Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kagawa’

Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

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Matsuri da! (99): Bringing it all back home

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 2, 2008

THIS POST last June briefly examined the importance of rice in Japan and included capsule summaries of the many rice-planting festivals held in late spring throughout the country. Now you know darn well that if people are going to take the trouble to have a special ceremony for planting the rice, they’re going to have another when it comes time to harvest it. And here they are!

The ritual for cutting the rice itself is variously called the nuihosai, the nuibosai, or even the nuiboshiki, but they all mean the same thing. Some of the rice (and other crops) harvested during these ceremonies is offered to the divinities a month later in a ceremony called the niinamesai. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on out in the fields. Don’t be shocked—some of it involves putting schoolgirls to work doing manual labor on the farms!

Shingu, Wakayama

Five junior high school girls clad as otome, or rice paddy maidens, hacked away during the nuihosai at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, a Shinto shrine. The Shingu otome worked in a 10-are (quarter acre) wet paddy planted in April. The paddy yielded 480 kilograms of rice, which made everyone pleased as punch. The rice itself will be used for shrine ceremonies, while the ears were offered at the Ise shrine. (That’s closely associated with the Imperial family, making it one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The enshrined deity at the Inner Shrine is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the mythological ancestor of the emperors.) Teenaged Japanese girls don’t have a lot of practice at wielding the scythes, so the onlookers had to give them the benefit of their experience—whack from below and at an angle. That’s one thing about old folks—they like to stand around kibitzing. Here’s another—they’re usually right!

Naruto, Tokushima

Held at the O’asahiko Shinto shrine, this nuihosai started with a Shinto ceremony. Then five karime, or cutting girls, from the local primary school, went to work. Meanwhile, about 40 people watched from the sideline and gave the girls the benefit of their extensive experience. (Whack from below and at an angle!) The rice was planted at the end of May, and the harvest totaled about 450 kilograms. It will be offered at the November niinamesai and to the shrine every day throughout the year.

Sabae, Fukui

Instead of rice, the karime at this nuihosai harvested foxtail millet, a plant frequently cultivated in East Asia and infrequently seen in Japanese supermarkets. Millet can grow to a height of five feet, which might require different whacking techniques than those used for the smaller rice plants. A local farmer planted this small field in June. The crowd estimated at 170 who came to watch and make speeches included area residents and officials from the prefecture, city, and JA (the national agricultural cooperatives association). The millet will be dried and offered both to the Imperial household in Tokyo and at the local niinamesai.

Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui

Fukui also harvests the traditional rice instead of millet, and that’s what the sixth-grade karime are doing here. You can’t see him, but helping out the girls is Ishikawa Tetsuji, who planted the field in May. Mr. Ishikawa said that growing the rice in such a natural setting enabled him to derive a sense of spiritual culture. He said he also felt a particular responsibility because Fukui is the home of koshihikari rice. That’s a super-premium strain of rice created in the 1950s, and it has become one of the most popular in the country. It’s also popular at the Imperial Palace, where the crop was recently offered. It will be used later this month at the niinamesai with Fukui millet and other rice from around the country.

Mine, Yamaguchi

The Imperial household is going to have enough rice to feed the entire diplomatic corps when these ceremonies are all over. Two liters of the rice harvested in Mine, Yamaguchi, which was cut by 15 karime, are also being shipped to Tokyo. This year the job of planting the ceremonial crop fell to Kitahara Masahiko, which he did in May on his three-are (300 square meter) field. Mr. Kitahara allowed as how the great weather this year resulted in an excellent crop. Now when was the last time you heard any farmer anywhere talking up his harvest? The average farmer would rather choke on his cut plug than talk about how good he’s got it. It might make the government think twice about agricultural subsidies, for one thing. (The Japanese usually soft-pedal their good harvests by saying they are mazumazu, or not so bad.) He also said he was thrilled to do the work because it was the greatest honor that could be received in a lifetime of farming.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

They call it a nuiboshiki in Hamamatsu, and theirs was held at a rice paddy near the Iinoya-gu Shinto shrine, which every year grows isehikari rice received from the aforementioned Ise shrine. Eight grade-school girls dressed up as otome to harvest the rice they planted themselves in the spring, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves. A group of about 10 people stuck around to kibitz, telling them to whack from the bottom at an angle. The crop this year was about 100 kilos–sounds about right for grade school girls–which was dried for offering at the shrine. More was offered in mid-October at the Ise shrine itself at a ceremony called the kannamesai.

Omaezaki, Shizuoka

Hey, where did that hair-legged guy come from! That’s Masuda Noboru, stomping around his own rice paddy in Omaezaki, where he planted koshihikari rice on 2,818 square meters in April. That yielded a harvest of about 500 kilograms—better than the usual crop, according to Mr. Masuda. He cut the rice plants himself for presentation to the tenno (Emperor) at the niinamesai. It’s a wonder the Imperial family doesn’t have a weight problem with all the food people send them from around the country. The Palace’s cut was 1.8 kilograms. According to the city government, this was the first time the ceremony was conducted in the municipality. Sometimes in Japan a centuries-old tradition can start just this year, and sometimes it can be a one-man operation.

Iwanuma, Miyagi

Iwanumanians use the term nuihoshiki to describe the ceremonial rice harvest at the Takekoma shrine, which dates from 842. The harvest was also a study session–about 50 Shinto priests went out to work in the fields, some of whom were shrine officials and priests from six prefectures throughout the Tohoku region taking part in religous training. A guy just can’t go out there and start hacking–you have to learn how to do this the right way first. (Whack from the bottom at an angle.) After the main priest ritually purified the paddy and offered a prayer, shrine officials and miko (shrine maidens) dressed as otome formed a row to cut the rice stalks. It’s a shame the miko weren’t closer to the camera. The priests bundled the rice and presented it to the divinities in thanks for the harvest. This year’s crop was said to be average, despite the heavy rains of late August. After the rice is dried in the sun, it will be offered at the niinamesai in late November.

Sanuki, Kagawa

Nuihoshiki? Check. Rice paddy? 200 square meters. Niinamesai? Check. The local shrine’s cut? 1.8 liters. Growth time? Four and a half months. Yield? Pretty good, despite the lack of rain and the heat. Participants? About 100, including city and prefectural government officials and 18 members of the farmer’s family. This one seems to have been a ceremony for the regular folks. I hope they’re not looking for a needle in the rice stacks.

Ise, Mie

And here’s the Ise shrine’s own nuihoshiki, which this year was held in the rain. The rice was harvested by the priests from a shrine rice paddy in Kusube-cho. Those are some elegant threads and umbrellas for agricultural work. What’s the guy in yellow saying? “Whack from the bottom at an angle”? The event is a statement for self-sufficiency, as the rice grown and harvested here will be used for events at the shrine. Participating in the event were about 80 people, including shrine officials and area residents. After the initial prayer, they entered the paddy to cut the rice with sacred scythes. Don’t you wish you had a sacred scythe, too? The rice was separated into two groups, one for use in the Inner Shrine and one for use in the Outer Shrine. It was then stored after inspection by lower ranking priests, called negi. Both ordinary rice and the more glutinous mochi rice were grown in the paddy. (The latter variety is used to make the rice cakes for New Year’s decorations.) About 240 bags were harvested, and the first offering will be at an event called the kannamesai on 15 October.

Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This ceremony was held by JA, the national association of agricultural cooperatives, to harvest rice for the Dewasanzan Shinto shrine at their own ceremonial rice paddy. The torii in the photo shows just how close the shrine is. That photo also shows just how much work religion can be sometimes. The 17-are (0.42 acre) rice paddy is known as a kensenden (a paddy that is an offering to the divinities). It was created just last year in the hope for a divine reboot of area agriculture, which has been suffering lately due to bad weather. The work was done by 40 JA employees as well as the miko, and they certainly don’t need any kibitzers telling them how to to go about chopping rice. The event started off with a miko dance, a lottery offering, and a religious ceremony. That’s something for everybody! (I pick the first.)

Kashima, Saga

Those ladies look like they’re having fun. Maybe they’re playing Tom Sawyer and trying to con us into painting the fence. That’s the nuiboshiki in a consecrated paddy at the Yutoku Inari Shinto shrine in Kashima to give thanks for the fall harvest. The miko, clad as otome, formed a horizontal row to cut the rice plants. This traditional ceremony gathers the rice used for the niinamesai on 8 December and is more than 300 years old. To start, 11 miko perform a solemn dance at the shrine in supplication for a big harvest. Then three miko use flutes and percussion to perform a song for an abundant year while the other eight go to work with a scythe. The harvest was better than average, and the priest was glad there was no typhoon damage. The shrine’s rice planting ceremony was covered in the June post, and the miko wore the same clothes then. And then washed them for this ceremony, of course.

Buzen, Fukuoka

Good morning, little schoolgirl…I’m a little schoolboy too! The Otomi shrine leaves nothing to chance during its nuihosai—they have three taosa, or paddy bosses, overseeing the work of the six karime from primary and junior high school on a special 1.5 are consecrated rice paddy. One boss for two girls? Now that’s labor intensive agriculture! This was just the shrine’s 14th rice harvesting event to offer thanks to the divinity for a bountiful harvest. They cut in time with music provided by flutes and taiko drums. The rice was a local prefectural variety planted in June. Fukui Aya, one of the karime, was out cutting for the second time. She said, “When you put on the clothing, it definitely gives you a sacred feeling.”

And with that, the granaries are filled for the winter!

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Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Nippon Noel: Let them eat Christmas cake!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 24, 2007

There were plums and prunes and cherries,
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too
There was nutmeg, cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Such that work up a fine stomach ache
That could kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.

Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake
Words and Music: C. Frank Horn, 1883

THE ONLY CAKES I ATE during my American Christmases were fruitcakes, and we children didn’t care for them any more than Mr. Horn cared for Miss Fogarty’s creation. They were dry, lacked icing, and had strange gummy things baked into them that didn’t taste like fruit at all.

Even at a young age we suspected they were made more for the sake of tradition than for delectation. Luckily, not every family served them and they weren’t an important part of the day. I’ve never met anyone who says they enjoy eating them, though fruitcake aficionados must exist, as they’re still baked and sold. Perhaps it helps to be nutty.


Shortly after we were married, my Japanese wife saw an advertisement for a bona fide fruitcake available by mail order, and she was curious enough to try one. Well, curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it almost killed me. She didn’t like it at all, and I wound up eating most of it because I dislike throwing away food. My fruitcake quota has now been filled for the next three lifetimes.

And that is the extent of my connection with Christmas cake or its related traditions. As many people now know, the Japanese have their own Christmas cake tradition, and most Japanese are surprised when they discover that Americans don’t. (There is a tendency here to think that all imported customs are American and all loan words originate from English.)

There are as many Christmas traditions as there are ethnic groups, but perhaps the Japanese borrowed the idea of Christmas cake from England and the Commonwealth countries. There, fruitcake seems to be (or to once have been) a regular part of the day.

The Japanese do not prefer heavy cakes, however. The French influence is apparent in most of the pastry dishes produced and sold here. But I’m not sure that the French would want to claim parentage of the Japanese Christmas cake, as it more closely resembles an American strawberry shortcake that uses limp sponge cake instead of the firmer, more masculine variety. Though it can be as large as a regular cake, it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a glorified pastry.

There is some debate about when Christmas cakes became popular in Japan. Most people seem to agree that the confectioner Fujiya Co. came up with the idea, but the attributions for their time of introduction range from the 1920s to the 1950s.


It might be that they were first sold in the 20s, but became popular in their present form in the 50s and 60s when most households had refrigerators. Before then, sponge cakes had butter cream icing that didn’t need refrigeration.

The first photo shows a special Christmas cake made by Radishbo-ya, a Tokyo-based company that sells additive-free food products for home delivery. This year, they began sales of Christmas cakes without allergens to meet the demand for the estimated 330,000 Japanese children with food allergies.

Radishbo-ya (or Radish-boya—their Japanese website has both spellings) has developed 12 Christmas confections that use no dairy products, as well as three products for the traditional New Year’s dinner. One way they pull this off is to substitute pumpkin cream for fresh dairy cream. Cake prices range from 268 yen ($US 2.35) to 1,512 yen ($US 13.26), tax included, and they also sell the ingredients separately for the do-it-yourself bakers.

Perhaps you would prefer the Christmas cake–actually, the news report called it a “monument”—in the second photo, unless you are allergic to ostentation and conspicuous consumption. The lady in the picture leaves no doubt about what her choice would be. The photo was taken during its display at the Osaka branch of the Takashimaya Department Store. It’s not designed for eating, however. Rather than toppings, it is garnished with roughly 300 million yen (more than $US 2.63 million) worth of gemstones.

Well, to be accurate, it’s partially edible. The base is a confection made with the sugar used for baking. This Christmas cake was created by a young Kansai-based artist named Rei.

Takashimaya says it is displaying the monument to get everyone into the Christmas spirit, presumably because coming down to the store for a look will cause customers to splurge once they see all the other wonderful merchandise available. Following its presentation in Osaka, the monument was sent to the Takashimaya Kyoto store, and it’s now at the JR Nagoya outlet until the 25th.


In keeping with the traditions of the season, you can buy it if you really want it. A Takashimaya spokesman said that anyone was welcome to come in and talk turkey about the price. Perhaps they would have found takers during the Bubble Period about 20 years ago, but I’m not so sure about 2007.

And what would an Ampontan Christmas post be without another great tree? The one in the third photo is on display in the lobby of the JR Marugame Station in Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture.

The tree itself is trimmed with 250 uchiwa, or hand fans, made using traditional techniques. No, they are not leftover giveaways from summertime promotions. They are originals created by a local design studio, so it’s a shame we can’t have a close-up of the illustrations on the fans themselves. The report says they mesh well with the lights on the tree.

The tree itself is four meters high, 1.6 meters in diameter, and made with a bamboo framework to which have been attached leaves of the hinoki, or Japanese cypress. It will be up until the 25th, so if you’re taking the train to or from Marugame today or tomorrow, don’t pass up the chance to see it!

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Matsuri da! (62): Asking for rain–and getting it!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

RAIN DANCES aren’t just performed in TV reruns of old Westerns—they’re still part of the annual festival at the Takinomiya Shinto shrine in Ayagawa-cho, Kagawa Prefecture, held every year in late August. The Japanese aren’t dancing to make rain, however. They’re offering their thanks to celebrate the rains that came after a politician interceded with the divinities on behalf of local farmers more than a millennium ago.

The story begins in 888 in Kagawa, then known as Sanuki Province. The area was stricken by drought, so local governor Sugawara no Michizane asked the people to fast and the local Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to conduct amagoi, or special prayers for rain.

After the skies remained uncloudy all day for several days, the governor took matters into his own hands by clasping them together and beginning a seven-day prayer vigil. Exactly a week later, there was a doshaburi that lasted for three days and nights. (Doshaburi means to rain earth and sand, which is what the Japanese say when it rains cats and dogs.)

The elated farmers rushed to the Takinomiya shrine to thank the divinities for the weather, praised the name of Michizane, and erupted into spontaneous dancing. It was so much fun they kept performing the dance every year, and now it has been designated an intangible cultural treasure of the nation.

Honen’s Addition

But it had already been an established custom for 300 years when the Buddhist monk Honen wandered through the area, watched the dances, and suggested the addition of some choreography. The new version took the form of a nembutsu odori, a Buddhist folk dance that also goes back more than a millennium. These dances are to express the joy of those who receive salvation by chanting the Buddha’s name.

Here’s yet another example of the Japanese taste for mixing and matching. Note that these are Buddhist dances performed at a Shinto shrine. This approach is a lot less contentious than the thou-shalt-have-no-other-God/Allah-before-me attitude of religions in the rest of the world.

The Event

This year’s performance included the Sakamoto nembutsu odori, a similar dance from nearby Marugame, for the first time in three years. In fact, the more stately Sakamoto dance was the first one performed at 5:50 p.m.

The dancers were preceded up the shrine’s main pathway by a group blowing on seashell trumpets. They were followed by the livelier main attraction, as jimbaori– and hakama-clad performers arrived, some carrying umbrellas, and others carrying the flat fans called uchiwa, larger than the usual variety at 60 centimeters (almost two feet). The musical accompaniment was provided by taiko drums, bells, and flutes.

It was unfortunate that this year’s festival happened to coincide with a dry spell, so it was not appropriate to perform a dance of thanksgiving for rain when none had actually fallen. Discretion and restraint being highly esteemed in Japan, the performers decided to tone down the intensity level this time around.

Historical Connections

It sometimes seems as if everything in Japan is connected with everything else in a sort of Nihon-wide web of culture and history, and this festival is an excellent example. Sanuki Province Governor Sugawara no Michizane belonged to a family instrumental in bringing Chinese culture to Japan, and was the most important poet writing in the Chinese language in the country at the time. His anthologies of Chinese poetry have survived to the present.

Michizane later became an influential member of the Imperial court. Known as the patron of learning, he died in Dazaifu, in Fukuoka Prefecture, and he is the tutelary deity in the Dazaifu Tenmangu (another Shinto shrine) built to honor him. It is packed with students studying for entrance examinations every year. Michizane prayed for rain, and the divinities granted his request, so naturally it makes sense to ask his spirit for a little extra help on the tests. Besides, amphetamine-fueled all-nighters aren’t good for the health, and they aren’t effective for boosting test scores, either.

Meanwhile, Honen was a leading figure of Japanese Buddhism in his time. He was the founder of the Jodo, or Pure Land sect, which still exists today.


Ironically, both were exiles. Court intrigue landed Michizane into hot water, and he wound up being banished to Kyushu, where he spent the rest of his days in poverty bemoaning the unfairness of it all. In fact, the Tenmangu shrine was built to placate his ghost, which some thought had returned to cause trouble for those who plotted against him.

Honen’s movement got him in hot water of his own with the Buddhist authorities, and he too was told to get lost. He was finally allowed to return to Kyoto a few months before his death.

Chinese Rainmaking

Michizane’s response to a drought was to cloister himself in prayer for a week. One wonders what the man so familiar with Chinese culture would have thought of contemporary Chinese rainmaking efforts. The leaders of China seem to have a predilection for controlling things the rest of us leave to nature, such the number of children in a family. It’s only short skip from there to controlling when and where it rains, as this brief article describes. The author seems a little too impressed with the authoritarian hubris of the Chinese for his own good.

Far be it from me to suggest that superstition is superior to science, but the worship of the latter often creates a different set of unforeseen problems. It’s an interesting contrast. Michizane lifted his face to the sky in supplication for rain, but the new mandarins hire the peasantry to lift anti-aircraft weapons and rocket launchers instead.

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

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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