AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

Life in the Edo period

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012

MANY Japanese are fascinated by the Edo period, which extended from 1603-1868. Among the many reasons is that was a period of vigorous cultural activity that was distinctively Japanese, as the country had withdrawn from most interaction with the rest of the world. In the words of the Kodansha Encyclopedia, developments during the period “strongly influenced the political organization, social structure, ethical practices, and aesthetic perceptions of modern Japan.”

Author and columnist Tachibana Akira wrote an article published in the Weekly Purieibooi earlier this year whose intent was to keep the interest in the period grounded in reality. The title of his article was, If you want to learn about life in the Edo period, go to a slum in India. Here it is in English.

*****
You sometimes hear people frustrated with the lack of growth in the Japanese economy say they would like to return to the ordered society of the Edo period. They seem to think that life was by far more humane in pre-modern society than today’s free market-based society.

Researchers in the new academic discipline of historical demography are studying past population trends using records of the population registers called shumon aratamecho and ninbetsu aratamecho. What can we learn about daily life in the Edo period studying the movement of people and changes in the population?

The historians have discovered some strange phenomena as a result. While the population increased in most regions during the Edo period, they declined in the (highly populated) Kanto and Kinki regions. These two regions contained the cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, which had more than one million people each. Why did the population grow in regional areas and fall in the cities?

It’s because living conditions in those cities at the time were foul.

Other than those instances in which their farmland was expanded through reclamation or other projects, all but the eldest sons of farm households went elsewhere to seek work. Most of them left home at age 14-15 to become apprentices. It was common to take up such work as the weavers of Nishin brocade or to become attached to commercial establishments.

The apprentices lived packed into the back rooms under the roof in commercial establishments. They became particularly susceptible to infectious diseases. Extensive harm was unavoidable if there was an outbreak of smallpox or dysentery.

While the infant mortality rate was high during the Edo period, it was not unusual for people in agricultural villages to live into their 60s. In the three largest cities, however, deaths from malnutrition or infectious disease in one’s teens or twenties were a frequent occurrence.

The population of Japan in the ordered society of the Edo period remained constant at roughly 26 million. This was not because of the stability of society, however, but because the population increases in the farming villages were weeded out in the cities. Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka were death traps for the young people who went there to find work.

The poor from outlying regions who came to Edo found employment as construction laborers, peddlers, or menials at commercial establishments. If they were thrown out of work, it is likely they had few options other than begging or prostitution to survive.

If you think about it, their lives must have resembled those of the poor in India or Southeast Asia. Those who can’t survive in Indian agricultural villages often wind up in the slums of Delhi or Mumbai. In impoverished countries, it is not unusual for women to find that prostitution is their only means to live. This gives rise to an immense sex industry that ranges from upscale establishments authorized by the government (police) to illegal street prostitution. It is very similar to the prostitution system of the Edo period that reached its zenith with the Yoshiwara quarter in Edo. (The name Yoshiwara became used for similar districts throughout the country.)

Conditions in impoverished countries are very similar. That poverty also existed in the Edo period, and many people had no choice other than to live in nagaya in the slum districts.

You don’t need a time machine to experience life in the Edo period. All you have to do is go to a South Asian slum.

Afterwords:

Mr. Tachibana’s Japanese-language website has an English title: Stairway to Heaven. It features a photograph of the ladders to heaven painted on the side of a mountain near the sacred Yamdrok Lake in Tibet.

Posted in History | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

All you have to do is look (76)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Byodo-in Buddhist temple in Uji, Kyoto. It was built in 998, and its most famous building is the Phoenix Hall, built in 1053. Last month, the priests conducted a ceremony, the Hakken-shiki, to temporarily place the spirit of the statue of the Buddha in that hall into a yellow sphere while the hall is being repaired. The work is scheduled to end in March 2014.

Though this is a Buddhist temple, the ceremony was Shinto. Gagaku, which is Shinto ceremonial music, is heard at the end of the video.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (41)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 7, 2012

Cosplay on a Kyoto train

Photo from the Sankei Shimbun

Posted in Photographs and videos, Popular culture | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (21)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 18, 2012

A performance of the azuma asobi dance during the Mikage Festival at the Shimogama Shinto shrine in Kyoto. The dance dates from at least 1443. The festival is offered in supplication for a return of youth. The shrine is a World Heritage Site.

Posted in Festivals, Photographs and videos, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

What I did during summer vacation

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 4, 2012

SUMMER vacation for kids in Japan can be the same lazy season it is anywhere else — they hang out with their friends, or hang out at home and watch television while putting off their homework. Some kids — or their parents — find other things to do. Some kids go to private schools for extra study.

And some become Buddhist priests.

The photo above shows the ordination ceremony on the third for new Buddhist priests at the Higashihongan-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. That’s the headquarters temple for the Shinshu Otani sect, which has 8,900 affiliated institutions nationwide.

The sect allows children as young as nine years old to become priests, because that’s the age at which the sect’s founder Shinran (1173-1263) entered the priesthood.

Participating in the ceremony were 152 children on their summer vacation, most of them primary school students. Of that total, 68 were nine years old.

During the special ceremony, they had their hair cut, received a surplice, and were given a Buddhist name for use as priests.

And their parents might have taken some of them for ice cream and cake to celebrate when the ceremony was over!

There’s no video of the ceremony, but here’s one of the temple itself.

Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Marquee attractions

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

KABUKI theaters, being theaters, require marquees in the same way as the halls of London’s West End, New York’s Broadway, or the burlesque joints in the 400 block of East Baltimore St. — The Block — in Baltimore, where I grew up. But as with everything else, the Japanese have their own approach to the whole business of marquees.

The photo above shows 78-year-old Kawakatsu Seiho and the 54 maneki (literally, invitations) he drew with the names of the performers of the season’s dramas staged at Kyoto’s Minami-za this year.

Mr. Kawakatsu had just finished a special ceremony called the manekigaki (writing the invitations) at the Myoden-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto (established in 1477) before the performance of Kichirei Kaomise.

There’s more to tradition even if it does meet your eye. The style of calligraphy is unique to maneki of this sort, and is called kanteiryu. And because this is a special occasion, sake was mixed with the ink. That isn’t just for the heck of it — they say it adds luster to the ink on the boards.

Don’t miss a trick, do they?

The maneki are 180 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide and hung above the theater entrance. If you want to see what they look like in place, try the following amateur video taken three years ago at the premiere of the same drama at the same theater — Japan’s oldest, founded in the early 17th century. The cameraman could have been more relaxed, but the video provides excellent views of the exterior and interior both.

Posted in Arts, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Headlines and the reality

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2012

“I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,” he called. “Born and bred in the briar patch.”
And Brer Rabbit skipped away as merry as a cricket while Brer Fox ground his teeth in rage and went home.
-Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby

THE English-language media are on the verge of swallowing their tongues in excitement. Here’s the lede from an AFP article that everyone’s running with:

Tens of thousands of people rallied outside the Japanese prime minister’s residence in Tokyo Friday in one of the largest demonstrations held against the restart of nuclear reactors.

Organizers claimed 100,000 participated, but adults in the area said it was more like 20,000. That is a substantial number of people for a Japanese demonstration, but then we do live in a semi-hysterical age.

Now for the reality. The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a poll of the six prefectures in the Kinki region (served by the Oi nuclear power plants) two weeks ago asking whether people approved or disapproved of the resumption of nuclear power generation.

Here are the results:

49%: Approve
41%: Disapprove

The difference was even greater in Osaka Prefecture: 52% in favor vs. 39% against. Shiga was the only thumbs-down prefecture, and the Kyoto results were a rough 50%-50% split.

More significant than these numbers is the trendline. At one point, the percentage of those who disapproved was around 70%. Opinion on this issue is dynamic, and it isn’t moving in the direction the demonstrators and some in the media would prefer.

A few days ago I ran across a site (in English) in which the author of one post was excited by the anti-nuclear power sentiment in Japan and Prime Minister Noda’s statement that he would consider going nuclear-free — even though he was aware that it was the same Noda Yoshihiko who authorized the resumption of the Oi plant operations.

He thought it was encouraging that some politicians suggested holding a national debate on nuclear power in Japan this summer. Now there’s a man who hasn’t spent much (if any) time in this country in July and August.

Japanese utilities are calling on people to cut back on 10% of their power consumption this summer. (That’s the number in Kyushu, at least.) Kyushu Electric Power has already drawn up plans for two-hour rolling blackouts in 60 districts once a day in the event their surplus disappears.

Americans think the weather on the East Coast this time of year is almost unbearable. My wife and I took our first trip to the US East Coast together one August. It was so hot and muggy during our sightseeing visit to Washington DC that people were moaning, groaning, and staggering over to benches in the shade to limply fan themselves.

“What’s the matter with them?”

I told my wife the heat was getting to them.

“Heat?” She almost snorted. “This isn’t hot. In Japan this is nothing.”

And then she went back to poring over the guidemap to decide where she’d like to go next.

That’s why the politicians want the debate conducted in the summer — when everyone’s dripping with sweat and taking three showers a day and washing the mold off their leather belts and keeping the air conditioner off due to the power cutbacks, and their children (of the generation accustomed to sleeping in cool comfort) are constantly cranky and home all day during school vacation.

A discussion about nuclear power this summer will be like Br’er Rabbit getting the fox to throw him into the briar patch.

And that’s during a normal year. Just think of what might happen during a heat wave.

UPDATE: Here’s some of what Ikeda Nobuo had to say about the demonstration:

“I had thought that classic mass movements of this sort were over in Japan, but perhaps they were revitalized by social media in the manner of Occupy Wall Street in the United States. That in itself isn’t bad, but the objective of stopping the resumption of generation at the Oi plants is nonsense.

“The authorization has been issued and work has begun, so it can’t be stopped without a special order under the law for technical improvements. The demonstration won’t stop it. If the demonstration was to keep other nuclear plants off-line, the economic hit from their idling would continue to grow from the JPY 5 trillion already lost. In other words, the demonstration was held to make Japan poorer…

“The most serious crisis facing Japan now is the threat of becoming poorer tomorrow than we are today. The working population declines by 1% every year, while government debt grows by JPY 50 trillion. Nominal GDP last year was the same as it was 20 years ago, and may turn negative. Thus, the lifetime disposable income of a child born today will be more than JPY 100 million less than that of an aged person who retires today.

“The manufacturing industry is rushing to move overseas to prepare for power outages this summer. Consumer electronics manufacturers and semiconductor makers are already gushing red ink…Talk to businessmen working in the manufacturing industry and the conversation turns to how long they will be able to stay in Japan. A demonstration seeking to halt energy supply during such a time will likely be remembered as the final episode of stupidity in a once-prosperous Japan.”

Posted in Mass media, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Females, food, and fertility rites: Is there a finer combination?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

SCANNING the back pages and far corners of local Japanese newspapers, either in print or online, has been a delight for the past month. It’s rice-planting time in Japan, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of ceremonies are held throughout the nation honoring the tradition of wet paddy cultivation, each one a spectacular in miniature.

The priests of the proto-religions in some cultures sacrificed their young virgins to appease the volcano gods and other sullen spirits. Man, that’s just screwy, and I’ll bet it didn’t make the gods any happier than it made the young men of the tribe. In Japan, they keep those precious young virgins alive for more productive endeavors. One of those activities is to serve as miko (Shinto shrine maidens), who dress in colorful costumes, sing, dance, get barefoot, and snork rice seedlings into the mud by hand. They’re sometimes accompanied by the Shinto priests, who get down and get dirty right alongside them.

If you want to know what it looks like without getting out of your chair, you’ve come to the right place.

The local branch of the national agricultural cooperative pitched in to help plant a sacred paddy at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, shown in the first picture. (That shrine link is in English, by the way.) The ceremony is held in supplication for a good harvest, which in this case will be turned over to the shrine itself. It started with a procession of 70 people to the site and continued with a Shinto ceremony conducted by the priests. That was followed by a dance performed by the miko and the planting itself in a 17-are paddy. (An are = 100 square meters or 0.0247 acres, and 100 ares = a hectare)

The home in the background is that of the Wada family in Ogi-machi, Shirakawa-mura, Gifu, and has been designated an important cultural property of the nation. It’s one of a settlement of homes that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.  The name for the architectural style translates as “prayer hands”, which is particularly effective for dealing with the area’s heavy snows. The houses were home to extended families on several floors, who usually worked in the sericulture industry.

Reports say that the 20 girls at the Wada family paddy were singing while they worked, which makes me wonder if I should have been a farmer instead.

Yeah, they grow rice in Tokyo too — technically in Chofu, a municipality within the Tokyo Metro District. This ceremony was conducted at Jindai-ji, a Buddhist temple, which is not surprising considering the mix-and-match approach of the Japanese to religion. There’s been a temple on this site since at least 733. The ceremony was conducted jointly with their sister city in Kijimadaira-mura, Nagano.

In addition to planting the seedlings in this paddy, the seven farmerettes passed out some to the spectators to grow at home. One later said, “It was a lot of fun to be able to experience something I don’t normally do.” If you think she was just being polite, look at that sweet smile in the photo above. Girls who are ready for a new experience, even if it means manual labor while sloshing around in the mud, will always find shelter from the storms of life at my place.

This short video of the temple grounds is well done, by the way.

One intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is the frequency with which some of those traditions disappear and then reappear. For example, the folks associated with the Izumo Daijingu Shinto shrine in Kameoka, Kyoto, haven’t conducted this ceremony in 84 years. It was last held to coincide with the ceremony marking the formal installment of the Showa Tenno. Last spring, the shrine recovered some land it had leased out, so they decided to use it this year to put in some sacred rice. Sixty people in all participated, including the high school girls who served as the miko in the 500-square-meter plot. There was also a gagaku dance performance, which goes together with these events as well as peaches and cream. Gagaku is the music associated with the Imperial household, as are shrines with the –jingu suffix.

This shrine knows a lot about tradition, too. It dates from 709. They think.

The rice planting festival conducted by the Mikami Shinto shrine website in Yasu, Shiga, was also held every year to coincide with the Showa Tenno ceremony in 1928, but they skipped it last year due to a shortage of participants. The Shigans decided not to let that happen again, so a woman who’s been involved in the event for more than 20 years organized a group of 50 to take care of business this time. There was singing and dancing and planting in time to the beat of the taiko drums. When it was done, the woman said her hips hurt, but it was worth it. Try this website for more photos, including some black and white shots from a more pastoral age.

They didn’t have any problem finding enough women to carry the mikoshi in May 2010 at that same shrine’s Hyozu festival, however. The festival features a parade of at least 35 mikoshi (portable shrines transporting the shrine deity), two of which are carried by women only. This one’s called the Ayame, or iris. How can anybody not love sweaty shouting girls with cool clothes and hair?

Another intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is how relaxed people can be about those traditions. Look at those costumes: Centuries worth of convention from their hairstyles to their ankles. Below that, they’ve wisely updated to sports shoes.

The Takase shrine in Nanto, Toyama, goes out of its way to plant koshihikari seedlings, reputed to be the best variety of rice in the country. Five girls from ages 14 to 20 got 500 of the seedlings started on a 25-meter-square paddy. After the rice is harvested in mid-September, some will be given to the Takase shrine, and some to the Ise-jingu, also associated with the Imperial household.

The Tozawa shrine in Shinjo, Yamagata, doesn’t have the tradition of other institutions — it’s been around only since 1893. They talked 13 girls into planting the rice here, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The same ceremony is conducted in turn by 11 branches of the shrine in the region that are members of the Association of Shinto Shrines, and you really ought to click on this link to see their headquarters building in Tokyo.  The reports didn’t say what they’d do with the rice harvested in late September or early October, but somebody somewhere is going to eat it.

For a rural extravaganza, try the Mibu no Hanadaue in Kitahiroshima-cho, Hiroshima, which is both an important intangible cultural property of the nation and registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property.  Two groups of 74 musicians jam while the miko sing and plant rice on an 87-are plot, assisted by 14 bulls.

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

What the heck, one more update. This ceremony was held on the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward, which means it’s one of those downtown paddies. They only had room for 280 seedlings in the nine-meter-square paddy, planted by 10 miko and shrine parishioners after a procession that consisted of 20 people. They expect three kilograms of rice later on this fall. Said 18-year-old Tachibana Yui, who became a miko in April, “I was nervous because it was a religious ceremony, but I’m looking forward to the fall harvest.”

Washing all that rice down requires some sort of beverage, and the finest beverage for that is green tea, which is now in picking instead of planting season.

This tea was planted on a 10-are plot during an event conducted by the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, with prayers for better quality product and the prosperity of the industry.

Wouldn’t you know it? This shrine is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last month, two miko and five members of the shrine’s women’s association harvested the first batch of otonashi tea, which was sent to the area from Kyoto about a thousand years ago during the Heian period.  The district has 40 households growing tea on seven hectares, and they produce about 18 tons a year.

The first batch went to the Imperial household, and the second will be picked at the end of this month.

*****

I eat rice nearly every day, and 95% of it is brown.

Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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!

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

Matsuri da! (121): Hanging the sake balls

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 14, 2011

EVERYONE who’s seen a movie whose action takes place aboard a naval vessel knows the phrase, “The smoking lamp is lit”. It originated in the era of wooden sailing ships, when preventing fires was the first order of business and permission to smoke was signaled by lighting a lamp hanging at the forecastle.

Years ago, the sake establishments in Kyoto had a similar signal that must have been more eagerly awaited by landlubbers and swabbies alike. The proprietors of those establishments hung a ball made of leaves from the Japanese cedar to announce that a new batch of sake was finished and ready to be poured down the hatch.

Nowadays all that’s required is to look for a tavern where the exterior lights are still on and the noren (shop curtain) is suspended over the door, but the custom of leaf ball hanging still lives at the Matsuo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. In fact, a male parishioner put up three last week — one at the main building, one at the administrative office, and one at the storehouse where the mikoshi, or portable shrine for the deity, is kept.

This is a Shinto event, after all, so of course they’ve maintained the liquor connection. The balls are hung from the eaves with care as part of the Jo’u Festival held at the shrine every autumn in supplication for the safety of the sake brewers. As every devout worshipper knows, the first commandment for getting righteously ripped is divine protection for the brewers.

The sake/Matsuo Taisha link is a very long one. A shrine was first established on the current site in 701 — note the triple digits — though they didn’t settle on the Matsuo name until 1950. It’s associated with the Hata clan, a prominent immigrant clan whose origins are in China and who are thought to have come to Japan from Korea in the 3rd Century. According to the barroom scuttlebutt, one of the jewels of continental culture the Hatas brought with them was sake brewing techniques. The shrine’s association with grog in the popular imagination is at least several centuries old: It’s mentioned in that connection in a kyogen comedy from the 16th century.

In an interesting turnabout, the ball of leaves was originally hung as part of the festival to denote the start of a new sake batch, rather than its completion. The heavenly spheres are about 60-70 centimeters in diameter, and they’re made from the trees in a grove at nearby Nantan. The festival itself has been expanded to include the manufacturers and wholesalers of other fermented food items, such as soy sauce and miso paste. This year, representatives of about 50 companies showed up to receive their blessings.

What do they give in return? Take a look at that wall of sake barrels in this brief video to see.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Festivals, History, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Japanese food: More than just raw fish

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 20, 2010

WHEN THE JAPANESE apply their fertile imaginations to cook up new food creations, there’s no telling what delights they’ll discover.

Scratch that—there is telling! Here’s a look at what’s cooking (and brewing) in kitchens lately across the country.

Goya dumplings

Michifude Hiroshi was a successful challenger in one of the televised Iron Chef programs several years ago (in the Chinese food category). Fame begets fortune, so it was natural for the agricultural co-op JA Okinawa to sign a consulting agreement with the chef to provide advice for the development of processed foods using local produce and livestock. In return, his photo and name will be displayed on the packages of any products that result from their association.

The former Iron Chef’s first suggestion was to use vegetables that otherwise would be thrown out because their irregular shapes disallow them from being sold commercially, their esculence notwithstanding. His idea was to use the ugly vegetables as filling for gyoza, the Japanese name for the vegetable- or meat-stuffed dumplings often known as pot stickers in Chinese restaurants in the United States. JA Okinawa now plans to sell 12 different varieties on a seasonal basis, including those filled with rakkyo (an Asian scallion) or karashima (mustard greens).

First out of the box were the goya dumplings, with a package of 12 selling for 500 yen. The goya is a bitter green vegetable that’s quite popular among health conscious Japanese, particularly Okinawans. It’s slightly smaller than an American cucumber with a soft, knobby skin. Like a green pepper, it’s hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds. The goya is so nutritious the Western vegetarian might be tempted to turn it into an object of religious veneration.

One of the JA officials thinks they have a winner:

These non-standard products that can’t be sold commercially are reborn in popular food products. That has two advantages. It’s environmentally friendly because it reduces waste, and it boosts the income of farm families.

Katsuobushi cookies

Every 10 years, the city of Makurazaki in Kagoshima holds a fish cuisine competition to celebrate their incorporation as a municipality, a blessed event that occurred 60 years ago. The Makurazakians held their once-a-decade fest earlier this year, and the Grand Prize winner was a 16-year-old high school girl who created three varieties of katsuobushi cookies. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna that’s been shaved into flakes. It’s usually used to make soup broth.

Katsuobushi cookie winner with Mom

If you think fish cookies sound unappetizing, consider this: The reports say the girl’s creations were the overwhelming favorite of the judges. They had 133 entries to choose from, including hamburgers made with aji (horse mackerel) and vegetables instead of beef. She pocketed JPY 50,000 (almost $US 550) in prize money.

The cookies are made by mixing okara (high fiber soy pulp, also as healthful as the dickens) with the katsuobushi, and flavoring with ginger and soy sauce. She deliberately kept the use of butter and eggs to a minimum, which means they’re unlikely to appear on the shelves of your neighborhood convenience store anytime soon.

She also had incentive—she kept working to refine the recipe because her mother entered the same contest and she wanted to prove her chops. Mother and daughter still get along fine, however, as the photo shows. Perfecting the cookies did require some effort, as she later admitted it was difficult to get them to turn out soft and plump. She’s glad everyone likes them and thinks they might go over well as a snack in drinking establishments.

Soy yoghurt beverage

When Prof. Yanagida Fujidoshi, the head of the Institute of Enology and Viticulture in Yamanashi, downed a soy milk beverage made by Hakushuya Mamekichi of Hokuto at a food fair last July, the proverbial light bulb went on over his head. He contacted the beverage company, and together they developed a yoghurt beverage made from soy instead of milk, using wine yeast. All the ingredients—the soy, the natural spring water, and the wine yeast—are local products.

The professor and his creation

The beverage tastes so much like the real thing it’ll fool yoghurt fans despite the absence of milk. The company says the fermentation of lactic acid causes an unpleasant aroma, and conventional yoghurt products mask that aroma with milk products and fruit flavors in the later processing stages. That’s no problem with their product, however, because it’s soy and nothing but. Brewing one bottle requires about 30 soybeans, or 150 grams.

The company also claims the use of wine yeast doubles the production of lactic acid and increases by 1.7 times the amount of succinic acid, which provides the umami . They suggest selling a bottle for JPY 150 (about $US 1.63), though they won’t make an issue over it. The beverage is currently available in local supermarkets and michi no eki (literally, road or trail stations), which are rest stops along Japanese highways. Most have shops that sell local goods. There are 871 nationwide as of the moment.

The company is planning a full lineup of soy yoghurt beverages with local fruit added. It’s going to be called the Yanagida series and feature the professor’s picture on the label.

Who knows? The professor might become as well-known a celebrity as the Iron Chef.

Blueberry udon

The Japanese have been slurping down udon noodles since the Asuka period, which ended exactly 1,300 years ago this year, but the blueberry udon recently created in Asago, Hyogo demonstrates there are still some new things under the sun after all.

Udon is soup with noodles that tend to be as thick as a chopstick, but chewier and fluffier than spaghetti. The broth is usually either miso- or fish-flavored, and all sorts of varieties can be created by adding different ingredients and spices.

An Asago park well-known for its wisterias has been staging a festival for the past month and a half, and they came up with the idea of publicizing the event by creating a new dish in which blueberries are added to the flour-and-water udon noodle mix. The resulting purple noodles, color coordinated with the wysteria, were served with tempura-fried vegetables, including a type of green onion local to the area and mushrooms. This in turn was placed on wisterial petals and placed in a bowl. Reports say the tartness of the blueberries enhanced the flavor of the other ingredients.

There were plenty of blueberries available because the local chamber of commerce and industry has been growing them and looking for something to do with the surplus crop. The festival ended just last week, and during that time they planned to sell 100 bowls of blueberry udon every day for JPY 500 (about $US 5.45) each, which is not a bad price, as well as take-out meals for two or three people at JPY 450 yen each, an even better price. The producers are going to look at overall sales and make a decision on whether to commercialize the product.

Lotus ice cream

The lotus is mentioned in the Kojiki of 712 (Record of Ancient Matters), which means the Japanese have been growing the plant for as long as they’ve been eating udon. There’s more to it than the beauty, however—the lotus is a big deal in Buddhism, whose theorists have used it to symbolize the human condition. The plant is rooted in the mud of a pond, but it rises above the water to bloom and attain enlightenment.

My sweet tooth says I want to, but my wisdom tooth says no

And if you’re in Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui, anytime soon, they’ll enlighten you with some lotus ice cream, which they’ve given the name Hasukoro Inpact. That’s one prime example of the many visual treats in the written Japanese language, by the way. It’s rendered はすコロINパクト, which combines the two Japanese alphabets of hiragana and katakana and the Roman alphabet.

Speaking of treats with multiple ingredients, the Somoyama hot springs resort in Minamiechizen-cho created the lotus ice cream (actually soft ice cream) to sell on the premises. Instead of the usual crunchy cone, they use one made with cornet bread that has ground lotus leaf mixed in the dough. Don’t miss a trick, do they? The outside is crisp, but the inside is chewy. To make the confection, they start with regular vanilla ice cream and add some raspberry sherbet mixed with another sherbet made from lotus wine. The local epicures say it’s a delectable combination of the sweet and the tart. The spa is selling it until the end of June at their restaurant on the premises for JPY 380 (about $US 4.14). The reports say it will be sold after that for JPY 450, but didn’t specify how or where it will be sold.

If you’re in Japan, though, you can always call the spa at (0778) 47-3368 and ask.

Socho curry

The pictures of Chef Michifude and Prof. Yanagida adorn the labels of the products they helped develop, but Prof. Oike Kazuo of Kyoto University got his photo on the package of Socho Curry mix just because he happened to be the president (socho) of the school when the product was created.

The curry was jointly developed in 2005 by the Kyoto Broadcasting System and the Kyoto U. Co-op with the idea of making then-President Oike, the 24th, more familiar to the students. It was intended to be sold only at the campus cafeteria and in nearby shops. But it became an instant hit with the students, so they decided to produce it as a retorted curry rice product and flog it on the market for JPY 630 apiece. They’ve sold so many they’ve earned an aggregate of JPY 100 million (about $US 1.09 million) in revenue to date.

There’s no word why it’s been so successful in Japan’s crowded curry market, albeit in just one part of it, but then again college students aren’t known to be finicky eaters as long as the price is right. Nevertheless, the Socho Curry success story has got the Co-op so excited, they’re planning to develop more products.

Now for the hard stuff—here comes the hooch!

Mango lager

Hideji, a microbrewery in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, wanted to create a special beer using something distinctively Miyazakian. That was the inspiration for brewing mango lager, mangoes being a special product of the prefecture. Don’t get the wrong idea—some, but not all, of the yeast used to ferment the beer is been made from mango rinds, and some of the fruit is used in the mix. That’s why it’s classified as a happoshu (“sparkling spirits”) for Japanese tax purposes rather than beer, because it has less than 67% malt by content.

Mango lager

Theirs wasn’t an overnight success—it took three years worth of product development to come up with something they were willing to sell. The pluses include the fresh spring water the brewery uses near its location at the foot of a mountain, a slightly sweet flavor, lightness, and fewer calories. It has just 25% of the sugar content of regular beers. It also has plenty of malic acid, which is said to have energy-enhancing and anti-aging properties. In other words, it builds you up and tears you down at the same time.

Still others will appreciate the 5.2% alcohol by volume.

The Hideji brewery is so pleased they’re going to work with Miyazaki University to examine the possibility of creating other microbrews with 80 different types of yeast, including those made from such local citrus fruits such as the hyuganatsu and the kumquat. Now that’s a lab I wouldn’t mind working in.

They’re selling the beer in 330 ml bottles for JPY 600 apiece, which is a bit steep, but it is a microbrew after all. It’s available at the gift shop in the Miyazaki Airport and at the local michi no eki shops. What the heck, if you’re in Japan and the beer and mango combination has whetted either your thirst or your appetite, give the brewery a call at (0982) 39-0090 and ask if they’ll ship you some.

Firewater

Beer in all its forms has far and away the highest sales of any alcoholic beverage in Japan, but some people unfamiliar with national alcohol consumption habits might not be aware that sales of the distilled beverage shochu, which resembles vodka or gin, top sake sales in some years. Way down south in such prefectures as Kagoshima and Okinawa, shochu far outsells sake, and Kagoshima doesn’t even have a sake brewery.

The word shochu is written with the Chinese characters for “fiery liquor”, which literally makes it firewater. I can testify that if you drink too much, it just might start some spontaneous internal combustion.

Fighting fire with firewater

The head of the volunteer fire department in Kajiya-cho, Kagoshima City, is naturally concerned about fire prevention, so he hit upon the idea to create his own shochu and call it Hikeshidamashii, which means “fire extinguishing spirit”. No, not spirits–spirit, as in demon, and no, not demon rum, either! The distinguishing feature of his brand is that the label has a fire prevention message—it reminds people of the law requiring smoke detectors to be installed by the end of May 2011. He developed the drink with another volunteer fireman who works at a liquor wholesaler. Another reason for the choice of the name is that volunteer firefighters like to wear t-shirts with hikeshidamashii written on them.

So, to put it all together, a fireman in a city renowned for its firewater has a burning desire to prevent fires, so he creates a new kind of firewater called Fire Extingushing Spirit to remind the people drinking spirits to install smoke detectors.

Try saying that without stuttering after a few shots of shochu.

If that inflames your curiosity, and you live in Japan, give the shop a call at 099-224-4531 to see if he’ll sell you some. A 1.8 liter bottle sells for JPY 1,800, which is a reasonable price for shochu.

Microbeers making a comeback

Microbeers took off in a macro way in Japan with the amendment to the tax law in 1994 that made it financially more feasible to brew and sell them. But Japanese will be the first to tell you that boomlets there quickly skyrocket and just as quickly fizzle out. That’s what happened after the middle-aged drinkers switched to the recently developed, and much cheaper so-called “third beers” made with such ingredients as pea protein, soy protein, or soy peptide instead of malt. (Yes, I agree. Ugh.) In addition to the bargain prices, the taste is much lighter than that of the real thing.

But the Japan Craft Beer Association (see link on right sidebar) reports that microbrews began making a comeback three years ago, primarily among younger people. That year, 28,800 kiloliters were brewed, double the total from 2005. A spokesman for the association said:

Most new customers are people younger than 40 who don’t have any preconceived notions about beer.

He added that they tend to view the high-quality brews as they would wine, an outlook they share among microbrew aficionados in the West. Another reason this is a welcome trend for brewers is that national consumption of all types of beer has been trending downward recently. Year-on-year sales were down 3.2% in April, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. That was the second-lowest April total since tracking of the statistic began in 1992.

Spotting an opportunity, the Kansai region’s microbrewers held the first microbrew festival in Kyoto on the 23rd last month at a shopping mall favored by young people called Shin-Puh-Kan (That’s a groovy way to spell shinpu, which means new wind.) A total of 20 breweries participated and presented 40 brands, selling their wares for JPY 300 a glass. Said an organizer:

With overall beer sales declining every year, the resurgence of microbrews is a trend both old and new. I hope we can reestablish ourselves in the Kansai area.

Judging from the following YouTube video, the mall seems to be enclosed with an open courtyard, making it an excellent site for people to mill about and drink without disturbing the neighborhood. (Don’t worry about the narration if you don’t understand Japanese–it’s just standard PR.) The mall also vaguely resembles the view of the neighborhood from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in the Hitchcock film, Rear Window, a perennial favorite in Japan. Coincidence?

Here’s an idea: The high school girl from Kagoshima could provide the Craft Beer Association with her katsuobushi cookies to sell as snacks at the microbrew festivals, and after polishing off a few rounds of mango lager, everyone could stop off for a bowl of blueberry udon on the way home!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Food, New products, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Plums and elegant pursuits

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 27, 2010

THERE IS AN EXPRESSION in Japanese which combines the kanji for flower, bird, wind, and moon. Read kacho fugetsu, that expression evokes the appreciation of the beauty of nature. When used with a verb, it becomes a phrase that means “to follow elegant pursuits”.

One might expect the rites of spring to be Dionysian, inspired by intoxication with heat, light, and passion after a cold winter, but the Japanese seasonal celebrations tend toward the Apollonian wth their incorporation of kacho fugetsu.

For example, everyone knows that the floral symbol for springtime in Japan is the cherry blossom. The Japanese have long enjoyed the custom of holding parties under cherry trees in full bloom, and anyone who has been to a hanami at a large park understands that much of its charm is derived from an uncommon intensity of elegance.

The custom is more than a millennium old, so the Japanese know just where to go. Thousands of local governments nationwide tout the prime cherry-viewing sites in their jurisdiction for tourists. Nowadays, partygoers can plan their excursions in advance because the weather bureau provides reports on the “cherry blossom front” as it moves northward and eastward up the archipelago. The print and broadcast media present these reports as news.

There is a less well-known floral harbinger of spring, however, that arrives even earlier than the cherries—the ume blossoms. Commonly called a plum in English, the ume is more closely related to the apricot, is not eaten raw, and neither looks nor tastes like Western plums (for which a different word is used).

Ume trees were brought to Japan from China in the 8th century, and according to ancient belief are capable of warding off danger. No matter how modern their outlook becomes, northeast Asians are careful to take heed of feng shui principles, so these trees are often planted in the northeast corner of plots. That corner is known as the kimon, or demon’s gate, the entryway for danger and evil. Is there a more elegant way to beat the devil than blossoming fruit trees?

There is even the custom of plum-viewing parties, though they are are less well-attended. February in the Northern Hemisphere is not the best time for a poetic picnic. Ume trees grow throughout the country, but everyone knows the best place for plum viewing is the Kitano Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. The shrine has a garden with more than 1,500 plum trees of several varieties of red and white flowers, which happily are the same colors as the national flag. Everyone also knows when to plan the trip because the event at the shrine is held on the same day every year—25 February, the anniversary of the death of the enshrined deity, Michizane Sugawara. Ume blossoms were said to be his favorite.

Then again, it’s unlikely that anyone would forget. The shrine dates from 947, and the plum viewing parties began a century or so later. In other words, it’s been part of the social calendar at the same time and same place for more than 900 years.

The ceremony starts at the main hall at 10:00 a.m., when a Shinto priest offers steamed rice to the spirit of the divinity. That’s followed by an offering of ume branches placed in cylindrical paper stands. There are 42 branches with white flowers and 33 with red ones, the numbers of which are critical years in the lives of men and women respectively. (Critical years are those years when people are supposed to be especially mindful of their health and safety.)

The viewing of the plums comes later in the day, and it is enhanced by flowers in human form–30 geisha pouring tea and offering sweets for JPY 1,500 (about $US 16.80) a serving along a stretch canopied with blossoms. The outdoor part of the ceremony is much newer, dating to 1952. Kyoto outdoors can be very un-spring-like in February, but this year the air temperature was 15.2°, five degrees warmer than normal for this time of year.

The geisha make a special trip for the occasion from the next-door Kamishichiken district east of the shrine. It’s the oldest geisha district in northwest Kyoto. Geisha districts, by the way, are known as hanamachi, or flower town. Kamishichiken itself has particularly close ties with the shrine. The name means “seven upper houses”, and it refers to seven teahouses built there using materials left over when the Kitano Tenman-gu was rebuilt centuries ago.

For more photos, try these Japanese pages from the shrine’s website. (The link above is to their English page.) Then consider: Is not this annual custom the very essence of an elegant pursuit?

Posted in History, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Getting boared in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 10, 2009

PICK ALMOST ANY TOPIC as a point of departure for exploring Japan, and it’s a near certainty that a fountain-full of serendipitous discoveries will emerge in short order. Even when the topic is boaring!

inoshishi hiroshige

The Japanese have eaten inoshishi (boar) meat, sometimes known as brawn, since ancient times, most often in stews in the winter. But boars are extremely skittish around people, perhaps as an evolutionary response for staying out of boiling cauldrons of water. They usually hightail it for cover as soon as they spot a human, making them difficult to hunt.

The meat of wild animals was considered taboo at times in the past in Japan, though that taboo was often ignored in mountainous areas. The hardy mountaineers kept eating boar meat, which was also known as yamakujira, or mountain whale (not to be confused with mountain oysters), due to a similarity in taste and texture. That’s a yamakujira shop depicted in the Hiroshige print. A Kansai rakugo comic routine called Buying Boar in Ikeda, which dates from 1707, relates the story of a man with gonorrhea who travels with a hunter in search of some wild game. (No, no, not that kind of game!) Izu, Shizuoka, was once the home of the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park, and was enough of an attraction to draw as many as 400,000 visitors in 1985. It was shut down for good last year due to declining interest and the economic turndown.

The Japanese also consider the animal a pest, both in urban and rural areas. Packs of wild boar have been known to roam city streets at night, rooting through garbage and generally being rude and ugly. Farmers dislike them because they trample, root up, and eat crops. In fact, they’ve gotten so boorish in Takeo, Saga, the municipal government established a department this April and assigned it the task of finding ways to reduce the local population.

wild boar sausage

In a classic case of making lemonade when life hands you a lemon, the city employees hit on the idea of making boar meat a special local product and marketing it nationwide. To give local hunters an added incentive to track down the animals and sell the meat, they worked with a local butcher to create food products that can be eaten year-round.

The accompanying photo was taken at a recent event in which sausage and bacon-like products made from 100% boar meat were presented to the public for tasting. The boar for the breakfast table will hit the market later this month, selling for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.25) for a 200-gram package. Lemongrass and spices have been added to the sausage to enhance the taste. The butchers have also developed a lunchmeat product resembling smoked ham, which will sell for JPY 500 yen for 60 grams. They plan to roll out hamburger- and roast ham-like products this fall.

Though the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park no longer exists, those people who can’t live without boar exhibits in their lives might consider a trip to the Go’o Shinto shrine near the geographical center of Kyoto. All Shinto shrines have statues of what are called koma-inu, or guardian dogs. In 1890, the Go’o shrine took the somewhat eccentric step of replacing their statues of guardian dogs with those of boars.

inoshishi jinja

Since most boars are chicken and likely to run in the other direction when they sense a threat, they would not seem to be a logical candidate for selection as the guardian of anything. Ah, but the shrine had its reasons. One of the shrine’s tutelary deities is Wake-no-Kiyomaro, a Japanese government official who lived in the 8th century. He is known for his efforts to separate church (or rather, Buddhist temple) and state. After he became entangled with Imperial succession intrigues and fraudulent oracles at the Usa Shinto shrine, the ruling powers exiled him, had the sinews of his legs cut, and nearly killed him. He was later recalled from exile to serve in government again, and convinced the tenno (emperor) Kammu to build a new capital at Kyoto instead of Nagaoka.

The story goes that he was set upon by assassins as he was limping along the road on his way to exile. He was saved in the nick of time by the sudden appearance of a herd of 300 wild boars. Sometimes the cavalry arrives on something other than horseback!

The Japanese expression chototsumoshin (猪突猛進), the first kanji of which is that for boar, means a headlong rush, and also has the nuance of rashness in action. Now combine that with the boars’ providential rescue of the hobbled Wake-no-Kiyomaro. That was enough to make the shrine a destination for those seeking divine assistance to ensure sound lower limbs, regardless of their current condition. Petitioners include both those in wheelchairs or people who use canes, as well as ekiden runners and soccer players.

Given the ever-fertile Japanese imagination, it was inevitable that someone would put two and two and two together to combine boar cuisine and their straight line foot speed to come up with a new form of entertainment. The folks in Sasayama, Hyogo, have been holding Inoshishi Festivals for several years now in January that draw upwards of 20,000 people. What’s the big attraction? After dining on different dishes featuring wild boar meat, the revelers head for a nearby track to watch the boar races.

wild boar races

But the feast comes first, of course, and several well-known area restaurants set up a special area where they offer original cuisine, including boar meat soup, boar croquettes, and oden. The meals are reportedly so tasty that the diners form lines to enter one shop while eating the offerings of another. The restaurants usually sell out their stock every year.

Then it’s time for the main event, which features wild boars sprinting around an enclosed track. The trotters are given ear-catching names, just as if they were thoroughbreds running the Triple Crown. Can’t you almost hear the track announcer barking out the name of one contestant? “Heading into the far turn, it’s Dekan Showboy by a snout.” The reports don’t mention whether parimutuel betting is allowed.

Now I ask you–where else can you get the chance to spend a day at the races and eat the entrants!

Afterwords:
The idea of making lunchmeat out of brawn is not originally Japanese, as a look at this British website will show. They even sell boar meat salami. Note the high protein and low fat content compared to other meats.

Posted in Food, New products, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers