Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Ishikawa’

All you have to do is look (114)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Shiroyone Senmaida rice paddies in Ishikawa, registered both in the Guinness Book of World Records for having 20,000 pink LEDs, and as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

Posted in Agriculture, Arts, Photographs and videos, Popular culture, Thailand | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Udon summit

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ONE of the students in my university class this spring had a running joke with me about what kind of noodles we would eat at the school cafeteria for an après-class snack. She insisted on udon, but I went for the soba.

I like both, but prefer soba because it has more body. But that puts me in the minority in Japan; most people like both, but prefer udon. Quick classroom surveys of my students over the years reveal that 80-90% raise their hands for udon first. It’s also the preferred late-night snack of serious drinkers on their way home from the tavern.

Thus it wasn’t any surprise that despite bad weather and a shortened schedule due to an approaching typhoon, the Second National Local Udon Summit attracted 2,000 people in just 90 minutes in Higashiomi, Shiga. National local means that it was a nationwide contest to determine the best regional recipe. Whether it truly determined the national champion is open to question, as there were 11 entrants from six prefectures, but the event was only in its second year.

The noodle soup champion was determined by the visitor-diners at the site, as shown in the photo above. They sampled as many of the entries as they could and voted for their favorites. The winner was the Komatsu Niku (Beef) Udon from Komatsu, Ishikawa. There are several varieties of Komatsu udon, whose stock is made with a traditional recipe using local fish. The beef variety adds meat from local cows into the broth.

Second prize was awarded to the Toyohashi Curry Udon from Toyohashi, Aichi. You guys in the back row can cool it with the sniggering — if curry udon soup wasn’t a palate pleaser, it wouldn’t have won a prize. It also wouldn’t be enshrined in the Udon Museum. Besides, an Aichi company makes a commercial variety and sells it for JPY 400 a pack.

And here’s a short Youtube with a slide show of the cornucopia of Komatsu udon, including the summit champ. I’m not sure about the story behind the accompanying song, but I’m guessing it was an old tune about sumo with the lyrics changed to praise the delights of the local cuisine.

Posted in Food, Popular culture | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (135): Hammer in the sickles

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red curtain

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 13, 2012

GREEN curtains are one traditional solution for keeping a cool house during sultry Japanese summers. People grow vines, often bearing vegetables, and suspend them from the eaves of traditional houses. It beats the heat and reduces the grocery bill at the same time. Here’s a previous post with a photo of a green curtain made from goya vines.

Every fall at a produce market in Nanao, Ichikawa, however, red curtains are the rage. Old folks from a nearby town hang bundles of hot peppers from a three-meter-long pole to tempt the eyes of shoppers and entice them into reaching for their wallets.

The jumbo peppers are called namba in the local dialect, and there are 40 to a rack. There’s also an old local belief that one of these red curtains will ward off evil. What the heck, it only costs JPY 450 to find out, and if evil slithers in through a gap in the namba, you can always console yourself by making a spicy curry and breathing on it. If you find yourself passing through Nanao, they’re on sale to the end of November.

Harakami Rei has a red curb instead.

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Hydrogen and arsenic

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 1, 2012


IF you want to take the waters in Japan — and most here people do — the best place might be the Kiku-no-Yu hot springs in Kaga, Ishikawa.

That’s the conclusion of Hirose Yukio, professor emeritus at Kanazawa University and an Ig Nobel laureate in 2003. Prof. Hirose, whose field is natural science, is a spa lover. His scientific curiosity was engaged to discover the reason that hot springs visits were so refreshing. He thought measuring the hydrogen content of the waters would produce the answer. Hydrogen removes active oxygen from the body, and active oxygen accelerates aging and contributes to obesity. It would also, say the scientists, contribute to the relief of stress and fatigue.

Prof. Hirose found that the Kiku-no-Yu waters are loaded with hydrogen. The professor visited many spas to measure their hydrogen content — which sounds like a great gig to me — and during a visit to Kiku-no-Yu #2 in May, obtained a reading of 400 parts per billion of hydrogen per liter. Most spa water doesn’t reach 100 ppb. He went back to the main onsen in August and got a reading of 604 ppb. He thinks that might be the highest of any spa in Japan.

That must mean the Kiku-no-Yu waters are H2O+.

Prof. Hirose received the Ig Nobel for his research into the reason pigeons and crows avoided crapping on the bronze statue of Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto in Kenroku Park, also in Ishikawa. This is the one:

Yamato Takeru, who might have been legendary, was the son of the Emperor Keiko, the twelfth Emperor of Japan and probably a legend himself. If he lived, it was in the first and second centuries. The prince is said to have pacified the barbarian tribes in the north of Japan, and I don’t know if they were legendary or not.

The burning question was why the birds left the prince clean and pure but crapped all over the other statues in the park (which is a lovely place, judging from its website.)

It turned out the birds didn’t care for the trace amount of arsenic in the alloys used to cast that statue.

The professor has also published a book on the proper brewing and tasting of espresso.

And while we’re on the subject of unique Japanese guys, try this Youtube of well-known comedian Shimura Ken playing shamisen while even better-known comedian, actor, and international award-winning film director Kitano (Beat) Takeshi tap dances. Yes, really.

The person who uploaded the video doesn’t want it to be embedded, but you can see it here — and you should!

Posted in History, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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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What a dump!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 6, 2011

IF you’ve got a world-class load of ashes to be hauled, and you’re anywhere near Komatsu in Ishikawa, you might want to take quick detour to see the world’s largest dump truck. It’s on display there at a facility built on the site of a former plant.

The world-class dumpster is the 930E model built by the Komatsu company’s American subsidiary, and it’s used for mining operations in Chile. It’s 8.6 meters wide, 15.6 meters long, and 7.3 meters high. The company says it can handle a load of about 300 tons. To put that in terms we can all relate to, Komatsu said that 7,400 primary school students could fit on the bed at the same time.

No, they didn’t round up all those kids for the facility’s opening ceremony earlier this year, but they did bring in some local grade schoolers to help. They were admitted for free and allowed to take turns sitting in the driver’s seat. Anyone else who comes by can take advantage of the same deal.

According to Komatsu, there’s more there than just one motherbruiser of a truck. They also use the site as a training facility and for other exhibitions.

Now admit it — wouldn’t you love to jump in the cab? I’d also love to start up the engine, mash whatever they’ve got for a clutch, and take it for a test drive/dump, but I’m sure Komatsu’s kindness or patience doesn’t extend that far for people who aren’t hauling a load out of a Chilean mine.

Speaking of dump trucks, here’s a tag team match with the famed Dump Matsumoto. She’s the one who has bleached hair, is 5’4″, and weighs 220 lbs.

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Photos purified and burned in Japanese ritual

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 4, 2008

IN PARTS OF THE ARAB WORLD, it is said, people still believe the lens of a camera is an evil eye and that taking a person’s photograph will steal his soul. Perhaps remnants of that idea linger in other parts of the world, too.

How do people get rid of photographs they no longer want or need? Most of us don’t think twice about just throwing them away, especially if they have no sentimental value. And these days, deleting them from a digital camera or cell phone requires no thought at all. Still, if a photograph captures part of a person’s soul for an instant in time, then it’s not difficult to understand why some people might hesitate to toss them into the trash can with the coffee grounds, egg shells, and dust from under the refrigerator.

The Ozaka Shinto shrine, in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, provides the perfect solution to relieve that discomfort. On 1 June, which is Photograph Day in Japan, people bring their unwanted snapshots to a purification ceremony, known as an o-harae, after which they are burned in a Shinto rite called the Photograph Memorial Service and Festival.

Priests at the shrine, which was founded in 1643, ritually purified about 40,000 photographs this year, then recited Shinto prayers as they were cremated in two pyres on the shrine grounds, as you can see from the photo above. (Cremated is as good a word as any, don’t you think?) In addition to those from local residents, photographs were received from people in the Tokyo and Osaka areas who found out about the event on the Internet.

Said a 67-year-old Kanazawa housewife, “This year was the third time I brought photos. I thought the memorial service was a good opportunity to reorganize the pictures I had saved, so I had the shrine burn them.”

Was this an event organized by some superstitious tribal folk who have difficulty coping with the modern world? Not at all—it was the brainchild of the prefectural association of camera merchants, among others, and dates from 1993.

Photography Day, incidentally, was the idea of the Photographic Society of Japan to commemorate the day the first ferrotype photo was taken in the country.

Silly? Perhaps, but I suspect everyone went home happy. Would that we all could say the same.

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

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 4, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saigi, saigi!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shogatsu: Miko make the New Year wheels go round at Shinto shrines

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

POPULAR CHRISTMAS MYTH has it that Santa’s little helpers work hard all year long at the North Pole making Christmas presents for good little girls and boys. New Year’s Day in Japan is an analog for Christmas, and so presents are given to good little Japanese girls and boys in celebration of that holiday too. They receive only one gift, however, and that is an o-toshidama, or cold hard cash, and the printing and stamping work for that is handled by the elves employed at the National Mint, headquartered in Osaka.


If there is a match for Santa’s elves, it would be the miko, or young female assistants at Shinto shrines. A lot of the work associated with the activities related to New Year’s Day shrine visits—especially the production and sale of good luck talismans–falls on their shoulders. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been doing behind the scenes leading up to the three-day New Year’s period that began today.

O-mikuji, literally the sacred lottery, are slips of paper with printed fortunes sold at Shinto shrines, often from a sort of vending machine. The Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture, makes about 200,000 individual fortunes for the first Shrine visit of the new year, but there are only 50 different predictions. To ensure the random distribution of the fortunes, the miko hold a ceremony every year called the Mikujiawase. One look at the picture above tells you exactly what’s involved. This year a total of 21 miko participated.


Here the budding shrine maidens clap their hands together before the divinity as they take part in training to become a yearend miko. About 70 high school and college students from Taga-cho and Hikone got schooled in the ABCs of the costume and the proper work attitude at the Taga Taisha in Taga-cho, Shiga Prefecture.

The miko will have their hands full dealing with the throngs of people who visit shrines starting on the night of 31 December and continuing for the next three days. Knowing how to deal with the public is a critical task for any company employee, but it’s all the more important at a Shinto shrine overseeing a tradition more than a millenium old.

Some of the job requirements during their employment include prohibitions on dyed hair, smoking, and cell phone use, as well as the polite reception of the shrine goers and a clean, wholesome appearance. 
The seasonal shrine help are shown wearing their traditional outfits consisting of white tops called hakui and red pantaloons called hibakama.


Meanwhile, the Kashihara Shingu shrine in Kume-cho, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture replaced its large ema, or votive picture, with a new version bearing the symbol of the Oriental zodiac sign for the coming year—the year of the rat.

The ema is where shrine goers hang their written requests for the divinity. It is characteristic of Shinto that shrine visitors tend to skip the unctuous flattery during their prayers and get straight to the point of asking for whatever it is they want.

This year’s ema is 4.5 meters high and 5.4 meters wide. Atsushi Uemura is responsible for the artwork every year, and this year he designed a picture of two rats with ears of rice. Uemura is a member of the Japan Art Academy, a special institute affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The large ema were first placed here in 1960 to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince.


One of the tasks of the miko and the Shinto priests are to make hama-ya. Here they are beavering away at the Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
These hama arrows are sold at shrines during the holidays. The crew at this shrine made 200,000 60-centimeter types, which will sell for 1,000 yen ($US 8.92), and 45,000 90-centimeter types, which will sell for 2,000 yen.

The word hama is written with the characters that mean “to repel evil spirits”, though it originally meant target. Some still uphold the tradition of the mother’s family sending the arrow with the hama-yumi, or bow, to her male children on New Year’s. In some places, boys once held archery competitions on New Year’s to predict the fall harvest.

The arrows are made of bamboo, wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), and attached with a special head and a bell. The practice itself originates from the bow and arrow Minamoto-no-Yoriyoshi presented to this shine in the 11th century. Yoriyoshi was the head of the Minamoto clan and led Imperial forces in a successful campaign against the northern rebels. He also founded this particular shrine in 1073, which became the primary shrine of the Minamoto clan when they began the Kamakura Shogunate about a century later.


They’re also decorating auspicious objects for shrine visits at the Shirayamahime shrine in Shirayama, Ishihara Prefecture. This photo shows the work involved in decorating these hama-ya, which are said to repel disaster and attract good fortune. Other decorations include pictures of a rat (as in The Year Of The–) and earthen bells.

The shrine makes eighty different auspicious objects and keeps adding to their product lineup all the time. Last year, for example, they added a kite. They will make about 100,000 individual items for sale in all.

Work was recently completed at this shrine on the major repairs in advance of the ceremonies for its 2,100th anniversary this year. They expect from 180,000 to 200,000 visitors over New Year’s. The auspicious items will be sold for prices ranging from 500 yen ($US 4.46) to 10,000 yen ($US 89.28).


The seven miko and Shinto priests at the Takase Shinto shrine in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, are also preparing auspicious objects. They churned out about 200,000 hama-ya, rat figurines, and, as a new item this year, lucky charms for success on exams or in sporting competitions. They also sell charms for a good harvest or family safety.

The shrine expects from 220,000 to 230,000 visitors during the New Year’s holidays.

The Shirahige Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward dates from 951. It is one of five shrines in the area associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, and about 50,000 people make the rounds to all five during the first week of the year.


The miko at this shrine are making treasure ships for the munificent seven to sail on the Sumida River. This originates in the old custom of slipping a picture of the seven on board a treasure ship under the pillow on the night of 1 January to make the first dream of the year a lucky one.

These ceramic boats are 19 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide with chopsticks for masts. Those who put figurines of the seven on board and place them in the home are said to have good fortune sail their way. They cost 1,000 yen each, with the figurines going for an additional 300 yen each–a small price to pay for a year’s worth of good luck.

May a treasure ship sail your way in 2008, or Heisei 20, whichever counting method you prefer!

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Matsuri da! (31): To worship is human, to wreck divine

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 13, 2007

THE SHEER DIVERSITY AND BREADTH OF ACTIVITIES in Japanese festivals can stagger the imagination and challenge the credulity of foreigners. In contrast, many Japanese have a somewhat blasé attitude toward them because they’re part of the wallpaper of life they’ve grown accustomed to since birth. They see the photos and articles in the back of the newspaper they’ve been seeing ever since they started to read the newspaper, think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s time for that one again,’ and turn the page.

Some festivals, however, make even the most indifferent Japanese sit up and take notice, and one of them was held last weekend. It is so unabashedly violent that it approaches the point of paganism, and a full report presented on one of the morning shows on network television last Monday left even the on-camera personnel dumbstruck.

That was the Abare Festival conducted by the Yasaka Shrine in Ushitsu, Ishikawa Prefecture. Abare means to run amok or go on a rampage, and that’s the perfect description of what happens during the event, which is an intangible cultural property of the prefecture and the first of the so-called Kiriko Festivals held from July to September in the Noto area.

A kiriko is a type of float made with plain wood, and has tall, rectangular columns used as lanterns at night.

Starting in the afternoon of the first day, the young men of Ushitsu parade 40 of the kiriko throughout the town until evening, when they gather at the seaside. At around 9 p.m., they move to an area in front of the local municipal offices, where a roaring bonfire blazes seven meters skyward. Ignoring the flames and sparks, the men surround the fire and break into frenzied dances.

Those who’ve read previous festival reports here will not need to be told that all the men have been drinking sake from the time they changed into their loincloths and happi coats, and by now are as drunk as lords.

The next day, the 40 kiriko are replaced by two smaller mikoshi, or portable shrines, which are said to house the divinity. These are called Abare Mikoshi, and they too are carried throughout the town at night.

Local legend has it that the divinity welcomes a rough reception. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but the young men of the area believe it, because they proceed to give the divinity just what it wishes for–a rough reception indeed. While carrying the mikoshi on two long poles through the streets at night, they stop now and again to stand the poles on end vertically and turn the mikoshi over, slamming them violently into the street. For a change of pace, they slam the mikoshi into walls instead.

Their route takes them to a bridge, where they throw the mikoshi into the river below and follow it by jumping in themselves. (This not exactly the safest of recreations—the water is only waist deep.) Rough is how the divinity likes it, so that’s how the divinity gets it, as the men again stand the poles on end vertically in the river bottom, and forcefully slam the portable shrines into the water while chanting Chosa! Chosa!

By now, it’s late at night, so from there they carry the mikoshi to a bonfire at the Yasaka shrine, and–you guessed it–they stand them up vertically yet again and smash them into the flames until they become almost unrecognizable. This is considered to be an offering to the divinity at the shrine. This year, one of the carriers got caught under a mikoshi as it was slammed into the street and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.

The Abare Festival is said to have originated about 330 years ago to disperse a particularly violent series of plagues that ravaged the area.

Bonfires, drinking, wild dancing, demolition…it has all the ingredients of a rock video or the extracurricular activities of British soccer hooligans.

But in Ushitsu, it’s a centuries-old religious observance.

Think I’m exaggerating? Then take a look at this site called the Abare Festival Photo Gallery, featuring a series of snapshots taken during the event in 2005. There’s no text, but you won’t need one–it follows the sequence I described above.

You might acquire a new perspective on the concept of performing one’s civic duty.

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