Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Hiroshima’

Lethal ladybugs

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 31, 2012

The flightless aphid killer

FARMERS love ladybugs because they’re the natural predators of aphids, scales, mites, moth larvae, and other natural predators of their crops. That’s why they love to have ladybugs make a habit of hanging out at the farm. But the problem is one of unrequited love — the farmers can’t make them stay once they get there. They have wings and fly away, even when they’re released in a greenhouse. Ladybugs just got to be free.

Seko Tomokazu and his team at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, got to work on a way to neuter that flightiness. The team used measuring instruments to find and isolate the ladybugs that had trouble flying. They got them to mix and mingle, and finally succeeded in producing a landlubber strain that doesn’t fly at all. It just walks. Put one on a stick, and it strolls to the end and back down again without taking off. In other words, the scientists turned an inherited drawback for coccinellidae into an advantage.

Ladybugs can produce up to seven generations in a year, and it took from 20-35 generations to breed a master race of flightless aphid eaters. After all that effort, their next step was obvious. They registered it with the Agriculture Ministry as a biological control agent. Time to make some money off those bugs!

Here’s a Youtube that’s a slice of life its own self. Watch as a ladybug wolfs down an aphid. Who knew they were so ruthless?

Posted in Agriculture, Science and technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Kagura Koshien

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2012

THE climactic stage of the 94th annual national high school baseball championships has arrived — the semifinal games will be played today, and the finals are tomorrow. One of the most well-known sporting events in Japan, the championship is commonly referred to as Koshien after the name of the Hyogo stadium where the games are played. (It’s also the home park of the Hanshin Tigers major league team, who are forced to take a long road trip every summer at this time.)

This event is so well known that the term Koshien is now used colloquially to refer to any national high school championship competition. This post presented the Koshien for a new competition featuring the combination of calligraphy with dance and music. One of my college students this spring said performing with her club in a similar competition was her favorite memory from her high school days. (There’s also a brief description of the Manga Koshien.)

Another new and different Koshien began last year with content that might surprise even Japanese — the performance of kagura. That’s an ancient Shinto ritual of dance and music for the divinities whose origins are at least 1,300 years old. It is also performed in some areas of the country as a folk-drama during shrine festivals. The appeal of kagura in the latter context is easy to understand when you realize the art contains elements similar to that of a Broadway musical comedy, albeit from a different millennium.

This year’s Kagura Koshien was the second, and it was held at the end of last month in Akitakata, Hiroshima, at the Kagura Monzen Tojimura. In addition to a kagura dome, that facility also has a hot springs resort with lodgings.

Ten schools from five prefectures took part, with representatives from Hiroshima, Shimane, Tottori, Kochi, and Miyazaki. Last year’s inaugural event featured five schools, and while the first three of those prefectures are in the same region, Miyazaki is in Kyushu, which is some distance away. That suggests the idea is catching on in other parts of the country. The event organizers reported there were about 1,600 spectators. Said one of the students, 17-year-old Fujii Riiya:

“I learned a lot by watching the kagura of the other schools. I hope the younger students take part next year.”

Here’s an explanation of the origins and more formal varieties of kagura, and here’s a description of the pop variety, with a blow-by-blow account of one of the plots.

And in an excellent example of synchronicity, this YouTube video digest of the Kagura Koshien was uploaded just this weekend. Watch it to discover how an ancient ritual could capture the imagination of high school students.

Posted in Arts, Education, Festivals, Imperial family, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 19, 2012

THE middle-aged star of the regional horse racing circuit in Japan, Monakukabakichi, a 13-year-old male running out of the Fukuyama Municipal Track in Hiroshima, has hung up the silks and called it a career. He retired — or rather, his trainer retired him — after 55 wins. That’s a national record.

The track announcers should have gotten hazardous duty pay for having to say that name quickly when calling races over the past decade.

As with many aging athletes, the big guy could no longer overcome his physical problems. He finished sixth in his first race after setting the record last month, and the trainer decided that was that. His owner thinks it might have been due to all the fatigue that emerged after his prodigious win total. And to put it in perspective, he’s 50 years old in human terms. He must have been quite the magnificent specimen of horseflesh.

You’d think they’d want to create as many opportunities as possible to pass those genes into the future, but reports say the owner is thinking of sending him to a riding club for the rest of his days.

What? After years of record-breaking service, he’s being deprived of the chance to live on a stud farm?

Retired baseball and football players in the United States have special associations to look after their interests, but if no one takes up for Monakukabakichi, he’ll be nothing but an upscale beast of burden. Is that any way to treat a star?

Peter Singer would call that speciesism.

Here’s another red horse: the Red Horse Band. Be patient through the first minute and a half as they chat with the audience (or advance the video cursor). They’ve got a unique thing going. The percussionist also plays shakuhachi.

Posted in Sports | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, 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, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Pass that bottle to me

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 28, 2010

IT’S ONLY the first bottle that’s expensive, goes a French aphorism about wine, and that’s one universal insight we can all drink to. The Japanese have a saying of their own: Sake ga sake o nomu, or the liquor drinks the liquor. In other words, once you work up a head of steam, it’s time to clear the tracks.

Bacchanalians in both American and Europe have taken a shine to the traditional Japanese beverages of sake and shochu in recent years, as these statistics show. Now they’re also beginning to get hip to the fact that the Japanese can mash it up with Western grog as well.

For proof, Minoh Beer Imperial Stout, made by the A.J.I. Beer microbrewery of Minoh, Osaka, was named the World’s Best Stout earlier this month. In a British beer contest. For the second straight year.

The organizers of the World Beer Awards said the stout is “silky textured with a sweet rounded malt opening”, and perhaps that’s better understood after you’ve got one or two Minohs under your belt. Here’s a quick look at Minoh and some other winners at the World Beer Award 2010 website. The page also features the best brews by region, and Japan is well represented here too, with awards for different beer varieties in the Asia division.

That’s not even the best part of the story. The World’s Best Stout is brewed by the Oshima sisters—Mayuko and Kaori—whose father was a liquor store owner and got them started in the business. Who could ask for better in-laws than that? Here’s a detailed report in English by a beer-loving gent who visited the brewery in person and took plenty of photos. (The dude really likes production equipment.) There’s also a cutout of a newspaper photo that shows a third sister, Nozomi.

This site has a nice English-language interview with Kaori, who is identified as the brewmistress. It also has a photo of the world’s best stout poured out in a glass, and yes, it does look tasty, doesn’t it? Finally, the Minoh beer website has plenty of information about all the beer they make and where to buy it, but only in Japanese.

If there’s anything better than a pleasant surprise, it’s two pleasant surprises, and here’s the second. Japanese vintners, aided by Ernest Singer, have begun attracting attention among overseas oenophiles by turning koshu—the local version of Sneakin’ Pete—into an upmarket white wine that the New York Times says “could become the first Asian wine to draw international recognition”.

In yet a third surprise, it turns out that the New York Times is also capable of excellent journalism, albeit in the Dining and Wine section. Their article on the development of koshu wine is very readable; it’s rich, full-bodied, and smooth on the palate, with only subtle hints of snoot and condescension.

Mr. Singer was a Tokyo-based wine importer who became intrigued with the potential of koshu when he drank an experimental batch of dry white wine made using koshu grapes, which are grown mostly in Yamanashi. The article describes how he leased some land and came up with the concepts for using the grape to make some top drawer tipple. (The heavy rains of summer and fall mean that Japan is not the ideal place to grow grapes for wine, though the grapes grown for eating are quite good.)

A group of Japanese koshu producers and Mr. Singer have formed Koshu of Japan to promote the beverage overseas. Here’s their English-language website, and here’s a page that provides some information on the history of the koshu grape in Japan. (It’s been around since the 8th century.) Finally, here’s the Japanese-language website of one of the leading Japanese producers. They go by the name of Grace Wine in English, but Chuo Budoshu (Central Wine) in Japanese.

They make more than koshu in Yamanashi, by the way. The Sadoya Winery in Kofu is holding a special sale of 100 bottles of 50-year-old wine, one red, one white, made with European grapes from their own vineyard. The crop was particularly good that year, as the vines were recovering from a typhoon the year before and rainfall was light. If you’re in Japan you can stock your wine cellar by calling the winery direct at (055) 251-3671, but be prepared to pay JPY 15,000 a bottle.

Grape stompin' in Hiroshima

Nothing goes better with wine than women and song, so it’s about high time we got to that part. Not long ago the Miyoshi Winery of Miyoshi, Hiroshima, held their annual fall wine festival. One of the attractions was a wine-pressing dance performed by 10 ladies from a local ballet class stomping on 200 kilograms of merlot grapes in a four-meter-diamter tub, though in the photo it looks more like a plastic wading pool for adults. They created the dance themselves based on their observation of traditional European wine-stomping methods.

Of course they’re barefoot! (And keep your foot fetish fantasies to yourself.)

It was so much fun, the reports say, that some kids jumped in spontaneously and began dancing on their own. One second-grade girl interviewed admitted it was a little painful at first, but after a while she started to enjoy the lumpy feeling on her feet.

What the heck—a little toe jam probably enhances the bouquet.

Now Japan has the world’s top whiskey as well:

Suntory Liquors Ltd.’s Suntory Single Malt Whiskey Yamazaki 1984 has been awarded the top prize among some 1,000 entries in an international liquor competition held in London…

Not only was it the best among 300 whiskies, it was also named the Supreme Champion Spirit among all the prize winners in every category.


And now for the song! If you’re a beer hound, you’d better drink it while you can, because there isn’t any in heaven, assuming you’re sober enough to head in that direction. In Heaven There Is No Beer is originally a German tune that’s often performed as a polka, but if the three Oshita sisters of Osaka can make the world’s best stout, then surely Flaco Jimenez can perform the song Norteño style, singing both in English and Spanish. The embed code isn’t coming up for some reason, so here’s the straight YouTube link. Don’t let that stop you from clicking.

For those who prefer the grape to the hops, Sticks McGhee proves that no one outfunks wine drinkers by performing Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. It isn’t the most exciting video around, but that’s by far the best version of one hot song that put Atlantic Records on the map. Hoy hoy!

And what better sums up the spirit of today’s post than this traditional Chinese song whose title translates to Liquor Crazy. Despite the name, it’s rather elegantly performed on the ruan, or four-stringed moon lute. It sounds like the sort of tune the late John Fahey would have liked, but then he was liquor crazy too—particularly about bourbon.


Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Food, Foreigners in Japan, New products | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Iconic photos of Hiroshima

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 6, 2010

THE ICONIC PHOTOS website presents several iconic photos taken in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 in this post, along with stories pertinent to them. There are several more photos at the hot link on the words “draconian measures”, which were taken a month later. I think they’re all worth your time.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, World War II | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Hiroshima 1945-2008

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 12, 2009

Thanks to Paul!

UPDATE: AMG points out a photo of Yokohama got in there somehow. That reminds me of an article I once saw in a Chicago newspaper with a map of Japan that showed Yokohama where Osaka is.

Posted in Popular culture, World War II | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 2, 2009

MOST OF THE TIME, a Shinto shrine is all but deserted. Shinto isn’t a religion in the way people usually understand it—there are no written doctrines and no set times for worship. People visit a shrine when it suits their mood, their circumstances in life, or to participate in a few festivals or other events.

During the New Year’s holiday from 1-3 January, however, the shrines will be packed with people on a hatsumode, the customary first visit of the year. In most cases, people will visit three shrines in one day.

It would be impossible for the regular crew to handle the immense influx of visitors descending on the shrine in such a concentrated period of time. The chores required to receive those visitors, as well making and selling good luck talismans for the year ahead, require that the staff be reinforced with part-time employees. These are young women hired to serve as miko, or shrine maidens, who roughly correspond to altar boys at a Catholic church. While the larger shrines already have a few miko on call, particularly to assist at wedding ceremonies, most shrines have to hire them for the season.

Left over right? Right over left?

Left over right? Or right over left?

Because they’re working in the service of a religious institution and not a convenience store, the miko must conform to certain standards (i.e., no dyed hair). The priests provide additional training for the proper speech and deportment to be employed when greeting the shrine-goers, which demands a level of courtesy beyond that usually required in Japanese society.

This training includes instruction for dressing oneself in the traditional red and white garments, one of which is a hakama, or divided skirt. That’s normally part of a man’s formal wardrobe, particularly for traditional wedding ceremonies. While they aren’t as difficult to deal with as a kimono, wearing one is not intuitive and requires that someone show the wearer the ropes, or the drawstrings in this case.

The first photograph shows some miko-in-training learning how to dress at the Fukuyama Hachiman-gu in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. The training session, which also included lessons in the manner of address and the correct way in which to hand over lucky talismans to purchasers, was held about a week ago for the 40 women who will help out this year. The shrine needs the help: They expect 200,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Said the shrine’s priest, “The role of the miko is to connect the worshippers with the spirit of the divinity. I want them to approach that role with a pure heart.”

Santa’s elves

The shrines have plenty to do to prepare for New Year’s, which is still the most important holiday on the calendar. Some of the shrines that sell the talismans make them on the premises. That means the miko have been beavering away in the workshop as if they were a Japanese version of Santa’s elves.


The second photo shows a group of the 17 miko at the Onoyama-cho Gokoku shrine in Naha, Okinawa, making traditional fukusasa talismans by tying them into bundles after the materials were purified in a ceremony. Fukusasa is a combination of the words “lucky” and “bamboo grass”. A lot of lucky items will be sold to Japanese over the next few days in addition to bamboo grass, including fukubukuro, or lucky bags from department stores filled with merchandise and certificates for bigger-ticket items. One woman interviewed on television today was so intent on getting her fukubukuro that she rented a hotel room near the department store to ensure a spot in the queue enabling her to elbow her way inside when the doors opened in the morning.

The bamboo grass was specially cut by the priests in some nearby mountains. Said the chief priest Kaji Yorihito, “The bamboo grass grows pointing straight to heaven and is symbolic of the life force. We hope that as many people as possible will visit the shrine and add a sense of stability to their lives.”

The fukusasa are affixed with bells and small gourds, and then purchased and displayed by the parishioners who hope the luck will rub off in the form of domestic safety and business prosperity. It doesn’t take long for the miko to create a lot of potential luck. They can make 1,000 fukusasa in two days, as well as 10,000 hamaya, or exorcising arrows. When you expect 240,000 visitors, it’s good to have sufficient stock on hand. Besides, if you absolutely had to have an exorcising arrow, would you want to stand in line at the shrine and then be told they were sold out?

Cocoon balls

Meanwhile, work lasted for more than a week at the Kinomiya shrine in Atami, Shizuoka, to make the mayudama talisman for sale to those looking to get lucky in their business dealings. A mayu is a silkworm cocoon, and once upon a time the shrine attached real cocoons to willow branches and offered them over the counter.

That’s too expensive these days—silkworm cocoons were sold until recently on Japanese commodity exchanges, and the adventuresome investor can still buy raw silk from the cocoons on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. (For an idea of how people in East Asia view silkworms, the single kanji for the word is written by combining the characters for heaven and insect: 蚕.)

The more economical option today is the use of brightly colored balls (the tama of mayudama) made of rice meal. These and other decorations are attached to the branches of the hagi, or Japanese bush clover. The girls at the Kinomiya shrine made 3,000 this year, and you can see an example of their handiwork in the third photo.

Cleaning house

The miko are also responsible for performing the more housewifely tasks at the shrine, such as the yearly cleaning and dusting. Here’s a 40-second video of the miko banishing the cobwebs from the high ceilings using three-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass on the business end instead of a mop or feather duster. Note how the priests are the model of liberated males, grabbing poles and working alongside the miko. But considering those spotless white outfits they’re wearing, one has to wonder how much dirt they expect to remove. Then again, how dirty can the inside of a shrine get in a year?

That’s the Hokkaido Jingo shrine in central Sapporo, by the way. They’re expecting 730,000 people to drop in this year. The end of the video has a shot of the shrine exterior that’s worth seeing for its stark Japanese beauty. Besides, it’s a lot better to view the shrine from the outside by video instead of in person at this time of year. Judging from the amount of snow on the ground and surrounding trees, I’d be hibernating until spring if I lived there.

Supersized kagami mochi

If you think cleaning the corners of the ceiling with bamboo poles and leaves is an unusual assignment, watch what the miko do at the Yasuzumi shrine in Takanezawa-machi, Tochigi. The shrine is noted for offering a jumbo three-level kagami mochi (decorative New Year’s rice cake) every year at this time in the hopes the divinities will see fit to bless them with a good harvest and that Japan’s print and broadcast media will see fit to give them a minute of free publicity. It works like a charm—this video is one of at least three from Japanese TV floating around on the web.

It shows some parishioners pounding the very glutinous mochi rice with wooden mallets to form the uncooked cakes, a forklift bringing in the first two layers, and the miko bringing in the third mochi cake in a procession as if they were transporting a daimyo in a palanquin. It concludes with the priests topping off the creation with one of the most delicious citrus fruits known to humankind: the bampeiyu. They resemble grapefruit about half the size of a basketball but without the sour tartness. And they’re coming into season soon!

Take a few seconds to imagine a ceremony that involves a forklift, a traditional pallet carried by young women in ceremonial clothing, and a giant citrus fruit used in place of a cherry to top off an enormous food offering. Ain’t Japan grand?

Takanezawa is one of Tochigi’s prime rice growing districts, and the shrine began making the jumbo kagami mochi in 1982. It took the parishioners two days to make this bruiser. The first level is 110 centimeters in diameter (3.6 feet), the second is 80 centimeters, and the third is 60. It’s about 90 centimeters high and weighs about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) when fully assembled. If you’re passing through Tochigi, you can stop by and see it until the 20th. After that, the monster mochi will be removed and chopped up into smaller pieces for distribution to parishioners during the Setsubun festival on 3 February, unless Godzilla comes ashore and swallows it whole first.

Restoring a two-year tradition

There’s more to a miko’s lot than wearing traditional costumes to fashion handicrafts in the shrine sweatshop, serve as cleaning ladies, or do the heavy lifting of decorative rice. The two miko shown in the next photo are practicing the Urayasu-no-Mai (a dance), which was performed for the first time in 67 years at the Teruhi Shinto shrine yesterday in Osaki-cho, Kagoshima.


The dance for women is performed to music resembling gagaku with an elegant and deliberate choreography. It appears traditional, but it was actually created and first offered at the Ise shrine in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial line. (That anniversary was a very big deal in 1940, but that’s another story.)

The 79-year-old Fujioka Tomio of the local kagura preservation society says he was in the audience during the inaugural performance as a lad of 10 and has never forgotten it. The dance was performed for only two years—the Japanese had other fish to fry by 1942—and he’s been at the forefront of efforts since then to bring it back. He worked with a local teacher of traditional Japanese dance to teach it to two girls, one a first-year junior high school student and the other third-year high school student. They began practicing in November, and shown here is a photo of the miko in a dress rehearsal last week at the shrine. Mr. Fujioka and the shrine parishioners hope this will start a new tradition that will last longer than two years this time.

It might seem as if there is a sense of Japanese exclusivity and exoticism hovering about all these activities—young women dressing in traditional Japanese clothing to make traditional Japanese crafts for the celebration of New Year’s at Shinto institutions that they cleaned with ritual implements and adorned with ritual food offerings, and then performing a special dance created at a shrine closely associated with the Imperial house to celebrate more than two millennia of Imperial rule. Some might like to think the Japanese are so exclusionary and this behavior so defining that participation by anyone else would be unthinkable.

Think again. There’s another video floating around the web of a recent TV report on a miko training session at a shrine in Nagasaki City. The video wasn’t particularly distinctive, so I didn’t include it here, but a brief interview of one of the trainees casually tacked on to the end might cause cognitive dissonance among those who enjoy being narrow-minded about Japan.

This particular trainee was a 21-year-old Korean university student attending a local university. The woman was not learning about miko practices—she was taking a refresher course. She had already worked as one during the 2008 New Year’s holidays and enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.

You didn’t really buy that line about the Japanese being xenophobic Korean-haters, now did you?

Lest old acquaintance be forgot, let’s not forget this post from last year all about miko and some of the other delightful things they do.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Shark dogs in Hiroshima

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 5, 2008

IF YOU KNEW how hot dogs were made, the saying goes, you probably wouldn’t want to eat one.

I wonder if the same could be said about shark dogs?

If you happen to be in Shobara, Hiroshima, here’s your big chance to find out. Tonight’s the night of the Yukata de Iko! Rakushoza Tanabata Matsuri, a local commercial festival. This matsuri isn’t a Shinto-related traditional festival, but what is often called a night market. Establishments in a commercial district stay open later to offer discount prices on their merchandise, usually displaying their products outside in front of the store. There’s also sure to be temporary stalls selling food and drink, as well as local entertainment.

It’s not easy to come up with a snappy translation of the festival name, but it’s an invitation to celebrate Tanabata by wearing a yukata and going to the Rakushoza, a restored building in Shobara. (Here’s their Japanese site.)

As part of the event, Sakura Puranningu, a group consisting of local citizens and students at the Prefectural University of Hiroshima, will have a stall offering wani wani dogu for sale. Wani in the local dialect is the term for shark, which is often eaten in the northern part of the prefecture.

The wani wani dogu contains fried shark and cabbage on a hot dog bun. Seafood gourmands will have their choice of two types: one with ginger and soy sauce, shown on the left, and one with tartar sauce, shown on the right. Sakura Puranningu plans to use an award-winning shark recipe from a competition it held last year to encourage new ideas for special area products.

They hope to sell 100 at 300 yen apiece (now about US$ 2.80). Think they’ll sell out?

If shark-eating whets your appetite, here’s a previous post about the dish on the New Year’s Day menu in Hiroshima, and here’s a post about a young Nagasaki entrepreneur who came out with a shark jerky product a couple of years ago.

While you’re at it, try this festival post with some Tanabata info. And if you’re looking for something easy on the eye, there’s nothing easier than Japanese women wearing yukata in the summer!

Posted in Food, New products | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Matsuri da! (71): Demons detest smelly sardines!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

AT TIMES LIKE THESE, it would helpful if computer technology had reached a point of development at which odors could be conveyed over the Internet in addition to audio, text, and video images.

That’s because some folks in Hiroshima City had a bright idea for driving out pesky demons way back in the Heian Period (8th to 12th centuries)—roasting sardine heads. It worked so well they’ve been doing it ever since.

The news department of RCC television filed a story about this year’s event earlier this month that you can see and hear with RealPlayer, if not smell it. The story lasts 58 seconds, the link is here, and it won’t last forever, so click quick!

Here’s a translation of the news reader’s summary:

Today is Setsubun (the 3rd). A Shinto shrine in Hiroshima City conducted an ancient Shinto rite for vanquishing demons by roasting sardine heads.

The Sumiyoshi shrine in Hiroshima City’s Naka Ward has been holding this event, known as the Yaikagashi, as a Setsubun festival since the Heian period. The shrine maidens roast the sardine heads, and legend has it that the odor will exorcise the demons.
(Shrine maiden at the start of the ceremony) “Everybody, let’s quickly roast 1,000 sardine heads to drive (the demons) away.”

Fanning the flames with a large fan will create such an unpleasant odor that it will disperse the red devil and the god of poverty.

(Woman) “I want to go golfing. I want a special invitation to go golfing.”

This drives away the evil spirit connected with last year’s incidents that involved golfing invitations and other deceptions. (This is a reference to former Vice Defense Minister Moriya Takemasa and his golf games with a former executive of Yamada Corp., who was involved in a financial scandal.)

After the rite, everyone was given a sardine head impaled on a holly olive branch to take home.

Now if that won’t drive away the demons, nothing will!

Posted in Festivals, Food | Tagged: , , , | 11 Comments »

Whale and shark: New Year’s treats in parts of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 7, 2008

TURKEY OR HAM is usually the main course of choice for Christmas dinner in the United States. O-sechi ryori, the meal served on New Year’s Day in Japan, consists primarily of seafood and vegetable dishes. There is some variation in the types of food served in different regions, however, and some of those variations may raise a few eyebrows, if not whet a few appetites.


For example, people in southern Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main Japanese islands, think whale meat, often prepared as kujirajiru (whale soup) is an indispensable part of their New Year’s feast. The accompanying photo shows frozen whale on display in a Hakodate market

This particular shop offers frozen steak and what is called bacon from minke whales. The steak sells for 1,000 yen ($US 9.17) for 100 grams and comes from whale caught in the South Seas, while the bacon, which is more expensive at 3,500 yen ($US 32.10) for 100 grams, is made from locally caught whale. One shop clerk admitted it was expensive, but said that it sold well because “people want to eat something tasty for their New Year’s dinner”.

Another seafood shop in the city offers whale bacon that it makes itself, which is not the usual practice. They sell it for a more affordable price of 1,200 yen for 100 grams. The shop owner said they use only salt in the production and eschew preservatives and artificial coloring. They also have minke whale steaks at 600 yen for 100 grams, and bacon made from the dwarf minke for 2,000 yen for the same weight.
All the stores report that the sliced varieties of whale, both frozen steak and bacon, have been selling very well in recent years.

Meanwhile, further south in the northern part of Hiroshima, a New Year’s day dinner is not complete without shark meat, which locally is called wani (a word that means crocodile everywhere else in Japan). Fishery cooperatives in Nagasaki and Wakayama ship the shark to merchants in the Hiroshima cities of Miyoshi and Shobara, where it is cut to order for retail customers.

Shark has little fat and a thick skin, which means it can keep for a long time. Years ago, when there was no mechanical refrigeration in the home, it was the only fish eaten as sashimi in some mountainous areas.
One maritime product company in Miyoshi orders shark about one to two meters in length. They handle about six tons worth of the fish at yearend, which is roughly 1/6th of its annual turnover. The highest quality shark sells for about 3,000 to 4,000 yen per kilogram retail.

Americans often complain about eating turkey sandwiches for three or four days after Christmas. I wonder if Hiroshima housewives hear the same complaints about shark meat!

It’s unlikely that anyone in Hokkaido complains about several consecutive days of whale, however. As I’ve noted before, some whale tastes better than steak. (I don’t understand the point of making bacon out of it, though.)

To read about another way of chowing down on shark meat, try this previous post. You might find yourself wondering why the folks in Hiroshima find it so appetizing.

Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Spirit of the Season in Seoul

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 22, 2007

THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT LIVES in Northeast Asia too, as this brief article from the Chunichi Shimbun reveals.

It was written by the newspaper’s Seoul correspondent, is in Japanese, and will not stay online for long, so here’s a quick translation:

I went to buy a Christmas tree with the family. We were looking for a large one about 180 centimeters high. We were told they would be cheaper than trees in Japan.

The store had several different types on display, with different heights and branch arrangements. We found a tree that we liked, and with the lights and silver-colored decorations, the bill came to 87,000 won. (About $US 92.60)

The clerk explained that the tree would be delivered to our home in the next two days, but it didn’t come. What did come was a call from the shop on the evening of the second day. “We’re all sold out of the tree you ordered. Would you like to have a different tree that costs 15,000 won more? We’ll cover the difference in price ourselves.”

I wondered how it would be different from the tree we ordered. The clerk explained the differences in the shape of the branches and the color, but I only vaguely understood what he said because he used a lot of vocabulary that I wasn’t familiar with. I asked them to deliver the tree on the condition that we could return it if we didn’t like it.

Happily, my family liked the tree, so I was relieved. I can understand the Korean that I use in my work because I’m accustomed to hearing it, but shopping still gives me a lot of trouble.

You might keep that story in mind the next time you read an article that would have you believe the Japanese and Koreans get along poorly with each other.

Note on the Tree

Sorry, that’ s not Seoul, but a Christmas tree story needs a Christmas tree photo, and I liked this one.

The tree is actually made of poinsettias and is on display at the Hiroshima Botanical Garden in Hiroshima City. About 130 plants were used to create the 2.5-meter high tree.

It is part of a larger seasonal exhibit in one of their greenhouses, which also includes the Manettia luteorubra, whose flowers are said to resemble candles, and cat thyme, which is a potent form of catnip and has silvery leaves.

Posted in Holidays, Language, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Shogatsu: Hanging ropes instead of stockings in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 16, 2007

CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS are ubiquitous in commercial districts and individual shops throughout Japan this time of year, but at the same time more unobtrusive preparations are underway for the most important holiday in the country: New Year’s Day.

The Big Shimenawa

The Big Shimenawa

The many customs, both religious and secular, associated with the day make it the counterpart of Christmas in Western countries. One such custom is the hanging of shimenawa, ropes made of rice straw, over the exterior doorways of homes–and sometimes the front bumper of automobiles!

They are used to demarcate a place considered sacred and have traditionally been thought to ward off sickness and evil. That’s why they’re hung at Shinto shrines in front of the main hall and on the torii, or front gate. The photo with this post shows the parishioners at the Kameyama Hachiman Shinto shrine in Jinsekikogen-cho, Hiroshima Prefecture, replacing their shimenawa in time for the New Year’s holidays.

The shrine in Hiroshima gets a new shimenawa once every five years or so; the practice started here in 1949, and this year’s replacement was the 11th. The rice straw was gathered from about 1,000 square meters of land in late October after the harvest. Last month a group of 50 men did the work to braid it, and they hung it at the shrine entrance a couple of weeks ago. They started at 8:00 in the morning and finished in time for lunch; after all that work, they must surely have worked up an appetite.

The shrine priest remarked that fires caused serious damage throughout the town this year and hoped the new shimenawa would help protect them in the year to come.

This particular rope is much larger than usual: it is roughly 8 meters long, 1.2 meters in diameter at its widest point, and weighs about 300 kilograms. Nonetheless, it still isn’t nearly as big as the Big Daddy of shimenawa at the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane Prefecture, the oldest and one of the most important shrines in Japan. That one is nearly 4 meters in diameter and weighs 1,500 kilograms.

I’m glad I’m not part of the crew that has to replace it!

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