Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 23, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Nishiyama)

Although late in the season, this weekend I visited the "Saigyo sakura" in what is called the "Cherryblossom Temple," Shojiji, in the hills west of Muko City.


[Bell tower and Saigyo sakura (already without blossoms) in Shojiji]

Officially, there is only one "Saigyo sakura" - a tree planted by the medieval priest and poet Saigyo after he shaved his head to become a priest here in Shojiji. It is a third-generation tree, it is said, but it was already covered in fresh green leaves. Fortunately, around it there were still some other trees in bloom, and the best ones were the magnificent shidare-zakura at the back of the temple. These were just in full bloom!


[Shidare-zakura in Shojiji]

Besides the cherry trees, the temple also has a great collection of Buddhist statues, beautiful in all seasons: a Kamakura-period Yakushi statue not only carrying the usual medicine pot in his right hand (he is after all the Buddha of Healing), but with his other hand making a gesture as if to take some pills from that pot! The temple also has a full set of the Yakushi's attendants, the Bodhisattva's Nikko and Gekko (symbolizing the Sun and the Moon) and the Twelve Generals in comical poses. Saigyo was also present, in a Kamakura-period statue showing him as a lean and ascetic priest. All these statues stand in the temple's Treasure House, to which also the Rikishi deities from the temple gate have been moved for protection.

[Old sakura tree in front of Shojiji's gate]

After Shojiji, I decided to visit nearby Shoboji, a temple new to me, and to my surprise, here, too, the cherry trees were in full bloom...

The Main Hall of this little known and quiet Shingon temple featured some interesting statues, such as the main image on the altar, a Thousand-armed Kannon with three faces - besides the central countenance, two extra faces look over the Kannon's shoulders in an original configuration. This statue is from the early Kamakura period. From the temple's founding (in the late Nara period, by a disciple of the Chinese priest Ganjin) dates a large Yakushi statue. Finally, I also encountered an interesting "running Daikoku" image.


[Modern guardian statue under blossom canopy in Shoboji]

The garden of Shoboji is modern and characterized by the various large rocks which are meant to represent all kinds of animals. Such almost childish figurative thinking is far from traditional garden art, but happily you can see the rocks as just abstract elements - the resemblances with elephants and tigers are rather forced, anyway.


[Blossoming sakura tree and shakkei garden, Shoboji]

What makes the garden interesting is the shakkei, the "borrowed scenery" of the far-away Eastern Hills (Higashiyama - we are to the south here, so you can mainly see the low hills on which the Fushimi Inari Shrine stands) and, on the horizon, the imposing mountains that form the border between Kyoto and Shiga. On one of these stands the great Daigoji Temple.

It was masterful of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks then form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall towards the distant mountain scenery. Both Shojiji and Shoboji were very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms. In the end, it was difficult to tear myself away...
Access: From JR Mukomachi or Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, take a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi and then walk 15 min. Or take a bus to Rakusaikokomae and walk 20 min. There is about one bus per hour.

Note: Shojiji is also known for its maple leaves. In the immediate vicinity are two more places of interest, Gantokuji (Hobodaiin) which displays a national treasure Bodhisattva image of almost sensual beauty, and Oharano Jinja, a shrine set up as a local branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, when the capital was transferred to Nagaokakyo in the late 8th c.

April 9, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Arashiyama)

I had some doubts about Arashiyama as a hanami spot because I feared a terrible mass of people. In fact, it was not bad at all - masses do come to Arashiyama, about every weekend in season, but they tend to converge on a small area, the Togetsukyo Bridge and the street that runs in front of Tenryuji. Arashiyama and Sagano are so large and that even a large mass of people is spread thin here and few visit the more outlying temples. On top of that, not everyone has the energy to climb to the viewing platforms high up in Kameyama Park, which afford a great view of the Hozu River Gorge and the mountains clad in pinks and young greens.

[Mt Arashiyama decked out in clouds of sakura]

And the sakura were just great - especially on the mountain slopes, where they hung as clouds of pink brocade. Apparently, the trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

[Clouds of sakura in the gorge]

Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all.

[Boat on the Hozu River near Arashiyama]

It was already a favorite spot among the Heian nobility, and many poets and writers came here for inspiration, not in the last place Basho who stayed in the Rakushisha of his disciple Kyorai. It was not only famous for sakura, but also momiji, autumn leaves, as in my articles on Hogonin and Okochi Sanso. Arashiyama also figures in classical literature, from the Tale of Genji to the Essays of Idleness.

[The Togetsu Bridge ("Bridge to Ford to the Moon") has been here since Heian times. The pagoda on the opposite bank belongs to Horinji]

The temples are Horinji and Daihikaku on the west bank, and Tenryuji and Rinsenji on the east one. Tenryuji, of course, has one of the best classical landscape gardens in Kyoto, which borrows the scenery of Arashiyama.

[Once more the gorge seen from Kameyama Park. The temple hall high up on the bank to the left belongs to Daihikaku Temple]

In fact, Arashiyama is beautiful in all seasons, even in winter when light snow decks the hills and the trees stand bare and brooding. Summer finds it deeply green in light rain, the summits veiled in mist. There are also several festivals. The third Sunday in May the Mifune Matsuri is held here, when decorated boats with people dressed as Heian courtiers will drift down the stream. The second Sunday in November sees another boat procession for the Momiji Matsuri.
As buses tend to get stuck in the traffic jams - especially in weekends - the fastest approach to Arashiyama is by one of the three train lines that serve it: the JR Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama St (20 min from Kyoto St), the Keifuku-Arashiyama line from Shijo-Omiya St, or - convenient if you come from Osaka or Kobe - the Hankyu-Arashiyama line which branches off from the main Hankyu line in Katsura St.

Kyo-yasai or “Kyoto vegetables” factsheet

List of Kyoto vegetables

Kyo takenoko (bamboo shoot)
A spring vegetable grown in Nishiyama, the Western Hills. The young shoots of bamboo (raised by farmers) are eaten after boiling, but Kyo takenoko is also eaten uncooked, just after being dug up, and dipped in vinegared miso. The taste is sweet, the flesh soft.

Kyo myoga (mioga, a kind of ginger)
Mioga is indigenous to Japan. Only the fragrant buds and stems are eaten, thinly sliced and used as a garnish in soups. Also made into vinegared pickles. Taste is not hot (as ginger), but rather herbal.

Hanana (or nanohana, rape shoots)
The immature stem of rape with their buds. Looks a bit like small broccoli and is a symbol for spring. Used in cooked salads (aemono) with mustard dressing but also eaten in pickled form. Grown in Fushimi. The taste is slightly bitter.

Kyo udo (a fragrant plant of which the white stalks and leaves are eaten – resembles asparagus)
Grown in the Momoyama area of Fushimi, SE Kyoto. Blanched by growing it in the dark, by heaping soil on the young stalks in mid-March. The Kyoto variety is very fragrant. Udo is both eaten raw and used in clear soups (suimono), vinegared salads (sunomono), cooked salads (aemono) and as soused greens (ohitashi).

Kamo nasu (eggplant)
A summer vegetable. Kamo eggplant is grown in Kamigamo, in the northern part of Kyoto. They have a distinct rounded shape, a deep purple color and weigh from 300 to 400 grams. Richly flavored, they are well-suited to be boiled and seasoned, or grilled with oil. A famous dish is Nasu Dengaku (nasu grilled on skewers and topped with a sweetened miso topping). Other famous eggplant varieties from Kyoto include Yamashina nasu, from the eastern suburb of Kyoto, a small (80 grams) and delicate variety of superb taste, and Mogi nasu, an even smaller variety also from Yamashina.

Fushimi togarashi (peppers)
Already mentioned in writings from the Edo-period. From the Fushimi area, these peppers are also called aoto. They are not hot at all and used in simmered dishes (nimono), with grilled foods (yakimono) and as tempura. Other peppers are Tanaka togarashi (from Tanaka in the Sakyo ward) and Manganji togarashi from Maizuru.

Katsura uri (melon)
Melon from the Katsura area in SW Kyoto. Also used in Nara-zuke, Nara pickles. The taste is sweet and fragrant.

Hiragino sasage (cowpea, long thin-podded beans)
From the Hiragino area in northern Kyoto. The stalks with the beans can be as long as 80 or 90 centimeters. The immature beans are used as a vegetable in simmered dishes (nimono) and as soused greens (ohitashi). The beans themselves can be used as an alternative to azuki beans. A summer vegetable that is used as an offer at the Buddhist Obon festival in August.

Tanba kurodaizu (black soybeans)
From the Tanba area in the western part of Kyoto prefecture. Big beans that even keep their form when boiled. Used in New Year dishes. Often called the “No 1 Bean of Japan.” Also eaten with beer or sake straight from the boiled pods (edamame). Can be the base for miso, tofu and various traditional sweets.

Kyoto dainagon azuki (azuki, little red beans)
“Dainagon” is the title for the Great Councilor at the Heian court. In contrast to a samurai, these officials did not commit harakiri (seppuku) and the same is true of these beans: even when boiled, the skin does not break! Kyoto dainagon azuki are from Kameoka, a town NW of Kyoto. They are large and shiny and usually used as the main ingredient for Kyogashi, the traditional sweets.

Shishigatani kabocha (pumpkin or squash)
Produced near Shishigadani in the Sakyo Ward of Kyoto, near the Philosopher's Path. The shape, like a gourd, is very characteristic, so it is used not only for cooking but also as a flower vase or ornament. Watery and not very sweet, in contrast to other pumpkin varieties. Plays an important role in “Kabocha Kuyo”, an annual ceremony held at Anrakuji Temple in July.