A group of 33 figurines of the Buddha in Ushizu, Saga, dating from the Edo period. I could not find an explanation for the bibs.
Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2012
The annual cleaning of the Great Buddha of Takaoka, in Takaoka, Toyama. It is one of the three great Buddha statues in Japan, and required 25 men to clean.
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.
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The all-night Gujo odori, the local form of bon odori in Gujo, Gifu, held earlier this month in the rain. Dating from the 18th century, the event starts every year at 8:00 p.m. and continues until about 4:00 a.m. People form rings and dance whenever and wherever they feel like it.
Photo and video from the Asahi Shimbun.
Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 27, 2012
Some of the 600 wind chimes at the Nyorin-ji Buddhist temple in Ogori, Fukuoka. The chief priest, Haraguchi Genshu, started hanging them five years ago. Worshippers pay JPY 500 and attach a written wish to the chime. They’re moved inside the temple at the end of September.
Photo from the Asahi Shimbun.
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 25, 2012
OF the many cultural treasures in South Korea, one of the finest is the Gyeongbok Palace in northern Seoul. Built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1867, it was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty. It’s really a complex rather than a single building, and it’s also the site of the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum. Naturally, it’s a popular destination for tourists, both foreign and domestic. One of the attractions is the hourly changing of the guards, which is more frequent that the similar ceremony at Buckingham Palace. That’s a photo of the Gyeongbok Palace gate above.
Gyeongbokgung is accessible by Line #3 on the Seoul subway, which has a station nearby. Five years ago, the officials in charge of such things came up with the idea of using models of traditional Korean lanterns to light the corridor from the subway to Exit #5.
They used a design identical to that of the stone lantern in front of the Muryangsu Hall at the Buseok Buddhist temple in Yeoungju. The temple was built in 676 and has become another well-known tourist attraction. The stone lantern out front has been designated as National Treasure 17. This is it:
And here are the six models of National Treasure 17 lining the Seoul subway corridor on Line #3.
Aren’t they an attractive addition to the underground corridor? It’s an improvement over plain tile walls. But only photos of the lanterns remain, because the lanterns themselves aren’t there anymore. They were taken out in June.
A group of citizen-activists with the provisional name of The Search for the Location of Cultural Treasures (the actual name is clumsier) decided to get upset about the lantern installation five years after it happened because it reminded them of the stone lanterns that line the main pathway to Shinto shrines in Japan. Therefore, in South Korea, they fall under the category of ilje janjeh (日帝残滓), literally “detritus from the Japanese Empire”. The term is commonly used in the country’s news media.
The head of the group, a Buddhist priest named Hyemun, added that the Gyeongbok Palace is more closely associated with Confucianism than with Buddhism, so it was inappropriate to have Buddhist lanterns in the subway nearby.
The company operating the subway wanted to leave them in the corridor, but then the mass media got involved. That settled that. The company is wholly-owned by the city of Seoul, so they thought their only choice was to bend to public opinion. They weren’t happy about it, however, because the lanterns had to be dismantled by hand to be removed.
Others recalled that the same type of traditional Korean lantern which reminded some people of the detritus of the Japanese Empire also stood in front of the Changdeok Palace in Seoul. That’s another one of the Joseon Dynasty palaces, and this one dates from 1412. The lantern there stood outside, so it was easier to remove in February. At last report, the traditional Korean lantern Japanese Empire detritus at the Cheongwadae, or Blue House, the office and residence of the South Korean head of state, is still there.
Still, the Koreans had it a lot easier than the Japanese would if the same bee were to buzz in their bonnets. The latest expample of purifying their line of sight of the imperial detritus of centuries worth of Korean tradition involved only the removal of six elaborate light fixtures in the Seoul subway and a cultural relic at a palace. So far.
But Japan has more than 88,000 Shinto shrines nationwide, ranging from large facilities with more than a million visitors a year to plain neighborhood wooden structures smaller than the average house. Large or small, almost all of them have a pair of lion-like statues standing guard to ward off evil from the premises. Here’s a photo of one.
They’re called koma-inu, and the name literally means “Korean dog”. The word koma was used in ancient times for the Korean Peninsula.
The Japanese think they were of Indian Buddhist origin, but the models they used came from China through the Korean Peninsula. If Japan were to be seized by a detritus disposal spasm, it would take years to remove these Buddhist images at Shinto facilities that have Korea in their name. Their associations are closer to the unclean than the Korean lanterns.
Not all of the statuary at the 88,000 shrines would be removed. Some of them have foxes instead of koma-inu. And the Mimeguri Shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward, has the statue of a real lion.
No one knows when the Mimeguri shrine was founded, but it was definitely there in 1693. The tutelary deity of the shrine is Mitsui Takatoshi, the founder of the Tokyo store in 1673 that later became the Mitsukoshi department store. It was called Echigoya in those days, and it’s shown on the left in this Hiroshige print.
The modern Mitsukoshi was modeled after Harrods in London, and their main store in Tokyo has a statue of the same sort of lion on the first floor. That lion was copied from the beasts that surround the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square. The British Empire detritus at the Mimeguri shrine was once on the first floor of Mitsukoshi’s Ikebukuro store. The shrine asked for it when the store closed.
That’s not the only oddity at the shrine. Shinto shrines have a gate with two columns at the entrance called a torii. This shrine has a tori with three columns arranged in a triangular shape.
It was modeled after the torii at the Konoshima Shinto shrine in Kyoto, which has one of a handful of triple toriis in the country. The idea is that the third column connects the shrine to another shrine on the next lot. This one came from the Mitsui estate. In fact, the shrine’s name in Japanese (三囲) can also be read as Mitsui.
There are also stone lanterns of the traditional Japanese Empire detritus variety on the grounds, without any visible connection to the Mitsui family business.
They do look a bit like Korean National Treasure 17, but then the statue of the beast at the main gate of Gyeongbokgung also looks a bit like some of the Korean lions at Shinto shrines. Except those are really Chinese.
Isn’t East Asia fun?
And because it isn’t possible to have too much East Asian fun, let’s have some more! The Taiwanese duo in the video below was known as the King of Kinmen, and the style of music they’re playing is called nakashi. Here’s an explanation of its origin:
(A)ccording to Tsan Yi-cheng (詹益城), who was once one of Taiwan’s most recognized faces on the nakashi scene, the most credible of these stories gives credit to Japanese sailors during the early 1900s for inventing this primitive form of pub rock.
“Nakashi originated in port towns such Tamsui and Keelung. Japanese sailors would come ashore and, being sailors, frequent bars. Of course there were no tape or CD players, so the sailors had to make their own entertainment,” Tsan said. “So they performed music which took on aspects of enka, or Japanese country music and filled it with lyrics about roaming the world and having a girl in every port.”
According to Tsan, the result of this odd musical coupling was unlike anything people in Taiwan had ever seen or heard before. Until the Japanese sailors came along, local pub and teahouse bands were still using traditional Chinese classical instruments rather than western ones.
“With their guitars, accordions and appetite for good times, Japanese sailors revolutionized bar and teahouse music in Taiwan,” the Peitou-based nakashi star said. “They enthralled crowds in teahouses and bars and, of course, drove the women wild with their contemporary musical style.” As Japan’s colonization of Taiwan continued, nakashi slowly became the music of choice for both the occupying forces as well as the Taiwanese.
As more locals began to pick up accordions and guitars, however, nakashi slowly became localized. Instead of drawing on enka for inspiration, Taiwan’s nakashi players added elements of Fujienese and Taiwanese folk to the tunes.
Instead of forming disposal squads of purity inspectors, the Taiwanese turned their detritus of Imperial Japan into a golden good time.
Nagashi with a g, by the way, is the word for the practice in Japan of singers and musicians going from bar to bar at night to perform for tips. That’s probably the origin of the Taiwanese term. When I first arrived in Japan, I knew one old nagashi singer who accompanied himself with an acoustic guitar, but I haven’t seen him or anyone else do it in quite a while.
Here’s what it looked and sounded like in Taiwan during a nagashi renaissance.
Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 24, 2012
The Shoronagashi, held throughout Nagasaki City on the 15th. People place the spirits of the dead, who have returned for their first O-bon, on boats for the trip to the “pure land of the West”. This is accompanied by processions, lanterns, and firecrackers.
The photo is from the Mainichi Shimbun, and the video is from the Asahi Shimbun.
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 16, 2012
The Jangara Nenbutsu dance peformed yesterday in Iwaki, Fukushima. (Photo and video by the Asahi Shimbun)
This is a traditional Buddhist dance performed as an offering while going from house to house in the neighborhood.
In this neighborhood, 50 people died and 1,360 homes were either partially or completely destroyed in last year’s tsunami. You can hear the sound of the waves in the video.
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Bon odori in Tokyo.
Nowadays, bon odori is a sedate summertime dance performed mostly by women of middle age or older. During the Edo period, however, it was sometimes a prelude for young men and women isolated by farm work to head off to the bushes for some real action.
Those who read Japanese can further pursue their ethnographic research here.
(Photo from the Xinhua news agency)
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 4, 2012
SUMMER vacation for kids in Japan can be the same lazy season it is anywhere else — they hang out with their friends, or hang out at home and watch television while putting off their homework. Some kids — or their parents — find other things to do. Some kids go to private schools for extra study.
And some become Buddhist priests.
The photo above shows the ordination ceremony on the third for new Buddhist priests at the Higashihongan-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. That’s the headquarters temple for the Shinshu Otani sect, which has 8,900 affiliated institutions nationwide.
The sect allows children as young as nine years old to become priests, because that’s the age at which the sect’s founder Shinran (1173-1263) entered the priesthood.
Participating in the ceremony were 152 children on their summer vacation, most of them primary school students. Of that total, 68 were nine years old.
During the special ceremony, they had their hair cut, received a surplice, and were given a Buddhist name for use as priests.
And their parents might have taken some of them for ice cream and cake to celebrate when the ceremony was over!
There’s no video of the ceremony, but here’s one of the temple itself.
Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 31, 2012
KABUKI theaters, being theaters, require marquees in the same way as the halls of London’s West End, New York’s Broadway, or the burlesque joints in the 400 block of East Baltimore St. — The Block — in Baltimore, where I grew up. But as with everything else, the Japanese have their own approach to the whole business of marquees.
The photo above shows 78-year-old Kawakatsu Seiho and the 54 maneki (literally, invitations) he drew with the names of the performers of the season’s dramas staged at Kyoto’s Minami-za this year.
Mr. Kawakatsu had just finished a special ceremony called the manekigaki (writing the invitations) at the Myoden-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto (established in 1477) before the performance of Kichirei Kaomise.
There’s more to tradition even if it does meet your eye. The style of calligraphy is unique to maneki of this sort, and is called kanteiryu. And because this is a special occasion, sake was mixed with the ink. That isn’t just for the heck of it — they say it adds luster to the ink on the boards.
Don’t miss a trick, do they?
The maneki are 180 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide and hung above the theater entrance. If you want to see what they look like in place, try the following amateur video taken three years ago at the premiere of the same drama at the same theater — Japan’s oldest, founded in the early 17th century. The cameraman could have been more relaxed, but the video provides excellent views of the exterior and interior both.
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012
THE scene in the photograph above contains what today are incongruous elements, as Japanese will immediately recognize. But in another sense, the scene is neither new nor incongruous at all.
At the upper right are Shinto priests from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa, conducting a Shinto service in front of the Great Buddha in the Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Todai-ji dates from 728, while the Tsurugaoka shrine is the junior institution, having been founded in 1063.
The story of the relationship between the indigenous proto-religion Shinto and the continental import Buddhism is too long and complex to examine here. Relatively speaking, they are separate and equal, but were more closely connected at times in the past, with some buildings used as both shrines and temples. The Meiji-era government ended all that by decree.
They came together again to conduct a joint Buddhist-Shinto ceremony at Todai-ji on the 21st to pray for the souls of those who died in the Tohoku disaster and for the recovery of the area. It began at 6:30 a.m. with a Buddhist memorial service in which 300 people participated. Monks read from 600 scrolls of the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.
The delegation from the Kamakura shrine included about 100 people, and their part of the service started with a Shinto prayer. Shrine maidens (miko) performed a kagura (Shinto dance) to pray for peaceful seas. There were eight dancers in the group, a larger number than usual, and this is what it looked like. (Again, the image of miko in front of the Great Buddha is an incongruous sight nowadays.)
Finally, the Junior Chorus Ensemble, consisting of 20 junior high and high school girls from Minamisoma, Fukushima, performed the well-loved classic Furusato, or Home Town. It was composed in 1914 for children to sing in school.
The two institutions also have a long relationship. The tutelary deity of the shrine is one of the early shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo. He provided assistance to the temple after it was destroyed during the Siege of Nara in 1180. The smaller Taira army overwhelmed a larger group of warrior monks in established defensive positions in Nara to burn down much of the city, including all but one of the Buddhist temples. The Heike Monogatari describes the original Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji melting in the heat of the fire.
The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.
Here’s an excerpt of the kagura dance, Urayasu no Mai. It’s not as old as you might think. This dance was created in 1940 as part of the national celebrations commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial line.
Could one of the reasons the Japanese were not overcome by hysteria during the Tohoku disaster be a certain perspective and equanimity inculcated over many centuries as a result of the vicissitudes of history, snippets of which are described above?
Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.
* That’s an unfortunate choice of words in the book review at the link:
…(L)ike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, (Japan) embraced reactionary modernism.
Nothing “reactionary” about them at all, unless you were a Stalinist. Fascism was a progressive movement, as even the progressives — such as FDR — recognized. The term was coined in 1984 by Jeffrey Herf.
* My sister gave me a print of this illustration of Minamoto no Yoritomo as a gift not long before I started studying Japanese. She had no idea who it was, but she said it reminded her of me.
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012
SCANNING the back pages and far corners of local Japanese newspapers, either in print or online, has been a delight for the past month. It’s rice-planting time in Japan, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of ceremonies are held throughout the nation honoring the tradition of wet paddy cultivation, each one a spectacular in miniature.
The priests of the proto-religions in some cultures sacrificed their young virgins to appease the volcano gods and other sullen spirits. Man, that’s just screwy, and I’ll bet it didn’t make the gods any happier than it made the young men of the tribe. In Japan, they keep those precious young virgins alive for more productive endeavors. One of those activities is to serve as miko (Shinto shrine maidens), who dress in colorful costumes, sing, dance, get barefoot, and snork rice seedlings into the mud by hand. They’re sometimes accompanied by the Shinto priests, who get down and get dirty right alongside them.
If you want to know what it looks like without getting out of your chair, you’ve come to the right place.
The local branch of the national agricultural cooperative pitched in to help plant a sacred paddy at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, shown in the first picture. (That shrine link is in English, by the way.) The ceremony is held in supplication for a good harvest, which in this case will be turned over to the shrine itself. It started with a procession of 70 people to the site and continued with a Shinto ceremony conducted by the priests. That was followed by a dance performed by the miko and the planting itself in a 17-are paddy. (An are = 100 square meters or 0.0247 acres, and 100 ares = a hectare)
The home in the background is that of the Wada family in Ogi-machi, Shirakawa-mura, Gifu, and has been designated an important cultural property of the nation. It’s one of a settlement of homes that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. The name for the architectural style translates as “prayer hands”, which is particularly effective for dealing with the area’s heavy snows. The houses were home to extended families on several floors, who usually worked in the sericulture industry.
Reports say that the 20 girls at the Wada family paddy were singing while they worked, which makes me wonder if I should have been a farmer instead.
Yeah, they grow rice in Tokyo too — technically in Chofu, a municipality within the Tokyo Metro District. This ceremony was conducted at Jindai-ji, a Buddhist temple, which is not surprising considering the mix-and-match approach of the Japanese to religion. There’s been a temple on this site since at least 733. The ceremony was conducted jointly with their sister city in Kijimadaira-mura, Nagano.
In addition to planting the seedlings in this paddy, the seven farmerettes passed out some to the spectators to grow at home. One later said, “It was a lot of fun to be able to experience something I don’t normally do.” If you think she was just being polite, look at that sweet smile in the photo above. Girls who are ready for a new experience, even if it means manual labor while sloshing around in the mud, will always find shelter from the storms of life at my place.
This short video of the temple grounds is well done, by the way.
One intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is the frequency with which some of those traditions disappear and then reappear. For example, the folks associated with the Izumo Daijingu Shinto shrine in Kameoka, Kyoto, haven’t conducted this ceremony in 84 years. It was last held to coincide with the ceremony marking the formal installment of the Showa Tenno. Last spring, the shrine recovered some land it had leased out, so they decided to use it this year to put in some sacred rice. Sixty people in all participated, including the high school girls who served as the miko in the 500-square-meter plot. There was also a gagaku dance performance, which goes together with these events as well as peaches and cream. Gagaku is the music associated with the Imperial household, as are shrines with the –jingu suffix.
This shrine knows a lot about tradition, too. It dates from 709. They think.
The rice planting festival conducted by the Mikami Shinto shrine website in Yasu, Shiga, was also held every year to coincide with the Showa Tenno ceremony in 1928, but they skipped it last year due to a shortage of participants. The Shigans decided not to let that happen again, so a woman who’s been involved in the event for more than 20 years organized a group of 50 to take care of business this time. There was singing and dancing and planting in time to the beat of the taiko drums. When it was done, the woman said her hips hurt, but it was worth it. Try this website for more photos, including some black and white shots from a more pastoral age.
They didn’t have any problem finding enough women to carry the mikoshi in May 2010 at that same shrine’s Hyozu festival, however. The festival features a parade of at least 35 mikoshi (portable shrines transporting the shrine deity), two of which are carried by women only. This one’s called the Ayame, or iris. How can anybody not love sweaty shouting girls with cool clothes and hair?
Another intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is how relaxed people can be about those traditions. Look at those costumes: Centuries worth of convention from their hairstyles to their ankles. Below that, they’ve wisely updated to sports shoes.
The Takase shrine in Nanto, Toyama, goes out of its way to plant koshihikari seedlings, reputed to be the best variety of rice in the country. Five girls from ages 14 to 20 got 500 of the seedlings started on a 25-meter-square paddy. After the rice is harvested in mid-September, some will be given to the Takase shrine, and some to the Ise-jingu, also associated with the Imperial household.
The Tozawa shrine in Shinjo, Yamagata, doesn’t have the tradition of other institutions — it’s been around only since 1893. They talked 13 girls into planting the rice here, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The same ceremony is conducted in turn by 11 branches of the shrine in the region that are members of the Association of Shinto Shrines, and you really ought to click on this link to see their headquarters building in Tokyo. The reports didn’t say what they’d do with the rice harvested in late September or early October, but somebody somewhere is going to eat it.
For a rural extravaganza, try the Mibu no Hanadaue in Kitahiroshima-cho, Hiroshima, which is both an important intangible cultural property of the nation and registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. Two groups of 74 musicians jam while the miko sing and plant rice on an 87-are plot, assisted by 14 bulls.
Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?
What the heck, one more update. This ceremony was held on the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward, which means it’s one of those downtown paddies. They only had room for 280 seedlings in the nine-meter-square paddy, planted by 10 miko and shrine parishioners after a procession that consisted of 20 people. They expect three kilograms of rice later on this fall. Said 18-year-old Tachibana Yui, who became a miko in April, “I was nervous because it was a religious ceremony, but I’m looking forward to the fall harvest.”
Washing all that rice down requires some sort of beverage, and the finest beverage for that is green tea, which is now in picking instead of planting season.
This tea was planted on a 10-are plot during an event conducted by the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, with prayers for better quality product and the prosperity of the industry.
Wouldn’t you know it? This shrine is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Last month, two miko and five members of the shrine’s women’s association harvested the first batch of otonashi tea, which was sent to the area from Kyoto about a thousand years ago during the Heian period. The district has 40 households growing tea on seven hectares, and they produce about 18 tons a year.
The first batch went to the Imperial household, and the second will be picked at the end of this month.
I eat rice nearly every day, and 95% of it is brown.
Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: Buddhism, Fukuoka, Gifu, Hiroshima, Japan, Kyoto, Rice, Shiga, Shinto, Tokyo, Toyama, Wakayama, Yamagata | 4 Comments »
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012
CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analog for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events at home and in public, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January.
That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!
Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.
Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:
The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.
He’s not alone in that.
The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.
Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.
It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.
Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.
It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.
While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.
The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.
Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!
Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.
Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:
There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.
Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.
The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.
While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:
With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.
As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.
An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.
Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:
There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.
Said the calligrapher/priest:
Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.
Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?
You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)
So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.
Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.
The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.
Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.
While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?
Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.
Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?
This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.
If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.
Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:
Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.
The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.
The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.
Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)
The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.
It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.
In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.
It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.
Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.
Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.
And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:
But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?
Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.
They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.
They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.
The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.
New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.
Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.
The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.
Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.
Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?
Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.
An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.
In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.
Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.
Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.
The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.
The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.
Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.
Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!
Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:
Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.
Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.
Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.
Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?
Posted in Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: Buddhism, Gifu, Hokkaido, Ibaraki, Ishikawa, Japan, Kagoshima, Kanagawa, Kyoto, New Year's, Niigata, Okayama, Okinawa, Shiga, Shinto, Tochigi, Tottori, Toyama, Wakayama, Yamaguchi | 3 Comments »
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 29, 2011
IN a recent post, I mentioned a survey which broke down the national population by religious affiliation and found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions. While religious purists might find that appalling, the Japanese, perhaps the most naturally syncretic people on earth, wouldn’t even blink at the news. For example, I once worked with a young Japanese woman who was a such a serious Roman Catholic that she kept an illustration of Christ under the clear vinyl covering on her desk. Yet, for extra income (and probably because she enjoyed it), she also served as a miko, or Shinto shrine maiden, on weekends to assist priests during wedding ceremonies. No one thought this was unusual at all, including, I suspect, the Shinto priests.
One reason for the laissez-faire approach is the partial syncretism that has existed between the proto-religion of Shinto and the latecomer Buddhism, which showed up in the archipelago in the sixth century. The partnership got off to a rough start in 698 when a Shingon sect established a temple near the Ise shrines because they thought the Shinto deities required the Buddha’s spiritual guidance. That demonstrated some serious Shingon sack, because one of the enshrined deities at Ise is Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe and the progenitrix of the Imperial line.
They paid for the blasphemy, however, as the damage from a typhoon in 772 caused the shrine to be temporarily dismantled. The typhoon was said to be a sign of divine displeasure at the presence of Buddhist symbols so close to the most important Shinto place of worship.
But proselytizers everywhere are relentless, and the Japanese Buddhists kept plugging away throughout the Heian period (794-1185) to promote a synthesis. Their efforts culminated with the development of the Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto) school, one of the main tenets of which held that Amaterasu was the manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana), or the Great Sun Buddha. Ryobu Shinto lasted for centuries, influenced straight Shinto thought, and allowed Buddhist temples to take control of Shinto shrines. Sites with both temples and shrines were common in Japan for close to a millennium. That arrangement ended in 1868 when the government ordered their separation as part of the program to establish State Shinto.
Exceptions remain, however, as can be seen in the photograph, which shows a Shinto shrine in front of Nigatsu-do at the Buddhist temple Todai-ji in Nara. That temple is known for housing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Japan, as well as being the largest wooden building in the world. It dates from the 8th century, but is affiliated with the Kegon sect rather than Shingon.
An estimated 99.39 million of the 127 million Japanese visited a shrine or temple (usually the former) during the three-day New Year period in 2009, so the Nara collocation makes it a convenient holiday stop.
In fact, ceremonies from the two traditions are combined here at an annual Buddhist rite called the Shunie, which is a gathering of priests for prayer and purification in February under the old calendar. (Nigatsu-do translates as February Hall.) Nowadays it starts on 1 March and continues for 14 days. The ritual at Todai-ji is one astonishing combination of elements that could happen only in Japan: disease-curing water magically traveling 175 kilometers, an archery demonstration, sake drinking, frenzied dancing with torches lit by sacred fire by Buddhist priests on retreat for exorcism and to pray for world peace while eating only one partial meal a day, and thousands of people who come to watch and hope that the sacred sparks fall on them. It was started by a Buddhist priest in 752 out of atonement for going fishing instead of going to a prayer meeting. (Read all about it at this previous post.)
Before the priestly procession holes up at Nigatsu-do, they stop off at the Shinto shrine and say a prayer to the tutelary deity. The procession is then blessed and purified with a gohei, a wooden wand with cloth streamers called shide that is used in Shinto rituals. (Here’s a Japanese site with a simple video and diagrams of how to make ‘em, including a photo of the finished product.)
Some of the too-cool-for-school rational secularists out there could learn a few things from the Japanese.
Here’s a 30-second commercial for JR Nara showing Todai-ji and featuring scenes of the torch ceremony. The background music is Stranger in Paradise.
See what I mean?