A hidden gem in Kyoto Station

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Tara Kennedy (Ireland)

Tara Kennedy

My first trip to Kyoto was at the start of summer in 2012. The flight from Ireland to Japan was very long; I was travelling for almost 24 hours. I was so excited about coming to Kyoto that I didn’t sleep a wink. I arrived in Kyoto Station a very weary tourist and like almost every other tourist who arrives at night time, I scurried through the exit to find the taxi rank. I didn't take much heed of Kyoto Station only to notice that it was a vast place and you could easily get lost there. When I returned a week later to catch a bullet train to Tokyo, the station was alive and I was mesmerised by the waves of people heading in all directions. However, I was so excited about taking the bullet train that day that I was more concerned about proudly getting my picture taken beside the leading carriage of the bullet train! From that day forward, I knew Kyoto Station was a vast place and not only did many train lines connect to the station but it also housed a hotel, three shopping centres, a theatre and a museum.

Staircase in Kyoto Station

Later that year, I returned to Kyoto to live and work. One day, after a long hike in Arashiyama with friends, I took a bus destined for Kyoto Station. As I was still new to Kyoto and wasn’t sure of my way home, it was the safest bet since there is a tourist information desk there. I decided not to waste a perfect opportunity to explore this place while I had the chance.

At the entrance to the station I saw a sign for the "Sky Garden". I never noticed it before and it intrigued me. After taking a few escalators I was pleasantly surprised to see the gigantic stairways lit up with the words “Welcome to Kyoto”. I quickly abandoned the escalator and decided to take photos of this fantastic sight. I then proceeded to climb the 171 steps to the top of the station. On my journey to the top, I pondered how I had missed this before. When I reached the top I was so surprised to find a wonderful little oasis. This hidden gem on the 12th floor is in complete contrast to the rest of the station; it’s a relaxing and calm place with benches and trees. At almost 60 meters above the city, you can take in the spectacular views across the city. To the south of the station you can see Toji’s five storied pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Japan, and you can see Kyoto Tower to the north of the station. If you walk down the stairs to the 11th floor where there are restaurants, you can find and follow signs for the “Sky Walk” and through these doors you are able to walk the length of the station. From here, you can marvel at the architecture and wonderful views inside and out from the station, from many different angles. This is truly spectacular, yet sadly, it's something many tourists miss.

Sky Garden

I have returned to Kyoto Station many times over the last year and I often sit in this hidden rooftop garden overlooking the city. Each season, the lights on the large staircase change into perfectly themed works of art designed by various artists. In winter, you can admire all the Christmas decorations and of course, a gigantic colourfully decorated Christmas tree. In summer, when the heat is unbearable you can enjoy the light breeze and watch the world go by. For all those romantics, you can watch the sun go down over the mountains in the distance and watch all the lights come on around the city. From dusk onwards this place takes on a new romantic persona and it’s where young couples gather.

Kyoto Station

Kyoto Station is the first place you see when arriving in Kyoto and it’s the last place you will most likely see when you leave but one thing is for sure - there are a few more surprises to stumble upon in Kyoto Station!

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Get Closer to Traditional Noh! (Part 1 of 2)

Mr. Yoshida


What is a Noh play?

Even among Japanese, not many can answer that question.

Noh was established by Kan’ami (1333 - 1384), the originator of his own style, with his son, Zeami (1363? - 1443?) in the Muromachi period. It is a unique Japanese stage art, which is said to be the world’s oldest drama among those which have been passed on to today. The main stage is about 6 meters square, a small footbridge extends back and to the left from it. While drawn to this simple, minimal stage setting, the performer’s subdued movements, the energetic sound of singing along with the music playing in unique rhythm, the solemn world of Noh opens up in front of your eyes before you notice it. To learn more about its fascination, we interviewed Mr. Yoshida Atsushi, a Noh performer of the Kanze style.


Q. Simply put, what is Noh?

A. A mask drama using a Nohmen (*1) mask and four kinds of instruments: Taiko (drum), Ohtsuzumi (large drum), Kotsuzumi (small drum), and Fue (flute). Noh is sometimes likened to an opera, since the Noh performers sing and dance.

(*1) Not all the Noh characters wear a Nohmen mask, but one is always worn by the Shite (main character) when he acts as superhuman beings such as gods, spirits, etc. The mask is also used to represent a female character, so it can be said the mask is a tool which puts the performer into a different dimension of character.

Q. Would you please tell newcomers how to enjoy a Noh play?


A. As about 650 years have passed since Noh was established, Japanese speech has changed, which now makes the spoken lines of a play difficult to understand even for Japanese. The same would go for foreigners as well, so I would recommend trying to feel the tense atmosphere on stage and the spirit of the performers, rather than simply watching it as a drama. If you want to prepare in advance, knowing the plot will help you understand the content of the drama. It would be even better if you have an Utaibon (playscript).

Q. The plays of Noh vary widely, including those associated with historical events of China or Heike Monogatari (the story of Heike), and others dedicated to the gods. Among them, are there any you recommend?

A. Out of over 200 plays, it is difficult to choose, however, I would pick Kurama Tengu, Funabenkei, Shakkyou, Doujouji, and Tsuchigumo as the ones to which I'm personally attached.

To be continued.

Interviewers: IKUTA Minoru, KAWAI Midori, Koh
Writer: KAWAI Midori, Translated by Sho

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Japanese New Year tradition "hatsumode"


Photo: Daniel Settelen

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Purifying Fire of New Year's Day in Kyoto (Okera Mairi)

Yasaka Shrine

How many festivals do you know of in Kyoto? Kyoto has many traditional festivals; for example, there is the Aoi Festival in spring, the Gion Festival in summer, and the Jidai Festival in autumn (which are collectively called the Kyoto Sandai Matsuri). The Gion Festival is especially well known, not only as one of Kyoto's three great festivals (Kyoto Sandai Matsuri), but also as one of Japan's three great festivals (Nihon Sandai Matsuri). The Gion Festival is essentially a Yasaka Shrine ritual; the Yasaka Shrine also holds a unique winter festival called “Okera Mairi”.

"Okera Mairi" is a New Year's Eve ritual of Kyoto, held every year at Yasaka Shrine from New Year's Eve (Omisoka) to the morning of New Year's Day (Gantan), where purifying fires are lit and made available to the people. From the three locations of this fire in the shrine, visitors take some of this fire to bring back home. People in the past in Kyoto used this “fire” to light the kamado (cooking stove) in order to cook a traditional Japanese New Year food, called ozoni, and also to light candles and pray for family health and safety in the New Year.

Okera, of the aster family, is a medicinal herb, and when the root is burned, gives off a strong smell, which is thought to dispel evil spirits, and to bring stability to the New Year. People who received this “fire”, kept it glowing on a braided bamboo cord, by swinging the glowing end of the cord around in a circle as they returned home.

Nowadays, we have gas stoves and IH heaters, so we no longer need to make our own fire, and since it is prohibited for people to bring an open flame onto any public transport, it is difficult for people coming from far places to bring the Okera fire back home. So now people simply bring back cords which have been burned by the Okera fire; it is also popular to use that burned cord as a good luck charm for avoiding accidents with fire.

Location: Yasaka Shrine
Dates: From December 31, 7:30 p.m. to January 1, 5:00 a.m.
Access: Train: Keihan Line - 5 minute walk east from Gion-Shijo Station. Hankyu Line - 8 minute walk east from Kawaramachi Station. Bus: Kyoto City Bus No.206 ? 15 minutes from JR Kyoto Station to Gion Bus Stop


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Japan's Custom of Winter Solstice (Touji)

Winter solstice is the day of the year having the longest period of darkness and the shortest daylight period. The position of the midday sun is lowest in the sky and the midday shadows are the longest. This year (2013), it will be on December 22nd. The winter cold usually sets in after that day. The winter solstice was used as the starting point in calculating the lunisolar calendar in ancient China. This natural phenomenon must have been more mystic for old civilizations which didn’t have heating or outdoor lighting. This could be why there are many old festivals in different parts of the world around the day of winter solstice. For most Japanese people today, winter solstice is a day to follow Japan's own customs such as soaking in yuzuyu (hot citron bath) or eating squash so that they can keep themselves healthy all through the winter. Why don't you try it too!


Yuzuyu (Hot Citron Bath): It is said that if you take a bath with "yuzu" (Citrus junos) floating in the bathtub on the day of winter solstice, you can avoid catching a cold. People believe that the yellow color and the strong smell fend off evil spirits. Actually, yuzu can improve your blood circulation, and the smell has a relaxing effect. The custom originated from the “sento” (hot public baths) in the Edo period. Even now, in many sento, yuzuyu is offered for winter solstice. If you want to enjoy yuzuyu in your own house, you can use them whole or cut in half and put the halves in a mesh bag, floating them in your bathtub. Those who have sensitive skin may develop some reaction to yuzu, so extra care may be needed.


Eating Squash: It is said that if you eat squash on the day of winter solstice, you can avoid catching a cold. In addition, squash (kabocha or nankin) is considered an auspicious food because of the sound of its name. In pronunciation, the ”n” sound is often similar to the word "un" (meaning “luck” in English). This is why people eat some foods which have this "n" sound such as ninjin (carrots), renkon (lotus root) or udon (noodles) on the day of winter solstice. Although squash is a vegetable of summer and fall, it can be stored for a long time, and eaten for the winter solstice. People in the past took in a lot of nutrition from eating squash on that day.

OHARA Manabu
Illustrations by Yehua

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Nanakusa Gayu: The seven herb porridge.

Nanakusa Gayu

Eating Nanakusa Gayu on January 7th is a traditional Japanese custom of the New Year. Nanakusa Gayu is a rice porridge seasoned with salt and minced Haru no Nanakusa (the seven herbs of spring) (*1). Each Nanakusa herb has different healing properties and so they are considered medicinal herbs in Japan. Why do Japanese eat Nanakusa Gayu on January 7th? The reasons lie in the customs of ancient China, specifically the Five Festivals of China, and the adoption of those into Japanese culture.

In the Early Han period of China (206 BC - 8 AD), they set the first six days of January as days when certain animals were not to be killed. January 1st was for chickens, the 2nd for dogs, the 3rd for pigs, the 4th for sheep, the 5th for cows, and the 6th for horses. January 7th was set as the day when people were neither punished nor killed. The custom of eating soup with seven kinds of vegetables in it (for good health) originated during this era. This custom arrived in Japan during the Heian period (794 - 1185), and by combining it with Wakakusa Tsumi, an old Japanese custom of harvesting young grass at the beginning of the year, led to the creation of Nanakusa Gayu. The 7th of January is called Jinjitsu and is one of the Five Festivals of Japan (*2). At first, only the nobles of the palace ate Nanakusa Gayu on special occasions, and later in the Edo period (1603 - 1868), it was passed down to and spread among the ordinary people. The specific herbs of Nanakusa were chosen inthe Kamakura period (1185 - 1333).

Nanakusa Gayu embodies the wish for a rich harvest as well as for Mubyo Sokusai (being healthy and safe), which comes from the Jinjitsu custom of having high regard for people. Nanakusa Gayu also helps ease stomach upset from eating Osechi (New Year’s foods) and drinking alcohol.

It is also interesting that every region of Japan has its own distinct Nanakusa Gayu custom. For example, in the Tohoku region, they eat rice porridge either without Nanakusa or with substitute ingredients, because in the past it was difficult to obtain a complete set of Nanakusa in the low temperatures of winter. Currently, supermarkets across the country sell a “Nanakusa set” with all seven herbs in it, so we can easily enjoy eating Nanakusa Gayu. So how about cooking and eating Nanakusa Gayu using the Nanakusa herb set for the New Year, 2014? You will definitely be able to start off the New Year with a new and fresh mind!

(*1) The seven herbs of spring: Seri, Nazuna, Gogyo, Hakobera, Hotokenoza, Suzuna, Suzushiro
(*2) The Five Festivals: Dates were related to change of seasons, set in the Edo period, later becoming annual events. Dates and foods of seasonal festivals:
Jinjitsu (January 7) nanakusa gayu is eaten
Joshi (March 3) its traditional foods are hishimochi and shirozake
Tango (May 5) kashiwamochi is eaten in Kanto, chimaki in Kansai
Shichiseki (July 7) traditionally, somen is eaten
Choyo (September 9) adults drink kikuzake

WU Yingxue, Translated by Sho

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kokoka news * * kokusai koryu kaikan news

Free Counseling Day for Non-Japanese Residents

Looking for legal advice, visa, tax, insurance or pension information? Or, do you have a need for mental counseling? We have experts and multi lingual interpreters to help you during our free counseling day. Please register ahead of time.

Time: December, 8th (Sun) 1:00 - 5:00 PM
Location: kokoka Kyoto City International House 3F Meeting Room/ Counseling Room
Registration is available by phone: 075-752-3511

Messages wanted!

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We are looking forward to hearing your opinions about our LIK newsletter. We would like to know what kinds of articles you would like to read, about the design layout, and your ideas about interviews and other information we provide to our readers. For those who send us their opinions and ideas, we will award 2013 kokoka OPEN DAY original stickers (winners will be chosen by lottery). E-mail address is: office@kcif.or.jp Deadline: Jan. 31st, 2014

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Library Letter - Kyoto International community House Library

kokoka recommends this book

“Samadhi on Zen Gardens: Dynamism and Tranquility”

Samadhi on Zen Gardens: Dynamism and Tranquility

Written by Tom WRIGHT, Photo by MIZUNO Katsuhiko Published by SUIKO BOOKS, 2010

Temples are popular sightseeing spots in Kyoto. In spring time, there are cherry blossoms and in fall the changing colors of leaves are nice, but if you go in winter, beautiful landscape can be seen as well.

In the morning after a snowfall especially, words cannot describe the beauty of a temple garden lightly covered with snow. Because the fallen snow melts away quickly in Kyoto, it is very rare to be able to actually see it. In this book, there are beautiful pictures of temple gardens in all four seasons.

Enjoy the famous temple gardens as their appearance changes with the changing seasons.

The Garden

Did you know that the garden rocks and trees, which seem to be placed inadvertently, have some kind of meaning? They are placed to present beauty in perfect balance in all of the seasons, and so to express philosophy, the world of nature, etc. For those who wish to know more about gardens, and the meticulous attention to detail in their design, we recommend:“JAPANESE GARDEN DESIGN” (Marc P. Kean, Tuttle Company, 1996)

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Volunteer members of this issue

Members and Collaborators

AZUMA Keiko / Daniel SETTELEN / FURUTA Tomiyoshi / IKUTA Minoru / Karl JANSMA / KAWAI Midori / Megan ROBERTS / OHARA Manabu / OHTSUKI Yuki / Sabina CHANG / SUZUKI Hidetoshi / SUZUKI Shoichiro / Tara KENNEDY / TOMITA Minori / YEH Tzuju / WU Yingxue / YAMASHITA Motoyo / YUZAWA Kimio

Designer of WEB edition

SUZUKI Shoichiro

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