Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Festivals’ Category

All you have to do is look (117)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Kitsune (Fox) Fire Festival in Hida, Gifu. Participants have white whiskers and red noses painted on their faces, and about 70 people bearing torches join the wedding procession for the foxes. Here’s the English-language explanation provided by Gifu.

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All you have to do is look (109)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 16, 2012

The Kawachi tug-of-war at Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, earlier this fall. It is almost as if tug-of-war were elevated to an extreme sport, and they’ve been doing it for 400 years. Try this previous report to find out how and why.

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Matsuri da! (135): Hammer in the sickles

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 11, 2012

IN some parts of the world, in less sophisticated times, people conducted magical ceremonies to bring rain to parched lands. Japan usually doesn’t have that problem — there’s a rainy season every summer that paints the world an intense green, and the end of summer is the start of typhoon season.

That’s why the folks in Ishikawa developed a Shinto ceremony for calming typhoons, and, seeing as how they’re already asking the divinities for a favor, a good harvest and good health in the bargain. Now an intangible folk cultural treasure of the prefecture, it’s conducted jointly by the Sumiyoshi shrine in Nakanoto-machi and the Suwa shrine in Nanao.

The method they discovered for keeping the storms at bay is to drive sickles — both forwards and backwards — into a sacred machilus tree. In fact, they use two kinds of sickles, which one report refers to as male and female. I don’t know how they make that distinction either, but one possible explanation comes from another report that mentions the sickles have blades sharpened differently for the use of left-handed and right-handed people.

It originated in an ancient legend that the divinities who created the country and transferred the land to the people used two sickles to drive out the birds and insects harmful to the crops. Years later, when the Ishikawans found themselves in a serious bind, they hit on the idea of driving the sickles into a sacred tree instead. They use the same tree on the shrine grounds, which is more than 300 years old. The tree now has quite a bit of moss growing on it, a sign that its vital essence is being sapped. The locals are concerned that they might have driven too many sickles into it over the years.

Now here’s the beauty of the ceremony: It’s also used to end droughts. They just hammer the sickles into a different part of the tree!

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All you have to do is look (103)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Shirajigaku Kappa Festival held in Nakatsu, Oita, and event that dates from the Edo Period. The boys are playing the role of kappa. The kappa are water sprites in Japanese legend. According to Michael Ashkenazi’s Handbook of Japanese Mythology, they “are usually seen as mischievous troublemakers or trickster figures. Their pranks range from the relatively innocent, such as loudly passing gas or looking up women’s kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children, and raping women.”

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All you have to do is look (100)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Primary school girls perform the flower dance at the Hassaku Festival in Minamiboso, Chiba.

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All you have to do is look (98)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2012

Scenes from the Karatsu Kunchi, a three-day festival in Saga that ended yesterday. Men dressed as firefighters during the Edo period pull 14 floats through the city streets to the accompaniment of flutes, drums, and chants of Enya! (Those floats are lacquered and date from the 19th century.) They all end up arranged for display at the same spot. I went to see it my first year in Japan. The ground at that plot is sandy — Karatsu is on the Sea of Japan — and it’s not easy to maneuver those floats on it.

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All you have to do is look (93)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Shirakawa Chochin Matsuri last month at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Shirakawa, Fukushima. One of the three largest lantern festivals in Japan, it is more than 350 years old and held every other year. It was supposed to have been held last year, but was postponed due to the effects of the Tohoku disaster in March.

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All you have to do is look (86)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A recreation of the Yonabaru Otsunahiki in Okinawa, one of the country’s three biggest tug-of-war festivals, was held last month in Osaka’s Taisho-ku, where one-fourth of the residents have family ties to Okinawa. It was held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan and the 80th anniversary of the ward’s incorporation. About 8,000 people watched as another 1,400 pulled a rope that was 90 meters long, two meters thick, and weighed five tons.

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Matsuri da! (134) The demon dance

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 21, 2012

Photo from tamarany no o-sanpo website

NOW I ask you — where can 1,500 men strip to the waist, slip into grass skirts, parade through town carrying lanterns, perform a howling dance in the middle of the night at a religious institution, and the national government will designate it as an important intangible cultural treasure?

Somewhere other than Japan, that is.

That’s just what they’ve been doing every year for centuries in Iwata, Shizuoka, during the Mitsuke Tenjin Hadaka Matsuri conducted by the Yanahime Shinto shrine, and they did it again at the end of last month.

The festival intrigues even Japanese scholars, and for more reasons than the ones explained in the first paragraph. There are records of a dance of some kind being performed this time of year since 933, when the local shrine received part of the divided spirit of Sugawara no Michizane. (This is an old Shinto practice.)

Sometime in the early 14th century, however, the dance took on the character of a celebration representing the joy of the townsfolk after a priest and a big ol’ dog named Shippei Taro slew a tribe of monkey/demons who had demanded and received the annual sacrifice of a virgin. The district also was once a regional capital in a governmental administrative system instituted almost 1,400 years ago. Some explanations say the festival has elements that incorporate that history, though they didn’t specify what they were. The entire event lasts eight days.

But the Big Show is featured on only one of those nights. It starts when the men run out into the street in four groups with lanterns and floats at 9:00 p.m. They congregate one group at a time at the shrine at 11:00 and dive into the dance. The energy intensifies with the arrival of each group. Then, at one in the morning, they sprint with a mikoshi, or portable shrine, back through the town where the lights have been turned off to a different shrine, the Omikunitama-jinja, and leave it overnight. A troupe of boys will return it to the Yanahime shrine the following night.

The hadaka in the festival name, by the way, means naked, though in this and other naked festivals, the men always wear a loincloth. No naked festivals with women, alas.

If you watch this Youtube excerpt of the Demon Dance, you’ll get an idea just how thrilled everyone must have been when the monkeys were slain 700 years ago. No, that isn’t a movie. It actually happened.

The story of Shippei Taro at the link reminded me of this story, though the ending is different.

Clicking on the photo at the top enlarges it.

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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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All you have to do is look (81)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 19, 2012

The Nada Fighting Festival in Himeji, Hyogo, earlier this week.

It is dangerous enough for one man to have died in 2001 and another in 2009 when mishaps occurred. While there is an element of Japanese society that questions such events due to safety concerns, most Japanese reason that the risks (and rewards) of participation are apparent, and that is not reason enough to discontinue centuries worth of tradition.

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All you have to do is look (80)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 18, 2012

The folks in Sakaiminato, Tottori, paint a jizo with miso in the Misoname Jizosai during the Koyu-ji Buddhist temple last month. Several hundred people come each year to observe the custom that coating a particular part of the jizo with miso will cure any problems in the corresponding body part of the coater. The festival began during the Edo period, died out after the war, and was resumed in 1980.

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All you have to do is look (79)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The city of Oga, Akita, is known for its Namahage Festival, in which men wear the masks of ogre-like deities and visit homes on New Year’s Eve to promote domestic safety. Oga Mayor Watanabe Yukio, second from right, is shown here on a visit to Noda-mura, Iwate. That village has a similar custom, called the Namomi, but the costumes were lost in last year’s tsunami. They will recreate them using the namahage masks as a reference.

More on namahage here. Photo from the Sankei Shimbun.


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Matsuri da! (133) Rumble in the forest

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 11, 2012

THE Iwa Shinto shrine was established deep in the forest in what is now Shiso, Hyogo. One story has the facility founded by an emperor in 144, and other by a different emperor in 564. The enshrined deity is Okuninushi (under a different name), who is thought to have been the ruler of Izumo province. He is the divinity of unseen worlds of magic, nation-building (in keeping with this name), farming, business, and medicine. A story told in the Kojiki has he and his 79 brothers competing to marry Princess Yakami of Inaba. He turned out to have been the studliest of them all, which so cheesed off his brothers that they conspired to kill him. Which they did, twice, but his mother — a goddess herself — brought him back to life. With 80 sons, she knew better than anyone that boys will be boys.

The shrine holds a fall festival in supplication for a good harvest from 15-16 October every year, which is a spectacle that attracts many. It’s not that complicated. Stout young lads representing five local communities carry in floats, which are really elaborate platforms for taiko drummers. Each one costs about JPY 20 million, which is about $US255,000 nowadays. The float bearers are wearing color-coded costumes by neighborhood: red, yellow, pink, green, and blue. They alternate every year being the first to enter the temple grounds.

This year, one of the floats got a new decoration. The people in this district rework it every 20 years.

I couldn’t find any information on when or why this festival started, but no one seems interested in historical records with this countryside extravaganza. It’s a stirring show with decorated floats maneuvered with masculine dispatch and chants to the beat of drums in the middle of a forest. Who needs a circus when you can have Primitivo instead? They parade around the shrine grounds and then take the floats for a one-kilometer march through the neighborhood to the river and back. After they return, the mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, is brought out to accompaniment of gagaku.

There are plenty of Youtubes, and one of them is below. For more photos, try this Japanese-language site, or this one.

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

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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