Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Gifu’

All you have to do is look (151)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 30, 2012

Floats at the Sakurayama Hachiman-gu fall festival in Toyama, Gifu.

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All you have to do is look (140)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 17, 2012

The Takayama Fall Festival in Takayama, Gifu. An important intangible cultural treasure of the nation that dates from the Edo period, one of the hallmarks of the festival is the competition between the artists and artisans of each neighborhood to show off their talents and skills.

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All you have to do is look (117)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 24, 2012

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

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All you have to do is look (32)

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.

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Matsuri da! (127) The Japanese mind-spirit

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2012

MATSURI, or traditional festivals, are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, they say. If that is true — and I think it is — what does the Kinefuri Festival held every April by the Abirumi Shinto shrine in Nakatsugawa, Gifu, say about the Japanese mind-spirit?

As is standard with most festivals, the Kinefuri has two parts: one consists of Shinto ceremonies, prayers, and the invocation of the deities, and the other features the performance/entertainment. Last year only the ceremonies were held because the Nakatsugawans refrained from the glorious goofiness out of consideration for the people who suffered in the Tohoku disaster. They resumed the goofiness this year. The event as a whole is an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture.

That performance consists of a procession with three different elements. The first is a procession of four mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines for transporting the deity. Children carry one, women carry the second (an innovation that started about six years ago), young men carry the third, and men of a traditionally critical age (yakudoshi) carry the fourth and most important one.

As the mikoshi are promenaded through neighborhoods on the two-kilometer course to the shrine (Japanese-language, with good photos), the people who live along the route douse them with water. An out-of-town Japanese visitor describing the festival on his blog asked the locals if there was a particular reason for throwing the water (such as purification). The answer was no, they just did it because it was hot. April in Gifu isn’t hot at all, but then the visitor discovered the third element of the procession — the divine horse and the flower horse — was originally held in July.

Everyone is drenched by the time they reach the shrine.

The second element is the kinefuri dance, performed this year by 50 young men, none of whom are older than 24. A kine is a pestle, and kinefuri means waving the pestle. That’s just what they do with their black and red pestles as they dance down the street, yelling “So-I”, wearing red, yellow, and blue head coverings that represent mortars. The dance is in supplication for a good harvest.

Festival or not, you can’t have a bunch of guys waltzing on public thoroughfares in funky chapeaux randomly swinging big sticks. Their way has to be cleared first, and for that the festival employs red demons wielding whackers of their own. Demons were chosen because they make darn sure everybody gets out of their way. In other words, they’re something like proactive bouncers. Tradition has it that being struck by their stick will prevent illness for a year.

In addition to the demons and the dance troupe, there are traditional comic figures to cheer up the kids freaked out by the demons, a female flute band, and a shishi, or lion figure, performing the shishi mai, or lion dance. That got started in ancient China when the gods told a monk in a dream that a lion would protect them from evil. The ancient Japanese liked the idea so much they started doing it themselves all over the country, with many regional variations.

The third element is the divine horse and the flower horse, the latter of which is covered with garlands of floral decorations. This is the last part of the procession, and the climax occurs when a group of energetic young bucks lead the broncs up the steep stairway to the shrine at a gallop. Along the way, the floral decorations fall off — or are snatched off — and those who find them in their possession will find they have good fortune in the upcoming year.

Possessing an object representing good fortune at a Japanese festival is not for pink tea mollycoddles, by the way. A year’s worth of action is at stake, so anyone casually bending down to pick up one of the decorations might well get elbowed in the ribs by a little old lady more interested in putting some flower power in her life rather than yours.

As you can see from the video clips, no one marches or dances in a straight line, so they take their good old time to get to the shrine. There’s one heck of a lot of stick waving, not only by the dancers and the demons, but also by other figures leading the mikoshi and the shishi mai. When the dancers return to the small square at the foot of the stairway leading to the shrine, they smash each other’s mortars with their pestles.

No one knows exactly how or when this festival got started. The people in Nakatsugawa don’t know for sure when the Abirumi shrine was founded.

If matsuri are the mind-spirit of the Japanese, what does the Kinefuri Festival say about that mind-spirit?

You’ll have to tell me.


Here’s an unrelated bit of news that’s too good to pass up and too brief to present on its own:

A 5mm diameter piece of glass jewellery believed to have been made by Roman craftsmen was found in an ancient tomb at Nagaokakyo near Kyoto, in western Japan. The glass beads, one of the oldest multilayered glass products, were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan, a researcher said…

Tests have revealed three glass beads discovered in the Fifth Century “Utsukushi” burial mound in Nagaoka, near Kyoto, were probably made some time between the first and the fourth century, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties said.

Now to figure out how they got there.

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Females, food, and fertility rites: Is there a finer combination?

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.

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Matsuri da! (124): Kareki ni hana

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The expression kareki ni hana (枯れ木に花) literally means a flower on a dead tree, but the Japanese use it to refer to something that had waned but is now flourishing again. Whenever they want to come up with something fresh for the traditional Shinto festivals — the best free entertainment in the world — all they have to do is look into their past to see what they’ve already done. Here are three recent examples.


For years, the Kagoshimanians in Kimotsuki-cho performed the kagibiki as part of the Ohaku Shinto shrine spring festival in supplication for a good harvest, good health, and safety. There are two parts to the event — the first is a stick dance, which is shown here. That’s followed by the kagibiki itself, which is a tug-of-war with a 1.4-meter-long pole instead of a rope. In events of this sort, the teams are usually separated by geographical region, and one team’s victory is an indication that the divinities will bless them with a good crop. In this town, the east and west face off against each other.

Performances of the event stopped five years ago because there were too few children in the small agricultural community to conduct the dance properly. This year, however, some nearby small towns sent over some kids to help out, and 18 people in the local preservation society cut out sticks from the trees behind the shrine to provide all the equipment they needed.

The dancers are also the pullers during the kagibiki, but the other townspeople join in as the spirit moves them, once the blood starts rising with the beat of the taiko drums. One 90-year-old woman brought her children and grandchildren to watch. “I hadn’t seen it in a long time,” she explained. “I was so thankful I felt like crying. I want them to continue next year.”

Here’s what the big fun looked like in another town where they used what looks like a real tree.


It’s been a lot longer since the Takayamanians in Gifu have performed the children’s kagura (i.e. Shinto dance) during the Hie Shinto shrine spring festival. In fact, it’s been 60 years. In its infinite wisdom, the GHQ during the postwar occupation forbid the performance of the sword dance, one part of the kagura, because swords are not healthy for children or other living things. The other part of this kagura is the halberd dance, and that ended when the guy who taught it died in 1955.

Now that the Americans have bigger fish to fry than to prevent costumed kids in occupied countries from playing with swords under adult supervision, the folks in Takayama thought it was high time to bring it back. The city fathers pitched in two-thirds of the cost to conduct the research and recreate the equipment, and for the rest of the cash they hit up a program sponsored by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport for the creation of “historical environments”. (Why it’s not a program in the Agency for Cultural Affairs, I’m not sure.)

The preservation committee dug into the records, interviewed the people who saw the last performances, and took notes at four other similar shrine dances in the city. The dance involves walking around an octagonal shape created by tatami, and the object is to purify the area in every direction. They made the costumes, the swords, and the halberds, and trained four fifth-grade boys to perform the dance (two for each one).

Said the chairman of preservation committee: “Now it’s up to the courage of the children.”

Isn’t it always?

Mawari Odori

Finally, they’ll be bringing back the mawari odori, or the turning dance, in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima, in August. You’d think they wouldn’t have willingly let the city’s intangible cultural treasure die out, especially because it’s at least 500 years old, but depopulation was the problem. This is the second comeback for the dance, different forms of which are considered one of the three major types of popular festival dances in Japan. It ended the first time in 2003, was restored in 2007 and 2008, and then ended again after a municipal merger and the organizations for maintaining it had not been created.

A city NPO formed an executive committee to keep it going this time, and the committee will transform itself into a preservation committee after August. Their intention is to promote its spread to other small settlements in the area. The mawari odori is actually a combination of song and dance that is an offering to ancestors, but it’s also a form of summer entertainment. The song is in the form of a male-female dialogue during the mid-August bon festival, and believe it or not, the now-sedate bon odori was once an excuse for the young men and women of isolated farming communities to have a little adult fun. An invitation to dance was a de facto invitation to head to the nearest clump of dark bushes as soon as possible to continue with the eternal dance. Bon odori was so bawdy it was actually banned on a couple of occasions during the Edo period.

A chorus leader begins the song, which is the signal to form a circle and start dancing, somewhat like an American square dance. There’s a greater sense of urgency this time; there are only two or three chorus leaders who remember all the words, and they’re getting old. Besides, young adults have plenty of other opportunities to get friendly nowadays. Said the director of the committee: “If we don’t pass it on now, we’ll never be able to revive it again. I hope that many people participate and we can spread the circle of activity.”

Here’s a different version of the dance in Kuroishi, Aomori.

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Nengajo 2012

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?

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Mango makgeolli: Another Japan-Korea love match

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 24, 2010

Makgeolli is a very healthy drink, it is a good addition to one’s diet, and it has been used by women to enhance beauty.
– South Korea President Lee Myung-bak

IF YOU THOUGHT the mango beer presented in a post last week was an unusual combination for an alcoholic beverage, wait until you read about mango makgeolli!

Makgeolli is a hyper-sweet, milky-looking liquor made from rice that’s traditionally drunk from bowls. Part of its charm is the fermented rice solids floating in it, so it’s usually shaken or stirred before it’s poured. The popular conception of makgeolli has long been one of hooch for hayseeds, and in that sense it might be considered the Korean version of white lightning. Every one of these aspects makes it an analog for the Japanese drink doburoku, which you can read more about here.

Lately, the Koreans have been devising ways to turn makgeolli into an upmarket beverage, and these include adding fruit flavors and pitching it to women. Enter stage left a Japanese businessman from Noshiro, Akita, who worked with a Korean makgeolli brewer to develop a mango makgeolli creation suited for the Japanese market. The entrepreneur, Tsukamoto Tamio, operates a business hotel in Noshiro where he first sold the drink.

It’s 20% pure mango juice, so you can imagine how sweet the combination must be. It contains no artificial coloring or aromatics. Enough people discovered and enjoyed it for him to launch sales on this Japanese-language website since last month. It’s also available at mass merchandisers in Noshiro and Akita City, and eating and drinking places in Noshiro.

The nature of the drink has made it popular among women, and they’re a market segment always appreciates a low calorie count. Mango makgeolli has 19.4 calories per 100 milliliters, compared to 40 for beer, 75 for wine, 110 for sake, and 135 for shochu. Another number that some might appreciate is the 8% alcohol by volume.

It costs JPY 735 (about $US 8.16) for a 750 ml PET bottle, and JPY 420 for a 300 ml glass bottle, which is shown in the photo. The one on the right has been sitting on the shelf undisturbed, while the one on the left has been shaken.

Mr. Tsukamoto is importing it through the Port of Akita, and he’s set up a two-way commercial enterprise by selling local items to South Korea over the Internet. Akita currently enjoys a high name recognition in Korea because it was one of the locations where the big-budget, blockbuster television series Iris was filmed. The espionage thriller was wildly popular last fall in South Korea, and it generated a surge of Korean tourism to Akita. The same phenomenon in reverse had Japanese visiting the shooting locations for such Korean TV dramas as Winter Sonata. (Iris is now being broadcast on Japanese television.)

These two YouTube videos present an interesting contrast. The first is a Korean video in English promoting the new varieties of makgeolli. It’s well done–perhaps too well done in places. One of the supposedly casual customers interviewed on camera is a young woman attractive enough to be a model whose blouse color just happens to match the color of her drink.

The second is a video of a doburoku festival filmed in Shirakawa-go Gifu. The environment is quite different from the first video, but just as fascinating. It’s easy to see the resemblance between the two drinks–even down to the October date of their respective festivals. It also reminds me that I’ve been negligent writing festival posts recently!

The Japanese aren’t adding fruit syrup to doburoku, but here’s a post about a company that came up with the bright idea to make doburoku ice cream.

Notice all the connections between Japan and South Korea in this story? None of them will particularly surprise the people of either country. To quote once again a South Korean speaking in Japanese that I heard on a live NHK radio program broadcast from Seoul a few years ago, the only ties between the two countries that aren’t flourishing are the political.

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Posted in Festivals, Food, Japanese-Korean amity, New products, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

What price piety?

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009

TO BE HONEST ABOUT IT, communing with the divinities by attending a service at a religious institution is a lot like attending an event at any other private sector facility. You have to pay to be there.


Of course attending a concert or a play requires money up front, and churches won’t turn people away for sitting on their wallets, but the priests still devote a lot of time and energy to making financial pitches to their patrons. The ushers never forget to pass out the collection plates and buckets at every service. The Catholic Church, which has been at it longer than the other Christians, is more efficient and businesslike. The squad of ushers at the church I attended as a boy wouldn’t put the receptacles directly into the hands of the parishioners. They had long poles with baize-lined wicker plates on the end that they thrust down the row at every pew. People dropped their money in as the plate went past.

The Presbyterians, meanwhile, shoot for higher targets. During my high school days, I went to a Presbyterian church for a couple of years because most of my school friends went there. Once a year, every year, the pastor gave a sermon about tithing—in other words, giving the church 10% of your income off the top. He and the elders were quite imaginative in coming up with ways to justify the expense, which they leavened with just the right amount of pious sincerity.

But there’s no beating around the bush or searching for justifications at a Shinto shrine in Japan. When people visit a shrine and stand in the presence of the divinities, the first thing they do is toss some coins into a large receptacle. They follow that up with two bows, two claps to make sure the divinities are looking their way, and conclude with another bow. Then they get down to asking silently for what it was they wanted to begin with.

Collecting the cash doesn’t usually present a problem since the daily traffic at a Shinto shrine is so light. But that changes during holidays, and that’s especially true during New Year’s. For example, about 680,000 people showed up at the Inaba shrine in Gifu City, Gifu, during the three-day holiday period this year, and nearly every one of them came bearing a cash gift.

They offer more cash than usual since it’s a special occasion, so the parishioners discreetly place it into a straw bag called a kamasu to deliver it.

The accompanying photo shows the shrine’s annual Kamasubiraki, or the kamasu opening, the ceremony in which they count their haul for the year. They get so much, in fact, that they can’t handle it all themselves. The Juroku Bank thoughtfully sent 14 employees over to help them separate the bills from the coins, and they probably carried it back to the vaults when they were done.

It was estimated that 80,000 more people visited the shrine during the holiday period this year than last year. But one of the shrine’s priests also said he thought they were not as generous with their folding money when compared to other years. “During tough economic times”, he observed, “more people come to ask the divinities for their blessing, but they put less money into the bags.”

Well that makes sense, but it somehow doesn’t sound quite right for a priest to say it out loud–especially when he needs 14 people from a bank to help tally up the swag!

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Nippon Noel: Eelectricity!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 13, 2007

NOW HERE’S AN EXAMPLE of thinking outside the envelope. The Aquatotto fresh water aquarium in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, has set up a Christmas tree in their first floor lobby with lights powered by the discharge of an electric eel. The tree will be up until Christmas day.


Electric eels—which are more closely related to catfish than eels–discharge electricity when locating their prey or defending themselves. The specimen in the aquarium generates the juice when it’s been fed. The keepers have placed electrodes in the tank that detect and amplify the electricity to light up the two-meter-high tree.

The lights on that tree burn more brightly than one might suspect. The fish can grow from one to 2.5 meters long and weigh up to 20 kilograms. They also can generate up to 500 volts and 1 ampere of current (500 watts), and can be dangerous for adult humans.

Leave it to the Japanese to think of a way to use fish to make spirits bright during the holiday season!

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Matsuri da! (58): One for the gods and one for the road

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2007

THE WEATHER’S TURNED NIPPY IN JAPAN, and for a nip to ward off fall’s chill, many Japanese turn to a type of sake called doburoku (or nigorizake, explained here). And this time of year, where do people go for a taste of some divinely inspired doburoku?

To a Shinto shrine, of course! This isn’t like the Catholic church, where only the priests get to surreptitiously sip the sacramental wine behind the sanctuary—in Japan they ladle it out for all the parishioners who show up for the services.

One of the most well-known of the doburoku festivals was held at the Shirakawa Hachiman shrine in Shirakawa-mura, Gifu Prefecture, on 14 and 15 October (first photo). The ceremony is held every fall to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, and it’s so well known that 15,000 people showed up on the first day.

The shrine’s doburoku has been made from a combination of locally produced grains for about 1,300 years, making this one very well-established tradition in a country known for them. The shrine authorities are considerate enough to provide entertainment for their visitors, too; a traditional lion dance (shishimai) is held in the village in the morning of the 14th, before they tap the kegs. Local women dispense the cloudy sake to the shrinegoers, who sit on straw mats on the shrine grounds, watch traditional Japanese folk music performed on a temporary stage set up on the grounds, and enjoy the fall weather.

In fact, the people of Shirakawa enjoy doburoku so much, two other shrines in the village have their own festivals in quick succession—one is held right after the Hachiman shrine’s event on the 16th and 17th, and the other immediately after that on the 18th and 19th.

There’s no off-premises drinking, but the people who buy a red lacquer sake cup get unlimited refills.

By this point, you might well be wondering if all this holy rolling in the gutter doesn’t create some dicey conditions for those driving home. Well, that occurred to the shrines too, especially considering that drunk driving has been an issue of growing concern in Japan over the past couple of years.

That’s why the organizers of the doburoku festival held at the Shirahige Tahara shrine further down the archipelago in Kitsuki, Oita Prefecture, on 17 and 18 October (second photo) took the initiative to discuss the matter with local police. The talks resulted in two policy changes. First, shrine visitors are now able to take home the divine brew without drinking it on the premises. Second, police set up inspection stations near the shrine to catch anyone in their cups while in the car.

(The Japanese sometimes set up checkpoints on city streets late on weekend nights through which every vehicle has to pass. All the drivers are checked for their sobriety. These checkpoints can be avoided by taking the long way around, but their presence does send a message. Also, every town has at least one taxi company with two drivers assigned to each cab–one to drive the passenger home, and one to drive the passenger’s car home.)

Shrine officials were concerned these stringent measures might depress attendance at their festival, which will celebrate its 1,300th anniversary in 2010. To their delight, those concerns proved to be unfounded, as the number of visitors exceeded last year’s total of 18,000. (Yes, that’s a lot of people, but consider how many folks would show up at St. Elmo’s if they gave out goblets of wine.) The shrine also had to deal with about 2,100 vehicles, an increase from 1,600 the year before.

To meet the demand, the priests used 1,200 kilograms of newly harvested rice to brew about 2,200 liters of doburoku. (This kind of sake doesn’t require as much time to ferment.)

But one 46-year-old man interviewed by the local newspaper had his own solution—he brought along his wife so she could drive him home!

There are about 10 Shinto shrines in Japan with the legal authorization to brew doburoku, and only one of them is on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. That distinction belongs to the Uga shrine in Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture. There’s a good reason they were selected–the shrine has two guardian deities: one for food, and one for sake brewing.

And the two deities are all the more reason for doubling their fun, so they have two doburoku festivals—one in the spring to pray for a bountiful harvest, and one in the fall to give thanks for the harvest. The fall festival is held on 20 and 21 October.

Just before that, however, on the 18th, they held the Kuchiakeshiki, which literally means “mouth open ceremony”. That’s an expression used to denote the beginning of an event, such as a special sale, but you’ll have to admit it’s also particularly apt for a party to down doburoku.

The Kuchiakeshiki is held to test palatability and sweetness. (Doburoku tends to be very sweet.) The third photo was taken during that ceremony.

Brewing started at the end of September with newly harvested local rice and well water taken from the shrine grounds. The parishioners donned eboshi hats and white robes to grind the rice grains with a stone pestle, and produced roughly 280 liters.

Fifty people attended the Kuchiakeshiki. No fools they–after offering the new sake to the divinities, they tried it out themselves. Reports indicate they were pleased with both the palatability and the sweetness, and one of the brewmeisters said it had been a good idea to start brewing just when the weather turned cold.

The doburoku was passed out from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 20th, and on the morning of the 21st. We hope none of the recipients passed out later. They would have missed out on the entertainment—in addition to a lion dance and a taiko drum performance offered on the night of the 20th, visitors were also served local cuisine.

Doesn’t this sound like a great way to spend some time at a religious institution? And here’s the best part—you don’t have to convert to Shinto. You just show up at the shrine!

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Matsuri da! (56): Walk through the magic ring…

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 25, 2007

THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION is still good enough for many in Japan, as some have observed, and the chinowa festivals shown in the photos are as old as any religious ceremonies in the country. They’re still being held throughout the archipelago today.

Chinowa, or more properly chi-no-wa, literally means “ring of the chi plant”. This is a eulalia grass found throughout East Asia and goes by several names in Japan, including kaya (which might be the most common).

The Bingo Fuduoki contains the first mention of chinowa. The fudoki were records kept over a 20-year period starting in 713 for each of Japan’s provinces at the time. They include agricultural, geographical, historical, and mythological information. The Bingo region corresponds to what is now the eastern half of Hiroshima Prefecture.

According to the Bingo Fudoki, the divinity Susano’o-no-Mikoto gave a chinowa to a local hero named Somin Shōrai, who escaped the effects of an epidemic by wearing it around his waist. (We’ve discussed this particular divinity before, here.) As a result, chinowa festivals are held throughout Japan in midsummer, when people were most concerned about the spread of contagion.

The first photo shows priests passing through a two-meter wide chinowa at the Inaba Shinto Shrine in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture. After the priests go back and forth a few times, the shrine parishioners will follow suit. This is said to protect against illness and disaster.

Not all chinowa festivals are conducted to receive the blessings of good health, however. The Susukimizu shrine in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, uses a three-meter- high wreath in its festival to promote growth and intelligence in children. Their festival, which is not shown here, dates from the Edo period.

An elaborate variation, shown in the second photograph, is found at the Aoiaso shrine in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. They don’t use eulalia grass in the construction of this chinowa. While keeping the general shape, they employ a bamboo frame instead. Strips of paper called gohei are hung from the frame. These are used to mark sacred areas or to attract the attention of divinities.

When I said old-time religion, I was serious; this shrine was established in 806, but they didn’t get around to holding a chinowa festival until 1386, almost 600 years later. (And that itself was more than 600 years ago.) The shrine stopped holding the festival for a time–no one exactly knows why–but they resumed in 1533.

The objective of this ceremony is to remove the sins and impurities of the parishioners. That chest the priests are carrying contains hundreds of human representations, called hitogata, which are drawn on more gohei. Those local parishioners who are unable to pass through the ring themselves, for whatever reason, write their name, address, age, and sex on the paper (and pay a fee). The priests hold a ceremony in which the sins are transferred from the person to the gohei before they are put in the chest. Then they walk through the ring three times. in this ceremony too, they are followed by area residents.

As often happens at traditional Japanese events when something good is free for the taking, this festival ends in a mad melee when the parishoners try to grab one of the gohei for themselves. Heaven help you if you get in the way. Those people who succeed in getting one place it on their kamidana, a sacred Shinto shelf in Japanese homes. Meanwhile, the priests dispose of the hitogata by setting them afloat on the river in another ceremony.

Now here’s a thought: this ceremony ends where Christian baptism begins.

But I’ll leave any speculation on the shape of the chinowa in the first photo to you…

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Matsuri da! (18): Floats of unparalleled beauty

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 22, 2007

THOSE IN THE KNOW say it’s one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, and it was held last weekend on the 14th and 15th in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. That’s the spring version of the Takayama Festival, the name used for both the Sanno Matsuri in April and the Hachiman Matsuri at Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine in October. The main event is a large parade featuring about a thousand people in period costumes and 12 of the most elaborate floats you’ll see anywhere.

This is a joyous celebration of spring’s arrival, so the brilliant colors, sounds, and costumes are no surprise. The parade is a panorama of people wearing hats with bird feathers playing gongs and drums, or others performing the shishimai, or lion dance, wearing headgear that resembles a lion’s head. This is followed by the 12 floats, photographs of which often appear in newspapers around the country over the next few days, and two of which you can see here. These floats are exquisitely decorated, both on the exterior for public display, and on the interior as well, concealed under the roof or behind the doors.

They are indeed elaborate. The story goes that years ago, the local artisans and tradesmen who had accumulated great wealth were prohibited from using that wealth to enhance their rank, so they applied it for more material pursuits, one of which was the festivals. As a result, these events became more extravagant as the years passed.

The decorations include carvings, thick woven curtains, lacquerware, and bamboo blinds. The floats also have various devices, such as moving marionettes. Nightfall does not signal the festival’s end; rather, each float is decorated with some 100 traditional lanterns to create yet another stunning effect.

The origin of the Takayama Festival is not definitely known, but there’s a letter dating from 1692 stating the festival had been held for the last 40 years. Some historians think it may date back more than 100 years before that.

These floats were built through a scheme seen in other festivals throughout Japan. Several households joined together to form a community, with each household making a financial contribution. Human vanity being a universal trait, the communities started to vie with each other to produce the most beautiful or elaborate float. Some floats in festivals in other cities are built specifically for competition to break up the others. You won’t see that here–the Japanese government designated Takayama’s floats as an important cultural treasure in June 1969.

For more Takayama Festival photos, take the time to visit the sites here and here.

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