Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Yes we know, you`ve been enjoying a heat wave in England, but over here it rained buckets through the night. So this morning we ummed and ahhed a bit about what we were going to do. Mountain climbing was definitely out, but as for covered shopping areas...well, we could cope with that. Thankfully, by the time we`d got our acts together, the rain had all but stopped.

A while ago I bought a lovely little book about traditional shops in Kyoto - their histories and the stories behind the people who run them. Many shops have been in the same family for generations, with skills and crafts passed down from parents to children. The book was written about 20 years ago, and I was keen to see if some of these old shops (and the people in them) had survived.

We found a shop which has been hand-making wooden combs for over 160 years. Each tooth of each comb is carved by hand and polished by hand 3 times; with shark skin, then a special reed, and finally deer skin. The combs have a beautiful natural sheen and feel so soft and tactile, you can`t help but run your fingers over them. This same shop supplies a set of 91 combs to the goddess of Ise shrine every 20 years (the shrine is completely rebuilt every 20 years, and all its treasures replaced). It takes the head craftsman of the family this long to make the set, as they are so exquisitely made. They also supply the geisha and maiko with combs to keep their waxed hair styles in place. All the combs are still handmade in Kyoto (I checked with the lady in the shop!). I didn`t take much persuading to buy one.

Talking of geisha, this is a picture of the Ichirikitei - the most famous tea house in Japan where geisha and maiko entertain guests while they eat delicate Kyoto cuisine and generally get quite drunk (the guests, not the geisha). Usually I`d never be able to take a shot like this as I`d be getting pushed and shoved and there would be people and traffic everywhere. The big gate is advertising the spring dances which are open to the public each day during April.
We saw several maiko (apprentice geisha) wandering about too. They don`t usually work til later in the day, so most were enjoying some free time. Also, some have to perform public dances several times a day in April, so the lack of tourists sticking cameras in their faces must have been a relief for them. One was walking alongside a middle-aged businessman and although she was dressed in a normal kimono rather than her trailing dance kimono, she was still working. He had hired her for a couple of hours, maybe to help clients feel at their ease, or maybe just to have lunch with her (it`s a status thing to be seen out with a maiko/geisha).

Another maiko followed us into a department store and headed down to the manga section of the book shop with us. It was an adorable sight, to see her browsing manga books, and I would love to know which she eventually chose. As she was having time off, I felt it would be too rude to take a photo just then. Grrr.
We sort of stumbled upon this place, then joy of joy, I realised it was one of the shops from my book! The man in the picture makes the most fantastic creations out of bamboo. Again, very tactile, I couldn`t resist buying a bamboo rice paddle so I can do away with the nasty plastic one I use at the moment. Morita san kindly let me take a photo (I affectionally called him `grandad` when I asked permission). Reading up on the shop, HIS grandad was priviledged to be presented to the Emperor in 1920 and was credited with introducing bamboo ware to the West. He also made the chair that the Emperor sat on for his coronation. Get in! You can also see Morita san`s daughter, who is carrying on the family business.

Further down the road, we admired lots of beautifully crafted but extremely expensive tableware - in Japan people tend to have lots of different plates, bowls, saucers etc rather than a matching set. After deciding we wanted some but couldn`t justify the expense, we sated our desires in the 100 yen shop. It`s amazing what beautiful tableware you can buy for 100 yen! Job done.

By the way, this seemed like a good sentiment. Maybe that`s where I`m going wrong, I should try to enjoy my socks style more.
Bonus du jour was an art exhibition we stumbled upon after finding a poster advertising it nearby. It was by graduates of the Kyoto University of Fine Art and was pretty conceptual but surprisingly everyone enjoyed it and we spent ages in there. Someone took our coats and bags, and insisted on giving us a token for their retrieval, as if she might forget they were ours despite there being almost nobody else there and certainly no other foreigners. Anyway, thumbs up for the exhibition, and a lady even made us a cup of green tea at the end. Smashing.

And finally, here`s a tip for Wills and Kate as they are allegedly doing `The Wedding` on a bit of a budget. This place might save them a bob or two.


  1. Enjoying reading your posts from Kyoto. Yes, it is warm and sunny here (have been trying to do a mega tidy & prune in the garden) - all three cherry blossoms in bloom, makes me think of Japan. Will take your tip on enjoying socks style more (this could become viral lol).

    The book you mention sounds interesting - in English? What's the title? Sounds like one I should look out for second hand.

  2. Yes it`s in English, called `old shops of Kyoto` (or similar) by Dianne Durston. I got it from Amazon.

    Went into a big bookshop the other day and saw some of your books in there!