Thursday, January 11, 2007

Marishi Sonten, another boar shrine in Kyoto

Marishi Sontendo is another temple of the boar (inoshishi) that is strong for luck and victory in years of the Wild Boar!

[Roaring wild boar in Marishi Sontendo, Kyoto]

Zenkyoan (the formal name of the temple in question) was set up as a hermitage by the noted Chinese Zen priest Qingzhuo Zhengcheng (in Japanese: Seisetsu Seicho, 1274-1339), who was invited to come to Japan by Hojo Takatoki in 1326. After arriving in Japan, Qingzhuo resided at various temples, such as Kenchoji and Engakuji in Kamakura and Nanzenji and Kenninji in Kyoto. He exerted a massive influence on Japanese Zen Buddhism and in many museums one can find his bokuseki, calligraphies with short texts and maxims.


[Marishi Sontendo, Kyoto]

Qingzhuo came from a family that had long venerated a strange deity called Marishi, originally an Indian goddess who like the whole of the Indian pantheon was eventually sucked up by popular Buddhism and traveled in that religion's slipstream to China and Japan. Marishi seems to be the personification of light, a sort of sun goddess. In fact, as the temple brochure informs us, when Qingzhuo still hesitated whether to accept the invitation to come to Japan, Marishi appeared to him riding on a wild boar and spurred him on to go. She promised to accompany him and protect him and the nation of Japan.

The priest decided to give his vision of the deity material form by kneading the miraculous appearance of Marishi in clay: the goddess with her three faces and six arms, wearing armor and a crown, but at the same time of girlish mien, and standing on a boar with seven heads. In her six arms she grabbed bow, arrow and sword to signify she would eradicate all evil, silk thread and needle to show she would help the work of women (and sow all evil speaking mouths tight shut!), and a sala tree, the same tree the Buddha was born under, as a promise of rich harvests.


[Cute boar in Marishi Sontendo, Kyoto]

Qingzhuo wrapped this image in his surplice and thus crossed the sea. Thanks to Marishi Sonten, he arrived safely in Hakata. After a very active life in Japan, where he deserves to be much better known considering his influence on Zen, he retired in 1331 to Zenkyoan, a hermitage that had been built for him near Kenninji, and there he also enshrined the Marishi image. Since then, Zenkyoan is known as Marishi Sontendo, and has kept the faith in this deity alive among the townspeople of Kyoto.

The image, by the way, is a secret one. What you can see, are the numerous statues of wild boar in the temple grounds, although none of these sports seven heads. Last Monday, when we visited, the grounds of the small temple were very lively thanks to the National Holiday and the festival at the nearby Ebisu Shrine.



[Even the wash basin has a spouting boar! Marishi Sontendo, Kyoto]

By the way, thanks to its association with the boar, renowned Japanese-style painter Koizumi Junsaku (who decorated the ceilings of both Kenchoji and Kenninji with dragon pictures) recently donated a votive plate of a wild boar to the temple. In the temple shop reproductions of that painting were sold on shikishi, square pieces of cardboard. In the hope that we too may roar forward on the broad back of the boar, we could not help but acquire one!


[Reproduction of the Inoshishi picture that Koizumi Junsaku donated to Marishi Sontendo]
Address: 146 Komatsu-cho, Yamato-oji-dori Shijo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-561-5556
Access: 7 min on foot from Shijo Keihan
Hours: 8:00-17:00, grounds free. The hermitage itself cannot be entered.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Toka Ebisu in Ebisu Shrine, Kyoto

Toka (Tenth Day) Ebisu is a festival with prayers for happiness and success in business that is held at Ebisu Shrines around Japan, especially in the Kansai, between 8 or 9 and 11 January. The most important shrines are Imamiya Ebisu in Osaka, Nishinomiya Ebisu in Nishinomiya near Kobe and the Ebisu Shrine near Kenninji in central Kyoto. The first two ones usually draw a million visitors each, so that was a good reason to opt this year for the smaller and more cosy Kyoto shrine.

[People are touching the Ebisu Statue in the Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto, for luck]

Ebisu is always depicted as a jolly good fellow (as the statue above) but in fact he is a rather complex deity. His name means 'foreigner' or 'barbarian,' which hints at the fact that he is a so-called marebito deity, a deity who has come from overseas.

In Japanese mythology he first appears as the misshapen 'leech' child of the Creator Gods Izanagi and Izanami, born without bones because the female, Izanami, has taken the initiative during lovemaking. In a paternalistic society, such wild behavior apparently leads to dire consequences.

The deities, who are on an island called Onokoro, that has been identified with part of modern Awaji, put the misshapen infant in a boat made of reeds and abandon it to the waves of the sea. So much for parental responsibility! The child washes ashore on the opposite coast and comes to be venerated as the god Ebisu. He remains slightly crippled and deaf for the rest of his life, but is all the same a very auspicious figure and as a god he becomes many times more popular than his unfeeling parents - sweet revenge.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto]

In a completely different story, Ebisu is identified with Kotoshironushi, a deity from the Izumo pantheon, and the son of the culture hero Okuninushi no Mikoto. When the Sun Goddess sends Takemikazuchi as her envoy to demand that Okuninushi gives up his land to her (as a faint echo of the struggle between Yamato and Izumo), Okuninushi entrusts Kotoshironushi with the response. His son, however, pledges allegiance to the camp of the Sun Goddess and hides himself inside an enclosure of green leaves he has made in the ocean. A sort of sacred suicide, I suppose.

However it may be, in both stories the link with the sea is striking and that remains so: Ebisu is first and for all the deity of fishermen and safe sea travel. That is how he came to be here in Kyoto: the Ebisu Shrine was originally part of Kenninji Temple, set up by Eisai. Eisai (1141-1215) was one of the first priests to resume travel to China to study (after a hiatus of two and a half centuries), and as a result he was able to introduce Rinzai Zen Buddhism and tea to Japan. During his voyage, when a storm blew, he entrusted his fate to Ebisu and out of gratefulness for his safe trip enshrined the deity in Kenninji. In the Meiji-period, the shrine became independent from the temple.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto. Visitors buy decorations
to hang on the good luck bamboo branches]

Ebisu later was included among the Seven Deities of Good Fortune and is often paired with Daikoku, the god of agriculture. He wears a tall hat and always holds a fishing rod in his right hand and a sea bream under his left arm. In the Edo period, he also became popular as a god of commerce and shopkeepers and that is what most Kyotoites will come for during Toka Ebisu.

'Toka' is 'tenth day,' and January 10 was according to one tradition the actual birthday of the god. That day is the main festival, but already on the 8th it was very lively in the shrine grounds of the Kyoto Ebisu Shrine, with lots of booths selling fukusasa, 'good fortune bamboo branches' on which various good luck charms as rice bales, sea bream, gold coins and cranes were hung by the visitors. This can add up to quite a high price, but only few people leave without buying a branch and colorful paraphernalia to decorate in their house or shop.

[Ebisu Jinja, Kyoto. As Ebisu is a bit deaf, worshipers knock on the boards of the shrine so that he listens to their prayers]

Address: 125 Komatsu-cho, Yamato-oji-dori Shijo-sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-525-0005
Access: 6 min on foot from Shijo Keihan St; 8 min from Shijo Kawaramachi. 
Hours: 9:00-17:00. Grounds free.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Miyagawacho geisha district, Kyoto

Maiko are going along the tea houses in Miyagawacho, taking notes; they are probably preparing for Hatsuyori, a New year's visit made by maiko to their music and dance teacher.

[Street lined with tea houses in Miyagawacho]

Miyagawacho is one of the five hanamachi or geiko quarters in Kyoto. Although less famous than Gion or Pontocho, there are quite some traditional houses left. While the mark of Gion is a band with small circles and that of Pontocho a stylized plover, Miyagawacho has three interconnected rings as its trademark, as can be seen on the lanterns hanging in front of the houses. The rings symbolize the unity of the shrine/temples, the townspeople and the tea houses.


[Tea house lantern and New Year decoration in Miyagawacho]

When Hideyoshi in the 2nd half of the 16th c. built Fushimi Castle and Hokoji Temple in the south-eastern part of Kyoto, traffic along Yamato-oji Street increased and townhouses started appearing. What is now Miyagawacho was probably laid out at first on the wider banks of the Kamo River, a place where entertainers gathered. Miyagawa or 'Shrine River' was the nickname of the part of the Kamo River just south of Shijo; it was so called because during the Gion Festival the mikoshi of the Yasaka Shrine was purified here in the waters of the river.

[Miyagawacho, Kyoto]

In the last decades of the 17th c. the area was redeveloped. The banks of the Kamo River were fortified with stone and Miyagawacho grew into a town of tea houses connected with Kabuki - Kabuki was performed in many small theaters on the banks of the Kamo River. Some of the tea houses were even installed on boats in the river. As Kabuki was just then developing into a mass entertainment spectacle, as we know it today, the area was very popular and Miyagawacho quickly grew into a full-blown town of tea houses.

The association with Kabuki has gone, but the Minamiza Kabuki Theater of Kyoto still stands on a historical spot on the east bank of the Kamo River, just below Shijo, and north of Miyagawacho. Today, Miyagawacho has its own kaburenjo or theater where geisha dances are performed.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Coming of Age Day 2007, Kyoto

Today was one of those national holidays that only Japan has: Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi). All young people who turned twenty between 2 April last year or do so at the latest on 1 April of the current year celebrate that they are now adults and therefore allowed to smoke, drink and vote (in that order). They will also finally be punished as adults if they do anything wrong.

[Coming of Age day in Heian Jingu, Kyoto]

Of course, on such a momentous day those wild youngsters have to be encouraged to become responsible members of society and therefore local governments host coming-of-age ceremonies (seijin-shiki) where politicians and educators exert themselves to pound some morals in. Considering the festive character of the day it is not surprising that the subjects of those speeches are not always in the same grave mood as their elders (as the press laments more strongly every year) and sometimes follow the letter of the law by grabbing the bottle even before the ceremony is over. After the ceremony, often a visit to a local shrine is made, and then finally everyone is allowed to party.

[Getting rid of bad luck fortune slips (omikuji) by tying them up in the shrine grounds. Coming of Age day in Heian Jingu, Kyoto]

The ceremony, however, is an old and hallowed one. In the past it was called genpuku and the transformation from youth to adult was signified by a change of dress. In those early days maturity came much faster than in our present cutesy times: for boys at 15 and girls already at 13. The boys had their forelocks cut off and the girls had to start the hateful custom of dying their teeth black.


[It is a once in a lifetime event, so pictures are important! Coming of Age day in Heian Jingu, Kyoto]

Young men usually wear dark suits to the Seijin-shiki ceremony, but women can opt to don a furisode, a formal kimono with extra-long sleeves and beautiful designs. Unfortunately, the numbers of traditionally clad females are dwindling as fast as the ice on the North Pole, and that is not only because the price of the garment can be as high as that of a small car (anyway, most people rent their furisode).

[Glad that the job is done! Coming of Age day in Heian Jingu, Kyoto]



Saturday, January 6, 2007

Nishiki Tenmangu, Kyoto

As originally a Sinologist myself, I have always been fond of Sugawara no Michizane, the greatest Sinologist (and writer of poetry in Chinese) from ancient Japan. For the same reason, I have a weakness for the Tenmangu Shrines dedicated to him.

Michizane (9th c.) died in exile, after a frustrated career, and as an angry ghost wrought havoc in Kyoto. To appease him, many shrines were set up, such as the famous Kitano Tenmangu, where he was honored as the god of literature (nowadays vulgarized into a deity helping with school exams).

[Ox statue in Nishiki Tenmangu]

You now find thousands of shrines dedicated to him all over Japan. You will recognize them by two symbols: the plum blossom, used in stylized form as the emblem of the shrines - often plum trees have been planted as well - and the ox, which is the messenger of Michizane as deity.

Plum blossoms were popular among Chinese poets, and also Michizane wrote famous poems about this tree, which was considered as a symbol of the Confucian gentleman (it spreads a delicious but not too strong fragrance when the weather is still cold - like the "virtue" of the gentlemen in adverse circumstances). Oxen pulled the carts in which court aristocrats like Michizane rode.

 [Nishiki Tenmangu]

Nishiki Tenmangu in Kyoto's Shinkyogoku Street is thanks to its favorable location always full of people. It originally stood in the grounds of a large temple, but after the temple moved elsewhere, it became independent. It stands right at the entrance of the famous Nishiki shopping street, the arcaded market of central Kyoto and a popular tourist destination in its own right.

[Nishiki Tenmangu]

The shrine has given up on literature and even help by exams and turned itself into a love shrine, catering to the teenagers who throng Shinkyogoku nowadays. Even the omikuji fortune slips are about love, telling the supplicant whether success in amorous matters will follow or not...

[Omikuji robot in Nishiki Tenmangu]

Interestingly, the fortune slips are served up from the above machine, where a Chinese lion performs a short dance (with music), picks up a fortune slip with its mouth, and then drops it in the opening. The visitors all take it as the game it is!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Drinking Your Way Through Japan - Cup Sake

Cup sake was introduced by Ozeki in 1964, as a convenient way to have a swig while watching the Tokyo Olympics (even today, sake is allowed in Japanese stadiums as fans here never get rowdy). The cup is a kind of sturdy glass, with a content of 180 ml., and covered with a metal cap. In the case of Ozeki, you also get a plastic cap on top of that - you can use the plastic cap to re-close the cup. Not that the contents are so huge you would want to keep them for the next day, but Ozeki probably had the kindness of providing this cap for train travelers. When the cup is still almost full, the sake will be shaken out of it, so the possibility to re-close it in between sips is very welcome indeed!

[The classical One Cup Ozeki stands in the middle. Gekkeikan's cup sake, also a large provider, is to the left. To the right is a new development, a Daiginjo.]

I made the acquaintance of sake via cup sake. There was a vending machine close to my first lodgings when I came to Japan in the early 1980s. The machine was wonderful: in summer it sold cold sake and in winter hot sake! In Holland, there were no vending machines selling either refrigerated or warmed products (I believe they still do not exist, although today people will cite environmental concerns for what is in principle a problem of both service and technical levels). I realized why the glass of cup sake was so thick: so that it would not break when falling down inside the vending machine on its way to the bottom where you could pick it up.

[The red one in the middle is a cup sake vending machine]

My local machine was also a gathering place for men from the neighborhood: they would come every afternoon at five and use the plastic crates stacked against the wall of the sake shop as stools. They would sit in a half circle around the sake machine and have a good time, without bothering others.

Of course, cup sake was not premium sake (but anyway, premium sake was still almost unheard of in the early eighties), but it tasted good all the same. When I was a student at Kyoto University and lived in a student home, I usually kept the glass cups of my One Cup Ozeki sake and recycled them as glasses for juice or cold tea. They were almost indestructible.

In the last ten years or so, cup sake has undergone an interesting transformation. In the first place, it has shared in he general quality improvement of sake. Even large makers as Ozeki now provide higher-priced cups with Honjozo or Junmai. Other makers are doing even better: Dewazakura from Yamagata and Maboroshi from Hiroshima are selling their ginjo sake in cups.

[Aluminum sake cans. Kikusui (Niigata), an unpasteurized, undiluted Honjozo, stands in the middle. A classical ginjo by Dewazakura from Yamagata is to the left. To the right is a ginjo by Seikyo (Hiroshima).]

A second thing is the use of steel or aluminum cans - the last two companies are examples. These are quite common now, but I prefer glass - it is more pleasant to drink from. Another development is that instead of cups we now also have mini-bottles, with about the same contents (180-200 ml.). They are no use when you are traveling, but they are a great way to taste many types of sake at home.

A third phenomenon, already going back further but still going strong, is the cup sake sold by makers of local sake (jizake). These cups with their colorful labels are usually only for sale in the areas where the breweries are located. So traveling around Japan and drinking as many different kinds of local cup sake has become a new sport (some people probably collect the cups or labels as well).

[Last but not least, also Daishichi makes an excellent cup sake - only available in Fukushima]

I found two Japanese guide books to cup sake, attesting to its popularity: The Cup Sake Best Selection 900 (yes, 900 different cups of sake from more than 500 breweries) and the even more interesting Local Cup Sake and Train Travel. To travel around Japan by train - buy a local bento at a small station - and a cup with the regional sake - that is indeed the best way to taste the regional sakes of Japan!

Wild Boar (Go-o Shrine)

I visited the Go-o Shrine at least three months too early when I came here last September. As you see in the picture below, this is the Shrine of the Wild Boar, so there could be no more fitting destination for your New Year visit in 2007 (but expect some crowds)! 

[The wild boar is the messenger of the Go-o Shrine]

The shrine is a relatively modern affair and stems from the State Cult of Shinto in the Meiji period. Go-o means "Protection of the Monarch" and it is no coincidence that the shrine stands next to the former residence of that monarch, Kyoto Gosho.

[Statue of Wake no Kiyomaro in the Go-o Shrine]

The protector of the monarch then is of course none other than the deity who is revered here: Wake no Kiyomaro, the court official who thwarted the evil designs on the throne of the priest Dokyo in the 8th c. (if the history books are right - history after all is written by the victors).

[Go-o Shrine]

Wake no Kiyomaro (733–799) entered palace service as a military guard and early distinguished himself in the suppression of a rebellion. The incident with Dokyo, the favorite of the Empress Shoken, occurred in 769. Later Kiyomaro became the principal adviser to Emperor Kanmu and he was appointed to numerous high offices. He also was responsible for moving the capital away from Nara, first to Nagaokakyo and then to Heiankyo (Kyoto) in 794.

Because he had displeased the Empress Shoken (although he had saved the throne) Kiyomaro was temporarily exiled to Osumi (now Kagoshima). On the way there, he hurt his leg, but was miraculously saved when 300 wild boars appeared to protect him. His leg also healed soon.

[Wild boar's head in Go-o Shrine - for once the real thing]

In the Meiji period Kiyomaro came to be considered as a paragon of loyalty to the imperial house and that was why in 1886 the present shrine was set up. His story was widely publicized in school books all over the country.

Thanks to the legend, people now come to the shrine to pray for strong legs and the shrine of course sells the inevitable amulets, something along the lines of the picture below. They are quite expensive as amulets go so the shrine must have some belief in the efficacy of its own products. I still have to put mine to the test.

[Stone amulet for strong legs in the Go-o Shrine]

The shrine has a pleasant atmosphere and is again a good example of the many small , interesting temples that dot the cityscape of Kyoto. Besides the "miraculous wild boar" statue donated by believers in the first picture above, the shrine grounds are filled to the brim with boar-lore, including hundreds of pictures, paintings, statues and dolls of boar in a sort of open gallery. There could be no better (roaring) start for the Year of the Wild Boar!
Access: the shrine stands 5 min walk north of Marutamachi on the Karusuma subway line, west of Kyoto Gosho.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Hatsumode (Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto)

It was not difficult to decide that Shimogamo should be the place for our New Year shrine visit (or Hatsumode). After all, more than twenty years ago, I used to live close to the shrine and cycle through its grounds to Kyoto University. It is also the shrine where my wife and I had our o-harai ceremony, the Japanese part of our wedding. So often when we are in Kyoto we find a chance to visit Shimogamo, all the more so now that we have come back to live here.

[The sando to the shrine starts in a quiet residential neighborhood]

The Shimogamo shrine has the added advantage that - although nicely busy - it is never too crowded on New Year's day. You can keep moving and are not stuck in long waiting lines. What I also like about Shimogamo is the Tadasu Forest, a patch of green with small streams and even some ancient trees right in the middle of the city.

The forest covers 12 hectares and is said to be a precious botanical site as its ecological environment has not changed since ancient times. If that is true, I wonder why the shrine authorities have allowed the forest to become thinner and thinner in the last twenty years, at least some green has been sacrificed for larger parking lots and other shrine facilities.

[In front if the main gate of the Shimogamo Shrine, it gets more busy]

The Shimogamo Shrine stands in northern Kyoto at the confluence of the Kamo and Takano rivers. It was founded in the 8th c. by the Kamo clan for its tutelary deity - already before the new capital Heiankyo was established at this location. Ever since the foundation of the capital the shrine has played an important role as guardian of the Imperial palace and venue for various important ceremonies.

The two main halls of the shrine were rebuilt in 1853 and despite their relatively late date they are listed as National Treasures. Scores of other buildings on the site are also of architectural or cultural importance.

[The entrance to the inner shrine of Shimogamo Jinja]

In 1994, the shrine was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, a fact that will not elude you, as the Japanese are more fond of such designations than any other people in the world and therefore advertise it all over the place.

The deities enshrined in Shimogamo are Kamo-taketsunemi-no-mikoto and his daughter Tamayorihime-no-mikoto. This daughter once was sitting at the boards of the Kamo River (I don't want to destroy the romantic atmosphere, but as a matter of fact in olden times rivers were used as toilets), when a fiery red arrow came drifting towards her on the waves. Freud could not have written this any better. Of course Miss Tamayori got pregnant (never let your daughter go alone to the river) and gave birth to Kamo-wake-ikazuchi, a god who was subsequently enshrined in the Kamigamo Shrine, the related facility further upstream.

[A sub-shrine of Shimogamo, the Mitarai shrine, stands in a quiet corner]

After we had bought our sacred arrow for protection in the New year (for a whopping 2,000 yen - these things used to be less than 1,000 not so long ago) and a small eto, a clay doll of the zodiac animal of 2007, the wild boar, we walked back along the sando again.

There were more booths selling food and drink than we remembered from past years, which came in handy as we were quite hungry by now. We skipped the cholesterol-bomb sausages, the thick fries made from sweet potatoes, and many other exotic stuff, but first stopped to eat okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake, then we had yakisoba (fried noodles) and finally takoyaki or octopus balls. Believe me, these taste better than they sound.

[Back along the sando]

And then it was time to leave. We had stocked up on our luck for the New Year. At the back of our heads was a small doubt: would it be enough? Should we visit one more shrine? But we both decided against it. We should not challenge fate by being too greedy. One sacred arrow should do the job for the coming year!

Access: 10 min on foot from Demachi-yanagi St on the Keihan en Eizan lines.
Shimogamo Jinja has many festivals throughout the year. One connected with the New Year is Kemari-hajime on Jan. 4 at 14:00, a reenactment of a football game among Heian-period courtiers.