AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Shiga’

Ain’t that peculiar

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 29, 2012

Iida Tetsunari and Kada Yukiko

Shiga Gov. Kada Yukiko has formed a national political party called the Japan Future Party. I met Ms. Iida several times when I was governor of Miyazaki, and we’ve appeared on the same television programs together. What’s odd about this, however, is that there is a lot of criticism and censure whenever the chief executive of a local government becomes the head of a political party. ‘Is it possible for a local government leader to head a national party’, they ask. ‘Do they have that much spare time?’ ‘They’re making light of national government.’ None of that has happened this time. I’ve said from the beginning that it is possible to do both jobs if you’re willing to work without sleeping. Where did all the people who were so critical go the last time this happened?

- Higashikokubaru Hideo, former Miyazaki governor and current Japan Restoration Party candidate for a PR seat, making an unspoken reference to Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru

NOW ain’t that peculiar?

SHIGA Gov. Kada Yukiko is well known in citizen-activist circles for a her commitment to governmental reform. She was elected governor in 2006 after campaigning on a platform of opposing a new Shinkansen station and several dams, using the slogan “It’s a waste of money.” She was part of the now idle Sentaku group of local government leaders working to change Japanese politics. But outside of Shiga, she has little name recognition with the Japanese public.

Thus, it was like grabbing a stick from a bamboo grove, as the Japanese call a bolt from the blue, when she announced this week that she was forming a new national political party from scratch to contest the lower house election — in 19 days.

She said the primary objective of her Japan Future Party was to have Japan “graduate” from nuclear power in 10 years. She was disappointed in Hashimoto Toru for allowing the resumption of power generation at the Oi plants in Fukui, and his Japan Restoration Party for backing off its no-nuclear-power pledge. Ms. Kada also thinks women’s and children’s issues are important:

We agree with Japan Restoration on detaching ourselves from the bureaucracy and central authority, but we differ on two points. Mr. Hashimoto’s perspective is the big city, while mine is the country. Japan Restoration is not aware of the diversity of views of women and children. There are areas in which we could complement each other.

Appearing at the news conference was the man who is described as the party’s “second in command, the controversial Iida Tetsunari, who founded the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies. He thinks Japan can convert to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

He was once the energy policy advisor to Mr. Hashimoto, but left when the Osaka mayor decided to back the restart of the Oi plants. He ran for governor of Yamaguchi, but could manage only 35% of the vote despite the free media publicity at the height of the anti-nuclear power hysteria in Japan. Mr. Hashimoto did not make the short trip down from Osaka to campaign for him.

She doesn’t seem to have thought very carefully about any of her policies. An official from METI, which were responsible for regulating the nuclear power industry, said:

It is not possible to imagine a path that achieves zero nuclear power in 10 years.

He pointed out that apart from water power, renewable energy, including solar, wind, and geothermal, accounts for 2% of power generation now.

The rest of the new party’s platform consists of other phantasms that aren’t the business of national government: She wants to “create more opportunities for women and promote a work-life balance that makes it easier for families to raise children.” Ms. Kada said she also wants create hiring in the agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. She didn’t say how she intends to do any of that, but it’s safe to assume the regional devolution supporter will have no qualms about strengthening the central government to achieve it.

Another plank in her platform is to require companies to rehire their non-regular employees as full time employees. That means they and new people entering the work force will wind up as non-employees.

She also promised to roll back the consumption tax increase until government waste was eliminated. That was the same promise the Democratic Party of Japan made three years ago and broke this year.

Was there anything about foreign policy? Do you have to ask?

In other words, she is a generic and watery social democrat of the type that appeal to bored housewives, hairballs, and show biz types such as Sakamoto Ryuichi (who is a Kada supporter).

It becomes more peculiar: Ms. Kada will not run for a Diet seat, and told one of her aides at the statehouse that she intends to devote most of her attention to her duties there rather than the national party. Further, her party has no Diet members and no declared candidates. (Mr. Iida is not going to run for the Diet either.) She had demonstrated no interest in forming a national political party before, and certainly has no experience in navigating those shark-infested waters. How could she do this so quickly? Just what is going on here?

What is going on became clear within a few hours of her announcement. Yamaoka Kenji, the vice-president of Ozawa Ichiro’s People’s Lives First Party and Mr. Ozawa’s designated torpedo, said:

I think we’ll merge (with Kada’s party) after dissolving our party.

And they did. In other words, Ozawa Ichiro, the Great Destroyer, facing political extinction in this election with personal negatives well north of 80% and his party slithering along at less than 2% in the polls, decided to save his career and salvage his power by doing what he has done several times in the past. That is to create a new party (his seventh), change his policy clothes into whatever seems fashionable at the time, and enlist someone pleasant, innocuous, and superficially appealing person as his front man. Only this time, the front man is a woman.

It wasn’t long before it became clearer still. Former LDP bigwig, splinter group-head, and DPJ coalition partner Kamei Shizuka recently broke up his even smaller and newer two-man splinter party to join Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s Tax Reduction Japan Party. That group will also become part of the Japan Future Party. Also joining is former Social Democrat Abe Tomoko, who quit to join the Greens, and Hatsushika Akihiro, Pyeongyang’s pal in the Diet, who left the DPJ earlier this month.

It became perfectly obvious yesterday, when the Japan Future Party became an official national party with eight founding members from the recently dissolved Diet. In addition to Abe Tomoko, they include Yamada Masahiko, the other half of Mr. Kamei’s two-man party, former Olympic judo champion Tani Ryoko, whom Mr. Ozawa groomed as a celebrity upper house candidate for the DPJ in 2010, and several men who have followed Mr. Ozawa through three political parties and now into a fourth.

A chart on the front page of this morning’s newspaper shows that Japan Future has 61 Diet members, which, if the Diet had not been dissolved, would make it the third-largest party behind the DPJ and LDP. When asked at a news conference how many members her party had, Ms. Kada replied:

“I understand there are about 73-74 as of now.”

“She understands”? She’s the boss. Doesn’t she know?

Of course she doesn’t know. Ms. Kada is sticking to her knitting as the Shiga governor while sallying forth for the occasional national speech and television performance. The people running the party are the people who really organized the party — Ozawa Ichiro and Kamei Shizuka.

But Mr. Ozawa is so unpopular with the public that giving him a formal position in Japan Future would ensure it would be stillborn. Mr. Iida was asked if he would be made an officer, and he answered:

“I understand that he will not have that role.”

“He understands”? He’s the number two man in the party. Doesn’t he know?

It doesn’t take long for the Japanese media to ferret out information related to political plots, and they were quick off the ball this time as well. It turns out that Messrs. Ozawa and Kamei have been discussing ways to create a new party for the last three months. Mr. Ozawa had already met Gov. Kada in June and offered her the top job in People’s Lives First then. UPDATE: The latest report is that Iwate Gov. Tasso Tatsuya, an Ozawa supporter, made the proposal to Ms. Kada for this party in late September.

They met again last week to iron out the details. Reported the Asahi:

Kada offered a draft of her plan to form a loose alliance of anti-nuclear parties, comparing it to the Olive Tree coalition in Italy, when she met Ozawa on Nov. 24.

That’s a dead giveaway that she was hooked by the Ozawa line. Mr. Ozawa has been talking up the possibility of a Japanese version of the Olive Tree coalition for some months, though he already created one in the early 90s with the eight- and then seven-party coalition governments of Hosokawa Morihiro and Hata Tsutomu in the early 90s. That lasted less than a year, thanks in part to the efforts of Kamei Shizuka to sabotage them. But that was then, and this is now.

Everyone in Japanese politics also knew exactly what was going on. Said Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi:

I hope she doesn’t become a puppet. I hope the big man behind her doesn’t manipulate her like a kuroko.

He was asked if Your Party would join the Japan Future Party, because they do share an anti-nuclear power stance. Mr. Watanabe said it wasn’t possible for this election because it was too late, and his party’s candidates have already been selected. Mr. Iida, however, said that policy discussions between the two groups were underway.

Reporters addressed that issue with Ms. Kada. Here’s what the boss said:

I will work so that this does not become the new Ozawa party, and embed mechanisms into the party that reflect the voices of women and young people.

The media is not about to let it go, either. They asked her again today, and she replied that the relationship would be beneficial because “he has a lot of experience and I have a lot to learn”.

And I have a need for one of those eye-rolling icons.

She also announced today that Mori Yuko, the token woman nominally in charge of Ozawa’s Putting People’s Lives First, will be given a leadership role in Japan Future. Ms. Mori is quite attractive, so the new party’s electoral strategy and organization has gone beyond obvious to blatant.

Even Azumi Jun, the acting Secretary-General of the DPJ knew what was up:

The Japan Future Party is the classic unholy political alliance.

He also referred to the party as a kakikomidera. That was a temple during the Edo period to which a woman would flee to begin ascetic practices and thereby establish a divorce from her husband.

When he heard that Ms. Kada wants to restore the government stipend/child rearing allowance that the DPJ implemented and withdrew after the Tohoku disaster, Mr. Azumi said it looked like they were making the same mistake the DPJ made.

Former Prime Minister Kan Naoto knew the score too:

Ms. Kada is a true environmentalist, but if the structure of the party is such that Ozawa Ichiro has the real authority, it will fall apart.

Well, wait — some politicians thought it was a good idea. Here’s former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio:

The thinking of the Japan Future Party is the starting point for the ideas of the original Democratic Party of Japan.

I really need one of those eye-rolling icons.

One more aspect to this is Ms. Kada’s desire to create a new “third force” in Japanese politics. That is the phrase usually applied to the movement now spearheaded by Hashimoto Toru’s Japan Restoration Party. The Japan Future Party is therefore an Ozawa-Kamei vehicle designed to crush that group.

Whether it works or not remains to be seen. The Japan Future Party was born out of Ozawa Ichiro’s desperation to remain a force in Japanese politics. Had he stood pat, his People’s Lives First party would have been the one to be crushed. That isn’t to say this move will be successful — the same newspaper chart this morning that gives Japan Future 61 members has photographs of both Ms. Kada and Mr. Ozawa. People know who’s pulling the strings, and a lot of them won’t like it.

Also, opposition to nuclear power has not been the path to electoral success in Japan, and polls show it isn’t near the top of the list of voter concerns. This might well be a last gasp rather than a new opening.

It’s almost possible to feel sorry for Kada Yukiko, until you remember that she was quite willing to make this Faustian bargain to serve as window dressing. While all politicos are liars who would do violence to us all (to combine observations from I.F. Stone and Tolstoy), people from her part of the political pasture are the most likely to believe that their righteously holy ends justify any means whatsoever. Even if that means lying to themselves to cut a deal with Old Scratch.

Whether this party is a success or a failure, one thing is certain: nothing good will come of this in the future. The more unpleasant of the two possibilities would manifest if the party is successful. That would mean Japan’s future really will be very bleak.

More Peculiarities

Speaking of desperate politicians, Prime Minister Noda plans to approve a JPY 880 billion emergency stimulus package this week. It is his second emergency stimulus package in two months. Of course this one won’t work either, but hey, it’s not his money. Don’t ask him what’s in it, because he doesn’t know. His party didn’t even know how the government funds for rebuilding the Tohoku region are being spent. Now they’ve decided to suspend some of them, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that their left hands don’t know what their right hands are doing.

This is an unusual step because the Diet has been dissolved. Yes, it does look like a last-gasp legal vote-buying scheme, doesn’t it?

The party’s new manifesto contains employment measures that will promote hiring in “green sectors” (energy and the environment) and the “life sector” (medical services and nursing care). They don’t seem to have learned anything from Spain that promoting green policy beggars the economy instead of making it better.

The party believes that this, combined with their consumption tax increase, will somehow increase household disposable income.

Well, what do you expect from a party of the left? Common sense? Sound financial policies? An understanding of how economic growth and prosperity for the greater population is created?

That really would be peculiar.

Afterwords:

The person who understands how to increase employment in the agricultural sector is Hashimoto Toru. From a Hashimoto tweet this week:

Growing the agricultural sector through industrialization (i.e., agribusiness) is essential for Japan’s growth. Young people will not seek work with individual farmers. It would be better if blue chip companies got involved with agriculture. They will also be a source of employment for young people. Unless a situation is created that will attract young people, the sector will wither and die. Structural reform of this sector is the only path.

This was also the path selected by the Koizumi-Abe LDP, who implemented measures to promote the creation of agribusiness. The DPJ led by Ozawa Ichiro used those measures as leverage to win farm votes by promising to roll them back and provide government subsidies to individual farm households.

*****

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

Udon summit

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ONE of the students in my university class this spring had a running joke with me about what kind of noodles we would eat at the school cafeteria for an après-class snack. She insisted on udon, but I went for the soba.

I like both, but prefer soba because it has more body. But that puts me in the minority in Japan; most people like both, but prefer udon. Quick classroom surveys of my students over the years reveal that 80-90% raise their hands for udon first. It’s also the preferred late-night snack of serious drinkers on their way home from the tavern.

Thus it wasn’t any surprise that despite bad weather and a shortened schedule due to an approaching typhoon, the Second National Local Udon Summit attracted 2,000 people in just 90 minutes in Higashiomi, Shiga. National local means that it was a nationwide contest to determine the best regional recipe. Whether it truly determined the national champion is open to question, as there were 11 entrants from six prefectures, but the event was only in its second year.

The noodle soup champion was determined by the visitor-diners at the site, as shown in the photo above. They sampled as many of the entries as they could and voted for their favorites. The winner was the Komatsu Niku (Beef) Udon from Komatsu, Ishikawa. There are several varieties of Komatsu udon, whose stock is made with a traditional recipe using local fish. The beef variety adds meat from local cows into the broth.

Second prize was awarded to the Toyohashi Curry Udon from Toyohashi, Aichi. You guys in the back row can cool it with the sniggering — if curry udon soup wasn’t a palate pleaser, it wouldn’t have won a prize. It also wouldn’t be enshrined in the Udon Museum. Besides, an Aichi company makes a commercial variety and sells it for JPY 400 a pack.

And here’s a short Youtube with a slide show of the cornucopia of Komatsu udon, including the summit champ. I’m not sure about the story behind the accompanying song, but I’m guessing it was an old tune about sumo with the lyrics changed to praise the delights of the local cuisine.

Posted in Food, Popular culture | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (132): Mugi, bakushu, and maekju

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

MOST Japanese festivals are several hundred years old and conducted at Shinto shrines that are usually much older.

But there are exceptions. One is a festival created this year and held for the first time last Saturday by the Koma Shinto shrine in Hidaka, Saitama. It’s called the Festival of Gratitude for Mugi and Prayer for Manju, and that’s a poster advertising it at the top. Mugi is the general term for barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other grains in the poaceae family. It’s been grown in Hidaka and the western part of Saitama for a long time. Manju are buns with a variety of fillings. Most often it’s bean paste, but there are many varieties, including those packed with meat and even cream custard. The first manju was brought to Japan from China in 1341, where they are also still eaten.

The priests offered a prayer for the bountiful sales of mugi products, and they gave a manju to everyone who came for good luck. To help promote those bountiful sales, there were booths offering a selection of delights, including the locally popular kinchakuda manju, made with wheat flour, Saitama’s own bean paste, and chestnuts. Inoue Hiroshi, the head of the Kawagoe (city) cultural treasure protection council, delivered a special address. Mr. Inoue spoke on Japan’s Wheat Manju, Past and Present.

The Mugi Culture Gratitude Festival Committee sponsored the event as one of the first activities to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of Koma-gun. (A gun is roughly equivalent to a county.)

Koma-gun was founded by refugees from Goguryeo on the Korean Peninsula. An ancient Korean kingdom, Goguryeo was the loser in a battle against an alliance of the Korean Silla Kingdom and Tang Dynasty China in 668. Koma is written as 高麗 in kanji, which are the same characters used for the Goryeo dynasty of Korea that lasted from 918 to 1392. Goryeo is the origin of the name of Korea, and is derived from Goguryeo. Koma was also used as a synonym for Korea long ago in Japan.

In fact, the Saitamanians think the newcomers established a Goguryeo court in exile there before giving it up and assimilating. One of the first to arrive was Koma no Jakko, an envoy from the court who showed up in 666. He might have been a member of the royal family known by a different name. His spirit is one of the three tutelary deities at the Koma shrine.

Goguryeo is said to have been a grain-producing area. The theme of the new festival is to celebrate the common food culture between the two areas and to remind everyone of the local grain-based foods.

The shared food culture hasn’t traveled on a one-way street. The Japanese introduced Koreans to another popular grain-based product in the first half of the 20th century: beer. Here’s an excerpt from Exploring Korea, a travel guide:

Beer is called Mekchu (맥주) in Korean. The Germans introduced beer to many Asian countries and helped countries such as China and Japan set up breweries and develop brewing techniques. When the Japanese colonized Korea they introduced beer and opened breweries to produce beer for the local elites.

Considering the wealth created on the peninsula and the increase in incomes over all social levels, I don’t know about that “elites” part, but let’s continue. The site has capsule summaries of the three South Korean mass market brewers. Here’s one:

Hite Brewing Company was founded in 1933 and was originally under Japanese ownership during the occupation of Korea. When the company began it was called Chosun Beer but later changed to Hite after gaining independence from Japan.

Chosun Beer was a subsidiary of Dainippon Beer (大日本麦酒株式会社), and was half-owned by local interests. Dainippon was created in Japan in 1906 through the mergers of the companies that made what are now Asahi, Sapporo, and Yebisu beers. It was split into separate units again after the war. Hite was founded in 1933, but didn’t start shipping until 1934.

The reason I provided the company name in characters was to show this part: 麦酒. That seems to have been pronounced biiru in the Dainippon name, and it literally means mugi liquor. The characters themselves were already in use for an older form of proto-beer in Japan and pronounced bakshu in that application.

The characters are also the source for the Korean word maekju, which is the Korean reading of bakushu. The Chinese call beer 啤酒, which is pijiu in Mandarin and bijiu in Cantonese. These days they often dispense with the second character. The first seems to have been a new creation/coinage when beer arrived in China. It’s a combination of 口, or mouth, which is used as a classifier, and another character also known in Japan that means low, base, or common.

OB is the second of the Big Three beer companies in South Korea. That brewery was founded in 1952 by what is now the Doosan conglomerate, but the company had already existed in a different form as Showa Beer, whose major shareholder was Kirin.

Koreans enjoy getting worked up over what they perceive as the faulty Japanese awareness of history and lack of recognition of their contributions to Japanese culture. The case could easily be made, however, that the opposite is closer to the truth. No one in Koma-gun, Saitama, is ignoring history, and one of the Korean county fathers is venerated in the local Shinto shrine. That’s not an isolated example, either: They do the same in Arita, Saga, to honor a key figure in the ceramics culture.

For contrast, allow me subject you to this Wikipedia article called Beer in Korea. Either some boy needs to do his homework, or his teachers gave him bad homework assignments. My guess is the latter.

*****
The Japanese still make bakushu in special circumstances, such as proto-beer festivals at Shinto shrines. Here’s a look at one held annually at the Soja shrine in Koka, Shiga. They started in 1441. The shrine makes three types, and the captions in the video say they are sweet.

Posted in Agriculture, Festivals, Food, Foreigners in Japan, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shocking the black bass

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SOME people amuse themselves by introducing different species of fauna to new places, inadvertently causing havoc among the native inhabitants. The Maritime Products Division of the Shiga Prefecture government is anxious to disintroduce the non-native black bass from Lake Biwa because they feed on the locals. A lot.

The Shigans hit on the idea of shocking the little devils to make it easy to scoop them into nets for disposal. So as not to ruffle the scales of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ichthyoids, they just juice them with 1,000 volts for less than a minute, which knocks them unconscious. They then float to the surface along with the other stunned sea creatures, but only the aliens are scooped. The black bass spawn from April to July, so the prime shocking time is just coming to an end. The technique is reportedly effective because it also jolts the hard-to-reach finsters lurking in the rocks.

How effective? Last year they shocked and scooped 1.8 tons of black bass, as well as 81 kilograms of blue gills, another maritime invader.

The specially outfitted ship is capable of inserting electric terminals into the sea from the bow. Prefecture officials borrowed a boat last year from the National Federation of Inland Water Fisheries Cooperatives and conducted 19 trials. The ship is named after the god of thunder (or lightning, both work in Japanese), and it operates out of the Port of Otsu.

The system worked so well, they bought their own boat this year!

****
Here’s what Real Fish sound like when they take up musical instruments and form a band. The school decides to head in a different direction about 1:30 in.

Posted in Food, Science and technology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Headlines and the reality

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the results:

49%: Approve
41%: Disapprove

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter with them?”

I told my wife the heat was getting to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll bet!

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

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

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

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

To top it off

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

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (113): It’s about that time!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 25, 2010

EVERY COUNTRY seems to fill its calendar with commemorative days, weeks, and months that most people never know exist, or would never care about if they did know. In the United States, for example, June is both National Polka Month and Bath Safety Month. The second week of June was Law Enforcement Training Week and School Guard Crossing Week. The 16th was National Fudge Day, the 14th was Blood Type Awareness Day (that’s every day in Japan), and the 10th was American Log Cabin Day.

In Japan, meanwhile, the 10th was set aside as the day to commemorate time. Unlike American Log Cabin Day, it did not pass by unnoticed, particularly by the folks in Otsu, Shiga. They did what comes naturally to the Japanese—they had a festival!

That event was the Rokokusai, or Water Clock Festival, held at the Omi-jingu, a local Shinto shrine. As the jingu name suggests, this shrine is associated with the Imperial household, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of the Tenchi Tenno (emperor). He was number 38 and lived in the seventh century. In contrast, the shrine itself is relatively new—it was built in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial reign, dating back to the legendary first Tenno, Jimmu.

The reason they got all excited about water clocks is that the Tenchi Tenno introduced the use of those timekeepers to Japan 1,340 years ago. Several of those clocks and other historical timepieces are on display in a museum on the shrine grounds. Naturally, the local timepiece manufacturers take a special interest in the shrine and this event. They each donated a sample of their new products to the shrine for presentation to the divinity with a prayer for the prosperous growth of their industry.

The festival included a performance of kagura, or Shinto song and dance, and there was a procession with 400 people. The photo shows some of those participating in the procession presenting the donated timepieces to the divinity. They’re dressed in the manner of uneme, which means “selected women”. During the Heian period (794-1185), they were chosen from a nationwide talent pool—probably for their timeless good looks—to be court attendants and serve the Tenno at table. This was a formal role, though they likely did not serve the Tenno in other ways that some of you lecherous types are probably thinking about. He had official concubines to handle that aspect of his life.

Because the Japanese Tenno has primarily been a religious figure, the uneme were considered to have a religious role, and they were also his personal property. Therefore, violating an uneme was a serious breach of the law that was severely punished as one of the “eight abominable crimes”.

Watching attractive women in period costume carry around clocks might not ring most people’s chimes, but one participant saw it differently:

When I sat inside the quiet shrine precincts with the guardian deity for time, I reflected on how much time I’ve wasted. I hope to live my life hereafter with a real sense of the importance of time.

Tenchi’s water clocks sounded the passage of time with a bell, but some later timepieces used a boom. On Time Day this year, Kadoya Shoji of Nagaoka, Niigata, displayed a taiko drum clock that he recreated based on an original model dating from 1793 now in the collection of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo (link on right sidebar). The interior of that clock is hollow, however, and how it worked is a mystery. There are no surviving designs, so Mr. Kadoya, who repairs timepieces for a living, had to come up with some ideas on his own.

His task was complicated because Japan used what is known as the temporal time system during the Edo period. Instead of dividing a day into 24 equal periods of 60 minutes each, the period from dawn to dusk was split into six equal intervals, as was the period from dusk to dawn. Therefore, the operation of the clocks varied from month to month. The period of daylight is longer than the night in summer, but that’s reversed in winter. Thus the “hours” progressively grew longer until this time of year (this week in fact), when they began growing shorter.

This manner of timekeeping was used until 1873, when the Japanese government adopted the Western method of using equal hours with no seasonal variation, as well as the Gregorian calendar.

Mr. Kadoya contrived a system with two scales – one for day and one for night—and used lead weights to operate it. He said it was difficult to create the mechanism for the automatic switch from the daytime scale to the one used at night. The weights are raised and readjusted once a day. The clock itself is 108 centimeters high (3.54 feet), 45 centimeters in diameter, and 20 centimeters thick. In addition to the drum beat signaling the hours, a bell sounds at the equivalent of noon. A mechanical bird attached to the upper part of the drum also moves at midday, in accordance with contemporary accounts of the original drum.

He’s been at this quite a while; Mr. Kadoya first repaired a Japanese clock 35 years ago at the request of a customer. That piqued his interest, and he has repaired more than 200 since then.

Asking someone for the time of day is usually a simple matter, but Mr. Kadoya might have a more complicated answer. You should specify the century first!

Afterwords:

For a photo of the face of an older Japanese clock, plus more details on their operation, try this post on the website of novelist Gina Collia-Suzuki.

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Idollatry

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 15, 2010

HAS THERE EVER been a time when little girls didn’t play with dolls? In Japan, little girls have been playing with paper dolls since at least the Heian period, which began more than 1200 years ago.

Somewhere along the way, that diversion was combined with an old Chinese purifactory rite held along rivers in the third lunar month. People exorcised their impurities by transferring them to paper images and casting them on the waters. Those paper images were called katashiro in Japan.

Early in the Edo period, which began more than 400 years ago, people started displaying three-dimensional versions of these dolls in the home. As the custom became more widespread, the dolls and the displays grew more elaborate, and it became traditional to place a full set of figures consisting of an emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians on several tiers for Girls’ Day, which is 3 March.

That custom eventually became a part of every girl’s life. Parents gave a set to girls when they were born, or on their first birthday, and the girls took them to their new home when they got married.

Little girls and big girls both still play with the dolls. Here’s a look at this year’s Hina events from several perspectives.

Biggu

The Tomisaki Shinto shrine in Katsuura, Chiba puts on a really biggu show every year for its Biggu Hina Matsuri, and it gives everyone a preview by displaying 1,200 dolls on a 60-tiered platform for the 60 stone steps leading to the shrine torii. Katsuura seems to have become something of a Hina Central. There’s a Shinto ceremony to pray for the success of the festival, and the miko, or shrine maidens, perform dances. Students at the International Budo (Martial Arts) University—an accredited school—gave a naginata demonstration.

The city’s main Hina Matsuri, or doll festival, was held from 26 February to 6 March and featured 25,000 dolls in nine locations. One local primary school had an exhibit of 1,366 folk dolls from 84 countries. The city also exhibited Japan’s biggu-est hina doll, which is a towering 120 centimeters tall, or just a skoche shy of four feet. It should be no surprise that the festival is a biggu deal for the city’s merchants—it attracts more than 150,000 people every year.

Those stone steps are 15 meters high and two meters wide, by the way. It took 20 people 90 minutes to set up the display, and boy that was fast work.

Crafts

The hina season is the peak period for Kuroda Hiroshi and his wife Katsumi of Koshigaya, Saitama, who work together to make traditional crafts. Mr. and Mrs. Kuroda make full sets of hina dolls by hand. One set costs from JPY 150,000 to JPY 230,000 (about $US 2,540). That’s expensive, but customers are paying for handmade craftsmanship and a unique product. Said Mr. Kuroda, “I’ve been doing this with my wife ever since we got married. If one of us were lacking, we couldn’t make good products.” He says the most popular sets now are the smaller ones with dolls from 15 to 20 centimeters high (just shy of eight inches), perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.

Arts

Arita-cho in Saga has been one of Japan’s leading porcelain and ceramics centers since the late 16th century. They’ve had plenty of experience creating elaborate and elegant works of porcelain art, particularly during the 18th century, when European nobility went into a continent-wide collectors’ frenzy and spent enormous sums on their products. It stands to reason they’ve got their fingers in this pie too.

The Arita Hina Ceramics festival began last month, and the big draw was the display of porcelain hina dolls from kilns in three countries at the municipal offices on the 28th. The kilns represented were the heavy hitters in the world’s porcelain industry. From left to right: Lladro of Spain, Kakiemon of Arita-cho, and Meissen of Germany. That’s Arita’s chief municipal officer giving the glad eye to the Spanish team. Porcelain folk were particularly intrigued by comparisons of the three companies’ distinctive use of color.

The Kakiemon and Meissen kilns have been around for centuries, but Lladro is a relative baby doll, established in 1950. It didn’t take them long to become the world’s leading porcelain doll manufacturer, however. Aficionados cite their use of color and curves as the factors that set them apart. Their price sets them apart as well. A set of two dolls sells for JPY 1.05 million, or roughly $US 11,590.

Some people sigh at their beauty. Others sigh at the price.

Living dolls

Boys generally aren’t interested in this sort of thing—it is Girl’s Day, after all—and besides, guys are more likely to sigh over living dolls than the porcelain variety.

That’s why the favorite doll event for manly men was in Higashiomi, Shiga, last week, when three young women from the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School dressed up as Hina doll attendants. They even served visitors shirozake (white sake, made with rice malt and sake), a beverage traditionally consumed at these celebrations, and posed for photos. I’ve never had shirozake, but if they want to pour, I’ve got a cup to bring.

The event was called the Human Hina Festival, and it was the centerpiece of a larger local festival that will last until the 28th. This year’s festival is the 13th. The students appeared as living dolls two days running, for two hours each. Said 20-year-old Kato Mako, one of the human hinas, “It was difficult because my feet went numb, but a lot of people took my picture, so it was a good experience.”

Being a doll must be harder work than it looks!

I mentioned last week that some Japanese still believe inanimate objects have spirits, and that also applies to the hina. It just doesn’t feel right to dump them in the trash if they’re no longer wanted or needed. It’s worth clicking the link to find out the solution some people have devised.

And yes, the Tankai Calligraphy Culture Vocational School has a website, though it’s in Japanese only. You don’t have to read Japanese to appreciate their calligraphy gallery, however.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

JAPAN MAY OR MAY NOT become the world’s next cultural hegemon, but the daily parade of cultural phenomena in this country is too immense and diverse to keep track of it all. It’s better just to let it wash all over you and enjoy whatever you can whenever it flows by.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of rivulets from the recent flood.

Bigfoot

The Nio guardian statues stand guard as sentries at the entrance gate of temples. As the Buddhists have it, they are emanations of Vajrapani Bodhisattva that represent the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death. It takes two to guard the gate, one with mouth open, and the other with mouth closed.

But just like the rest of us, the alphas and the omegas need something to cover their bare feet. The solution in some places is supersized waraji, or straw sandals. That’s no exaggeration–Kataoka Tsuneo in Echizen, Fukui, recently made a pair more than two meters long. Or to be precise, they were 2.1 meters long, 85 centimeters wide, and 14 centimeters thick. At 6 feet 10 inches, they’re longer than most people are tall. They also weighed between 40 to 50 kilograms each.

To be even more precise, Mr. Kataoka didn’t make them by himself. “It’s an impossible job for one person when they’re this size,” he admitted, so he called on two apprentice cobblers to help. It took the trio a week to put the sandals together.

This isn’t the sort of thing that people regularly do, even in Japan. Said Mr. Kataoka, “It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve made any sandals that big.” He made a one-meter pair for some smaller Nio last year, but said, “Orders for something like this don’t come around all that often. Even if I wanted to make some, it’s hard to find the time.”

He gave them to a temple in Yamagata this month after he applied the finishing touches.

Hotfoot

Every alpha has its omega, and even the strongest of straw sandals wear out eventually after standing sentry duty at the temple gates for so long. But when those waraji are no longer usable, they can’t just be tossed out in the trash. Many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, and that goes double for objects that require specialized skills to make and were used at a religious institution. They’ve been invested with a lot of ki, after all. Disposing of them requires a special ceremony.

The most famous giant straw sandals in the country are the pair used at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. That’s the oldest temple in Japan, and you can read about its origins here.

The practice of hanging waraji at Senso-ji started in 1941 when lower house MP Matsuoka Toshizo donated the first pair as a symbol of national defense. They’ve been replaced once every decade since then. The sixth pair was 4.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and weighed one ton each. They were donated in 1998 and hung on the Hozomon (gate). This particular pair was made by a resident of Murayama, Yamagata—Matsuoka Toshizo’s hometown—and they’ve been on display in that city since being returned in 2008.

But all good things must come to an end, so they were dispatched in a rite called the Otakiage. After an initial Shinto ceremony, about 50 Murayamanians took them apart by removing the wires holding the straw in place. A fire was then lighted to burn the straw, during which a Buddhist mass was conducted. And since it would have been a shame to waste that nice bonfire, the 200 or so people who showed up to watch were given mochi rice cakes, which they stuck on the end of bamboo sticks and roasted.

If that ain’t the alpha and the omega, I don’t know what is.

Since many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, no one was surprised when the chairman of the event said:

形も崩れず、今まで頑張ってくれた大わらじにお疲れさまと言いたい

I’ll be darned if I can come up with a satisfying English translation that does justice to the original and is still comfortably readable. Let’s try this:

“The sandals didn’t lose their shape and did us the favor of making every effort to hang together until now, so we want to thank them for their service.”

Regardless of how it sounds in English, that sounds perfectly natural in Japanese.

The world’s largest lawnmower?

Streetcars still run in some Japanese cities, including Nagasaki City and Kagoshima City. Several years ago, Kagoshima City planted turf in between the tracks to ameliorate the heat island effect and add some greenery to the city at the same time.

But as anyone who has a lawn knows, that grass grows and it has to be cut. Hiring students part-time and sending them out with a fleet of lawnmowers wouldn’t cut it on the streetcar line.

So the Kagoshima City Transportation Department and the Osaka Sharyo Co. recently began trials of what they think is the world’s first grass cutting train, with the objective of putting it into regular service at the end of the month. The train also is able to water the grass, if only to make sure they have something to cut. Either that or it’s a make-work project for the railroad workers union.

The first trial was run on a stretch of track on which the grass wasn’t high enough to cut—it doesn’t grow so fast in winter down south in Kagoshima. They just wanted to test the all the equipment to see if it functioned.

Function it did, so the next day they switched to a track where the grass had grown. Everything worked quite well, though there was one drawback. The train moved at a speed slower than a human walks, and that caused a lot of strain on the driver. Maybe they’re not unionized after all.

One thing the reports didn’t mention—what are they going to do with all those grass clippings? I can’t imagine the Japanese just leaving them there on the street.

The crop’s not for eating

They were also cutting some plants down to size out in the country last month.

Backyard drama!

Last month some more plants were cut down to size. Instead of cropping grass, the farmers in Ogimi-son, Okinawa, were harvesting their crop of futoi, or what the dictionaries say is called zebra rush in English.

Whether in Japan or the Anglosphere, however, the use of the plant is the same—it’s for decoration. Urges one English-language website, “Add authenticity to your backyard wetland habitat by planting zebra rush.”

Backyard gardeners are now recreating authentic swamps? I’ve been away for longer than I thought. But wait, it gets better:

“The distinct alternating green and white stripes of the Zebra Rush instantly add pattern, density, and vertical drama to your backyard paradise.”

I’ll stick with the humdrum azalea bushes and dogwood trees.

The plant grows three feet tall, or as the website would have it, “narrow spiked stems tower 3 feet tall”, but that’s too big for its Japanese use. Here it’s employed as a prop in flower arrangements, where it presumably lends drama to the art of ikebana. Do the farmers in the Kijoka district of Ogimi-son, the national leader in futoi production, consider it so dramatic? They probably don’t care as long as they can make a buck at it.

By all accounts, the winter crop in Kijoka was a bumper harvest because of the warmer weather in that part of the country this year. The farmers rushed their zebra rush to the closest JA cooperative, which by now must be blase to all that drama. They collected it, bunched it, and sent it to auction markets throughout the country.

White lightning

After all that work, it’s about time to knock back a drink, don’t you think? As they say in the U.S., it’s bound to be 5 o’clock somewhere in the world, and whaddaya know, a quick look at my watch shows it’s just now chiming five in Zanzibar.

It’s not out of the question that the mochi roasters in Yamagata, the grass-cutting train operators in Kagoshima, or the futoi farmers in Okinawa chose to relax with some doburoku, the Japanese version of homebrew for the mass market. Doburoku is a milky white, sweet type of sake that hasn’t been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

Not just anyone can make the hooch, however—the 131 breweries producing it need a special license and they have to be located in one of 91 designated districts around the country. But unless one has a special taste for it, most people think of it as that funky stuff over there on the next shelf that they might buy once every few years for a change of pace or out of nostalgia.

The members of the Sakebunka Institute in Tokyo had a big idea, however. They decided to hold the Tokyo Doburoku Festival 2010 in January, which they claim was the first event of its kind. One of the institute’s stated objectives for the festival was to spread the sake culture. Since Sakebunka means “sake culture”, they’re just doing what they were organized to do. And since this is a cultural kaleidoscope, we’ll pitch in and do our part.

The institude asked all the producers in the country to submit entries, and they received 75. The liquor went through two rounds of judging. For the first round, the institute formed five groups of 30 people each, who swilled 15 different types. They voted, some sober assistants tallied up the totals, and those in first and second place moved on to the finals.

The judges in the second round consisted of five specialists—including sommeliers—and five regular folks. Seven of the beverages were awarded grand prizes, with one chosen as the primo stuff and two others chosen as pretty dang good. The brewers in Iide-machi, Yamagata, were excited that their Iide Nakatsugawa doburoku, shown here, was chosen as one of the seven grand prize winners. It didn’t finish in the top three, but its aroma and flavor lifted it up into the upper 10% of all the entrants. Others favored its slight sweetness, fruitiness, and good balance.

The Iidenians had good reason to be thrilled–the district was designated as a doburoku producer in March 2004, which means they’re still relatively wet behind the ears. This particular brand is known for using 100% sake rice and a lot of rice malt.

Cultural mavens and liquor lovers who read Japanese can see the results on the Sakebunka Institute page here. Those interested in reading about a more righteous doburoku festival at a Shinto shrine can do so here.

Drinking like a fish

You’ve heard of lushes who drink so much they get pickled? Well, in the same Iide-machi doburoku district, they use the booze to pickle the fish—specifically, the seem fish, or yamame in Japanese. The pickling project was conceived and launched last year by employees at the local Shirakawa-so ryokan. The idea was to create a new product using local fish, the local doburoku, and the local cold weather.

The fish are soaked for 15 hours in a special sauce made from the doburoku and tamarijoyu, a soy sauce made from refined soy. Then they’re dried for three days in the cold air. They process about 3,000 fish specifically for the guests at their ryokan. Those who’ve eaten the sake-soused fish say it has a unique and rich flavor. The pickling work ended in mid-February, so all that’s left is the eating.

It’s not every product that would receive attention from sommeliers and gastronomes at the same time, but the Iide Nakatsugawa seems to qualify.

The antidote is in the poison

There’s more you can do with sake than to get high or to get pickled. The Shurei sake merchants of Naha, Okinawa, have developed and are selling an awamori-based medicinal herb drink called Genkoku. They’ve acquired a patent for their manufacturing process after a wait of seven years.

Like doburoku, awamori has a different legal classification. That’s because it’s made only in Okinawa with a different kind of yeast, and some varieties still use rice from Thailand. Awamori is a form of shochu rather than Japanese sake, but of the many distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori.

Genkoku has nine ingredients, including local turmeric, eucalyptus, gardenia, and safflower. You can make up your own mind whether that’s a waste of good shochu or a waste of good medical herbs. The president of the distillery created the product by idly mixing herbs brought by a friend into his awamori. The result is an amber liquid with a mild taste that is said to be very drinkable. It’s now sold in specialty stores and some supermarkets with little or no advertising. They charge JPY 4,200 yen (about $US 46.50) for a 720 ml bottle, which is about 40 proof according to the U.S. definition. They sell about 7,000 bottles a year, 70% of it to people outside Okinawa. Fans of the beverage say it makes them feel better or sleep better.

The herbs must cover the first part. Most any hooch will take care of the second.

A southern fish burger

Now that we’ve had the aperitifs, it’s time for dinner, and the first selection on the menu is the Minami burger. That’s a culinary creation by the Minami-cho Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokushima using local finfish and shellfish. They’ve already conducted a trial by selling 100 Minami burger meals with the main course made from fried ribbonfish, or tachiuo in Japanese. A Minami burger consists of fried fish, lettuce, cucumbers, and tartar sauce. That sounds pretty tasty, and you can’t beat the JPY 200 price ($US 2.21). The Tokushimanians came up with the idea because novel burger-type sandwiches are all the rage, and local fishermen catch a heap of ribbonfish.

They chose the tachiuo to start because it is caught nearly year-round, and ribbonfish fry is popular in local restaurants. It’s been so successful they’ve been mulling the creation of more new burgers upscale epicures using Ise ebi and turbin shells (sazae). If sales go well at the local Ise ebi festival, they’ll try to get shops in town to make them.

Burgers on the sly

If stealth food is more to your taste than ribbonfish, you might be tempted to try the Ninja Burger cooked up by students at Konan High School in Koka. Shiga. As part of their studies of dietary habits and health, the students were asked to create 11 new products for a food stall in a parking area of the Shin-Meishin Expressway, and that’s how the Ninja Burger snuck into the menu. The sales outlet chose that dish to sell because it can be served five minutes after ordering, it was more efficient to make, and it uses an old strain of local rice with ninja connotations.

The students replaced the bun with a fried combination of black rice, mochi rice, and white rice. That’s filled with chicken, cabbage, and lettuce, and this burger sounds tasty too, doesn’t it? The shop sells it as part of a set with a small salad and soup for JPY 500, but offer only 10 servings a day. Whether it was because of the ingredients, the scarcity, or the ninja cachet, the product took off. One diner interviewed said the aroma and the sweetness of the chicken were a good match.

Koka is the home area of ninjutsu, and the ninja were said to fancy the black mochi rice. Perhaps that’s because it contains anthocyanin, which improves the vision. Some of the other ideas the students came up with were a black rice parfait, in which the rice is powdered and mixed with ice, and takoyaki (octopus balls fried in batter) using local beef instead of octopus.

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

Zaasai is what the Japanese call zha cai (搾菜, or pressed vegetable), a Chinese dish that is the pickled stem of a species of mustard plant, first made in Sichuan. The plant itself is related to mustard greens, which are eaten as funky food in the southern U.S.

The Chinese salt, press, and dry the stem, rub in red chili paste, and allow it to ferment in a process similar to that for kimchi. The result is spicy, sour, and salty, and is said to have an aroma similar to sauerkraut with chili paste.

The Japanese variety is not spicy and only slightly sour. It is most often cut into small pieces and eaten as a topping on rice. My wife and I often ate it until my wife decided not to buy any more food coming from China, and apparently she was not alone. Most of the zaasai consumed in Japan is grown in China, but sales have taken a hit in recent years. The demand is still strong, however.

That inspired a research group consisting of 34 farming volunteers in Takahata-machi, Yamagata, to start a three-year project to grow the plant themselves. Before the planting, they held discussions with farmers in Tsukuba, Ibaragi and Miura, Kanagawa, who also grow the crop. It turns out that cultivation is not much different from that for other green vegetables. It also can be grown in greenhouses. As you can see from the photo, they’ve already harvested some. In addition to the parts used to make zaasai, they’ve sold the unused parts of the plant to companies and Tokyo Chinese restaurants.

Good luck to them. I liked it myself, and if they can come up with a viable Japanese version, maybe my wife will start buying it again.

Pucker power

After feasting on doburoku, minami burgers, and ninja burgers, the next thing we’ll need is some mouthwash to freshen up the breath. Fortunately, there’s something new in those lines, too.

We’ve already had a post about the terrifically tart shiikwasa fruit, or hirami lemon, native to Okinawa, that is used to put capital letters on otherwise simple flavors and as a health drink. Now Tennen Kobo of Okinawa City, which develops and sells aromatherapy products, has found another use for the citrus fruit. It recently began sales of Clear Gift, a mouthwash made using shiikwasa extract. The juice works to harden the proteins and oils in the mouth, making them easier to remove and improving the breath. The product contains no surface activating agents, artificial fragrances or colors, or preservatives. The extract is combined with xylitol and four tea extracts.

Tennen Kobo is promoting its use for older people and children who don’t like mint and have trouble brushing their teeth. The company sells it through dental clinics and hopes to move 10,000 bottles the first year. If the idea appeals to you, it’s also sold on the net for JPY 3,700 yen for a 500 ml bottle. It took a year of work with the sales agency Ryubi Sangyo of Naha to come up with the product.

I can see how it would be effective. Shiikwasa are so tart any bacteria that wanted to survive would flee its presence.

New wine in old bottles

Eat, drink, and be merry, goes the saying, and right about now it’s high time for the merry part. With gagaku, though, you’ll have to find your merriment through quiet contemplation rather than cutting the rug.

One form of gagaku is an ancient music that originated on the continent which gradually took on a Japanese cast and became associated with the Imperial court. It’s still performed by musicians working with the Imperial Palace, which makes it the longest continuous stage art in the world. But there are also gagaku groups that play music written by contemporary composers in the classical style. The foremost of those groups is Reigakusha, which is shown here performing in Fukushima in January. The concert was held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Music from Japan, an organization that performs contemporary versions of traditional Japanese music around the world. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to New York City and Washington D.C. to present the first performances of two new pieces. The group frequently appears in New York, and they are actually funded in part by the New York state government. Last month they performed at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, and no, I don’t want to know how a concert hall admitting the general public (or should I say pubic?) wound up with that name.

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

For the devotees of wine, women, and song, we’ve had everything in this post but the women. But the last shall come first, says the Christian holy book, and nothing comes more first than a hot babe!

Now I ask you—is she hot, or is she hot!

There are two types of figurines among the ancient cultural treasures in Japan, the doguu and the haniwa. The former come from the Jomon period, while the latter, which are much better known, come from the kofun or burial mound period.

All the doguu are females. While scholars say it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the sex of the doguu, there is no mistaking the gender of some male haniwa. There was an exhibit of the former at the Tokyo National Museum last month (right sidebar), which presented 67 in all, including some designated as national treasures.

The old saw about some artists having to go abroad to find fame and recognition before being recognized in their homelands might work for cultural artifacts, too. The Cultural Affairs Agency sponsored this exhibit in the British Museum in London from September to November last year, and it went over so well they decided they might as well show it to the Japanese themselves.

There’s no mistaking the sex of the doguu shown here. She’s familiarly known as the Jomon Venus, probably because of those heavy hips. Now that’s a lot of Ponderosa! She’s only 27 centimeters high, and hails from an archaeological site in Chino, Nagano. She’s also known as the Detchiri Doguu, and no one will be surprised to find out the first word is a Japanese creation that means protruding butt. She also seems to be pregnant. Were women built like that in Japan in those days, or is that just Jomon cheesecake?

Most of the doguu date from 2,000 – 1,000 BC, and they are thought to have been fertility symbols. Well, flash a protruding butt in front of any male at any time in human history and what do you think’s going to happen?

That brings to mind a comment of one of the world’s most famous living lechers, former President Bill Clinton of the U.S. During a visit to view “Juanita”, a recently discovered Incan mummy displayed at the National Geographic museum, he commented, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

They’re going to have to erect Nio guardian statues to keep that man out of the National Museum on his next visit to Tokyo!

Afterwords:

Speaking of inanimate objects having a spirit, here’s a story: I recently bought a used nine-volume set of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, the premier English-language reference work on the country. I already had the single-volume version, which itself is probably second on the list, but there’s nothing finer than the full set.

I spent an hour or so in the used bookstores of the Kanda district in Tokyo last October looking for it, and finally discovered a set on sale for JPY 100,000 (about $US 1,100). That’s expensive, but I was still willing to pay the price–the reference is that good.

Just before spending the money, however, I spoke to a woman whose husband died a couple of years ago. He had a set of his own. I asked her about the possibility of buying it, and she was more than happy to let me have it. She knew I really wanted it, and said that her husband would have wanted me to have the books. She added, “Besides, the books will be happy too.”

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

Posted in Agriculture, Archaeology, Food, History, Music, New products, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cover art on the road

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE TOKAIDO, Japan’s busiest transportation corridor, links Tokyo and Yokohama, the country’s two largest cities, to Osaka (#3) via Nagoya (#4) and Kyoto (#7)–every one with more than a million people. Those who want to hit the road have their choice of JR’s Tokaido main railway line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, and the Tomei and Meishin expressways.

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

Hiroshige scene of Shirasuka

The Japanese have been hitting this road for a very long time. Records show that government officials used parts of it in the ninth century. But it wasn’t until Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, ordered the construction of 53 post stations along the road in 1601 that it became a key part of the national infrastructure. In those days, the Tokaido (which means East Sea Road) connected Tokyo, then called Edo, where the Shogun held court, with Kyoto, the home of the Imperial Court.

The Shogun also ordered the country’s feudal lords to alternate their residence between their home fiefdoms and Edo once a year, all the better to keep an eye on them. (Those who lived in less accessible places had to show up only once every three years.) In short order, the road became a pageant of Japanese humanity–the pomp and circumstance of daimyo processions with the lords carried in palanquins suspended from poles shouldered by retainers, while everyone else, including monks, samurai, and just plain folks, traveled by horseback and on foot. Small businesses catering to the travelers thrived along the roadside and in the post station towns. And what better scenery for a trip could there be than the views of the sea to the east and Mt. Fuji to the west?

It was inevitable that the Tokaido would grow larger than life in the popular imagination, and it came to be used as the subject of many works of art and literature. Perhaps the most famous of these is Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of The Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido dating from 1832.

The road also inspired the creation of a new folk art form in the town of Otsu in what is now Shiga, when artists began producing inexpensive prints in quantity to be sold as souvenirs to the people passing through. Called otsu-e, or Otsu pictures, the form is still used by contemporary artists. Meanwhile, the centuries-old originals, originally meant to be quick one-offs for a quick buck, are exhibited in art museums in Japan and overseas.

With all those travelers doing all that traveling, a cottage industry of travel guides was sure to follow. In a brilliant stroke, Jippensha Ikku combined one such guide describing the sites and scenes along the route with picaresque tales of the adventures and misadventures of two Edo men on a pilgrimage to the Ise Shrine. The collected stories were called Tokaidochu Hizakurige, translated as The Shank’s Mare, and it is still available in English today. Hiroshige contributed some artistic synergy by carving woodblock prints illustrating scenes from the book.

The days of palanquin-borne feudal lords, samurai, and a pair of rascals surreptitiously sliding into the futon of women slumbering in roadside inns are long gone, but fascination with the Tokaido still remains.

manhole covers

Count among the fascinated Tsujino Fumiyo, a 70-year-old resident of a Mie town that was one of the 53 post stations on the Tokaido. Four years ago, Ms. Tsujino started taking art classes in her home town, which seems to have developed her powers of observation in addition to her artistic sensibilities. She noticed that new manhole covers on the neighborhood roads featured a decorative design. She then learned that the 53 municipalities which were once post towns also had manhole cover art depicting scenes of local interest.

That inspired her to take rubbings of all 53 manhole cover varieties. She dragooned her husband into driving her to the sites, after first asking municipal officials where to look for the objets trouvé. It took her about 30 minutes to do each rubbing, including the preliminary washing, and four years to collect them all.

In keeping with the spirit of the famous Miyazawa Kenji poem Ame ni mo Makezu (Undeterred by Rain), she stuck with her mission regardless of the weather. It isn’t hard to picture in the mind’s eye her husband patiently holding an umbrella while she focused on bringing the grimy industrial art of the streets to a wider audience.

Mission accomplished! She colored and mounted all 53 rubbings, and recently displayed them at the Tokaido Manhole Cover Design Exhibit in Kusatsu, Shiga. Admission to the exhibit was free.

The lucky visitors were treated to scenes that included a kimono-clad beauty borne across the Oi river in Shimada, Shizuoka, a mythical dolphin-like creature called the shachihoko from Nagoya, and the Otsu Festival in the aforementioned city of Otsu.

Now I ask you—doesn’t it speak well about a place when it turns the street entrances to its sewers into something that can be hung on a museum wall without a hint of irony?

Afterwords:

Do not fail to unfurl this interactive map of the 53 stations of the Tokaido. Clicking on any of the stations brings up the Hiroshige prints of that particular site. The only advantage a real museum has over this virtual one is that you can accidentally on purpose strike up casual conversations with nearby women that strike your fancy.

And don’t overlook this previous post on otsu-e.

Posted in Arts, History | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Water balling on Lake Biwa

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 1, 2009

ON SATURDAY we saw how the folks in Mima are having big fun by curling on a gymnasium floor with kettles, but this one looks even better: water balling on Lake Biwa.

Let's roll!

Let's roll!

Thanks to an Italian company that is marketing a clear PVC water ball invented by Charles Jones in 1998, intrepid environmentalists, devotees of water sports, and people on the lookout for a good time can climb into the ball and roll out into the middle of the lake. Walking on water isn’t just a Bible story anymore.

The O’Pal Optics sports club in Otsu, Shiga, and the Nippon Water Walk Association have teamed up to popularize water ball use, and one of their approaches is to pitch the ball to environmental researchers. The idea is to roll out to positions on the lake they couldn’t otherwise see from shore, observe the cleanliness level of the water, and take photos from inside. The lower part of the ball also creates the same effect as a glass-bottomed boat, so waterballers can see what’s going on under the lake’s surface.

The water ball is 2.5 meters in diameter and 0.5 millimeters thick. Riders climb in through a hatchway with a fastener attached, and then use an air blower to inflate it. It has the capacity for two riders–standing room only–so you can double your waterballing fun by going for a roll with a friend. There was no mention of how long riders can stay inside before the air starts to go stale.

The people who’ve tried it say it’s just like a water bed, and no, I didn’t realize any of those were still around either. It floats gently and easily over the small waves on the lake surface, and they claim the experience transports you to another world.

Exhibiting an attitude of proper scientific detachment, the chair of the association said he hopes the ball will help foster an awareness of environmental issues and contribute to interest in Lake Biwa. But after taking a look at the association’s Japanese language website, they’re certainly aware of their new toy’s fun potential, too.

For example, here’s a video of water ball races in the inaugural competition at Lake Biwa last year. The guy in the first pair of racers who had such a hard time standing up said he had never been inside one before.

The second competition is scheduled for 30 August this year. How much longer can it be before someone comes up with an extreme sport or x-rated websites featuring water ball use?

If you’re near Lake Biwa and want to try balling on the water, give O’Pal Optics a call at their toll-free number: 0120-176-668. If you live in other parts of the country, take a look at the Water Walk Association website to see if an event is coming to a swimming pool near you soon.

And if you’re interested in buying one, you can put the search terms “water ball” and Italy into the English-language Google site and plenty of merchants will pop up!

Posted in Environmentalism, New products, Sports | 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! (84): The iron chefs live!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 10, 2008

LONG-TIME FRIENDS know that the Japanese can transform almost any behavior into an act of reverence at a Shinto festival, and here’s yet another example: Slicing and serving sushi.

The Sushikiri Festival (literally sushi-cutting) is held every 5 May at the Shimoniikawa Shinto shrine in Moriyama, Shiga, in supplication for a good harvest, health, and protection from disaster. It is now a national intangible cultural folk treasure.

Rather than professional sushi chefs, the slicing is done by two young men clad in traditional haori (half-coat) and hakama (divided skirt), as you can see in the photo. They use 20-centimeter-long metal chopsticks to hold the fish with their left hands while they carefully cut the fish with exaggerated motions using a 40-centimeter-long knife held in their right hands. (It is unusual to see metal chopsticks in Japan; most are wooden. The metal variety are more frequently seen in Korea.)

The fish on the menu every year is the funa, of which there are several varieties, none of which has a familiar English name (though many of them end in “carp”). The sushi is first cut for and served to the head priest of the shrine and the chairman of the local citizens’ association. In fact, they’re sitting in formal Japanese style directly across from the two men, though they’re not shown in the photo. (Try the second photo here to see them.) The fish is later distributed to the parishioners who’ve come to participate.

And this funa is not just the run-of-the-mill sushi; this treat has been fermented for three or four years before it’s served. The process originally came from China and has been used in Japan for about 1,000 years. The fermentation creates an odor that many people find unappetizing, but the dish has become a noted product of Shiga. (You can read more about it here and here. Those with a scientific turn of mind might find this to be of interest.)
 
The official story is that the festival, formally known as the Omi-no-Kenketo Festival (the sushi cutting is just one part of it) originated when funazushi was given to a divinity who drifted ashore to the banks of Lake Biwa on a raft 1,300 years ago.

But there are other stories too. Shimoniikawa is one of the six shrines in the country with Toyokiirihiko-no-Mikoto, the eldest son of the Sujin Tenno (emperor), as the enshrined deity. Some versions have it that the food was originally served to Toyokiirihiko, which would make the event closer to 2,000 years old.

Suijin is supposed to have been the 10th Tenno, but no one is sure that he actually existed. His reign years are given as 97 BC to 30 BC, which Japanese historians think is implausibly early. (His recorded life span of 119 years is just as implausible.) Accounts in the Nihon Shoki ascribe some of the same exploits to both the legendary first emperor Jimmu and to Suijin, which lead some to believe that the deeds of a Sujin who might have existed were attributed to Jimmu.

Incidentally, the Shimoniikawa shrine was in the news in March this year when it was confirmed that a Buddhist temple bell found in the storage area for the shrine’s mikoshi in May 2007 is the oldest example of a bell with both Japanese and Korean designs discovered in the country.

Cast in 1419, it is the sixth bell of this type to have ever turned up in Japan. Shown in the second photo, it is 40.6 centimeters tall, 23.9 centimeters wide, and weighs 11.2 kilograms. Reports say that it was used in the “Buddhist temple hall”, which suggests the shrine was once a joint Shinto-Buddhist facility of the kind that no longer exist, though that wasn’t explicitly stated. The Japanese decorations are the dragon heads at the top of the bell, while the Korean motifs are the plant and flower designs on the rest of the bell.

And that just goes to show: There’s no telling what you’re liable to stumble over when you start poking around in a storeroom in Japan!

Posted in Archaeology, Festivals, Food, History, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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