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

October 15, 2011

Kamo River Park (Kyoto Guide)

The Kamo River is the spirit of Kyoto. It is at its most beautiful at the Y-shape where the Kamo (written with another Chinese character) and Takano rivers flow together - on the wedge between both rivers stands the Shimogamo Shrine with the Tadasu forest. The tip of the wedge has been turned into a small park called Kamogawa (Kamo River) Park.

[Kamogawa Park. Here the Kamo River (left) and Takano River (right) merge into the Kamo River (written with a different character from the first Kamo River!)]

The park can also be reached via the stepping stones that have been laid out in the rivers, provided the water level is low enough which is usually the case. The in the past often unruly waters have after all been rigorously tamed.

Already in the Edo period the Tadasu forest was a spot favorite for taking in some cool air on summer evenings. Now you see children playing with fireworks in the park and people sit picknicking here in the daytime. If I could live here in the neighborhood, I would on summer evenings sit with a beer on one of the benches along the river - a nice dream.

[The stepping stones in the river - note the turtles]

The Kamo River originates in Kumogahata, in the mountains northwest of Kyoto. In spring, the river is shaded by pink cherry blossoms, in summer it is alive with sweetfish. In this season, wagtails and herons also make their appearance. In late autumn and winter, blackheaded gulls from Siberia fly in via Lake Biwa - sometimes dancing around in large groups as if it were snowing gulls.

The Kamo River also used to be famous for its plovers - they even form the symbol of the Pontocho geisha quarters and the Kamogawa Dances performed annually by these artists. In the park stands a haiku stone with a poem by (if I am correct) the chairman of the Kamo River preservation society:
in the past
this spot was famous
for plovers

sono mukashi | kokora chidori no | meisho kana
[Stepping stones in the form of plovers are now all that reminds one of these birds]

October 11, 2011

Sake from Aomori Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Aomori is the northernmost prefecture of the Tohoku region, lying on Honshu island opposite Hokkaido, from which it is separated by the Straits of Tsugaru. It used to be a poor and inaccessible region, its two peninsula's (Tsugaru and Shimokita) have preserved old folk traditions longer than elsewhere. The castle town and administrative center in Edo times was Hirosaki, the capital Aomori was developed as a port city since Japan's modernization in Meiji times. Most sake breweries date from the Meiji-period (late 19th c.). Natural beauty can be found in the Hachimantai mountains, the Oirase Valley and Lake Towada.

Sake from Aomori has a dry and fresh style, sometimes with a slight sweetness, typical for many parts of Tohoku. Association yeast No. 10 is from Aomori and indeed leads to a smart sake with little acidity. The prefecture was early in developing rice stains that could stand the cold climate. Older types of sake rice are "Kojo Nishiki" and "Hohai," later came the superior "Hanafubuki." This has again been crossed with Yamada Nishiki, resulting in "Hana Omoi," a sake rice giving a soft but deeper taste than usual in Tohoku.

Sake breweries are concentrated in the Tsugaru area around Hirosaki, and in the Nanbu area from Towada to Hachinohe. Tsugaru has its own small group of toji, in the Nambu area work the Nanbu toji from Iwate. There are 21 active breweries in Aomori (2015).

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Denshu (Nishida Sake Brewery), Aomori City. Est. 1877. Denshu is written with the characters for "rice field" and "sake," a name chosen in recent times (the old brand name still used for some sakes is Kikuizumi) to express the importance of the flavor of the rice. Not surprisingly, it is junmaishu for which this brewery is best known. The sake is made by hand, in small quantities. Denshu has grown into a popular name among sake drinkers. No brewery visits, no sale of sake at the brewery.
  • Joppari (Rokka Shuzo), Hirosaki. "Stubborn Person" (Tsugaru dialect) in the sense of "totally committed to make excellent products." Company established via the merger of three Hirosaki breweries in 1972, with as new brand Joppari. Also produces shochu and various liqueurs.
  • Komaizumi (Morita Shobei), Shichinohe, Shichinohe-machi, Kamikita-gun. "The Well of the Colt." Founded in 1736 by a trader from Omi (Shiga); started operating as a dedicated sake brewery in 1872. Uses the excellent subsoil water of the Higashi-Hakkoda mountains; considers water as the most important element in sake. Uses only local rice as Mutsuhomare and Reimei, as well as local sake rice as Hana Omoi and Hanafubuki. No brewery visits. 
  • Momokawa (Momokawa Brewing, Inc.), Oirase Town. Other brand names are "Nebuta" and "Sugidama." Established in 1889 by Murai Kuramatsu in Hachinohe, but going back to the Edo-period brewery of the Miura family in Momoishi village. Uses pure water from the Oirase River aquifer. Momokawa started the SakeOne Brewery in Oregon, U.S.A., and is still involved with it. Brewery tours possible upon advance application. Boasts the largest sugidama (cedar ball) in Japan (2.2 meters in diameter). 
Aomori Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

October 5, 2011

Kyoto Walks: Shomendori Street

Shomendori Street took its name because it ran "in front of" ("facing") Hokoji, a once famous temple housing the Great Buddha of Kyoto. Shomendori started out with a very wide section right at this landmark temple (still existing in front of the torii gate of the Toyokuni Shrine) and then continued as a normal lane east over the Kamo River to connect with the two Honganji temples. In other words, Shomendori runs on an east-west axis from Yamato-oji Street to JR Tambaguchi Station and is 4.3 km long.

1. Temple Bell of Hokoji
Hokoji once was one of the greatest temples of Japan and its lands covered much of what are now the Toyokuni Shrine and the Kyoto National Museum. Today, Hokoji is not much more than a dusty parking lot with a huge temple bell. The original temple set up in 1586 housed a Great Buddha statue that was even larger than the Great Buddha of Nara. It was the same type of Buddha: Rushana, or the Cosmic Buddha. The hall was on the same scale as Todaiji. But as Hideyoshi was in a hurry to finish the temple, a lacquered wooden statue was installed rather than a bronze one. One thousand priests of (almost) all sects Japan knew took part in the dedication ceremonies. Hokoji was the apex of Hideyoshi's hubris.

Unhappily, not long after completion, in 1596, Hokoji (and most of Kyoto) was destroyed by a gigantic earthquake. Hideyoshi died two years later. In 1602, rebuilding began under Hideyoshi's son, Hideyori, but the project was ill-fated and it took until 1612 before the new Hokoji could be re-dedicated, on a somewhat smaller scale, and again with a large wooden Rushana. To this second incarnation a huge temple bell was added, 4.4 meters high and 2.8 meters in diameter. According to tradition, the inscription on the bell contained an insulting reference to the Tokugawa family, which Ieyasu used in 1615 as a pretext to start the siege of Osaka Castle, where the Toyotomi's lived, and destroy his foes once and for all. The bell survives, but the inscription has been erased.

Hokoji didn't fare much better than its sponsors. Another earthquake wrecked the temple in 1662; what was rebuilt of it, was lost to a fire in 1798. A crude wooden statue was inaugurated in 1843, and again lost in a fire in 1973. The small hall next to parking lot shows some pieces of the hand of this wooden statue, still surprising in size, for a small fee.

Besides the temple bell, another relic of the earlier temple are the huge stones along Yamato-oji Street, donated by various daimyo, reminding us of Osaka Castle. These formed the foundation of Hokoji. The temple gate stood more or less in the spot of the present torii of the Toyokuni Shrine, opening up towards Shomendori.

[Temple bell of Hokoji]

2. Toyokuni Shrine
When Tokugawa Ieyasu decided he wanted to be honored as a god after his death, he was following the example of his predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. When Hideyoshi felt death was approaching in 1598, he had a lavish mausoleum / shrine built where he was posthumously worshiped as a kami. There are still genre screens left showing a late 16th c. Bon dance with a large multitude of people in front of the mausoleum. But Hideyoshi was too popular among the people of Kyoto to Ieyasu's taste so after he came to power, and had destroyed the Toyotomi family, he had the Toyokuni Shrine razed to the ground. It stood farther east from the present shrine, at the foot of the Eastern Hills (at the present location stood the Hokoji Temple). The Toyokuni Jinja as it is now, was only rebuilt in 1880 by the Meiji government. The great Karamon Gate (shown below) was brought from Konchi-in, a subtemple of Nanzenji sponsored by the Tokugawa - a sort of belated revenge by the Toyotomi. The shrine's treasure house contains memorabilia of Hideyoshi and his times and is worth a look.

[Toyokuni Jinja]

3. Mimizuka, "Grave of Ears"
Toyotomi Hideyoshi undertook two military campaigns in the Korean Peninsula, in 1592 and 1597, with the ultimate view of conquering China, an effort which was unsuccessful due to stiff resistance from the combined forces of Korea and China. As war trophies ears and noses were brought back in barrels of brine instead of the usual heads (which were considered too cumbersome) and these were interred in a small grass knoll crowned by a stone stupa in front of Hideyoshi's "own" temple, Hokoji. Did Hideyoshi really think the Buddha would be happy with this gruesome donation? The number of collected body parts reputedly ran into the tens of thousands. Today, Mimizuka stands immediately next to a children's playground. When Korean embassies visited Kyoto during the Edo-period, they always made a point of worshiping at this mound.


4. Kanshundo
Kanshundo is a shop selling traditional Japanese sweets on Shomedori, in front of Hokoji and Toyokuni Jinja. It was originally set up to cater to pilgrims visiting Hokoji temple. The shop itself has now moved to the southern corner of Shomendori and Kawabatadori. A restaurant set up with the same purpose is Doraku, now 370 years old.

[Kanshundo Higashimise]

5. Shomenbashi
Hokoji was so popular in the Edo-period, that a bridge was built over the Kamo River here, called Shomen Bridge.

[Kamo River seen from Shomenbashi]

6. Nintendo
Just across the bridge stands the former headquarters of the Nintendo company, when Nintendo was solely a hanafuda (Japanese-style playing cards) company. Nintendo was established here at Shomendori Ohashi in 1889.

[Nintendo former headquarters]

7. Kikokutei Garden (Shosei-en)
Shomendori next abuts on the Kikokutei Garden and you have to go around the garden with its stately walls to find the street again. The gate to the garden is in the eastern wall. Kikotei Garden was donated to the Higashi Honganji temple by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1631. It is a large pond garden, said to be designed with the help of Ishikawa Jozan, a samurai scholar who is well-known for Shisendo (and its garden).

Kikokutei is named after the hedge that once surrounded it and is supposed to go all the way back to a garden laid out here by a 9th c. Minister, Minamoto no Toru. The buildings in the garden - the villas of the Higashi Honganji abbots - are all modern replica's as the originals were lost in a large fire in 1864. At that time, the garden was also severely damaged. The picture below shows the central pond, Ingetsuchi, with Tonoshima, a nine-storied stone pagoda an a tiny island believed to be the tomb of Minamoto no Toru. Kikokutei used to be free, but unfortunately now a 500 yen "donation" has been instituted (a bit severe, as it is not one of Kyoto's really famous gardens).

[Wall of Kikokutei]

8. Buddhist shops on Shomendori
The area between Kikokutei and Higashi Honganji as well as the area between Higashi and Nishi Honganji were temple towns administered by the Hongaji authorities. Today, both on Shomendori Kami Juzuyamachi-dori north of it, one still finds many shops selling Buddhist implements, such as home altars, statues, prayer beads, bells and cushions for bells, glittering ornaments, priestly vestments, etc. Near Higashi Honganji also is a specialist Buddhist bookshop.

[Buddhist shop on Shomendori]

9. Higashi Honganji
See my separate post about Higashi Honganji.

10. Buddhist shops between the two Honganji temples
More home altars and other paraphernalia... Note that these differ depending on the Buddhist denomination. In this area you will find only shops catering to Jodo Shin Buddhism.

11. Dendoin
Dendoin was designed in 1912 by famous architect Ito Chuta. It belongs to Nishi Honganji and originally housed an insurance company related to the sect. Now it is a free exhibition space of the temple. Note the mosque-like roof and the mythical animals, as well as the unusual masonry, a true mixture of Western and various Eastern elements.


12. Gate to Buddhist shops opposite Nishi Honganji 
This imposing gate leading into Shomendori faces Horikawa Avenue. On Horikawa Avenue, you will find several traditional shops, such as a large tsukemono (pickles) shop - a favorite item to take home from Kyoto or give as a present - and Kungyokudo, a traditional incense shop (now in a modern building). Besides various types of incense, it sells scented sachets, candles and kunko, fragrant incense pellets.

[Gate to Shomendori with Buddhist shops seen from Nishi Honganji]

13. Nishi Honganji
See my separate post about Nishi Honganji.
How to find the starting point of this walk: take a bus to the Kyoto National Museum or Sanjusangendo and walk north up Yamato-Oji Street (running along the western perimeter of the museum grounds). You can also take a Keihan train to Shichijo Station.
When you finish the walk at Nishi Honganji, it is only a 10 min walk back to Kyoto Station.

October 4, 2011

Higashi Honganji (Kyoto Guide)

Visitors to Kyoto, arriving at the station, cannot miss Higashi Honganji. An impressive pile of wood, it sits squarely at Karasuma Avenue that leads into the city from the station. Walking past its magnificent gates and wall, viewing it from bus or taxi, you realize: I am in Kyoto, the Buddhist capital of Japan...

[Higashi Honganji]

In the sheer force of its size, Higashi Honganji is indeed what you imagine a Kyoto temple to be. And it is more. Always open in the daytime, its spacious halls beckon a warm welcome to passersby who long for a moment of silence, a break from rain or heat, an interval with oneself alone. In the size of its buildings, Higashi Honganji is one of the largest temples of Japan, and this is also true for the number of followers, that runs to ten million.

Higashi Honganji split off from the Honganji in 1602, when land for the present site was donated by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Edo shogun, who may have wanted to diminish the power of the sect. The wily shogun availed himself of a succession conflict in the temple to bring a brother of the Honganji abbot, who earlier had been passed over in the succession, to rival power. So Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji were born.

In the modern city, Higashi Honganji stands right in front of the station. You almost stumble over it when coming into Kyoto. It is separated from its western counterpart by a maze of streets teeming with shops selling items to supply the needs of pilgrims (Honganji Jinaicho).

[Higashi Honganji]

Hall of Compassion
Higashi Honganji is always bustling with people, as out-of-town parishioners make it a point to stop over to pay their respects when they are in Kyoto. Not counting the temple offices, abbot's quarters etc., there are only two halls: in central position, opposite the main gate (also very impressive, as it is one of the largest gates in Kyoto) stands the Founder's Hall (Goeido or Founder's Hall) dedicated to Shinran and containing an image of the master, and on the left side stands a hall dedicated to the Buddha Amida (Amidado).

It is characteristic of the Jodo Shin faith that Shinran's hall is larger and more centrally positioned than the one of the Buddha himself. This is a reflection of the fact that the temple originated in Shinran's funerary chapel. The Goeido occupies an area of 3,900 square meters and features double roofs in the Irimoya style. At 76 meters in length, 58 meters deep and 38 meters high, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. It floor consists of more than 900 tatami mats and the roof is covered with almost 176,000 tiles. Besides Shinran's image, it also contains portraits of previous abbots and scrolls extolling the virtues of taking refuge in Amida Buddha.

Although smaller, the Amida Hall has been built in a more elaborate style. Next to the Amida image in central position is a scroll depicting Prince Shotoku, the legendary founder of Japanese Buddhism. There are also portraits of the seven patriarchs of Pure land Buddhism. The sliding doors have been decorated with paintings by Meiji-period artists.

The Main Gate (called Goeidomon as it stands opposite the Goeido Hall) is 28 meters high. The top floor (which is inaccessible to visitors) houses a trinity of Sakyamuni with Ananda and Manjusri. A plaque with the words Shinshu Honbyo "Main temple of the New Faith" hangs on the gate. In the middle of the road in front of the gate sits a fountain designed as lotus flower - which represents rebirth and is said to have flowered in profusion when Sakyamuni was born.

Other buildings in the grounds are the Belfry (Shoro) and the Reception Office (Sanpai Settaisho, built in 1934, but with an underground addition from 1998 in the form of an audiovisual hall designed by architect Takamatsu Shin).

Higashi Honganji's buildings are relatively new, as the temple burned in 1864 and was rebuilt in 1895. At that time, fifty ropes woven from the tresses of female believers were used to haul the massive timbers. One of these coiled ropes, now of a somewhat ghostly aspect, can still be seen in a glass case on the temple porch.

Higashi Honganji is Kyoto's gateway. A temple to end all temples, it has on the contrary become the quintessential temple. Everyone is welcome to enter and sit down on its tatami mats, that have worn down to a velvety sheen. The huge keyaki-wood pillars impart a sense of security.

The pigeons, they come too. In droves they fill the wide courtyard. As it is against Buddhist law to take life, there are no active means to banish pigeons. On the contrary, vendors standing under the gate sell bags of beans to feed the birds.

This, too, is a sign of the all-embracing nature of Higashi Honganji.

Access: 5 min. on foot north of JR Kyoto Station, facing Karasumadori. Grounds free.
In the neighborhood: Also see the Shosei (Kikokutei) Garden belonging to the temple (5 min. east of Higashi Honganji) and explore the Buddhist shops in Honganji Jinaicho.
Otani Mausoleum. While Nishi Honganji has its grave temple and graveyard at Gojo, in 1670 Higashi Honganji established its funerary temple near Gion, just south of Maruyama Park.