colour pageant

on wednesday, i went to see “jidai matsuri 時代祭” in kyoto with my mother for the first time. i could’ve seen it once or twice before, but i was too little to remember. it’s basically a shinto festival that heian jingo (shrine) 平安神宮 inaugurated in 1895 as its dedication to the foundation of kyoto, but broadly an autumn festival for kyotoites organised by the local government.

here is a brief history of our old capital of japan: kyoto as capital city was founded on october 22nd , 794 and the era reigned by emperor kammu and komei is called “heian 平安”. kyoto had been the imperial capital for 11 centuries until the imperial family moved to tokyo. the jidai matsuri reflects kyoto’s colourful history. the main attraction is a long procession, representing the eras dating back to the heian period from the meiji period. so, the festival also offers a bit of a history lesson to history-illiterate spectators like me. i cannot remember the names of key figures at all, though. there were too many emperors and shoguns (generals) who reigned over kyoto for 11,000 years.

i first imagined the festival would be like new york’s st patrick’s day. frankly, it was much smaller, much quieter and less fun than that. but yet, it was much more fascinating to see. some 2,000 people in various period costumes took part in the pageant. most of the costumes were rich in colour as well as pattern. if you had an eye for detail as a costume or textile designer, this festival would mesmerise you. it must be the best place for you to study. actually, i could not take my eyes off each foot wear they put on, some of which are so elaborate. even the saddles for horses come in all shades and hues and are made in an extravagant way.

the japanese court culture flourished in the heian period. from an aesthetic point of view, it was the period being ablaze with colour; the most vibrant colour and the most florid style were favoured and evolved by the aristocracy and upper samurai class. just like rococo, a decorative and showy maximalist manner was welcomed. that unique aesthetic value for the court life, including things like writing poetry, was called “miyabi ". i simply understand the coloration by its characteristic colour scheme. the flamboyant, still tasteful, colours were exquisitely applied to their fashion (it is kimono, of course) design when their textile technique reached already the highest even in the 8th century.

the people in richly coloured historical costume all walked in the procession along sanjo-dori and moved towards heian jingu. unfortunately, the weather wasn’t that cheerful for kyotoites and tourists to celebrate the special day. it became a drizzly afternoon by the time when the procession was to leave the starting point. i worried over their wet silk kimonos. spectators on the pavement had to hold their umbrellas as the procession passed by. as for me, my mother, our relatives and their friends who gathered for the festival, luckily my mother’s family house fronts on to the street so that we could watch the pageant from the window wide open, sitting on comfy chairs just like a box seat at the opera.

my first visit to the jidai matsuri was a personal discovery of our ancestors’ brilliant traditional sense to use colours. in particular, it rejoiced me with the triumph of “miyabi colour”.


accidental rothkos

these days, i'd easily waste time sitting in front of my laptop. i often find myself being carried away by the us presidential election news, even though it’s nothing to do with me. i’m just a curious onlooker. i just can’t miss the great show, which is staged only every 4 years and, to me, is far more absorbing and extreme than any reality tv show or soap opera. it’s too funny to be true. we japanese can never imagine things like that, let alone our election campaign running that way, you know. that extremist side of america (like “the jerry springer show”?) sometimes blows me away, while american people’s high-carolific enthusiasm is something I envy as a person who lives in a low-key society.

the scene, where american presidential candidates, obama and mccain sharing light-hearted jokes, even if they were all scripted by clever speech writers, at the al smith dinner, made me more envious. our political world has no room for wit or wits at all. i’m now sort of addicted to oliver burkeman’s campaign diary. his live blog (i didn’t read it live, though), reporting on the final debate between the two, almost got me off my chair when he was pausing to suppose joe the plumber might be related to joe le taxi. at any rate, i seem to be way too much preoccupied with newspaper articles on the net. maybe, i’m just trying to erase disheartening news about the global recession with some cheering, or at least, interesting news, no?

so, here’s good news to know: in london lots of exiting art shows are going on. rothko at tate modern, for instance. oh, i wish i was in london. i loved the former rothko room housed in the tate gallery (now tate britain). its installation was done by late david silvester, who had a genius of installing paintings and preferred daylight to artificial light for art exhibitions, which i totally agree with him. regarding the rothko room, however, using daylight was mark rothko’s own idea. he suggested how to hang his works when he gave them free to tate gallery. looking at the seagram murals there in dim lighting could've possibly been a chance for anyone to get what the sublime should mean, even in the austere, sombre, rather parsimonious mood.

david sylvester once wrote the difference between viewing a painting in daylight and artificial light. he described: the difference is like making love with or without a condom. i totally understand that. i did admire the legendary curator for his intuitive art critiques, too. as you think, if we knew a bit of background information provided by critics or curators before our gallery visits, artworks there would become something more than a view, more like an experience. rothko’s anecdote about his seagram murals (he didn’t want them to be hung in that swanky manhattan restaurant) is a perfect example. you might be amused by the fact that his death (he killed himself) coincided with the delivery of those paintings to the tate by chance.

but, no sublime moment would be brought by words to you. after all, it’s a visual art. and physical experience is more important than preparation. that’s why i loved the way david sylvester hung all those paintings there. they were relocated to tate modern when it opened, and the room could never be the same, of course. although rothko is not among my most favourites, his work, at one point, could have changed my view on colours. i happened to find that beautiful colours didn’t have to be bright and striking. i can’t tell since exactly when, but i’ve been excessively attracted to subtle natural colours like sun-faded walls and rust on the surface of iron or steel quite a long time. i always find it divine.

so, whenever i’ve got a camera with me, wherever i come across (in london, madrid, palermo, granada, amsterdam … and even in richard serra’s sculptures) the shabby random beauty, i’d take photographs. in my mind, a rusty iron door and the image of rothko’s painting would be overlapping. i call them “accidental rothko”. because its beauty by born of coincidence resembles abstract expressionists’ work. as i’d trained myself to be a curator (during my london yba era) and been deeply involved with conceptual art, i still have a tendency to put artworks in some context. but when it comes to my accidental rothko, i can leave behind everything to appreciate its pure beauty. technically speaking, it’s not art, though.

i also found a good newspaper article about art on the net. it relates to a glitzy art fair, frieze (yes, i used to visit), being held now in london. the interviews with contemporary artists in the article lead readers to a discourse of the love-and-hate relationship between art and money. in the interview, gavin turk, who has participated in another art event, free art fair, running counter to frieze, questions “if a piece has no price, is it good value? if the work is free, is it art?” meanwhile, rothko, who eventually refused the lucrative commission to paint (he did, though) for the seagram, has been the 4th rank of last year’s 5 most expensive dead artists. i sometimes feel like leaving behind also this kind of money issue to see purely art.

anyway, i’m no longer in london. such art events seem to be a world away from me now. i miss my goldsmiths days of pondering “what is art?” day after day. but again, i could go and find my rothko anywhere. besides, i’m sorry to tell my friends who live in a cold climate, it’s sunny, it's still summer here. there are lots of art events going on in london but not nearly enough sunshine there, is it? when i had a late afternoon long walk in the park yesterday, it was still green, green, everywhere. naturally, some tree leaves, like cherry, are starting to fall or turn brown, yellow and burgundy, but only a little bit. as autumn approaches, rothko-colour-hunting must be a thing for me. i shouldn’t be sitting here too long.


the october country

amid the gloomier news about the global financial crisis and the food scares of chinese tainted milk and chinese contaminated rice (this case, our fault), the best season has arrived this year, too. with autumn on the way, i am having beautiful days. i’ve noticed that more chirping crickets are gathering in the evening and more maple leaves (not yet japanese maples) in the park are turning vermillion, while i am still wearing a short-sleeve t-shirt and a pair of cropped pants. temperature-wise, it is still summer here. october is generously embracing summer and autumn, possibly due to the global warming, so that we can enjoy both seasons.

in japan, autumn is considered the best appetite season; we rejoice in our harvest time; my mother is growing saffron for me, actually. i’m thrilled to find fresh vegetables and fruits in season aplenty at supermarkets (local greengrocers have almost died out, sadly). a matter of fact, i am a natural born vegetarian (this means a trouble child for a mother) so i could eat neither meat nor fish. but, i was forced to swallow them at school. at the time, children were not allowed to leave any bits of school meal because of the strict japanese discipline of wasting no food. it was kind of a torture for me. later on, my palate for food slowly grew to relish animals as i grew up. i’m even fond of innocent, adorable and gambolling lambs … to eat!

still, i much prefer vegetable to meat or fish. one of wonderful things about being abroad is feasting my eyes on the colourful local produce. of course, they are not only joyful to behold but to taste as well. especially artichokes, beets and parsnips are my personally glorified vegetables. i love their flavour, though a little bit peculiar, and textures whenever and wherever available, whereas they are hardly seen in japan. i miss them a lot. now it could be a sin for anyone to want imported vegetables, when we must consider carbon-food-print. but, i must admit, i was a happy sinner when i had a bunch of unseasonal white asparagus, imported from the philippines, with home-made hollandaise sauce several weeks ago.

i lately realised that october was the month for the nobel prize. the news of three (plus one who is now an american citizen) japanese scientists winning the prizes no doubt brightened up the whole country. every year, frankly, i’d pay little attention to the announcements except for the peace and the literature. this year, the latter prize went to the french writer, jean-marie gustave le clézio. i am ashamed to say, i’d only vaguely heard of his name until last friday. so, out of my curiosity i read a couple of online newspapers’ articles on him. he, being described as a cross-cultural citizen, sounds very interesting. above all, he seems to be a very modest person who has chosen to stay away from the spotlight (his personality is the exact opposite of someone like that “folksyalaskan, ms sarah palin, don’t you think?).

in japan, autumn is also considered the best reading season. if so, i should add something from le clézio’s work to my must-read list, in which there are too many books to read for life, though. in the meantime, october reminds me of a book i read when i was a teen. the october country, the book title itself, invited me to a fantasy world even before reading it. i was captivated by every single short story of the book and became a big fan of the author, ray bradbury. since then, october has become my most favourite and special month. it’s always associated with my sensuous memories of autumn: the aroma of my first apple pie i baked; the sound of the wind blowing outside the house i just moved in together with my fiancé (i was 19); the feel of my new blanket i snuggled down into, and such.

my inner teenager wanders around the october country that still tells and shows anew the ordinary things. i, maybe, could rejuvenate all my sensibility, then.


things about kyoto

it's been drizzling since this morning. but the last days of summer sunshine came back here for a while. no, it wasn’t an indian summer. it was still the summer, i believe. because the summer didn’t really go away.
i’m thinking of my posts. i know that they focus too much upon the past. i wish i could write about some ongoing or recent events to share like many bloggers do. my daily life, meanwhile, is as calm as the water of loch ness. other than regular visits to my mother’s and my nearby park, i hardly go anywhere. all the most, i’d go out for shopping occasionally. nothing (but the illness, last year’s) really happens, which doesn’t mean dull, though. as i’d been physically far apart from my mother for too long, i now willingly live near her, even though my children and friends live in tokyo. more importantly, i am happy about my new relationship with my old mother that has been the closest ever since i left the nest when i was eighteen.
until i settled down here, my life, as a global citizen, had been filled with surprises, changes and kicks. i couldn’t have imagined i’d live such a quiet life like this. therefore, i am prone to recall my alive-and-kicking days that look as colourful as the photos i took back then. i’ve been left with so many enduring memories of the time i was abroad, absorbing exotic cultures. but this time, my post is unusually not so passé. it is about my latest day-out with shion, my daughter, who was staying here last week, when we visited hieizan (mt. hiei). we’d been saying we should do that in summer over the past three years. at last we made it this summer (hooray!) just before its end.
first, shion and i visited a temple in kyoto to clean up my father’s grave, then we headed north. hieizan, a mountain of 848 metres above sea level, straddles kyoto and otsu, which belongs to shiga prefecture. as we moved, we got excited about climbing up hieizan for the first time. well, we were not going to go climbing, so we reached there by cable car and ropeway. no matter how you go, your vertiginous experience of the spectacular view overlooking biwako (lake biwa) should be guaranteed. without second thoughts, we took the easy access. still, that was fun. the air was refreshingly crisp up there. almost no change in colour of leaves was seen so that we could savour the deep summer green. in the mean time, there was a clear sign of shifting season: i could hear no cicada chanting.
however, we heard real monks’ chants. enryakuji of hieizan embodies the long history of japanese buddhism. some 200 related temples, halls and pagodas had been built since the late 8th century, spreading across the mountain. among existing halls, kompon-chudo is the oldest that dates back to the mid 17th century. japanese buddhism has many sects, you know that, maybe? and tendai is the one enryakuji established in an isolated but comfortably secluded location of hieizan. like zen, tendai monks do lots of zazen: meditation sitting cross-legged to seek spiritual enlightenment. anyone can join them and try a vegetarian course meal.
my mother told me that she’d stay there for (instant) ascetic practices as a summer camp when she was a schoolgirl. that sounds great but could’ve possibly been harsh for a city girl like her, too? as for shion and myself, both townies, we did fancy no stoic practice. hiking in the area with ups and downs trained and starved us enough. when we went down to the city and got back to sanjo, it was nearly half past 6 pm. shion offered her pocket money to buy me dinner, which was, actually, a treat of mr piano-man (my ex-husband and her father living with her) for us. near the station, we found a cool and cosy italian eatery that seemed worth the hunger. in fact, that was scrumptious and we enjoyed the garlicky dishes. thank you, mr piano-man!

by the way, it is an infamous true story that japanese women have an extra stomach for the last course. so, even we were full, we went on to a piece of pudding in different sorts but both flavoured with powdery green tea, which is kyoto’s main produce. the sweet specialities also showed off kyoto’s culinary-trend-consciousness, i gather. as we left the eatery, we noticed a small flower shop next door to it. although i am passionate about flowers (i even named my daughter after shion 紫苑, a purple aster, that was blooming when she was born in september), i'm quite fussy. but i realised that the flowers displayed at the shop were absolutely my kind.

we went inside and looked around. indeed, each flower was so very tempting. we came up with a basket arrangement to make our belated birthday present to my mother. a young man who was running ouren, the shop, conjured up a dreamy one in a moment or two. i carried it with extra care on the way home, thinking that i really wanted to take all those flowers home. ouren was a lovely find in kyoto. like flowers, kyoto is something that can give colours to my monotonous life now. i love it there every time in every way.