AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Rice’

All you have to do is look (148)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012

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.

Posted in Agriculture, Photographs and videos, Traditions | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (114)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Shiroyone Senmaida rice paddies in Ishikawa, registered both in the Guinness Book of World Records for having 20,000 pink LEDs, and as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

Posted in Agriculture, Arts, Photographs and videos, Popular culture, Thailand | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (90)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harvesting rice at a nukihoshiki ceremony in Ube, Yamaguchi. The rice will be used as an offering.

Here’s a video condensation of the same event at a different location from start to finish, from the inside out. Excellent!

Posted in Agriculture, Photographs and videos, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Tokyo harvest

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THAT’S not just any old hayseed harvesting those rice plants — that’s the Emperor of Japan. He put on his boots, grabbed a sickle, and got right to work, cutting down about 100 plants. The man’s no stranger to farm chores. He planted the seeds, too.

Bet they don’t do that at Buckingham Palace.

He grew two kinds of rice, one a variety of mochi. Reports say this Palace harvest was that of a typical year. The crop will be used in ceremonies as well as eaten at the palace.

It’s a simple photo, but the combination of rice and the Emperor lies at the heart of the Japanese identity. Inose Naoki, a prolific non-fiction author who also serves as the Vice-Governor of Tokyo, briefly describes one of the ceremonies at which the rice will be used.

Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).

Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.

The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.

The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.

A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.

Here’s a previous post on ceremonial rice harvests by younger and prettier farmhands.

But the Imperial Palace doesn’t have the only paddy in central Tokyo. Here’s a plot in the Ginza district on the street right behind the Tiffany & Co. outlet.

The leader of the group that came up with the idea explained:

“The environment in which we can grow rice is Japan’s treasure. Nothing is possible without that environment. I want people to value this Japanese environment.”

There’s also a paddy on a rooftop in Akihabara, the consumer electronics district. The plot’s been managed since 2009 by an NPO whose slogan is, “You can even do it in the middle of Tokyo.” They plant the rice in June, so it shouldn’t be too much longer before it’s time to harvest their crop, too. Pressed into service as temporary agricultural workers are the maids in the district’s maid cafes, as well as voice actors.

Here are the pretty maids all in a row at last year’s harvest. They don’t swing a sickle, but they do approach the task with typical Japanese aplomb.

Posted in Agriculture, Food, Holidays, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Dined and sated

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 10, 2010

MOST MEN prefer women with hourglass figures, and many prefer the skinny to the fully cushioned, but the guys in Katsuyama, Fukui, have made it a point for centuries to fatten up the local females. For more than 400 years, as a matter of fact.

That’s the idea behind a traditional event formally known as “The Serving of Kannon” (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), but which some women probably think of as the Rice Attack. The event combines a supplication for good health and a good harvest with an acknowledgement of the hard work women do every day of the year. It’s an intangible culture treasure of the city, and the custom is currently continued by 12 families. This year it was held at 8:00 p.m. on 20 February.

The children of the neighborhood collect about 11 liters of rice from the families in the district, which is then steamed and make into gruel (o-kayu). The women and girls sit in a circle and get ready for the food onslaught by covering their laps with a towel.

The men circulate around the room and chant, “This is the serving of Kannon,” and put heaping helpings of rice in their bowls. Judging from their singing and staggering in the video clip below, the men likely passed the time waiting for the rice to cook by filling their own bellies with rice wine.

The women try to cover the rice with their hands, or turn to the wall, but the men keep looking for an opening to fill their bowls until they overflow.

That works as a metaphor for me!

The woman at the end of the 1:16 video, by the way, laughs and says, “Ah, I’m full, I’m full.” Maybe the protestations from the women are mostly for show–they’re clapping and singing during the rice pounding at the start of the video, and they all know what’s coming next.

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

Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The origin of holidays and the Tenno system

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 27, 2009

IF IT ISN’T UNIQUE, the Tokyo Metropolitan District is surely one of the few governments anywhere whose two top chief executives were men of letters before becoming involved with politics. Gov. Ishihara Shintaro first captured the attention of the public by publishing a spectacularly successful novel while still a university student. Vice-Governor Inose Naoki, meanwhile, made his name as a non-fiction writer.

In connection with a new book to be published later this week, Mr. Inose has distributed online an article he wrote for the 24 November 1988 edition of the weekly Shukan Spa. The article describes how and why some of Japan’s holidays were selected when the new Constitution came into effect after the war. It also explains how and why the Japanese weren’t always the ones to select the dates of those holidays.

My quick translation of most of the article follows.

*****
The Origin of Holidays and the Tenno System

Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).

Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.

The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.

The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.

A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.

The origin of Labor Day has not been taught in schools in the postwar period, so children think of it as a day of appreciation for their father’s daily efforts. But if that is the case, why isn’t 1 May—May Day—a holiday?

Culture Day on 3 November was known as the Meiji Setsu before the war. It is the birthday of the Meiji Tenno. During the Meiji period, it was known as Tencho Setsu (The Imperial Birthday). During the (following) Taisho period, the birthday of the Taisho Tenno was known as the Tencho Setsu, and the birthday of the Meiji Tenno was eliminated as a holiday. But the Meiji Setsu was brought back as a holiday soon after the Taisho Tenno died and the Showa period began.

Postwar decisions

The Law Regarding Citizens’ Holidays was promulgated on 20 July 1948. Of course, Japan was still an occupied nation under GHQ control. Provision was made for nine holidays at that time: New Year’s, Coming-of-Age Day, the Vernal Equinox, the Tenno’s Birthday, Constitution Day, Children’s Day, the Autumnal Equinox, Culture Day, and Labor Day. Of these, five were holidays related to the Tenno; only their names were changed. The Vernal Equinox and the Autumnal Equinox were originally known as the All Imperial Ancestors’ Day for the spring and fall respectively. The Tenno’s Birthday had been known as the Tencho Setsu. As we’ve already seen, Culture Day was the Meiji Setsu and Labor Day was the Niinamesai.

The author and politician Yamamoto Yuzo, who was a member of the upper house Culture Committee considering that legislation at the time, wrote with great sorrow the behind-the-scenes story about setting the date of Culture Day. According to his account, the committee placed the greatest emphasis on 3 November and wanted to make that Constitution Day. Their reason was that Japan’s new Constitution had been promulgated the year before on that day—3 November 1947.

As he wrote, “The Civil Information and Education Section (of GHQ) did not allow that, however. They thought 3 May would be a better choice for Constitution Day. It wasn’t long before the lower house approved 3 May as the date, making negotiations all the more difficult. But I did not give up. I thought the date the Constitution was promulgated rather than the date it came into force to be a more appropriate date. Considering the distribution of the holidays, the seasons, and the weather for each, I kept up the good fight for seven months.”

Why was GHQ so adamant? Yamamoto Yuzo explains that both the Americans and the Japanese had ulterior motives. He wanted to make the date for commemorating the Constitution the day it was promulgated rather than the day it went into force. The new Constitution was passed by the Diet and approved by the Privy Council on 29 October. He wanted the promulgation date to be 1 November and make that the holiday. But the Constitution was to come into force six months later, and that would mean it would coincide with May Day.

At that time, the United States was engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and did not want the date the new Constitution came into effect to overlap with the day commemorating laborers. Therefore, GHQ ordered that 3 November be made the date of promulgation.

The next dispute arose over whether to make Constitution Day the date of promulgation or the date of effectiveness. The Japanese old guard was certain that 3 November would be the date because it was the former Meiji Setsu. But GHQ, which was trying to promote democratization, thought that should be prevented and insisted the most suitable date for Constitution Day was the day the document came into effect.

Other factors

I suspect there was perhaps one more reason that GHQ went counter to common sense and stuck to 3 May. That was the day the International Military Tribunal for the Far East—the Tokyo War Crimes Trial—held its first session in 1946. Surely they wanted the date to coincide with the first day of the ceremony that sat in judgment of militarism. They did not want anyone to ever forget the spirit of war renunciation in the new Constitution.

That’s why Constitution Day falls on 3 May, but there are also some strange circumstances involving 3 November. Culture Day was created as the result of a dispute between the Japanese forces of reform and conservative forces. Yamamoto Yuzo wrote: “Our task was to select holidays for the people, not select holidays for the Imperial Household.” This can be understood as a kind of declaration of defeat. The result of the effort to make 3 November Constitution Day was ultimately to give that day the nonsensical name of Culture Day.

In spite of Yamamoto Yuzo’s intent, Meiji Setsu survived, but ironically in a different form. In his later years, he recalled that he was criticized every year for the unfathomable day called Culture Day.

Ironically enough, 23 December, the birthday of the Kotaishi (Crown Prince—now the current Tenno), which would become a holiday sometime in the future, was the date Class A war criminal Tojo Hideki was executed.

- Inose Naoki

Afterwords: The last sentence above is the topic of Mr. Inose’s new book.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Festivals, History, Holidays, Imperial family, Traditions, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.

Hatsukiri

Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ‘em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.

sokari

At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Festivals, Food, Imperial family, New products, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Finish that bowl of rice and you’ll get into a good school!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 18, 2009

IT’S PADDY PLANTING TIME again in Japan, and thousands of colorful rice-planting ceremonies are being held throughout the country to mark the start of the season. Last year we had a post that focused on several of them. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just offer the link to that post and describe another ceremony that’s a bit different from the others.

juken rice planting

This one was held specifically to plant rice that will be sold as a good luck charm to those taking school entrance examinations. It was held at a wet paddy in the Kameoka district of Takahata-machi, Yamagata, on the 15th. The Yamagatans have been planting and selling the rice as brain food since 1991, when the ceremony was cooked up by the local branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations. The crop is grown on a 1.5-hectare paddy that yields about eight tons of rice, which should be more than enough to get the local hopefuls into the school of their choice. After being harvested in the fall, it will be sold in five-kilogram bags.

What makes the Kameoka rice more of a cinch than a crib sheet? Daisho-ji, a Buddhist temple in Takahata-machi, is the home of one of Japan’s three great statues of the Monju Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Students throughout Japan have paid homage to that divinity for centuries because Monju, as the personification of the Buddha’s teachings, is a symbol for wisdom and enlightenment. One of the priests from Daisho-ji blesses the seedlings before they’re planted, and he’ll put the double whammy in for the examinations by blessing the rice itself after it’s harvested.

Once the priest takes care of business, a group of 15 people plant the rice by hand, as you can see in the photo. And that’s the intriguing part.

Those ladies ankle deep in the muck are wearing the traditional outfits of miko, or the maidens at Shinto shrines who serve in roughly the same role as altar boys at a Catholic church. Bending over to their right is a Shinto priest. In fact, in this photo Daisho-ji more closely resembles a Shinto shrine than a Buddhist temple. It’s also the case that most of the rice-planting ceremonies are Shinto affairs.

Confused? The Japanese aren’t. This has got to be one of the most naturally ecumenical places on the planet. And the Buddhist priests don’t mind bringing a divine spark to a profit-making enterprise as long as it’s in the cause of higher education.

But then again, who wouldn’t want to do their part to promote the cultivation of knowledge as well as grain? In fact, it’s a shame that ceremony is held way up north instead of down here in Kyushu. I’d be glad to tutor those girls for the English part of their exams!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Religion, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (99): Bringing it all back home

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 2, 2008

THIS POST last June briefly examined the importance of rice in Japan and included capsule summaries of the many rice-planting festivals held in late spring throughout the country. Now you know darn well that if people are going to take the trouble to have a special ceremony for planting the rice, they’re going to have another when it comes time to harvest it. And here they are!

The ritual for cutting the rice itself is variously called the nuihosai, the nuibosai, or even the nuiboshiki, but they all mean the same thing. Some of the rice (and other crops) harvested during these ceremonies is offered to the divinities a month later in a ceremony called the niinamesai. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on out in the fields. Don’t be shocked—some of it involves putting schoolgirls to work doing manual labor on the farms!

Shingu, Wakayama

Five junior high school girls clad as otome, or rice paddy maidens, hacked away during the nuihosai at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, a Shinto shrine. The Shingu otome worked in a 10-are (quarter acre) wet paddy planted in April. The paddy yielded 480 kilograms of rice, which made everyone pleased as punch. The rice itself will be used for shrine ceremonies, while the ears were offered at the Ise shrine. (That’s closely associated with the Imperial family, making it one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The enshrined deity at the Inner Shrine is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the mythological ancestor of the emperors.) Teenaged Japanese girls don’t have a lot of practice at wielding the scythes, so the onlookers had to give them the benefit of their experience—whack from below and at an angle. That’s one thing about old folks—they like to stand around kibitzing. Here’s another—they’re usually right!

Naruto, Tokushima

Held at the O’asahiko Shinto shrine, this nuihosai started with a Shinto ceremony. Then five karime, or cutting girls, from the local primary school, went to work. Meanwhile, about 40 people watched from the sideline and gave the girls the benefit of their extensive experience. (Whack from below and at an angle!) The rice was planted at the end of May, and the harvest totaled about 450 kilograms. It will be offered at the November niinamesai and to the shrine every day throughout the year.

Sabae, Fukui

Instead of rice, the karime at this nuihosai harvested foxtail millet, a plant frequently cultivated in East Asia and infrequently seen in Japanese supermarkets. Millet can grow to a height of five feet, which might require different whacking techniques than those used for the smaller rice plants. A local farmer planted this small field in June. The crowd estimated at 170 who came to watch and make speeches included area residents and officials from the prefecture, city, and JA (the national agricultural cooperatives association). The millet will be dried and offered both to the Imperial household in Tokyo and at the local niinamesai.

Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui

Fukui also harvests the traditional rice instead of millet, and that’s what the sixth-grade karime are doing here. You can’t see him, but helping out the girls is Ishikawa Tetsuji, who planted the field in May. Mr. Ishikawa said that growing the rice in such a natural setting enabled him to derive a sense of spiritual culture. He said he also felt a particular responsibility because Fukui is the home of koshihikari rice. That’s a super-premium strain of rice created in the 1950s, and it has become one of the most popular in the country. It’s also popular at the Imperial Palace, where the crop was recently offered. It will be used later this month at the niinamesai with Fukui millet and other rice from around the country.

Mine, Yamaguchi

The Imperial household is going to have enough rice to feed the entire diplomatic corps when these ceremonies are all over. Two liters of the rice harvested in Mine, Yamaguchi, which was cut by 15 karime, are also being shipped to Tokyo. This year the job of planting the ceremonial crop fell to Kitahara Masahiko, which he did in May on his three-are (300 square meter) field. Mr. Kitahara allowed as how the great weather this year resulted in an excellent crop. Now when was the last time you heard any farmer anywhere talking up his harvest? The average farmer would rather choke on his cut plug than talk about how good he’s got it. It might make the government think twice about agricultural subsidies, for one thing. (The Japanese usually soft-pedal their good harvests by saying they are mazumazu, or not so bad.) He also said he was thrilled to do the work because it was the greatest honor that could be received in a lifetime of farming.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

They call it a nuiboshiki in Hamamatsu, and theirs was held at a rice paddy near the Iinoya-gu Shinto shrine, which every year grows isehikari rice received from the aforementioned Ise shrine. Eight grade-school girls dressed up as otome to harvest the rice they planted themselves in the spring, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves. A group of about 10 people stuck around to kibitz, telling them to whack from the bottom at an angle. The crop this year was about 100 kilos–sounds about right for grade school girls–which was dried for offering at the shrine. More was offered in mid-October at the Ise shrine itself at a ceremony called the kannamesai.

Omaezaki, Shizuoka

Hey, where did that hair-legged guy come from! That’s Masuda Noboru, stomping around his own rice paddy in Omaezaki, where he planted koshihikari rice on 2,818 square meters in April. That yielded a harvest of about 500 kilograms—better than the usual crop, according to Mr. Masuda. He cut the rice plants himself for presentation to the tenno (Emperor) at the niinamesai. It’s a wonder the Imperial family doesn’t have a weight problem with all the food people send them from around the country. The Palace’s cut was 1.8 kilograms. According to the city government, this was the first time the ceremony was conducted in the municipality. Sometimes in Japan a centuries-old tradition can start just this year, and sometimes it can be a one-man operation.

Iwanuma, Miyagi

Iwanumanians use the term nuihoshiki to describe the ceremonial rice harvest at the Takekoma shrine, which dates from 842. The harvest was also a study session–about 50 Shinto priests went out to work in the fields, some of whom were shrine officials and priests from six prefectures throughout the Tohoku region taking part in religous training. A guy just can’t go out there and start hacking–you have to learn how to do this the right way first. (Whack from the bottom at an angle.) After the main priest ritually purified the paddy and offered a prayer, shrine officials and miko (shrine maidens) dressed as otome formed a row to cut the rice stalks. It’s a shame the miko weren’t closer to the camera. The priests bundled the rice and presented it to the divinities in thanks for the harvest. This year’s crop was said to be average, despite the heavy rains of late August. After the rice is dried in the sun, it will be offered at the niinamesai in late November.

Sanuki, Kagawa

Nuihoshiki? Check. Rice paddy? 200 square meters. Niinamesai? Check. The local shrine’s cut? 1.8 liters. Growth time? Four and a half months. Yield? Pretty good, despite the lack of rain and the heat. Participants? About 100, including city and prefectural government officials and 18 members of the farmer’s family. This one seems to have been a ceremony for the regular folks. I hope they’re not looking for a needle in the rice stacks.

Ise, Mie

And here’s the Ise shrine’s own nuihoshiki, which this year was held in the rain. The rice was harvested by the priests from a shrine rice paddy in Kusube-cho. Those are some elegant threads and umbrellas for agricultural work. What’s the guy in yellow saying? “Whack from the bottom at an angle”? The event is a statement for self-sufficiency, as the rice grown and harvested here will be used for events at the shrine. Participating in the event were about 80 people, including shrine officials and area residents. After the initial prayer, they entered the paddy to cut the rice with sacred scythes. Don’t you wish you had a sacred scythe, too? The rice was separated into two groups, one for use in the Inner Shrine and one for use in the Outer Shrine. It was then stored after inspection by lower ranking priests, called negi. Both ordinary rice and the more glutinous mochi rice were grown in the paddy. (The latter variety is used to make the rice cakes for New Year’s decorations.) About 240 bags were harvested, and the first offering will be at an event called the kannamesai on 15 October.

Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This ceremony was held by JA, the national association of agricultural cooperatives, to harvest rice for the Dewasanzan Shinto shrine at their own ceremonial rice paddy. The torii in the photo shows just how close the shrine is. That photo also shows just how much work religion can be sometimes. The 17-are (0.42 acre) rice paddy is known as a kensenden (a paddy that is an offering to the divinities). It was created just last year in the hope for a divine reboot of area agriculture, which has been suffering lately due to bad weather. The work was done by 40 JA employees as well as the miko, and they certainly don’t need any kibitzers telling them how to to go about chopping rice. The event started off with a miko dance, a lottery offering, and a religious ceremony. That’s something for everybody! (I pick the first.)

Kashima, Saga

Those ladies look like they’re having fun. Maybe they’re playing Tom Sawyer and trying to con us into painting the fence. That’s the nuiboshiki in a consecrated paddy at the Yutoku Inari Shinto shrine in Kashima to give thanks for the fall harvest. The miko, clad as otome, formed a horizontal row to cut the rice plants. This traditional ceremony gathers the rice used for the niinamesai on 8 December and is more than 300 years old. To start, 11 miko perform a solemn dance at the shrine in supplication for a big harvest. Then three miko use flutes and percussion to perform a song for an abundant year while the other eight go to work with a scythe. The harvest was better than average, and the priest was glad there was no typhoon damage. The shrine’s rice planting ceremony was covered in the June post, and the miko wore the same clothes then. And then washed them for this ceremony, of course.

Buzen, Fukuoka

Good morning, little schoolgirl…I’m a little schoolboy too! The Otomi shrine leaves nothing to chance during its nuihosai—they have three taosa, or paddy bosses, overseeing the work of the six karime from primary and junior high school on a special 1.5 are consecrated rice paddy. One boss for two girls? Now that’s labor intensive agriculture! This was just the shrine’s 14th rice harvesting event to offer thanks to the divinity for a bountiful harvest. They cut in time with music provided by flutes and taiko drums. The rice was a local prefectural variety planted in June. Fukui Aya, one of the karime, was out cutting for the second time. She said, “When you put on the clothing, it definitely gives you a sacred feeling.”

And with that, the granaries are filled for the winter!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Behind the rice curtain

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 8, 2008

THE SCENE FOR YESTERDAY’S POST was Tanabe, Wakayama, and by a happy coincidence, here is another story about the city that appeared today.

It’s now the season for harvesting rice in Japan, when the farmers cut the grain, tie it in bundles, stack it on end, and leave it in the field to dry. This farm household in Tanabe has a different system, however: they strap logs together to erect a large frame, from which they hang the rice sheaves.

They’ve been doing it for more than 45 years now. (I’d mention their names, but I’d have to guess at the reading.) The frame itself is five meters high and 18 meters wide, and it holds nine rows of stalks. One of the family members climbs the ladder while another uses a wooden pole to snatch the stalks and swing them up for hanging. The entire process, including the frame assembly, takes two full days.

Years ago, the family used to pile the rice from their terraced paddy in one place for drying. One of the reasons they switched to this method was to prevent the wild boar and deer in the area, whose numbers are increasing, from eating it.

The farmer here is one of the lucky ones—his son and her wife plan on taking over the farm. Nowadays the children of many Japanese farmers want nothing to do with farm labor.

It’s not a particularly important story, but I liked the picture, and I’m always interested in people coming up with clever variations on methods that for everyone else have become a cut-and-dried process.

And with the old method of rice harvesting, it literally is a cutting and drying process!

Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Matsuri da! (76): Putting a happy face on Sado

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 31, 2008

IF ANY PLACE IN JAPAN is star-crossed, it just might be Sado Island. The country’s sixth largest island, located 22 miles from Niigata, Sado became the Japanese equivalent of Siberia during the Heian Period (794-1192). It was there the rulers in the Kyoto capital exiled political troublemakers, as well as poets, Buddhist monks, and even one Tenno (emperor).

The poet Hozumi no Asomioyu was the first to receive this punishment, finding himself on the slow boat to the island in 722 after criticizing the Tenno.

Rank did not have its privileges, however. One member of the Imperial house wound up on the short end of the Sado stick himself: Juntoku Tenno was dispatched to Sado after helping his father, the nominally retired Go-Toba Tenno, in an attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate during the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. He lived there for 21 years, writing poetry criticism and the Kimpisho, a work on court ceremonial procedures. (His father, also a poetry lover, was sent to a different island.)

The last exile of a troublemaker to Sado occurred in 1700, almost 1,000 years after the first. But that was a century after gold had been discovered, which brought a different class of undesirables to the territory. The discovery did not create a gold rush for prospectors and prostitutes; the gold here was the property of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the people doing the digging and sifting were convicted criminals and the homeless. They were ill-treated drones in de facto slavery, and being sent to toil in the Shogun’s mines was another form of permanent exile.

When people weren’t being brought to Sado against their will, they were being taken away by force. Soga Hitomi was 19 years old when she and her mother were abducted by North Korean agents and taken to that country for a life of involuntary exile and teaching in the Japanese language and cultural education program it had set up for spies. That tells you all you need to know about the country’s desperate living conditions: the Japanese just have to overpay for underqualified foreigners to work as teaching assistants in their school system. Pyeongyang had to kidnap them.

It was in North Korea that Ms. Soga met and married Charles Jenkins, a deserter from the American army. They and their two children were eventually allowed to leave, and Mr. Jenkins finished serving out his time by spending a month in the brig. Now they’re all back in Sado—home for Soga Hitomi, exile of a more amenable sort for Mr. Jenkins.

This unpleasant history notwithstanding, the islanders enjoy themselves as much as any Japanese during their traditional festivals. One was held earlier this year at the Kobiei Shinto shrine. Called the Ta’asobi, or Playing in the Rice Paddy, it might be more accurate to describe it as the annual reenactment of a comic sketch based on the hardships of agricultural work. Many similar festivals are held throughout Japan before planting season arrives.

In the Sado City event, a mock rice paddy is set up in front of the shrine’s main hall. A small group of men mime the tasks carried out during the year, starting with the preparation of the paddy and ending with the planting of rice.

Their labors are complicated by the appearance of several other men impersonating moles and magpies, whose roles call for them to literally act their part and disrupt the men at work. They go so far as to paint the faces of the hapless farmers black, as you can see from the photo, and tie them to trees with ropes.

The festival is offered as a form of supplication for a good harvest in the fall. The zanier the moles and magpies behave, the louder the spectators cheer, and the better that year’s crop will be. The event originated about 160 years ago—life had become easier without the threat of exile or working in the mines—but was discontinued in the mid-1920s. The local residents (Sadomites?) restored it about 25 years ago.

Considering the history of the island, the best part of the festival might be that after the actors are untied from the trees, everyone is free to go home.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (51): Lighting up the paddies

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 23, 2007

WHEN THE JAPANESE HAVE A BRIGHT IDEA for a festival, they have no problems with creating a tradition out of a new one. One bright idea was the Doya Tanada Fire Festival in Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture, which was launched four years ago to help publicize the preservation of the local terraced rice paddies. Matsuura’s paddies were selected as among the 100 best terraced rice paddies in Japan in 1999. (The Japanese like to select the best 100 of any geographical features in the country—they’ve also designated the top 100 scenic views and the top 100 mountains.)

Now that the crop has been harvested, 2000 torches are placed on 200 paddy ridges at 7:00 p.m. and lit, creating the effect shown in the photograph. If you’re in Nagasaki now, you’re in luck—the fifth festival will be held tonight. The appeal isn’t simply the effect of the torch light in the paddies, it’s also the location of the paddies next to the Korea Strait.

They’re flexible about the timing, too. Last year’s festival was held in May, when the paddies were still full of water, but there isn’t any water in them now.

If you want to see some more photos, you might try this Japanese page, though the links to the four photos are in English. This blogger took several photos, both in the late afternoon before the lights came on, and at night. And this site has 12 photos.

This festival features no drinking, mikoshi bashing, or other revelry—just some people taking the time to make their part of the world beautiful for a night.

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

Matsuri da! (27): Give us this day our daily rice

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 24, 2007

WHEN WRITING POSTS ABOUT MANY OF THE FESTIVALS here, I often emphasize their unusual elements, such as unique competitions, sake, simulated sex, mikoshi smashing, fire rituals, water, dancing, and of course, more sake.

Perhaps it’s not fair to accentuate the novelties (for foreigners, anyway) when the most basic of all Japanese festivals are simple, subdued, and conducted unobtrusively, albeit with splendid costumes, particularly for the women who participate. Those are the rice planting festivals that are held by the hundreds throughout Japan in May and June. Not only are they the most basic type of festival, but since Japan’s very existence is defined by wet paddy cultivation, they are the most important.

In my part of Japan, the most well known is the rice-planting festival held last week by the Yutoku Inari Shrine in Kashima, Saga, in supplication for a bountiful harvest. It has been held in this same form for more than 300 years.

Eight shrine maidens, or miko (corresponding very roughly to altar boys in a Catholic church) wade into the new rice paddy to plant rice seedlings to the accompaniment of special songs, as three other miko play wooden clappers and flutes. The rice is planted in a specially consecrated shrine paddy and harvested during another festival held in the fall. That rice is used for offerings at the shrine over the next year.

But there are many more of the same sort of event throughout the country, and their variations on a theme offer interesting contrasts. Such as the ones here, here, and here.

Or here, here, and here. (You’ll be glad you clicked the links…)

And there are countless more…

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 117 other followers