Kyoto's Sweet Charms

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Verious sweets in Kyoto

“This sweet is only found in Kyoto.” Seeing the word “only” has always made it hard for me to resist the desire to take just a little time to examine those things, whether they look interesting or not. I have eaten many Japanese sweets since I first came to Japan on my own for sightseeing. It is true that the tourism spots in Japan are really breathtaking, but in my opinion, those are not the only amazing things. The sweets here are also very fascinating to look at, and so delicious, it is worth the time spent eating them. Now that I am an international student in a Japanese language school and no longer a tourist, I have much more time to search for the local sweets that have been recommended to me.

There are many well known “Made in Kyoto” sweets that I have tried; I thought that some of the Japanese rice crackers called senbei were quite hard to bite into. The hardest of all the Kyoto sweets I have eaten is called yatsuhashi, which is baked. These sweets really look like curved ceramic roof tiles, are just about as hard and brittle, and are various shades of brown in color. Your teeth might break if you carelessly bite into one. On the other hand, the “unbaked/raw” yatsuhashi are made from tender, soft mochi (rice dough), in a triangle shape, with various flavors and fillings. I like the taste of the unbaked yatsuhashi, perhaps because of the similar taste and feeling to Thai sweets. Of the many Thai sweets that are well known among travelers, one called Bua-Loy is very much like unbaked yatsuhashi, even though it looks completely different. When you are eating (unbaked) yatsuhashi, the tender, sticky taste mixes with the smells, and is very enjoyable, especially if you have it with matcha tea or some coffee.

I was also lucky to have had some gyō-ja mochi this past summer in Kyoto, since it is only sold one day a year, and in limited numbers. This gyō-ja mochi is one of the extremely rare items for travelers or even Japanese to find. This mochi is made with a thin, pancake-like wrapper, filled with a unique, sweet yuzu sauce. This taste was very new to me; it is better to eat it slowly and enjoy the taste of this limited edition mochi!

There are many other local sweets that I can recommend when you visit Kyoto, such as the matcha ice cream at Uji, the kuromitsu dango (brown sugar dumplings) at Shimogamo, and the soy milk ice cream at Gion, and so on. With these kinds of sweets, it is always fun to find out where they are being sold. I am often surprised that some shops are located in very hard-to-find places; many times I got confused and lost. It is like trying to find some secret place, and you have to ask the local people where it is. Fortunately, some shops are located in easy-to-find places, but unfortunately, these shops looked just too plain to be selling these famous sweets. After wandering around for a while, I would come back to a shop and realize that I had already found it! It was sometimes so tiring, but it was very exciting, too!

<i>matcha</i> and unbaked <i>yatsuhashi</i>

matcha and unbaked yatsuhashi
Illustration: MIZUE Kanako

It is true that Kyoto matcha is very well known, and there are many other kinds of sweets that are made from matcha; I recommend that you try them also. It seems that many sweet shops in Kyoto have at least one matcha-flavored item to attract customers. However, due to the popularity of the matcha flavor, convenience stores sell matcha sweets also. So, if you have no time to look for a sweet shop, you can just walk into a nearby convenience store, and buy some “Kyoto matcha” sweets anytime you want. How simple, right?

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My favorite poem of Hyakunin Isshu
   for the Upcoming “Let’s Play Karuta!” Event

romaji karuta card

romaji karuta card (image)

kokoka Open Day takes place on November 3 (Culture Day). The “Life in Kyoto” volunteer group will hold a “Let’s Play KARUTA!” event using Hyakunin Isshu cards this year also. We described our memories of Hyakunin Isshu Karuta in the last issue*. In this issue, the “Life in Kyoto” group members will describe our favorite Hyakunin Isshu poems (waka).

*Our memories of Hyakunin Isshu Karuta:

[Poem] Kimi ga tame, haru no no ni ide te, wakana tsumu, wa ga koromode ni, yuki wa furi tsutsu

[Poet] Kōkō Tennō (Emperor Kōkō)
[Meaning] For you, my dear, I went out to the field and picked green herbs, then it snowed and snowed on my sleeves. ※

The reason why I like this poem is that I feel the kindness of the emperor for picking green herbs, even in the snow. It has been said that Kōkō Tennō was a friendly person. It has also been said that from his childhood, he enjoyed studying and that he was intelligent. I think there are many ladies today who would admire a person like him.

KANAYA Chinami

[Poem] Ōeyama, Ikuno no michi no, tō kereba, mada fumi mo mizu, Amanohashidate

[Poet] Koshikibuno Naishi (Lady Koshikibu)
[Meaning] The road going over Mt. Ōe and via Ikuno is so far that I have not set foot on Amanohasidate and seen a letter from my mother yet. ※

Lady Koshikibu was a daughter of the poet Izumi Shikibu (Lady Izumi). Lady Koshikibu already demonstrated her talent for poetry in her teens. One day at a poetry party, Fujiwara no Sadayori asked her, “Did you ask your mother (Lady Izumi) to write a poem for you to read today? Has your poem arrived from Amanohashidate (the north part of Kyōto where Lady Izumi lived)?” She swiftly replied with the poem written above. The phrase “fumi mo mizu” has two meanings: I have never set foot in Amanohashidate; and, I have not seen a letter from my mother. It is interesting that she replied with the use of a homonym “fumi” to create some irony.


[Poem] Kimi ga tame, oshikara zarishi, inochi sae, nagaku mogana to, omoi keru kana

[Poet] Fujiwara no Yoshitaka
[Meaning] For you, my dear, I was not afraid to give my life to see you. But now that I can see you, I want to live longer.

In this poem, Fujiwara no Yoshitaka honestly expressed what he felt, when his one-sided love for this lady was returned to him. This poem tells us that the feeling of love has not changed throughout the ages. Since the poet died at an early age, I can relate to the feeling of sadness of not realizing his wish to live forever.


Let's Play Karuta! LIK members preparing for the event

"Let's Play Karuta!"
LIK members preparing for the event

Every waka in the set of Hyakunin Isshu Karuta cards was written by a different author, and has a different meaning. Since there are one hundred of them, you can probably find your favorite one within those. Would you like to play Hyakunin Isshu Karuta and get familiar with waka? By all means, please come to the kokoka Open Day event!

waka translation by SIG English Lounge:

  • kokoka OPEN DAY 2015
  • When : Tuesday, November 3, 2015 (National Holiday) 10:00 - 16:00
  • Where : kokoka Kyōto International Community House
  • LIK project "Let's Play Karuta!" - 3F Study Room
  • HP :


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Chūshū no Meigetsu: The Harvest Moon

Kyoto style dumplings

Kyoto style dumplings
(Photo: NISHIMURA Makoto)

Otsukimi, a moon-viewing party, is an event for enjoying the beauty of autumn while gazing at the full moon on the night of August 15 of the lunar calendar, (September 27 of the solar calendar this year). This evening is called “jūgoya” (15th night), and the full moon seen that evening is called “Chūshū no Meigetsu” (harvest moon). On that night, Japanese plume grasses are used to decorate a spot where the moon can be seen well, and tsukimi dango (moon-viewing dumplings) are offered to the full moon to thank it for brightly illuminating the whole landscape, especially when, in ancient times, the autumn harvest work had continued late into the night.

There is an old saying in Japan that you can keep from catching any sicknesses for one year, by hanging these plume grass decorations from the eaves of your house. Round-shaped dumplings the size of ping-pong balls are supposed to represent the waxing and waning moon at its fullest. The connection they have with “jūgoya” is that fifteen dumplings are piled up for offering, nine at the bottom level, four at the second level, and two on the top. However, it is traditionally said that dumplings shaped like taro potatoes, rather than the perfectly round ones, have generally been used in Kyōto to make offerings to the harvest moon.

There are several events in Kyoto that relate to the Chūshū no Meigetsu. They are the Moon-Viewing Evening at Daikakuji Temple, the Kamo Moon-Viewing Party at Kamigamo Jinja Shrine, the Harvest Moon Festival at Hirano Jinja Shrine, and the Bright Moon Appreciation Evening at Kyoto Prefectural Botanical Garden. These are all held on the night of the harvest moon. Since the jūgoya will be on September 15 of next year and October 4 of 2017, please try to visit one of these.

By the way, there is a pattern on the surface of the full moon that is believed by Japanese people to show a rabbit pounding mochi (rice dough) on a mortar with a mallet. However, this pattern is interpreted differently in other countries. Some people see a girl carrying a bucket, a grandmother reading a book, a crab holding some big cutting shears, a woman turning her face sideways, a roaring lion, a man shouldering firewood, and so on. What do you see in the beautifully shining harvest moon on that crisp, clear autumn night?


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Forests of Kyoto

Imadegawa St. seen from Higashiyama Mountains

Imadegawa St.
seen from
Higashiyama Mountains

Matsu (pine) tree after pesticide injections

Matsu (pine) tree
after pesticide injections

(Photos: FURUTA Tomiyoshi)

We like rich forests.

Among the seventeen World Cultural Heritage sites of Kyoto, many have various connections to forests and landscapes. The rich forests provide beautiful scenery and are home to a great variety of creatures. However, these forests are facing problems. To better understand what has been happening there, I interviewed some foresters at the Kyoto-Ōsaka District National Forest Office. They maintain the National Forests, and they kindly showed me around a forest in the Higashiyama Mountains.

They explained to me that there are two serious tree problems. One is called “matsugare” (red pine wilt); it can be dealt with by injecting pesticide into the trunk of a tree or by cutting down the diseased trees. The other problem is called “naragare” (oak wither), which affects the nara* tree. This is dealt with by cutting down diseased trees, wrapping, and smoking them with pesticide. Through taking these measures, both problems have been reduced.

Additionally, people who have serious cedar pollen allergies need relief from symptoms likely caused by the cedar trees that were planted nationwide after World War II. Cedars with much less pollen have been developed through selective breeding, and efforts to replace the high pollen trees with these are progressing gradually. I would really like to see this happen.

* a type of oak that bears acorns

FURUTA Tomiyoshi

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Okō : Japanese Incense

Raw materials of <i>Okō</i>

Raw materials of Okō
(Photo: Ōno-kungyokudō Co., Ltd.)

Types of incense

Types of incense (Photo: FUJITA Risa)

What kinds of fragrances do you like? In Japan, there are special fragrances that have been loved and handed down since ancient times. They come from aromatic woods and resins, such as byakudan (sandalwood), jinkō and kyara (both agarwoods), the roots and stems of plants, and so on. The various types of incense made from these ingredients are called Okō or kō in Japanese. These same ingredients are often used as spices or medicines as well. Now I would like to introduce a bit about the traditional Japanese fragrance culture.

Incense was brought to Japan from the mainland in the 6th century, along with Buddhism, and was used mainly in Buddhist rituals. In the Heian period (794-1192), the nobility enjoyed the elegance of incense as a part of their daily lives. They made elaborate blends of incense, and perfumed their clothes and rooms with these original fragrances in order to express themselves. Incense was an essential part of their hobbies, education, and social relationships. In the Muromachi period (1338-1573), the kōdō (incense ceremony) was born. These ceremonies were ways of appreciating the delicate scents,while following the various ceremonial manners, and continued to be refined as a deeply spiritual, artistic culture. In the Edo period (1603- 1867), senkō (stick-shaped incense) became popular among the common people. Today, we enjoy incense widely and freely, such as for relaxation and hospitality, besides the traditional ceremonial uses. Manufacturers are creating new types of fragrances, including fruits and flowers, to fit modern lifestyles.

You can get good incense at specialty stores, department stores, or souvenir shops. Find your favorite ones among the great variety of fragrances, shapes, types and styles of incense. Why not enjoy a long relaxing autumn night with the comforting fragrance of Japanese incense?


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Charming and Elegant
  Local idol group from Kyoto: "Purpure☆"


Image: Sky Corporation

There are many idol groups, such as AKB48, active here in Japan, and recently, Japanese idol groups have become popular in foreign countries. It can be said that idol groups are unique to Japanese pop culture. In many areas of Japan, there are “local idols” who are doing community service activities. In Kyoto, there are some active “local idols”. Of those, I would like to introduce the “Purpure☆” group to you.

Purpure☆ is an all-girl idol group that was formed in 2013; they currently have five active members from 18 to 22 years old. All the girls are students, and on weekdays, they study at school, while on weekends, they perform as Purpure☆. The word “Purpure” means “purple”, which is “murasaki” in Japanese. Choosing this name came from the thinking that they would be women who have talent for learning and singing, like Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Tale of Genji.

Recently, I went to see one of Purpure☆’s live concerts, and on that day, there were about forty people in the audience at the venue. The Japanese instruments that were used in some of the songs, and the kimono style of their costumes gave me a real Kyōto feeling. Throughout the concert, the members of Purpure☆ sang and danced with great vitality, which really livened up the audience. Because the audience was so close to the stage, just in front of Purpure☆, the audience shouted and jumped along with the songs. They enjoyed the performance with their whole bodies. When I asked some of them, “What is the charm of Purpure☆?”, they said “They are pretty and pleasant”, and “I like Japanese style songs”. A live concert which has this kind of “closeness” between performers and audience is wonderful and cheerful, and made this concert so enjoyable.

Purpure☆’s live concerts

Purpure☆’s live concerts
photo: Sky Corporation

After the concert, I interviewed the members of Purpure☆. First, I asked what their motives were for joining Purpure☆. They said they were attracted by the idea of being “idols from Kyoto” and they really wanted to try it for themselves. When I asked them about studying and performing, they said “Examination time is the hardest”. Finally, I asked them, “What is the best part of being in Purpure☆?”. They said “We have met many people, and have had many experiences which would not be possible without being part of Purpure☆. We are developing with the group”.

Purpure☆ does various activities besides concert performances. This year, they appeared at the coming-of-age ceremony held by Kyoto City to encourage people to vote in elections, and they brightened the atmosphere. Their live concerts are held regularly, and I recommend that you go to see them. It will be so much fun.

Purpure☆ Official Website:
Purpure☆ Event Schedule (Japanese):

SUZUKI Hidetoshi

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kokoka news * * kokusai koryu kaikan news

Welcome Party & Seminar for Foreigners New to Kyoto 2015

Foreigners: come to the seminar, and the party is free (500 yen for party only)
Japanese: only 500 yen for a great international party

Seminar: - visas and part-time jobs; bicycle rules and traffic safety; useful information for living (cellphones, internet, cheaper shopping); and kokoka Kyoto International Community House facilities and activities Presentations will be in Japanese, English and Chinese. Reservations required
International Party: - Japan nationals welcome too; reservations required (150 person limit)

When: Sunday, October 18, 14:00 – 17:30
Where: kokoka Kyoto International Community House
 tel: 075-752-3511

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Library Letter - Kyoto International community House Library

kokoka recommends this book

“The Cultural History of Japanese Food”

The Challenging Daily Life

Supervisor: NAGAYAMA Hisao
Publisher: Yasashii Shokutaku Co., Ltd.,

Fall has come; it is known to enhance your appetite. Now that the time has come when a variety of delicious seasonal food is available, would you like to discover the history of Japanese cuisine and learn how that developed?

This book describes the historical development of Japanese diets from the Jōmon period through the Showa period (prior to current times), using numerous pictures and illustrations.

The book will definitely help you become an expert of Japanese cuisine!

Some Cheering Words from Foreigners in Kyoto

The kokoka Library invites you to the exhibition: “Some Cheering Words from Foreigners in Kyoto VII”, scheduled for November 3, kokoka Open Day, displaying responses by foreign residents of Kyoto to the previously submitted questions and worries of Japanese people. Their answers provide good advice and encouragement! Booklets containing all of this advice will be provided as well.

Please come to this kokoka Library event!

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Volunteer members of this issue

Members and Collaborators

IKUTA Minoru / WANG Xiaoqin / OHYABU Shun'ichi / OKAMOTO Yuko / KANAYA Chinami / KAMEDA Chiaki / SAKAMOTO Akemi / SHIOYAMA Satsuki / SUZUKI Shoichiro / SUZUKI Hidetoshi / TSUBOI Moeko / NISHIMURA Makoto / FUJITA Risa / FURUTA Tomiyoshi / MIZUE Kanako / YAGI Teruo / YAMASHITA Motoyo / YUZAWA Kimio / Karl JANSMA / Yoshinori TAKEDA / Juan VACA

Editor of this WEB page

SUZUKI Hidetoshi

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