Tuesday 5 August 2014

Gozan-no-okuribi: Bonfire viewing in Kyoto

The Japanese hold ceremonies at the end of Obon, the period in late summer during which the spirits of their ancestors are believed to visit this world, to ensure the safe return of these spirits to the spirit world. Gozan-no-okuribi, annually held on August 16th in Kyoto, is one such ceremony that--as the name indicates--sends off the spirits with large bonfires in traditional shapes on five mountains: those shapes are dai (the kanji for 'large'), myo and ho (kanji meaning 'wondrous dharma'), a boat, a torii shrine gate, and hidari-dai (left 'large'). The origins of this event--commonly known as Daimonji after the dai bonfire--are obscure, but it is widely thought to have begun between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Worshippers writing their gomagi slats
Wooden gomagi slats, which are burned in the bonfires, are sold from the 15th until 2 p.m. on the day of the event at the entrances of Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and other temples. Once people write their ancestors' names, prayers or wishes on them, the gomagi are carried up the mountains to be laid on the bonfires. I wanted to actively participate in the festival, so I visited Ginkakuji and bought two gomagi slats that were destined for the daimonji bonfire on Mt Nyoigatake behind the temple.

Ginkakuji, which is charming and captivating, is one of my favourite temples. After a stroll through the gardens, I turned to the mission at hand--searching for a prime viewing spot. Many hotels and other establishments guarantee you a view of the bonfires for a price. However, I like enjoying festivals among the crowds, and finding a location from where to view the bonfires is, apparently, a challenge.

A torii on Imadegawa-dori marks the entrance to Yoshidayama, one of the recommended locations to view the bonfires. At the lookout, I found people had already staked their viewing spots with tripods. To my disappointment, daimonji, which appears at an angle, was the only bonfire visible from here, but the view was spectacular. I saw movement around the pyres on which wheat straw, pine needles and the gomogi slats--mine included--would be laid. A gentleman here mentioned that Kamogawa river was the best location to view daimonji face on. The search continues. (If you decide to view daimonji from Yoshidayama, take a torch.)

Camera ready on Yoshidayama facing daimonji in the distance
Kamo-ohashi bridge over the junction of Takanogawa and Kamogawa rivers offers the perfect view of daimonji. I crossed the stepping stones on the river, in which people off all ages were playing, to the spit. Considering the view, I was not surprised to see the choice picnic spots already staked out with blue plastic sheets. The gentleman at Yoshidayama was right.

I continued along the west bank of Kamogawa with my map open hoping to find the spot that the locals would want to keep a secret. Even though daimonji was clearly visible, trees and buildings obstructed the other bonfires, especially, at river level. I was still hopeful, though, that I would find a good location to view as many of the bonfires, as possible.

I noticed less people between Aoibashi and Izumojibashi bridges and felt nervous. I asked an elderly couple preparing for the arrival of their friends and neighbours for advice on the best vantage point. Myo-ho would not be visible due to the buildings obstructing the view from here, and only the stern of the ship would be visible from Izumojibashi. The wife explained how, centuries ago, each household lit their own bonfire, but the authorities decided to burn the bonfires collectively in mountain clearings due to the fire hazard. As I took my leave, I asked about the absence of the ubiquitous food stalls found at all festivals in Japan and was disappointed to hear that a city ordinance enacted in recent years banned the stalls during Gozan-no-okuribi.

I continued along the river further north to Kitaojibashi, but still no luck. As the couple suggested, the bonfires are best viewed from a higher location.

Here, I took a bus to Funaokayama, which is directly west of Kitaojibashi along Kitaoji-dori, resolute that I would stay there no matter what the view. The climb was steeper than Yoshidayama--promising. At the lookout, I was greeted by the sight of many unattended plastic sheets staking claims. With map in hand, I wandered among the plastic sheets, lining up the mountains, and found a small spot from which I had a clear view of daimonji, myo and hidari-daimonji, and a partial view of ho and the boat. Mission accomplished with two hours to spare. I spread a newspaper, anchored it with rocks and visited the local convenience shop.

To pass the time, I talked with the people around me, and I found that most--like myself--were not locals. Some were from cities as far as Tokyo, and others from Taiwan and Sweden. Apparently, the locals choose to stay home to watch the event on TV.

The practice run at hidari-daimonji caused a minor stir. People took photos and adjusted their camera settings ready for the main event. Everyone stood in anticipation minutes before the lighting of daimonji, the first bonfire. The lookout was becoming so crowded that it felt like being on a peak-hour train.

When daimonji was lit at eight o'clock, the lookout roared with excitement, drowning out the cicadas. I turned to find a sea of arms stretching to the stars with cameras in hand taking the shots of the bonfire. Ten minutes later, myo and ho were lit. Everyone shuffled to face them, raising their mobiles and cameras into the air, again. Despite the shapes of the bonfires being distorted from here, they were spectacular, nonetheless. My disappointment at only the top of the boat sail being visible was soon forgotten at the sight of hidari-daimonji burning directly behind us. Taking good shots was difficult considering the distance, but I was still impressed with my photos.

Caught up in the excitement, I had forgotten that my gomagi were blazing in the distance. I paused from my photo-taking frenzy and turned to watch daimonji burn. I wondered where exactly they were placed. I closed my eyes and hoped that my prayers would be heard as the smoke carried them up into the heavens.


The article originally appeared on the Official Kyoto Travel Guide web site in August 2011. (The photos on this page were taken by George Bourdaniotis and differ to the official photos that accompanied the original article.)

[September 15, 2014] I have just finished working on an episode of Core Kyoto on this ceremony to air September 18 and 19 on NHK World.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

花火 / Fireworks


There are many things throughout the year that are unexpected, but there is lots to look forward to, too. When I get to December and I look back on the year, I feel that something is not right if I haven’t at least gone to hatsumode (first trip to the Shinto shrine for the year), Ebissan (a Kansai festival for prosperity in business), a danjiri festival with their lively floats, a fireworks display, and Kobe Luminarie (held in early December in memory of those who died during the 1995 earthquake). Of course, you have to celebrate Christmas, too. Of these, I particularly enjoy the fireworks. I sit with a beer in hand and watch them wearing my jimbei (traditional summer wear). Fireworks are uplifting. This year, we had a guest from Tokyo watching with us, and we talked about the regional differences in the fireworks displays. It was his first time to watch the Kobe fireworks (usually held the first Saturday in August). He said that each of the fireworks let off during the Sumida River display in Tokyo is a work of art in itself, but the Kobe display have class. As a local, hearing that put a smile on my face.

[Note: The Kobe Minato Fireworks Display is usually held the first Saturday in August from around 7.30 p.m. The fireworks are let off from barges anchored in the port, so the best views are at Harborland, Meriken Park, Port Island or any of the piers.]

The Japanese version first appeared in the August 2013 issue of the goodspeed monthly newsletter.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

A Touch of Aromatic Spices

Istanbul Konak was easy to find once I walked down the stairs from ground level. The blue and white İznik-tiled wall at the end of the passage hinted at the exotic experience awaiting. On turning the corner from the entrance, I felt I was back in Cappadocia, in one of the underground catacombs. Once inside, I enjoyed spotting the different parts of Turkey represented in the decor: traditional Turkey (kilim, cushions and a low table), rural Turkey (stone wall), modern Turkey accented with various (non-Turkish) paintings, and mosques (arches and cupola dome). Istanbul Konak was established in 1999 as a small restaurant at a time when Kansai had few Turkish restaurants and was expanded in 2003.

As an aperitif before a Turkish meal, I always enjoy rakı, which Japanese often say tastes like medicine or toothpaste. This anis-flavoured spirit fascinates people by clouding when mixed with water. The opaqueness shows how pure the rakı is; the less opaque, more water used in the distilling process. Wanting more Japanese to enjoy rakı, owner/chef Riza Alkoc concocted a cocktail he named after the Mediterranean, Akdeniz, because its colour reminded him of the colours of the sea, especially when held up to the light. Akdeniz has a light, and slightly sweet and sour taste that prepares your taste buds for the awaiting feast.

A visit to a Turkish restaurant starts with the standard fare: cacık (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic dip), humus, baba ghanouj (eggplant dip), kebab and kofte meatballs. But trying the interesting dishes Alkoc offers give you a new perspective on Turkish cuisine. One surprise was the ravioli-like manti, which are stuffed with seasoned ground meat and topped with a garlic-yogurt sauce. Another was İstim Kebabı—eggplant wrapped around savory spiced meat and vegetables. Alkoc also recommends the Haydari yoghurt dip with garlic, and stuffed blue mussels. Not listed on the menu, which has English explanations, are the Specials of the Day: dolma (various stuffed vegetables), stews or casseroles that are guaranteed to warm you on a chilly day.

Turkish cuisine essentially uses salt as the main seasoning, and spices enhance the aroma. Despite certain ingredients being difficulty to obtain in Japan, Alkoc—who also runs the family restaurant business in Istanbul—and his Turkish cooks make every effort to serve authentic dishes by importing these ingredients direct from Turkey. He also grows spring onions, mint, parsley and other herbs for use in his dishes, because he finds the flavour is lacking when using commercially grown produce.

For dessert, I ordered mildly-sweet Kazandibi milk pudding, made with shredded chicken, and a Turkish coffee; the perfect end to a delicious meal that took me back to Turkey. Before you leave home, don’t forget to print the coupons available on the Japanese and English web pages. If you dine at Istanbul Konak on Friday and Saturday night, your experience will be enhanced by the oriental dance show featuring Tania Luiz.

And, for those who cannot come to Osaka to enjoy an evening in Turkey, Istanbul Konak delivers their dishes anywhere in Japan via their online delicatessen, Konak Deli 1. (All major credit cards accepted. Orders over 5,000 yen are delivered free.) Currently, the deli offers a taster special (e.g., chicken kebab, the chickpea stew, prawn and vegetable casserole, the chicken and vegetable casserole, and manti) with soup and rice or Turkish bread for 1,600-1,850 yen (free delivery). Also on special is a party set of nine dishes (3-4 people) for 3,980 yen with free delivery.

Istanbul Konak
Address: B1F, Sankyo Yotsubashi Bldg. 1-11-1 Minami Horie, Nishi-ku, Osaka 550-0015
Access: Subway Yotsubashi Stn Exit #5
Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11:30-15:00; Sat., Sun., Pub. Hol. 12:00-15:00
Dinner: 17:30-22:30
Phone: 06-6534-7277
E-mail: merhaba@istanbulkonak.com
URL: http://www.istanbulkonak.com (Japanese & English)

Konak Deli I (Japanese only)
URL: http://www.istanbulkonak-deli1.com/
E-mail: shopmaster@istanbulkonak-deli1.com

Text: George Bourdaniotis. Originally published in Kansai Scene #128, January 2011.