Fri, Aug 30, 2019

SPECIAL FEATURE: Enjoy late summer in Kyoto with iconic artworks and tasty delicacies from the ancient capital

“Masterworks of the Kyoto National Museum” exhibition and sweets

Viewing outstanding works of art in the rarified atmosphere of a museum can give you the sensation that you’re experiencing something extraordinary. If you are planning a special outing to get to the museum, you can make your day even more memorable by picking up locally made keepsakes and gifts, or, savoring delicacies available only in the area. SPECIAL FEATURE provides you with information to enrich your next museum-going experience.

In this issue, we highlight “Masterworks of the Kyoto National Museum: Temple and Shrine Treasures,” a feature exhibition being held at the Kyoto National Museum until Sept. 16. This extraordinary exhibition features some of Japan’s most significant artworks, a must for connoisseurs of Japanese culture.

View Rinpa school masterpieces and compare the gods

The cover of the printed brochure for this exhibition features the Thunder God from Tawaraya Sotatsu’s renowned Rinpa-style screens “Wind God and Thunder God” (17th century. Kennin-ji temple, Kyoto), a designated national treasure. Inside, you’ll see other national treasures including the famous medieval portrait “Possibly Minamoto no Yoritomo” (13th century. Jingo-ji temple, Kyoto) and the sculpture Dainichi (Mahavairocana) from the “Seated Five Wisdom Buddhas” (9th century. Ansho-ji temple, Kyoto). When we asked Melissa Rinne, a specialist at the museum, to guide us through some of the highlights of the exhibition, her first reaction was, “Where should I start?”

Kyoto National Museum Specialist Melissa Rinne

The exhibition showcases a wide variety of masterpieces, but we have to say that the “Wind God and Thunder God” screens are a must-see. These images were chosen as motifs for the design of coins commemorating the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ms. Rinne comments, “These are mysterious deities, at once formidable and charming.”

Sotatsu’s “Wind God and Thunder God” went on to be copied by generations of Rinpa artists. About 100 years later, Ogata Korin made a replica, and about another 100 years later, Sakai Hoitsu sketched Korin’s work and produced his own pair of two-panel folding screens. Yet another painter, Suzuki Kiitsu, produced fusuma (sliding door) paintings using the motif of the Wind God and Thunder God. These exemplify that great influence that Sotatsu’s works had on later painters working in the Rinpa style.

Wind God and Thunder God Screens by Tawaraya Sotatsu; Edo period, 17th century (Kennin-ji temple, Kyoto)

In addition to showcasing a Sotatsu original for the first time in two years, the Kyoto National Museum will also put on display high-resolution replicas of Sotatsu’s “Wind God and Thunder God” screens as well as of Korin’s copy, both of which were produced by the Tsuzuri Project, a joint enterprise of Canon Inc. and the Kyoto Culture Association. You can compare the two replicas up close in the Meiji Kotokan Hall (the Main Hall of the former Imperial Museum of Kyoto, itself a designated important cultural property) from Sept. 5 to Sept. 6, and in the grand lobby on the first floor of the Heisei Chishinkan Wing from Sept. 8 to Sept. 16. At the prefectural Museum of Kyoto, also located in the city, the exhibition “This is Japan in Kyoto: From The Tokyo Fuji Art Museum Collection” (through Sept. 29), by good fortune, features Kiitsu’s sliding door painting “Wind God” and “Thunder God” (both 19th century). Why not stop over there, too?

Inside and outside the museum

Ms. Rinne, who has been working for museums in Japan and the United States since 1996, is especially interested in Japanese textiles.

Rinne: “The Masterworks exhibition includes a number of extraordinary dyed and woven textiles. One example is the flamboyant “Surcoat (Jinbaori) with Birds and Animals” (Momoyama period, 16th century. Kodai-ji Temple, Kyoto), which was worn by the Momoyama-period warlord and Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi and is designated an important cultural property. The silk woven textile from which it is constructed was originally a Persian carpet or tapestry.”

Another designated important cultural property in vivid yellow and red is the “Coat (Dobuku) with Horizontal Bands and Cloves” (Momoyama period, 17th century. Seisui-ji temple, Shimane Pref.) is associated with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Rinne: “The tie-dyeing technique used to dye the fabric into different colors is absolutely extraordinary. You should take your time and get a good look at it while it’s on view.”

The Kyoto National Museum opened as the Imperial Museum of Kyoto in May 1897. When you enter the premises through the current ticket booth you will see a historic red brick building – the Meiji Kotokan Hall – on your right. Behind the Heisei Chishinkan Wing, which stands in front of you, was where the Hoko-ji temple Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) built by Hideyoshi once stood.

Rinne: “Today, when we talk about the Great Buddha, we usually mean those in Nara or Kamakura, but Kyoto had its own Great Buddha until it was burned down about 45 years ago.”

On the side of the original Main Gate, you will see a large stone wall that used to surround the temple of the Great Buddha Hall. There are many things to see on the premises of the Kyoto National Museum.

The stone wall that used to surround the Hoko-ji temple Daibutsuden. The stones used are taller than Melissa!

Let’s now stop by the museum shop near the south entrance. The most eye-catching item you see there is the official character of the Kyoto National Museum “Torarin,” which appeared in 2015. The stuffed tiger, if you pick a small one, is 1,350 yen (tax included). Part of the sales will be used to help preserve cultural properties in Kyoto. “Kyoto National Museum Masterwork Playing Cards” (1,750 yen, tax included) come with descriptions of the artworks in both Japanese and English.

Official character of the Kyoto National Museum “Torarin”

Rinne: “Many of the museum’s exhibition catalogs are sold only here and not available online. They might be a bit heavy for travelers, but it is worth it to pick one up while you are here so you can relive your museum experience again at home.”

Thriving throughout the ages

More than 3,500 experts from as many as 140 countries and territories will gather to discuss a wide range of museum-related topics at the 25th General Conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to be held in Kyoto in September. This is the first ICOM general conference to be held in Japan. The theme of this year’s conference being “Museums as Cultural Hubs: The Future of Tradition,” we went looking for business brands on the streets of Kyoto that epitomize the “future of tradition.”

Astonishingly, Kungyokudo, an incense shop we found in front of Ryukokuzan Hongan-ji temple (Nishi Hongan-ji temple) – the head temple of the Hongan-ji school of the Jodo Shinshu sect – was established in the third year of the Bunroku era (1594), during the Azuchi-Momoyama period.

Chihaya Ouno, the brand manager of the shop, says, “We used to be a supplier of apothecaries to Hongan-ji, but we continued to study fragrant wood, and later started to supply incense. We are the oldest incense supplier in Japan.” Since 2016, they have been dealing in novel products that are more suitable for the present day lifestyle.

Colorful senko incense sticks are on display on the second floor of Kungyokudo (Courtesy of Kungyokudo)

Their most popular merchandise is the colorful senko incense sticks, made by blending modern fragrance with traditional recipes based on natural scents. The different colors each represent noted sights or specialties of Kyoto. According to Kungyokudo, Shiko Ai (indigo blue) and Shiko Shu (vermilion), both of which combine 6 different scents, are popular as gifts (1,296 yen per package, tax included).

● Kungyokudo
  • Horikawa-dori, Nishi Honganji-mae, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto City, 600-8349 (Map)
  • Tel: 075-371-0162
  • Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Closed on 1st and 3rd Sundays)
Sweets of Kyoto charm food writer

If you are in Kyoto, you have to try out the famous sweets. We asked food writer Hisae Nakashima, who has been contributing articles on Japanese confectionery to The Yomiuri Shimbun for fifteen years, to give us clues on what to look for.

Let’s start with two types of sweets that are appropriate for the late summer and would give you a cool feeling. Bankanto (1,188 yen, tax included) is popular at yusoku (meaning: based on rituals of the Imperial Court) sweets supplier Oimatsu, located near the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The store starts selling Natsukanto (summer-citrus jelly) made from summer tangerines in April every year, but the sale usually ends as soon as they run out of the tangerines. It follows that customers started asking for something else that would come after Natsukanto. And so about a decade ago, the store started making the same kind of jelly using grapefruits, which is the aforesaid Bankanto. Squeezed grapefruit juice and agar are combined and poured into the peel which serves as a container before the jelly is set. The mere sight of it is pleasant to the eye.


The other confectionery we’d like to bring your attention to is Shitatari or dew, a product of confectionery Kamehironaga (1,100 yen, tax included). The second generation owner Shintaro Nishii came up with the recipe 48 years ago to dedicate it to the Kikusui hoko float in the Gion Festival. The float is closely associated with the Kikunoi well, which was known to have been the source of one of the most famous waters in Kyoto. Shitatari is sold throughout the year. It uses brown sugar from Okinawa.


“It takes time and effort using brown sugar because of the painstaking preparation it requires,” the proprietor says. “Enjoy the transparent, jiggly texture unknown elsewhere.”

Ms. Nakashima says, “The simple Japanese sweets you find here and there are also delicious. You can feel the underlying power of Kyoto.”

The confectionery she recommends from that perspective is Kamamochi (210 yen, tax included) of Daikokuya Kamamochi Honpo, which was established in 1897. Creamy bean jam is wrapped in soft rice cake made by steaming mochi rice flour and pounding it as sugar is added.

Michiya Yamada, the third generation owner, says, “It is shaped like a sickle used for reaping rice wishing for a good harvest.”


Confectionery Suetomi served Japanese sweets at the Group of 20 summit meeting held in Osaka in 2019. The traditional Usubeni (six-piece package for 1,080 yen, tax included) are dry sweets made by sandwiching moderately sweet plum pulps between thinly baked wheat gluten (fu) wafers.

The fourth generation owner Shoji Yamaguchi says, “It looks like red plum covered in snow, or cherry blossoms on a misty moonlit night in the springtime, or even dawn … it has the effect of soothing your soul regardless of the season.”

The confectionery has worked with three-star chefs including Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, which gives us the expectation that it will continue to explore possibilities and provide us with something brand new.

Not only do these sweets taste good, but they also come in beautiful colors and shape—treats for the eye as well as the palate.

  • 675-2 Shakenagaya-cho, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8395 (Map)
  • Tel: 075-463-3050
  • Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Irregular holidays)
  • 359 Takakura-dori Takoyakushi-agaru Wakuya-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8116 (Map)
  • Tel: 075-221-5965
  • Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Closed on Sundays and national holidays)
●Daikokuya Kamamochi Honpo
  • 25 Amidajimae-cho, Teramachi-dori, Imadegawa-agaru 4 chome, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0803 (Map)
  • Tel: 075-231-1495
  • Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Closed on 1st and 3rd Wednesdays)
  • Matsubara-dori Muromachi-higashi-iru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600 -8427 (Map)
  • Tel: 075-351-0808
  • Hours: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Closed on Sundays and national holidays)



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