Kyoto is a city full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.  I've been spending quite a bit of time at both, sitting, listening to the monks chant, praying; and generally enjoying the beautiful structures, artifacts, and vibes of each place. There is a tradition called Shuincho, which is the collecting of the official seals (shuin) from each temple or shrine in a small book (shuincho). At one time shuincho documented a religious pilgrimage from place to place, but while they are generally no longer used as such, each temple/shrine still has it's own seal, and many Japanese collect seals from each temple/shrine they visit.  Shuin offer good luck and protection.  As well as the official seal, each shuin also includes calligraphy written by a monk at the shrine - usually the date and the name of the shrine.  

It's a wonderful way to document temples/shrines visited, and, each shuin is a small work of art. I'll be updating the below photo gallery as I go... Stay tuned. 

Butsudan/Kamidana/Ihai (佛壇, 神棚, いはい)

The butsudan is a small shrine, or Buddhist altar, that is common in many Japanese households.  In rural areas most all houses have butsudan, while in cities, given space constraints, they are slightly less common.  The butsudan is essentially a small cabinet, either self-standing or built into a wall, with multiple shelves that house Buddha statues and pictures, other religious items (butsugu) such as incense burners, resonant bowls, and candles, as well as shelves for pictures and Ihai to pray to and leave offerings for ancestors. 

Technically, the butsudan is a place to honor and make offerings to the deceased, whereas a separate shrine, called a kamidama, is used to pray to and make offerings to the gods.  Functionally, however, in most households the butsudan and the kamidana merge, with the lower levels of the shrine being the butsudan/ancestor area, and higher levels being for the gods/kamidama. Notice in the above picture of the Kikuchi family butsudan, the colorful papers hanging from the top are from Shrines (kamidana).  This distinction (or lack thereof), is a great example of the confusing and integral way that Buddhism and Shintoism coexist within Japanese culture. 

Kikuchi family Ihai

Ihai, or spirit tablet, are small pieces of wood that document the passing of family members, and are kept in the family shrine in the home.  When a family member passes away, their name, death date, and sometimes age will be written on the wood. The ihai then is stored with the other deceased, and is prayed to/given offerings. Every day at the Kurodasuke farmhouse, Takayo  brings a small bowl of rice and a cup of tea as an offering. 

The Kikuchi family ihai proved to be very helpful in tracing back the generations living in the house. Many of the ihai have a name and a death date.  Some have a birth date.  Some don’t even have a name, just the date of death.  Many of the old ehai are written in very old style kanji, so they are difficult to read.  Migaku and I took out all the ihai and organized them as best we could by generation, tracing back six generations to the first known Kikuchi to live in the farmhouse, Hyoemon Kikuchi (1820 - 1894). 

Kikuchi family ihai organized by generation.  See below for translation.  

Kikuchi family ihai organized by generation.  See below for translation.  


Since arriving in Japan I’ve been working on Oobire, a new composition for sho, hichiriki, wagon, shakuhachi, and percussion/electronics that will premier at the International House of Japan (Tokyo) on May 27th. 

Oobire blends traditional Japanese instruments with processed recordings of old Japanese 78s and field recordings; as well as bells, resonant bowls, and wooden temple blocks I’ve found in my travels. I am reaching back to ancient Japanese forms and sounds, while also attempting to sonically distill and express my present experience living in Kyoto.

Oobire draws from my interest in - and love for - traditional Japanese music such as Gagaku as well as the lesser known Shinto ritualistic music called Azuma Asobi.  The instrumentation is equally inspired by the aforementioned forms. The wind section (sho, hichiriki, and shakuhachi), is very similar to the Gagaku wind section, with the exception of the shakuhachi replacing the ryuteki. Interestingly, in the early years of Gagaku in Japan (8th and 9th centuries), a lower pitched flute was used, closely related to the shakuhachi.  This was a nice discovery in my research, for when I chose shakuhachi it was purely based on my love of the sound and my connection to Christopher Yohmei, a fantastic Tokyo-based shakuhachi player who will perform in the ensemble. The dry, stark sound of the wagon is the backbone of Azuma Asobi, and I chose it to function as such in Oobire. You can see my previous post on the wagon to learn more. (You can also reference my previous post on the sho). 

I’m fortunate to have the amazing shakuhachi player Christopher Yohmei as a member of the ensemble, and through Christopher I was able to put together an ensemble of top tier Tokyo musicians, including Nakamura Hitomi (hichiriki), Tajima Kazue (wagon), and Miura Remi (sho), who are members of Reigakusha, one of the premier Gagaku ensembles in Japan.   

We had our first rehearsal on May 8th, minus the percussion and electronics, which I will add at the next rehearsal.  Rehearsal score and rehearsal recording below.