AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Wakayama’

All you have to do is look (144)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 21, 2012

Nine boats with 11 rowers each circle Mifune Island in the Kumano River as part of the Mifune Festival of the Kumano Hayatama Shinto shrine in Shingu, Wakayama. The island is 1.6 kilometers from the starting point for the boats. The festival dates from the Heian period, which means it’s about 1,000 years old, give or take a few decades.

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All you have to do is look (141)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shizuku no Taki (Falls), Susami-cho, Wakayama

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All you have to do is look (111)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 18, 2012

Miko shrine maidens practicing a Shinto dance at the Kumanonachi shrine in Wakayama.

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All you have to do is look (83)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012

After the Nankai earthquake and tsunami in 1854, Hamaguchi Goryo, then the owner of what is now the Yamasa Corp. created torches out of rice sheaves to guide people to places of refuge in the highlands. Lafcadio Hearn wrote a story about it.

The people of Hiro-mura, Wakayama, hold a festival every year to honor his memory by recreating the torch burning. This year’s festival was yesterday.

The first minute of this video is introductory material, so move the cursor ahead to the 1:03 mark to see what happens at the event itself.

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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.

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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

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

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

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Winter beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 4, 2011

THIS POST was timed to go up at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night in Japan. For 22 years, from 1978 to 2000, that was the starting time for the broadcast of the 30-minute musical program, Enka no Hanamichi. Enka is a style of music popular in Northeast Asia, and in Japanese the word is usually written with the two characters that mean “to perform” and “to sing”. An excellent description is found at Barbara’s Enka Site:

A friend of mine once remarked that these were “Japanese torch singers” and that’s a fairly good description. Enka songs are 1 to 6 minutes long, and are performed standing, usually wearing formal attire. For men this can be either Japanese or Western attire, for women it is generally a kimono. (Korean and Chinese women seem to usually sing Enka in glittering gowns.) The song lyrics are tragic yet philosophical, and sometimes even amusing. Drinking songs are common, usually to help “drown my sorrows”. Songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involves tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times. Arrangements use a unique mixture of Western and Japanese instruments, from the koto to the electric guitar. Violins are common, but surprisingly, pianos are not.

We Western music lovers might imagine it this way… Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…

Enka no Hanamichi was an elegantly done program — the production quality was so good, the singers would use their filmed appearances as promotional videos. Japanese television makes extensive use of the stereo sound function to present movies and television programs in their original language versions, as well as the dubbed Japanese version. This program used the same function to offer just the background music, which allowed the viewers at home to use it for karaoke. (Song lyrics are commonly printed on the screen for all types of music programs here.) The elegance, exquisite sadness, and sheer amount of talent involved meant the program was a fine way to spend a half hour on a chilly autumn or winter evening, after a bath and with a glass of shochu mixed with hot water.

I was reminded of the program after reading short article from a Wakayama newspaper announcing the selection of enka singer Sakamoto Fuyumi, a native of Kamitonda-cho, to receive a local award for her contribution to culture. (The characters used to write Fuyumi are “winter” and “beauty”. It’s also her real name; names of that sort for women are not uncommon in Japan.)

Her big break came when she appeared on an NHK program for amateurs. Songwriter Inomata Kosho, one of the judges, was so impressed with her performance he took her in as a pupil. (In fact, she became his live-in housekeeper.) Her first hit came at the age of 20 in 1987 and sold more than 800,000 copies. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun article too old to be on line, that was a record at the time for first releases, though I suspect they’re referring specifically to this genre. Since then, she’s released more than 30 albums and appeared on NHK’s famed New Year’s Eve Music Program, Kohaku Uta Gassen, more than 20 times.

Part of her appeal is her combination of sweet femininity with a certain gutsiness and unfeigned naturalness. Another part is that she really is a winter beauty: She won an award in 2006 for looking good in a kimono.

Ms. Sakamoto has maintained close ties to Wakayama, and when informed of the award, said:

I will continue to devote myself to the path of song with the hope that I can please everyone in Wakayama. Thank you very much for this honor.

You can hear and see all that for yourself in this YouTube video, which is another fine way to spend a chilly Sunday evening. Note how the instrumentation is a combination of Western classicism, rock and roll, and traditional Japanese music, as Barbara the Enka Lady explained.

And for yet another example of Japanese ecumenicism, as well as Sakamoto flexibility, here she is with Hosono Haruomi of Yellow Magic Orchestra in a group called H.I.S. performing Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze with Japanese lyrics.

Stick around to the end and you’ll see her in a brief interview. She looks good in jeans, too.

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Mikan liquor-ish

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 11, 2011

ONE of the classic scenes of Japanese domestic life in the winter is a family seated around the kotatsu (a low wooden table with a futon around the sides and a heat source underneath), drinking green tea and snacking on the tasty citrus fruit known as mikan. As easy to peel as a tangerine but with more heft, the mikan is sometimes known as the mandarin orange or Satsuma orange in English. It is by far the mostly frequently eaten citrus fruit in Japan; statistics for 2006 show that per capita consumption of oranges was roughly 585 grams, while that for mikan was 4.55 kilograms.

Its ancestor came to Japan from China centuries ago through the port at what is now Yatsushiro, Kumamoto, but it’s generally accepted that the variety now grown and eaten in Japan is a hybrid created in Kagoshima. That’s based on the research of the late Prof. Tanaka Chozaburo, who spent his life studying the mikan, and who identified 159 seed varieties in the same genus. Mikan groves are most likely to be found in Shikoku and Kyushu, with Wakayama accounting for 19% of the national production, but there are orchards as far north as Kanagawa and Chiba, both of which border the Tokyo Metro District.

Mikan are most often consumed raw or in juice, but with overall consumption declining, the city of Arida, Wakayama, started looking for ways to boost demand for their local variety. It took two years, but local growers and processors working with a Nagano winery succeeded in developing a wine and a liqueur made from the fruit.

One of the people who worked on the project was Takano Yutaka of the Japan Sommelier Association. Mr. Takano said it was difficult because mikan have less sugar than grapes. They froze the juice first in the same process used to make ice wine, extracted the part with the high sugar content, and let it ferment for six months. The beverage is said to retain the fruit’s original aroma and tartness, as well as being thick and very sweet. Tipplers can down it straight, with ice, or with carbonated water, and all of this is starting to sound as if it’s being marketed primarily to young females.

The Wakayamanians have produced 1,500 bottles of wine, called Himekibana, priced at JPY 3,150 yen, and 3,000 bottles of the liqueur, known as Kahorikibana, sold for JPY 1,050 yen. If you’re in Japan, you can buy it at the larger Aeon stores and on the Internet. And if you read Japanese you can roll on over to the mikan page of JA, the agricultural cooperative, as well as the page of the Japan Sommelier Association.

I don’t think I’d be interested in drinking it more than once, but it does seem to have the potential for becoming a nice sherbet, doesn’t it?

*****
Speaking of mikan, sweetness, and females, you get a chance to see and hear Morning Musume — the daughters of the morning — perform the song titled “Mikan”. Child love!

Those whose default attitude toward Japanese pop culture is stuck on “snide” should read this and adjust your metric accordingly.

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Getting old

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 20, 2010

MONDAY the 20th is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan, which is a national holiday. One manifestation of the custom of Japanese (and other East Asians) to be deferential to the elderly is that all levels of government provide them with generous welfare services, as well as other gratuities that stretch the role of government beyond its legitimate functions and its means.

The Mainichi Shimbun lamented in an op-ed last week the lack of urgency for the restructuring of the health and welfare system for the aged. Everyone is aware of the critical factors: a population in demographic decline with a birth rate well below replacement level is being asked to subsidize services to older citizens, who constitute a larger part of the overall population than in other countries. That’s part of the reason some politicians and bureaucrats favor the low road of sharp increases in the consumption tax. That’s also part of the reason voters are objecting to those increases.

The government estimates that the large number of baby boomers turning 75 in 2025 will require JPY 30 trillion for their health care. As of last year, health insurance premiums brought in roughly JPY 12 trillion in revenue. To deal with this shortfall, the Liberal Democratic Party government created a new category for health care services and payment for those 75 years of age or older (or the bedridden 65 years of age or older), which total roughly 13 million people. That system took effect on 1 April 2008.

Without going into eye-glazing detail, the objective was to have those elderly able to afford it contribute more to their health care costs (though not by an onerous amount) and to equalize premium payments nationwide. Municipal governments pay for part of the system, and the wealthier governments provided greater financial assistance to their residents. The new system also automatically deducted payments from pensions, rather than have individuals be responsible for their own payments. (Japan’s system of convienient bank account transfers meant this was not a burden to begin with.) The revisions also made it easier for younger people to make the financial contributions to their own health care.

Many of the elderly immediately started complaining as soon as the new system was introduced, whining that it was a “hurry up and die” system. Of course the news media made haste to give them a platform. The opposition parties promised to roll back the reforms, but when the Democratic Party took power in a coalition government, they discovered that local governments and medical institutions didn’t want a return to the status quo ante. The new government was also unable to agree on how to modify the new system. That’s not surprising considering the DPJ’s general incompetence and the coalition partner Social Democrats pulling relentlessly to the left. Thus the system introduced two years ago remains in place.

The taxpayer-funded treats for the elderly extend far beyond health care, however, and some governments, particularly at the municipal level, are finding it difficult to face the facts. Here are two examples.

Shirahama-cho, Wakayama

Located next to the Pacific Ocean, the area is famous as one of the three oldest hot springs resorts in Japan. The Kogyoku Tenno (Emperor) bathed there in 658, and it’s still a popular resort today.

The municipality of Shirahama-cho operates four public baths, but the enterprise as a whole has been losing money. Chief municipal officer Mizumoto Yuzo told the Kii Mimpo newspaper:

I’m going to consult with the town council and the committee with jurisdiction (over the business) to see if there are some measures we can take next fiscal year.

Outdoor bath at Sakinoyu

The four baths are Sakinoyu, Muronoyu, Shirarayu, and Shirasuna. (The “yu” at the end of the first three means hot water, and is often used in public bath names in Japan.) Shirasuna is a sand bath that is open only from May to September.

The municipality’s tourism department says Sakinoyu earned roughly JPY 10 million in profit last year, but the other three are in the red. The aggregate losses for the Shirahama-cho taxpayers total JPY 9 million.

Everyone pays JPY 300 for admission to Sakinoyu. The admission fees at Muronoyu and Shirarayu are JPY 300 for people 12 and older, JPY 130 for children from six to 12, and JPY 70 for children aged five and younger. It costs JPY 100 to take a sand bath at Shirasuna. These fees were set in 1998 and haven’t been raised since.

The tourism department also says they’ve lengthened the operating hours of the baths to respond to public requests—they open earlier in the morning and close later at night—and have cut operating costs and reduced operating staff to a minimum, but they’ve reached the limits of their ability to finance the operation. This has been an ongoing problem for four years, and the lack of funds has caused the town to scrimp on upkeep. One result has been the visible aging and wear of some of the facilities.

Why is Sakinoyu making money and the others losing money? As the photo shows, the former will never have problems attracting customers. The real reason is that admission is free to Muronoyu and Shirarayu for people aged 65 and older. The age threshold was lowered from 70 and older in 1999. An estimated 240,000 people used those two facilities in FY 2009, and of those, 110,000 were old folks who got in for free. The paid admissions to Sakinoyu, meanwhile, totaled 83,000.

So now the politicos of Shirahama-cho have decided they’re going to talk about it. They might raise the fees, and they might start charging the seniors, but they haven’t decided when the changes will take effect.

What’s to talk about? Emperors are the only people who get to bathe for free. Changes to this system are overdue, but they’re still dithering in Shirahama-cho.

While they’re at it, they should come up with a plan for the immediate privatization of the facilities instead of wasting their time adjusting the fee schedule. As long as people aren’t living in mud huts without a modern water supply system, operating bathhouses is not the business of municipal governments, nor is using Other People’s Money (OPM) to foot the bill for the free baths of one age cohort. It’s no surprise that the taxpayers are subsidizing the admission of 45% of the customers at some facilities.

Chiba City

Also dithering are Mayor Kumagai Toshihito and the government of Chiba City. Neighborhood associations in the city hold different events for Respect for the Aged Day, and the Chiba City government provides financial assistance to those associations to pay for the parties. Starting this fiscal year, Mr. Kumagai says that Chiba City will raise the age limit for the per capita contributions to the neighborhood associations from 70 to 75 and lower the amount of the subsidy. He said the municipal government took the step because of an “unprecedented financial crunch”. This will amount to a saving of about JPY 50 million from the previous year’s budget. That’s a lot of ice cream and cake.

Here it is again: The municipal government of Chiba City is abandoning their fiduciary responsibility to all of its citizens by chipping in for the party favors of one group of them. Or, to be more broad-minded, they have an inadequate awareness of that responsibility to begin with. It is not the business of municipal governments to use OPM to show old people a good time.

Yet all Chiba City can manage to do is raise the age limit for the party and reduce the subsidies. What will it take for them to realize they shouldn’t be spending this money at all—municipal bankruptcy?

Suginami Ward

Some local government officials get it, however. Yamada Hiroshi, a former national Diet member and chief municipal office of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, and currently the head of the small Spirit of Japan party, is one of the few who realize the party’s over and is trying to do something about it. He is also one of the few politicians in Japan to preach the importance of personal responsibility.

Mr. Yamada often cites as an example the former practice of Suginami Ward to distribute Japanese confections (red and white manju) to meetings of associations for the elderly. The ward was so deeply in debt one of his first steps to put the government’s finances back on a firm footing was to end the free sweets. (He also cut his salary by 10%.) He was roundly criticized for being “cold” to the elderly, but he used that decision in local meetings as a teaching example to promote his efforts to restore fiscal sanity.

In 1999 Suginami Ward’s debt stood at JPY 95 billion with only JPY 1.9 billion in accessible funds. A decade later, after eliminating or privatizing some programs and reducing the municipal workforce, they were JPY 20 billion in debt with JPY 23 billion in accessible funds—in other words, in the black—and were on schedule to repay all the debt by 2011.

Fiscally responsible governments are possible–when they’re led by politicians who understand fiscal responsibility.

Roundtable Discussion

The monthly magazine Voice presents a roundtable discussion of Japanese fiscal issues in its current (October) issue with four university professors: Takenaka Heizo of Keio University (formerly of the Koizumi Cabinet), Ikeda Nobuo of Jobu University, Doi Takero of Keio University, and Suzuki Wataru of Gakushuin University.

They’re all in general agreement that the system of governmental largesse for the aged has to be reexamined. Prof. Suzuki said that people are not aware of just how generous the system is, and their awareness needs to be raised. Prof. Takenaka suggested that economic incentives are required, and proposed as one measure raising the fees people pay for the treatment of non-life threatening illnesses. He added:

I already know that people will say that human lives can’t be replaced with money, but the situation will soon be of out of control.

Prof. Ikeda said that he discussed the creation of a voucher system (also applicable for education expenses) with a group of DPJ Diet members, but one of them told him:

I understand what you’re saying, but the word “voucher” is taboo with labor unions.

Unions, of course, are the backbone of DPJ support.

Prof. Doi added that people will deliberately create the misunderstanding that such proposals amount to “market fundamentalism”. The idea, he says, is to stop the discussion of the idea by stopping thought.

The realization is growing among the people of the developed countries, if not their governments, that the Bismarkian welfare state funded with OPM (originally intended to head off the desires of a growing middle class for greater democracy) is no longer viable. If Japanese politicians at all levels and the bureaucracy don’t start to seriously examine more practical ways to provide services, and to reexamine their approach to distributing goodies that shouldn’t be free to begin with, before long the working population might get ready to pull the plug on a lot more than confections and the Japanesque bath time.

Afterwords:

Here’s a quick video tour of the Shirahama area, with a scene from the Sakinoyu bath that shows why it is so profitable.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Government, Holidays | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Shimojo Masao (10): Whaling and the Japanese

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

IN APRIL 675, the Temmu Tenno (emperor) issued an imperial edict banning the consumption of cows, horses, dogs, monkeys and chickens as food in Japan, a fervently Buddhist country. The custom of meat-eating was not widespread in Japan until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the acceptance of Western culture and institutions began. Animal proteins were obtained instead by catching fish in the surrounding seas. The hunting of whales and dolphins, which environmental protection groups in Western countries have made an issue in recent years, was one of the traditional fishing methods. Eating such foods as sushi and sashimi arose in a Japanese food culture based on fishing, and those foods are now recognized as healthful throughout the world.

In contrast, however, the dietary custom of eating fish raw did not arise on the Korean Peninsula and China, though they bordered the same seas. In those countries, the distribution channels for the sustainable consumption of fresh fish were not established, significant fishing industries did not arise, and markets in the consumption regions did not form. The successive dynasties of China built their capitals inland, and the development of distribution systems lagged. A meat-eating culture arose on the Korean Peninsula, where products were bartered in markets that opened once every five days. Sashimi began to be eaten on the Korean Peninsula after the modern period when the region was under Japanese rule. It was also only recently that the general public in China began to eat raw fish in the form of sashimi and sushi.

Thus, the seafood products previously eaten on the Korean Peninsula and in China were dried and/or cured, and sold without regard to their freshness. Such ingredients as shark fin, a popular dish in Chinese cuisine, as well as abalone, sea slugs, and kombu, a processed seaweed, were delicacies brought from far-off Japan. That manner of trade began during the Edo period (1603-1868) and continued thereafter. Shark fin and kombu are products from northeastern Japan and points north. During the Edo period, they were taken by sailing ships known as kitamaebune to Nagasaki by way of the Sea of Japan, and from there exported to China.

This peaceful East Asian world was disrupted by the arrival of foreign ships from Russia, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries. Their objective was two-fold: to seek trade with Japan, and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels. The post-Industrial Revolution countries in the West used whale oil in the lamps illuminating factories, so whaling in the seas near Japan was vital for them.

The uninhabited island known as Matsushima in Japan throughout the Edo period became known as the Liancourt Rocks on Western maps when the French whaling vessel Liancourt discovered it in 1849. Whaling, which had been conducted as a way to secure food in Japan, was conducted among the Western powers as a way to secure whale oil. Eventually, the demands of the Western powers that sought trade with Japan and supplies of firewood, water, and food for their whaling vessels led to the forced opening of the country, backed up by their military might. This was the principal cause of the disruption of the stable East Asian order.

Speaking of whaling, some peculiar logic has arisen in recent years–the thinking that whales and dolphins are special animals for people, and that this is tied in with the concept of environmental protection. That’s a serious contradiction with the culture of whaling in the West in the 19th century. The Academy Award-winning American film The Cove, which secretly filmed the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama, and condemned that hunt; Sea Shepherd’s violent obstruction of whaling; and other activities closely resemble the one-sided behavior of the Western Powers in the 19th century.

- Shimojo M.

UPDATE: Those reading this post for the first time who would like to read additional information about Korean whaling might find this worthwhile.

Posted in Environmentalism, Food, History, International relations, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 17 Comments »

Nippon Noel 2009 (2): Instead of street corner Santas…

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 18, 2009

IF CHRISTMAS IS FOR KIDS, how do children get in the holiday spirit in Japan, which doesn’t have traditions of dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh, good King Wenceslaus surveying the winter landscape on the Feast of Stephen, or, for bigger kids, having a close encounter under the mistletoe after a couple of cups of eggnog as a prelude to Santa sliding down the chimney? Here are three examples.

The first is a special class for children and their parents in Christmas ikebana, or flower arranging, in Tokushima City. Held in a local community center, it was part of a program sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. The class attracted 20 primary school students and their parents.

Providing the instruction was a director of a national ikebana association and officers of the local branch association of one of the flower arranging schools. The children used holly, lilies, azalea branches dyed red, and carnations to create flower arrangements with a Christmas theme. Said 11-year-old Hayakawa Yuri: “I was able to do it better than I thought I would. I want to see how it looks in my room.”

Meanwhile, the Susami Aquarium in Susami-cho, Wakayama, which features exhibits of local shrimp and crabs, decided to decorate their main attractions to offer a festive accent to the season. They dressed up two types of crabs as reindeer with Santa, or, to ensure a white Christmas, covered in snow.

One of the varieties given a seasonal makeover was the sponge crab dromidiopsis dormia, which has 15-centimeter-wide shells as an adult. Sea sponges naturally attach themselves to the shell, so the museum employed this trait to stick on sponges reworked to look like Santa dolls. The other was a local variety of spider crab with two-centimeter shells that sometimes disguise themselves with floating debris. The museum has loaded 20 with white thread to represent snow in an exhibit that lasts until the 25th.

Finally, in Rumoi, Hokkaido, municipal workers came up with a clever idea that uses the Chii-chan character. Chii-chan was an idea conceived by city employees to promote local scallop production throughout Hokkaido. Employees drafted 200 of the young scallop shells into holiday service, drew faces on them, and dressed them in red to resemble Santa Claus. The photo here shows them being displayed in a city building.

The Chii-chan/Santa figures are being given as presents to those who contribute to a campaign conducted by the Marine Rescue Japan organization. Some children, anxious for a Santa of their own, have even donated to the campaign.

So who needs visions of sugarplums dancing in your head when you can groove on Yuletide fantasias featuring original ikebana, sponge crabs, and scallop shells instead?

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

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

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

Firefly festivals

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

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

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

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

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

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

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

Hatsukiri

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

hatsukiri 2

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

Seaweed cutting

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

sokari

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

Sea goya

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

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

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

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

Nara ayu

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

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

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

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

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

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

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

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

high school sake rice project

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

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

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

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

Shochu collector

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

shochu collector

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

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

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

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

miko class

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

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

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

The declaration of the eisa nation

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

eisa summer party

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

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

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

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

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

Wasabi–the mouth-watering, nose-running condiment

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 23, 2009

ANYONE WHO’S EVER EATEN nigirizushi knows about wasabi—the green, horseradish-like paste spread between the fish on top and the rice on the bottom. Yet few who’ve eaten it realize all the trouble people went through to get that condiment on the sushi to begin with, and to keep it fresh once it got there.

wasabi

For one thing, the wasabi is purposely placed between the fish and the rice to preserve its pungency. The paste quickly loses its distinctive flavor and aroma when exposed to the air. In fact, just about everything involved with the cultivation and preparation of wasabi takes time and trouble. Take a look at the accompanying photo, for example. It shows Murakami Takeo and his wife Torae, both in their 80s, harvesting their wasabi crop last week.

The Murakamis grow their wasabi in the shallows of the Tani River that flows behind their home in Tanabe, Wakayama. There are two types of wasabi, and the kind the Murakamis cultivate is called sawa wasabi. That variety must be grown in pure, constantly flowing water—the colder the better. The couple planted this crop two years ago in the sandy river soil, around which they’ve built a stone wall.

They have to harvest the plant by hand, pulling out the main root from the earth and removing the leaves and smaller hairy roots. They’ll put two kilograms of the roots in a specially built wooden box to ship to market, because the roots also go bad quickly. Some of their wasabi will be sold at shops in the city that purchase produce directly from the farmers.

Wasabi grows wild in Japanese stream beds and mountain river valleys. The Japanese themselves think they’ve been eating it since the Nara period, which occurred during the 8th century, but the plant is so difficult to cultivate they didn’t successfully farm it until 800 years later in what is now Shizuoka City. The story goes that some was given in feudal tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last shogunate in 1603, and the great man loved it so much he forbade its use outside his castle. It began to be used for soba and sushi during the Edo period, which ran from the early 17th century to 1868. Today, Nagano is the top wasabi producing prefecture when the crops of both the sawa variety and the soil-grown variety are combined.

The distinctive spiciness is due to allyl isothiocyanate, and inhaling the vapor from the plant has been shown to have an effect similar to smelling salts. In fact, some Japanese researchers are trying to use the wasabi odor to create a smoke alarm for the deaf, as you can see from this site, which includes a BBC report. Researchers conducted experiments by spraying canned wasabi extract into a room in which people with hearing impairments were sleeping. It woke 13 of the 14 test subjects up within two minutes—one of them in just 10 seconds.

Indeed, some think that wasabi has numerous health benefits as well. This website makes the case for its ingredients being effective in both preventing and treating cancer. They claim it is also an antioxidant, an antibiotic, an anticoagulant, and an anti-inflammatory agent. Even more, it is said to promote bone calcification.

There’s only one problem: They don’t tell us how much of it we have to eat to reap those benefits, and how much havoc it will wreak on our mucous membranes until that amount is consumed!

Posted in Food | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The tenno’s own cherry tree

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 11, 2009

WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED that cherry trees are the stuff of legend both in North America and Japan? Every American, for example, is familiar with the fable of a young George Washington, who chopped down a cherry tree during his misspent youth while looking for some action with a new hatchet. Washington is said to have copped to the deed when his father asked him about it point blank. Little Georgie’s honesty won him parental praise instead of the expected punishment for vandalizing the property. Today they’d probably stuff him with Ritalin.

emperors-cherry

It turns out this story depicting the father of his country as a moral exemplar was concocted by Parson Mason Weems to boost sales of his biography of Washington, the first one written. Perhaps juicing the tale with a little fiction helped—the book ran to 82 editions, the last of which was published in 1927, and it was translated into French. I’m not sure why they wanted to read it—the French certainly have no problems when it comes to creating myths about Gallic public figures.

The Japanese have their own cock-and-bull story about a cherry tree, which is not surprising considering the number of cherry trees in this country and the quantity of cock-and-bull artists to be found in the drinking establishments of any country. But this one concerns the planting of a tree, rather than the destruction of one.

The photo shows a cherry tree of the shidarezakura variety–literally “drooping branch cherry”–on the grounds of the Kumano-Nachi Shinto shrine in Nachikatsu’ura-cho, Wakayama. The shidarezakura, native to Japan, is known to botanists as the prunus pendula, but normal people in the English-speaking world call it the weeping cherry.

This one is deemed worthy of a newspaper photograph because legend has it that it was planted by the Go-Shirakawa Tenno (emperor), who sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne from 1155 to 1158. Now that can’t be right—the life span of the more common Yoshino cherry is 40-50 years, and drooping isn’t going to extend a cherry tree’s life by nearly a millennium.

The shrine insists on its polite fiction, however, and keeps it out of public view most of the year. They make an exception when it blooms, and this year the blossoms came out a week earlier than usual on 23 March.

It might not be a millennium old, but the Emperor’s Cherry, as it is sometimes called, is old enough to have grown to seven meters in height with a trunk 1.4 meters in circumference. Some of those drooping branches are eight meters long.

As often happens when doing research on what seems to be an innocuous story in Japan, other interesting details come to light. For example, this tree is said to be depicted in the Kumano-Nachi Sankei Mandala, or Mandala of a Visit to Kumano-Nachi. The mandala dates from the early Edo period, which would make it the 17th century, so they do like their tall cherry tree tales in Wakayama. Here’s a website showing the mandala, and you can click on it to view sections in greater detail. I couldn’t positively identify the Emperor’s Cherry, but it’s probably in there somewhere. It’s such a well-known work of art locally that high school students made their own, as you can see here. It took them 50 days to paste together 234,000 pieces of paper, which is a better way for teenagers to spend their spare time instead of running around with a hatchet in a cherry orchard.

Go-Shirakawa Tenno, incidentally, was the 77th emperor, and though his reign lasted but three years, he survived long enough to pull strings behind the scenes for another 34. That means he might have outlasted the original cherry tree he planted, despite the stories to the contrary!

Not all is elegance and sweet myth at the Kumano-Nachi shrine, either. Revisit if you will this previous post on the shrine’s fire festival. Those are some serious torches the guys are carrying. And just to make sure that the whole place is pure before the festival, the priests hang a shimenawa, or a sacred rope, at the top of a nearby waterfall. Purity of spirit is not for the faint of heart in Japan!

Since this is cherry blossom season, don’t miss the updated predictions on the cherry blooming front from the Japanese Meteorological Agency here, or on the right sidebar.

Posted in History, Imperial family, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Shogatsu 2009: Lighting up traditional Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 4, 2009

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

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

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

new-year-chochin

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

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

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

new-year-torii

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

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

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

new-year-temple-lighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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