Giving young people the experience of harvesting and threshing rice as it was done in the middle ages at a rice paddy in Bungotakada, Oita, which has been designated as an important cultural landscape of the nation. It’s an annual event, and this year 500 people participated.
Posts Tagged ‘Oita’
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 2, 2012
A fashion show at the Fuki-ji Buddhist temple in Bungotakada, Oita. Established in 718, the temple is a national treasure and the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu. The show was presented by the students of vocational schools, junior colleges, and high schools in Oita. About 300 people attended. (Photo from the Nishinippon Shimbun)
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 10, 2012
The Shirajigaku Kappa Festival held in Nakatsu, Oita, and event that dates from the Edo Period. The boys are playing the role of kappa. The kappa are water sprites in Japanese legend. According to Michael Ashkenazi’s Handbook of Japanese Mythology, they “are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women’s kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women.”
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012
SOME efforts to save endangered species are controversial, some are praiseworthy, and others approach the absurd. One citizen-led effort underway in the hot springs town of Yufuin, Oita, however, is quite reasonable and isn’t causing problems for anyone.
The endangered species in question is a rare variety of the stenothyridae shellfish. This particular variety is the only shellfish in the world whose natural habitat is a hot springs, and it exists only in Yufuin. It also was found in several nearby areas, including the well-known spa resort city of Beppu, until the mid-1960s.
But the shellfish started disappearing when some of the hot springs water was diverted to resorts — the exact cause and effect has never been identified —- and it now lives only in a water course near Lake Kinrin. The water temperature there is roughly 36° C (96.8° F) year-round.
Some local people formed a research group in February to expand its habitat. They succeeded in tripling the local population in just three months. They’ve also kept some alive in tubs of heated water to show school children. That was enough to convince the prefecture and city governments to provide a modest amount of funding, and the group is now conducting water quality tests in different locations to find the most suitable spots that might work as a new home.
Give them credit for even knowing about the creature to begin with. It’s naturally a bright gold color, but it eats moss and usually winds up covered in the stuff. It’s also only 4 x 2.5 millimeters in size, which works out to 0.15 x 0.09 inches. You’ve really got to be looking for it to find it.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood and enjoy soaking in hot water, by the way, Yufuin’s an excellent choice. I’ve been there twice and would find it very easy to live there year-round if it came to that. It’s a small town near the mountains, and it’s quite attractive as the picture above shows. (The photo is from a Japanese website called Muru’s Log.) The main street is perfect for walking, has excellent views, and is filled with the sort of shops that women like. And the stenothyridae are so small you won’t even notice them sharing space with you in the spa.
There’s also a song called Yufuin. It’s about a woman trying to recover from an unhappy love affair.
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 25, 2012
The Tsuruichi Hanakasa Hoko Matsuri held last month in Nakatsu, Oita. The participants carry 19 of those floats (representing flowers) and one mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, for 40 kilometers. The festival is said to be about 860 years old.
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 16, 2012
Damage from the heavy rains in northern Kyushu in early July is still causing problems. This photo was taken on a stretch of the Hohi Line between Kumamoto and Oita.
Photo from the Sankei Shimbun
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 26, 2012
OLD Ma Necessity has come for an extended uninvited stay in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the subsequent idling of most of the country’s nuclear power plants. That’s spurred some inventive Japanese scientists to attack the problem of renewable energy power generation.
One of the most ambitious plans is part of a project now being conducted by a team led by Kyushu University Prof. Oya Yuji in Hakata Bay, off Fukuoka Prefecture. They’ve developed what they call a lens windmill whose design triples the amount of power a conventional windmill can generate.
In Stage One of the project, which started last December and will run for a year, the two 3 kW lens windmills shown above have been placed on a floating platform with solar power cells and a large storage battery. They’re calling it a floating maritime power farm. They plan to eventually add equipment that generates power from tidal currents and waves. Prof. Oya thinks the lens windmills would be practical if they could be made larger.
One of the advantages of maritime windmills is that the wind is stronger over the sea. Also, renewable energy power generators require a large surface area, and Japan has a limited amount of surface area for equipment of this type. They’ve got plenty of sea all around them, however.
Stage Two of his project is to place an interconnected floating platform in the Korean Strait with five 200 kW lens windmills. His team is already working on a design for 1,000 kW models.
An intriguing aspect to the plan is the idea of using the platforms as small fishing ports. Sweden and Denmark both operate maritime windmills, and they’ve discovered that fish like to hang out nearby for reasons that no one can explain. Fishermen are unanimous in their belief that this is an excellent idea for an experiment. There are even suggestions that fish farms could be created below the platforms.
Several problems remain. One is that the production costs for the lens windmills have to be lowered. Another is the space requirement. Even when commercialized, it would require 230 windmills to produce the output of the #1 generator at the Fukushima plant alone.
Several companies are working with the Okinawa Prefecture Deep Sea Water Research Center in Kumejima-cho, Okinawa, on an ocean thermal energy conversion project that will run until next March. The idea is to use the difference in the ocean water temperature at the surface and that at greater depths. A temperature differential of 20 degrees (I assume centigrade) is required for this to work, so that means the tropics and the subtropics are the ideal location. That’s Okinawa!
In this process, the difference in water temperatures is used to gasify ammonia and other substances with low boiling points, which rotates a turbine. The power output is only 50 kW, but this is a trial, after all. The center says it is the world’s first trial using this process with the objective of commercialization.
They’re ready to go commercial at a ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in the hot springs resort town of Yufuin, Oita. Starting in December, the ryokan will use a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall to generate electricity using the hot springs on the site. Not only do they expect to cover their own energy needs, they also plan to sell the surplus power generated to Kyushu Electric Power under the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that began in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at 20 yen per kW, the ryokan could recover the costs by 2015.
That highlights another problem with these systems. It costs Kyushu Electric JPY 10 yen per kW for the power generated by nuclear plants. These costs in the aggregate will be passed on to the utility’s consumers. In other words, the government scheme amounts to a renewable energy tax.
And they’ve already gone commercial throughout Japan in the use of processed sewer sludge — yeah, that — as a biomass fuel for power generation. Kumamoto City plans to commercialize an operation in 2013, and Kitakyushu is planning to do the same in 2015. Construction work started on the plant in Kumamoto City in January. When it begins operating next January, it will have the capacity to process 16,000 tons of the sludge, roughly half the amount produced in the city. That will be converted to 2,300 tons of fuel for use at power plants.
Here’s an idea: Create smaller models of this equipment and place them in the buildings that house national and sub-national legislatures. We wouldn’t have to worry about nuclear energy or lens windmills again.
Seeing as how Okinawa came up in the discussion, here’s Okinawan Natsukawa Rimi singing an island song.
Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 4, 2012
THE Japan that emerges in stories printed below the fold and in the back pages of newspapers, or on less frequently accessed news websites, is a different place than that presented in the industrial mass media. Here are some stories that demonstrate why.
The phrase “water business” in Japan is usually a euphemism for the enterprises conducted in entertainment districts at night, particularly drinking establishments.
But most people outside the region are unaware that Japan is a global leader in another sort of water business — that for the technology used in water supply and sewage systems. In fact, a paperback was published a few months ago with the premise that Japan is the global leader in water technology systems. Whether that claim is true or not, several entities in the country have established a reputation for expertise in the sector, and they are working to expand their operations.
For example, the Fukuoka City government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for joint research in water supply and treatment.
The Kyushu city developed the technology for reusing waste water from the necessity to deal with its own chronic water shortages. They became so successful that they now want to make a paying business of it. Fukuoka City was also the first municipality in Japan to process waste water for use as water in the toilet, and they also are known for building a network of tunnels that carry off the water from the heavy summer rains to prevent flooding.
Meanwhile, the growth of the economy and the population in Vietnam strained that nation’s water systems infrastructure, and they chose to look to Japan for help. In fact, the city of Haiphong is already working with the city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City’s neighbor, to prevent leakage from their water supply systems.
Kitakyushu has been active in this sector in Cambodia for some time. As of last December, they were serving as the technical consultants for water technology in nine Cambodian cities, and last month they began helping two other cities in that country to expand their water supply systems.
Fukuoka City is also involved in the water business in Burma. The Water Department dispatched a technician to Rangoon last month to conduct surveys and provide guidance, and they’ll send a full team later. The Burmese government also sent one of their technicians to Fukuoka City for training.
Apart from altruism, one objective is to increase the opportunities for local businesses to receive contracts from the Southeast Asian countries for infrastructure improvements. The Fukuoka City project in Burma is being conducted in tandem with the UN Habitat Fukuoka office. That organization is particularly interested in water purification and desalinization systems.
The temporary Chinese suspension of rare earth metal exports during the standoff over the Senkakus in the fall of 2010 certainly got the attention of Japanese industry. They wasted no time to start looking for new sources for the metals that couldn’t be used as a political weapon. For example, it was announced earlier this week that imports of rare earth metals would soon begin from India. Also, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Co. and Kurume-based Shibata Sangyo have teamed to launch the world’s first business for recovering and recycling the rare earth metal tantalum from discarded electronic products. Tantalum is used primarily as a material for condensers in PCs and Smartphones, but all of it is imported. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry estimates that recovering the tantalum from products discarded in Japan in a year would yield about 64 tons, accounting for 14% of the amount used here annually. Fukuoka Prefecture and Mitsui plan to commercialize the recycling technology and to create a structure that enables electronics parts manufacturers to procure the metal without concerns of interrupted supply.
More than a year ago, Japanese researchers announced they had produced the first artificial rare earth metal, an alloy similar to palladium. That metal is essential for making electronic parts, and is also used as a catalyzer to clean exhaust gas. While their method is not feasible for the commercial production of palladium, the researchers intend to apply it to create other alloys as rare earth substitutes. They say they’ve begun joint research projects with automobile manufacturers, but are keeping the details under the hood for now.
A ryokan, or Japanese-style inn, in Yufuin, Oita, will generate electricity from the hot springs on the site using a 70 kW generator that Kobe Steel put on the market last fall. They plan to sell some of the power generated to Kyushu Electric Power through the system for the sale of renewable energy at a fixed cost that will begin in July. Kobe Steel says that if the power is sold at JPY 20 per kW, the spa could recover the costs by 2015.
Japanese astronomers using a Hawaii-based telescope said last month they had discovered a “proto-cluster” of galaxies 12.72 billion light-years away from Earth. They claim that’s the most distant cluster ever discovered, which would also make it one of the first structures formed by the Big Bang.
“This shows a galaxy cluster already existed in the early stages of the universe when it was still less than one billion years into its history of 13.7 billion years,” the team of astronomers said in a press release.
But the discovery may already have been superseded.
Researchers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have previously announced the discovery of a possible cluster of galaxies around 13.1 billion light-years from Earth, but that has not yet been confirmed, the Japanese researchers said.
What Japanese women call with a smirk the “bar code” — the hair style created by follically deficient men, otherwise known as a combover in the English-speaking world — may, along with toupees and implants, be obsolete a decade from now:
Japanese researchers have successfully grown hair on hairless mice by implanting follicles created from stem cells, they announced Wednesday, sparking new hopes of a cure for baldness.
Led by Professor Takashi Tsuji from Tokyo University of Science, the team bioengineered hair follicles and transplanted them into the skin of hairless mice.
The creatures eventually grew hair, which continued regenerating in normal growth cycles after old hairs fell out.
The process has the potential for applications greater than flattering oneself in the mirror, however:
Tsuji and his researchers found hair follicles can be grown with adult stem cells, the study said.
“Our current study thus demonstrates the potential for not only hair regeneration therapy but also the realisation of bioengineered organ replacement using adult somatic stem cells,” it said.
Stop the snickering, ladies — before long another recent discovery in Japan might produce more satisfying answers when you interrogate the mirror about the fairest of them all.
Two different teams of university researchers have found the gene that causes freckling and skin blotches after exposure to the sun. One team was from Osaka University (working with cosmetics manufacturer Kanebo), and the other team, using different methods, combined researchers from Nagasaki and Kumamoto universities.
Both groups focused on ultraviolet hypersensitivity, a rare condition of which only five cases are known in the world. The condition was first identified in 1981 in Japan, but little effort was put into treatment because the only problem it causes is sunburn. The Osaka-Kanebo group inserted mouse chromosomes in the nuclei of cells from two patients with the condition to determine which would provide better protection to ultraviolet rays. Exposure to the rays would prevent multiplication of the cells, which would die after six weeks, but cells with the new chromosome were resistant to ultraviolet rays.
Here’s a story that made a lot more sense after spending the past week trying to make sense of the functions on my new PC:
A team of scientists from Japan and England have built a computer that uses crabs as information carriers, to implement basic circuits of collision-based computing.
Researchers at Japan’s Kobe University and the UK’s University of the West of England, Bristol, found that when two swarms of soldier crabs collide, they merge and continue in a direction that is the sum of their velocities. This behaviour means that swarms of crabs can implement logical gates when placed in a geometrically constrained environment.
The swarms were placed at the entrances of the logic gates and persuaded to move by a shadow that fooled them into thinking a predatory bird was overhead. Results closely matched those of the simulation, suggesting that crab-powered computers are possible.
The experiment builds on a previous model of unconventional computing, based on colliding billiard balls.
That set the author of the article to wondering:
The paper’s authors did not say whether public money was used to fund their experiments.
Regardless, it doesn’t seem as if the experiment would be so expensive that a university couldn’t fund it on its own. The author might be suggesting that futzing around with crab-powered computers is a frivolous enterprise with no apparent application, but there might be some there there. Explains Josh Rothman:
What’s the point? Increasingly, computer scientists are interested in the ways that natural systems solve computing problems. Often, they do so in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. Other researchers have investigated the ways in which honeybees compute the most efficient route through a field of flowers (see a well-reasoned take on that research here); one of the crab-computer researchers, Andrew Adamatzky, has been exploring the possibility of slime-mold computing. Future generations of computers, they argue, may well be inspired by nature.
The Moji Customs Office in Kyushu reports that the value of beer exported through the Port of Hakata in 2011 totaled JPY 1.225 billion, an increase of 6.3 times from the previous year. The volume of exports totaled 10,960 kiloliters, a year-on-year increase of 9.2 times. That set a record, and it was the first new record in 10 years. South Korea accounted for 57% of the exports, and there’s a story behind that. Premium Japanese beer has become popular in that country, which is closer to the Port of Hakata (also in Kyushu) than to Tokyo. Sapporo also established a sales company in South Korea last June. And don’t forget that the Japanese built the first breweries on the Korean Peninsula to begin with when the two countries were merged a century ago.
Does this mean tastes are changing in South Korea? The mass market beer in that country may be even weaker and thinner than the adult soft drink that pretends to be beer in the United States. That’s perhaps due to the robust and hearty nature of Korean food, with its industrial grade spices. It would make sense that people preferred something less intense to wash it all down with.
Hand grenade hotline
To conclude, here’s something I’ll bet nobody expected. The Fukuoka police became the first police department in the country to institute a hot line for tips on hand grenades. They’ll pay JPY 100,000 for each hand grenade found or confiscated as a result of a tip.
Concerns have been growing lately over the use of hand grenades to attack companies or in gang fights. Hand grenades were used in six incidents in the prefecture last year, the most in the country. Rewards will also be given for the discovery of homemade bombs. They’re serious — the police have printed 2,000 posters and 5,000 flyers.
They’d better be serious if gangs are bringing grenades to a gunfight.
This clip of an English-language news report provides further info on the changing Joseon tastes for beer. They mention that 60 brewpubs have been established (by then) in South Korea since laws were relaxed in 2002. Pardon the goofiness with the Youtube link.
Considering (a) that microbrewing had already taken off in Japan at that time, and (b) the substantial but largely unacknowledged influence that Japan still has on Korean culture, it is quite possible that the Korean laws were changed after the Koreans sampled some of the Japanese beverages.
Not that they’d ever admit it.
Here’s another change: When I arrived in Japan in 1984, most funerals were still conducted in the home of the deceased. Now, however, they’re usually held in funeral parlors.
I attended a funeral in one of those establishments a week ago today for a pleasant man who passed away at the age of 86. I’ve been to enough of them by now to be familiar with the customs, but I was intrigued when I recognized the song the pianist was playing just before the service started: Hana (Flower), by Okinawan roots rocker Kina Shokichi. It is interesting to reflect on which things eventually become accepted as part of the common culture. No English translation can do the lyrics justice, so I won’t even try, but the song works in that context.
Here are three different versions spliced into one video.
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 10, 2011
TAKING the waters at a hot spring is good for what ails you. Among the benefits are invigorated blood circulation, increased metabolism, and normalized endocrine function. With natural hot springs throughout the archipelago, the Japanese have known about and availed themselves of these properties for more than a millennium.
Now the Floricultural Group in the Agricultural Research Division of Oita Prefecture’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Research Center in Beppu, the country’s unofficial spa capital, have discovered that hot springs are good for flora as well as fauna. Specifically, they’ve developed a way to use the steam from hot springs to disinfect the soil and the materials used for growing beds.
Here’s how the system works. They start with a 1.6-square-meter steam vat surrounded by a 60 centimeter-high block wall. The hot spring steam is brought up from underneath, and the entire apparatus is covered with a sheet during the sterilization period. At 120º C, it takes 30 minutes to give the treatment to pots or seedbeds and two or three hours to soil.
The research center says this method has several advantages to the chemical method currently used. It sterilizes both the surface and the interior. The materials can be used as soon as they cool, whereas the use of chemicals requires aeration after the process to release any trapped gases. In addition to its effectiveness, it’s environmentally friendly and labor efficient. The use of the system has gradually been growing in the prefecture, and 50 farmers have adopted it in the past year. Limiting its diffusion, however, is the cost of the devices used to create the steam and the higher fuel costs.
Who knows — if they ever get those problems ironed out, it might result in the emergence of an agri-spa industry in Oita!
Speaking of interesting devices, those inspired goofballs at Maywa Denki have created another new musical instrument. Polyrhythmic!
Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011
THE summer edition of the national high school baseball championship got underway at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo this weekend. That is a very big deal in Japan: NHK broadcasts every game of the tournament live, nationwide, without commercials. One of the classic scenes of daily life is the family get-together during the mid-August O-bon holidays with the eating, the drinking, and the attention of the males alternating between the people in the room and the games on television. The format of an elimination tournament adds an element of spice to the drama — the losers go home, while the championship team will have been undefeated, starting with the first game of the local prefectural round.
All the games are played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. The park was built in 1924 specifically to serve as the venue for the summer tournament, which dates from 1915, and the smaller spring invitational tournament, which debuted the year the stadium opened. So closely is the park associated with the championship that the event is referred to simply as Koshien. Ask someone whether their high school has ever been to Koshien, and they’ll know immediately what you mean.
In fact, the term Koshien is now applied to other summertime high school competitions, including events that have nothing to do with sports. One of these is the Calligraphy Performance Koshien, staged on 31 July in Shikokuchuo, Ehime. Though it is based on calligraphy, it was conceived in the 21st century — this year’s competition was only the fourth. Teams of 10 calligraphers use brushes and ink on sheets of paper four meters high by six meters wide to render artistic and/or philosophical messages as they dance to music that accompanies their performance.
Representatives from 15 high schools around the country participated in the finals, and the squad from Oita High School in Oita City, Oita, won for the second straight year. This year, most of the participating schools created works based on the theme of earthquake/tsunami recovery. In addition to the normal criteria used to evaluate calligraphy, the teams were judged on the degree of completion of their work, the movements of the team members as they brushed on the characters, and their dance routines.
The creation of the Oita High champs was based on the theme of compassion (思いやり) and they used the form of a mid-summer greeting card (shochu o-mimai) as their motif. Said the team captain:
We can thank the people around us for our consecutive victories. We wondered what we could do to help the people in the area, and decided to encourage them with our calligraphy.
The students of the calligraphy club at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo came up with the idea as an event to attract people to the local shopping district. Their inspirational spark fired everyone’s imagination, they were invited to appear on television, and then the rest of the country got into the act.
You don’t even have to ask — of course there’s a Manga Koshien for high school students. That’s the term commonly used to refer to the annual High School Manga Competition, which was held this past weekend in Kochi. This year’s event was the 20th, and the winning team came from Tochigi Girls High School, which inked it out with 24 other schools in the final round.
In this competition, the teams are given the same topic and have to create a comic on that topic immediately. They do this twice — the topics for the Saturday preliminaries and the Sunday finals are different.
The topic for the final round this year was “The 100th Manga Koshien”. The Tochigi girls came up with a comic depicting the 100th anniversary event, which in their imagination offered a prize of JPY one million (100 man en in Japanese), had 100 judges, but very few schools participating because of the population decline due to the low birth rate.
The head of the judge’s panel, Makino Keiichi, said:
Some (judges) thought that was a negative concept, but it is (in the spirit of) manga to depict things honestly.
Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:
It was a good idea to deal straightforwardly with a social issue. I’m really happy.
The cartooning champs said they’ll donate their JPY 300,000 award to the Tohoku relief effort.
Consider what these two events have to say about the health and cultural dynamism of the Japanese. Who else would have thought to combine the elegance of the centuries-old art and discipline of calligraphy with pop music dance routines and turn it into an extra-curricular activity for high school students? Consider also that the winning Manga Koshien high school team was aware of a contemporary social issue, had the wit to come up with an idea based on that issue on the spur of the moment, incorporated it into the general outline presented to them, and had the guts to put it on paper as their entry in the championship round.
Now consider how seriously to take those people who enjoy talking and writing about the malaise in Japan.
Here’s the Oita High School team strutting their stuff in the paint at the first Calligraphy Performance Koshien four years ago. Notice the touch of placing the seal on the lower left-hand corner of their work at the end. Baby love!
Dang, I got to find a way to get me to Ehime next summer!
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.
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!
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 18, 2010
MUNICIPALITIES everywhere hold special events outdoors when the weather gets nice, and often those events include large fireworks displays. As you might imagine, summer galas with fireworks are common in Japan. My wife’s family home is near a river, and the second floor of the house offers an excellent view of the local fireworks festival. Our house is a 10-minute walk from the municipal offices, where another fireworks extravaganza is presented every year.
Not many of the summertime events I saw in the United States started off with a special ceremony. For the fireworks festivals, people just head for a site with a good view and wait for the light and sound show to begin.
That’s not usually how it happens in Japan, however. People here like to hold a ritual/ceremony/event first to get off on the good foot, even if it’s small and few people attend. One opening ceremony that’s particularly appealing is conducted by the people who present the annual Hita River Opening Sightseeing Festival in Hita, Oita. The city is on the Mikuma River and likes to promote itself as a hydrophiliac municipality, so that’s where the events take place. As they do every year, the city began their 63rd festival this year with a small observance to thank the river divinities and ask their blessing for a safe event. Three young women, serving as the public relations face of the festival, dressed as miko (Shinto shrine maidens) and released 34 ayu, or sweetfish, into the river from the edge of a small stage.
Is that not a short but sweet gesture that shifts the emphasis from receiving to giving, and a gentle reminder of that which should come first?
About 90 people came to watch, including local government officials and representatives of the tourism industry. A much larger number of people came to watch the fireworks, in which 10,000 individual devices were released into the sky over the next two nights. There’s also what the Hita folk call the Hangiri Gempei Contest, which involves goofy competitions on the river. In one of them, individuals dressed in unusual costumes climb into what look like oversize wooden washtubs to do battle and try to capsize each other. They probably laugh themselves silly while everyone else enjoys the scene from the riverbank.
This is the first public event of summer in Hita, so it’s held at the end of May every year. The story got lost in the shuffle among the other files on my computer, but I thought it was good enough to present even if it is two months late. And speaking of good sweetfish stories, here’s another one about taking the ayu from the river instead of putting them back in.
Oh, and before I forget—here’s a superb photo of the fireworks over the river.
I’m tellin’ ya, this is a happening place!