AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘New Year’s’

Nengajo 2013

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2013

THE first greeting traditionally offered in Japan on New Year’s Day is Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu.

So, akemashite, y’all! And Happy New Year!

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All you have to do is look (145)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2012

Nanbu senbei (rice crackers) a famous confection from the southern part of Aomori, each containing a New Year’s message.

(Photo: Sankei Shimbun)

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Kumamoto new year

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 4, 2012

WHAT do Japanese do in public on New Year’s day? This short video from RKK, a local television station in Kumamoto, will give you an idea.

The announcer begins with a New Year’s greeting and then introduces four different scenes. The first starts at 6:00 a.m., when the gates of the Kumamoto Castle are opened for visitors who want to see the first sunrise of the year from there.

He mentions that the temperature was relatively mild, closer to that of a mid-March day at 5.4°C. The sky was cloudy, however, disappointing the people who were hoping to see the sun.

The second scene is of visitors to the Kato Shinto shrine, where about 420,000 people come during the first three days of the new year. The first man interviewed says he is praying for the happiness and health of his family. The woman who follows says she asked for the sound growth of her children.

Scene three is of the Wild Bunch at the Kumamoto Central Post Office roaring off to deliver New Year’s cards after attending a Shinto ceremony. They expect to deliver 25.8 million throughout the prefecture. That’s how the mailmen deliver the mail in my neighborhood too.

After that, actress and model Margarine (which is how it’s spelled in Japanese) and the prefectural PR character Kumamon (the big black bear) visit a nearby maternity hospital to welcome the babies born that morning. They also give newly made commemorative seals as presents to two people.

And of course there are miko!

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

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Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, 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, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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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!

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Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

AT LEAST ONCE IN THEIR LIVES, usually in early adolescence, Americans make a point to stay up to midnight on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball of light slide down the tower above Times Square in New York City to herald the start of the new year. My niece even went there to see it in person a couple of years ago and still lived to tell the tale.

Never ones to be shy about borrowing an idea that strikes their fancy, the Japanese turn the night sky’s darkness into daylight throughout the country on 31 December. Many venues offer a special countdown coupled with entertainment and charge an admission fee. One of them is Mitsui Greenland, an amusement park a couple of hours down the road here in Kyushu.

More interesting than the ersatz events at amusement parks, however, is the way in which the Japanese have adapted the concept and retrofitted it to more traditional settings, such as Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

new-year-chochin

For example, the Shinto priests in charge of the Himeji Gokoku shrine in Kobe, Hyogo, don’t light up a single ball—they light up 2,000 chochin, or traditional lanterns, on the shrine grounds. The first photo shows the chochin lit up earlier this week during a trial to see if any of the bulbs had burned out. Inspecting the fixtures seems to be another part of the miko‘s job description. If you were lucky enough to be there at midnight on 31 December, you would have gotten to see the real thing.

The event is called the Mantosai, which literally means The Festival of 10,000 Lights. Before you start wondering about truth in advertising, keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be taken literally. In China and Korea as well as Japan, the number 10,000 has long been used to mean “a very large amount” rather than 10,000 in round numbers.

The shrine says they offer the ceremony in the hope of a “bright” new year. Explained the chief priest, “This year has been filled with “dark” events, including the financial crisis, but we want to raise a light at the New Year in the hope that people will be reminded of the beautiful Japanese virtue of treasuring a richness of spirit.”

new-year-torii

Another Shinto shrine took the opportunity to use the lighting to promote one of its most recognizable assets. The Kumano Hongu shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, light up their immense torii on the former shrine grounds at Oyu-no-hara from 31 December to 7 January. The second photo shows the dress rehearsal on 27 December, in which 13 spotlights placed around the torii were turned on at 5:00 p.m., just when it starts to get dark in these midwinter days.

The torii is 34 meters (111.55 feet) high and 42 meters wide at the maximum point, so it must surely be an impressive sight bathed in floodlights in the middle of a pitch black field. They purposely used a red light for the yatagarasu crest in the middle of the torii to set it off from the overall blue hue. That’s a mythical sacred magpie with three legs that was reputed to lead people to the proper path in life. Lit up like that, it’s almost as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to the Promised Land and flashing the message, Step Right This Way!

On New Year’s Eve, or o-misoka as they say in Japan, it was lit from 6:00 p.m. to 5 a.m., but for the rest of the week visitors will have to make do with just three hours from 6-9 p.m. (By the way, try this link for a previous post about the Yata Fire Festival at the same location. They use a nice lighting scheme for that event, too.)

new-year-temple-lighting

Even more spiritually distant from the Times Square fleshpots is the ecumenical spirit of a group in Setochi, Okayama, which provides illlumination to more than one religious institution on Mt. Kamitera. The group was organized to preserve the joint Buddhist and Shinto culture that survives on the mountain, so they made sure to shine a light on both the main building of the Yokei-ji Buddhist temple and pagoda as well as the Toyohara Kitashima shrine. They used 150 lights for the temple, which is a nationally designated important cultural treasure, as well as the shrine and torii. The group gave visitors a taste of the brightness to come when they switched on the lights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 30th, but then they went the whole Hogmanay on the 31st by letting them burn from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. For an extra decorative touch, they also placed candles and lanterns along the pathways.

And while you’re still recovering from having stuffed yourself with o-sechi ryori, pickled herring, black-eyed peas, or whatever other special foods custom dictates be scarfed down during the season, you can get clicky with some blasts from the past presenting other aspects of the Japanese New Year.

Here’s a look at the Big Shimenawa in Hiroshima.

What else is there to eat? Well, there’s mochi. And soba. And even whale and shark, for the more discriminating palates.

The Japanese also deck the halls with boughs of pine trees, and all sorts of other things.

And to conclude, the New Year’s firsts shall come last!

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The Shinto beauty pageant in Osaka

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 8, 2008

THERE’S SOMETHING for everyone at Shinto shrines and festivals: simulated sex acts on stage, sake drinking parties, physical competitions that resemble rugby scrums, water fights, chariot races for the gods, and acrobatics.

So why not a beauty pageant?

That’s the treat awaiting Osaka residents at the end of every November when the Imamiya Ebisu shrine, known for its exaltation of Ebisu, the god of commercial prosperity, selected the fukumusume for their Tokaebisu festival to be held from 9 to 11 January 2009.

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Fuku means good fortune and musume means daughter or young woman, so rather than being the local version of the Broadway Golddiggers of 2009, they will serve as the shrine’s Girls of Good Fortune for this year’s edition of the event. Their job during the festival will be sell good luck talismans and pour sake for the parishioners.

No, they will not sit on your lap and listen to stories about how your wife doesn’t understand you and why your boss is a heartless slave-driver. But they will make personal appearances as a group at other events to boost attendance, just as beauty pageant winners do elsewhere.

And just as some beauty pageant winners use the competition as a springboard to professional success, the fukumusume parlay their selection into a future career. At least five have later become actresses or television announcers.

Instead of wearing bathing suits, playing the flute, and pretending to have a social conscience, their job at the festival will be to dress in somewhat traditional kimono, wear funny hats, project some demure Shinto sex appeal, and hawk the shrine’s amulets by calling out, “Bring business success right away!”

That “right away” part in Japanese, by the way, is the expression sasa. Perhaps the world’s champion punsters, the Japanese never pass up a chance to make a play on words, and they certainly didn’t overlook this prime opportunity. With each amulet they sell, the fukumusume also offer a twig from a plant known as bamboo grass in English—or sasa in Japanese.

A girl has to be more than lucky to be a Good Luck Girl. Every year, about 3,000 women apply for 45 positions, and those picked have to prove themselves in two personal interviews. Since the event is conducted by a Shinto shrine, the winners are called “representatives” to downplay the competitive aspects.

Once they clear that hurdle, they appear in the beauty pageant. Five primary representatives are selected from the 45 finalists at another interview conducted on stage at Asahi Hall in Osaka, with questions asked by a nine-member panel of celebrity judges. The event is broadcast live on television in the Osaka area, and the master of ceremonies is show business veteran Katsura Sanshi. (Originally a rakugo artist, or performer of traditional comedy monologues, he also is the host of a long-running nationwide television show in which he and a female assistant interview goofy newlyweds.)

Here’s how it works: Each of the 45 girls is allotted a mere 15 seconds to promote themselves. Then the judges ask their questions and make the selections.

To demonstrate the sort of good fortune the girls can bring, here’s a little bit of luck for you–a one-minue clip from a local television report of the event. Now you won’t have to slog up to the Imamiya shrine and buy some bamboo grass to see the fukumusume!

Some explanations for those who don’t understand Japanese: The first girl interviewed offstage said that she was very nervous at having to demonstrate her appeal in just 15 seconds. The second said that she practiced every night to develop a “small, rounded, pleasing face” that would invite prosperity.

Novelist Namba Toshizo headed the panel of judges, but the judge shown asking the question was Imade Toji, who made his name as a TV weatherman. Mr. Imade’s question: “Do you check the weather forecasts when you leave the house? The girl’s answer: “The first thing I do every morning is check the weather on my cell phone.”

Naturally women come from outside the Osaka area for a chance to get their divine break in life. In fact, one of the five representatives every year is now a foreigner. This year’s overseas representative is from the Czech Republic. That’s her on the left in the photo above. (And that’s the face of Ebisu on the backdrop, bestowing his blessings on the proceedings.)

It’s no surprise that an event of this type would be held in Osaka. The original idea is to coax the divinities to send a lot of customers their way, and Osaka is a center of commerce. One of the enterprises that found fertile soil in the city is show business: It’s the headquarters of the entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto Kogyo. The company was founded as a traditional theater in 1912, but has since become an all-round entertainment provider. They recruit, train, and employ most of Japan’s popular comedy performers, including the traditional rakugo artists and the more conventional television comedians (including event MC Katsura Sanshi). They also produce and promote shows for their stable of performers, both for stage and TV. Just as everyone in the United States knows about Universal Studios, everyone in Japan knows about Yoshimoto Kogyo. And like the American company, they even operate their own amusement park.

Now I ask you: Where else in the world can you get your break in show business by auditioning for an event conducted by and held on the grounds of a religious institution?

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The ume of good fortune

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 2, 2008

TWO MONTHS AGO, we had a post about the different uses of ume, a Japanese fruit related to the apricot but sometimes referred to as a plum. One of the ways it’s consumed is as fuku-ume, or the ume of good fortune. The fruit is cured in salt, dried in the sun, and sold at shrines for the New Year’s holiday. The idea is to put one in some hot water, drink it, and enjoy good health in the year ahead.

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Well, good tidings I bring: fuku-ume season has arrived at last. The priests and miko, or shrine maidens, at the Kameyama Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi have begun the work to wrap the ume of good fortune in straw for sale to the public.

The shrine cured 300 kilograms (about 661 lbs.) of the ume in salt and spread them to dry in the sun starting in early July. The wrapping began at the end of November at the shrine, with the miko slipping five of the dried fruit into the straw wrappers the shrine priests made.

Tradition has it that the people who drink the ume immersed in either hot water or tea will enjoy good health all year. It derives from an incident during the Heian period (which was more than a millennium ago) in which someone was cured of the plague by drinking ume tea.

The shrine says this year’s crop is about normal, and hopes that everyone drinks some of the juice on New Year’s Day. One of the straw twists with five of the fruit sells for 600 yen ($US 6.28).

Last week my wife came home with a couple of packs of dried ume to be eaten as a snack that someone had given her. I tried one, and it instantly puckered the insides of my mouth. They’re a bit too briny for my taste.

But I’d drink some hot water in which one had been dunked. That business about keeping you healthy for a year may be only a legend, but who knows? It won’t hurt and it just might help!

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Dazaifu elvettes getting ready for New Year’s Day

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 30, 2008

AS YEAREND APPROACHES, many people begin to look forward to the Christmas season. For most Japanese, however, Christmas is still just the entrée for the main holiday course: the three-day New Year’s holiday.

The story of Santa’s elves beavering away at the North Pole making toys for good little boys and girls is a pleasant fiction, but in Japan, the miko, or shrine maidens, (similar to altar boys) actually do take their places at the workbench in red and white costumes to make New Year’s gifts. They’re also a lot more pleasant to watch than any imaginary elf.

The miko at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, got down to work this week. A Fukuoka City television station filed a report that I can’t upload, but you can watch it while it lasts here. A quick translation of the voice-over appears below.

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With just one month left until New Year’s, the preparations have begun at Dazaifu Tenman-gu to make good luck talismans for the parishioners who will make their first visit to the shrine on New Year’s Day.

The miko clad in hibakama gathered at the large hall in the shrine at 9:30 a.m. and began putting the finishing touches to the new year talismans. Working by hand, the miko attached small ema with pictures of an ox (2009 is the year of the ox). They also painted dolls made to look like oxen that were created by Hakata Ningyo (doll) maker Nakamura Shinkyo.

There are 12 types of talismans in all, starting with the good fortune arrows that come in three varieties, from “Extra Large” to “Small”.

The centerpiece this year is the new fukumusubi, patterned after the round chi-no-wa (a ring made using a plant in the eulalia family). It was created with the wish that those who possess one will meet someone especially nice from the opposite sex this year and form a strong bond.

Roughly 2.02 million people visited the Dazaifu Tenman-gu during the three-day New Year’s period this year, more than visited any other shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture. They also expect two million visitors during the same period next year.

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Greeting the new year the Japanese way

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

YEAREND IS THE ENGLISH WORD used to describe both the end of the business year and the period during which New Year’s holiday events take place. The same word is used in Japan, but more frequently to denote the end of the business year. When referring to the period during which the holiday events take place, the Japanese tend to use the term nenmatsu nenshi, or year-end, year-beginning.

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That’s because there are as many New Year’s events after the year begins as there are before it ends. Often, these events are held to mark the first occasion in the New Year people will perform a specific activity.

Everyone knows about the custom of the daily bath in Japan, for example, so it will be no surprise that one of the New Year events would be the first bath of the year at the Arima hot springs in Kobe (first photo). Naturally, they make a point of using the first bath water of the year.

This year, about 400 people were present to watch the tribute to the hot spring founders and the offering of a prayer for future prosperity. There was also a parade with mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, and combined Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

Legend has it that the Arima hot springs were discovered by two gods, O’onamuchi-no-mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-mikoto. No one seems to have pinpointed the date of the discovery, but there are records of Imperial visits to the bath in the 7th century.

The facilities later fell into disrepair, but were restored by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century. It also was destroyed after an earthquake and rebuilt by the monk Ninsai in the 11th century. The spa waters of Arima must be superb for people to keep bringing the place back to life!

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During the event, which is roughly 300 years old, employees of a local ryokan, or Japanese inn, and monks in ancient dress carry the mikoshi from a temple to a local elementary school. There they hold a ceremony to cool the water until it’s the right temperature for bathing. And by way of honoring tradition and thanking the people who made the spa what it is today, they also splash water on statues of Gyoki and Ninsai!

Karuta

Since the start of a new year is a holiday, there’s no better way to spend one’s free time than by playing games—or in this case, cards, or karuta as they are traditionally called in Japanese (second photo).

The Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, held the first karuta competition of the year early in January with the help of the members of a local association called the Nihon Karuta-In. The women playing the game— dubbed the karuta princesses—dressed in the clothing of court nobles during the Heian period (794-1185).

This is not the Japanese version of gin rummy. Instead, the game is a fascinating blend of the artistic and the competitive. It is sometimes called hyakunin isshu, or Single Poems by a Hundred Poets. That name is an apt description because the poems used are a collection of 100 waka, or verses consisting of 31 syllables. These specific poems are thought to have been written by 100 different people during the period from the mid-7th century to no later than 1242. Here’s how the game is played.

There are two sets of 100 cards on which the poems are written. One set is used by a reader, and the other set is used by the competitors, who face each other with the cards lying on the floor between them. The reader recites the first three lines of the waka, and the two contestants compete to be the first to take the card on which the full poem is written.

Don’t let the costumes fool you—those ladies have lightning fast reflexes, and by the rules, they don’t have to grab the cards. All that’s required is to be the first to flick them to the side. Simply watching a match can be engrossing, as it combines elegant historical clothing and knowledge of poetry with the steely gaze, calm demeanor, and cobra-quick attack of seasoned competitors.

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Flower Arranging

Those women who prefer artistic pursuits without the head-to-head competition might have chosen to participate instead in the first flower arranging ceremony of the New Year on the 5th at the headmaster’s dojo of the Ikenobo school of flower arranging in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward (third photo). A total of 1,400 people ranging in age from 11 to 97 came from around the country to create their own floral works of art.

The event dates back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when people met to exchange New Year’s greetings and pledge to promote the art of flower arranging. The practice soon became an annual custom.

The 11-year-old girl who participated, Yamane Ayaka, told an interviewer she visualized a flower garden during the creation of her work, and that she hoped to continue flower arranging as a junior high school student.

It’s likely that Ayaka got her early start in flower arranging because her parents are involved in the art. The two characters used to write her first name mean “brightly-colored flower”.

Archery

Read a Japanese newspaper early in January, and you’re almost certain to see photographs such as this one in which the practitioners of traditional Japanese archery take aim for their first shots of the New Year in their own ceremony (fourth photo). The archers shown here gathered on the 3rd at a site in Otsu, Shiga, to demonstrate their resolve to improve their skills in the coming year.

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It was sponsored by the Shiga Archery League, and about 80 members ranging in age from 16 to 83 participated. The head of the organization conducted a formal ceremony called the yawatashi, or “handing over the arrow”, to open the event, and then 10 people formed lines to shoot two arrows at a target 28 meters away.

Firefighting

Most of these events are derived from centuries-old Japanese traditions, and the participants are usually serious hobbyists. One exception, however, was the first firefighting drills of the New Year conducted by the Tokyo Fire Department with 2,800 firefighters on the morning of the 6th at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The participants also included personnel from regional fire departments and corporate firefighting teams.

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This was a full-scale drill, complete with entertainment. A total of nine squads were mobilized, and they used 130 trucks and four helicopters. Tokyo Fire Chief Teruyuki Kobayashi started the morning off by remarking that Tokyo area firefighters were given a reminder of the difficulty of their work last year by their struggles to contain a fire resulting from an explosion at a Shibuya bathing facility. He urged the men to use their training and experience to protect the lives and safety of the citizens.

Then they showed off their firefighting and rescue skills in exercises based on conditions they might expect to deal with when confronted by fires in buildings and ships, or collapsed buildings in earthquakes.
 
The event closed with the acrobatic display shown in the fifth photo of the traditional ladder-climbing techniques firefighters used during the Edo period (1606-1868). Some of those moves seem as if they might have been performed more to impress the audience than to demonstrate actual techniques that were used to fight fires!

Dondoyaki

Many different decorations are used during the New Year’s holidays, as we saw in this previous post, and most of them originate with Shinto. Because some of these decorations are thought to be associated with the divinity—or even considered to be a divinity’s temporary dwelling–they are not casually tossed in the trash when the holidays are over.

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Instead, Shinto shrines conduct a special ceremony known as the dondoyaki to ritually burn these items. This particular New Year’s burning took place on the 7th at the Takayama shrine in Tsu, Mie, with a prayer for peace, health, and safety in the coming year (last photo).

The priests held a special fire-lighting ceremony at 8 a.m., after which they started the fire at the site for sacred incineration with 15 parishioners helping.

After all the decorations were burned, the shrine thoughtfully distributed nanakusakayu, or rice gruel with the traditional seven spring herbs, to visitors.

It’s worth remembering that these events are held by and for members of the general public with an interest in traditional activities (except for the firefighters, of course). In Japan, at least, there are still pleasant and rewarding ways to spend one’s time during a time of year that for some is just dead space to be filled by watching television.

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Whale and shark: New Year’s treats in parts of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 7, 2008

TURKEY OR HAM is usually the main course of choice for Christmas dinner in the United States. O-sechi ryori, the meal served on New Year’s Day in Japan, consists primarily of seafood and vegetable dishes. There is some variation in the types of food served in different regions, however, and some of those variations may raise a few eyebrows, if not whet a few appetites.

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For example, people in southern Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main Japanese islands, think whale meat, often prepared as kujirajiru (whale soup) is an indispensable part of their New Year’s feast. The accompanying photo shows frozen whale on display in a Hakodate market

This particular shop offers frozen steak and what is called bacon from minke whales. The steak sells for 1,000 yen ($US 9.17) for 100 grams and comes from whale caught in the South Seas, while the bacon, which is more expensive at 3,500 yen ($US 32.10) for 100 grams, is made from locally caught whale. One shop clerk admitted it was expensive, but said that it sold well because “people want to eat something tasty for their New Year’s dinner”.

Another seafood shop in the city offers whale bacon that it makes itself, which is not the usual practice. They sell it for a more affordable price of 1,200 yen for 100 grams. The shop owner said they use only salt in the production and eschew preservatives and artificial coloring. They also have minke whale steaks at 600 yen for 100 grams, and bacon made from the dwarf minke for 2,000 yen for the same weight.
 
All the stores report that the sliced varieties of whale, both frozen steak and bacon, have been selling very well in recent years.

Meanwhile, further south in the northern part of Hiroshima, a New Year’s day dinner is not complete without shark meat, which locally is called wani (a word that means crocodile everywhere else in Japan). Fishery cooperatives in Nagasaki and Wakayama ship the shark to merchants in the Hiroshima cities of Miyoshi and Shobara, where it is cut to order for retail customers.

Shark has little fat and a thick skin, which means it can keep for a long time. Years ago, when there was no mechanical refrigeration in the home, it was the only fish eaten as sashimi in some mountainous areas.
 
One maritime product company in Miyoshi orders shark about one to two meters in length. They handle about six tons worth of the fish at yearend, which is roughly 1/6th of its annual turnover. The highest quality shark sells for about 3,000 to 4,000 yen per kilogram retail.

Americans often complain about eating turkey sandwiches for three or four days after Christmas. I wonder if Hiroshima housewives hear the same complaints about shark meat!

It’s unlikely that anyone in Hokkaido complains about several consecutive days of whale, however. As I’ve noted before, some whale tastes better than steak. (I don’t understand the point of making bacon out of it, though.)

To read about another way of chowing down on shark meat, try this previous post. You might find yourself wondering why the folks in Hiroshima find it so appetizing.

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Shogatsu: Miko make the New Year wheels go round at Shinto shrines

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

POPULAR CHRISTMAS MYTH has it that Santa’s little helpers work hard all year long at the North Pole making Christmas presents for good little girls and boys. New Year’s Day in Japan is an analog for Christmas, and so presents are given to good little Japanese girls and boys in celebration of that holiday too. They receive only one gift, however, and that is an o-toshidama, or cold hard cash, and the printing and stamping work for that is handled by the elves employed at the National Mint, headquartered in Osaka.

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If there is a match for Santa’s elves, it would be the miko, or young female assistants at Shinto shrines. A lot of the work associated with the activities related to New Year’s Day shrine visits—especially the production and sale of good luck talismans–falls on their shoulders. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been doing behind the scenes leading up to the three-day New Year’s period that began today.

O-mikuji, literally the sacred lottery, are slips of paper with printed fortunes sold at Shinto shrines, often from a sort of vending machine. The Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture, makes about 200,000 individual fortunes for the first Shrine visit of the new year, but there are only 50 different predictions. To ensure the random distribution of the fortunes, the miko hold a ceremony every year called the Mikujiawase. One look at the picture above tells you exactly what’s involved. This year a total of 21 miko participated.

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Here the budding shrine maidens clap their hands together before the divinity as they take part in training to become a yearend miko. About 70 high school and college students from Taga-cho and Hikone got schooled in the ABCs of the costume and the proper work attitude at the Taga Taisha in Taga-cho, Shiga Prefecture.

The miko will have their hands full dealing with the throngs of people who visit shrines starting on the night of 31 December and continuing for the next three days. Knowing how to deal with the public is a critical task for any company employee, but it’s all the more important at a Shinto shrine overseeing a tradition more than a millenium old.

Some of the job requirements during their employment include prohibitions on dyed hair, smoking, and cell phone use, as well as the polite reception of the shrine goers and a clean, wholesome appearance. 
The seasonal shrine help are shown wearing their traditional outfits consisting of white tops called hakui and red pantaloons called hibakama.

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Meanwhile, the Kashihara Shingu shrine in Kume-cho, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture replaced its large ema, or votive picture, with a new version bearing the symbol of the Oriental zodiac sign for the coming year—the year of the rat.

The ema is where shrine goers hang their written requests for the divinity. It is characteristic of Shinto that shrine visitors tend to skip the unctuous flattery during their prayers and get straight to the point of asking for whatever it is they want.

This year’s ema is 4.5 meters high and 5.4 meters wide. Atsushi Uemura is responsible for the artwork every year, and this year he designed a picture of two rats with ears of rice. Uemura is a member of the Japan Art Academy, a special institute affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The large ema were first placed here in 1960 to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince.

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One of the tasks of the miko and the Shinto priests are to make hama-ya. Here they are beavering away at the Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
 
These hama arrows are sold at shrines during the holidays. The crew at this shrine made 200,000 60-centimeter types, which will sell for 1,000 yen ($US 8.92), and 45,000 90-centimeter types, which will sell for 2,000 yen.

The word hama is written with the characters that mean “to repel evil spirits”, though it originally meant target. Some still uphold the tradition of the mother’s family sending the arrow with the hama-yumi, or bow, to her male children on New Year’s. In some places, boys once held archery competitions on New Year’s to predict the fall harvest.

The arrows are made of bamboo, wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), and attached with a special head and a bell. The practice itself originates from the bow and arrow Minamoto-no-Yoriyoshi presented to this shine in the 11th century. Yoriyoshi was the head of the Minamoto clan and led Imperial forces in a successful campaign against the northern rebels. He also founded this particular shrine in 1073, which became the primary shrine of the Minamoto clan when they began the Kamakura Shogunate about a century later.

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They’re also decorating auspicious objects for shrine visits at the Shirayamahime shrine in Shirayama, Ishihara Prefecture. This photo shows the work involved in decorating these hama-ya, which are said to repel disaster and attract good fortune. Other decorations include pictures of a rat (as in The Year Of The–) and earthen bells.

The shrine makes eighty different auspicious objects and keeps adding to their product lineup all the time. Last year, for example, they added a kite. They will make about 100,000 individual items for sale in all.

Work was recently completed at this shrine on the major repairs in advance of the ceremonies for its 2,100th anniversary this year. They expect from 180,000 to 200,000 visitors over New Year’s. The auspicious items will be sold for prices ranging from 500 yen ($US 4.46) to 10,000 yen ($US 89.28).

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The seven miko and Shinto priests at the Takase Shinto shrine in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, are also preparing auspicious objects. They churned out about 200,000 hama-ya, rat figurines, and, as a new item this year, lucky charms for success on exams or in sporting competitions. They also sell charms for a good harvest or family safety.

The shrine expects from 220,000 to 230,000 visitors during the New Year’s holidays.

The Shirahige Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward dates from 951. It is one of five shrines in the area associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, and about 50,000 people make the rounds to all five during the first week of the year.

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The miko at this shrine are making treasure ships for the munificent seven to sail on the Sumida River. This originates in the old custom of slipping a picture of the seven on board a treasure ship under the pillow on the night of 1 January to make the first dream of the year a lucky one.

These ceramic boats are 19 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide with chopsticks for masts. Those who put figurines of the seven on board and place them in the home are said to have good fortune sail their way. They cost 1,000 yen each, with the figurines going for an additional 300 yen each–a small price to pay for a year’s worth of good luck.

May a treasure ship sail your way in 2008, or Heisei 20, whichever counting method you prefer!

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Shogatsu: Japanese New Year decorations

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

JUST AS WESTERNERS observe Christmas by hanging wreaths or stringing colored lights on their home–or in some cases assembling elaborate tableux that cover the entire roof and front yard and use enough electricity to power a Thai village for a year–so do Japanese decorate their homes and businesses with distinctive displays during the New Year season.

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One of the most common and visually striking of these decorations is the kadomatsu. The word literally means gate pine, because they are placed in the front of the home or business establishment. According to tradition, they were considered a dwelling place of the toshigami, the divinity who brings good luck at the beginning of the year. A kadomatsu incorporates several elements considered auspicious in Japan—pine, bamboo, plum, the colors red and white (represented with flowers), and crane and tortoise decorations. They are usually, but not always, displayed until 7 January. 

One horticultural company in Konko-cho, Asaguchi, Okayama Prefecture spent most of the month making kadomatsu decorations, and their work ended just two days ago. The company makes eight different models, ranging from those 50 centimeters high for placement on a desk to those two or three meters high for exterior use. Their mainstay product consists of three pieces of bamboo cut and arranged in a distinctive pattern. Ten employees worked all month to create about 100 by hand.

At one time, several companies in Asaguchi made this decoration, but demand has fallen in recent years, and only one remains. The chairman said the company makes the products with respect for the tradition so that everyone can enjoy greeting the New Year.

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Another exterior decoration frequently seen at New Year’s is the shimekazari, constructed around a hanging straw rope. These are placed over the front door to signify that the home is the temporary residence of the toshigami and to prevent the entry of evil spirits. (No home should be without one!)

One company that makes the production of these decorations their seasonal specialty is the Shinshu Engimono Seisakusho in Minowa-machi, Nagano Prefecture.

The company hired 25 local farmers for the job, and they’ve been hard at work since September assembling these ornaments using straw harvested locally the month before. The company will ship 30,000 of them to area stores, where the most popular will sell for about 1,500 yen ($US13.36) each. This year, larger 70-centimeter models costing 6,000 yen ($US53.45) have been popular, with sales running 20% to 30% higher than last year. The company president observed that people often say New Year’s decorations sell the best when the economy is down, but after more than 30 years in the business, he hasn’t noticed a connection.

Mums

Just as American homes are decorated with poinsettias during Christmas, flowers are a common indoor decoration during the New Year season here. It’s no surprise that one of the most commonly used flowers is the chrysanthemum, which has been cultivated in Japan since at least the 5th century. It has long been associated with nobility, and a stylized representation of its blossom is used for the imperial household crest.

Okinawa is one of the primary chrysanthemum production regions in Japan, and horticulture companies there have been working overtime to ship their product to the four main islands. Starting at 3:00 a.m. on the 20th, there were five late-night flights from Naha filled with the flowers to Haneda airport for the Kanto region alone. They shipped an estimated 52,500 cases in that five-day period containing 10.5 million plants weighing 630 tons. The first flight was filled with 2,000 cases of spray designs of 400,000 flowers.

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Just because an activity is traditional doesn’t mean people can’t come up with new twists, and one recent trend in New Year’s decorations has been the use of the phalaenopsis orchid. Companies have been putting in overtime to meet the demand for orchid shipments, producing flowers both in pots and cut for the market. The orchid is produced and shipped year round in Japan, but demand peaks at year end.

Companies report the most popular potted variety used for decorations contains three plants. A spokesman for one company says the business may not be so profitable this year, however, due to high fuel prices and heating expenses.

My wife tends to be a traditionalist, but which of these decorations did she choose for our house this year? The orchids, which are the least traditional decoration of all.

Women are inscrutable the world over!

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Shogatsu: Stretching soba over to the new year in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 31, 2007

ONE THING IS CERTAIN: At some time over the course of New Year’s Eve, most Japanese will eat a dish of toshikoshi (year-crossing) soba, or buckwheat noodles. The long-established custom of eating soba on the evening of 31 December derives from the hope that it will extend a family’s health and fortune over to the coming year.

toshikoshi-soba1

Someone has to fill the demand for all that soba, and one company up to the task is San Shokuhin of Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, which shifted to 24-hour operation on the 28th with 180 employees, nearly half again their usual number. Until early this morning they kept the conveyor belt running while everyone was busy packing boxes with the freshly made, air-cooled product.
 
Over those four days they produced enough noodles for an estimated 700,000 meals, 80% of which will be consumed in the prefecture.

It’s reported that when people in Okinawa began eating toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve, they slurped down the variety from the main islands. They started switching to the Okinawan variety circa 1974, however, and that type became the established custom around 1982.

Hokkaido Hoedown

For an idea just how much soba means to the Japanese everywhere in the country, let’s jump from the far south in Okinawa to the scene in the second photo in the far north—the Sengen district of Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido.

soba-dance1

The photo shows a scene of junior high school girls serving as miko, or shrine maidens, as they perform the local Matsumae kagura, a Shinto dance, to the accompaniment of taiko drums and flutes before an audience of about 200 in a 2.5-hectare field of white soba. The performance was staged as an offering for peace and an abundant harvest.

The community became involved in growing soba as a way to promote the local economy, and the Matsumae Kagura Preservation Society presents six types of the Shinto dances on a temporary stage in the soba fields early every autumn. This year’s performance was the sixth.

Sorry to run off so abruptly, but I’ve got a bowl of soba waiting!

Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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