JAPAN: Kyoto (Seimei Shrine / 晴明神社)

The city of Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years and is perhaps one of the best places to get a flavor of old Japan.  In preserving Japan’s old traditions, Kyoto is the city of quiet temples, sublime gardens, colorful shrines and geiko. But, perhaps the most interesting temple among Kyoto’s vast collection is the one that deals with the darker elements of Japanese culture.

The Seimei Shrine, founded in 1007 is dedicated to the onmyoji, Abe no Seimei. It is said that the shrine was constructed on the site of his house just two years after his death. An onmyoji is a person who practices the traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology known as onmyodo (陰陽道) or “The Way of the Yin and Yang.” Based on the Chinese philosophies of Wu Xing (Five elements) and Yin and Yang, it is a mixture of natural science and occultism.

Onmyodo was introduced to Japan during the early 6th century and was accepted as a practical system of divination.  It came under the control of the Imperial government and later the Tsuchimikado family where elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Shintoism were incorporated.  Onmyodo was practiced until the middle of the 19th century after which point it was classified as superstition and its practice prohibited. Interestingly, the mid-19th century was also the time when Admiral Perry came to Japan demanding that Japan open its ports to foreign trade and when the Meiji Restoration came into existence.

Abe no Seimei was a Heian era (794-1185) astronomer who served the Emperor by performing divination and various ceremonies.  To his contemporaries Seimei was a genius with second sight, able to perceive an invisible world of demons and spirits.  He could also see star constellations others could not. He continues to be the subject of a variety of colorful legends including one which claims that he was able to instantaneously cure the Emperor of an illness. Further, Seimei himself enjoyed a long and healthy life which led people to believe that he actually possessed magical powers. Although Seimei’s life is well documented, his lineage remains unclear. Abe no Seimei’s two sons,  Yoshihira and Yoshimasa were also onmyoji, like their father.

It is said that the famous well (Seimei-i) located on the Seimei Shrine grounds were Abe no Seimei was buried retains Seimei’s divine power.  Anyone who partakes of its water will receive a blessing for good health.  The well is in the shape of a 5-pointed star known as the Seimei star (Pentacle in the Western world) and one of its vertices acts like a water intake.  This water intake points in a lucky direction and each year during the beginning of spring (February 4th), the orientation of the well is changed. Abe no Seimei reputedly designed the star in the 10th century to symbolize the Chinese Five Elements. You will find its image throughout the shrine.

There are two gates (torii) which lead up to the relatively small shrine.  The main building (honden) was restored in 1925. Within the shrine grounds, you will find pictures and text relating the legend of Seimei. There is a bronze statue of a peach which visitors are invited to stroke to ward off evil. The ancient Chinese believed that peaches were talismans to guard against evil. Today, many Japanese people know the story of Momotaro (A boy born from a peach who conquered the land of demons.) which was derived from this belief. There is a small bridge said to be a replica of the original Ichijo Modori Bashi.  The actual bridge located just south of the shrine is said to be a gateway between the human and the spiritual realms.

The shrine draws many visitors who view it as a potent “power spot.” Each year during fall, there is a Seimei Matsuri.

So the next time you are in Kyoto, why not include the Seimei Shrine as a potential stopover and get to know Japan’s Merlin!

Web page:

Address:             806 Horikawadori Ichijo agaru Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8222, Kyoto
















JAPAN: Kyogen, Traditional Comic Theater

There are four forms of traditional Japanese theater which include, Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku and Kyogen.

Noh is the oldest theater art form still regularly performed today. Its stories are derived from traditional literature and it features only male actors. Noh integrates elaborate masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are conveyed using stylized gestures and masks are utilized to represent the various roles such as ghosts, women, children and elderly people.

Kyogen which literally translates to “mad words” or “wild speech” developed alongside Noh and was performed along with Noh serving as a break between acts. To this day, it retains close ties with Noh and is sometimes designated as Noh-Kyogen. Kyogen, like Noh, features only male actors however, that is where the similarity ends. Where Noh theater is formal, symbolic and solemn, Kyogen is comical, satirical and presents humorous stories of daily life. Its primary goal is to make its audience laugh. The performers do not wear extravagant costumes, make up or masks. Instead they are dressed in simple kimonos and are accompanied by a chorus.

It is said that Kyogen was a major influence on the development of Kabuki theatre. It was adopted as the official form of entertainment during the Edo period and was subsidized by the government. Further, since Kyogen was performed along with the Noh, it was patronized by the upper class.

There were once three schools of Kyogen which included the Sagi School, the Okura School and the Izumi School. The Sagi School was closed down leaving only the Okura and Izumi schools to quietly cultivate their art. After World War II, many forms of Japanese traditional arts were revived. Consequently, Kyogen’s popularity increased once again and today it is performed and practiced regularly throughout the country and is featured on television programs. In 2001, Kyogen was designated by UNESCO, along with Noh, as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

One interesting fact is that during the post-war period, foreigners were allowed to participate in Kyogen as amateur performers. Today, foreigners who reside in Japan and possess sufficient Japanese language skills are afforded the opportunity to practice this traditional art form with amateur troupes.

There are many places to see Kyogen performed including Tokyo and Osaka but what better place to enjoy this traditional art form than in a town that is dotted with traditional Japanese houses and where geisha and maiko roam the streets? Gion Corner located within the Gion district of Kyoto presents several of Japan’s traditional performing arts including the Kyo- mai dance performed by maiko dancers, Gagaku court music and Bunraku puppet theater all on one stage. While you are there, be sure to visit the Maiko Gallery where videos of dances, maiko hair decorations and other items are on display.

Admission to Gion Corner is ¥3,150 for adults, ¥2,200 for audience members between the ages of 16-22 and ¥ 1,900 for those between the ages of 7-15.

The theater is easily accessible from the JR Kyoto Station, via city bus 206 or 100. Get off at the Gion bus stop and the theater is merely 5 minutes on foot from that point. Alternatively, you can take the Keihan Line train to Gion Shijo Station and again the theater is only 5 minutes away on foot.









Maiko Gallery

Maiko Gallery


Web page:                     

Address:                                  Yasaka Hall, 570-2 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku