AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Hokkaido’

All you have to do is look (147)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2012

Winter illumination in Sapporo’s Odori Park

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All you have to do is look (118)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 25, 2012

The nukihosai, a Shinto rice-cutting ceremony at a sacred paddy in Sapporo.

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All you have to do is look (88)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 26, 2012

The opening of a new curling rink in Sapporo last month. It is the first in the country to be open year-round.

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All you have to do is look (52)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The sanma (Pacific saury) catch earlier this month in Hokkaido.

Photo from the Mainichi Shimbun

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Japanese bellydancers

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 24, 2012

IT’S not well known outside the country, but the Japanese also enjoy participating in and watching their own variety of belly dancing. Unlike the Middle Eastern beauties usually associated with the art, however, these dancers have curves in all the wrong places. They’re fat guys who hide their faces.

Instead of showing their own ugly mugs, these belly dancers take off their shirts to have faces painted on their chests. They stick dummy arms of the side of their hips, hold a covering over their heads, and swing and sway with the music. The fatter the dancer, the more they sway, and the funnier their faces become.

Hey, give ‘em a break! It gives a turn on center stage to guys who people usually wouldn’t look at twice.

In fact, Furano, a town of about 24,000 people in Hokkaido, has been giving those guys that chance for the past 44 years by holding a midsummer festival for the belly dancers. It’s called the Hokkai Heso Matsuri (heso means navel), and the last one attracted 3,700 shirtless dancers. Some of them danced as members of the 57 groups that take part. People usually register in advance, but like most Japanese festivals, no one cares if someone jumps in on the spur of the moment. In addition, 130 foreigners added their avoirdupois to the festivities.

Me, I’d rather watch dancing women with painted bodies, but we can’t always get what we want, can we?

A Youtube? Isn’t there always a Youtube?

Posted in Popular culture | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Maintaining one’s cool

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 12, 2012

WHY replace something that still works just fine?

That seems to be the philosophy of 82-year-old Bando Kichi, who owns the Kogane-do shop in Chitose, Hokkaido. During the short northern summers. Kogane-do sells shaved ice, or what we used to call snowballs when I was growing up in Baltimore. My hometown also has hot, muggy, Japan-like summers, but without the rainy season.

The ice shaving machine in the photo above is the same one they’ve been using at Kogane-do since the shop opened in June 1958. As with most commercial ice shaving machines, it’s driven by an electric motor, though today’s models have been simplified. Check out the levers on the side.

Reports say this older machine produces ice that is more finely granulated. In fact, the product they sell is not called kakegori, which is the standard Japanese name. A different term that translates as ice water is used instead. This childhood sno-cone connoisseur would be ready to pay the 200 yen to put it to a tongue test. Of the three flavors offered at Kogane-do, however, I’d have to choose between the strawberry and the melon. They didn’t have azuki bean-flavored snowballs in the neighborhood shops when I was a boy.

Either way, you still need an iceman to supply the ice, and the late Albert Collins did just that at the Mt Fuji festival some years ago.

Posted in Food | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (134)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 9, 2012

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

Eight plans to rebuild Yubari’s finances were formulated immediately after the city declared bankruptcy, and another eight plans were developed after that, for a total of 16. You often hear the expression, “The national government’s agreement is required just to buy a pencil”. Every time those plans were modified, it was discussed with the national government, with (the government of) Hokkaido as an intermediary. It is difficult to convey the conditions in Yubari through this vertical structure, and it takes a lot of time. One of the objectives of the new three-party council is to have the national government and the prefecture see what is needed now in Yubari.

- Yubari Mayor Suzuki Naomichi. The 31-year-old mayor is the center of national attention for his efforts to save a city devasted by municipal mismanagement and population decline. A former employee of the Tokyo Metro District, he was sent to Yubari for a year to help with the municipal reorganization. Mr. Suzuki’s efforts were so appreciated by the people in Yubari that they asked him to return and run for mayor.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Quotations, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Ichigen koji (132)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

一言居士
- A person who has something to say about everything

The people who look at the shuttered shops near the station and declare that the regional economy is in decline, and that regional cities are devasted, have only a superficial understanding. They do not understand the structual changes in regional economies. Using this idea alone to review films such as Saudade, which is based solely (on the above idea), shows that film critics in Japan know little of the world.

- Fujiwara Toshi

He is perhaps talking about reviews such as this:

I saw Saudade at Eurospace in Shibuya (a self-described “art house cinema”). It is a drama of a group of Japanese and foreigners that takes place on the stage of a declining regional city. The film is set in Kofu, but for me, who was born and reared in Otaru, a regional city that is truly in decline, the film was quite moving.

Or this.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Films, Popular culture, Quotations | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nira kasutera

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

GARLIC chives, known as nira in Japanese, are used as an ingredient in dishes throughout East Asia. My wife grows them in a small plot outside the kitchen door and sometimes mixes them into scrambled eggs or miso soup.

There’s a story in her family of the plant’s rejuvenating properties. Her mother’s relatives were schoolteachers or farmers, and this comes from the farmers’ side. One of the chickens they kept grew so weak it seemed as if it would soon be giving up the poultry ghost. The woman of the house picked a bunch of nira from her plot and stuffed it down the chicken’s beak. An hour later it was cackling and running around as if nothing had been amiss.

Japanese food companies like to experiment with different combinations, and the 3S company in Shiriuchi-cho in Hokkaido prefers to use locally grown vegetables. The municipality has the largest nira production in the prefecture, so that makes it a natural choice for the company’s research labs.

Now they’ve come up with a new product that is a combination of garlic chives and castella, a sponge cake known locally as kasutera. The cake came to Japan through Nagasaki in the 16th century when it was brought by Portuguese merchants. Now a specialty of Nagasaki, it was a special treat during the Edo period because of the high price of sugar. (The sugar content is one reason I don’t eat it unless someone offers it to me.)

The combination of nira and kasutera doesn’t sound very appetizing, but the reports say it tastes better than it sounds. They pound the chives into a pulp first before mixing it with the batter. There’s a precedent for this type of product; there are already castella varieties on the market with green tea mixed in. If you’re ever up Shiriuchi-cho way, you can find a slab like the one shown above at local shops and hot springs for 700 yen.

Who knows? Maybe the sugar high will get you up and running until the rejuvenating properties of the garlic chives kick in.

That might be the problem with the Nira Kodomo (Nira Children) performing the “song” Hen na Atama. (Well, it’s either nira kasutera or hash brownies.) Hen means weird, and atama means head, so they won’t have any problems with truth in advertising.

A few days ago we had a video of a natto eating contest. Here’s a castella eating contest held in Nagasaki in May.

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All you have to do is look (1)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 29, 2012

Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio visits a festival in his election district in Hokkaido. Mr. Hatoyama has increased his weekend visits to the district because of concerns he will not survive in the next lower house election.

(Photo from the Asahi Shimbun)

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Big mothers in Hokkaido

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 14, 2012

GIRL FIGHTS — the physical kind — create strange dissonances in the masculine imagination. In one set of circuits, there is a disquieting, innate sense that This Should Not Be Happening. Coursing through a different part of the wiring, however, is an irresistible electromagnetic desire to watch and enjoy every second of the awe-full spectacle.

And take sides!

I’ve never seen any girl fights in Japan (probably live in the wrong part of town for that), but in addition to normal quotient of female wrestlers and boxers, there are also female sumo rikishi. Most of them get grunty for the sheer fun of it, because there isn’t much money to be made. In fact, some big mothers enjoyed grappling their way through a sweaty Mother’s Day in Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido, today.  A total of 58 rikishi-ettes, some from as far away as Tokyo, took the trip to the far north to push each other around and down. Reports say the spectators also had a grand time pulling for their favorite pugs.  I’ll bet!

Sumo rikishi choose colorful, almost poetic names when they turn pro, but these motherbruisers selected more fanciful handles for the day. One fought under the name of Tonkatsu-maru. (Tonkatsu are pork cutlets, and maru is the suffix given to ship names.) Another called herself Bakushuppara. (Bakushu is the old word for beer, so this literally means “beer belly”). The referees contributed some comedy of their own by creating amusing names for the victorious techniques. These terms are codified in professional sumo, but none of them include “twist and crush”, which is how one of the mamas came out on top.

Today’s grand champion was a 46-year-old magazine editor from Tokyo sparring under the name of Etsukonoumi, who normally answers to Abe Etsuko. Etsukonoumi is shown in the photo during the championship bout knocking out of the ring an American known as Odoriyama (Dancing Mountain), who is twice her weight.  The triumph of fighting spirit over size surely made the event that much more satisfying for everyone. Except Odoriyama.

The term for her winning move was legit — yorikiri, or pushing the opponent out by the belt.

It was Etsukonoumi’s second title; the first came nine years ago. Here’s what she said through the tears in the post-match winner’s interview:

“She was heavy, but I slammed into her as hard as I could. I’m happy to win after such a long time.”

Some fathers give the mothers in their lives flowers or chocolate to celebrate the day. These women probably would have been happier to be treated to a trip to the hot spings, followed by a massage.

While we’re on the subject, try this report on international sumo and the origins of women’s sumo in Japan. Unless the idea of female prostitutes wrestling blind men in the 18th century doesn’t intrigue you, in which case you can skip it.

*****

Not all of the Mother’s Day news was as entertaining, however. It was also reported that the body of Donald “Duck” Dunn, the bass player for Booker T and the MGs, was found alone in his Tokyo hotel room early this morning. He was in town for some concerts.

The obits mentioned his full career, including playing with the Blues Brothers and Neil Young, but that part was irrelevant and immaterial. It was what he did in the MGs, both as an independent band and as the studio band for everything recorded at Stax in the 6tees, that made every news outlet run an article and a photo on his life and career.

Booker-Loo will show you why.

Posted in Sports, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

—————–
A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei


They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

*****
And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Snow scenes and cherry blossoms

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SNOW is seldom seen here in Kyushu, and when it does appear, it seldom survives more than a day. That’s just the way I like it.

Snow on the ground is a daily companion a few months out of the year in other parts of Japan, however. One man told me about moving into a rental house in the northeastern part of the country in midwinter. He didn’t realize there was a fence around the property until spring came and the snow melted.

The opportunities for outdoor fun in Snow Country would seem to be limited to skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and swapping frostbite avoidance strategies. That’s not how the people who live in that part of Japan see it, however, particularly the people of Yamagata. For example:

They play soccer in the snow.

For the past seven years, the folks in Yonezawa have a soccer tournament played on a snow-covered rice paddy instead of a pitch. They think it’s safe to assume there will be enough snow to hold the event every year. In addition to creating a chance to act goofy, the idea is to attract interest in the local Onogawa hot spring resort.

The rules have been modified to suit the playing conditions. The rice paddy pitch is 20 x 40 meters, the match is played with futsal rules with five members on a team (at least one of whom must be female), the players wear rubber boots instead of spikes, and using piles of snow to deliberately obstruct an opponent is not allowed.

The reports from Yamagata suggest the players of snow soccer have just as much fun when they fail as they do when they succeed. Footballers find it hard to run when their feet sink into the playing surface, and hard to stay serious when they fall on their face after kicking snow or air instead of the ball.

They go mountain biking in the snow.

For the past 17 years, the city of Higashine has staged a winter festival that includes an endurance race on mountain bikes over the local tundra. The bikers hit the trail on a special circuit laid out over 2.5 kilometers near another hot spring resort, and that location can’t be by accident. The course even includes jumps.

Contestants are divided into three groups: Men 50 and older, men 49 and younger, and women. Speaking of endurance, it takes about an hour to run the 2.5 kilometers, but that’s to be expected when tires are spinning in snow sherbet or in the air after the rider takes a spill.

They also have races with radio cars.

The engineering school of Yamagata University in Yonezawa sponsors a race over the snow for radio-controlled cars put together by the students. One of the objectives is to have students with different specialties work together on the same team, and this time five teams participated. It’s a timed race over a course that features jumps and other obstacles, and the course was laid out to require travel over snow of different consistencies.

All the entries were hot-rodded radio cars already commercially available. One team of students outfitted the wheels with belts instead of tires, and another added aluminum wings that rotated to bite into the snow and prevent slips. One team’s car didn’t get anywhere at all — the tires never got traction and they had to withdraw after the battery ran down.

Of course they have snow fights. In fact, in Hokkaido, they have international snow fights. With teams.

They’ve been duking it out in the snows of Hokkaido’s Sobetsu-cho over two-day competitions for 24 years now. The objective is to be the first team to reach the summit of Mt. Showashin. They’ve got more competition than the average gladiator match — according to reports, 150 teams with 1,500 members in all participate. That includes several squads from Europe, one of which last year was the winner of a similar event in Sweden. International exchange in the snow!

The Japanese media didn’t report on the rules governing the competition — there must be some — but this is what it looked like:

They don’t waste their time with mere snowmen, either. Back in Yamagata, they build snow monuments.

An estimated 70 snow sculptors in Oishida-machi created what they call a soba mascot in front of the JR Oishida Station. That’s the sort of monument people put up when they live in a town known for soba noodles.

The monument was 10 x 17 x 4 meters, with a “soba mascot” rendered on the front in a style of drawing traditional to the area called kotee. They also sprayed on the color, white alone being insufficient to create the desired effect.

The group consisted of members of the local Lions club, a construction industry association, an art group, and high school students. They also made snow slides and lanterns while they were at it. Odds are they made their way to a hot spring for a good long soak after all that cold weather work.

Speaking of snow lanterns, they make those in Yonezawa too. Those are for the annual Uesugi Toro Festival, a toro being a type of lantern. The event is held over wide area that includes the Uesugi Shinto shrine and Matsugamisaki Park. More than 103 local groups pitch in to make 248 of the snow toro, as well as a candle pyramid and 3,000 smaller lanterns of a different style.

In fact, the slogan for the event is “One lantern at each house”.

They even have flower festivals in the snow in Yamagata. With real flowers!

The festive winter flowers there are tree peonies, known as botan in Japanese, and the festival has been held for more than a decade at Takahata-machi. Perhaps for variation, they also had some flowers shipped in from Shimane, which is known as the peony capital of Japan.

The flowers are displayed on 35 straw mats that are a meter high. The main attraction is a six-meter mat with the flowers arranged in a special hina doll design. (Hina Festivals will be held throughout the country the weekend after next.) Adding to the fun are snow slides and peony miso soup with boar meat.

Yes, that’s what the report said. I read it twice to make sure.

Winter in Yamagata has several attractions for aesthetes as well as the type of people who play snow soccer. One of them is snow monster viewing at the Zao ski resort in Yamagata City. Local atmospheric conditions combined with falling snow means that the trees on the slopes are covered with hoar frost that hardens into unusual shapes. Snow monster fans from throughout Japan visit for the views, the skiing (on 14 slopes over 305 hectares with 42 ski lifts), and the hot springs resorts. There’s one outdoor hot spring at Zao that can accommodate up to 200 people at once, presumably of the same sex. Then again, the air’s so cold there’s plenty of steam, and people probably sink in up to their necks, so all that nudity would go to waste.

If all this talk of snow, ice, and numb runny noses has you longing for the warmer weather of spring, take heart — it’s already started in another part of Japan, despite the date on the calendar.

Way down south in Nago, Okinawa, they have a slogan: Spring in Japan begins here. That’s because for the past half-century, they have the country’s first official hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, at the Nago Sakura Matsuri at the end of January. Now that sounds like my kind of place.

In addition to the usual boozing, flower appreciation, singing, and more boozing, there are parades, dancing by women’s groups and other groups in period costumes, and performances by youth groups.

And I’ll bet they all relax at a hot spring when it’s over!

*****
Here’s a brief video of the Zao snow monsters in Yamagata.

Through one of the quirks of the Internet, one of the suggested videos at the end is of a bunch of people in France shopping at a department store in their underwear.

And the media thinks Japan is weird!

UPDATE:
Now here’s some good news.

Kumamoto, the leading watermelon-producing prefecture in Japan, just made its first shipment of the year on the 19th. Yeah, they were grown in a greenhouse, but they sure look good, they weigh four to five kilograms each (bigger than usual), they’re about 11-12 on the sweetness scale (average, and yes, that’s the first time I’ve heard of a sweetness scale too), and they’ll fetch JPY 4,000 – 5,000 in Tokyo and Osaka department stores. (If you have trouble believing that some people still buy produce in Japanese department stores, remember that the customers are of a small market segment that doesn’t worry about how much it spends.)

The shipment of 2,800 melons was sent out from Ueki-machi. They’ll ship an estimated 2.4 million by July. I’m ready now, but I’ll wait for summertime prices.

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analog for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events at home and in public, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January.

That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!

*****
Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.

Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:

The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.

He’s not alone in that.

The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.

Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.

It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.

Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.

It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.

While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.

The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.

Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!

Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.

Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:

There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.

Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.

The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.

While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:

With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.

As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.

An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.

Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:

There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.

Said the calligrapher/priest:

Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.

Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?

You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)

So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.

Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.

The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.

Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.

While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?

Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?

This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.

If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.

Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:

Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.

The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.

The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.

Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)

The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.

It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.

In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.

It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.

Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.

Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.

And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:

But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?

Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.

They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.

They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.

The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.

New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.

Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.

The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.

Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.

Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?

Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.

An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.

In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.

Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.

Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.

The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.

The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.

Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.

Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!

UPDATE:

Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:

Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.

Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.

Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?

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Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.

Tokyo

They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.

Kyoto

A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.

Ibaraki

An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.

Nagoya

Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.

Osaka

Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.

Kanagawa

Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.

Hokkaido

The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?

Kagoshima

The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.

Fukushima

A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

*****
The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

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