Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FEW outside the country may be aware of it, but archaeological research is a thriving enterprise in Japan. The artifacts from two millennia of human activity lie beneath everyone’s feet throughout the archipelago, and it is likely that most people here have seen an excavation site at least once in their lives. Yoshinogari, one of the most important historical sites (see right sidebar), was discovered when construction work began on a shopping center on the outskirts of town.

Dazaifu dig

The accompanying photo shows just how close the past is to the mundane present. That’s the site of a former Nishitetsu railway switching yard in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. More than a millennium before that, however, from the early 8th to the early 9th century, it was the site of a reception and lodging house for official missions from the Korean Peninsula and the Asian continent. Scholars and officials have been shoveling away since 2005, and last week they confirmed the discovery at the site of Silla-type (i.e., early Korean) ceramics and high quality, metal alloy dinnerware. The spoons are identical to those in the Shosoin repository of ancient cultural treasures in Nara.

There’s another contemporaneous facility for receiving foreign guests in Fukuoka Prefecture closer to Hakata Bay, known as the Korokan. Historians now suspect the Korokan was used primarily for trade negotiations, and the Dazaifu facility was used for more informal interaction, i.e., parties and ceremonies. In other words, they talked turkey at Korokan and ate it at Dazaifu.

The visits of important delegations from overseas are a matter of historical record. The Silla Kingdom on the peninsula sent a delegation to Korokan in 688, 25 years after they and forces from T’ang Dynasty China combined to defeat the army of the Baekche Kingdom, backed by the Japanese. Many Baekche refugees wound up in Kyushu, including those from the royal house. In addition, the Silla prince and a group of 700 people visited in 752, and imperial emissaries from China came the following year. Considering that this Dazaifu site was for eating and drinking, and another site from the same period in the same place coughed up enough dice to gamble away a weekend in Vegas, the ancient Koreans and Chinese probably looked forward to the trip.

Dazaifu continues to offer distinctively Japanese hospitality today, albeit of a more modern variety. Starbucks Japan announced they will open a shop on the sando, or approach path, to the Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shinto shrine on the 16th. It will be the first Starbucks shop at a shrine or Buddhist temple.

Dazaifu Starbucks

The Tenman-gu shrine is a large facility with gardens containing 6,000 plum trees in addition to the buildings. A Shinto shrine was first built there in 905, and the current building, registered as an important cultural property, dates from 1591. It was built on the grave of Tenjin, the deification name of Sugawara no Michizane, renowned for his erudition and learning. They’re opening the Starbucks at just the right time, too, as tens of thousands of people will visit the shrine for New Year’s. The visits will continue into January as students make the pilgrimage to ask the deity for a blessing to pass their high school or university entrance examination. (I could have used some of that juice myself.) Another attraction, the Kyushu National Museum (right sidebar), is within walking distance nearby.

The location demands that this shop not resemble the typical shopping mall Starbucks. It was designed by University of Tokyo architect Kuma Kengo, known for his work on the Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum (got them on the right sidebar too). That design combines the traditional and the modern with natural materials, primary among which is 2,000 pieces of Japanese cedar obtained by thinning out forests. It will also have two gardens, one in front facing the sando and one inside with more plum trees. There will be 46 seats in the interior and 10 on the terrace.

The coffee and food, however, will be the same as that of other Starbucks outlets.

Said the company’s PR release:

From the entrance to the interior, the distinctive design employs a traditional wood pattern, which has been incorporated both in the interior and exterior. It offers the warmth of wood and the opportunity to spend some time in a luxurious setting while surrounded by the aroma of the highest quality coffee.

There’s more to modern Japanese hospitality than trendy coffee shops, too. Here’s some news that might wake you up faster than a cup of Starbucks espresso: Three Tokyo restaurants were awarded a third star last month in the Michelin guide to restaurants. Japan now has 32 restaurants with a three-star rating, the guide’s highest.

There are 25 in France.

More worthy of note for me is this dambuster-sized preconception destroyer: One of the new two-star eateries in Japan is a Korean restaurant.

Want to take a quick visit to the Tenman-gu shrine without buying a plane ticket? Try this YouTube video. It starts at the Nishitetsu Dazaifu station and walks you right to the shrine. Along the way you’ll see the reason that a Starbucks won’t be out of place in the neighborhood.

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Posted in Archaeology, Food, History, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The world’s largest lawnmower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crop’s not for eating

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

Backyard drama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking like a fish

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

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

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

The antidote is in the poison

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

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

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

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

A southern fish burger

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

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

Burgers on the sly

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

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

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

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

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

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

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

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

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

Pucker power

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

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

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

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

New wine in old bottles

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

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

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

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

The world beneath our feet

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON is a classicist, military historian, scholar of ancient Greece, part-time farmer, and political commentator. He is now on his 30th trip to Europe in the past 36 years. While he doesn’t write about Japan at all (as far as I know), I was struck by this entry in his blog:

What excites one about Europe are the layers of civilization. Walk out in the Cretan countryside or in the hills above Rome, and one, either through myth, literature, or archeology, quickly grasps the land beneath one’s feet is part of a long prior story of civilization. In contrast, when I walk over my farm, I know that I experience what my mother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-grandmother knew, and have found at times a horseshoe, or square nail, but prior to them (ca. 1870) the land was mostly just parched grass landscape in a depopulated landscape for eons, without a monumental building, road, or artifact to be found. Again, in Europe you bump into the visible past-2000 BC, AD 320, 1074, 1579, 1942-almost each second.

The same thing that excites Dr. Hanson about Europe excites me about Japan. With the exception of the BC dates, that same passage could just as easily have been written about this country with only a few minor substitutions.

He also writes:

…cite a battle, a cathedral, or a famous Roman, and the odds are that Europeans more readily begin a conversation than their American counterparts.

Of course the subjects in a Japanese discussion of history and culture would be different, but this statement is equally applicable. Mass market paperbacks about historical events centuries old are displayed just as prominently in Japanese bookstores as works of popular fiction. I stopped being surprised by the cultural knowledge of the man or woman in the Japanese street, shop, or tavern years ago.

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

A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW what that yellow thing hanging from the post is when you first see it—I didn’t either—but the inspiration for its creation was a combination of love (or lust), religion, and commerce. That should be a dead giveaway the location of the photo is Japan. To be specific, it’s hanging near a 200-year-old Japanese linden tree (shinanoki; tilia japonica) designated as divine on the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi.

A Nikko <i>miko</i> and a yellow bell

A Nikko miko and a yellow bell

It turns out that the yellow thing is a bell. It’s 55 centimeters long, 20 centimeters in diameter, and weighs six kilograms. Made of steel and painted yellow to attract good fortune, it’s modeled after a 10-centimeter hand bell excavated at nearby Mt. Nantai that was used by devout Buddhists to summon the spirits of the divinities.

So what’s the bell doing on a post out in the open? It’s next to a sacred tree at the Futarasan Shinto shrine, one of the Nikko shrines and Buddhist temples that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin—a Buddhist monk—it has two swords that are national cultural treasures. He had already established the famous Rinno-ji temple complex 16 years before. For centuries the temple and the isolated location made the site a destination for ascetics, and it became a resort area in the modern era when people began to think that asceticism was kind of a drag compared to the delights of the material world.

But more to the point in this case is that one of the tutelary deities of the Shinto facility is Daikoku-sama, the god of marriage. The Japanese linden has also been traditionally associated with connubial bliss. And nearby is a small hall in which is enshrined Aizen, the guardian (or god) of love of the esoteric Mikkyo sect.

As this excellent site explains, Aizen is the:

King of Sexual Passion, (who) converts earthly desires (love/lust) into spiritual awakening; saves people from the pain that comes with love; three faces, three eyes; six arms (typically holding weapons; often wears crown containing a shishi (magical lion); red body, symbolizing the power to purify sexual desire; often carries a bow and arrow (like Cupid).

Aizen is a Japanese Buddhist deity that is not known in India, though he was also given a Sanskrit name. This is the first I’d heard of him, but then a divinity that purifies sexual desire is even less appealing than asceticism these days.

The bell was also created to symbolize a happy marriage, and it was purposely cast to make a sound resembling “kon”. Kon is the reading for the second kanji in the word kekkon, which means marriage, and the kanji itself also has that connotation.

The whole bell idea is the brainchild of the priests at Futarasan Shrine. Tourism in the area is slumping, and they hoped the bell would become a symbol of the town, giving it the image of a romantic getaway. They thought it might entice engaged or newly married couples to visit in the hope that the good mojo would rub off on them. Purifying their sexual desires is probably the least of their cares.

So to sum up, the officials at a famous Shinto shrine created a bright yellow bell designed to look like a religious artifact found during an archaeological dig. They hung the bell next to a tree associated with marriage near a Shinto shrine whose deity is associated with marriage, and a small hall with a Buddhist deity that is the King of Sexual Passion and carries bows and arrows like Cupid. Their intention was to attract more tourists to come and ring the bell, which would result in local merchants more frequently ringing up the cash registers.

Evidently, being a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history dating back more than 1,200 years in a district with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and plenty of hot spring resorts isn’t enough to appeal to potential tourists.

Considering the integral role rice plays in Japanese culture, it’s a wonder they didn’t find a way to work in the Western custom of throwing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church after their wedding ceremony. With all those other ingredients in that gumbo, no one would think the rice was unusual at all, and some would think it made the dish even tastier.

Who knows, it might attract even more people who want to live happily ever after their unique wedding ceremony!

Posted in Archaeology, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Buddhist temple Koreans built in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 20, 2009

THERE’S NO TELLING what’ll turn up when someone sticks a spade into the ground in Japan. In Okinawa, as we saw in this recent post, the diggers might strike undetonated bombs or artillery shells buried since the Second World War. More often, however, what they’ll uncover are fascinating glimpses of periods dating back more than a millennium.

Digging a hole

Digging a hole

That was demonstrated again last week when the Education Committee of Hirakata, Osaka, and the city’s cultural treasure research and survey association announced they had discovered a trench used to cast iron and bronze utensils at Kudara-ji, a Buddhist temple in that city.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The temple was built in the latter half of the 8th century by members of the Baekche royal family from the Korean Peninsula who fled to Japan. In fact, it was named for them: the Chinese characters for Baekche (百済) are read Kudara in Japanese.

One of the three ancient Korean kingdoms, Baekche was located in the southwestern part of the peninsula, an area that still maintains close ties with Japan. It wound up the loser in frequent battles with Silla and Goguryo, the other two kingdoms. Some members of its royal family dashed across the Korea Strait after the kingdom’s defeat by Silla and their Chinese allies. Japan sent a substantial military force to fight with Baekche, and it’s estimated that as many as half of that force did not return home after being beaten. Meanwhile, the transplanted Baekche royal family is credited with introducing the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, and the advanced technology of the period to this country. Indeed, one of the Baekche kings, Muryeong, was born in Kyushu. (He ascended to the throne after his elder brother was assassinated.)

The researchers think they’ve discovered the remnants of the facility used to build the temple and make the implements used there. Only a handful of these facilities have been unearthed nationwide, so scholars consider the find important because it may shed light on the structure of the temple buildings of the time.

The committee said they found a pit 2.5 meters in circumference at the northeast section of the site used for the placement of casting molds. In addition to iron and bronze utensils nearby, they found about 300 shards from a melting furnace which is thought to have been used for casting.

They also found the remains of six posts, which they think formed a gateway at the northern wall. About 500 meters to the north of that gate is the site of ruins in Kinyahon-machi. The researchers say the find tends to confirm the close connection between the latter district and the Baekche royal family, which was given preferential treatment by the Japanese state at the time–including intermarriage with the Imperial family.

City officials noted that in addition to aiding research into temple structure of the period, the discovery is important because it provides further support for the idea that the Baekche royal family enjoyed great influence in that area from the Nara period to the Heian period (covering the 8th century).

There is another significant aspect to this story that city officials might have mentioned had they been disposed to do so. Namely, some ungenerous expatriate foreigners in Japan, as well as some South Koreans misinformed by the political and media axis in that country, labor under the belief that Japanese do not care to be reminded of their ancient ties with the Korean Peninsula and the impact those ties had on their culture.

Yet this story about a temple named after Koreans was openly and widely reported in the Japanese news media. The reports also noted that archaeological excavations have been conducted at this site since 1932.

Or, to take it to another level of detail, the Baekche kingdom itself was founded by people who headed south down the peninsula from Manchuria. So who’s your daddy, daddy-o?

All of which suggests that the Nippo-crits might be less informed on this subject than the Japanese public they hold in such disdain.

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Posted in Archaeology, Foreigners in Japan, History, Imperial family, Japanese-Korean amity, Shrines and Temples, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 25 Comments »

Rolling them bones in Heian Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 11, 2008

YESTERDAY I wrote that there’s no telling what might turn up when people start rummaging around in a storeroom in Japan. There’s also no telling what they’ll dig up from an archaeological site.


Here’s an example: While shoveling around in the Okuzono ruins in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, recently, researchers uncovered a die made of rock dating from the late Heian period (11th to the 12th centuries) and about 50 small stones that had been processed for use in sugoroku, go, and hajiki.

Sugoroku is a board game that was brought over from China and has two variations to the rules. One is almost identical to backgammon, and the other is similar to Snakes and Ladders. Hajiki is a Japanese form of marbles, and everyone knows what go is.

The ruins are about 500 meters southwest of the Daizaifu Tenman-gu, a well-known Shinto shrine that had already been around for a couple of centuries before they started shooting the local version of craps nearby. The city’s Committee on Education (which is responsible for archaeological matters) said it was possible the location was a former worksite for people who made games and game equipment. They think the items might have been presented in dedication to the shrine or sold to important people who visited there.

Each side of the die is about 1.1 centimeters across. The opposing sides of modern dice add up to seven, but the arrangement of the numbers on this die is different: on the opposite side of the 6 is a 4, for example.

The stones are of different materials and colors and range in size from 0.8 to 2.0 centimeters.

The part of this story that interests me is not that the Japanese used dice. They, along with the rest of the world, have played dice games for millennia. The part that intrigues me is that the archaeologists think they might have been sold at a religious institution—and no one is particularly surprised.

What the heck–many Shinto shrines in Japan have long held festivals in which home-brewed sake is offered to the divinities. Now it turns out they also countenanced dice games too, some of which surely involved friendly wagers on the side!

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Matsuri da! (84): The iron chefs live!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 10, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17th century Japanese village found in Cambodia

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 14, 2008

IT’S A SHAME this report is so short, because it would be fascinating to hear more details.

Here’s how the two-paragraph story on the Indian news site Kerala begins:

A site of a Japanese village dating back to the 17th century has been found in the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a Japanese archaeologist said Wednesday.

They add:

Based on on-site research, excavations and historical documents, Japanese people came to Cambodia aboard ships between 1601 and 1635, he said. “There were about 100 Japanese living in the village during that period of time, and most of them were engaged in religious affairs and trading…”

And that’s about it. But that raises the inevitable questions: Who were they? Why did they leave Japan? How did they wind up in Cambodia? What religious affairs did they conduct? Who did they trade with? What happened to them?

Alas, that’s all I could find.

The report is based on an address in Cambodia by Sugiyama Hiroshi, the chief research fellow at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. I couldn’t find a report on their website, either in English or Japanese.

Let’s hope someone releases more information soon.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

In Japan, the past is a stone’s throw away

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 10, 2008

WITH THE INTEREST JAPANESE have in their own history and the amount of resources they’ve devoted to archaeology, it’s a bit surprising just how frequently important new discoveries of ancient sites still occur. Reports of these discoveries appear in newspapers almost on a weekly basis.


Another one was announced in Kyushu on the 8th—the Education Committee of Nakagawa-machi, Fukuoka, found the complete site of a fortified military camp that dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, which roughly corresponds to what is called the Warring States Period, or sengoku jidai in Japanese. The discovery of a complete campsite from this era is rare in Japan, and it was the first one discovered in Kyushu.

The 15,000 square-meter site was located on the top of a 56-meter hill surrounded by a river on three sides. Foundations for watchtowers were found in the middle of the camp, which was enclosed by a double wall at its highest point. It had a moat that was four meters wide and two meters deep, and which also had two fortified embankments

Four flat areas were found on the hillside, which are thought to have been the locations of soldiers’ quarters, and the sites of five buildings were identified. The Education Committee had already found the site of another castle and a forge in the same area, so they believe the region was at one time a center for quartering troops and producing weaponry.

Historians think the encampment was used by the Otomo warrior family (which, at the peak of their strength, controlled a third of Kyushu) and the Ouchi warrior family. (They were based in Yamaguchi at the southern tip of Honshu, just across from Kyushu, and are thought to have descended from a Korean immigrant from the Baekche state in the 7th century.)

When people overseas think of today’s Japan, the Super Futuro Techno Megalopolis of Tokyo is probably the first place that comes to mind, but as this report shows (from page 34 of my local newspaper) for most Japanese in the rest of the country, centuries-old history—older than European settlements in North America–is an everyday affair, just down the street or a short drive away.

Note: The Education Committees in local municipal and prefectural governments in Japan are responsible for handling archaeological matters.

Posted in Archaeology, History, Military affairs | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »