Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Iwate’

High and dry

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 10, 2011

HERE ARE two stories about the tsunami that appeared in the Iwate Nippo, a local newspaper in the Tohoku region. Their local perspective brings the events of that day into clearer focus.

The waves of the tsunami climbed to just a few meters below the house of 101-year-old Ito Ayano in Hirota-cho, Rikuzentakata, but the entire 24-household community was spared.

Her grandson Takuya, however, who worked in the city’s agricultural and forestry division, drowned in the tsunami when he was leading people to a designated evacuation center at the local gym.

Takuya’s father Kazuo (72), her oldest son, said, “My son died, fulfilling his duty as a city employee to the end. That’s the way it goes…but how much it must have bothered him to leave behind his three children…”

There was another large tsunami in March 1933, when Ayano was 23. She clutched her two-year-old daughter as they were swallowed up in the waves, and they survived only because they were washed up on high ground. Meanwhile, her house near the coast was crushed and five family members died, including her husband and another son.

Fifteen people from the community died, so the survivors decided to move up the hill. That saved them in 1960 when the tsunami from the Chile earthquake struck. It washed away part of the town, but nothing compared to what happened this time.

Said Kazuo, “Takata-cho (a different neighborhood) was not as vigilant as it could have been. It hasn’t been easy living up there and climbing that hill after coming back from a day of fishing, but we all survived. It shows that living in a high place is the only way to protect ourselves from tsunami.”

The city must rebuild after being turned into a mountain of rubble. Tetsuko (70), the dead man’s mother said, “No matter how well we build a breakwater, it’ll be breached sometime. I hope this time, the people who survived build the town in a high place where the waves can’t reach. It might also help relieve the sorrow I feel about my son.”

The quick wit of the teachers at Kesen Primary School in Rikuzentakata after the earthquake allowed all 92 of their students to escape the tsunami.

When the violent shaking struck their classroom on the afternoon of 11 March, the children followed their training and took cover under their desks. Then, still wearing their indoor shoes, they formed lines out in the schoolyard. The school is about two kilometers from the coast and is one of the designated shelters in the area. People from the neighborhood also arrived, and the evacuation seemed to have ended safely.

The teachers were calling the roll when they heard something from a radio for disaster use. It usually can’t be heard unless the surroundings are quiet. It was a warning that the tsunami had breached the breakwater. The school was just 500 meters away.

Realizing the urgency of the situation, the teachers immediately led the students to a hill behind the school. There is a dense bamboo grove on the hillside, so they had the high school students with stronger bodies go first and create a trail for the younger children to follow.

The children didn’t realize what was happening, but the teachers followed them, continually shouting, “Don’t turn around,” and “Keep climbing”. Said one fifth-grader, “It was frightening, but the teacher said, ‘It’s all right,’ and pushed my back. He made me feel safe.”

About one minute after they reached the higher ground about 12 meters away from the school, there was a loud roar, and what one teacher described as “a wall of brown water” appeared. The three-story school was swallowed up.

The teachers spent several days in the shelters looking after the children, without returning to their own destroyed homes. Said 6th grade teacher Sugano Kazutaka, “Well, we just acted without thinking. It was really a good thing that the children were saved.”

Principal Sugano Shoichiro retired at the end of the school year (about two weeks later). He said, “If we hadn’t gotten word in time, we’d have been done for. Both the teachers and the students worked well.”

Reader Jeffrey sends in this link to a slideshow on an Al-Jazeera blog. It puts some pictures to the words of the first story. I hope the mayor’s comment at the end is premature.

A quick glance at the comments might also be educational. There aren’t many.

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Posted in Social trends | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Let the fun and games begin

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THERE’S ALWAYS room for more fun in the world, and you can count on the Japanese to be on the lookout for ways to contribute to the world’s fun balance. In particular, they seem to have a flair for employing everyday items to modify existing games or to create new ones. For example, here’s a post about yacurling, played indoors with a traditional kettle instead of on ice with a stone. This one’s about bowling using squash (the vegetables) instead of tenpins and a ball.

Poster for an event at the Makkari spa in Hokkaido

Now here’s one more: Slipper ping pong, in which house slippers are substituted for the rackets. There’s no shortage of potential Japanese racketeers; one report claims there are 50 million fans around the country. In fact, the world championships of slipper ping pong are held every year in Kahoku-cho, Yamagata.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard about it, either.

The folks in Kahoku-cho decided to host the competition because it’s the municipality with the highest slipper production in Japan. Considering that everyone removes their shoes before entering homes and some buildings here, there are sure to be plenty of rackets at hand. They launched the event as a national championship in 1997, but upgraded it to a world championship in 2004. That was more nominal than real in those days because it took a few years before anyone not Japanese showed up to play. Since then, however, they’ve had participants from China, India, and South Korea.

Most of the players in the Kahoku-cho world championships use slippers and balls that are larger than normal. Ordinary house slippers are fine, but participants can’t use official slipper rackets for other tournaments, slippers made with special materials, or slippers with open toes. Otherwise, the rules of the game are the same. There are two entry requirements—you have to be at least of junior high school age, and you can’t consider yourself to be good at ping pong.

The sport has an estimated 50 million fans, so of course this isn’t the only event of its type. Earlier this year the PTAs of the Higashinakasuji primary school and junior high school in Shimanto, Kochi, held a competition using regulation school slippers. The schools conduct a joint annual sports festival for the students, so the idea was to get the teachers and the parents on the same page. They recruited 12 teams of three persons each—two parents and one teacher.

Said the PTA chairman when it was over:

We were worried no one would think it was fun, but everyone got more excited than we thought. We want to do it again next year.

They surely will, too. Another slipper ping pong tournament was held recently in Ureshino, Saga, as a charity event to raise funds for the Miyazaki cattle and pig farmers devastated by the recent foot and mouth epidemic. (The final restrictions on unnecessary travel in the prefecture were finally lifted this week, and a local JA official said it would take the livestock industry eight years to recover.) Ureshino is a hot springs town, and the restaurants at the local resorts use Saga beef, which comes from cows that were used to breed most of the Miyazaki beef cattle. It cost JPY 100 yen to enter, and the losers chipped in JPY 500. The matches themselves must have proceeded smartly, because all it took to win was five points.

Nakazono Shoichi from Oita said:

Instead of it being just an event to raise money, it was better to be able to have a good time and contribute money at the same time.

It’s curious that Mr. Nakazono came to Ureshino from Oita, by the way, because the hot spring resorts are much better where he lives. It’s a bit of a variation on the old expression about carrying coals to Newcastle, except that Mr. Nakazono left Newcastle to look for coals.

Chabudai kaeshi

Chabudai kaeshi means “overturning the tea table”, and Japan holds the world championships in this event too, at the shopping mall Aruco in Yahaba-cho, Iwate. This year’s showdown was held at the end of June.

Here’s how it works. A small tea table is set on a goza, or straw mat, and a tea service is placed on top. A woman seated next to the contestant gives a signal by saying, “Anata, yamete.” (Stop it, dear.) The contestant then reaches underneath the table and flips it while shouting his own response. Officials measure how far the teacups fly, and the person who sends them the farthest is the winner. The world’s record of 9.20 meters was set at last year’s contest. It might not be as easy as it seems, however, as one of the contestants managed only a two-centimeter shot this year. Among the prizes taken home by the winner is a gold-colored tea table.

Chabudai kaeshi

The contest was started by local merchants to promote the sale of agricultural products, but media coverage elicited national interest. Participating is easy—all you have to do is walk up and apply by the time the competition starts. The rules, however, are strict. The contestants must use an “official” tea table, and they have to flip the table from a seated position on the goza. If the table itself flies off the goza, it’s a foul. People may say whatever they like when they sling the table, with the exception of anything “in violation of world peace”.

One married couple seems to have used it to let off a little domestic steam. The woman yelled, “You tricked me, gaining 20 kilos since we got married seven years ago!” (She probably didn’t finish before the teacups hit the ground.) Her husband’s yell: “Cook some more food.”

There were 29 contestants this year, and the winner was an English teacher in Gumma named Marcus Smith, whose flip sent the dishes flying more than eight meters. He shouted, “I don’t know what the rest of you are saying.”

He didn’t see what the rest of them were doing, either, because he wore his shoes on the goza until someone pointed it out to him.

Now to the tape! The first is the Saga television station’s report on the Ureshino event, and the second is Marcus Smith in action in Iwate. Previous events were held outdoors, but the weather must have been bad this year. Also, while the Japanese reports say the table isn’t supposed to leave the goza, it clearly does on his winning shot.

First, slipper ping pong.

Second, chabudai kaeshi.

Wouldn’t you want to try these at least once? I sure would!

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (109): The ice walk

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 15, 2010

HEARING OR READING the phrase “naked festival” might generate a response that is positively Pavlovian—just as the Russian doctor’s dogs started salivating at the sound of the dinner bell, the shaggy among us would surely begin drooling in the realm of their imaginations. Even the prudish or the bashful might detect an involuntary acceleration in their pulse rates.

The Japanese hold naked festivals, or hadaka matsuri, throughout the archipelago year round, but few, if any, would appeal to anyone’s prurient interest. To begin with, most of the festivals are for male participants who aren’t in the buff, but wear loincloths similar to those of sumo rikishi when doing battle in the ring. Further, many of those festivals are conducted in mid-winter as a trial of the participants’ grit and spirit to overcome the elements. Finally, they often resemble sporting events, in which teams or individuals compete for the possession of an object, sometimes being drenched with cold water by onlookers. And yes, those who overcome and prevail are believed to have done so with the help divine assistance.

The Hirakasa Hadaka Mairi, more accurately a naked pilgrimage than a festival, is held on 8 January in Hachimantai, Iwate. It’s considered unusual because most of the participants are female, but neither the lecherous nor those with an exquisitely fine sense of curvilinear beauty would have been aroused. That’s because the intangible cultural property of the city is known as one of the few festivals conducted as an exercise in religious asceticism for women. The participants dress in white from head to toe and hold pieces of paper called kuchigami in the mouth to prevent the entry of evil spirits. That would seem to be enough to stymie any would-be Lotharios from jump street.

This year, 28 people took part in the event held in supplication for household safety and a good harvest, and 15 of them were women. They started by dumping water over themselves for purification, and considering that recent air temperatures can be calculated on the fingers of one hand, I sure hope they got good and spiritual. After several religious rites at the Miyata Shinto shrine were finished at 9:00 a.m., they departed on a 10-kilometer walk to the Yasaka Shinto shrine. During their trek, they carried long poles called kenzao and rang small bells.

The relatively light clothing worn by the women is one of the reasons this is considered an ascetic ritual. Iwate is in the northern part of the country, and the temperature is usually about 2.5° C in early January. This year it was minus 9.6° C on festival day.

The festival is said to have originated shortly after 1710 to pray for the safety of the local inhabitants after the eruption of Mt. Iwate. Women became the primary participants during the Pacific War, when most of the men were away, and they continued the event to pray for the safety of the soldiers at the front.

If I met the winter walkers, I’d take my hat off to them for their determination and wish them well—but not if I were outdoors. Heck, I live in relatively balmy Kyushu, and even here at this time of year I wear long underwear and two layers of socks indoors.

Posted in Festivals, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Squaring the circle in sumo

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 11, 2009

IN BOXING, the prizefighters square off against each other in a small square arena known as a ring, despite its shape. In sumo, the rikishi square off against each other in a real ring, though the name of their battleground—the dohyo—contains no connotations of its shape.

Some sumo theorists hold that the ring is a symbolic representation of Japan or the universe. Others say the sport came to Japan from China through the Korean Peninsula, and the spirituality underlying the Japanese version is a blend of Shinto and Taoism. In the latter theory, the dohyo represents the yang element, or the sun. Either would seem to be a reasonable explanation for the circular shape of the dohyo.

‘Twas not ever thus, however.

For example, the rikishi in the sumo competition held earlier this week at the Sho’okita Primary School in Sho’o-cho, Okayama, fought in what is believed to be the only remaining square dohyo in the country.

All 213 of the school’s pupils participated–including the girls–with each of the students representing either the red or the white team. That’s the classic Japanese color scheme for two squads in a competitive event. The first graders performed the initial ring-entering ceremony, and all the students made up their own shikona, the distinctive names by which the rikishi are known.

The dohyo itself dates back about 500 years when the local feudal lord moved the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine. The daimyo thought sumo improved the fighting spirit, so he built the dohyo to toughen up the members of his clan. Sumo has close connections to Shinto, and tournaments were held at the same shrine during festivals as an offering to the divinities. That practice ended during the Second World War, but it was revived again as a school event in 1967.

Nambu sumo in Morioka

Nambu sumo in Morioka

The phrase “only remaining square dohyo” is the key that unlocks a door to another corridor that is largely forgotten today. As any other sport, sumo has evolved over the years, and other variations flourished before the current form became the standard. There was once a style known as Nambu sumo, named after the ruling clan in what is now Iwate. The square dohyo was used in Nambu sumo, but only for the frequent barnstorming tournaments held in different towns to provide popular entertainment. Records indicate that round dohyo were used in Nambu sumo when the matches were held at Shinto shrines.

It also seems to have been widely known outside of Iwate. An account survives of a tournament held in Kyoto in 1732 between the rikishi of the Nambu style and those of the Kyushu style.

Regular performances of Nambu sumo ended about 100 years ago, but the folks in Iwate never forgot about it. Three years ago, local groups held a Nambu sumo tournament with a square dohyo in Morioka that the organizers say required six months of study and preparation. There isn’t much information about that tournament on the web, either in Japanese or English, but one Japanese blogger who made a special trip to see it found the differences fascinating.

He wrote that a great deal of time and effort was spent to recreate the rituals before the match, which he thought emphasized the religious aspects more than the contemporary version. He also said the rikishi began the match standing upright rather than from the crouching position used for modern tournaments. The match commenced on a signal from a third person. The victors were those rikishi who threw their opponents to the ground, or caused them to fall to the ground, rather than throwing them outside the ring. The observer said it reminded him of judo or Western-style wrestling. Here’s a brief second-hand account in English from a sumo fan who ordered DVDs of the tournament from Iwate and got information from people who were there. According to his description, one of the participants said the emphasis on throwing the opponent to the ground gives it a resemblance to traditional Mongolian wrestling.

The square rather than round shape of the dohyo doesn’t necessarily negate the theory that the ring represents the sun, by the way. The old Chinese character for sun is 日, and even those who can’t read it can still recognize the shape!

Afterwords: The name of the Shinto shrine in Okayama might be the Hie-jinja. Both readings are possible, and I couldn’t find enough information on this shrine to know for certain.

Posted in Sports, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

But how long can she hold her breath?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 8, 2009

JK pearl divers
ANOTHER SMALL STEP for Japanese-Korean amity was taken last week during a forum in Toba, Mie, convened by female divers to discuss their efforts to register their way of life as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. For centuries, women in both countries have dived without mechanical aids to catch abalone and other shellfish for a living. Japan and South Korea are the only countries in the world where it is a tradition for women to engage in this income-generating activity, and the working women of both countries have been forging closer ties in recent years. The Koreans initially approached the Japanese, as described in detail in this previous post. That they should work together is only natural—both groups of divers have a long tradition of working in each other’s country. And Toba was a natural place to meet, as half of the Japanese female divers live there.

While most of the ama attending were from Japan—63 came from nine prefectures—one of the Jeju Island haenyo participated, as well as a Korean researcher. The women shared their experiences in addition to discussing strategies for receiving UNESCO recognition. One participant said she had been born and reared in Tokyo, but was so eager to do the work she moved to Chiba. The Korean woman sang the traditional haenyo song.

Another diver who showed up and spoke at the forum was 19-year-old Omukai Chisaki, who is perhaps the first female abalone diver contracted for work because she catches the masculine eye as well as she catches shellfish. Ms. Omukai, hired specifically to serve as a tourist attraction, dives for abalone and poses for snapshots during the summer months in Kuji, Iwate. Perhaps she offered her fellow divers tips on cosmetics that retain their luster after long hours toiling underwater and the most fetching angle to place the goggles on the head when being photographed.

Omukai Chisaki

Omukai Chisaki

Speaking of photos, the accompanying screenshot shows why she was a hot topic this summer among Japanese weekly magazines and TV programs, despite the caption that says she is shivering. The shared culture meant that she also generated considerable buzz across the Korean Strait. A South Korean news report on Ms. Omukai’s summer job ranked fourth in total hits as a search topic in library computer systems on the day it appeared.

The elites won’t like to hear it, but it’s no surprise that cuteness provides more juice to bilateral relations than a boatload of summit meetings and academic conferences. Perhaps sending UNESCO officials to see Ms. Omukai in action would seal the deal for the organization’s approval. Seeing is believing, after all.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

From hot naked men to a cold snowy temple

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 18, 2008

IF THERE ARE PEOPLE ANYWHERE who are more blasé about the human body and less squeamish about the facts of life than the Japanese, I’ve yet to meet them.


That’s why it was so puzzling earlier this year when JR East—the train company serving Tokyo and the Kanto region—refused to display a poster in its stations publicizing a centuries-old Iwate festival with a photo of a shirtless, hairy-chested man shouting at the top of his lungs. JR East was afraid some people would become offended if they thought the images constituted “sexual harassment”.

More than a few Japanese, who grow up from the age of zero going to public baths with their parents and are aware that all sorts of rowdiness and revelry can go on at a traditional festival, were boggled by the news. Yet JR East held its ground. (Here’s my post from earlier this year, which includes a brief explanation of the festival and some links.)

The story resurfaced in the national media again today when the sponsors released the poster that will be used to publicize next year’s festival, which will be held in February. Fortunately, we also have a brief TV report from TBS that includes shots of last year’s offending poster, next year’s poster, and some of the wild and wooly behavior of the nearly naked men getting primitive while surrounded by flaming torches. A translation follows below.

The Somin Festival of the Kokuseki Buddhist temple of Oshu, Iwate, garnered nationwide attention this year due to controversy over a poster it used to advertise the event. Festival organizers have now released the poster for next year’s festival. Based on the theme of tranquility, it features a photograph of the temple during a snowstorm.

The festival is known for combining (nearly) naked men and fire rituals. JR East refused to hang last year’s poster because they thought the photograph of the naked upper body of a man giving a loud roar would cause discomfort to some. This touched off a national controversy.

Oshu alternates the themes of the poster every year from tranquility to dynamism. Officials say the change this year is nothing special.

Afterwords: JR East’s decision still mystifies me, as well as the Oshuites I saw interviewed on TV this evening. Anyone who would think this year’s poster was an example of sexual harassment needs to schedule an appointment with a competent psychologist. And stop subjecting the rest of the world to their personality quirks.

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Political correctness: Gaining traction in Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 9, 2008

JAPAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN OPEN to new ideas from outside its shores, and as this article in the Mainichi demonstrates, it makes no difference whether those ideas have merit or are emotional froth.

The city government of Oshu, Iwate, asked the JR East railway company to display posters in train stations advertising the Kokuseki Temple’s Somin Festival. This 1000-year-old event is what is known in Japan as a “naked festival”, though no one is in fact naked. The male participants wear loincloths.

JR East refused:

“It wasn’t just that it was out of line because there was nakedness; the pictures showed things that were particularly unpleasant for women, such as chest hair, and it was decided that showing them things they didn’t want to see was sexual harassment.”

This in a country where people still visit mixed-gender public baths, and where NHK television offers live coverage of sumo–six tournaments a year, 15 days for each tournament, three hours a day. The sumo rikishi wear loincloths not that much different from those shown in the poster (which you can see accompanying the article).

Vapidity is apparently contagious. Let’s hope Japanese society has enough natural resistance to these bacteria.

Endnote: Intrepid cultural explorers who would like to see photos of what goes on at the festival and who are hardy enough to withstand the potential sexual harassment can click on this site. It’s in Japanese, but there are plenty of pictures.

Posted in Festivals, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Nippon Noel: Eco-candles, chrysalises, and seashells!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 23, 2007

IT’S FASCINATING TO SEE the many ways that Japanese have taken the foreign concept of Christmas and made it their own. Here are three more examples.


The Yubara hot springs district in Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, has been presenting the Candle Fantasy in Yubara since the 20th. The organizers display what they call eco-candles: they were made with used cooking oil received from local ryokan (Japanese inns) and restaurants.

They were even clever enough to get other people to do the work for them. The 6,000 candles were made by an estimated 300 people, primarily area children and tourists staying at local lodgings, since last October. They will be lit from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. until the night of the 25th.
The first photo shows a scene from the Candle Fantasy. It’s unlike any of the images that I associate with Christmas from my childhood, but the combination of hot steam, candlelight, and Japanese design in a spa resort on a cold winter night does create a memorable sight.


How would you like to see a Christmas tree in which the decorations are suddenly transformed and fly away? That’s not a Science Fiction Fantasy—that’s the reality of the Christmas tree displayed in the Itami City Museum of Insects in Hyogo Prefecture. As you can see from the second photo, the 1.5 meter-high Christmas tree is decorated with chrysalises of the tree nymph butterfly, which are naturally gold. The tree has been set up in the museum greenhouse, where an estimated 1,000 live butterflies dwell. It will be on display until 24 December.

The tree nymph butterflies, one of the largest butterflies in Japan, inhabit the southwestern islands below Kyushu. The butterfly itself is known for its black and white speckled wings as well as its gold chrysalises, which are four to five centimeters in length. The butterflies hang them upside down from tree branches, and the museum has utilized this to decorate their Christmas tree for several years.
They’ve also placed green and pink chrysalises from other butterfly varieties on the tree. It takes about two weeks for the butterflies to emerge, and the museum encourages people to visit by reminding them they might get to see it happen if they’re lucky.


And it’s no surprise that an island country would find a way to celebrate Christmas with a maritime theme. The Sea and Shell Museum of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, is holding its special Shellfish Christmas 2007 exhibit until the 24th. One of the features of the exhibit is a Christmas tree trimmed with seashells, as you can see from the third photo.

The tree is 3.5 meters high and is decorated with 150 shells of 55 varieties from around the world, in addition to the usual lights.

The museum has a collection of 110,000 shells, and it is also exhibiting another 150 shells of 28 varieties whose names are derived from the word snow. The curator said there were a surprising number of shellfish from the South Seas whose names are derived from the word snow, despite the fact they don’t have any there.

Well, there are very few Christians in Japan, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from having fun at Christmastime!

Note: I’ve added the link for the website of the Itami City Museum of Insects to the right sidebar.

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »