Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Aomori’

All you have to do is look (145)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2012

Nanbu senbei (rice crackers) a famous confection from the southern part of Aomori, each containing a New Year’s message.

(Photo: Sankei Shimbun)

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Matsuri da! (136): Hand dancing

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 8, 2012

THOUSANDS of festivals are held in Japan throughout the year, and it’s a safe bet that one or more is underway on any given day. While most of them share common elements, both traditional and modern, they also have an element unique to their community or region. The Nagawa Fall Festival in Hachinohe, Aomori, is a case in point.

There is the Shinto kagura dancing at the Suwa shrine. There is also deer dancing, pestle dancing (a form of kagura), tiger dancing, and Hawaiian dancing. There is a procession with a mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine. There is a fire department parade with the fire department kids’ club, a primary school parade, a traffic safety parade, a beer garden, and a gateball championship.

All of that you can see and do at other festivals. But only at the Nagawa Festival can you see five floats in a procession with women performing the Nambu hand dance to the accompaniment of shamisen and taiko.

And this is what it looks like.

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All you have to do is look (101)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 8, 2012

A beech forest in Tsutanuma, Aomori

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Filthiness is next to godliness

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 3, 2012

KODANSHA’S Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japan comes straight to the point:

“The concepts of clean and unclean, pure and impure, have been of cultural and social significance in Japan from ancient times to the present.”

These concepts are an integral part of the proto-religion of Shinto, as writings dating from as early as the 10th century reveal. Purification rituals are an essential and frequent activity in Shinto, so the shrines must also be clean and pure.

Most of them, anyway.

The Kabushima shrine in Hachinohe, Aomori, gets downright filthy from February to August. That’s because it’s located on the top of a hill which is one of the primary breeding grounds in Japan for the black-tailed gull. It looks nice and clean when seen from a distance, as in the above photo. But a clearer picture emerges when it’s viewed up close.

Gulls are good at spotting fish schools, and that makes it easier for the community fisherfolk to practice peaceful coexistence. That still requires some patience, however, because an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 gulls wing it this way every year. Notice the umbrella stand at the base of the torii in the photo. They’re provided for human visitors to use, and that’s not because it rains frequently. Reports say that the walkway and stairs can get so slippery, it’s difficult to maintain your footing.

Did the people who built the shrine not know of the potential problems with the local fauna? According to legend, it was established in 1269. The tutelary deities are Tagorihime, Ichikishimahime, and Tagitsuhime, three female kami created by the sun goddess Amaterasu. They were sea goddesses who protected ocean-going traffic. Did the gulls start coming sometime after the 13th century, or did the shrine’s founders not care?

Then again, birdwatchers who like to watch gulls like to visit for that reason. Nowhere else in Japan can these birds be observed at such close range. They’re very accustomed to people — they probably think they’re being magnanimous with the human interlopers — and supposedly have a taste for Kappa Ebisen. That’s a shrimp-flavored snack shaped like a French fry with the consistency of a solid potato chip.

The name Kabushima comes from the combination of kabu, the name for the rapeseed plant in the local dialect, and shima, or island. During the season, the hills are alive with gulls and rapeseed blossoms. It was originally an island, too, until the Navy connected it to the mainland by landfill in 1942.

Here’s a Youtube. Give Hitchcock credit for keeping his lens clean.

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

All you have to do is look (13)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 10, 2012

Opening parade of the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, which ended earlier this week

(Photo from Kyodo)

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Nippon Noel 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 25, 2011

CHRISTMAS customs in East Asia may lack the self-perpetuating momentum of the holiday in Christian countries in the West with a longer tradition, but the season and its symbols can still generate intense emotion in this part of the world. An example is the the steel towers decorated as Christmas trees that an evangelical group erects every year two miles from the North Korean border on the 100-foot-high Aegibong Hill. They were to have been illuminated on Friday, which would have made them visible to soldiers on the northern side of the border and residents of the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The decorations have caused periodic friction between the two countries — Bah, humbug might well be the North Korean national motto — and so were stopped in 2004. The group resumed the practice in 2010, but this year the Scrooges in Pyeongyang said they’d shoot out the lights and it would be the southerners’ fault if they did. Since no one has any idea of the leadership’s current state of mind up north, or even who constitutes the leadership, the South Koreans decided discretion was the better part of holiday virtue and will refrain from flipping the switch on the towers this week.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more peace on the Japanese part of the earth, and they can and do light all the Christmas trees they want anywhere they feel like it. The Japanese view Christmas as an excellent opportunity to stage a festival of light. Indeed, with all the imagination incorporated into the designs, their variations on the theme of tannenbaum might be considered a minor form of public art. Here are some of the best in 2011.


They’ve been partying since 13 November at the Aqua Christmas 2011 festivities in Odaiba. The sponsors have exhibited a seven-meter-high Marina Fantasy Tree that represents a Christmas tree rising out of the sea, which is a satisfying image for an island country. An added touch is that the colors change in coordination with the music.

They’re just as abstract over at the Shinjuku Southern Terrace shopping facility. Inside the tower are two switches that change the lights from red to green to blue to a Christmasy pink to yellow to rainbow, accompanied by stately bell sounds. They’re calling it the Kizuna Tree, with kizuna being the human ties that bond, and they suggest it’s an excellent way for couples to strengthen their own ties. Christmas Eve is the big date night of the year in Japan, and if a young couple were to stop by to strengthen their ties at the Kizuna Tree and wound up buying something before they left, then so much the better.

The cutbacks in power consumption necessitated by the Tohoku disaster forced people to use their imaginations and discover new ways to find the juice for the lights. The most frequently adopted solution is LEDs, but many places also use wind power, and some even went with vegetable oil.

Wind power was the choice to light up a 400-meter stretch of zelkova trees in toney Roppongi Hills. It’s the first time they’ve trimmed the trees for Christmas in this neighborhood, so they decided to get creative with pink and beige lights designed to look like a waterfall. Those lights don’t look pink or beige, and they don’t resemble a waterfall either, but that’s what the copy said.

Awareness of the Tohoku disaster is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and that’s why the trees displayed in the central concourse at the JR Ueno Station were decorated with ornaments made in the areas hardest hit in March. They were put together by women in Kuji and Rikuzentakata in Iwate, and Ishinomaki in Miyagi who were suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami. The operation was put together by a group in Saitama called Team Tomodachi to help those in the stricken areas. They asked the women to make the ornaments, which they then sold to remunerate them for their work. The material used was the leftovers from the process for manufacturing organic cotton products.

The trees themselves were put up by Atre Ueno, a local shop, with the help of the Tokyo and Sendai branches of the East Japan Railway Co. and Ueno Station.

Seven women from Ishinomaki came to Ueno in November to hang the ornaments with Atre Ueno employees. One of the women explained that she thought she wouldn’t be able to do it when someone approached her with the idea — she had spent her whole life processing wakame seaweed by hand, and crafts were not her hobby. The longer the group worked together, however, the more fun they had. She said that, on reflection, she lost a lot this year, but also wound up gaining something as well.


A look at some of the posts under the Christmas tag for a peek at Christmases past will show that PET bottles are a favorite choice as a tree material substitute. All the trees along this pedestrian walkway near the municipal offices in Nantan, Kyoto, were made with the preformed polyethylene terephthlate. The members of a local club found about 3,500 empties, which surely left them with sticky fingers. They weren’t too sticky, however, to prevent them from putting together 30 1.8-meter trees of six levels with 30 bottles, and two 2.4-meter trees of eight levels with 500 bottles, and then lining them up along the 200-meter pathway. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to see for yourself, they’ll be lit until 8:00 p.m. tonight.


An executive committee consisting mostly of JCs got profligate with the LEDs a little further to the north in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and used 200,000 to decorate a 200-meter-long row of zelkova trees at the city’s Tsuba Center square near the train station for the seventh year.

This year, they wanted the display to reflect the wishes for national recovery, so the lights spell out Gambaro Nippon, or Let’s Fight, Japan.

There’s another tree-based illuminated decoration at the Chuo Koen (Central Park) in the city. If you can’t make it there for Christmas, don’t worry — they’ll be up until 9 January, and that makes a few more than the standard 12 days of Christmas.


Santa will visit and a tree will be lit at the Noritake Garden, a ten-year-old park in Nagoya. Mr. Claus will again climb the chimney on the ceramics plant to plant a 12-meter-high tree there. The reduced supply of electricity this year caused by fallout from the Fukushima disaster will be offset by a solar power generator installed at the facility in October, capable of producing an average of 120 kW a day.


Everybody likes Christmas surprises, so the Shinwa Construction Co. in Osaka has had a suprise for a different neighborhood every year for the past eight years. They use the front lot of whatever condominium that they happen to be in the process of building and put up a 12-meter-high Christmas tree with 30,000 LEDs with no warning on 1 December. Naturally, this keeps the Osakans wondering where the tree will turn up every year, and making a special trip to see when they find out. This year the tree was put up in Yodogawa Ward, but this photo shows one from about five years ago.

The company also staged a “Christmas Event” on the 22nd and 23rd with an artificial snow machine and stalls selling such Yuletide delicacies as oden and yakitori roasted o’er an open fire.


Not all that gllitters is an LED. The 10-meter-high tree put up by the Ukai Venetian Glass Museum in Hakone consists of 70,000 pieces of crystal glass, which flash in seven different colors in the sunlight. Though it’s illuminated externally at night, as you can see in the video, the tree itself has no internally lit ornaments. The facility also added 60 candles and 180 lanterns to the park exhibit on 1 December.


The northern island of Hokkaido is cold enough to pass for the North Pole — they start wearing jackets at night at the end of August — so Christmas comes naturally to the natives. The city of Hakodate is also known for the big trees at its Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. It’s so well known, in fact, that the city of Hirosaki in the neighboring prefecture of Aomori put up their own 20-meter tree at the site. Hirosaki Mayor Kasai Noriyuki explained the display was to promote ties between the two cities.

And hey, what’s Christmas without a fireworks display?


The Kagoshimanians also got into the Christmas spirit by making three trees out of PET bottles, which they displayed at a big shopping mall in the center of the city. It’s the third year Yamagata-ya has put up PET bottle trees to enhance awareness of ecological activities and recycling. The main six-meter-high tree used about 2,800 bottles brought by customers and 6,500 LEDs provided by the store, and if you look behind the adult Santa in the photo, you can see one of the three smaller subsidiary trees. They got the store customers to help put them together and hang the decorations, which is a bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to paint the fence, though this was more fun and a lot less messy.


A cosmetics manufacturing and sales company way down south in Fukuoka City decided to help make spirits bright up north after a very gloomy year in Fukushima, whose name will now be forever associated with a nuclear disaster. That’s why they put up this big tree next to the JR Fukushima Station in the city. Trimming any tree with more than 40,000 LEDs is bound to brighten the neighborhood and spirits both. Said local resident Matsumoto Ryoko, aged 75:

Just looking at it cheers me up. After this difficult year with the disaster, these are lights of hope.

They’ll be lit in their city until 11:00 p.m. tonight, and hopefully in their hearts for many more nights to come.

The year I came to Japan there was a musical tsunami in the form of Yamashita Tatsuro’s soundtrack to the movie The Big Wave. It hit #2 on the charts, making it one of the most successful soundtrack records in Japan. It was especially popular among people in their 20s and 30s, both because it was so well done, and because Yamashita himself was a favorite among people of that age at the time.

One half of the LP consisted of Yamashita’s tunes, and the other half of Beach Boy remakes that are more listenable than the originals, but then my taste lies in directions other than that of the Wilson brothers. He didn’t need any brothers for the harmonies because he overdubbed all the vocal parts himself.

Yamashita is (or should be) in the top rank of international pop music auteurs. Asked about his musical inspiration, he said he grew up listening to FEN (Far East Network), the radio station for American servicemen in this part of the world, which anyone with a transistor radio in Tokyo can hear. The production values of his music also recall uptown soul music, so if you can imagine a Japanese singer creating original material that mixes Beach Boy and soul music influences, then you’re close to the Yamashita sound.

Even better known than the original Big Wave LP is his Christas song, called Christmas Eve, which was released as a single the year before. It reached only #44 on the 1983 charts (the LP from which it came was #1), but it had miraculous staying power: it’s the only Japanese pop song to reach the Top 100 for 20 straight years. The single eventually sold 1.8 million copies, boosted by its use as the theme song for JR East’s seasonal commercials starting in 1986. The residuals alone must surely mean that all of his Christmases will be bright.

What better cyber-present could there be than an embedded video of the song with scenes from the commercials throughout the years? Here’s hoping that your real presents are as sweet as the girl waiting behind the train station pillar in 1989. メリークリスマス!

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Illicit unions and unholy alliances

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Flickering in and out of sight is that any agreement (between the two parties) will be a way to split the ticket to the interests and rights to be gained from the recovery.
– Onishi Hiroshi, marketing analyst

THE FIX will soon be in — Okada Katsuya and Ishihara Nobuteru, the secretaries-general of the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, trotted round the Sunday television blabathon circuit and agreed to pursue the idea of a Grand Coalition, though Mr. Okada didn’t want to call it that. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio is down with the idea too, thereby signaling that his guru and party heavyweight Sengoku Yoshito is already working behind the scenes to make it happen.

If it does happen, some editorialists in the mainstream news media and commentators in Japan will join the telescopic political philanthropists of the West to sing hymns of praise, behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity, and chide the sinners for waiting so long to take their righteous advice.

Others, however, would rather not stand in the Amen Corner.

Two of them are also secretaries-general of political parties. Inoue Yoshihisa of New Komeito, who are not interested in joining the coalition at present, limited himself to the observation that it will be “Easier said than done.” Shimoji Mikio of the Peoples New Party, already in the governing coalition, doesn’t like the idea at all. He got red in the face as he fulminated against the plan in a TV studio:

“The problem is that Okada, the one who brought about a change of government, is using the phrase “grand coalition”. The problem is that they have to dissolve the Diet and get the people’s verdict in an election (and they won’t).”

Mr. Shimoji sees the failure to call a general election as the problem, but the DPJ sees it as one of the attractions. There was another gubernatorial election on Sunday, this time in Aomori. The incumbent LDP-backed candidate was expected to win, so attention focused on the margin of victory over the DPJ candidate.

He received less than one-fourth of the winner’s vote total.

A third secretary-general, Eda Kenji of Your Party, wrote on his website:

“It’s easy to talk about a coalition, but they’ll have to create a Cabinet together. That means agreement is essential not only for recovery and reconstruction measures, but all affairs of state, including the basic policies of foreign policy, national security, social welfare, and economic and fiscal policy. Otherwise, at Cabinet meetings, where unanimity is the prerequisite, there’ll be a constant uproar over who will or will not sign off on each individual piece of legislation.

“The people want the ruling and opposition party to cooperate for recovery and reconstruction. But a grand coalition with people battling for posts and interests isn’t needed. If that’s what they want, however, go right ahead. That will clearly identify those who want recovery with tax increases and those who want recovery without them.”

During the first go-round for the grand coalition idea two months ago, Mr. Eda explained there would be no need for one if the parties were serious about negotiation. There is already an organization for officials at the ministerial and secretary-general level of all parties to discuss disaster relief and provide input.

Kakizawa Mito of the same party is also unconcerned about being shut out of the coalition because they’ll be one of the few criticizing the government. He wrote:

“What will the DPJ and LDP do in a grand coalition with their overwhelming strength of more than 400 combined Diet members? Won’t they raise the consumption tax in the name of promoting a recovery tax and integrating taxes and social welfare? That’s absolutely the same thing Prime Minister Kan would do. If that’s the case, changing prime ministers is meaningless. It’s like throwing cold water on someone with a low body temperature.”

His follow-up was even better, and the last sentence was the best:

“It won’t make any difference whether it’s Prime Minister Maehara, Prime Minister Edano, or Prime Minister Sengoku. If they form a coalition, those two parties will decide everything out of public view. Real debate will disappear from the Diet. And those who’ll be deciding things out of sight won’t be the prime minister; it will be people like Mr. Sengoku and Oshima Tadamori (LDP vice-president).”

There are also a few apostates in the media. The Ryukyu Shinpo of Okinawa headlined an anti-grand coalition editorial two months ago this way: “Without an election, it’s an unholy alliance”. Here are some excerpts, and again the best comes last:

“For the two major parties with such large policy differences using an emergency to haphazardly jump into a grand coalition is a betrayal of the voters who cast their ballots for both. The formation of a coalition would amplify the mistrust in politics.

“If they’re going to form a grand coalition, the course would be to make that pledge during a lower house election and earn the trust of the voters. But Japan doesn’t have the time now to spend on dissolving the Diet and holding a general election.

“What is required of the ruling and opposition parties is a comprehensive debate on the relief and support of the affected areas and people, and measures to deal with the nuclear power accident. They should strive for cooperation and accord, and start by finding money in the budget.

“We do not think an illicit union resembling bamboo spliced to a tree will function. The issues facing the government are not limited to the earthquake….

“The opposition’s cooperation for the recovery is indispensable, but a recovery plan can be formulated without a coalition. The grand coalition between the two major parties is reminiscent of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association during the Second World War. Nothing is more frightening than politics that would crush minority opinion in the name of national policy and the national interest.”

More than a few people agree with these assessments, and offer several other good reasons. An unidentified source with the LDP said that business and financial circles are the ones who really want this to happen. Sure enough, both Keidanren and Doyukai (The Japan Association of Corporate Executives) support a coalition “as an effective method to resolve the difficulties”. Some people think the LDP wants to get involved because of all the money that will be disbursed for reconstruction, while others suggest the LDP and the DPJ left wing (Edano, Sengoku, Kan) feel threatened by the growing strength of regional parties. LDP President Tankigaki Sadakazu has already come out in favor of a tax increase, and the coalition will likely be a vehicle to both increase the consumption tax and levy a special earthquake recovery tax. Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko admitted as much today.

Speaking of Mr. Kan, he made an offer to the LDP to form a coalition two months ago, and the circumstances of that impromptu offer are a portrait in miniature of the reasons he isn’t prime ministerial caliber, the reasons so many are so anxious to pry him out of office, and the reasons his departure heads the list of LDP conditions for joining.

Prime Minister Kan offered the post of yet-to-be created Deputy Prime Minister for Reconstruction to Mr. Tanigaki over the telephone without telling anyone in his own party first. (Some suspect he didn’t want Sengoku Yoshito to know.) When the LDP chief said he’d take the offer to his party and discuss it, the prime minister shouted at him and accused him of lacking the spirit of cooperation. Mr. Tanigaki repeated his wish to discuss it with party leadership before making a decision, whereupon Mr. Kan said, “OK, that’s a refusal, and I’ll announce to the media that you turned it down.”

And he did, one hour later.

Veteran observers of the class act that is Kan Naoto, the LDP immediately diagnosed the presence of several pathogens. In addition to the seat-of-the-pants policy proposal and an out-of-control temper, there was also the cheap shot for political advantage. No specifics were mentioned in regard to the authority Mr. Sadakazu would have over what would become the most difficult position in the Cabinet and the reconstruction process, or the number of personnel and the budget allocated to the new ministry.

There was also the reappearance of the dullwit trying to be clever combined with the opportunity to indulge in the pastime of blaming other people for his failures — the public would assume the LDP was in charge of the recovery, and the prime minister would attribute the inevitable problems or delays to them. Finally, Mr. Sadakazu would have to work in a Cabinet with people whose primary political skill in the opposition was loudmouth obstructionism and who would seek every opportunity to make him look bad.

The LDP leadership assumed the real intention of the prime minister’s offer was to prolong the life of his Cabinet, yet another Kan trademark. They ratified Mr. Tanigaki’s decision after less than an hour’s worth of discussion.

After the news became public, Linda Seig provided Reuters consumers with the benefit of her years as a foreign correspondent in Japan by offering this informed analysis:

“Japan’s new public mood of togetherness has yet to spread in any real way through the corridors of power.”

Why not?

“Prime Minister Naoto Kan attempted on Saturday to capture the unity spirit when he invited the leader of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to join the cabinet as deputy premier for disaster relief.

“But the offer was swiftly rejected.”

Back in the reality-based community, some LDP elders also counseled against a coalition government. Mr. Taniguchi wholeheartedly agreed when former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro told him, “We should now demonstrate the approach of a sound opposition party.” Former Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki also chimed in: “A coalition isn’t possible unless policies are in accord.”

The LDP chief continues to receive similar advice two months later. Last weekend, he flew to Kyushu to attend a seminar with Kumamoto Gov. Kabashima Ikuo, a former political scientist. (He is also a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo.) Mr. Kabashima gave an address in which he emphasized that successful coalition governments were very difficult to pull off. He said there were five conditions for that success. The Asahi Shimbun didn’t see fit to tell its consumers what four of them were, but said the most important was that ample time should remain until the next national election. For example, if an election was one year away, the government would have to do its work in six months.

The next national elections are two years away, when the upper house holds its next regular election and the current term of the lower house expires. There are rumors that the coalition now under discussion would be for two years, which would set up a convenient double election in the summer of 2013.

A coalition government is likely to improve and accelerate the work of reconstruction. After all, the DPJ can’t quite get the hang of this walking while chewing gum business, and shows no signs that it will anytime soon.

We can only hope that if Tanigaki Sadakazu and the LDP ignore the excellent advice they’ve been receiving not to join a coalition, the benefits of this illicit union will outweigh the serious collateral damage likely to occur.


The Ryukyu Shinpo published another anti-Grand Coaltion editorial today. They made several of the same points they did two months ago. Here’s some of what they added:

“If there were a common recognition of the urgency of reconstruction, the government and the opposition parties could develop a consistent series of policies in the spirit of cooperation. If they were to be part of the same government, however, we are concerned they would degenerate into a struggle for leadership with an eye to the next election. That would have a negative impact on prompt decision making and the implementation of policy…

“The DPJ and LDP are groping toward a time-limited grand coalition for both disaster recovery and the integration of social welfare and taxation. There is an urgent necessity to pass legislation for the second supplementary budget and to allow the government to issue additional bonds. The people are not in agreement, however, on the need to integrate social welfare and taxation, which would include an increase in the consumption tax.

“The LDP demands a reevaluation of the DPJ party platform, including the child allowance. A major reevaluation will inevitably lead to a split of the DPJ, as the Ozawa group will reject such a move. They insist on maintaining the DPJ principles at the time of their 2009 election victory, and their slogan of ‘putting people’s lives first’…”

An Asahi Shimbun editorial is now urging the Kan government to go slow on the idea of a grand coaltion. The gist of their argument seems to be that a coalition would waste all the effort that went into creating a two party system. The Tokyo Shimbun is also saying that a coalition is not required for real cooperation on reconstruction.

Penn and Oldham sing about the site of DPJ/LDP coalition and policy discussions.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Edo period strip mall in Kuroishi

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 20, 2010

MODERN SHOPPING and commercial complexes have become ubiquitous in Japan since the deregulation of the retail industry 20 years ago. I live in a town of 180,000, and about a 10-minute drive away is a shopping mall as large as any I’d seen in the United States before coming to Japan. There are several more of equal size dotted around town, and bigger ones still in the major metropolitan areas.

Before that, the shopping centers in a Japanese city’s commercial district tended to resemble the covered arcades of Britain and France discussed in this post. But what did the traditional shopping area look like before Japan reopened to the outside world and its influences during the Meiji Era?

It’s still possible to see one in the city of Kuroishi, Aomori. In the early years of the Edo period (the first half of the 17th century), Tsugaru Nobufusa, the first head of the domain controlled by the Kuroishi Tsugaru family, built his central administration building in Kuroishi after the family split off from the Hirosaki domain in Aomori. Located to the north was the samurai neighborhood, and lying to the south was the commercial area. Today there remains in the city’s Naka-machi district a shopping arcade with wood frame buildings that date from that period. It’s been officially designated a district with important traditional structures. Covered passageways called komise were built in front of the shops along the street to protect shoppers and pedestrians from the sun in the summer and the heavy snows of winter.

The area at the boundary of the Naka-machi and Mae-machi districts thrived as a commercial neighborhood between the urban section of the castle town of Hirosaki and the port in Aomori where the kitamaebune called. Those were commercial sailing ships that worked the northern coast on the Sea of Japan. In other words, a lot of people with money to spend passed through.

Not everyone can trek up to the far north to see for themselves, but luckily there’s a two-minute YouTube tour that will guide you through the best spots of Kuroishi’s Edo period strip mall, dirt floors and all. There’s one advantage to going there yourself–as you watch the video you’ll be serenaded by two men playing Tsugaru shamisen!

While you’re there, don’t forget to stop by for a meal of some of the distinctive Kuroishi yakisoba.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, History, Traditions | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Hands across the Sea of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 13, 2009

IT’S A RELIABLE rule of thumb that a nation’s political class is more often the problem than the solution regardless of the matter at hand. The reliability of that rule continues to be borne out by the behavior of the Japanese in Kyushu and the Koreans on the southern part of the peninsula. While the politicos vaguely talk the talk about the importance of good bilateral relations, folks on the ground continue to walk the walk and do the job themselves. Here are two more examples—one of people at work, and the other of people at play.

At work

Busan’s Ulsan region in South Korea resembles Kyushu in that it is the center of flourishing auto and shipbuilding industries. The Ulsan region, however, is home to 1,500 companies in the industrial textile sector that supplies products to both. Many of the firms have created a niche by producing items for car interiors and specialty textiles, and they are eager to develop ties and do business with Kyushu’s auto industry.

To help them make their pitch, the International Footwear, Textile, and Fashion Expo in Busan has invited representatives from Kyushu auto companies to attend the three-day event starting on the 19th. Business and opinion leaders on both sides of the Korea Strait are excited about the potential. The Nishinippon Shimbun described that potential in two stories on the Expo and the specialty textile industry in the Ulsan region that covered half a page.

They quoted Paek Mu-hyon, the chair of a textile industry group in Busan:

“We want to promote technical ties and business with Kyushu’s many auto companies and use high-function Japanese and Korean products to compete against China, which is increasing its presence as a market and production region.”

Who needs summit meetings about East Asian entities when the private sector demonstrates this much enthusiasm to achieve the same result on their own?

At play

Here are two events that go together like ice cream and cake. The first is the Yamaga Lantern Dance, a festival from Yamaga, Kumamoto, in which hundreds of women dance to a stately traditional folk song while dressed in summer yukata and wearing lighted lanterns made of paper and glue on their heads. (Here’s a previous post with photos.) The second is the Seoul World Lantern Festival, which is underway in that city right now and will run until the 15th. Those of you near Seoul and willing to visit will have a chance to have your ice cream and cake and eat it too, when the women from Yamaga perform on Saturday and Sunday.

Yamaga officials say the dancers visit such Asian cities as Shanghai and Singapore once a year, but this is the first time they’ve been to South Korea since 1993. Held on the banks of the Cheonggyecheon, the Lantern Festival is one of the attractions of the 2012 Visit Korea Year. The events feature performances from South Korea, Japan, and China, and the area is decorated with displays of both real lanterns and lantern-like objects. During the Yamaga performance, the streets will be lined with candles in bamboo holders and traditional Japanese umbrellas. In addition to the group from Yamaga, a group from the Nebuta festival in Aomori will also participate.

The lack of coverage given by the overseas media to this flourishing cross-strait interaction notwithstanding, the only remarkable thing about this activity is that it isn’t remarkable at all—it’s a fact of daily life. Regional and local politicians have enough sense to either get out of the way and let it happen, or lend a helping hand from behind, rather than elbowing their way to the front to pose for photo ops.

Now if the national politicians would only get the hint that grand schemes aren’t necessary when people are allowed to act naturally without interference. Everyone else already has.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Festivals, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Matsuri da! (70): Ten ladies dancing!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 6, 2008

HOW DO YOU PASS THE TIME in a remote village in the north of Japan in the middle of winter?

Well, if you’re a woman and it’s the 15th and 16th of January, you dance!

That’s what the women in Higashidori-mura, Aomori, have been doing for more than 200 years on the days they call koshogatsu, or Little New Year’s. (That was the 15th and the 16th of the first month of the old lunar calendar.) In this village, they also call it Women’s New Year’s.

The dance they perform is known as the Taue Mochitsuki Odori, or the Rice-Planting, Mochi Pounding Dance. (Here’s an earlier post about mochi pounding.) It’s become so ingrained in village life that it is now an intangible folk cultural treasure of the prefecture.

About 10 women from the village gather at 9:00 a.m. to perform the dance in colorful costumes, first at the local Shinto shrine, and then from house to house. Their intent, apart from getting some fresh air after being cooped up in the house all winter, is to pray for an abundant harvest and household safety.

Instead of the bells and whistles, they dance to the accompaniment of bells and taiko drums while chanting “Tsuketa ka, tsuketa ka, korasanosa!” (Tsuketa ka means “Did you pound (the rice)”, while the other part is sort of an old Japanese equivalent to “scooby dooby do”.) As you can work out from the title, the dance starts with a reenactment of rice planting and continues with a reenactment of rice pounding. It’s performed around a mortar, and the dancers wave a small pestle they hold in their hands.

You’ve heard of singing for your supper? Well, these ladies dance for theirs—they are feted with food and drinks at every home they visit, and they’ll visit close to 300 over the 15th and 16th. They’ll need to dance to offset all the weight they’ll gain from that food!
Not only that, they perform simpler “posture dances” at the request of the head of the households they visit. Hey, why not? The men will probably be dancing to the tune the women call for the rest of the year. Isn’t turnabout for the other 364 days fair play?

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Matsuri da! (65): Chilling out at Japanese midwinter festivals

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 4, 2008

EXTREME SPORTS surged in popularity from the late 1980s to early 1990s, but Japanese men have been regularly testing the limits of physical endurance (or reckless folly) for centuries. They’re not bungee jumping or skateboarding down a stairway railing, however—they’re enjoying themselves by taking part in mid-winter Shinto festivals.

A small group of these stalwarts ranging in age from 17 to 39 were the stars of the first extreme festival of the new year from 30 December to 1 January in three districts of Goshogawara, Aomori Prefecture. This is one called the Iizume Inari Jinja Hadaka Mairi in Japanese, but in English that’s the Naked Visit to the Iizume Inari Shinto shrine.

Well, the guys aren’t really buck naked, as you can see from the photo. They’ve just stripped down to their fundoshi, or loincloths, to carry large sacred ropes, rice, and bales of straw to the shrine as an offering in supplication for a bountiful harvest and protection from illness and disaster in the new year. They’re hauling a 100-kilogram load over a 400-meter course—uphill—to the shrine.

At the far north of the main island of Honshu, Aomori Prefecture is one of the coldest places in the country. This year the temperature at the start of their trek was -3° C.

I can think of other ways I’d rather ask the divinities for favors, but this has been going on for more than 300 years now, so they must be doing something right.

A spray of fireworks at 1:00 p.m. was the signal for the (fool?)hardy worshippers to get started, as they rushed out of their homes to purify themselves with cold water from a large vat before taking up their burdens. To keep their mind off the elements, or to keep from cursing themselves for agreeing to participate, they chanted “Saigi, saigi!” as they made their way uphill.

And I’m sure the traditional Japanese musical accompaniment put smiles on their face and a spring in their step as they desperately counted the meters remaining to the shrine.

Japanese festivals always have a twist, and in this one the twist is the crucial role of the spectators. Friendly townsfolk turned out to encourage the men by bringing along buckets filled with more cold water to splash them as they passed by.

Saigi, saigi!

That would certainly make me trot up the hill faster. I’d also make a point of remembering who threw the water and spend all of the next year plotting my revenge!

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, the women have their own version of this extreme sport. Two posts down the page, the miko, or shrine maidens, at the Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture are shown throwing paper fortunes in the air as part of an annual ceremony to make sure they’re mixed well before they’re sold to the public visiting the shrine on New Year’s Day.

The Keta Taisha seems to be where the action is for miko. On the 31st, they had another ceremony for specially selected candidates from throughout the country in which they purified themselves in the Sea of Japan.

A total of 54 miko, the youngest 16, participated. Give the priests at the shrine credit for coming up with a diabolically clever way to convince young women to run around in the frigid surf in the middle of winter—tell them they’ve been specially selected! The temperature outside was 1.7°C, which meant it probably was all they could do just to stand there—but no, they went into the Sea of Japan dressed as you see in the photo.

Fortunately for them, they didn’t strip down to fundoshi for their purification. Heck, if they did, I’d have been up there taking pictures myself instead of writing about it!

But they did more than grow icicles under their armpits during their trip to Ishiakawa. They also studied the proper frame of mind and the proper behavior required for their duties as shrine maidens.

I’m sure the classes were successful. After that purification ceremony, they should be able to handle any task at the shrine with equanimity.

For a look at the video of the TBS report, try this page. It’s all in Japanese, but the announcer isn’t saying anything I didn’t already tell you. It probably won’t be up for too long, so jump on it!

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