involving hitogata takes place at Yoshida Shrine. Participants will receive a small chinowa wreath to take home.June 30th, from 16:00
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.June 30th from 16:00
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 famous yamaboko parades with the colorful floats 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. At this time, the emperor dispatched a messenger to Gion shrine (nowadays known as Yasaka Shrine) with 66 pikes to appeal to the gods for an end of the plague. Susanoo-no-mikoto - the somewhat mischievous brother of the sun goddess - is enshrined at Gion, and in order to relieve the sick, his spirit was carried in portable mikoshi shrines through Kyoto. The plague promptly ended, and so the ceremony was repeated in times of need, until the year 970, when the Gion procession became an annual event. The floats were added in 999, and only during the devastating Onin Wars was there no parade.
Over time, Gion Matsuri became a means for Kyoto's merchants to showcase their wealth. When in the 16th century the silk road brought foreign wares from as far as Europe, some wonderful European tapestries were added to the floats, which can still be seen today.
While there are almost daily events related to Gion Matsuri, the main events are the two yamaboko parades on July 17th and July 24th. The floats are constructed by people living in the respective inner city neighborhoods and then pulled or carried through the streets during the two parades. There are chiefly two types of floats used during Gion Matsuri.
The 9 hoko floats are huge wooden towers on wheels that are 25 meters tall to the very tip and can weigh up to 12 tons. They are pulled through the streets by 30 - 40 men dressed in traditional work outfits bearing the crest of their hoko. In front of the hoko are two men with fans giving encouragement and direction to those who pull, especially during the difficult 90 degree turn the hoko have to make at each street corner. All hoko have a cabin on top where a group of musicians play the characteristic Gion-bayashi tunes of the festival, employing flutes, cymbals and drums. Traditionally, every hoko also took a chigo with them, a sacred boy who performed certain rituals during the festival. This boy was considered so sacred, that he was not allowed to touch his mother or step on the ground for the whole duration of the festival. However, nowadays, the only hoko to hold on to this tradition is the Naginata-hoko, the other chigo have long been replaced with large dolls.
While the yama floats are much smaller than the hoko floats, they are also more numerous. The 23 yama are also elaborately decorated with expensive tapestries, often of foreign origin. On top of each yama float there is a display recreating a famous scene from Japanese history (mostly from the Tale of the Heike) or from Japanese or Chinese folklore. These wooden dolls depicting samurai, priests, and women are often very old, are always carefully crafted and wear elaborate costumes. Since the yama are carried on the shoulders of men instead of being pulled, the turning at the street corners is easy compared to that of the hoko. To make up for this, the 15 - 20 carriers try to make as many full turns with their yama as they can without stopping, not a small feat with something that is around 6 meters tall and 1.5 tons heavy.
As mentioned above, there are many events related to Gion Matsuri throughout July, mostly starting at Yasaka shrine or throughout the city. We list them all in our main calendar, and here are some you shouldn't miss.
Yasaka shrine, 16:30
This is the first procession of Gion Matsuri. Men carrying lanters together with women and young children depart from Yasaka Shrine at 16:30. The parade passes along Shijo and Kawaramachi street to Kyoto City Hall., where, dance and music are performed. At around 20:30, the procession returns to Yasaka Shrine where the children and young girls of the procession perform again. Watch out for the Heron Dance (Sagi odori) performed by young children in lovely costumes, as well as the Komachi Odori (dance of Young Ladies) and the special Gion Matsuri Ondo.
Yasaka shrine, 19:00
Before the three portable mikoshi shrines of Yasaka Shrine are ready to temporarily house the gods, they need to be ritually purified. From 19:00, men carry enormous torches made from straw and reeds from Yasaka Shrine through Shijo street in order to purify the road. Directly afterwards, the mikoshi are carried down to the Kamogawa and the water from the river is used to purify the three mikoshi before they are brought back to the shrine.
The first large parade of Gion Matsuri takes place in the morning of July 17. In the week before, the yamaboko are constructed, and you can visit the respective neighborhoods to watch and buy souvenirs.
During these four days, the 23 yamaboko that are taking part in the first parade on 17. July are constructed in their respective neighborhoods (see the map below). Each yamaboko is constructed from scratch out of wood and strong ropes, without using any nails. The basic framework is finally decorated with traditional trimmings like tapestries etc. that are reused each year and can be very old.
Now that the large hoko are finished, it's time to put them to the test. During these two days, people are invited to try pulling the yamaboko. At this time, women and even children are allowed to pull too, and it is said to bring good luck to everybody who tries. Note that the exact times for the trial pullings are different for each yamaboko.
In the three days before the Saki parade, when the yamaboko are finished and tested, you are invited to come and see them in their full glory. The large hoko can be entered (at the Naginata-hoko, only men are allowed to enter though), and all of the yamaboko have special exhibitions where the original statues or tapestries are on display. This is the time to buy individual souvenirs like tenugui towels or folding fans for each yamaboko, or to stock up on protective charms, especially chimaki. Many shops in the neighborhood have sales as well, and this is the perfect time to buy a summer kimono to wear at the festival. During this time, old merchant's machiya open up to show off treasures like priceless byobu (folding screens), kimono, or small-scale models of the floats. In the evenings, the inner city of Kyoto turns into an enormous party zone. Shijo dori from Yasaka Shrine to Horikawa, Karasuma dori between Oike and Matsubara dori, and all the smaller streets where the yamaboko are standing, becomes a pedestrian zone from 19:00. The streets are lined with stalls selling food, drinks, toys and games for kids... 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. On the evening of July 16th there are performances by Maiko and Geiko on Shijo street, as well as the famous Iwami Kagura, exciting traditional folk theater with elaborate costumes at Yasaka Shrine.
This is the first parade of Gion Matsuri, where 23 yamaboko will pass through Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike dori. The official beginning is at 9:00 when the Chigo - the 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). The order of the other 22 is decided by a lottery on 2. July in a ceremony at City Hall. When the yamaboko pass City Hall, a representative shows the drawn lot to the mayor of Kyoto to ascertain that everything is in order. When the yamaboko return to their neighborhood, they are dismantled soon after.
The parade turns at the corners of Shijo-Kawaramachi (from around 9:40) and Kawaramachi-Oike (from around 10:30), which make the most exciting places to watch the parade. There, the large hoko have to be turned by 90 degrees, using bamboo slats moistened with water and a lot of manpower. 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 point on the route.
Reserved seats are available along Oike dori in front of Kyoto City Hall and can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information center on Sanjo Dori and the Kansai Tourist Information Center at Kyoto station. You will get a pamphlet with your reservation explaining Gion Matsuri and the floats in detail.
Yasaka Shrine, from 18:00
The main religious event of Gion Matsuri dating back more than 1000 years is the Shinko-sai in the evening after the Saki parade. The gods of Yasaka shrine have been transferred to the mikoshi that were purified the week before, and now the mikoshi are carried on different routes through the city on the shoulders of men who cry washoi to keep their enthusiasm up. All three routes end at Otabisho on Shijo dori, just opposite the entrance to Teramachi shopping street. The mikoshi remain there for a week and people come to visit and pray to the gods or buy omaori protective charms.
After the yamaboko for the Saki parade have been dismantled, the yamaboko for the Ato parade are built. Since this parade is much smaller - with only 10 yamaboko in total, the second half of Gion Matsuri is much more quiet and subdued.
Just like for the first parade, the 10 yamaboko floats that take part in the Ato parade are constructed (see the map below). There is also a trial pulling in each community on the 20. and 21. of July, where active participation is encouraged.
During the three days of the Ato Parade's Yoiyama, each yamaboko sells souvenirs and protective charms like omamori or chimaki. The respective community houses of each yamahoko are open for visitors and the original tapestries with which the yama is decorated as well as displays on top can be seen up close. Generally, a small fee needs to be paid to do so. While the yamaboko communities are open until 22:00, there are no food stalls or traffic restrictions in the evenings.
Karasuma-Oike 9:30 and Yasaka Shrine 10:00
This parade comes in two parts. The first, the Yamaboko Ato Parade starts at 9:00 at Oike/Karasuma dori and showcases the 10 yamaboko that were built in the week before. This parade takes the same route as the first one, but in the opposite direction. Traditionally, the last float in the Ato Parade is the Ofune-hoko, a large float shaped like a boat, which was reconstructed recently and has joined the parade only a few years ago.
The second part of the parade is the Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession, starting from Yasaka Shrine at 10:00. In this parade, 10 colorful umbrella floats decorated with flowers and accompanied by women and children goes west on Shijo street, then north on Teramachi and then follows the Yamaboko Ato Parade down Karawamachi dori before heading back to Yasaka Shrine. Besides the floats, there are children with mikoshi, troupes playing taiko or other music, and even Maiko and Geiko from Kyoto take part. They all perform dance and music upon their return at Yasaka Shrine. Watch out for the dyamic Lion Dance, and the two dances performed by Maiko and Geiko of Gion, the Konchiki Ondo and the Susume Odori (Sparrow Dance).
Again, the best places to watch en route are at the corners where the yamaboko must turn. Reserved seats are available at Kyoto City Hall and can be bought at the Kyoto Tourist Information center on Sanjo Dori and the Kansai Tourist Information Center at Kyoto station.
The kanko-sai sees the return of the gods to Yasaka shrine. On the evening after the parade, the three mikoshi which were on display at the Otabisho for a week, are carried back through the city to Yasaka shrine. When they have arrived there and were stripped of their ornaments, the deities that they carried are transferred back into the main shrine in complete darkness. The kanko-sai ends around midnight.
Once more, the three mikoshi used during Gion Matsuri are carried to Kamogawa river to be purified before they are stored away until next year.
Eki Shrine 10:00
The Nagoshi-no-harae is an ancient purification rite that is performed in midsummer and just before New Year. Here, it marks the end of Gion Matsuri, and the participants gather at Yasaka Jinja's Eki Shrine to perform the ritual and walk through the chinowa wreath that has been set up. Once this official part is over, other people may walk through the chinowa wreath as well.
Last photo courtesy of Yasaka Shrine.
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
Addionally to the Manto-Kuyo ceremony, there is a special performance of Rokusai Nenbutsu dance/theater on August 14.
August 7 - 16, lightup from sunset to 21:00.
August 8 - 10 from 20:00 (light-up) and August 16 from 18:00 (send-off)
At Mibudera, there are performances of Rokusai Nenbutsu on August 9 and 16.
August 9 - 16, lightup from sunset to 21:00.
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 12, 18:00 - 20:00.
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.
Last weekend in August, from 17:30 - 20:30.
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.
In the days leading up to the ceremony, you goma prayer sticks are sold by the five communities responsible for making the fires. Write your name and wish onto the wooden sticks and they will be placed into the bonfires , sending your wishes to heaven as they burn.
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 or kangetsu, 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).every Friday, Saturday, Sunday in September/October; from 17:00
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.3 days around the date of full moon, from 17:00
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.Day of the full moon, from 18:00 - 20:30
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.Day of the full moon, from 17:30 - 21:00
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). Day of the full moon, from 18:00 - 20:30
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 show 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 beautifully quiet temples.
For a more leisurely approach, try the Sagano Romantic Train. The track passes along the Hozu River with its wild gorges and through eight 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
Just like everywhere else, December is probably the busiest month in Japan. Besides decorating their own homes according to old customs, people are busy buying Oseibo year-end presents, writing countless nengajo New Year's cards to be delivered on the morning of January 1st. And then there are the famed bonenkai year-end parties that every workplace or club organises and that involve lots of fun, food, and alcohol. Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan, but many young people spend the evening with their partners or friends, and enjoy finding suitable gifts. With so much to do, life only slows down in the last few days before 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. Many people visit their parents during this time - the first three days of January, called Oshogatsu are national holidays - and together they may visit a temple to watch or even participate in the Joya-no-kane ritual.
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 to literally ring in the New Year. The 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. An ancient tradition dictates that the first 107 times the bell is struck in the old year, and the final, 108th time is in the New Year. Listening to the many temple bells echoing through the cold and quiet winter night of Kyoto is truly a spiritual experience.
Many temples all over Kyoto celebrate the Joya-no-kane, and each has a little extra. There may be sutra readings throughout the night, bonfires to keep visitors warm, hot amazake or tea may be served, or you may even be treated to some extra-longtoshi-koshi soba. Below are a few of our suggestions, but you can definitely venture out to smaller temples as well. For more information see our main calendar.
The most famous Joya-no-kane ceremony takes place at Chion-in, where the temple bell is 3.3 meters high and has a diameter of 2.8 meters, making it one of the largest temple bells in Japan. No fewer than 17 monks are required to ring the 70 ton bell, and seeing the flying monks of Chion-in perform this feat draws large crowds every year. On this day, there is a one-way path through the temple precincts and the entrance gates will be closed again at 23:00 (or earlier if it is very crowded).
The temple gates of Chion-in open at 20:00; there will be sutra readings at 22:20 and 22:35. The bell ringing itself starts at about 22:40, with intervals of about 1 minute.
If you are not satisfied with only watching the ceremony, you should visit Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama, where you can take part in the bell ringing. 108 people or small, family-sized groups may ring the bell one time each. This event is on a first-come first-serve basis, so you should come early if you want to participate.
Number cards will be handed out from 23:40, the ceremony begins at 23:45.
A DIY-approach to Joya-no-kane is also taken by Kurodani and Shinnyodo Temple. These two temples in the same neighborhood draw many foreign residents of Kyoto with their open and friendly atmosphere. At Kurodani, there are sutra readings in the main hall throughout the night, and both temples have bonfires and hand out hot beverages to participants.
Bell ringing starts around 23:00 at both temples
In 2018, 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.
Out of the hundreds of shrines in Kyoto, we picked the Top 12 Kyoto Shrines, many of which date back to Kyoto's founding 1300 years ago. Explore their precincts and gardens, pray to the kami they enshrine and buy a goshuin - proof of your visit to the shrine. And if you come at just the right time, you may take part in one of the countless festivals that are celebrated in a unique way at each of the shrines. Some of the shrines below are popular and can get very crowded during big festivals, while others still feel local and quiet at all times. Click the photos below to find out more.
At the Heart of Gion
In the first three days of the New Year, Japanese people visit a shrine to pray for a healthy and successful year to come. This is called hatsumode, and while most people go to the shrine in their local area, many others visit famous shrines elsewhere that enshrine a particular deity. One of the most popular shrines in Kyoto for hatsumode is Yasaka Jinja, which draws thousands of visitors each year.
Yasaka Jinja is conveniently situated in Kyoto's Gion district at the eastern end of Shijo dori, and the large romon gate is one of Kyoto's famous landmarks. Locals call the shrine affectionately Gion San, and its annual festival in July – Gion Matsuri – is probably the most famous and popular festival in all Japan.
Originally called Gion-sha, this shrine was founded in 656, more than 130 years before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. Its main deity is Susano'o-no-mikoto (the brother of the sun goddess). Also his wife Kushi-inada-hime-no-mikoto and their eight children Yahashira-no-mikogami are enshrined here. As the main shrine for Susano'o-no-mikoto (with more than 3000 affiliated shrines throughout Japan), 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 Jinja, and between 1871 and 1946, it was ranked among the Kanpei Taisha, the special government supported shrines.
Besides having the famous Gion Matsuri as the main festival, Yasaka Jinja is also the local shrine for the Gion district and all the people living there. Many of the events of Yasaka Jinja feature Geiko and Maiko of Gion.
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 at the eastern end of Shijo dori marks the shrine's west entrance. The gate houses two statues of zuishin warriors to guard the shrine, together with two pairs of koma-inu lion dogs, a metal pair outside the gate, and a pair carved from stone inside of it. 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 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 portable mikoshi shrines are placed at Gion Matsuri, and behind it lies the main worship 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 the haiden offering hall under a single roof. This makes the main hall of Yasaka shrine the largest of any shrine in Japan, and the combinatio is unique. Additionally, the building style of the main hall – with projecting roof not only in front, but also on the sides – is now called Gion style.
Inside the large precincts of Yasaka shrine are many smaller shrines devoted to deities besides Susano'o-no-mikoto. For example, at the Utsukushi-gozen shrine, people sprinkle a bit of water on their faces to enhance their beauty, whereas Hamono shrine is meant for cutlery, knives, and swords. Ebisu shrine has its own festival in January, and at Eki shrine, the nagoshi-no-harae purification after Gion Matsuri takes place. Finally, the god of enmusubi match makig residing at Okuninushi shrine receives – 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 around the clock. In the night, all the lanterns are lit and give the shrine a special atmosphere.
Why not visit Yasaka Jinja for your own hatsumode this 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 or buy a new goshuin-sho stamp book to fill with goshuin stamps from all the shrines you visit on your trip.
Below are a few of the events taking place at Yasaka Jinja over the year. You can find even more in our main event calendar. Enjoy!
1, 5:00 Okera-sai People light little straw ropes on the shrine's sacred fire and use it at home to light a candle on their home's altar as well as the first fire in their own hearth. This is part of the hatsumode festivities.
3, 13:00 Karuta Hajime Shiki Karuta is a traditional card game where the individual poems of the hyakunin isshu have to be recognised as quickly as possible. This first game of the year – played by people in gorgeous Heian-style costumes – is dedicated to the deities of the shrine.
9 and 10 Ebisu-sha-sai Ebisu is one of the seven lucky gods (shichifukujin) and the only one native to Japan. From 15:00 on the 9th, a parade of the seven lucky gods is held around Shijo dori, and on the 10th, special prayers for prosperity and family security are said at the Ebisu shrine.
2 and 3 Setsubun This ancient 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 highlight for February 2017above.
11, 10:00 Kigen-sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan. Prayers for prosperity and happiness are offered, and a special Seishin-ryu Ginbu dance is performed for the gods.
14, 7:30 – 9:30 Mikagura-hono Kagura is the name for 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 In July, all of Kyoto's inner city is abuzz with the many events of Gion Matsuri, one of the top three events in Kyoto, and even Japan. Yasaka Jinja is at the center of the celebrations, and all the religious ceremonies are taking place there or are performed by its priests. The atmosphere at the shrine is festive, and there are many booths set up to welcome visitors throughout July. Check out what it's all about in our highlight for July 2017 above, and for a full list of events, see our event calendar.
daily Shichigosai Children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the gods in an old ritual. 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 In this solemn ceremony, 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 and is shared with the people during New Year.
31, 15:00 Oharae-shiki A ceremony to purify oneself from the sins of the preceding year, similar to the nagoshi-no-harae in June.
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.
Yasaka Jinja online: Website (in Japanese and English)
Address: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0073 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 17, 46, 86, 100, 106, 110, 201, 202, 203, 206, 207 to Gion.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for goshuin, charms etc.): daily 9:00 - 17:00; precincts are open 24/7.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, through Maruyama Park.
Parking: No; paid bicycle parking nearby. Please consider public transport options.
All photos copyright Yasaka Jinja, except #1, 5, 10
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 during that time. 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: The god of thunder, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto and Ihainushi-no-mikoto both ward off evil and grant good fortune. Scholarly god Ame-no-Koyane-no-Mikoto and his wife Hime-gami, a goddess granting special blessings to women, together give their blessings to 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. Therefore, until the end of the Edo period, Yoshida shrine was granted the right to award ranks to almost all of the other shrines and priests in Japan. After the Meiji Restoration, between 1871 and 1946, Yoshida shrine ranked among the Kampei Chusha, special government supported shrines.
Yoshida Shrine is located on Yoshidayama, which can be considered a part of the Higashiyama mountains in the east of Kyoto. Its precincts are extensive and embedded into the forest, which gives the shrine a quiet, serene, and also cool atmosphere. While many paths lead to Yoshida Jinja, the main part of the shrine is best accessed over the steps at the eastern end of Higashi Ichijo Dori, which passes by the Seimon gate of Kyoto University. Instead of an inner sanctuary, this main honden structure contains four smaller honden, each housing one of the four main kami enshrined at Yoshida Jinja. These individual honden are built in the traditional Shinto style with Japanese hinoki (cypress) thatched roofs and red coloured wood beams.
On leaving this part of the shrine towards the south, there is the statue of a deer to the left. 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, it is said that the four Kami of Kasuga first descended from heaven in Nara, and then rode further to Kyoto on a deer.
Walking further uphill and to the south, 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 a very unusual building architectonically, and besides that, it enshrines all 3,132 kami of Japan. Therefore, 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 is common in Shinto, many smaller shrines can be found on the precincts of Yoshida shrine. For example, both Fujiwara Yamakage, the shrine's founder, and Yoshida Kanetomo, founder of Yoshida Shinto, are said to be buried here and have shrines erected in their honor.
If you are into food, follow the path up the mountain to the left behind the torii to Kaso Jinja, which enshrines the god of sweets. Or just walk straight ahead to find Yamakage shrine, which is home to the god of cooking and cutlery.
Yoshida Shrine has had 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 with the title Kurenai Moyuru extolling 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 which is today known as Kyoto University.
Not only is Yoshida shrine popular among students, professors, and alumni of Kyodai, its good location and quiet surroundings attract many couples for their wedding ceremonies. And even after the shrine offices close, the grounds remain open and the surrounding forest makes strolling the mountain paths 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 a smart idea to pray for wisdom.Below is a list of 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 the most popular ones 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. On February 2nd, from 18:00, the ceremony to drive out the demons is taking place. Three demons arrive from the top of the mountain and are exorcised by the four-eyed Hososhi in the middle of the shrine. On February 3rd, from 23:00, an enormous bonfire is lit, ritually burning old charms that people bring to the shrine in the days leading up to setsubun.
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 solemn ceremony in memory of the shrine's founding. Note that the public is not allowed to participate in the ritual itself, but may watch from the back of the shrine.
19, 10:30 Kasojinja Festival This is the spring festival of the god of confectionaries. Maybe go and ask for less temptation?
8, 14:00 Yamakage Shrine Festival The god of food and cutlery residing at Yamakage Shrine offers blessings and protection to Kyoto's restaurants and food industry. On this day a special ritual called shiki-bouchou is performed, where a large fish is cut using only knife and chopsticks and placed afterwards before the deity.
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. Many people take part each year, and all participants receive a small chinowa wreath charm to take home. For more information on the Nagoshi no Harae ceremony, see our Highlight for June 2017 above.
8, 10:30 Kencha-sai Tea Festival In this festival, green tea is prepared for the gods.
Last Sunday, 10:30 Kaguraoka Shrine Festival A lovely local 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 All over Japan in November, children aged 7, 5, and 3 are presented to the gods . 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. who resides at Kasojinja.
31, 15:00 Oharae-sai Before the new year starts, a final purification ritual takes place.
Address: 30-6 Yoshida Kaguraoka-cho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8311 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 201, 206 to Kyodai Seimon-mae.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for goshuin stamps, omamori charms etc.): daily 9:00 - 17:00; precincts are open 24/7.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Limited car parking at the top of the hill; bicycle parking at the foot of the hill. Please consider public transport options instead.
All photos except # 8, 9 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 can be still very cold in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, Kifune Jinja 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 behind.
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 this shrine to pray for the end of a drought. Kifune Jinja enshrines the two deities 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), as well as 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), Kifune Jinja 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 you will see of Kifune shrine is a red torii on the left side of the road through Kibune. Behind it are prominent, lantern-lined stone steps, leading up to the hongu, the outer shrine. Beyond 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 very modern looking honden of Kifune shrine is built in the so-called nagare zukuri style with a characteristic, beautifully curved roof. Most of the events of Kifune shrine take place here, and this is also where you can buy omikuji fortune slips and omamori charms to take home.
In the wall to the left side of the honden is a little spring called goshinsui. The water of this spring has been filtered by the mountains and forests surrounding Kibune village. It is so pure that there are people taking it home for tea ceremony or simply for cooking,. It is said that this spring has never run dry since the establishment of the shrine.
Stepping down from 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. However, it became troublesome both for the giver and the receiver to take care of so many horses, so over time, wooden ema tablets with horse images began to be presented as prayer to the gods instead. Therefore, Kifune shrine is also thought to be the origin of ema tablets.
Pass by the horses, leave the hongu through its northern gate, and walk further ahead in the village, until you come to the middle shrine, called nakamiya or Yui-no-yashiro. This is where Iwanagahime resides, the goddess of matchmaking. It is said that she was 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. This very poem is now carved on a stone monument near the Yui-no-yashiro.
Note that Iwanagahime isn't just dealing with romantic relationships, connections between businesses, getting a new job, even having children, fit her job description as well. In former days, people would write their wishes on thin green leaves and tie them onto the shrine itself, but nowadays – to protect the building – you should write on green strips of paper and tie them onto the designated spot.
At the very end of the valley, and at the end of a lantern-lined foot path, lies the okumiya, the inner shrine. This is the original spot where Kifune shrine once was founded, 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 rivers to the end of Kibune valley, where spring water was gushing forth from a little well. On this spot indeed a shrine was built and called ki-fune, literally: yellow boat. There is a prominent mound of stones, called funagata-ishi, to the left of the entrance to the okumiya, and legend has it 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 cave). 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 which give this spot a truly mystic feeling, regardless of the season.
Kifune Jinja is very popular among people whose businesses have to do with water: agriculture, fishing, brewing, dyeing etc. But also people working in fire departments, as well as sailors and other people related to the marine business come to pray to the god of rain and water for safety during their jobs. 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 nakamiya. 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 lies in the mountains, it is always cooler there 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 to take home, or you could try a mizura omikuji to reveal your fortune – hopefully a good one – when placed in the water at the shrine. No worries 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 rather special events taking place in Kifune Jinja throughout the year. Have a look below, or check our main event calendar for current times and dates. 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 spring herbs is prepared and served to people in order to prevent sickness in the coming year.
3, 11:00 Setsubun The ancient setsubun festival is related to the traditional New Year celebrations that were taking place at Lunar New Year.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan by the first emperor Jimmu.
3, 11:00 Toka Shinji The Peach Blossom Festival is held in celebration of Girl's Day or Hina Matsuri.
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 This festival involving iris flowers in held in celebration of 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 are offerings at the hongu which include a sacred dance performance. The shrine's mikoshi depart at 13:00 and are carried to the okumiya. There, more rituals will take place, again including sacred dances plus a colorful performance of Izumo Kagura, reenacting an old story of the slaying of two water serpents.
30, 13:00 Nagoshi-no-Oharae This summer purification ritual involves walking though a large chinowa wreath. For more information on the nagoshi-no-harae ceremony, see our highlight of June 2017 above.
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 shiki-bouchou) 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 This is 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 this to bamboo. (
Note: If July 7th falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the ceremony starts already at 11:00 (as in 2018 and 2019))
July 1 - Aug 15, dusk - 20:00 Tanabata Decorations Light-Up The entire area of the hongu 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 in this old ritual. 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 made of gomaki prayer sticks is prepared at the hongu of Kifune shrine and ritually burned after a prayer ceremony.
31, 16:00 Shiwasu-no-Oharae This is an end of year purification ceremony to cleanse yourself for the New Year..
Address: 180 Kuramakibune-cho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1112 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take the Eizan Railway from Demachiyanagi to Kibuneguchi. From there it is a short ride with Kyoto Bus 33 or a 20 minute walk to the shrine.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for goshuin stamps, omamori charms etc.): daily 9:00 - 16:30 (note seasonal changes).
Wheelchair accessible: Hongu: no, nakamiya and okumiya: yes.
Parking: Limited car parking at Kibune village, limited bicycle parking at the main entrance to the shrine. Please consider public transport options instead.
All photos except for the goshuin courtesy of Kifune shrine. Photos # 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13 copyright ©yasuhiro imamiya
Majestic in Okazaki
In April, we celebrate the awakening of all of Kyoto's cherry blossoms with leisurely strolls and outdoor picnics underneath the trees. One of the best places to view the sakura are the gardens of Heian Jingu, which celebrates its Reisei festival in memory of the shrine&aposs founding 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 stately and imposing atmosphere. The large courtyard is used for a number of Kyoto's grand scale events, the most important of which is the Jidai Matsuri in October.
Heian Jingu counts among the newest shrines of Japan. It was built in 1895 as part of that year's Industrial Exhibition Fair, to commemorate the 1100 year anniversary of the establishment of Heian-kyo, the traditional name for Kyoto. The shrine was kept after the fair, and over time, more and more buildings were added. Withe the buildings grew the number of main kami of the shrine. In the beginning, Heian Jingu only enshrined emperor Kanmu, who was the first emperor to reside in Kyoto and can be called the founder of the city. However, in 1940, emperor Komei was deified and, as the last emperor to spend his life in Kyoto, was also enshrined here.
The shrine is popular with the locals because when it was built 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 completely 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 furthermore designated as Important Cultural Property of Japan.
Heian Jingu as a whole was built as a replica of the ancient imperial palace daidairi, which was constructed at the founding of Kyoto in 794 and was 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 between them have a distinct Chinese charm that was very popular during the Heian period.
The first building to greet visitors is the impressive, two-story otenmon gate in vermillion, green, and white, which was 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 most recognisable landmarks. Interestingly, it was erected only in 1929, 34 years after the shrine. At that time, this was the largest torii in Japan with a height of 24,4 m and legs that boast a diameter of 3,6 m.
Passing through the otenmon gate, the shrine opens up into a large courtyard. At the center in the north lies the daigokuden, the Great Hall of State, where once the emperor conducted the state affairs. The daigokuden is divided into three parts: People come to worship at the gaihaiden front shrine and can buy good luck charms here. Behind it lies the inner sanctuary, which was once used only for imperial ceremonies, but today, more common shinto ceremonies like weddings or the popular shichi-go-sai shrine visits for kids in November take place here as well. Beyond the inner sanctuary lies the main sanctuary, where the shrine's two kami reside and only the priests have access.
At both the eastern and western sides of the courtyard lie two towers called soryu-ro (blue dragon tower, right) and byakko-ro (white tiger tower, left), respectively. Those two animals are guardians of the east and west directions, and they also adorn two fountains nearby the entrance where you should wash your hands before worshipping. Of course, there are also guardians of the north (genbu, a black snake-turtle) and south (suzaku, a vermillion bird). Images of all four guardian animals can be found on the iron lanterns present throughout the shrine.
One of the nicest features of Heian Jingu is its large public garden, measuring 33.000 m2 hidden behind the buildings. It is particularly famous for its benishidare weeping cherry trees. The 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 the ticket gate at the western end of the courtyard nearby the daigokuden. Directly at the entrance lies the South or Heian garden, with some 200 species of plants that are mentioned in Heian era literature. It is also the permanent 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, better known as Jihei Ogawa, whose style is readily recognized from other places like Murin-an or the Namikawa Cloisonne Museum. Unusual for a Shinto garden, the Shinen garden 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 holds about 2000 Irises, representing the 200 species that grow in Japan. The Middle Garden follows with soryu-ike pond that is crossed by a group of stepping stones called garyuko. Those stones were once part of old Sanjo and Gojo bridges built in the 16th century.
The final East Garden is the largest of the four gardens with seiho-ike pond at its center, and many weeping cherries all over. The big attraction here is the covered bridge taiheikaku, which came here as 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 during the sakura season.
Heian Jingu with its enormous torii and vermillion buildings is one of Kyoto's landmark shrines and should not be missed! And the shinen gardens, while fascinating throughout the year, are especially beautiful during cherry blossom season.
Below are a few of the events taking place at Heian Jingu each year. Our main event calendar gives current dates and times.
1, 6:00 Saitan-sai This is a New Year's festival as part of the hatsumode rituals. Prayers for world peace and prosperity for Kyoto's citizens will be said, and the shrine's miko will dance a special dance for the gods.
15, 9:30 Seijin-sai January 15 marks the national holiday Seijin-no-hi - Coming of Age Day. Young adults that turned 20 in the last year celebrate by dressing up in their finest kimono and visiting a shrine. Heian Jingu is particularly popular and many youths are happy to have their pictures taken.
3, 11:30 Setsubun Heian Shrine dedicates all day to setsubun, starting with a kyogen performance 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. Similar to the ritual at Yoshida Shrine, a demon exorcism takes place where a so-called Hososhi helps with driving out the demons who burst into the shrine's grounds at 14:00. Afterwards, from 15:00, priests of the shrine and geiko and maiko throw lucky beans and small gifts to the spectators, until finally, from 16:00, a sacred bonfire ritual ends the day.
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 celebrates the ascension of emperor Kanmu to the throne in 781. He would eventually move the capital to Kyoto 13 years later. Solemn prayers take place at the shrine 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 about this yearly event.
30, 13:00 Nagoshi no Oharae This ancient purification ritual at midsummer involves walking though a large chinowa wreath. At Heian Jingu, the chinowa for the nagoshi no harae is set up a few days early already.
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 is 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 it is just as old Heian Shrine. A long parade of people dressed in period costumes reaching from the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century all the way back to the Heian era and beyond walk through the city and finally arrive at Heian shrine at about 15:30. For more details about Jidai Matsuri, see our highlight for October 2017 above.
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 at Heian Shrine is held 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.
Address: Okazaki Nishitenno-cho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8341 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 5, 46, 100, 110 to Okazaki Koen, Bijutsukan, Heian Jingu-mae.
Opening hours: Precincts daily 6:00 - 17:30; Shinen gardens daily 8:30 – 17:00 (seasonal).
Admission: Free; Shinen gardens require a small entrance fee.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: No; parking garages nearby at Miyakomesse and underneath Okazaki Koen. Please consider public transport options.
All photos except the Kanmu emperor and the goshuin courtesy of Heian Shrine.
Protected by the Mountain
May marks the onset of summer in Japan, and as the weather is getting warmer, more and more festivals are celebrated. 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, just like Yasaka Jinja does at the other end. Matsunoo Taisha is one of the quieter places to visit 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, who is the local 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. The road now gets narrower and leads to the main shrine, where there is another, second torii. From there, the path leads up some steps to the two-story romon gate in sombre dark wood with details painted in white. This gate is – like the one at Yasaka shrine on the eastern end of Shijo street – guarded by two zuishin warrior statues to the left and right.
Passing through the romon gate, you first have to cross the shrine's sacred stream via a small stone bridge, 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.
Beyond the dance stage lies the stretched-out 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 it 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. The honden is only accessible for the priests during worship.
After praying at the haiden, walk to the right and pass through the low entrance to the gardens at the back of the shrine. There you will find 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 producers from all over Japan visit the shrine regularly to pray for success in their business and to get some of the water. 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 separate gardens that make up the shofu-en garden of Matsunoo Taisha. It was created by the famous garden designer, late Mirei Shigemori just before his death in 1975. It is said that they cost a fortune (reportedly some 100 million yen) but they are now considered among 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 is a modern interpretation of 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 still 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” in Japan were considered sacred and mainly constructed to invite the gods into the presence of mortals. If you go beyond this part of the garden, there is a path further up the mountain where the original place of worship – the large iwakura stone – lies.
To find the third, the horai garden, you have to walk outside the romon gate, just before the little restaurant to the left side. This garden is constructed in the kaiyu style, where a large shallow 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 of this tranquil and unchanging garden originate from the fountain of youth in the back and the many colourful carp in the pond.
Besides the extensive public gardens, which are already a quite rare feature in shinto shrines, Matsunoo Taisha also boasts two museums. The shrine's treasure hall is located in the kyokusui gardens and displays 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 thought 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 outside the romon, opposite the horai garden, 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 brewers who regularly come to worship the god of sake brewing here.
This quiet shrine lies a bit off the beaten tracks of Kyoto's Arashiyama area. However, especially during April and May, the more than 3000 yellow yamabuki kerria bushes in full bloom create a lovely scene in the shrine precincts that should not be missed. At Matsunoo Taisha you can buy a number of unique lucky charms, for example one with a bright yellow yamabuki flower. However, if you're feeling extra lucky, you should try to win your omamori at the game where you shoot arrows at empty sake barrels.
Below are some of the best events taking place at Matsunoo Taisha each year. Note that many of the event dates are flexible and often take place on a Sunday, so remember to check our event calendar for the exact dates.
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 who roam the shrine during setsubun is held at 14:00 and 15:30. There are also special performances of Iwama Kagura, a type of energetic dance theater with colorful costumes.
11, 10:00 Kigen sai This festival is to remember the establishment of Japan by the legendary first emperor Jimmu.
3, 10:00 Hina Matsuri The doll festival or peach blossom festival is celebrated on the third day of the third (lunar) month. In Matsunoo Taisha, there is a special ceremony in the kyokusui garden where little dolls are floated down the stream to bring luck to the girls.
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 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 six mikoshi portable shrines 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. On this day, the shrine's six mikoshi portable shrines return home from their temporary resting places in a boisterous ceremony in th evening.
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 are said as well.
30, 15:00 Nagoshi no Oharae The nagoshi-no-harae is an ancient purification ritual that is performed in midsummer. It involves praying to the gods while walking though a large chinowa wreath.
7, 18:30 Tanabata Festival The yearly 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 - 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 and other music 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 and their parents 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 This end of year purification ceremony is meant to cleanse people for the New Year to come.
Matsunoo Taisha online: Website (in Japanese and English)
Address: Arashiyama Miyamachi 3, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto 616-0024 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 28 to Matsunoo Taisha-mae.
Opening hours: Shrine office and gardens from 9:00 - 16:00 (weekends: 16:30)
Admission: Free; Shofu-en gardens require a small entrance fee.
Wheelchair accessible: Partially. The treasure hall and the kyokusui and iwakura gardens are not accessible.
Parking: Yes. However, please consider public transport options.
Photos # 1, 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, 14 courtesy of Matsunoo Taisha.
Photogenic Torii and Foxes
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 for the gods 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 Kyoto, but as the main shrine for the god of rice, wealth, 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 local Hata clan first erected a shrine here to worship the gods of rice and sake production. Fushimi Inari Taisha enshrines Inari Okami, the god of rice, wealth, and business in no less than five different incarnations: Ukanomitama-no-okami, Satahiko-no-okami, Omiyanome-no-okami, Tanaka-no-okami, and Shino Okami.
After the Onin wars of the 15th century, during which all shrine buildings on Mt. Inariyama had been destroyed, Fushimi Inari was rebuilt in 1499. Over time it grew to the present size, not least because of the patronage of the wealthy, like Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 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 huge sprawling shrine complex with an area of about 870.000 square metres, including much of Mt. Inariyama behind the main shrine buildings. The main access point is right outside of the JR Inari station. Pass through the two torii at both ends of the long access path, and you stand in front of the impressive 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 shrine received, this vermillion gate was built. Long considered not more than a legend, the story was officially confirmed when during renovations of the gate, a text was discovered dating back to 1589 that mentioned Hideyoshi's pledge.
Beyond the gate there is first the stage where dance and other performances are offered to the gods and then the beautiful honden prayer hall where people can worship. This building originates from 1499 and it enshrines the five main deities of Fushimi Inari Taisha. It has been designated as an Important Cultural Asset, and is built in the so-called uchikoshi nagashi-zukuri style with 10.6 m high walls on either side. Its colorful 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 at the back of the main buildings of Fushimi Inari Taisha, there is the famous senbon torii (1000 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 most, if not 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 erected by individuals and businesses since the Edo period and are located all over Mount Inariyama. They are often placed close together to form veritable tunnels over the mountain paths and it can take hours to explore them all. If you are thinking of donating your own as an offering to Inari Okami, 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 on the mountain.
At the other end of the senbon torii gateway, there is the okusha hohaisho prayer building where people pray to the holy mountain Inariyama itself. The interesting part here are the two stone lanterns at the back of the building that each have a large round stone on top. Make a wish in front of the lanterns and pick up one of the stones. Is it lighter than you 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, the paths up Mt. Inariyama start. Walking among ever more vermillion torii, you first reach the komadagaike pond with a worship hall with many candles and lanters. Hike uphill anothert 30 – 45 minutes to the yotsutsuji intersection. From there, you have a lovely view over the southern parts of Kyoto, and you can decide whether you want to make the final ascent to the top of the mountain and which of the two paths to take. Many people make it only this far, since a whole return trip all the way up can take some 2 hours, but from here, it is a nice and quiet hike, and there are many more torii and smaller places to worship, and even some places to grab a quick snack or a drink.
Speaking of worshipping: One thing that is special in all Inari shrines are the many, many statues of foxes that can be found there. The kitsune foxes, especially the white ones, are considered the messengers of Inari Okami; they also guard the entrance to the important rice granaries, holding the key firmly in their mouths.
Fushimi Inari Taisha and the mountain behind it is a wonderful place to visit, in particular in the early morning or close to sunset, when the crowds have dispersed. The shrine grounds are open day and night, but note that the mountain paths are scarcely lit in the night, so don't forget to bring your own flashlights. There is even a mountain path leading all the way north to the shogunzuka, but this hike takes several hours.
When returning from you hike to the top of the mountain or to yotsutsuji intersection, why not buy omamori lucky charms or souvenirs to take home? At Fushimi Inari Taisha, many of them are in the shape of foxes, like ema prayer tablets or lucky charms in various sizes. At the many souvenir shops nearby you can buy fox masks made from Japanese washi which are very popular during festivals, small fox statues or plushies, and even crackers in fox shape. Foodies should try inari zushi, a fried tofu pouch filled with rice, which is said to be the favourite food of Inari Okami and his foxes.
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 this year.
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 This ceremony is held in remembrance of the founding of Fushimi Inari Taisha by the Hata clan in 711.
Sunday closest to April 8, 13:00 Sangyo-sai Ceremony to pray for business success.
12, 11:00 Minakuchi Hashu-sai In this ceremony, tiny rice seedlings are planted into nursery beds where they ware left to grow to a certain size before they are transplanted into the sacred rice field of the shrine in the taue-sai festival in June.
Sunday closest to April 20, 11:00 Shinko-sai of the Inari Festival The Inari Festival is the main event of Fushimi Inari Taisha, where portable mikoshi shrines are carried through the area to their temporary resting place.
3, 16:00 Kanko-sai of the Inari Festival The kanko-sai festival is the second half of the Inari festival, and it is on this day that the portable 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. It starts at 13:00 in the main hall where priests, dancers, musicians, and planters offer food, drink, and dance and music to the deity and pray for individual blessings and a bountiful harvest. Afterwards, the people proceed to the sacred rice field where the planting takes place under supervision of the priests.
30, 15:00 Nagoshi no Harae In this ancient summer purification ritual, people walk through a large chinowa wreath in a particular pattern to purify themselves of the illnesses of the first 6 months of the year. Every shrine has a slightly different way to perform the nagoshi-no-harae ceremony.
toward the end of the month Motomiya Festival In this two-day festival, worshippers from all over the country come to the shrine to thank Inari Okami for blessings received. All of the shrine's precincts is illuminated with stone and paper lanterns. Starting early in the evening of the first day, there are a number of performances both traditional and modern, like a special motomiya-odori dance, taiko performances and k-pop concerts. Food stalls and souvenir shops are open until late at night.
25, 11:00 Nukiho-sai Finallly, the rice which was planted in the sacred field in spring is harvested today and a prayer of thanks to Inari Okami will be said. The rice will be ritually offered to the deity in the niiname-sai ceremony in November.
8, 13:00Hitaki-sai This autumn fire ceremony expresses thanks for a rich harvest and other blessings. After a prayer at the main hall, bonfires are lit in a clearing of the shrine. Prayer sticks that have been collected from worshippers are ritually tossed into the fire, while more prayers are said and the shrine's miko perform sacred kagura dance.
8, 18:00 Mikagura Ceremony In the evening after the hitaki-sai, a special ceremony of music and ninjomai dance is performed by torchlight for the gods.
23, 10:00 Niiname-sai The sacred rice harvested from the shrine's rice fields last month is now ready to be offered to Inari Okami in this ceremony.
31, 15:00 Oharae-shiki Winter purification ritual to cleanse onself from sins and other impurities from the latter half of this year.
Fushimi Inari Taisha online: Website (in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean)
Address: 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, 612-0882 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take the JR Line to Inari station or the Keihan line to Fushimi Inari station.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for goshuin, charms etc.): daily 9:00 - 17:00; precincts are open 24/7.
Wheelchair accessible: Main shrine buildings are accessible; mountain paths have many places with steps.
Parking: No. Please consider public transport options.
Photos of events courtesy of Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Cool in the Forest
In Kyoto, 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 an everlasting favourite of the locals and the perfect way to cool off in Kyoto's hot summer.
Entering the precincts from the south, you must pass through Tadasu-no-Mori, a primeval forest that cools the body and soothes the mind, adding to the calming atmosphere of the shrine.
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 north on the Kamo 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 Shrine (together with Kamigamo Shrine) 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 Tadasu-no-Mori forest. It is the hallmark of Shimogamo Jinja; some of its 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 merely 12.4 hectares, but once it was more than 20 times larger. 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. Today, antique book fairs and other markets are held here regularly, and at large events, food stalls line this approach to the shrine.
Eventually, the beautiful forest opens up to the shrine precincts, which as a whole are designated as Historical Site by the Japanese government and as 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 the so-called Shikinen Sengu, where buildings are torn down and completely rebuilt every 21 years, nowadays, this is limited to regular small-scale renovations. The following is a list of the major structures of the shrine only.
The Maidono, which is situated directly behind the Romon gate and dates 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.
To the 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, the middle gate which leads to the main buildings. The seven little shrines just before the main shrine are each dedicated to one or two of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, which govern a whole year. Altogether, these little shrines are called the koto shrine, and many people pray here to their own zodiac animal and afterwards to the main deities of the shrine as well.
The haiden prayer hall lies behind the koto shrine, and yet further inside, not open to visitors, is the honden main shrine. Two buildings are part of the honden; the one on the west dedicated to Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, the one on the east dedicated to Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. These buildings exemplify the nagare zukuri architectural style of the Heian period, where a gabled roof with wooden shingles covers a porch on one side of the building.
Turning back from the inner part of Shimogamo shrine, and to the left outside the Naka-mon gate, there is the Mitarashi pond, and at its eastern end, the Mitarashi shrine. Also known as Inoue-sha, this little shrine is dedicated to the god of purification and clean water. It plays an important role in the Mitarashi festival in July, when people wade through the ice cold Mitarashi stream and offer candles to the god in the hope of preventing illness during the hight of the summer heat.
When leaving Shimogamo Shrine, walk down the open space parallel to Tadasu-no Mori. Here, the horse race of Aoi Matsuri takes place as well as book and handicraft markets and other events. Halfway through the forest, there is a large stone monument which commemorates the very first rubgy match in the Kansai area in 1911. Next to it lies Sawata Shrine, restored in 2017. It enshrines Kantama-no-mikoto, a god of kemari and football, who is said to help people improve in all kinds of sports.
Turn right at the end of the forest and pay a visit to the little Kawai Shrine. It is dedicated to the guardian of women Tamayorihime-no-mikoto (not identical to the main kami of Shimogamo Jinja). Many women come here to pray for a safe childbirth; and the mirror-shaped ema that you can paint yourself 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. Rather unique among the shrines of Japan, Shimogamo even has a mascot: Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow. According to legend, a prince from Kyushu set out to unify Japan. He fought bravely and won many battles, but eventually 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 don't believe in mythical creatures sent as guides, Shimogamo Shrine has a mystical air around it that is hard to escape. You can even take some of it home - well, the water from Mitarashi stream at least or a t-shirt with a image of Yatagarasu - or get a goshuin stamp as proof of your visit.
Many interesting and unique events take place at here throughout the year. In particular the colorful events leading up to and including Aoi Matsuri in May are worth experiencing. Note that some of the events mentioned below 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. This is part of the hatsumode festivities.
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.
May at Shimogamo Jinja is all about Aoi Matsuri. Many smaller events lead up to the main parade on May 15.
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 by shooting arrows at them. 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 arrives at Shimogamo Shrine at around 11:40. From about 13:00, there is a horse race at Tadasu-no Mori.
6, 11:00 Plum Dedication People in old costumes present freshly harvested plums to the gods of the shrine.
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 very wet ceremony, a group of local men compete to retrieve sacred sakaki sticks from the Mitarashi pond.
9, 13:30Hanjo Taikoku In this autumn harvest festival, people pray for a good harvest and success in business. At the end of the ceremony, free sake is offered to visitors.
End of NovemberOhitaki-sai A large fire is lit in the hopes of inducing an early spring. Wooden prayer sticks with the wishes of people written on them are burnt in this fire.
Address: Shimogamo Izumikawacho 59, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-0807 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 3, 4, 17, 46, 86, 102, 201, 203 to Demachiyanagi.
Opening hours: Precincts and shrine office (for goshuin, charms etc.): daily 6:30 - 17:00.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Yes, accessible through Shimogamo Hondori. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 6, 9, 10, 12, courtesy of Shimogamo Jinja.
Surrounded by Water Gardens
August is generally the hottest month in Kyoto and many locals travel to cooler places, but soon after Obon – celebrated with the big Daimonji fires – the heat becomes more bearable. Take some time out to have a look at quiet little Umenomiya Taisha with its fantastic ponds and gardens. They celebrate the ancient 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 had the shrine relocated to Kyoto around the year 800. Since then, the shrine has stood on 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. According to legend, Oyamazumi-no-kami was so pleased when his daughter gave birth to his very 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 from Kyoto and Japan.
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, Umenomiya Taisha is famous for its lush gardens and the colony of cats that draw many photographers in search for the perfect catsonality.
The main entrance of Umenomiya Taisha lies only a few meters behind a large red torii at the two storey romon gate in the south of the precincts. The two zuishin warriors guarding the gate to the left and right are rather common in shrines that have large romon gates. However, the special feature of this one are the many sake barrels that were donated to the shrine and are displayed on the second floor balcony.
Directly inside the romon gate there is the haiden dance stage. Just like the gate, it was rebuilt in 1828 and has since been designed as a Kyoto Prefecture Registered Cultural Property. Two very interesting things lie to the right of the romon gate and the dance stage respectively. First, next to the entrance, there is a large pine tree with a stem that twists around itself like a rope - clearly a tribute to a very patient gardener.
Second, you can see a stone marker nearby at the end of a short straight path marked with stones. This is the southern end of the hyakudo mairi. This is a kind of pilgrimage asking the gods to grant your wish: First, you pray at the honden main hall, then you walk between the two markers exactly 100 times before praying at the honden again. It is said that this makes your wish come true for sure! Given the effort it takes, you should probably reserve this for your biggest and most important desires only.
The main prayer hall mentioned above, the honden, lies at the northern end of the shrine. This is the oldest building of Umenomiya Taisha, dating back to 1700. It has a beautiful hiwadabuki roof made from cypress bark according to old traditions.
Beyond the honden and surrounded by ancient trees lie the actual sanctuaries of the gods, which are only accessible to the priests. Also back there, and only accessible for special worship, lie the so-called matage-ishi stones. They have an interesting story, once again involving Empress Danrin: In the 8th century, she was the chief consort of Emperor Saga but had difficulties conceiving. She eventually visited Umenomiya Taisha, stepped over the matage-ishi stones and was practically over night blessed with a son. The story goes even further and says 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 sacred 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 the higashi mon, the eastern gate which leads to the shrine gardens. Please buy a ticket at the shrine office to the left of the romon gate before entering.
The shin-en shrine gardens of Umenomiya Taisha form a half-circle in the north around the main shrine buildings. The focus lies on two ponds: Directly behind the higashi mon gate, in the east garden, lies sakuya ike, a large pond where different types of irises and water lilies greet the visitor from early summer on. Inside this pond, which is teeming with colourful koi carp, lies a small island and on it, a little reed-thatched tea house called ikenaka-tei (literally: center-pond pavillion), also known as ashi no maroya. Other islands in the pond are planted with azalea bushes, and a you can admire them from the little stone bridges crossing over the water.
Further along the path, in the north garden, lies magatama ike. This little pond in the shape of a comma resembles the ancient magatama jewels made from green jade. Magatama ike is again filled with water lilies and surrounded by irises, and along the paths nearby cherries and plum trees are planted.
There is no pond in the final garden in the west, but instead, you can explore the many little paths among colourful hydrangea bushes that are especially beautiful during summer. Or take a rest underneath the peaceful trees.
If you want to see the gardens at their best, you should visit Umenomiya Taisha in the first six months of the year. Especially in early spring, the shrine's 500 plum trees of 40 varieties make the gardens a feast for the eye, with their blossoms ranging in color from bright white to dark crimson. The early summer of May and June sees the many irises at the two ponds in full bloom, and not much later, the many hydrangea bushes of the west garden show their colors. In midsummer and autumn, little benches tucked away on hidden paths in the west garden invite you 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 selfie, the shrine has many postcards featuring them!
Below is a list of the most popular events at Umenomiya Taisha. At many of them, non-alcoholic amazake or real sake will be served to visitors. You can find all these events, with current dates of course, in our main event calendar.
1, 8:00 Saitan-sai This is part of the hatsumode celebrations. If you visit the shrine until January 5th, you'll receive a cup of amazake.
15, 12:00 Koshinnsatsu shonosai Bring your old new year's decorations or charms and have them ritually burned.
11, 9:00 Amazake Festival This is a special ceremony to thank the gods for the continuous prosperity of Japan's sake brewers. Afterwards, non-alcoholic sweet amazake is served to visitors.
first Sunday, 9:00 Plum and Childbirth Festival What have plums to do with childbirth? The Japanese words for both are "ume" (they are written with different kanji though). This ceremony celebrates both childbirth and the birth of the new plum blossoms of the year.
third Sunday, 11:00 Sakura and Gagaku Festival In the Heian period, this was the main festival of the court of Emperor Ninmyo, since his mother, Empress Danrin, visited here regularly to play music. Even today, after the religous ceremony, there is a performance of gagaku . Furthermore, a cup of free sake is offered to visitors.
3, 8:00 Shinko-sai This is the main festival of Umenomiya Taisha, where the shrine's portable mikoshi are carried through the neighborhood by people who live here. The mikoshi depart from the shrine at 11:15 and return at around 18:00. O this day, there are many food stalls set up on the shrine precincts, and you can visit the shin-en gardens for free.
third Sunday, 8:30 Empress Danrin Festival This festival is held in remembrance of Heian-era Empress Danrin, who had the shrine brought to Kyoto and regularly performed music here.
30, 18:00 Nagoshi-no-Oharae The nagoshi-no-harae is an ancient purification rite that is held in the middle of the year. It involves walking through a large reed wreath in a specific pattern.
last Sunday, 8:30 Emperor Saga Festival In remembrance of Emperor Saga, the third emperor living in Kyoto, this day is packed with many different festivities: It starts with a religous ceremony at 8:30, and afterwards, there is sumo with boys and girls of all ages. In the afternoon from 16:00, there are taiko and brass band performances by local school children. In the evening from 19:00, there are dance and theater performances.
daily Shichi-go-san Festival Boys and girls aged 3, 5, and 7 wear their best outfits and are presented to the shrine.
31, 17:00Toshikoshi-no-Oharae This winter purification rite is similar to the nagoshi-no-harae of summer and aims to clear people from sins and uncleanliness for the coming New Year.
Umenomiya Taisha online: Website (in Japanese)
Address: 30 Umezu Fukenokawacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, 615-0921 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 3, 28 to Umeomiya Taisha-mae.
Opening hours: Daily 9:00 - 17:00.
Admission: Free; shin-en gardens require a small entrance fee.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Yes, but limited. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 2, 4, 5, 8, 10-12 courtesy of Umenomiya Taisha.
Hidden Gem in Gion
In September, the peak of the summer heat and humidity 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 Konpiragu on the fourth Monday in September, where women in classic hairdos and fitting traditional costumes from several centuries parade through the streets of Gion.
Yasui Konpiragu has been a sacred spot since the 7th century, when around 670 Kamatari Fujiwara founded a temple here for his clan ancestors and called it Fujidera. This old Wisteria Temple was a favourite retreat of Emperor Sutoku, who repaired it in 1146. However, Sutoku became 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 vengeful ghost appeared to a monk in Fujidera, which led Go-Shirakawa to build Komyoin Kanshoji in 1177 and enshrine Sutoku there. This is considered the true founding of Yasui Konpiragu shrine. Its main buildings burnt down during the Onin Wars of the 15th century, but were replaced in 1695 with a building transferred from Rengekoin temple in Kyoto's Uzumasa area. At this time, the shrine was officially called Yasui Konpiragu. At last, shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when a clearer distinction between Shinto and Buddhism was desired, only the shrine remained.
Today, Yasui Konpiragu enshrines three main deities: Emperor Sutoku saves people's various 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. The third deity is 12th century warrior monk and poet Yorimasa-no-Minamoto.
Yasui Konpiragu 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 large temizuya stone well to the left marks the beginning of sacred ground. Wash your hands there and move on.
A few steps further, the shrine's main attraction lies directly before you: The large enkiri/enmusubi ishi stone. It 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 in the stone from the front to the back. This allows you to break your bad ties. Then go a second time, now from the back to the front, to make new and better relationships. Finally, paste the katashiro onto the stone. The term "relationship" here is to be seen very broadly. Although many people come here to find or end 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 the ritual of the enmusubi ishi!
Further along the path lies the honden main hall where the three deities are enshrined. 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, you can see numerous wooden ema prayer tablets on special racks, and again, many of them ask to end an unhealthy relationship. However, are also ema simply thanking the gods for their assistance. You can add your own ema with your personal wishes, of course.
Speaking of ema, the building behind you, opposite the prayer hall, was home to the shrine's ema museum. It displayed a large collection of beautiful prayer tablets that were either specially created for the shrine, or inscribed 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 over the years can be found at the entrance to Yasui Konpiragu, opposite the temizuya well.
At the northern end of the shrine precincts, near the torii, there is another large stone with a statue next to it. This interesting stone is a kushi-zuka, a kind of burial mound or memorial for, in this case, used combs and other hair ornaments. In the olden days, when all women wore elaborate coiffures, combs were considered an important part of a 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 Konpiragu 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. It plays a main role in the yearly comb festival in late September.
When visiting Yasui Konpiragu, you should definitely perform the enkiri/enmusubi ritual, even if your relationship is great - remember that it can only get better! Or buy an ema or omamori charm from the shrine office. This is one of the very few shrines where you can buy a set of two omamori charms - one is meant to break a relationship, the other to form a new one.
Below is a list of the main events taking place at Yasui Konpiragu throughout the year. Don't forget to check our event calendar for current times and dates!
1, 7:00 Saitan-sai This is part of the hatsumode rituals. If you visit until January 3rd, you are treated to a cup of hot green tea.
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.
2 or 3, 10:00 Setsubun Setsubun is the festival that takes place on the day before the beginning of spring, and it is meant to drive out demons. At Yasui Konpiragu, you can bring old omamori charms, amulets etc. to the shrine from February 1. They are burnt in a ritual after setsubun.
10, 11:30 Shunki Konpira Taisai In this traditional 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. At Yasui Konpiragu, the nagoshi-no-harae ceremony involves paper charms in the shape of humans called hitogata. They are meant to take away people's impurities.
4th Monday, 13:00 Kushi Matsuri In what is called the comb festival, thanks are expressed to old combs and hair ornaments, before they are placed in the kushizuka. The ritual in front of the large stone starts at 13:00. From 14:00, there is a procession through Gion of young women showing off historical clothing and the according hairstyles from the Kofun era to the Taisho and early Showa periods.
Friday before Sport's Day until Sport's Day (Monday) Shuki Konpira Taisai This is the main shrine festival of Yasui Konpiragu, composed of many smaller events over several days of the weekend. The three main deities of the shrine are transfered to portable mikoshi shrines on the 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 fun shishimailion dance. Afterwards, the mikoshi are carried through the neighborhood of the shrine. For more details on exact times and dates of the different rituals and events, 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 is similar to the nagoshi-no-harae in June. It aims to clear people from sins and uncleanliness for the coming New Year.
Yasui Konpiragu online: Website (in Japanese and English)
Address: Shimobentencho 70, Higashiyama-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 605-0823 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 86, 202, 206, 207 to Higashiyama Yasui.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for goshuin, charms etc.): daily 9:00 - 17:00. Precincts are open 24/7.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Yes. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 6-9 courtesy of Yasui Konpiragu.
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 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 Jinja dates back to the 7th century, when it was - as the name suggests - a shrine in the fields. It was built as a purification site for the saio or saigu, imperial princesses who were chosen to become priestesses of the Sun Goddess at her main shrine 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, that has led to a number of depictions in Japanese literature, among them in the Tale of Genji.
The first saigu to be sent to Ise from Nonomiya Shrine was a daughter of the Saga Emperor in the 8th century. However, the practice ended in the 14th century in a time of war during the reign of Emperor Go-Daigo. Afterwards, the shrine continued to be used for a variety of imperial rituals, and although its importance has declined over the years, it is still maintained and visited by members of the Imperial Family until today.
The two main deities of Nonomiya Shrine are Amaterasu Omikami (also known as 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. In fact, Mt. Atago, where he is said to reside, is not far from Nonomiya Jinja. Other gods enshrined here are Shirafuku Inari and Nonomiya Daikokuten who 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 famous and evergreen 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 which is made from oak with its bark left intact. This type of "natural" torii is the oldest style that has been used from the very beginning of shinto, but because these torii have become comparatively expensive to produce and maintain, they are nowadays seen very rarely.
Step through the black torii, and the haiden prayer hall, where Amaterasu can be worshipped, lies straight ahead, with the honden main hall behind it. This is the main square of the shrine and there are many ways to pray to the gods. For one, to the left of the haiden, there is the 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, give the kame-ishi a good rub, 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.
Or write your wishes on a traditional prayer stick and place it with the others into the special place nearby. Both these prayer sticks and the ema tablets are burnt ritually at regular intervals, and the smoke lifts your prayers to the gods during the ceremony.
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 of the shrines displays a note about the visit of the Imperial Prince Akishino and his wife in 1994. To the right of the path lies the moss garden of Nonomiya Shrine. Although quite small compared to many other shrine gardens, the lush green color of the moss carpet amidst the red cedar trees is admired by many visitors throughout the year.
Because Nonomiya Shrine lies within the bamboo forest, where there is not much light at the sunniest of days, it has a rather sombre atmosphere especially during the darker months. Over the centuries of its existence, this has inspired many artists like painters or writers. For example, Nonomiya Shrine plays an important part in a chapter of the Tale of Genji, where prince Genji visits his lover – the mother of a saigu – at the shrine. This story, in turn, is referenced in a famous noh play by Zeami, called after the shrine Nonomiya (Shrine in the Fields). Of course, many poems have been written about the shrine and its suroundings, 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 who come to 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, its precincts are accessible 24/7, so there should be a time when you are 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 this year's times and dates!
1, 00:00 Saitan-sai This ceremony, performed just after midnight on New Year's day starts off hatsumode the first shrine visit in the New Year. People typically pray for safety for their family and neighborhood.
3, 11:00 Setsubun This ancient festival is meant to drive out evil spirits who appear just before the beginning of spring. At Nonomiya Shrine, the a href="#feb17">setsubun ceremony lasts until 14:00.
third Sunday, 10:00 Saga Matsuri Shinko-sai The first part of the Saga Festival. This festival is done in honor of Atago Okami, one of the deities enshrined at Nonomiya Jinja. He will descend from his usual abode at the shrine at Mt. Atago and rest at the river for a week.
fourth Sunday, 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 is set up at the torii so that people can purify themselves of the impurities of the first half of the year. The nagoshi-no-harae is performed at most shrines in Japan, but all have a slightly different ceremony.
third Sunday, 12:00 Saigu Gyoretsu Procession In the olden times, princesses who were to become priestesses at Ise shrine were purified at Nonomiya Jinja. 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, passes through the bamboo forest, and 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 This is a ceremony to give thanks for a good harvest and to pray for future business prosperity.
31, 23:50Joya-sai In this ritual the shrine's priests and worshippers alike give thanks to the gods for all the good things happening in the previous year.
Nonomiya Jinja online: Website (in Japanese, English, and Chinese)
Address: Sagano Miyamachi 1, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8393 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 11, 28, 93 to Arashiyama Tenryuji-mae, the Randen or Hankyu Line to Arashiyama.
Opening hours: Shrine office (for omamori, goshuin stamps etc.) 9:00 - 17:00; precincts are open 24/7
Wheelchair accessible: No.
Parking: No. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 4, 5, 7 courtesy of Nonomiya Shrine; # 6 courtesy of Seven010, cc by-sa 3.0; main listing image courtesy of KimonBerlin;
Five Styles of Garden
In November, autumn is here to stay, and as the leaves are turning, Kyoto puts on its most beautiful garment of the year and gets ready for momijigari. One of the best places to go this month is Jonangu shrine south of Kyoto with its colourful Heian-style poetry festival called kyokusui-no-utage on November 3rd and the spectacular ohitaki fire festival on November 20th.
Jonangu literally means the shrine south of the capital. It is said to have been established in 794 to protect Heian-kyo (now named Kyoto) when it was established as the new capital of Japan. In 1086, retired emperor Shirakawa built the villa Jonan Rikyu, with a total area of about 2 square kilometres and Jonangu 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 Jonangu. There they held sacred dances and music events, but also yabusame – equestrian archery – competitions. Throughout history, both Jonan Rikyu and Jonangu were often the focal points of political turmoil. For example, 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 Meiji Emperor to power.
The main deities enshrined at Jonangu 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, Jonangu is one of the five 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 Jonangu. Passing through the torii at the eastern entrance, the shrine offices are the first buildings 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 ema votive tablets of all sizes and ages are on display.
From there, it is just a few more steps to the red Jonan torii to right, which marks the entrance to the main shrine precincts. Note the shrine's crest of sun, moon, and stars displayed in gold 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, a little to the right, lies the kaguraden where kagura – sacred dances for the deities – are performed regularly throughout the year.
The honden main hall where all the deities are enshrined, lies in a straight line with the torii and the haiden. The honden of Jonangu is one of the largest in Kyoto, but sadly, like all the other buildings of the shrine, it only dates back to the 1970s, when they all had to be rebuilt after a fire. Hence, none of these buildings are of historical significance, as is the case for many other shrines in Japan. However, since Jonangu enshrines the deity of construction, the carpenters surely paid special attention when reconstruction the new buildings.
After saying your prayers, turn left, pass the musubiden hall, where people may request prayers to be said by the priests, and the little shrine office where you can buy omamori charms, to find the entrance to the gardens of Jonangu shrine.
The Rakusuien gardens of Jonangu 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 planted in the gardens, which give a changing atmosphere throughout the seasons and make it worthwhile visiting throughout the year. 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, visitors 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 here, 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, which is called the Heian garden. This part is dominated by water: There is a pond, a waterfall, and a little stream winding through the open space, and these types of gardens were very popular among aristocrats of the Heian period. Twice a year, the kyokusui-no-utage, an old poetry game, is reenacted here by local poets.
To see more of the garden, you must cross the main road of the shrine to enter the southern part of Rakusuien, which boasts three different garden styles. First, there is the Muromachi garden, where large, majestic stones surrounding a large pond dominate the scene. There is meaning throughout it though: The quiet medaki waterfall in the foreground is considered female, the big one in the back, odaki, is male. Horaijima, 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 represent the Buddha and two Bosatsu, residing in the ideal Buddhist World.
Further along the path the scenery changes when we enter the second garden, the Momoyama garden. The large open lawn that turns a golden, straw-like colour in winter, is meant to represent the Pacific Ocean. The black rocks within it are meant to be Japanese islands off the coast, and the large trees at the back are the Japan's mountains Notice the pine that looks like a ship a bit to the back at the right. It symbolises a European vessel coming to Japan and indeed, Japan's Momoyama period saw the first Western people arrive from Europe.
Take your time to take in both Muromachi and Momoyama gardens from the Rakusuiken Tea House that is situated right between them. Have a cup of matcha green tea together with a seasonal sweet and enjoy the view from the tea house. When you are ready to move on, have a look at the little Suisekitei gallery that lies at the end of this part of the garden. There you can see exhibits pertaining to the history of Jonangu, in particular a large painting of the fight of the Satsuma troops with Imperial forces during the Meiji Restoration.
Follow the path as it makes a sharp turn and passes at the back of the Momoyama garden along a small stream where irises bloom in early summer. Nearby the exit lies the Jonan Rikyu garden, the last of the three southern gardens. This is a so-called karesansui garden without water, a typical Japanese garden with stones, pebbles, and moss. 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 Jonangu with their many different plants and styles 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 Jonangu 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 Jonangu each year. Also, in the weekends of February, March, May, and September, special seasonal kagura dance is 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 miko shrine maidens at Jonangu perform sacred kagura dances every 30 minutes to pray for a good year to come. Kagura are traditional dances done as an offering to the gods.
20, 14:00 Yutate Kagura This is an interesting purification ceremony using boiling hot water that has been mixed with rice and sake. The mixture is stirred with bamboo and then scattered around the shrine precincts and over the visitors as well.
3, 9:00 Setsubun The ancient setsubun ceremony is meant to drive out evil demons who creep into the world through the crack between winter and spring by pelting them with beans. This is one of the main festivals at any shrine, but many people perform this ceremony at home too, and it is great fun for kids.
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 last days of winter.
second Friday – Sunday Hoyoke Taisai Festival This is one of the biggest festivals of Jonangu 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 Jonangu can be visited for free.
25–30, 9:00–16:00 Nagoshi-no-harae This is an ancient mid-summer purification rite that is performed at many shrines in Japan. At Jonangu'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. The traditional nagoshi-no-harae purification ritual where people walk through a chinowa wreath takes place on June 30th, 15:00.
3rd Saturday, 18:00 – 20:30 Cool Evening Kagura This is a special evening event with kagura sacred dances. People pray in front of large ice blocks set up at the shrine Many small booths and food stalls can be found 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. Again, stalls where you can buy typical festival food are set up in the precincts.
3, 14:00 Autumn Kyokusui-no-utage This is a colourful event reenacting traditional aristocratic parties of the Heian period in the 11th century. 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, filled sake cups are floated down the stream. When all poets are finished with their composition and have taken a sip from the sake, their poems are set to a tune and dedicated to the deities of the shrine. During this event there is free admission to the Rakusuien gardens.
20, 14:00Hitaki-sai Ema and wooden prayer sticks called goma are ritually burned in a large bonfire and thus send the prayers of worshippers to the gods.
Address: Nakajimatobarikyucho 7, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto 612-8459 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take the Subway Karasuma Line to Takeda station. From there, it is a 15-minute walk.
Opening hours: Shrine office and gardens from 9:00 - 16:00.
Admission: Free; Rakusuien gardens require a small entrance fee.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes. Some parts of the garden may not be reachable.
Parking: Yes. However, please consider public transport options.
Photos # 3-9, 13 courtesy of Jonangu.
Favoured Plum Trees
In December, when the last leaves of autumn have fallen, winter has finally reached Kyoto. As the people prepare for New Year, this is a very busy month everywhere in Japan. Calm down a bit at Kitano Tenmangu and join their tea ceremony for the gods on December 1st, or visit the last Tenjin-san flea market of the year on December 25th. And for your own New Year celebrations, do buy the special ofuku ume plums that were harvested in the shrine and are 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 Kyushu in 901. He died there two years later 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 established, 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 shrine's impressive romon gate, elevated by a few steps from the outer grounds. It is flanked by statues of komainu lion-dogs and zuishin warriors and is known for its beautiful carvings and the large lantern.
Passing through the romon gate, the shrine 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 Kitano Tenmangu over the centuries. Exhibited here 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, unless there is a special exhibition, the homotsuden is only open irregularly 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 large wooden prayer tablets that were once presented to the shrine are on display. In January, the best New Year's calligraphies produced during the kakizome are exhibited here 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. The trees are carefully tended to and the plums are dried and sold in December as a special New Year's treat.
Walking straight ahead from the romon gate, the path is flanked by more lanterns 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 messengers of Tenjin, called otsukai. Probably for that reason, Kitano Tenmangu as a whole was also 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 to the statue and be rid of it for good.
Once you are done petting the cows, 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 and is decked with traditional tree bark. Both the romon and sankomon gates, as well as the main hall of Kitano Tenmangu were donated to the shrine in 1607 by Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of famous warlord Hideyoshi. In fact, Kitano Tenmangu as a whole is designated a national treasure of Japan.
Beyond the sankomon gate, a large courtyard opens up, with the haiden prayer hall opposite the gate in the north and the honden main hall right behind it. These two buildings 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. At the haiden, you can pray to Sugawara-no-Michizane together with many school kids who ask to pass their exams. The shrine is most popular with highschoolers who are planning on entering university, and during the time of the entrance exams, Kitano Tenmangu is especially busy.
Once you have said your prayers and maybe bought a few charms at the shrine office to the left, exit the courtyard at the left and visit the gardens. In the gardens, there are a number of auxiliary shrines dedicated to various deities. Look for the stone steps in the western part of the garden with the large stone lantern on the foot of the steps. They will lead you up the so-called Odoi, a designated national historical site that was once part of the city's fortification wall. From there, you have a nice overview of the shrine to one side, and the lovely momiji valley on the other through which the little Kamiya river flows. This part is especially beautiful and popular during the green leaves of aomomiji in spring and the koyo in autumn. During these times, you will be asked to pay a small entrance fee.
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 efforts, in particular to entrance exams. 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. Together with the Kobo-ichi market of Toji Temple on the 21st, it is one of the biggest flea markets in Kyoto. The omamori charms available at the shrine revolve around scholarship: Little statues of Tenjin and his bovine messengers are available for example. Or why not go for something truly useful and get a pack of pencils with the shrine's emblem?
Besides the monthly flea market, there are many annual events at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Below 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 for current details!
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 ceremony 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 to Tenjin-san. This is called kakizome, and from the end of January, the best calligraphies are exhibited in the emasha hall.
3, 10:00 and 13:00 Setsubun and Tsuina-shiki This is an ancient ceremony to drive out evil demons and winter by pelting them with beans. At Kitano Tenmangu, the demon-pelting of the setsubun ceremony is done by the shrine's priests from 10:00, and from 13:00, maiko and geiko from the nearby Kamishichiken district throw lucky packages into the crowd.
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 During this festival, 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 The nagoshi-no-harae is an ancient mid-summer purification rite that involves walking through a chinowa wreath in a prescribed pattern. 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 takes place on June 30th, 16:00.
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. At Kitano Tenmangu, you can do both in one visit.
1 - 5, all days Zuiki Festival In Japanese, zuiki is the word for taro (stems), and this 5-day festival of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is held to celebrate the autumn harvest. The distinctive feature of this festival, which is said to date back to the 10th century, are the mikoshi that this time are decorated with and even partly made of all sorts of vegetables. There are different types of events on each day of the Zuiki Festival, some of them even attended by the maiko and geiko of the nearby Kamishichiken kagai. 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 1). The tea leaves that were dedicated to the shrine in November are now made into tea by one of the traditional schools of tea in Kyoto and offered to the deity. Afterwards, visitors may also enjoy a cup for themselves. Additional seats are set up in the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theater, where maiko and geiko of the Kamishichiken district offer green tea to the public. Tickets for this ceremony are available from early November.
from 13 Sale of Ofuku Ume Lucky plums called 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.
Address: Bakurocho, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto 602-8386 (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 10, 50, 101, 102, 203 to Kitano Tenmangu-mae .
Opening hours: Shrine office (for omamori, goshuin stamps etc.) 9:00 - 17:00; precincts are open from 5:00 - 18:00 (5:30 - 17:30 Oct - Mar) and until 21:00 on the 25th of each month.
Admission: Free. The treasure house requires a small fee, and the gardens during plum, aomomiji, and koyo seasons.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: Yes, but limited, especially during the flea market on the 25th of each month.. Please consider public transport options.
Photo # 4, 8-13 courtesy of Kitano Tenmangu.
Kyoto is home to dozens of museums that showcase the fantastic beauty created in the city 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 craftsmanship 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 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 Kakunyu, 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, and 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.
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 (n.b. current head of the family) 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.
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 at the museum available, but very limited. Please consider public transport options instead.
Note: You must remove your shoes upon entering the house. Slippers are provided. Please bring clean socks just in case.
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.
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 photos of selected 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 new 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.
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
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, in the garden, 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.
Photos # 2, 4, and 6 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. This is mainly a festival for girls, where sets of beautiful dolls representing the imperial court are put up in private homes with daughters. During this month, many places show their collections of hina dolls, and the best one to visit is the Japanese Folk Doll 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 first take up a person's ailments and they are afterwards floated down a stream, taking all the bad things with them. And during the doll festival (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 therefore, 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 that were once operated in front of large crowds.
In general, however, Japanese dolls are entirely 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. The style of these traditional Japanese dolls that are made from clay or wood often differs greatly according to the location where they are made. This makes them a popular souvenir or gift among Japanese and foreigners alike.
Kyoto is the origin of at least three distinct types of dolls.
A Saga doll, Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Doll Museum.
Saga dolls are the oldest dolls from Kyoto. It is assumed that they were first made in the late 16th century by Buddhist sculptors in the Saga area of Kyoto. A wooden core is covered by multiple layers of pigments and gold leaf, leading to a depiction of colorful clothing with rich hues. Common motifs are children with animals, characters from folk lore or religion, and even ordinary townsfolk. The so-called "naked Saga dolls" may be a precursor to the Gosho dolls.
Gosho dolls are named after the imperial palace in Kyoto, since in the Edo period, these dolls were often given to daimyo upon visiting the emperor. Gosho dolls are chubby babies and toddlers, often depicted playing or with auspicious accessories. A wooden core is painted with many layers of powdered white oyster shells, and each layer is carefully polished after application. The face and a small tuft of black hair is also painted on. Gosho dolls are always dressed in real clothing.
Other than the above, Fushimi dolls are made of clay that is formed in molds. The fronts and backs are put together and painted in bright colors. From their origins in the 16th century around Kyoto's Fushimi Inari shrine, they were meant as souvenirs and toys for children. There are around 2000 traditional molds used to produce a variety of subjects: foxes in all shapes and sizes, zodiac animals, kabuki dolls, characters from legends and folk lore etc. Fushimi dolls are widely available in Kyoto and still make good souvenirs.
On the website of the Japanese Folk Doll Museum in Saga, there are many photos of different kinds of Japanese dolls that are produced in different parts of the country.
A Gosho doll, end of Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Doll 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; at this time, 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 including Okinawa can be seen in the permanent exhibition, and furthermore, there is a selection of mechanical karakuri dolls that are individually operated for visitors upon entering the museum.
However, there is a focus on dolls made in or around Kyoto, like the Saga, Gosho, and Fushimi dolls mentioned above. On permanent display are also models of yamaboko floats of Gion Matsuri and a parade of dolls depicting Aoi Matsuri, both of which are among Kyoto's main festivals.
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: Yes, with assistance. Please inform the staff beforehand.
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 once belonged to famous Japanese families. Since not many hina dolls or even full displays from that era have survived, this exhibition is truly special. .
For a more detailed description about this exhibition (in Japanese), visit the Japanese Folk Doll Museum website.
Photos # 2, 3, 5 courtesy of the Japanese Folk Doll Museum.
Living Nishijin Tradition
From the times when the imperial court moved to Kyoto in 794, artists and craftsmen strove 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 for centuries. 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 the city 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. The products 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 with a length of 5 to 7 meters showing an intricate pattern can take quite a long time to make since there are many different steps and craftsmen involved.
More detailed 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 with the company name Watabun. Most of the original features of the building survived the adaptation to museum, and they are still visible everywhere.
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!
Next to the Orinasukan lies a small textile factory that is part of the Watabun textile company. In the building 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, which means 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 required 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 finally 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.
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 - 16:00. 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.
Experience: Special weaving experiences are available. Please see the website for time requirements, prices, and other details.
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.
Note: You must remove your shoes upon entering the house. Please bring clean socks.
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 special technique that had been 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, 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.
Namikawa's colorful works struck a chord in the West, and a vast majority of his works were 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 an Imperial Household Artist. Unfortunately, international demand declined during the Taisho period, and since the domestic demand was not enough to sustain the workshop, the shop was closed for good in 1923. Yasuyuki Namikawa died four years later, in 1927, aged 82.
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 exclusively 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, who is also responsible for the gardens of Heian Shrine, for example. 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.
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 all 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. However, he personally fired the pieces. Because the 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 moment. 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
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: No. Please consider public transport options.
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.
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 (Netsukekan) 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 (inro) 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.
Lucky Ship, collection of the Seishu Netsuke Art Museum
The art reached its peak in the mid to late Edo period when many men, samurai and merchants alike, would wear netsuke which were then also made from metal, ceramics and even lacquer. 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. To this purpose, they have 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.
Netsuke started to be worn at the beginning of the Edo period (1603 – 1868). At first, many men wore simple pieces of wood or gourds as stoppers to fasten things to their clothing, but during the middle of the Edo period netsuke 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, entitled "Sound Health", 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 exclusively 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 currently 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 sleeping cat.
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: No. Paid parking nearby. Please consider public transport options.
Note: You must remove your shoes upon entering the house. Please bring clean socks.
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.
Image # 1, 7 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 and prolific 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 of the city, 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 the use of natural glazes and traditional methods. In 1920, he acquired the noborigama climbing kiln in Kyoto's Gojozaka area and there produced works in line with techniques from China and Korea. This is the time that became later known as his first period.
Kawai Kanjiro, 1950s (photo by Shigeru Tamura).
However, he soon became dissatisfied with this work and together with Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada Shoji, Kawai Kanjiro started the Mingei movement (the Japanese folk art movement), and in 1936 they 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.
Various ceramics 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, since he did not place much value on such awards. He did receive 2 Grand Prix Prizes for his works at international exhibitions though, but both of these 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.
Two woodcarving 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; additionally, it 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/into the slope behind the house.
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. Cat not on permanent display.
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: No. Please consider public transport options. 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.
All photos by WUIK, except #2 - public domain.
A Poetic Retreat
For a long time, the beauty of Arashiyama has drawn court nobles and artists to the area who had their summer homes or writing retreats here. These days, Arashiyama draws many tourists from Japan and abroad, so it can get very busy at times; however, there are many quiet spots as well. One of them is the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture, a 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 contemporary playing cards. The special exhibitions – there are four each year - show fine art that is related to Kyoto in general or Arashiyama in particular. 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. Named after this part of Kyoto, 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
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.
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: No. Please consider public transport options.
Note: You have to take your shoes off for the tatami gallery on the second floor. Please bring clean socks to wear there.
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 Rosetsu to the colorful chickens of Jakuchu Ito.
For a more detailed description about this exhibition, visit the website of the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture.
Image # 4, 5 courtesy of the Saga Arashiyama Museum of Arts and Culture.
Continuing Ancient Art
For centuries, Kyoto has been the leading Japanese city when it comes to traditional textile arts like weaving and dyeing. 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 craft technique was further refined in Japan, and during the Edo period shibori textiles were 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 the dyeing step. 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 textiles like scarves using simple techniques and dyeing methods. Details like length and prices for these 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.
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.
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: You must remove your shoes upon entering the museum. Please bring clean socks.
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.
Photo # 7 courtesy of the Kyoto Shibori Museum.
Fine Art of the 19th Century
In the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), when Japan opened itself to the West after 250 years of isolation, some of the most exquisite pieces of traditional and contemporary Japanese arts and crafts were produced, many of which were made exclusively for export. The Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum barely stands out among the many shops and cafes that line the ascent to Kiyomizudera temple. However, this little museum is home to the most spectacular private collection of Meiji art in Japan, so you should not definitely pay it a visit to the Kiyomizu.
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 on how these artworks are created (in Japanese, with English subtitles).
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 on how these artworks are created (in Japanese, with English subtitles).
Incense burner with design of domestic fowls by Shoami Katsuyoshi. Collection of 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 museum's second floor is dedicated to the special exhibitions, four every year.
The museum also has a small shop where you can buy postcards, books, and other items related to the exhibitions. Recently, the museum has opened an online shop with selected items.
More information about the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, in both English and Japanese, can be found on their website.
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.
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. 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.
Photos # 2, 4-7 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 or 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 Ogata Kenzan and his brother 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 Osaka industrialist 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 museum's 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 without museum tickets. The KOKO-AN tearoom on the third floor offers tea ceremonies while overlooking the Okazaki 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 national holidays (then closed the Tuesday afterwards), and during change of exhibitions.
Photography: Not allowed.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: No. Paid parking nearby. Please consider public transport options instead.
Hochu Nakamura, born in Kyoto in the late Edo period, was a painter of the Rinpa school. Active mainly 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 the current exhibition, visit the website of the Hosomi Museum.
Image # 2, 4 courtesy of the Hosomi Museum.
Master of Tea Ceremony
Like no other Japanese tradition, the tea ceremony, handed down through generations, embodies Japanese life and thought. There have been many influential tea masters over the centuries, first and foremost, Sen-no-Rikyo. Like a little box of exquisite jewellery, The Museum of Furuta Oribe is dedicated to one of his students, who himself is ranked among the greatest 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 (chadō or cha-no-yu) under master Sen-no-Rikyu, and after Rikyu's death, Oribe was appointed tea master to Hideyoshi. From 1600, he also taught tea ceremony to Hidetada, the second Tokugawa shogun and son of Ieyasu.
He developed his own style of tea ceremony, called Oribe-ryu, which soon 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 Japanese 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 of Oribe ware with the beautiful green or black glaze and bold designs appear 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 the collection of Oribe ware and other utensils made or used by Furuta Oribe himself, 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 museum's website.
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. 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 his son Hideyori as well of other samurai and wealthy merchants are on display as well as calligraphies by them and swords and armor.
For more information about this exhibition, visit the website of The Museum of Furuta Oribe.
Images # 1, 2, 3, 5 courtesy of The Museum of Furuta Oribe.
In 2020 we highlighted places to spend a fun evening. But instead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Covid19 came to visit... We hope that there again will be plenty of time and reasons to go out in the evening, hopefully to have fun 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 images below and find out more.
A Variety of Performances
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...
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 at the venue.
Photography: 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 at the venue.
Photography: Depending on event.
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.
45 Years (A)Live
Located directly in the center of the city as well as in the hearts of local music lovers of all ages and origins you will find one of Kyoto’s oldest live music venues, the TakuTaku.
The TakuTaku has a long and impressive history: Before the building was converted to a café in 1974, it had been a sake brewery. The occasional live performances in the evenings turned into regular events, and finally, in 1975, the TakuTaku was turned into the full-time live house we know today.
Over the years, the TakuTaku has seen many famous international blues and rock bands and also provided the first stepping stone for Japanese rock and pop bands. The many posters on the walls speak of its history, and many more names will be added in the future.
Come early to secure a seat at one of the large tables and enjoy the food and drinks while waiting for the band to come on stage.
Merchandise: When you visit the TakuTaku, you can bring home more than just memories. Get one of their T-shirts in various colors and designs; a favourite is the one of the 45th anniversary back in 2019.
Thu. 2, 19:00 Firebird Vol. 3 To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been rescheduled to August 27, 2020.
Have a great night with Takao Watanabe (Tp) Junya Suzuki (Vo.G) Masahiro Yamamoto (Dr) and MIZUKAMI (Vo) PEEWEE (G) AMBOY (G) BRODAQ (Ba) JUNSUKE (Dr)
Sat. 4, 18:30 So-on-G & Yoru Strangers To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been cancelled.
Two Japanese rock bands come on stage today: So-on-G and Yoru Strangers (Night Strangers) are ready for a great evening. Are you?
Thu.16 & Fri. 17, 19:00 Comradeship 1st. - Singers - To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been rescheduled to November 24, 2020.
with Katsu Shijima, Kawole and Nyudo and the TK Band.
Sat. 25, 18:00 ZIG ZAG Special 40th Anniversary Live To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been cancelled.
ZIG ZAG have been making music since 1980. In this anniversary performance, they are joined by Kyoto’s own Bambino and D.U.D. from Osaka.
Wed. 29, 17:00 Botanical House Vol. 7.To prevent the spread of the Corona virus, this event has been cancelled.
Seiichi Yamamoto, who lived in Kyoto and led the Kansai Indie scene, will unite with SUPER PLAYGROUND with Keizo Suhara, senoo ricky, and Futoshi Nishitaki. New on stage is up-and-coming performer Yusuke Sato.
Address: 139-4 Sujiyacho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8061; a building a little set back from the street. (Google Maps)
Directions: Take Kyoto City Bus 3, 5, 11, 12, 17, 32, 46, 203, 207 to Shijo Takakura.
Opening hours: Almost daily, depending on event. Usually, TakuTaku opens one hour prior to the performance and closes around 23:00.
Seats: 160 (with tables), 250 (standing only)
Reservations: Recommended. Larger acts sell tickets through typical online vendors, see the links in the event schedule
Food & Drinks: At every event; food last order around 22:00. See the menu here (in Japanese), English menu available
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Parking: No; paid bicycle parking nearby. Please consider public transport options.
Photos # 2, 3, 4 courtesy of the Live House TakuTaku.
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