A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.

Off the Beaten Path: Yokai Street and Halloween in Japan

In the past three or four years, it has been almost impossible to not notice Halloween making a rapid transition in Japan from “not really a thing at all” to “very much a thing,” though in practice it’s hard to say how much of the modern traditions of, say, American Halloween have been adopted.1

That old traditional favorite, blood glasses

What is most interesting about Halloween in Japan, arguably, is not the fact that Japan has more than its own share of ghost stories and other eeriness, but the fact that so little of it seems to wind up overlapping with Halloween — summer is the season of ghost stories in Japan, or at least that seems to be the stereotype.

In their defense, these ghost breads are positively adorable.

In Kyoto, however, there is a little shopping street, only about 400 meters long, that has benefited perhaps more than most from Japan’s newfound interest in autumnal spookiness. Drawing on local folklore from a thousand years ago,2 this little street rebranded itself as “Yokai Street,” named after the yokai monsters from Japanese folklore, in the hopes of drawing visitors to stir up business and revitalize the local shops. One of the main signs you’ll see of this is little figures of traditional creatures from folklore out front of the shops, often made from whatever the shop sells, or sometimes just folklore-based variants on common things like the “watch for children” sign.

Watch for cyclops children at play

CURRENT MOOD:

The local temple also holds semi-regular Mononoke-ichi art and craft markets, where visitors can buy coasters, sculptures, socks, art books, and more, all of it with a monsters-from-Japanese-folklore theme, or at least, say, eyeballs or white foxes. Depending on the season, you might also be able to get yourself a special bowl of shaved ice.

Current tally: 2 sad, 1 happy

One of the biggest events for this street, though, is a revival every several months of an old tradition based on the same legend: the Hyakki-yakō, or, essentially, “night of a hundred monsters.”3 As night falls, people crowd this street for a parade of monsters and ghouls, organized as a revival of the sorts of costumed parades once held in this part of Kyoto, many centuries ago.

Lanterns and fursuits!

Tengu guy wearing legitimate tall and narrow geta sandals! (not pictured

More foxes, or maybe cats? I am not good at animals.

Fox mask done in makeup, with cool weird contact lenses!

The “HAPPY HALLOWEEN” banners decorating the shops on the next street over last weekend may have been more conventionally Halloween-themed, but Yokai Street certainly felt much more in the spirit of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why they scheduled the parade for October.

For more information on Kyoto’s Hyakki-yakō and Mononoke-ichi events, check out their web site (in Japanese only). Their next event, as of this writing, is schedule for the second half of December: they’ll actually be visiting Tokyo to hold a Mononoke-ichi market there!


  1. Trick-or-Treating still seems decidedly exotic, but on the other hand, Halloween decorations can be seen popping up everywhere. The decorations have been generically “Christmas” or “Valentine’s Day” enough that it has led my wife and me to occasionally jokingly refer to them as “Merry Halloween” decorations. Lots of orange and black around, though, in any case. 
  2. During the Heian era (794–1185), at least in this part of Kyoto, it was said that old household tools and items thrown out while cleaning your home would hold grudges for being disposed of so coldly, so the tools decided to become monsters of various sorts to take their revenge on those who threw them out. As a result of this belief (or legend), there were nighttime parades held in this area centuries ago where people would dress up like these monsters. 
  3. Interestingly, this phrase is also used in a non-literal sense to refer to a state of utter chaos. 

The Secret Ramen District of Kyoto

Kyoto usually brings to mind history and elegant culture, and for good reason. However, Kyoto also has more colleges per capita than any other city in Japan, giving it a second, very different personality.

One particularly good example of these dual personalities is food. While Kyoto has many exceptional kaiseki restaurants, there are also many restaurants for college students, and that means ramen. In fact, on Higashioji-dori, between Ichijoji and Shugakuin stations in northeast Kyoto, there are currently fifteen ramen shops, with no fewer than five more a fairly short distance away.

Perhaps most surprisingly, especially given Kyoto’s reputation for delicate, subtle, refined cuisine, what most of Japan thinks of as thick, rich ramen (like Hakata-style tonkotsu soup, made from pork bones) is considered “average,” or even relatively light, in Kyoto. For ramen, and seemingly ramen alone, Kyoto craves nothing more than something rich, thick, and flavorful.

Kyoto prefers a type of soup called marudori paitan (a type of chicken soup made by cooking chickens, meat and all, at a rolling boil, instead of the usual clear chicken stock made by simmering carcasses without the meat, making sure to prevent it from coming to a boil), and in extreme cases the soup is thick enough to nearly be a sauce — the noodles sit on top of the soup, instead of sinking into it, necessitating stirring.

In fact, the original Tenka Ippin (a relatively famous chain, known for their rich chicken soup) is located in this part of Kyoto, and in recognition of local and nationwide ramen preferences, their thickest and richest ramen soup is only available at their original shop in Ichijoji.

If you find yourself in Kyoto and you’re a fan of ramen with rich, thick soups, it’s worth making a trip to this area to try some out! My personal favorite is Akihide (the last one in the video), but when there’s this much competition, you’ll find that everyone is great, just as a matter of keeping up with the surroundings.