Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kochi’

All you have to do is look (136)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Onda Hachiman-gu (Shinto shrine) fall festival in Muroto, Kochi. Every other year the four floats are decorated with paper flowers, and this was a paper flower year. They are paraded through town during the day, and festooned with lanterns for some night-time twirling.

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All you have to do is look (77)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 15, 2012

The Hariyamabashi intersection in Kochi City.

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Kagura Koshien

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 20, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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‘Tis the season for Koshiens

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011

THE summer edition of the national high school baseball championship got underway at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo this weekend. That is a very big deal in Japan: NHK broadcasts every game of the tournament live, nationwide, without commercials. One of the classic scenes of daily life is the family get-together during the mid-August O-bon holidays with the eating, the drinking, and the attention of the males alternating between the people in the room and the games on television. The format of an elimination tournament adds an element of spice to the drama — the losers go home, while the championship team will have been undefeated, starting with the first game of the local prefectural round.

All the games are played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. The park was built in 1924 specifically to serve as the venue for the summer tournament, which dates from 1915, and the smaller spring invitational tournament, which debuted the year the stadium opened. So closely is the park associated with the championship that the event is referred to simply as Koshien. Ask someone whether their high school has ever been to Koshien, and they’ll know immediately what you mean.

In fact, the term Koshien is now applied to other summertime high school competitions, including events that have nothing to do with sports. One of these is the Calligraphy Performance Koshien, staged on 31 July in Shikokuchuo, Ehime. Though it is based on calligraphy, it was conceived in the 21st century — this year’s competition was only the fourth. Teams of 10 calligraphers use brushes and ink on sheets of paper four meters high by six meters wide to render artistic and/or philosophical messages as they dance to music that accompanies their performance.

Representatives from 15 high schools around the country participated in the finals, and the squad from Oita High School in Oita City, Oita, won for the second straight year. This year, most of the participating schools created works based on the theme of earthquake/tsunami recovery. In addition to the normal criteria used to evaluate calligraphy, the teams were judged on the degree of completion of their work, the movements of the team members as they brushed on the characters, and their dance routines.

The creation of the Oita High champs was based on the theme of compassion (思いやり) and they used the form of a mid-summer greeting card (shochu o-mimai) as their motif. Said the team captain:

We can thank the people around us for our consecutive victories. We wondered what we could do to help the people in the area, and decided to encourage them with our calligraphy.

The students of the calligraphy club at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo came up with the idea as an event to attract people to the local shopping district. Their inspirational spark fired everyone’s imagination, they were invited to appear on television, and then the rest of the country got into the act.

See you in the funny papers!

You don’t even have to ask — of course there’s a Manga Koshien for high school students. That’s the term commonly used to refer to the annual High School Manga Competition, which was held this past weekend in Kochi. This year’s event was the 20th, and the winning team came from Tochigi Girls High School, which inked it out with 24 other schools in the final round.

In this competition, the teams are given the same topic and have to create a comic on that topic immediately. They do this twice — the topics for the Saturday preliminaries and the Sunday finals are different.

The topic for the final round this year was “The 100th Manga Koshien”. The Tochigi girls came up with a comic depicting the 100th anniversary event, which in their imagination offered a prize of JPY one million (100 man en in Japanese), had 100 judges, but very few schools participating because of the population decline due to the low birth rate.

The head of the judge’s panel, Makino Keiichi, said:

Some (judges) thought that was a negative concept, but it is (in the spirit of) manga to depict things honestly.

Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:

It was a good idea to deal straightforwardly with a social issue. I’m really happy.

The cartooning champs said they’ll donate their JPY 300,000 award to the Tohoku relief effort.

Consider what these two events have to say about the health and cultural dynamism of the Japanese. Who else would have thought to combine the elegance of the centuries-old art and discipline of calligraphy with pop music dance routines and turn it into an extra-curricular activity for high school students? Consider also that the winning Manga Koshien high school team was aware of a contemporary social issue, had the wit to come up with an idea based on that issue on the spur of the moment, incorporated it into the general outline presented to them, and had the guts to put it on paper as their entry in the championship round.

Now consider how seriously to take those people who enjoy talking and writing about the malaise in Japan.

Here’s the Oita High School team strutting their stuff in the paint at the first Calligraphy Performance Koshien four years ago. Notice the touch of placing the seal on the lower left-hand corner of their work at the end. Baby love!

Dang, I got to find a way to get me to Ehime next summer!

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Why does the world like Japanese manga?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fighting evil by moonlight,
Winning love by daylight,
Never running from a real fight,
She is the one named Sailor Moon.
– The first verse of the Sailor Moon theme song in English

JAPAN was once known as the land of the rising sun, but it might be more appropriate to say that more people know it today as the land of manga and animations. Here’s yet another example: An annual exhibition titled the Manga Day Commemorative Four-Panel Cartoon Awards is underway until 20 February at the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum (English-language website) in Kochi City, Kochi. It will run until 20 February.

The museum established the awards to recognize contributions to the development of manga culture, and this is the sixth exhibit. In October, judges at the museum selected 15 works from among the 1,197 four-panel strips submitted by 878 artists in 42 prefectures and the United States. The current exhibition presents the prize winners and the 139 works that made it past the first round of judging. There’s also an exhibit of 430 manga created by children of primary school age or younger that have been deemed to have promise.

The exhibit just began, so I’m not sure about the connection with Manga Day, which is 3 November in Japan. The museum was built to honor Kochi native Yokoyama Ryuichi, a famous manga artist who in 1961 created Japan’s first televised cartoon show, Instant History. He is also the first manga artist to have been named a Person of Cultural Merit.

Why have Japanese manga captured the imagination of young people around the world? Makino Keiichi, head of the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, thinks their popularity originates in two aspects of Japanese culture: kanji and Yaoyorozu no Kamigami. The latter expression is literally “eight million kami” (divinity, divine essence), but what that eight million really means is “a heck of a lot”. In other words, the divine essence resides in all things.

Mr. Makino uses the kanji 重 as an example of the first aspect. He says that depending on the context, Japanese will immediately determine its meanings from among the possibilities of “overlapping”, “heavy”, “-fold” (as in three-fold), or “piled up”, and its reading from among the possibilities of kasanaru, omoi, e, ju, or cho.

He explains:

“Manga are the same as kanji. When the readers see one panel of a comic, they immediately understand the meaning and freely interpret the image. That culture is the backdrop for manga, so Japanese manga artists don’t draw anything into the background that isn’t necessary. They only include the content necessary to convey the information. That results in creations with communicative power which can be understood at a glance by foreigners and children.”

As for the second aspect, he explains that the Japanese believe the divine essence resides in everything, and this sense of spirituality underlies the rich story content of Japanese manga.

“It’s different from the monotheism that forbids idolatry. In Japan, the divinities and spiritual creatures take a multiplicity of forms and become anthropomorphic. I suspect that openness is what enables the free expression of stories and characters.”

Mr. Makino adds that in the West, the Devil is a frightening creature, but that demons and Tengu in Japan are depicted with human characteristics.

“Even that which is frightening is not rejected, but made into an engaging character.”

As demonstrated by the worship of the eight million divinities, a characteristic of Japanese culture is its acceptance of and openness to things foreign, which he cites as one reason for the diversity of storylines.

“Before they’re aware of what’s happening, people throughout the world become captivated by the spiritual culture of Japan.”

Now you know how the Sailor Moon girls got their magical powers!

Makino Keiichi has his own Japanese-language website that’s still under construction, but you can see some of his unusual creations on one part of it. Kyoto Seika University and the city of Kyoto operate the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of comics.

It’s not just the visual art or the stories, either. Listen to where this music from the Seek the Full Moon animation takes you in 80 seconds.

One final note: If you think Mr. Makino is off base with his Yaoyorozu no Kamigami idea, consider that today at the Museum of Art, Kochi–in the same city as the manga exhibition–a pop art exhibit opened showing the works of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Kochi City has a population of about 340,000 and is somewhat isolated on the island of Shikoku, where it is one of the primary cities.

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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! (20): Mud in your eye at a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THAT’S NOT an Al Jolson imitation the reveler in the accompanying photo is performing—he’s taking part in an event that reportedly began about 400 years before Jolson’s birth. That’s the Doronko Festival in Kochi Prefecture, which was held for a three-day period earlier this month. Doro is the Japanese word for mud.

There are several stories about the festival’s origin, but the most common is that it started during a visit by Yamauchi Tadayoshi, the lord of the Tosa domain in the early 17th century, that coincided with the planting of the rice paddies in the spring. As the feudal lord and his retinue were walking along a ridge next to a paddy, two women working in the fields accidentally splattered muddy water on the lord’s clothes. This angered his attendant, who was ready to whack the bumpkins for their impertinence. The daimyo stayed his hand, however, saying they were at fault for walking so close to farmers while they were working. He added that they should encourage the farmers rather than punish them. When the people working in the paddies heard this, the story goes, they were so overjoyed they started slinging mud at each other.

Regardless of the story’s veracity, that’s just how the people in Kochi enjoy themselves during the first week of April. The festivities start with a rice planting ceremony in front of the local temple. At the sound of the taiko drums, the rice planting maidens in period costumes gather mud into wooden buckets and then randomly slather it on the faces of the men. Legend has it that the men who receive this mudpack will enjoy good health for the coming year.

I don’t know if it’s effective for bringing good health, but it sounds like fun–if not good clean fun!

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Matsuri da! (14) Japan’s firewalking festivals

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 16, 2007

FUNNY AS IT MAY SOUND, taking off your shoes and socks and walking across hot coals—known as firewalking—has become a well-known feature of motivational and management seminars. Motivational expert Anthony Robbins teaches it, and companies send their management personnel to seminars to learn how to do it in the hope it will boost their productivity.

In fact, it’s turned into a big business. Tolly Burkan is the guru of the firewalking movement in the United States, as he taught Robbins and the rest how to do it. He’ll teach you, too, if you pony up $US 3,500 for a three-day retreat.


But you don’t have to spend a small fortune to test your mettle. Firewalking is the central feature of several festivals held throughout Japan, and everyone from toddlers to grannies get involved. Every year on the second Sunday in March, people perform the firewalking ritual with the monks at the Yakuoin Temple in Hachioji near Tokyo to celebrate the arrival of spring. The monks have been doing it for centuries, and they’ve invited members of the public to join for the past 50 years.

For more details on their firewalking festival, here’sthis report on the 2000 event by Yuki Yanagi. Yuki’s not a native speaker, but her short article is easy to read and covers all the bases.

If you want to see photos of the entire ceremony, I highly recommend this series of 37 excellent pictures taken in 2005. There are no explanations of the individual pictures, but none are really needed. (If you read Yuki’s explanation first, you’ll know why they’re shooting arrows.)

There’s an even better set of photos on this Japanese-language site. If you can’t read the Japanese, just look for the rotating blue arrow at the bottom of the page. The ceremony photos are in four sections, so all you have to do is click on each one in sequence. This site has photos of the walkers rubbing salt on their feet before stepping out. Salt has long been used as a purification symbol in Japanese religious ceremonies, and it also may help dry out the feet, which is the key to a successful firewalk.

Meanwhile, last Monday night (the 9th), another firewalk was held in Kami, Kochi Prefecture at Konoitasan Fudomyo’o, with 100 people walking barefoot across hot coals in a ceremony to prevent illness and disaster. The photo shows a frightened young girl being helped across the coals at the event.


The Kochi festival dates back several hundred years and was begun to honor the Emperor Antoku, who died in 1185 at the age of seven during a naval battle at Dannoura during the Taira-Minamoto War. (His grandmother jumped off a burning ship holding the boy sovereign.) The firewalk is held twice a year, in spring and fall, and has been conducted in its present form for about 60 years.

Parishoners clad in traditional white clothing get the festivities underway by lighing the fire, which uses cypress logs and leaves as fuel. When it starts to blaze, they circle it and chant sutras, and already in our mind’s eye we’re not in Kansas anymore. The participants then throw into the fire small wooden tablets on which they have written their wishes–similar to three coins in the fountain, except there’s fire instead of water–and when these have been burned, they get ready for some barefootin’. One Kochi City woman who has been hoofing it across the embers every year for the past 30 years says it’s not hot at all if you become detached first. (Mushin in Japanese)

I don’t want to ruin your experience, but if you think it’s difficult to do, you might want to check out the more prosaic explanation here at Wikipedia. If nothing else, you’ll save $3,500.

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Matsuri da (12): Fighting at festivals can be fun!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 31, 2007

It might be a citywide extravaganza held over two or three days, or just a small neighborhood affair lasting a few hours, but every day in Japan, there’s a festival happening somewhere. Most are Shinto ceremonies that originated in a religious observance, but they often incorporate behavior that seems downright unreligious: drinking, sex, and fighting.

One of the most common themes of the so-called fighting festivals is a physical confrontation between two groups carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines, which are said to house the spirit of the divinity. The idea of the fight is for one group to wield its mikoshi as a weapon and destroy that of the other group. The winner is considered to have been blessed with the stronger spirit and will enjoy good fortune in the year ahead.


There are gospel singers in the United States who give such an impassioned performance they’re known figuratively as church wreckers. In Japan they take that literally. Years ago, the battles at festials were so intense that they sometimes resulted in fatalities. If fact, a high school student in Saga Prefecture died just last year (by accident) in a fighting festival whose objective was not only to destroy the other mikoshi, but to drive the other group into the river.

Every year, for more than 300 years, the Gosha shrine in Toyo-cho, Kochi Prefecture, has held a day-long festival in late April in which the participants fight it out with both mikoshi and with festival floats decorated with lanterns (first photo). They get an early start, parade around town, and then get down and dirty in front of the shrine itself. It would be as if two men tried to bash each other with four-foot long crucifixes in front of a church after the bishop gave them his blessing.

The city fathers have canceled this year’s festival, however, because they’re worried that once the participants start fighting, they may not want to stop. Toyo-cho’s chief municipal officer formally applied to have the town become the site of a nuclear waste disposal facility. This so enraged one segment of the town’s population that they launched a recall drive.

The authorities’ logic for sitting it out this year is that because people will be drinking (and since this is a Japanese festival, they will be drinking a lot), they’re afraid some serious headbanging will be ignited by the Shinto-sanctioned mikoshi busting.

That’s created a further division in the town, with opinion split between those who think that their enjoyment of a traditional festival by drinking and fighting doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear wastes, and those who’d rather be safe than sorry.

Frankly, I’m surprised the folks in Toyo-cho couldn’t come up with a better solution. For example, they might have gotten inspiration from the festival held every March 28 in Dongguang in Guangdong Province, China. (And no, I don’t mean they should play palindromes with place names and rechristen themselves Yoto-cho).

The festival in Dongguang dates back more than 400 years and originates in the practice of local farmers soliciting strong young men every year to work in the fields. The Japanese translation of the original Chinese name of the event is the Miuri Matsuri, which I wonder about, because miuri means selling oneself into bondage.


That doesn’t sound very festive to me, but you’ve got to hand it to the Dongguangers for taking the idea and running with it. The event has evolved over the years, and now, for some unexplained reason, the entire city takes the day off, school children included, to engage in combat with water guns (second photo). Who knows how they got from there to here? They’re probably having too much fun to care anyway!

Reports say that weapons of various sizes are used, and there is always a very impressive running battle up and down one street that stretches for several kilometers.

Now if the pro-nuclear processing facility faction and the opposing faction in Toyo-cho had decided to settle their differences at thirty paces with a squirt gun, perhaps they wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble of circulating a recall position. Then again, the mayor might have called out the fire truck to outgun the opposition.

But they didn’t even have to look so far to China for inspiration—they could have taken a hint from the Mudslinging Festival held every March 28 in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture (third photo).


Every year, a “substitute priest” is selected by lot from among the families patronizing the Aso Shrine in the city. The townspeople dress the substitute in white robes and get him as drunk as a lord (or a Buddhist monk) by making him down five large cups of sake. After the “priest” is suitably sloshed, he is blindfolded and made to walk a 500-meter course from the shrine to the statue of a local guardian deity.

Getting him drunk and blindfolded is a good idea, because that way he can’t see what’s about to happen, and probably wouldn’t care if he could. Boys aged 10-12 line the path and pelt him with mud from small piles conveniently placed alongside the road. The adult onlookers egg the boys on, shouting, “Can you hit him? Can you hit him?” No one cares very much whether the boys have good aim–everyone’s covered in mud when the festival is over. And if they’ve been helping themselves to the sake they forced the priest to drink, the whole lot of them are equally plastered, inside and out.

Legend has it that the more mud that sticks to the priest’s white clothing, the better that year’s harvest will be. The festival has been conducted continuously since the Edo period, and has been designated an intangible cultural asset of the prefecture.

Now is that any way to run a religion? Getting people drunk and having boys of an impressionable age throw mud at a priest–substitute or not–and giving it the official government seal of approval as a cultural event? It is in Japan.

You’ve got to admit, nuclear controversy or no nuclear controversy, they sure are a bunch of wet blankets in Toyo-cho! They could rig the lottery (instead of an election) and select the mayor as the substitute priest. The town could take its frustration out on hizzoner and bombard him with flying mud. It also would be educational for the mayor, as he’d discover you don’t have to be a politician to be a mudslinger. And after five big cups of sake—probably the size of soup bowls, knowing Japan—he wouldn’t care what was happening to him anyway.

Or they could have formed a sister-city relationship with Dongguang and sent international exchange delegations packing water pistols to each other’s municipality. That would probably contribute more to amity between nations than any of the tame international friendship tea parties I’ve been to. They’d be laughing themselves silly at the end of the day.

Instead, the people of Toyo-cho are going to have to wait until fall for their festival fun when they have their annual sword dancing festival, which uses long bamboo poles instead of swords. I hope they’ve worked out their political problems by then, or they’re going to have to cancel that one, too!

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