Kurama and Kibune – November 23


It’s getting late in the fall season, and so I took the opportunity this weekend to go “momiji-hunting”. I went north of Kyoto to the mountains of Kurama and Kibune. Sadly the leaves are already past their peak, but there is still plenty of color to be seen. I took the train from Kyoto to Kurama, getting off one stop early to walk to Kibune first. Seems half the city of Kyoto had the same idea this weekend, packing the train tight as a cattle car all the way there.

IMG_6464 IMG_6470

Once off the train, I took a winding road that followed a small river up into the mountains and led to the village of Kibune. There I visited a Shinto shrine.

Then on to Kurama.

The mountain of Kurama is famous for being the legendary training ground of Yoshitsune (the young noble hero of many a kabuki play). Here he learned martial arts from the King of the Tengu, the magical crow-men that live on this mountain. It is also the real site of Kurama-dera, a large and very popular Buddhist temple. It is also know in more recent history as being the birthplace of Reiki, since this is where Reiki founder Usui had his satori experience.

From the village of Kibune there is a rustic path that winds up Kurama, which courses past a few shrine buildings on its way to the main Buddhist complex at the top.

Today being such a popular site-seeing day, there is a long queue of people waiting to enter the main temple to pray. I pause here to take in the view and enjoy the fall color.

Then down the other side of the mountain and past another Shinto Shrine with a pair of very impressive sacred trees.

The day was gorgeous. I couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Having taken my fill of fall foliage and clean mountain air, I took the train home.

Posted in Leisure Time | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Geisha in Gion – November 8

01 Just a quick blog post on a nice day. Today I and our 4 kohai went to the Gion District of Kyoto to do a little Geisha-spotting. It’s rare to see Geiko or Maiko on the street and even rarer to see them during the day. I’ve been in Kyoto over half a year and have yet to see one close up. But today the geisha of Gion will observe the Kanikakuni Festival which is a memorial to honor Isamu Yoshii (1886-1960), “a famous poet and playwright who loved the Gion district” – so says the Kyoto Events Guide. They go to his “statue” (really a large rock with his name on it) and leave a flower and briefly pray, surrounded by hoards of tourists with cameras, including me.

I’ve never been to this part of the city. It’s a fine fall day, just starting to get chilly during the day and the leaves are continuing to turn red on the trees. We bike down the Horikawa and over the Shijo bridge, then turn into Gion and follow the Shirakawa, until we find Yoshii’s stone. It’s after 11am, when the Geisha are scheduled to start arriving. Turns out there is a seki just across the street for the visiting Geiko and their Maiko, and they are there. We just missed them entering and will have to wait for them to leave again. Which turns out to be an hour.

But it was worth the wait. The geiko with their maiko came out a few at a time to pray at the monument and paused to graciously pose for pictures. It was a pleasant day.


Posted in Festivals and Events | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Keiko Chakai – October 23

03Besides daily lessons in temae, Midorikai students each get an opportunity to host a tea gathering, a chakai, with their fellow students as guests. Of our group, I am the first to go, hosting a gathering at my very favorite time of the year, the fall season in October. In the tea world, this is the most wabi time of year where one can use the most rustic of tea utensils, going so far as to use old and broken things that have been repaired. I didn’t use anything quite that wabi, but the dogu did reflect the season in simplicity and earthy elegance. I also had permission to perform one of my favorite temae, nakaoki, where the furo is placed in the center of the tatami instead of its customary place to the left of center, as if slowly making its way to the ro, which opens in November.


A tea gathering has a lot more going on than just whisking some tea. It’s a whole experience, like a play in several acts. Learning to whisk a bowl of tea has as much to do with a tea gathering as making a casserole for a pot luck has to do with hosting a formal dinner party, in someone else’s house. The temae is a small, but very important, focal point in a whole stream of events the host provides for the guests. These events include a waiting room prepared with traditional items within which the guests will sample the water that will later be used to make the tea. Then from an outdoor waiting area (also provided with traditional accoutrements) the guests will watch the host refresh the water in the tsukubai, the basin they will soon wash their hands from to prepare themselves for the next stage of the journey. Then they enter the honseki, the tearoom proper, to watch the host lay the charcoal for the fire that will heat the water for their tea. And so on until the moment the tea is served, the guests pause to appreciate what is occurring, and all too soon must say goodbye.

Behind the scenes in the Mizuya

Behind the scenes in the Mizuya

My chakai was held in the Kasho chashitsu of Chado Kaikan, the teaching tearooms of the Iemoto himself. This room is not used often for Midorikai’s keiko chakai, so I’m led to believe, maybe because it is the least formal/fancy of the rooms available. None of our sempai used it for their keiko chakai. I thought it was perfect. The garden, too, leading to it is less used and so has become a little wilder and less groomed than the rest of the tea gardens. I picked a tanzaku painting of the Tomaya, the Reed-thatched Hut, for the machiai. There was a plain wooden tabakobon in the Koshikake, complete with a well-used mis-matched pair of kiseru, mishima hiire, fresh green bamboo haifuki, and tabako-tatoushi filled with a generous pinch of kizami, the traditional hair-like tobacco used in old Japan. The tabako-bon symbolizes hospitality and is a signal to the guests that they can relax. The hiire holds a live coal embedded in a mound of ash that has been carefully sculpted by the host. It is the first thing the guests see that has been made by the host, the guests not having seen the host himself yet at this point.

This symbol of hospitality was very important to me, and so I made sure to prepare the hiire myself, not giving it to my hanto to do, though I could have.

I managed to walk to the tsukubai without stumbling with a very full teoke bucket of water in roji-zori, the simple straw sandals one wears to walk in the garden. The guests are also provided with these to walk to the main tearoom, having left their own footwear behind earlier.

The shoza, first half of the honseki, consisted of aisatsu, shozumi, and serving the first sweet, the omogashi. The guests get their first look at the chashitsu and see the scroll. The scroll for this gathering was “Mu Ichi Butsu”, a Zen phrase that means “No one thing”. It was brushed by a monk from Daianji, a temple in Sakai that Rikyu favored. The theme of the gathering was the transition of the season from October’s inertial end, the end of the furo season and the point of the year where all falls into decay, to the moment of dynamic balance, the place where there is no one thing, that evolves into new life, the opening of the Ro, the “fresh grasses pushing up under the snowy hills.”

The guests briefly leave the tearoom and return to the garden, to be summoned back by the ringing of the dora when all is ready for the next half of the gathering. A dora is basically a gong with a deep lingering tone if you hit it right. The dora I used was very large and had a very rich sound.




Back in the tearoom, the scroll has been replaced by a display of flowers. I almost didn’t have flowers. After scouring florist shops that morning and finding nothing remaining appropriate for chabana (it is that time of year, you know, the time when everything falls into decay), I ended up foraging along the Kamo river for plant material, and managed a humble, and very seasonal, arrangement













And then comes the temae. Which was actually three temae rolled into one. It began with Kasane-jawan, which morphed into Tsuzuki-usucha with an overlay of Nakaoki using a Gogyodana. It went mostly quite well. My guests enjoyed the tea and the sweets, the flow of the temae, the toriawase of the dogu and the incredibly gorgeous fall weather.

When the guests have made their final goodbyes and left the tearoom, I go through the empty room and “peek” out to see them off. Of course, they are all waiting for me in a row and silently bow to me before turning to make their way back up the garden path. I watch them until they are out of sight.

A good day.

Posted in Chado | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Hassaku Goaisatsu – August 1

Today we donned our formal kimono for the first time in 2 weeks. It’s another hot as balls day—thank God I can dress in my dorm room’s air-conditioning. I’m sweating as soon as we’re outside.

The Hassaku Goaisatsu—the 8th month formal greeting—dates back to the time of the Shogun when all vassals were obligated to travel to Kyoto to re-affirm their loyalty in person on the first day of the 8th month. Now this custom is only observed by the Tea Families in Kyoto and by the Geisha houses. There are people who come the first of the month every month to greet the Sen family, usually exchanging formal greetings with a representative briefly before getting on with their day. But this one, and the one at New Year’s, is the big one, where all who want to be seen by Urasenke must make an appearance. There must be 200+ people all being shuffled around to various waiting points.

We meet Murata-sensei at the Center lobby, who leads us on to Chado Kaikan to sit in a machiai and wait. The Machiai has only a paltry fan for comfort—I am literally dripping sweat down my arms which beads onto the lap of my kimono. Then we are off to the Konnichian complex across the street, walking in the official borrowed men’s zori both men and women wear for such occasions. We wait again in a hallway in a queue that extends up the stairs. We are now in the Heisei complex, and it is air-conditioned–thank goodness! I was afraid I would be sweating pools in front of the Oiemoto.

So, after all this waiting, we are suddenly rushed into another room and crammed in, kneeling in tight rows. At the head of this room sits the Oiemoto and all the Soke (Sen family members). The Oiemoto spoke to us a bit, but not at the length he did at the Closing Ceremony two weeks previously. My legs were not even close to hurting. And with the aircon, I had no fear of dripping. Of course, knowing no Japanese, his friendly words were lost on me.

As quickly as we were shuffled in, we were shuffled out again. Back across the street and upstairs at Chado Kaikan—ryurei tables and chairs—yes! no seiza. Here we had a quick sweet and a bowl of tea. And out again, get our things and our own zori back and we’re done.

On the way home, I stop off at Kyogado, one of the many tea dogu stores in Kyoto, to browse for Kaiseki dogu and find a hanki and hassun tray. Blair, Henriikka, and Sara are already there browsing. Then, back to the dorm to peel off my many layers of kimono.

Posted in Festivals and Events | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mini-Shikoku Henro – July 31

15Practice hirademae with Henriikka in the keikoba this morning.

Afterwards, I plan to take the mini-Shikoku Henro behind Ninnaji Temple. I had hoped for an earlier start, but end up leaving between 1:30pm and 2, arriving there by bike by 2:30pm.

The wooded hills behind Ninnaji Temple have been laid out to mimic the entire route of the Shikoku Henro, with a mini temple building for each of the 88 temples of that pilgrimage. The trailhead is almost due west of the dorm. I actually find the end of the trail first, park my bike and then search for temple No. 1. I follow the trail all afternoon, pausing briefly at each temple to pray and leave a small coin.


It’s a sunny clear day. The hike is very scenic, beginning in a cedar grove, then climbing into the mountains, with some wonderful views of the city along the top ridge. It did very much remind me of various points along my trek around Shikoku. The rough rocky and dirt mountain paths winding up and out of sight reminded me the most of actual trails I took on Shikoku. Half-way through there was the persistent rumbling of thunder, but fortunately no rain, so far.

I finish the hike by 5:45pm and bike home, very tired, but not footsore. My feet are taped up and in hiking boots. However, I’m very thirsty, having long since finished my water on the hike. The ubiquitous vending machines of Japan save my ass yet again. On my bike I stop at the first vending machine I pass on the road and buy 2 beverages out of it and drink half of each on the spot.

Back at the dorm, I have tea again with Henriikka, who is now practicing tana usucha in the keikoba. Sara joins us later. We hang out and talk over usucha.

Tonight, most people in the dorm are taking the all-night pilgrimage to Atago Jinga on top of the highest mountain around Kyoto – this one visit counts for 1000 pilgrimages at any other time. I opt instead to chill out at the dorm, spend some leisurely time on the roof looking at the stars, and then get a good night’s sleep. See another shooting star with a long trail, the second one I’ve seen since coming to Japan.

Ninnaji Skyline Small

Posted in Leisure Time | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gion Matsuri, Part 2 – July 24

01There were actually 2 Gion Matsuri parades. The first was to parade everyone out. The second one, a week later, was to bring’em all back, bringing a kind of closure to the whole month-long festival. This second parade was discontinued about 50 years ago but re-instated again just this year.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this smaller parade more than the previous big one because one of our own, Blair, was conscripted to be in it. Little did he know what he was getting himself into…

The other two gaijin are Mike (in the back) and Mika (in the front, third photo), both former Midorikai students who now work in Kyoto.

I was very happy to see them.

Posted in Festivals and Events | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gion Matsuri – July 17

IMG_2324Get up and out with Sara a little after 8am to walk to the subway. I am in yukata and obi and wooden geta —and bare feet. I feel so rebelious and decadent wiithout my layers of kimono padding under my clothing and having no tabi on, but it’s normal to dress lightly for yukata and have bare feet while wearing geta. We get off the subway and land at the intersection where the parade will start. We witness the Chigo (the Celestial Child) being carried up into his float, that will lead the parade. He is sitting on the shoulder of a man who is both holding him and climbing a steep ladder. The man turns the Child (really a boy of 10 or 12, but he looks barely 5) toward the crowd half-way up to be shown off briefly before being deposited into the upper tier of his float. Sara and I have been blessed.

IMG_2364The Gion Matsuri is one of the three main festivals of Kyoto, and the biggest. It’s actually a month-long observance, but it culminates with a grand parade of wooden “floats”–actually more like 2-story buildings on huge wooden wheels. Each float is pulled by two lines of men tugging ropes. On the second story is a band of drums, flutes and cymbals. The strings dangling down the sides of the floats are attached to each musician, I would guess their wrists, and the strings bob up and down as they play. There are two men at the head of each float who direct the movement with fans.

The carts have no steering apparatus. To make the narrow turns down even narrower streets, there is an elaborate process of placing bamboo slats under the wheels and the crews tugging to the side to get the hulking structures to turn in place.

And you see those two guys sitting on the roof? Their job is to push off passing buildings with their feet to keep the float from getting too close in those narrow confines.

IMG_2429 IMG_2434 IMG_2435

Instead of following the parade route and finding a place to stand further up, Sara and I goIMG_2446 the opposite direction and watch the floats cue up behind the start. We get to see a lot of floats without huge crowds of people and get to see them turn close up. It takes four separate tugs to turn a float – so I had four tries to catch the action of the guys with the fans. After an hour or so, Sara has had enough of the heat. So have I. We walk down a traditional-fronted street and eventually take the subway back to the dorm.


Posted in Festivals and Events | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Inari Shrine – July 26

Tunnel of Torii at Inari

Tunnel of Torii at Inari

Went to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine today. It’s going to be another hot one in the city, with the heat index making it 42 C (that’s 108 F for you and me). But fortunately, I’m not in the city, but on a mountain covered with trees. The Inari Shrine houses the Kami of Rice growing, and by extention abundance and wealth, but that’s putting it very, very simply for sake of reference. His/Her messengers are white foxes, so there are statues of foxes everywhere, usually a pair flanking each mini shrine, Yes, there isn’t just one shrine/altar site, but a good 15-20 main shrines and nearly countless smaller shrines all over the mountain. The Main Shrine is at the base of the mountain, only a broad avenue away from the train station across the street. But the path to the rest of Inari’s shrines continues around to the left and up, and up, many levels further into the mountain.

02 - Inari Shrine Entrance

Outer Gate

The Path leading up...

The Path leading up…

Now about the mountain paths. These aren’t hiking trails, but stone-paved stairways lined with hundreds, thousands of bright red torii gates. In places the torii are so close together, it’s more like walking through a tunnel. They thin out the higher you climb. Each torii has been put there as an offering, mainly from businesses currying the favor of Inari. They are very expensive to sponsor, but the average worshiper can offer a smaller version for much less. There were many of these in evidence as well, stacked up in various places.

I wanted to go to the top, and so prepared for the 4-hour hike the website promised. Turns out it only took me 1 hour 20 min to get to the top, and that was taking my time, stopping frequently to take pictures. About pictures. I went on a Saturday. If you are looking for a place of solitude, devoid of tourists, this isn’t it. A Trip Advisor poll determined this place was THE most popular site in Japan for foreign tourists. From what I saw, I agree. I saw more foriegners today here than the rest of my time in Japan put together. I would hazard over 50 percent of the people I saw were not Japanese. For Japan, that’s a lot! So I resigned myself to having photos with lots of tourists in them. And occassionally I waited for people to pass through to get the shot I wanted.

Made it easily to the top, with the help of my hand-drawn map I took off the Web. Not that it’s all that complex a route, but there are spurs that will actually take you to another mountain and another temple complex altogether. There are no maps of the entire route available for sale at the Shrine, so I found out once I got there, but there are very colorful maps at each leg of the journey going up placed at important junctures.

11 - First Map

Once up at the top, I made my prayers to Inari-of-the-summit, had a good look ’round, then made my leisurely way back down. I was hoping for a grand view of the city below, but the trees here are too tall. The sky, however, was a brilliant blue, very clear. All was brightly lit. The path at the top of the mountain makes a circle, so after my visit I followed the loop around until it met again with the main trail going down.

There are many shops and tea houses dotting the trail along the entire route, 19 main ones in fact. I stopped at one of these half-way down to get some lunch. The open room was floor-seating, with a nice tokonoma, which I sat near, and walls open on the sides to the greenery of the mountain. I had some cold soba noodles, usucha and a monju sweet. Then back to the trail.

As I continued to make my way down, I looked at all the inscriptions on the countless torii I passed, all the names of various organizations and businesses in kanji, unreadable to me. Going up the path, the inscriptions are all hidden on the backs of the gates, the torii are blank red, but going down, the inscriptions are all visible. I wondered if a company with a non-Japanese name would have to convert the name to katakana to have a torii here? Then I saw this:


I guess not.

On the way out, I picked up an omamori, a bag charm the Shinto shrines sell so that you can take the favor of the Kami home with you. Many are geared toward specific effects, like protection while driving, or happy marriage, etc. I picked one that drew me, green with Inari’s symbols in red. I figured I would just pick one that was appealing and then find out what it was for. Turns out this is a general good luck talisman. Thank goodness. The day is still sunny and hot, and it’s only early afternoon. A good day.


Kitsune with a Sheaf of Rice

Posted in Leisure Time | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The 800th Memorial of Yosai (aka Eisai)

06 - YosaiYesterday, Thursday the 5th, we were invited by Daisosho to attend the 800th Memorial of Yosai, the Zen Buddhist monk credited with bringing tea, as we know it, from China to Japan back in the late 12th Century. Yosai is memorialized at Kenninji, the temple he founded and the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. This year’s memorial had been going on now for 3 days, yesterday was the fourth, and last, day of events. Daisosho will make the Tea Offering (called a Kenchashiki) to Yosai by doing a very formal temae within the temple and presenting the tea to the head priest, who will in turn offer it to the image of Yosai, which is up a steep flight of stairs. 01 - Kenninji 1

Being invited to witness this is a great honor. However, it’s anything but an intimate affair. There had to have been over 100 people attending. And as foreign tea students, we didn’t rate high enough to actually sit in the temple itself. We were seated just outside under temporary garden tents—which actually proved to be an advantage in a number of ways. First and foremost, the whole ritual was being caught on video and streamed directly to several large monitors set up for all of us sitting outside. I saw Daisosho’s whole temae close up and very clearly. Secondly, being outside allowed us to enjoy the breeze, and enjoy very comfortable chairs.

03 - IMG_1277

Daisosho’s temae was breathtaking. Smooth gentle confidence cradling great strength, humility and joy. I was riveted to the monitor and carried away – and it was done.

Once the tea was presented, the gyotei accompanying Daisosho quickly disassembled his temae space and carted everything out to allow the monks to continue with the memorial. The rest of the ritual involved the monks and priests of several Zen Buddhist temples chanting and walking in a long line, circumambulating the interior of the temple in a maze-like pattern to the accompanyment of drums, bells and cymbals. This was not quite so riveting. I must admit I had trouble staying awake through it all. Good thing I was way in the back.

02 - IMG_1282

Dharma Hall of Kenninji

04 - Inside 1

Inside the Dharma Hall, where the Memorial took place.

05 - Dragons

The Ceiling of the Dharma Hall

06 - Yosai

Statue of Yosai

Afterward, our group sat for the first of two seki, which are mini tea gatherings–meaning that anywhere from 10 to 40 people will be seated in a tatami room with a tokonoma, usucha temae will be presented and each guest will be given a sweet and a bowl of usucha to drink. These are pictures from the machiai, the waiting room where many times there will be a list of the dogu that will be used, for the guests to read ahead of time. Any dogu containers that have significant inscriptions may be in the tokonoma of this room as well, as was the case here.

07 - dogu list

List of Dogu (Tea Utensils)

08 - Toko box lids

The box lids of select dogu

After this seki, we went to the lunch that was provided with our tickets. It was a wonderful shojin ryori tenshin, the traditional vegetarian cuisine of the Buddhist monks.

09 - to lunch 10 - lunch 1 11 - lunch 2

Then on to the Honseki – the main tea, which was just another usucha temae, but in a different room of a different building using different dogu. The tea was still yummy. The machiai for this seki was the veranda looking out onto a lovely garden.

12 - Kenninji Garden

Afterward, we left the temple grounds and walked down the street to treat ourselves to matcha ice cream, which turned out to be a small media event on the way. The street was packed with tourists – turns out Kenninji Temple is in the Gion district of Kyoto, famous for its historically preserved street facades and for geisha. Seeing a group of 11 people walking down the street in formal kimono got cameras snapping in our direction.

I still had evening toban, bathroom duty again, so I got home, peeled off the kimono, donned the samue and walked to the Gakuen building. Bathrooms done and back at the dorm, I spent the rest of the night sewing my summer michiyuki (kimono jacket), letting out the sides and lengthening the bottom hem.

13 - Michiyuki

Summer Michiyuki


Posted in Festivals and Events | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


00 - MukozukeAt this point I’m going to go a bit out of order. It seems like I’ll never get caught up, and so I’m going to jump around chronologically to highlight interesting things here and there. Hopefully I’ll eventually cover everything else in between.


So, this past Monday, we went to Kaiseki class. This is only offered twice a year, and so I eagerly absorbed as much as I could, knowing I’ll not be back here until the fall sometime. It was wonderful. The classroom is a full kitchen up front with long tables and chairs for an audience to sit and watch filling the back half of the room. We witnessed the production of an entire kaiseki meal for chaji and then got to eat it. Kaiseki is one of the traditional cuisines of Japan. Some have called it Japanese “haute cuisine” – small amounts of fresh ingredients, simply prepared and artfully presented in multiple courses.

Here is the menu we were presented.

Kaiseki Menu

00 - a Shiru

Shiru before the miso broth is added.

Here are the courses.

01 - Mukozuke et al

First Course: Rice, Shiru, Mukozuke

01a - Niimono 0

Peeling Deep-fried Eggplants for the Niimono

02 - Niimono 1

Niimono before the Dashi broth is added

03 - Niimono 2

Niimono, ready to serve

04 - Yakimono 1

Grilling the Yakimono

05 - Yakimono 2

Yakimono Course

06 - Niawase

Niawase Course

07 - Aemono

Aemono Course

08 - Hassun 1

Hassun Course

09 - Hassun 2

Hassun Closeup

10 - Konomono

Konomono Course

Instruction by our sensei.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment