Japan from the inside out

A glass of champon

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 26, 2009

WHEN THE FOLKS in Kyushu use the word champon, they’re usually talking about a bowl of noodle soup created at a Chinese restaurant in Nagasaki during the latter part of the 19th century. In other words, it’s a Japanese version of Chinese food.

But when the folks in Fukuoka City’s Higashi Ward use the word champon, they’re talking about glass toys sold during the Hojoya festival presented by the local Hakozaki-gu Shinto shrine. The work for putting the finishing touches on those toys is being done now, even though the festival is held in September.

Edo beauty toys with a <em>champon</em>

Edo beauty toys with a champon

The champon is an unusual toy because it employs the flexibility of glass. The user alternately inhales and exhales from the tube end, causing the film at the bottom of the flared end to vibrate back and forth and make a noise. First there is a higher-pitched tone that to Hakata ears sounds like “chan”, and that’s followed by a lower tone that sounds like “pon”. The traditional glass blowing technique used to make the toys requires great skill, but the blowing technique to play with the toy takes little or no skill at all.

People in other parts of the country call these playthings biidoro, which is derived from vidro, the Portuguese word for glass. Some also call them poppen, which is a different onomatopoetic rendition of the sound the glass makes. Same sound, different ears!

The toys have been around in Japan for a while, as the illustration shows a well-known Utamaro print of an Edo beauty amusing herself with one. They weren’t sold at the Hakata festival until the second part of the 19th century, however, and the shrine stopped making them during the Taisho period, which ran from 1911 to 1925. But if your national history goes back a couple of millennia, it’s easy to find something old on a shelf in the cultural warehouse when looking for a new idea to spice up a custom, and the shrine resumed making the champon in 1971.

Hakata beauties making <em>champon</em>

Hakata beauties making champon

The photo shows two of six miko, or shrine maidens, using bright acrylic paint and thin brushes to paint pictures on the toys. The decorative illustrations are usually of flowers and dragonflies. This year, however, the miko are using for the first time a chrysanthemum design that one of them created, demonstrating yet again how willing the Japanese are to incorporate new tricks into an old tradition. There are 10 different types of champon, and the miko will make about 2,100 by the end of August. That hand-painted labor doesn’t come cheap—it’ll cost from JPY 3,000 to 9,000 ($US 94.98) to buy one at the festival.

The Hojoe festival, by the way, is known as one of the three major Hakata festivals, Hakata being another name for the Fukuoka area. It attracts in the neighborhood of 300,000 people every year. The festival itself originated from a Buddhist ceremony for releasing fish and birds back into the wild, based on the old precept in that religion against the killing of animals. The Shintoists liked it so much they adopted it as well, and the festival is conducted at other Hachiman shrines throughout the country under the name of Hojoya.

All this talk of mixing religious traditions and giving them different names in different places is an excellent excuse to refer back to the bowl of Chinese noodles created in Japan known as champon. The origin of that word is not onomatopoetic; rather, one theory holds that it comes from the Chinese word 掺混 in the Hokkien dialect, which means “to mix”. It would be pronounced chanhun in standard Chinese, and the Japanese would naturally change that h to either a b or a p in their pronunciation because it follows a syllable-ending n.

But it gets better. The Okinawans have a dish of their own called chanpuru, which also means “mixed” in their dialect. The Koreans eat yet a different version, called jjamppong (짬뽕), which is also said to be slang for “mix up” (though it’s not in my K-E dictionary). And the word champon itself has entered standard Japanese to mean mix together or alternate. That one is in my J-E dictionary, though I can’t remember hearing anybody use it that way in a conversation.

Buddhist and Shinto, Hakata and Fukuoka, hojoe and hojoya, champon and poppen, and champon, chanhun, chanpuru, and jjamppong…doesn’t that sum it up perfectly? Northeast Asia in general–and Japan in particular–has always been a champon kind of a place!

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