Tanuki, Wagashi, and Izakaya:
Notes on My Accidental Kyoto Life

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Jon Holtzman (USA)

Author with giant <i>tanuki</i>

Author with giant tanuki,
Shiga Prefecture

I may be one of very few world travelers who, before coming to Japan, was not really interested in visiting here. In the U.S., I am very lucky to be a professor of cultural anthropology*, which allows me to travel a lot, but even so, there is not enough time to visit every country in the world. The images I had of Japan were of crowded Tokyo subways, skyscrapers, and neon lights, so I had very little desire to come to Japan. Then some colleagues at Kyoto University invited me to a conference, with everything paid, and even a trip to an onsen. Despite what my friends might say, I am not stupid; an all expense paid trip to Kyoto? I would give it a try! Of course, I found Kyoto to be very different from the false stereotypes that I had of Japan, and I spent nine magical days in this beautiful city, full of amazing shrines and temples, calm and peaceful natural spaces and wonderfully kind people. So, I sort of fell in love with it, and knew I should return.

Pokot girl

Pokot girl from Northern Kenya

I may also be one of very few people who came to Kyoto because of Africa. Most people who are interested in Africa would simply go there. So, why Kyoto? As an anthropologist, I actually have done research for many years in Kenya, among the Samburu ethnic group. They are traditionally herders, who raise cows, goats, sheep and camels. One of my main research topics with them has been their food. Kyoto University has an incredibly strong program in African Studies, so some excellent colleagues who also do research in Kenya invited me here. They have continued to welcome me and we work together on projects about Africa.

From my first visit, many aspects of Japan’s rich culture fascinated me. Japan is really interesting to me as an anthropologist, because there are many things about life here that are very similar to Western countries, but then other things are very different. One of the first things to intrigue me in Japanese culture and folklore was the tanuki (raccoon-dog). Lots of people like tanuki because they are cute, but I like the idea that the tanuki is a “shape-shifter”**, a master of disguises, and kind of mischievous, but mostly good-hearted and cheerful. I too like to joke a lot and use my imagination, especially with the many complex parts of culture and history in Japan that even many Japanese do not know or understand. So, for fun, I can make up things about obscure parts of cultures that sound almost true. For instance, the Japanese and Chinese calendars are a bit different. (This part is true). So, for someone like me whose birthday is in late January, my zodiac animal is actually different if I am in Japan or in China. (This part is also true). So, I claim that this makes me a shapeshifter, since in one place I am one animal of the zodiac and in another place I am a different animal; So my zodiac animal must really be the tanuki! (People insist that there is no tanuki in the zodiac, so maybe even if I say it isn’t true?)

Fancy Kyoto <i>wagashi</i>

Fancy Kyoto wagashi

By now, I have come to Japan over 10 times, usually for two or three months at a time, always based in Kyoto. My colleagues at Kyoto University invited me for African Studies, but after visiting several times I wanted to study Japanese culture, too. One of my main specializations in anthropology is studying food, and I have written a book and many articles about food in Africa. My first and main interest in Japanese food was sweets. With Japanese food, most foreigners think about things like rice and sushi, so I was surprised to learn about the rich tradition of sweets in Japan. Japan has visually beautiful traditional sweets, wagashi, that reflect the feeling of the season and also are very important in the tea ceremony. There are also simpler Japanese sweets, and Western sweets like chocolate have also become very popular. As my studies have continued, I have added other areas of interest to my research, such as questions about why Japanese tend to be thinner than people from other countries, and research into almost every type of Japanese food and drink. Of course, this work is very difficult because, besides doing interviews, this research requires me to spend a lot of time going out with friends to eat Japanese food and drink Japanese drinks in izakaya and other places! This type of activity is challenging but I hope somehow important, and I am always happy to meet new friends who can help me with this research.

 * the study of similarities and differences in human cultures across the glob
** a mythical figure that can take different for

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Old-fashioned popular culture of Japan:
Sentō (public bathhouse)

<i>Ume-yu sentō</i>

Ume-yu sentō

Mr. Minato

Mr. Minato

One type of Japanese public bathhouse that people pay to enter is called a sentō. I visited one of them, named “Sauna no Ume-yu”, located south of the Kawaramachi-Gojō intersection, on Kiyamachidōri street.

The manager, Mr. Sanjiro Minato, is from Shizuoka Prefecture, and is only 25 years old. It is not exactly clear when Ume-yu started their business, but according to historical records, there was a sentō in this community in the Meiji period (1868-1912), and it seems like this Ume-yu is the same one. The bath-water is heated with firewood; it is a lot of work to add firewood every 40-50 minutes, but water heated this way can warm bodies to the core. Also, the water used for the baths is drawn from natural underground sources. I asked Mr. Minato what is the most challenging part of managing the sentō, and his answer was that he struggles to satisfy both the local regular customers and the first-time visitors (especially from overseas).

The sentō existed as a local public gathering place in Japanese towns from a long time ago; many generations have gathered here, from children to old people. Sometimes children making noise in the baths would be scolded by the old men of the neighborhood. Children learned sociability through communication in the sentō that way, and grew up to become sensible adults. However, unfortunately, these kinds of places are decreasing.

A sentō may be an unfamiliar place to many people from overseas, but Ume-yu welcomes foreign guests. Tattoos are not a problem here, though they are unacceptable at “Super sentō” (larger sentō). Recently, guidebooks have offered information about sentō, but some people may be confused by cultural differences and manners in the sent?. If you have any questions or problems at Ume-yu, you can ask Mr. Minato, who will kindly help you. Also, you can learn from the English instructions provided there about sentō manners and how to use public baths.

Mr. Minato told me that the denki buro (electric bath) is popular with foreign guests. The bathwater in it carries a weak, harmless electric current. I think you will be absolutely addicted to this bath after trying it.


Yose (Japanese traditional storytelling)

Ume-yu also holds many events, such as live music, traditional Japanese storytelling, and talk shows in other rooms of the bathhouse. It opens at 6:30 a.m. every weekend in August and September, as a morning bath service.

Soak in the big bath and stretch your legs, and you will recover from the tiredness of travelling or your daily work. After refreshing in the bath, I recommend enjoying a cold drink of milk and relaxing in the old-fashioned atmosphere.

Address: 175 Iwataki-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi
Business hours: 3:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m., closed Thursday
Bath fee: 430yen, towel rental: 30yen
Twitter for Ume-yu: https://twitter.com/umeyu_rakuen (only in Japanese)

Translated by FUJITA Risa

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Kyoto Art Center - Reusing a closed historic school

Schoolhouse design

Charming, but not splendid
schoolhouse design

All over the country, there are effective ways to rebuild and utilize schools that have been closed due to low birth rates and municipal mergers. Schools that have a long history of being loved by the children in their districts can now be used as places with new roles, becoming cafes, event locations, and hotels.

This issue of Life In Kyoto will begin a series that introduces some of the facilities that made use of closed schools, those having some cultural and historical value.


Old-fashioned feeling corridor

The first one is the Kyoto Art Center, formerly the Meirin Elementary School, located in the center of Kyoto, close to Shijo Street. The school, which opened in 1869 and closed after 124 years of operation, is now a facility where people can easily experience all kinds of modern art, traditional entertainment, and culture, such as noh theater, kyōgen (a type of play), and tea ceremony.



When you go through what looks like a school gate at the Center, your attention will be drawn to the elegant school architecture, such as the Western-style cream colored outside wall (said to be built 80 years earlier), the Spanish roofing tiles, the unique round window, and so on. In its time, it was praised as the best decorated building in the East.


Cafe (Maeda Coffee)

The Center is divided into a West Wing, a North Wing and a South Wing; the historical charm and “retro” atmosphere come from the well-used wooden corridors, stairs, and classrooms. In the South Wing, there are former classrooms used as galleries, an Information Room, and a small library; anyone can use these rooms freely. In the library, there are many books about Kyoto culture and art that you can browse through. There is also an old-fashioned cafe that we recommend, where you can enjoy drinking coffee or have a light meal of sandwiches or cake. When you are in this calm and quiet place, despite it being located in the downtown area, it will make you forget time and want to stay there longer.


Access: 5 minute walk north-east
from Shijo Karasuma intersection.

The Kyoto Art Center holds many events, in forms such as music, dance, and theater, and in categories such as exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. You will be able to have fresh, new experiences of the old and new cultural city of Kyoto.

Website: http://www.kac.or.jp/eng/

ITO Shima
Translated by KANAYA Chinami

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Kyōyasai (Kyoto Vegetables)

Delicious and healthy, traditional vegetables in Kyoto


Do you like vegetables? I think there may be a lot of various vegetables in your country, but in Japan also, there are many delicious vegetables. You may have seen or eaten some of them for the first time when you came to Japan.In Kyōto, there are certain kinds of vegetables called kyōyasai, meaning Kyōto vegetables. These are traditional vegetables from the past history of Kyōto, and they are popular nationwide as special products of Kyōto. There is no concrete definition of kyōyasai, but generally speaking, it refers to vegetables certified as “Traditional Vegetables of Kyoto” or “Kyoyasai Brand Vegetables”; these were defined by the Kyoto Prefectural Government.

The history of kyōyasai is very long; because Kyōto had been the center of politics and culture since at least 1200 years ago. many top quality agricultural goods were gathered from all parts of Japan or China, as the offerings for the Court, temples and shrines. In addition, because Kyōto was so far from the sea, it was difficult to get fresh fish and such, so people simply ate more vegetables. Moreover, the climate, fertile soil, and plentiful water of Kyōto were suitable for growing vegetables, and the breeding of vegetables was refined over a long period, producing excellent quality kyōyasai. delicious and nourishing.

Currently, about 50 kinds of vegetables are certified as being “Traditional Vegetables of Kyoto” or “Kyoyasai Brand Vegetables”. Here I will introduce some of them:

Mizuna (potherb mustard)
Mizuna has been cultivated for many years and is also called kyō-na. The narrow, jagged-edged leaves and crisp texture are peculiar to it. It is often used for nabemono (hot pot cooking) and in salads. It is also nutritionally excellent, containing a good balance of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Kujō negi (“Kujo” green onion)
Kujō negi is a kind of long, slender green onion. Characteristically, it has soft leaves that have a coating inside that is a bit slimy, with some sweetness and scent. In the cold of winter, this coating becomes sweeter. It is commonly used in nabemono, miso soup, and as a condiment for noodle dishes. It is rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin C, and carotene, and is also said to be effective against colds.

Shōgoin daikon (“Shōgoin” radish)
Shōgoin daikon is a large round radish with a diameter of about 20 centimeters. It is unique in that it is sweet and very soft, but has less bitterness and pungent taste. Because it does not fall apart easily when boiled, it is often used in oden (Japanese boiled food) and other boiled dishes.

Kamo nasu (“Kamo” eggplant)
Kamo nasu is a round, ball-shaped eggplant, and is also called “Queen of Eggplants”. Its distinctive feature is that the flesh is hard and firm, and it is chewy. It is often used in dengaku (baked, sweetened miso-glazed eggplant) and some boiled dishes.

Kyoto Vegetable Festival

Kyoto Vegetable Festival
photo: Kyoto Prefecture Department of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries

Incidentally, an event called the Kyoto Vegetable Festival is held every year to promote the appeal of kyōyasai to many more people. Last year, more than 100,000 people came to this event; some events took place, such as: the Rāmen Battle - famous rāmen restaurants from all parts of Japan competed using kyōyasai in limited menus, and the Kyoto Local Gourmet Festival - a gathering of various dishes made using Kyōto ingredients. I hope you will get to see, learn about, and actually taste kyōyasai at the Kyoto Vegetable Festival.

For further details, please use the following contact info:

Kyoto Prefecture Department of Agriculture,
Forestry and Fisheries Research and Brand Promotion Division
Tel: 075-414-4941

SUZUKI Hidetoshi

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kokoka news * * kokusai koryu kaikan news

kokoka OPEN DAY 2016

  • When: Thursday, November 3, 2016 (National Holiday) 10:00 - 16:00
  • Where: kokoka - Kyoto International Community House
  • LIK project: Let’s Play Karuta! - 3F Study Room
  • Website: http://www.kcif.or.jp/en

Every waka (poem) 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: http://www.kcif.or.jp/enhttp://www.pureoffice.skr.jp/kyomi/database/h1/index.htm

Welcome Party & Seminar for foreigners new to Kyoto 2016

  • 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:
  • Information about: 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 16, 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • Where: kokoka Kyoto International Community House

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Library Letter - Kyoto International community House Library

"kokoka recommends this book

A Sushi Handbook in English and Japanese

A Sushi Handbook

Editorial Supervisor: IMADA Yosuke
Publisher: Natumesha, 2013

Sushi, a traditional Japanese cuisine, also has great popularity with foreigners, doesn’t it? This book features about 50 types of sushi toppings, shown in pictures taken at the Ginza Kyubey restaurant, a well-known shop. In addition, this book also introduces things such as how to prepare and eat sushi, which will considerably deepen your knowledge of sushi. If you want to be called “sushi-man” or “sushi-woman”, you must read this book.

The World’s Breads Picturebook 224 - Definitive Edition"

If you like bread more than rice, the book for you is: “The World’s Breads Picturebook 224 - Definitive Edition” (Editorial Supervisor: OWADA Toshiko, Publisher: Heibonsha, 2013). This book features 224 different baked foods from world regions such as the Middle East, the Near East, Western Europe, Asia, and so on, separated into geographic sections. Also introduced are things such as drinks that go well with these baked goods, so this book is recommended. After reading this book, you will definitely want to go to a bakery.

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Volunteer members of this issue

Members and Collaborators

CHEN Muwei / FUJITA Risa / FURUTA Tomiyoshi / IKUTA Minoru / ITO Shima / KAMEDA Chiaki / KANAYA Chinami / Karl JANSMA / KUROSAWA Satoshi / NISHIMURA Makoto / OHYABU Shun'ichi / SUZUKI Shoichiro / SUZUKI Hidetoshi / WANG Xiaoqin / WANG Yuewei / YAMASHITA Motoyo / Yoshinori TAKEDA / YUZAWA Kimio

Editor of this WEB page

KANAYA Chinami

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