Kyoto Gion Matsuri’s new boat float


Brand new Ofune-hoko. Click image to see more photos.

Meet Gion Matsuri’s brand new boat float, the Ofune-hoko (大船鉾). It made its debut in the Gion Matsuri procession for the first time on July 24, 2014, a week after the first and main procession on July 17.

The Gion Matsuri now holds two yama-hoko float processions. The first one on July 17 (Saki Matsuri) is still the larger one with 23 floats. The Ato Matsuri on July 24 has 10 floats including the brand new Ofune-hoko boat float which appears last in the Ato Matsuri procession.

The Gion Matsuri being designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 was also very encouraging. The new boat float was estimated to cost ¥120 million. In Oct. 2011, the float’s wooden framework was completed at a cost of ¥30 million yen. The wheels cost another ¥30 million, roof ¥20 million, and ornaments and decorations ¥40 million.

Although the Ofune-hoko made its festival debut in July 2014, it is still not complete. It will take more years to finance and add more decorative items. They are still seeking donations (1,000 yen minimum). Website:

Also watch my video of the Ofune-hoko in the Ato Matsuri followed by the Hanagasa Parade on July 24, 2014.

Book review: Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate

by Philbert Ono

Whenever I see a new book about Kyoto, I tend not to pay attention. As if world-famous Kyoto needs another book for PR. There’s no shortage of books about Kyoto. And most of those books are rather clichéd. The book cover often has an image of Fushimi Inari Shrine’s torii tunnel or Ryoanji’s Rock Garden, or Kinkakuji Gold Pavilion. It seems that these people never thought of looking at what’s out there before deciding on a cover image.

So it was a delightful surprise to see Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate, a totally different kind of Kyoto book. It is an excellent collaboration of fine-art B/W photographs of Kyoto by John Einarsen and English poems about Kyoto (mostly haiku) by Edith Shiffert.

John is the founder of the esteemed Kyoto Journal, started in 1986. He’s also a photographer and has been creating “serene” images of Kyoto for three decades. He has been a central figure in Kyoto’s expat community for almost as long.

John visited Japan for the first time in 1974 as a US Navy seaman in Yokosuka. That first visit was apparently unforgettable as he moved to Japan in 1978 and eventually settled in Kyoto by 1984. In June 2013, he was awarded the Japan Cultural Affairs Agency’s “Commissioner’s Award” for his contribution to making Japanese culture better known and understood internationally.

Edith Shiffert is 97 years old and another noted and well-know expat in Kyoto. She is a published poet and translator of Japanese poems. Born in Toronto, Canada, Edith grew up in New York and lived in California and even Hawai’i during the war years. She studied poetry at the University of Washington and published her first two poetry books (one titled, For a Return to Kona) in the early 1960s. She’s been in Kyoto since the 1960s and taught at local universities.

John’s 100+ photographs are impeccable. He makes Kyoto look fantastic. Making the ordinary look extraordinary. Whenever I think of Kyoto, my mind certainly doesn’t conjure up the dreamy and poetic images that you see in the book. It’s reassuring to know that such idyllic scenes and things still do exist in Kyoto, if you know where to look and how to look.

Edith’s 30+ poems in the book are easy to read and understand. Straightforward and clearcut. Even kids could understand them. Most of them are short haiku (with Japanese translations) and a few are longer poems. They are mainly about Kyoto’s seasons and scenes. I’m not sure if the photos complement the poems or if the poems complement the photos. It’s probably both, and this synergy makes me see why they decided to make this book.

There’s also Japanese calligraphy by Rona Conti, essays by Marc P. Keane, Diane Durston, and Takeda Yoshifumi.

The initial printing was made possible by successful crowdfunding via Indiegogo. They raised more than enough money last autumn. Congratulations to John and Edith for such a great collaboration in print.

The book is available at Kyoto Journal using PayPal or at (paperback).

Also see John explaining about the book in this video:

Real Geisha Real Women, Kyoto geisha film by Peter MacIntosh

I just saw a screening of my friend Peter MacIntosh’s documentary geisha film called Real Geisha Real Women at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on June 22, 2009.

It’s a well-done 52-min. film by Peter who interviewed several Kyoto maiko and geiko who give an intriguing look at how they became a maiko/geiko and how it has affected their lives in positive ways.

It’s a series of interviews in Japanese with English subtitles mixed with various scenes of them putting on their make-up and wig, getting dressed in kimono (by a male dresser), performing overseas, and mixing with the crowd in Tokyo. (See a Kyoto geiko posing with Cosplayers in Tokyo.)

The film shows how these women are actually just normal people like everyone else. They eat candy, watch movies, like to eat good food, etc. The older geisha, though, went through a different experience when she was sold into the profession. There’s a good mix of interviewees. Young and old, upcoming and soon-to-retire, as well as former geiko now married and happy with married life and her three kids.

Being a maiko/geisha is a way of life, and can be quite restrictive. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see some of them retired (or want to retire) to get married (all maiko/geiko in Kyoto must remian single) or find another occupation while still being young enough. It was also surprising to see how some of them have started side businesses/occupations such as singing (a childhood dream for one geiko) and selling their own cosmetics line.

I think it’s valuable visual/audio record of these women, a valuable oral history reflecting Japanese tradition as well as the current times. Peter was mainly motivated to make this film after seeing so many foreign journalists who could never get it right in portraying the geisha. (I can well understand this.) He plans to make a sequel. The cameraman and film editor was John Wells in Kyoto (another friend of mine).

The film is available on DVD for UD$47.99 including shipping. You can order it here:

You can also see the trailer, but it’s just a music video clip without any talking. Don’t be misled by it. The actual film has no music, only talking. I think this film is ideal for the education market. Universities, high schools, etc., teaching Japanese would or should be interested in acquiring this video.

JNTO Tourist Information Center in Kyoto CLOSED!!

I can’t believe it, but the Tourist Information Center in Kyoto (inside the building where you can go up to Kyoto Tower) has closed on Jan. 31, 2004.

Just when the Japanese government is promoting its Yokoso Japan! campaign to entice more foreigners to visit Japan, they do this!!

Kyoto is one of the most tourist-infested places in Japan, and that TIC in Kyoto was always busy and a great place to find out about festivals and places to photograph.

I am totally dumbfounded. Their excuse is that there is a tourist info counter in Kyoto Station. Yes, but they are for the Kyoto-area only, not the entire country of Japan like the JNTO TIC in Kyoto.