Essayist Omura Shige: The Life and Compassion of a Quintessential Kyotoite

Omura Shige (1918-1999) wrote about daily life and the treasured customs of Kyoto, and introduced the Kyoto style of home cooking, called Obanzai, to people throughout Japan in her writings.

Omura Shige in her later years
Omura wrote numerous books about life in Kyoto
Temari Nama-Fu wheat gluten were one of Omura's favorite foods
A meal served by a restaurant Omura would frequent in March to celebrate Girl's Day

Transcript

00:03

"Even objects have life," my grandma would always say.

00:11

As a young child, I had no idea what she was talking about -

00:18

but I somehow understood that I must take good care of things.

00:27

Essayist Omura Shige emphasized showing compassion for things.

00:33

Born in 1918, she began writing about everyday Kyoto in the 1960s.

00:41

Be it daily diet...

00:45

...traditional crafts...

00:50

...or, festivals and customs.

00:52

She wrote about daily Kyoto life from the viewpoint of an ordinary person

00:56

until her death in 1999 at the age of 80.

01:05

I thought that someone who knows these things should be making a record of them.

01:15

There are people in Kyoto who identify with Omura's writings

01:19

and turn to her words for inspiration in their lives.

01:24

The fact that our work is viable is built on the culture the people before us created.

01:31

It's not just upholding that culture but also expanding it.

01:36

In that sense, we are following Omura's lead.

01:46

Taking care of things is, I believe, linked to taking care of ourselves and our lives.

01:59

In the post-World War II era when Japan was striving for economic growth,

02:04

Omura documented the vanishing ways of Kyoto and its traditional character.

02:12

Core Kyoto looks at local life through the eyes of 20th-century essayist, Omura Shige.

02:31

Omura Shige was born the daughter of a Gion caterer.

02:35

Her parents being exceptional cooks, she developed a good palate from an early age.

02:43

She moved into a "machiya" townhouse upon entering women's college,

02:47

and she lived there for most of her life.

02:51

In 1952 at age 33, an essay she had submitted to a magazine was accepted for publication, and her writing career took off.

03:01

Her compositions, penned in the Kyoto dialect, were based on her own lifestyle.

03:10

Omura never forgot her grandmother's and mother's words: "Even objects have life."

03:18

She called pencils "her treasures," and she would use them until they were stubs.

03:26

Omura published a book on Kyoto home cooking in 1966, shooting her to fame in Japan.

03:36

As a result, she began appearing on television as a cooking expert.

03:41

Now, the clear soup.

03:44

These are fresh glutenous balls. They're cute and very spring-like.

03:52

Put in the rolled egg. And you must make it colorful.

03:57

It's hearty, so it can also be served as a side dish.

04:04

Omura also wrote about Kyoto customs.

04:09

Every year in March, a traditional restaurant located along the Kamo River displays Hina dolls for patrons to admire.

04:17

The dolls embody a wish for girls to grow up healthy and happy.

04:25

Omura wrote that she would visit most years to see the dolls and enjoy a meal made with seasonal delicacies.

04:36

Japan changed drastically after World War II,

04:40

and Omura felt the traditional way of life was threatened by rapid economic development,

04:45

so she devoted herself to leaving a record of daily life in Kyoto.

04:54

In 200 or 300 years' time, people will look back at the 1980s -

04:59

and lump the pre- and post-war periods together.

05:04

So, it's up to someone who lived through those times to write about the way things were.

05:16

This traditional confectioner was established in 1909.

05:26

Its signature products are simple baked sweets made with buckwheat flour.

05:33

Sawada Shozo is one of the few people left who knew Omura while she was alive.

05:44

He would visit her frequently, and they would have casual chats,

05:47

and even deep conversations about life.

05:52

She didn't hold back and told it as it was.

06:00

Just being with her was fun and a learning experience.

06:05

Chefs would show us around their kitchens,

06:09

and even confectioners of heritage shops would talk about their trade.

06:16

Sawada created these buckwheat snacks in collaboration with Omura.

06:24

He wanted something that melted in your mouth,

06:26

so he reached out to Omura, who was well-known for her a discerning palate, to assist him.

06:36

In 1991, Sawada began offering soba buckwheat noodles as a way to promote the unique buckwheat confections,

06:44

originated by his grandfather and father.

06:50

He had no formal culinary experience,

06:53

so he asked Omura to taste his attempts at making noodles over a year and half until she gave him the thumbs up.

07:01

Based on this collaboration with Omura, he later created this soba course meal, which is now on the menu.

07:12

Sawada continues to pursue the potential of buckwheat through confectionery and cooking.

07:17

He still stands by one of the principles Omura taught him.

07:22

There's a difference between being stingy and being frugal.

07:26

The latter, as my grandma would say, is using everything up.

07:35

Omura believed that frugality is looking after things,

07:38

which begins with the awareness of reusing and avoiding waste.

07:42

She also wrote that frugality is breathing new life into something that is no longer needed.

07:49

After you make dashi with good quality kelp, the kelp still has lots of flavor -

07:55

so make a second batch of stock, then use it up by making salted kelp, she would say.

08:05

Sawada uses top quality kombu kelp to make his dashi,

08:08

and he upholds Omura's teaching of using everything up.

08:22

When he is done, he sets aside the kombu and bonito flakes for later use.

08:33

One regular customer who lives in Kyoto gladly takes them home.

08:41

When cooked up, this kombu is delicious, and my friends agree.

08:49

Kumekawa Toshiko adds a twist to make the leftover kombu into this side dish.

08:57

In return, she gives Sawada's wife kimono she no longer wears.

09:02

Kimono have always been considered something not to be wasted in Kyoto.

09:08

People in the past would look after their kimono and wear them until they were tattered.

09:16

And then they would make them into futon covers.

09:20

That was called good frugality.

09:24

The principals of frugality Omura propounded are alive in Kyoto, today.

09:38

This store has specialized in "nama-fu," or fresh glutenous cakes, for over 150 years.

09:48

"Nama-fu" is made by kneading wheat flour with water

09:51

then adding glutinous-rice flour to the extracted gluten.

09:55

The dough is shaped and steamed for a springy texture and delicate, nearly indistinct taste.

10:02

It has long been a popular ingredient in Kyoto cuisine,

10:05

because it goes with various seasonings, broths, and condiments.

10:12

Omura also appreciated the beauty of the store's "temari-fu,"

10:16

which is made by wrapping thread-like "fu" around "fu" balls.

10:25

Omura was also a fan of the "fu-manju,"

10:28

which has "nama-fu" made with seaweed wrapped around smooth red-bean paste.

10:32

She wrote that she wanted it offered in her memory on the anniversary of her death, without fail.

10:42

Kobori Shuichiro never had the opportunity to personally meet Omura before she died,

10:48

but he can identify with her through her books.

10:51

He feels that living and working in a heritage business has much in common with the Kyoto Omura describes in her prose.

11:00

She wrote about Kyoto culture.

11:03

Her books conveyed what people native to Kyoto took as a given.

11:09

It was easy for me to relate.

11:15

Kobori insists on making "nama-fu" by hand, as it has always been done in his family.

11:25

He makes seasonal "nama-fu" products by kneading fresh delicacies into the glutenous mixture

11:30

to convey a sense of the passing of time.

11:33

For example, in early summer he uses peas.

11:43

The "nama-fu" Kobori sells in winter uses "yuzu" citrus grown in Mizuo, in the outskirts of the city.

11:50

The renowned Mizuo "yuzu" is an indispensable flavoring when it comes to Kyoto cuisine.

12:00

Kobori has planted some of the seeds from the used "yuzu" in his store's garden.

12:15

My understanding is that Kyoto "yuzu" is delicious -

12:20

because it is carefully nurtured in Mizuo.

12:27

You have natural disasters, and I hear depopulation is worsening.

12:34

I'm afraid that if anything happens, we won't have our usual "yuzu" supply.

12:49

Kobori eventually replants the sapling trees in Hanase, about an hour's drive from central Kyoto.

13:00

This mountainous village has been a valuable source of foodstuffs for Kyoto since ancient times,

13:05

and since Kobori already had connections here, he decided it would be ideal for his "yuzu" trees.

13:17

The trees will not start bearing fruit for another 10 years.

13:27

I don't expect my ideas to bear fruit any time soon.

13:35

I'd simply be happy if they fruit after I die.

13:51

It is customs like these that Kobori and Omura believe must be cherished

13:56

while handing down food culture with an eye to the future.

14:07

What we're doing here may be forgotten in time.

14:14

If something catches someone's attention, and if it heads in the right direction -

14:20

in a sense I too would be following in Omura's footsteps.

14:26

If society fostered more people like us, the future would be more prosperous.

14:51

Successive proprietors have wrapped their "fu-manju" in Kuma bamboo grass sourced from Hanase.

14:57

Kobori feels they are more aromatic than Kuma bamboo grass from other regions.

15:06

However, there was a spate of bad harvests due to deer feeding on the grass.

15:14

The Hanase residents, in collaboration with the local government and university lecturers,

15:19

erected a protective fence to revive the bamboo grass.

15:25

And, they have been successful.

15:33

Kobori realized that using the Kuma bamboo grass for "fu-manju" alone

15:37

was not enough to sustain the plant's cultivation,

15:40

so he used it to develop a distilled spirit with a mellow aroma.

15:52

Kobori sells the beverage to an established Gion bar.

15:55

The grass is hardly used for anything but wrapping things.

15:59

By making the spirit, Kobori is proposing a new style of "produce locally, consume locally,"

16:05

an old custom in danger of dying out.

16:09

I think materials from the mountains near Kyoto strongly talk to the memories of Kyotoites.

16:19

I hope people appreciate how good it is to grow up in Kyoto -

16:27

and hold a love for the area.

16:42

Since 2016, one writer has been following in Omura's footsteps.

16:52

Kawata Tsuyoshi, born and raised in Kyoto,

16:55

visits the locations and shops Omura mentions in her essays.

17:03

Shogunzuka is where the emperor who established the capital here in the late 8th century

17:09

is said to have buried an iron-armored, clay figure with a bow and arrow, as the guardian deity of Kyoto.

17:16

Omura wrote that this was the playground where she and her friends would play tag.

17:24

She wrote that, at the time, there was only a small shrine and the mound -

17:29

and it wasn't the nicely maintained place it is today.

17:38

Kawata has maintained a website since 2018 dedicated to Omura,

17:43

and he uploads information pertaining to her life.

17:52

Today, most of Omura's books are out of print and hard to obtain.

17:57

Kawata does not want her precious records of a bygone era lost to time,

18:01

so he decided to leave her footprints in cyberspace.

18:11

Despite being a Kyoto native, Kawata never showed interest in the traditional side of the ancient capital.

18:17

But after chancing on some of Omura's writing,

18:20

he realized that events and customs he knew had meaning, and began reading more.

18:28

For me, she is a great forerunner writer, and she has significantly enriched my life.

18:37

Kyoto, as a regional city, is not that big a city.

18:43

But there is much information here.

18:46

Omura's books have taught me how little I know. I can barely keep up.

18:52

Once I started following her, my life became richer and richer.

19:00

Kawata's desire to visit places Omura mentions is an attempt to relive her experiences.

19:09

One of those places is a chopstick store established in 1764.

19:18

It offers more than 400 varieties of chopsticks for dining and cooking.

19:27

Omura would shop here on December 27 each year to buy special New Year chopsticks for use during the festivities,

19:38

a custom handed down from her grandmother.

19:44

I sometimes polish the willow chopsticks with salt so they remain white and clean.

19:53

Late on New Year's Eve, I thank them for their hard work during the year and offer them to the deities.

20:04

How inconvenient life would be without chopsticks.

20:13

It's important to remember she wrote from her experiences.

20:17

She didn't simply pass on the facts.

20:21

She wrote about things based on how she and everyone around her felt.

20:26

If someone hadn't written about ordinary, daily habits like Omura did -

20:32

they would've been forgotten, without even a record that such things happened.

20:44

Kawata continues his mission to shine a light on Omura's neglected essays

20:48

to share with people over the coming years.

20:55

This sewing needle shop first opened over four centuries ago.

21:04

Omura spoke of memories of her mother giving her a needle she had bought here.

21:09

Omura herself excelled at sewing.

21:26

Minowa Mayumi is a seamstress.

21:45

A Kyoto native, Minowa moved into this Kyoto-style "machiya" townhouse with her family in 2008.

21:52

Now, her home also serves as her dressmaking studio.

21:58

She creates easy-to-wear children's and women's clothing

22:01

designed to highlight the feel of the natural fabrics she uses.

22:11

Her handsewn sundries are also popular.

22:17

Minowa only heard of Omura recently and at once felt a connection through her essays.

22:25

The elderly took care of things until the end.

22:29

They always said, "Objects have life, so we must treasure them until their life is over."

22:39

They never threw things out that were still usable.

22:45

People back then used their belongings in various, creative ways.

22:53

I like doing the same thing myself, and I get the feeling Omura must have, too.

23:01

I think she was the kind of person who strived to improve herself in the process.

23:08

I want to be like that when I get old.

23:15

Even before she encountered Omura's books,

23:18

Minowa was particular about selecting and using things made from natural materials.

23:25

She takes good care of everything she buys and repairs them when necessary.

23:39

She also keeps remnants of any fabric she has used in her work.

23:50

Minowa puts them aside according to size and the type of fabric for later use.

23:56

Objects go through many people's hands before they reach here,

24:01

and they're made from limited resources.

24:06

We tend to forget that, but after objects come to us, they do the best work they can.

24:15

So, we show them respect by using them until the end.

24:22

They then return to the earth or their original state.

24:27

Doing the right thing from the beginning to the end, I think, is everyone's responsibility.

24:39

Minowa strives to instill the same beliefs in her children.

24:43

And that shows in her daughter who subconsciously uses pencils until they can no longer be sharpened.

24:59

Minowa also holds lessons at her home.

25:08

- Do shops sell these?
- That's scrap from a bamboo shop.

25:17

On this day, she teaches how to make dusters and potholders.

25:31

I can use this for something else.

25:36

I save things like this.

25:40

I used them for wrapping presents or bundling cloth.

25:45

I'll do the same.

25:46

- Or wrap it around scissors.
- How cute.

25:50

- Scissors can hurt.
- True.

25:55

Twist it like tying a ponytail.

26:05

Fabric and bamboo scraps have been given new life as dusters.

26:24

The potholders require hand-sewing.

26:35

They chat as they work, and 40 minutes later, they are done.

26:48

You tend to treat things you've made yourself with more care.

26:56

Taking care of objects is the same as taking care of yourself.

27:00

It teaches you to value your existence and do good things.

27:04

It is also about helping others in small ways -

27:08

and being filled with gratitude.

27:17

Omura Shige upheld the principle that objects have life,

27:21

and she would talk to them and treat them with care.

27:27

She believed that objects were products of the "blessings of nature"

27:31

and "the passion of the artisans," so she cherished everything.

27:39

Omura and the Kyotoites who follow in her wake

27:42

remind us to interact with objects in ways that modern society has nearly forgotten.