It is generally said that Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, praying for peace in the capital of Kyoto without wars, erected the phoenix at the Golden Pavilion. However, Yoshimitsu, who acquired immense wealth and power through Kangou trade (a common name for the trade that took place between Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, the third general of the Muromachi shogunate, and Emperor Yongle, the emperor of the Ming dynasty), was not satisfied with that alone. It is said that he harbored ambitions of usurping the imperial throne and was planning for it. The structure of the Golden Pavilion is considered to represent the hierarchy of authority, and there is a theory that the phoenix at the highest point symbolizes Yoshimitsu himself. The phoenix was installed with the meaning that he, Yoshimitsu, was more deserving of being the emperor than the emperor himself. While Yoshimitsu left significant achievements, comparable to later figures such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, his ambition to seize the imperial throne and its realization were unique to him. Although Yoshimitsu appears in history textbooks, strangely, he is not often featured as the protagonist in TV dramas or movies. This is because Ashikaga Yoshimitsu plotted the greatest taboo in Japanese history—the usurpation of the imperial throne.
In childhood, the winter joy on the way to school was the ‘tondo.’ Back then, we simply called it ‘tondo,’ but as I grew older, I came to understand its meaning. ‘Tondo’ goes by various names in different regions, such as ‘tondo-yaki,’ ‘dondo-yaki,’ and ‘donto-yaki.’ It seems that ‘sagicho’ is the formal name. This is a ritual bonfire event where New Year decorations, old charms, and amulets are burned at shrines and temples. Even now, ‘tondo-yaki’ is a post-New Year tradition, but in my childhood, I thought it referred to roadside bonfires. In the midst of the ‘tondo,’ a local elderly man would put sweet potatoes, treating the gathered children to the delicious roasted potatoes. The taste of those roasted sweet potatoes is unforgettable. Enjoying oven-baked sweet potatoes, the memories suddenly resurface.
When it comes to Arashiyama, the first thing that comes to mind is the Togetsukyo Bridge. Spanning the Katsura River, the 155-meter-long Togetsukyo Bridge has become the symbol of Arashiyama, attracting numerous tourists. Although I mentioned it spans the Katsura River, in reality, upstream it becomes the Oigawa River, and downstream it changes its name to the Katsura River, divided by the Togetsukyo Bridge. The name Togetsukyo, or “Moon Crossing Bridge,” is said to have originated from Emperor Kameyama’s expression of awe as he observed the moon moving across the bridge during the Kamakura period. Arashiyama is renowned for its beauty in each season, listed among the ‘100 Famous Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan’ during spring and the ‘100 Famous Autumn Foliage Spots in Japan’ during fall. It showcases different faces with the changing seasons, presenting cherry blossoms, fresh greenery, autumn leaves, and snow. Across the Oigawa River, the area includes Mt. Ogura, Mt. Kameyama and their foothills on the east side, and the area of the Arashiyama Sanzan mountains of Mt. Matsuo, Mt. Arashiyama and Mt. Karasugatake on the west side. Together, this area is commonly called Arashiyama.
The Ukraine invasion war, reignited by Putin’s paranoia, is now nothing but a war of attrition. Since early June this year, the Ukrainian military has launched a large-scale counteroffensive. In response, the Russian forces have deployed new troops and engaged in a massive operation in the Donetsk region, leading to intense battles. The Russian military not only failed to achieve its initial objectives but also suffered a considerable number of casualties, estimated to be at least 20,000, and some sources claim it could be as high as 50,000. Yet, persisting in the war despite these losses is a characteristic of paranoia fixated on specific delusions. Have the Russians forgotten that famous song, ‘Tsuru’ (Crane)? Created in 1965 by Gamzatov, who was moved by the story of Senbazuru (a thousand origami cranes) by Setsuko Sasaki during the World Conference against A and H Bombs in Hiroshima, the song features exquisite translation by Berenice and a stirring composition by the Ukrainian composer Frankel. The song became immensely popular in Russia. Triggering events commemorating and memorializing the victims of past Soviet wars, crane statues were inevitably used, and lines from this song became commonplace. Translated into various languages, it became a global anthem. Even in Japan, the Royal Knights and Dark Ducks brought ‘Tsuru’ back from the Soviet Union, and it quickly became a hit.
The autumn leaves in Kyoto, which were delayed compared to usual this year, reached a level of cold on the 18th similar to mid-December, finally approaching the ‘best viewing’ period. Last month, the number of foreign visitors to Japan exceeded 2.51 million, surpassing the same month in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Kyoto during the autumn foliage season is crowded everywhere, and the average hotel accommodation price in Kyoto has risen to over 73,000 yen for a room for two people. Compared to before the pandemic, it has increased 1.9 times. In addition to the inherently ‘high cost’ of Kyoto, the ‘labor shortage’ also undoubtedly affects accommodation prices. While the accommodation fees for staying in Kyoto may be perceived as high for Japanese tourists, for foreigners, especially with the current strength of the yen, the prices do not seem excessively high. One tourist from Australia commented, ‘We don’t have autumn leaves in Australia, so I never get to see the leaves turning red or orange. It’s really nice. I mainly stay in three-star hotels in Japan, so it’s very comfortable, clean, has everything I need, and is reasonably priced.’ They expressed satisfaction.
To reach the main hall of Hasedera Temple, one must ascend a staircase known as the “Noborirou,” consisting of 399 steps, designated as an important cultural property. The Noborirou is divided into three sections: upper, middle, and lower, totaling 399 stone steps. Climbing the staircase, shedding worldly desires along the way, one reaches the top after surpassing the symbolic 400th step (associated with death), where they encounter the main deity, an eleven-faced Kannon statue enshrined in the main hall. The main hall, constructed similarly to Kiyomizu-dera’s stage, features a hall of worship on the left and the main hall on the right, where the main deity is enshrined. At the edge of the hall of worship, there is an image of Binzuru, one of the sixteen arhats who served Buddha Shakyamuni. Binzuru, known for his exceptional discipleship and miraculous powers acquired through ascetic practices, is also famous for his love of alcohol. Legend has it that he was once caught drinking between meditation sessions by Buddha Shakyamuni, resulting in being tossed outside the temple. Due to such anecdotes, Binzuru is commonly enshrined outside temple halls across various temples.
On the walking path early in the morning, fallen leaves that were blown by last night’s rain and wind are piled up. The colorful fallen leaves are so vibrant that they don’t even look like fallen leaves. It’s impossible to walk on this path now. When you see that there are no footprints, I’m sure everyone feels the same way. When the rain and morning dew disappear, and these fallen leaves are blown away by the wind, they will return to the original walking path. When I imagine that, my heart feels warm with the joy of knowing that everyone who walks through this path shared the same experience.
In the mountainous region bordering Sakurai City and Tenri City in Nara Prefecture, there is a soba restaurant called ‘Kasa Soba.’ In close proximity lies the Kasayama Aragami Shrine, one of Japan’s three major Aragami shrines, dedicated to the deity of the kiln, known as ‘Kasa no Aragami-san.’ Nestled in the depths of Hasedera, this area is considered the birthplace of Shinto, with a history dating back 3,000 years. This area is located at an altitude of 400 to 500 meters, with large temperature differences between morning and evening, and is blessed with the perfect climate and climate for making soba, so soba production began as part of the village’s revitalization efforts. The soba noodles made from 100% Kasa buckwheat flour grown locally have become very popular, and before you know it, it has become a well-known tourist spot in Nara. Particularly during this season, visitors flock from all over Kansai in search of new soba, leading to long queues and establishing it as a well-known destination.
When it comes to Christmas, Christmas trees and Santa Claus are classic, but lately, what stands out conspicuously is the Christmas wreath. Walking through the city, whether it’s at the entrances of homes, cafes, restaurants, or shopping centers, Christmas wreaths are adorned in various places. Originally, a wreath referred to a decorative circular arrangement made of flowers or leaves, worn as a crown by ancient Romans during festivals and celebrations. This wreath underwent Christianization during the spread of Christianity in medieval Europe, evolving into the Christmas wreath we know today. Christmas wreaths typically take the form of a circle, symbolizing ‘eternal love,’ ‘bountiful harvest,’ and ‘protection against evil.’ The materials used to embody this symbolism include evergreen leaves and branches such as pine, holly, eucalyptus, representing the enduring nature of evergreens even in winter, symbolizing new life and hope. Additionally, wreaths are adorned with ribbons, bells, sparkling ornaments, and Christmas balls.
Today is Shichi-Go-San. It’s a traditional Japanese celebration for children who are 7, 5, and 3 years old, marking their growth. Families visit shrines and temples for the ‘Shichi-Go-San-mairi,’ offering prayers, gratitude, and reports. It is said to have originated with prayers for the health of the eldest son of the fifth shogun of the Edo shogunate, Tsunayoshi. At nearby shrines, many children dressed in formal attire, along with their parents, were making visits. It is a truly delightful and heartwarming scene. However, these fortunate children stand in contrast to the reality that in Japan, approximately 1 in 9 children are said to be living in poverty. There is an international indicator called the ‘poverty line’ that represents poverty, and in Japan, the poverty line in 2018 was an income of 1.27 million yen. This means that approximately 1 in 9 children are in environments characterized by such conditions. At one point, there was a period when this ratio was 1 in 6, but due in part to increased societal awareness, we have fortunately moved away from the worst conditions. While Japan is experiencing a declining birthrate, with the number of births in 2022 being 770,000, a quarter of the peak at 2.5 million births, the disparity in child poverty is widening. The economic losses resulting from child poverty are estimated to be around 43 trillion yen. When combined with the issue of declining birthrates, this poses a truly serious problem for Japan’s future.