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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.


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