Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

The lightness of being in Kyoto

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 23, 2009

ONE THING FOR CERTAIN about the Japanese is that they love a good light show, particularly those involving traditional lanterns. Some of them are spectacular in appearance, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival in Nagasaki in February and March and the Rokugatsudo in Kagoshima in July. Others are spectacular in performance, as you can see from these posts on as the Kanto Festival in Akita in August and the chochin fighting festival in Hyogo in October.


Yet there are others that eschew the spectacular for an elegant sense of refinement. One of those events is the Kyoto-Higashiyama Hanatoro (literally flower lantern road), which began on the evening of the 13th in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward and ended tonight. The idea is simple: 2,400 andon, which are really more lamp stand than lantern, are set up along both sides of the road from Shoren-in, a Buddhist temple (whose head priests years ago were members of the Imperial family), to Kiyomizu-dera, another temple 4.6 kilometers (2.85 miles) away, to create a lovely, atmospheric walking course. The andon are made from a variety of materials, including Kiyomizu ware, bamboo, cedar, stone, and metal. They’re lit after six to create the mood, which is evident from the photo, and they’re extinguished at about 9:30.

The course passes a total of eight temples or Shinto shrines, all of which are specially illuminated for the occasion. They also allow visits at night, which is normally not the case at the temples.

Those who want to commemorate their walk may do so by being one of the first 100 to arrive at the Yasaka Shinto shrine. The early evening birds get to have their picture taken with dancing girls (of the traditional sort, not the ones who dance on laps).

Considering the age of the city and its religious institutions, one might think the flower lantern road is a centuries-old tradition that was once enjoyed by the nobility. In fact, however, it is very recent: it was started in 2003 with the objective of attracting more people to the neighborhood after dark. Even the local organizers must have been surprised just how successful the event would become, and just how quickly that success would arrive. Five years later, an estimated one million people showed up just to take a stroll in the Kyoto evening by candlelight.

In a world that seems to grow coarser and more willfully Philistine by the day, it is reassuring to know that so many still respond to quiet, understated beauty when the opportunity is available.

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Matsuri da! (97): Gone are the seals of yesteryear

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 1, 2008

THE IDEA THAT INANIMATE OBJECTS have a spirit that is to be respected still lives in Japan. That’s why some Japanese find it difficult to casually throw away items they’ve used for many years. In some cases, in fact, special festivals are held in appreciation for their service and to dispose of them respectfully.

One of those is the Insho Kigan Festival, which took place at the Shimogamo Shinto shrine in Kyoto on the 28th. Insho are the seals that Japanese use to stamp official documents in lieu of a signature. This festival was conducted to express thanks for seals that can no longer be used or are no longer needed, and then to dispose of them. The shrine received 28,000 seals from people around the country for the ceremony.

There is a commercial aspect to the event. It was conceived and sponsored by the federation of companies in the seal-making industry in Kyoto, whose membership consists of 69 manufacturers and retailers. The festival was held just before National Seal Day (which is today, but nobody else knew either). This year’s festival was the 29th. (Watch what happens on the federation’s Japanese language website when you click the links on the yellow bar.)

Despite the commercialism, the event is still conducted in the Shinto tradition. As you can see from the photo, Shinto priests preside over a consecration. There were also dances by women wearing junihitoe (literally, 12-layered garment), a formal court ensemble dating from a millenium ago, and booths where the parishioners could try their hand at carving their own seals.

And while the event is new, the venue is not. The Shimogamo shrine is one of Japan’s oldest. There are records indicating the shrine’s fence was repaired in 2 BC, which means it was already in operation before that.

Is there any other country in the world where such old religious traditions and facilities are regularly employed for new events?

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Matsuri da! (90): The Imperial icebox

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 4, 2008

TECHNOLOGY HAS MADE LIFE so much easier that it’s almost impossible for us to conceive how people must have lived in the past. To take one example, consider the methods for dealing with the summer heat. Is it uncomfortably hot? Just turn on the air conditioner. Is your throat parched? Dump some ice cubes from the freezer into a glass and pour yourself a beverage, assuming it already hasn’t been chilled in the refrigerator.

But not so long ago, ice in the summer was an extravagance available only to the wealthy or to royalty. Technology has turned us all into kings, queens, and plutocrats.

When Kyoto was the residence of the Japanese tenno (emperor), ice for the Imperial Palace was cut from frozen ponds in winter and stored at a Shinto shrine until the start of summer. The name of the storage area for this ice was the himuro—literally, the ice room. In fact, the shrine where the ice was kept became known as the Himuro Shrine, and it still stands in Nantan, Kyoto, today.

To commemorate its past as the Imperial icebox, the shrine conducts the Himuro Festival every year on 1 July. The event coincides with the date the pond ice was taken out of storage and presented to the palace, which was 1 June under the old calendar.

Back then, the tenno and the Imperial Court were the beneficiaries of the ice. Now, it is presented to the shrine itself as an offering of thanks to the local forebears who were responsible for the area’s prosperity.

The actual ceremony involves the shrine’s priests and about 50 parishioners forming a line to present the ice. They offer two blocks to the divinities: each one is 15 centimeters long, 30 centimeters wide, and 15 centimeters high. Take another look at the photo to see why they don’t consider it to be 30 centimeters long and 15 centimeters wide.

That gives rise to a question. In centuries past, the palace ice was likely put to use right away in a special area for food storage. But modern refrigeration makes that unnecessary. The reports say the ice—which no longer comes from a frozen pond–is now put in the shrine’s old ice room.

Offerings to the divinities are usually placed near a Shinto altar. They can’t just lay the ice blocks in front of the altar and leave them there. Even if they are stuck in the old ice room, they’ll eventually melt, and the water will get all over everything.

How do you demonstrate the proper respect for the ice of the divinities without making a mess? Considering those modern metal trays and plastic sheeting, it looks like they’ve come up with a solution to make everyone happy!

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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 »

Matsuri da! (85): And they’re off!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 18, 2008

MAY IS THE MONTH for the sport of kings in the United States, as the Kentucky Derby was run two weeks ago and the Preakness Stakes was held on Saturday. The third leg of America’s Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing will be at Belmont in two more weeks.

In Japan, May is the month for another famous horserace, held two days after the Derby this year. This one doesn’t involve pari-mutuel betting, racetrack touts, mint juleps, or a wreath of roses around the neck of the winning nag. It was the annual Kurabe-uma Festival at the Kamowake Ikazuchi Shinto shrine in Kyoto run in conjunction with Boys’ Day on the fifth. The shrine itself dates from 678, making it the oldest in the city, and it was already more than 400 years old when the first Ritual of the Racehorses, as it is sometimes called, was held in the late 11th century during the reign of the Horikawa Tenno (emperor).

The race was originally a court festival that started during the Heian period in supplication for a good harvest and peace, but later came to be conducted by military officers as a demonstration of equestrian skill. An archery competition is held the day before. (This is Boys’ Day, after all.)

Instead of a group of up to 20 horses running counterclockwise around a circular track for two or more kilometers (or clockwise in Japan and Great Britain), the horses and riders are divided into two groups of 12 each, called literally “the left side” and “the right side”, and each team sends out a horse and jockey to gallop 150 meters down a straight-line turf track on the shrine grounds. That eliminates the possibility of such wagering options as the perfecta or wheeling a quinella, but then again the Racing Form isn’t sold in stalls outside the torii.

Kurabe-uma, incidentally, means “comparing horses”, which is not the usual word for horse racing in Japan. In addition, jockeys are normally called kishu, but the riders at the Kurabe-uma are referred to as norijiri, or a combination of the words for “ride” and “buttocks”. Western jockeys wear what are called silks, and while costumes of the norijiri might be made from silk, that would be the only resemblance. Their duds also date from the Heian period and are identical to those worn by gagaku musicians.

Once the race is underway, however, the jockeys behave just as jockeys do the world over–the norijiri urge on their mounts by shouting “hyah” and applying the whip judiciously. As with many festivals involving a competition between two groups, a bumper crop is assured if one of the groups wins. In the Kurabe-uma, that is the left side, and this year’s results ensure that few people will be going hungry in the Kyoto area anytime soon.

For more information on the shrine, also known as the Kamigamo shrine, try the link above. For more information on Kurabe-uma, try this link from the Encyclopedia of Shinto (which also has a link on the right sidebar.) Clicking on the photo at the bottom right of the page runs a brief video of the event.

The Kurabe-uma is just one of the festivals held by the shrine this month. It also conducted the elegant Aoi Festival last week, and you can try this link for an Ampontan report on last year’s event. The second photo above is from this year’s festival, however.

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Greeting the new year the Japanese way

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

YEAREND IS THE ENGLISH WORD used to describe both the end of the business year and the period during which New Year’s holiday events take place. The same word is used in Japan, but more frequently to denote the end of the business year. When referring to the period during which the holiday events take place, the Japanese tend to use the term nenmatsu nenshi, or year-end, year-beginning.


That’s because there are as many New Year’s events after the year begins as there are before it ends. Often, these events are held to mark the first occasion in the New Year people will perform a specific activity.

Everyone knows about the custom of the daily bath in Japan, for example, so it will be no surprise that one of the New Year events would be the first bath of the year at the Arima hot springs in Kobe (first photo). Naturally, they make a point of using the first bath water of the year.

This year, about 400 people were present to watch the tribute to the hot spring founders and the offering of a prayer for future prosperity. There was also a parade with mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines, and combined Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.

Legend has it that the Arima hot springs were discovered by two gods, O’onamuchi-no-mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-mikoto. No one seems to have pinpointed the date of the discovery, but there are records of Imperial visits to the bath in the 7th century.

The facilities later fell into disrepair, but were restored by the monk Gyoki in the 8th century. It also was destroyed after an earthquake and rebuilt by the monk Ninsai in the 11th century. The spa waters of Arima must be superb for people to keep bringing the place back to life!


During the event, which is roughly 300 years old, employees of a local ryokan, or Japanese inn, and monks in ancient dress carry the mikoshi from a temple to a local elementary school. There they hold a ceremony to cool the water until it’s the right temperature for bathing. And by way of honoring tradition and thanking the people who made the spa what it is today, they also splash water on statues of Gyoki and Ninsai!


Since the start of a new year is a holiday, there’s no better way to spend one’s free time than by playing games—or in this case, cards, or karuta as they are traditionally called in Japanese (second photo).

The Yasaka Shrine in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, held the first karuta competition of the year early in January with the help of the members of a local association called the Nihon Karuta-In. The women playing the game— dubbed the karuta princesses—dressed in the clothing of court nobles during the Heian period (794-1185).

This is not the Japanese version of gin rummy. Instead, the game is a fascinating blend of the artistic and the competitive. It is sometimes called hyakunin isshu, or Single Poems by a Hundred Poets. That name is an apt description because the poems used are a collection of 100 waka, or verses consisting of 31 syllables. These specific poems are thought to have been written by 100 different people during the period from the mid-7th century to no later than 1242. Here’s how the game is played.

There are two sets of 100 cards on which the poems are written. One set is used by a reader, and the other set is used by the competitors, who face each other with the cards lying on the floor between them. The reader recites the first three lines of the waka, and the two contestants compete to be the first to take the card on which the full poem is written.

Don’t let the costumes fool you—those ladies have lightning fast reflexes, and by the rules, they don’t have to grab the cards. All that’s required is to be the first to flick them to the side. Simply watching a match can be engrossing, as it combines elegant historical clothing and knowledge of poetry with the steely gaze, calm demeanor, and cobra-quick attack of seasoned competitors.


Flower Arranging

Those women who prefer artistic pursuits without the head-to-head competition might have chosen to participate instead in the first flower arranging ceremony of the New Year on the 5th at the headmaster’s dojo of the Ikenobo school of flower arranging in Kyoto’s Nakagyo Ward (third photo). A total of 1,400 people ranging in age from 11 to 97 came from around the country to create their own floral works of art.

The event dates back to the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when people met to exchange New Year’s greetings and pledge to promote the art of flower arranging. The practice soon became an annual custom.

The 11-year-old girl who participated, Yamane Ayaka, told an interviewer she visualized a flower garden during the creation of her work, and that she hoped to continue flower arranging as a junior high school student.

It’s likely that Ayaka got her early start in flower arranging because her parents are involved in the art. The two characters used to write her first name mean “brightly-colored flower”.


Read a Japanese newspaper early in January, and you’re almost certain to see photographs such as this one in which the practitioners of traditional Japanese archery take aim for their first shots of the New Year in their own ceremony (fourth photo). The archers shown here gathered on the 3rd at a site in Otsu, Shiga, to demonstrate their resolve to improve their skills in the coming year.


It was sponsored by the Shiga Archery League, and about 80 members ranging in age from 16 to 83 participated. The head of the organization conducted a formal ceremony called the yawatashi, or “handing over the arrow”, to open the event, and then 10 people formed lines to shoot two arrows at a target 28 meters away.


Most of these events are derived from centuries-old Japanese traditions, and the participants are usually serious hobbyists. One exception, however, was the first firefighting drills of the New Year conducted by the Tokyo Fire Department with 2,800 firefighters on the morning of the 6th at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The participants also included personnel from regional fire departments and corporate firefighting teams.


This was a full-scale drill, complete with entertainment. A total of nine squads were mobilized, and they used 130 trucks and four helicopters. Tokyo Fire Chief Teruyuki Kobayashi started the morning off by remarking that Tokyo area firefighters were given a reminder of the difficulty of their work last year by their struggles to contain a fire resulting from an explosion at a Shibuya bathing facility. He urged the men to use their training and experience to protect the lives and safety of the citizens.

Then they showed off their firefighting and rescue skills in exercises based on conditions they might expect to deal with when confronted by fires in buildings and ships, or collapsed buildings in earthquakes.
The event closed with the acrobatic display shown in the fifth photo of the traditional ladder-climbing techniques firefighters used during the Edo period (1606-1868). Some of those moves seem as if they might have been performed more to impress the audience than to demonstrate actual techniques that were used to fight fires!


Many different decorations are used during the New Year’s holidays, as we saw in this previous post, and most of them originate with Shinto. Because some of these decorations are thought to be associated with the divinity—or even considered to be a divinity’s temporary dwelling–they are not casually tossed in the trash when the holidays are over.


Instead, Shinto shrines conduct a special ceremony known as the dondoyaki to ritually burn these items. This particular New Year’s burning took place on the 7th at the Takayama shrine in Tsu, Mie, with a prayer for peace, health, and safety in the coming year (last photo).

The priests held a special fire-lighting ceremony at 8 a.m., after which they started the fire at the site for sacred incineration with 15 parishioners helping.

After all the decorations were burned, the shrine thoughtfully distributed nanakusakayu, or rice gruel with the traditional seven spring herbs, to visitors.

It’s worth remembering that these events are held by and for members of the general public with an interest in traditional activities (except for the firefighters, of course). In Japan, at least, there are still pleasant and rewarding ways to spend one’s time during a time of year that for some is just dead space to be filled by watching television.

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Matsuri da! (61) Big torches in Kurama!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 18, 2007

THE JAPANESE TENDENCY to arrange and classify by group is much more pronounced than that in the West. By that I mean they are drawn to viewing and discussing objects or ideas as being among the top 10, the best three, or the biggest five in any given category. Other examples include the semi-official classifications for the country’s best 100 scenic views and the most attractive 100 terraced rice paddies. Corporations in their annual reports often refer to such things as their “three guiding principles”. (The Koreans and the Chinese also have the same preference; remember the Gang of Four?)

Kyoto, the old capital, has three kisai, or “unusual festivals”, every year. (In fact, the conduct of one has been suspended, but they still say there are three.) One of those three is the Kurama Fire Festival, which is held by the Yuki Shinto shrine on October 22.

Here’s what happens: The shrine’s parishioners in the Kurama district, a rural part of the prefecture, gather at the local Buddhist temple to carry 500 flaming torches in a procession, sparks flying, urged on by onlookers chanting, sairei, sairyo! By torches, we are not talking about sticks of wood held aloft in the hand. These are four meters long and weigh from 80 to 100 kilograms.

It all starts on the evening of the 22nd, when at 6:00 p.m. the town is illuminated by watch fires lit simultaneously at the entrances to the local houses, and by a procession of children carrying smaller torches. They’re followed by adults carrying the big bruisers, who parade through the town and meet up at the Kurama Buddhist temple for the trip to the shrine. Japan is nothing if not syncretic. The climax comes later when the young guys haul two mikoshi, or portable shrines, through the streets. But of course the après-festival party continues until dawn, or close to it.

The villagers carry these torches not to recreate the search for the Mary Shelley character, but to reenact a much older event. The Emperor Suzaku ordered the enshrined deity of the Kurama Shrine to be moved from its original site in Kyoto’s Imperial Palace to Kurama in 940. The people in the area welcomed the Imperial procession by torchlight. They found it so moving, they’ve kept on doing it for more than a millenium.

The spectacle is so compelling that it attracts as many as 12,000 visitors to the village every year—don’t forget, it is one of the three most unusual festivals of Kyoto. An additional attraction is the landscape surrounding the village. Further, the buildings of the Yuki Shinto shrine are built in the style of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1598), and there is also a Japanese cedar tree about 800 years old on the shrine grounds.

Because the festival is so visually appealing, there are a lot of YouTube videos available, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one worth linking to. Kurama is a mountain village, so it is no easy matter to travel there. Its relative inaccessibility is complicated by more than 12,000 people arriving at the same time. Naturally, most of the home videos start with the train ride to the site.

After looking at the Five Most Boring Kurama Fire Festival videos, I gave up! You’ll have to make do with the photo on this site, or the photos at the site of the Yuki Shinto shrine.

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Matsuri da! (48): Getting eels drunk

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 5, 2007

WHAT DO YOU DO when you want to bring forth rainfall to ensure a bumper crop? Well, if you’re from Ujitawara-cho in the Kyoto Metropolitan District, you get some eels drunk and throw them into a waterfall.

Scoff if you must, but the Otaki Daimyojin Shinto shrine in that town has been performing that ceremony annually since the Edo period—which ended in 1868—so they must think it’s effective.

It’s all part of the Otaki Festival held by the shrine every September 1 as a way to make rain for the fall harvest. About 30 parishioners of the shrine are involved.

They start with three 30-centimeter-long eels, called unagi. They place the eels in a large tub and pour in a generous amount of sacred sake. As the eels are beginning to wonder just what in the heck happened to the water, a Shinto priest offers a prayer for rain. When the prayer is concluded, the parishioners, wearing white gloves, grab the eels one by one and hurl them into the basin of a nearby waterfall, which has a 60-meter drop.

Media reports say the eels are thrashing about madly after they’ve been plucked by hand from the brine. Grabbing an eel in a pool with your hand is no easy task, by the way—that’s done as a contest for children at summer festivals, and few can successfully snatch one. I wonder: are the eels thrashing because the liquor has short-circuited their primitive nervous systems, or because they’re upset at being cut off from the booze?

Of course they’ve got an excuse reason for behaving this way. There is a statue of a Fudoson in the waterfall. Those are wrathful Buddhist deities with terrifying faces to scare unbelievers into converting. This particular Fudoson is worshipped as the guardian deity of the rivers and mountains. The eels are thought to be the Fudoson’s servants (in this neighborhood, anyway). The folks in Ujitawara-cho believe that if the eels are given sake and shaken (not stirred), they become dragons, ascend to the heavens, and call forth the clouds that bring rain.

This year, the local paper interviewed a 70-year-old man who saw the ceremony for the first time. Was he surprised that priests were soaking live eels in sake and throwing them into a waterfall from a 60-meter height?

Nah. He thought it was amusing because it’s unusual for living creatures to be used in Japanese rain festivals.

Is it just my imagination, or do the rituals performed at some Japanese festivals bear a striking resemblance to the shenanigans cooked up by American frat boys towards the end of a party at a university?

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Kyoto is burning!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 17, 2007

FOR SOME PEOPLE, the defining traits of Japanese culture are elegance, understatement, and a simple, austere beauty. While those are characteristic of many Japanese traditions, they are by no means the sole cultural delimiters. One is just as likely to find the grand gesture, exaggeration, and showmanship on a Barnumesque scale, though still informed with a distinctive esthetic refinement. Sometimes an entire city is used as the setting, or the canvas, if you will.

There’s no better example of these qualities than the Daimonji Okuribi, in which huge bonfires are set ablaze on five mountains surrounding Kyoto every August 16th at the end of the O-bon period. During O-bon, the spirits of a family’s ancestors are said to return to the family home. Traditionally, they were sometimes greeted with mukaebi, literally “welcoming fire”, and sent back to the spirit word with okuribi, or “seeing off fire”. “Daimonji” refers to “the kanji character dai“, which itself means great or large.

And that’s exactly what happens—the Kyotoans burn words and pictures into the mountainsides. The media and the tourist guides always show the dai character (as in this photo), but more that one hillside is set on fire that night. There are also bonfires on four other mountains—two parts of the same mountain have the two kanji for myoho, or Buddha’s Law, another mountain has a smaller dai kanji, a bonfire in the shape of a ship burns on a fourth mountain, and the last bonfire is in the shape of a torii, the gateway to Shinto shrines.

These fires are large enough to be seen throughout the city. Each flaming kanji stroke ranges from 80 to 160 meters in length. Pine branches are used to set the fires, and there are 75 separate fire sources for the larger dai kanji alone. That figure is ignited at 8:00 p.m., with the others following immediately after. One can imagine the length of preparation time required, but the flames themselves die out in about 30 minutes. This is another example of the Japanese appreciation for fleeting beauty—the peak time for cherry blossom viewing in the spring is also very short, for example. This combination of beauty and brevity is viewed as a metaphor for human life itself.

Smaller bonfires have been lit at homes to see off ancestors for many centuries, but the mountainside bonfires in Kyoto are said to have originated with the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, who suggested the practice as a prayer to ward off illness. That would date the start of the event in the early 9th century. Last year, an estimated 120,000 people turned out to watch.

Kobo Daishi, by the way, is a formidable figure in Japanese history. Also known as Kukai, he traveled to China to study esoteric Buddhism and returned to establish monasteries and meditation centers in the Kyoto area. He founded the Shingon sect, is credited with inventing the kana syllabary (the Japanese use two alphabetical systems in addition to kanji), originated the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, created poetry, calligraphy, and sculpture, built lakes, founded a school, and compiled the oldest extant dictionary in Japan.

That’s a lot of activity to pack into one life, but Kobo Daishi also was known for his extreme ascetic practices–which likely freed up a lot of spare time!

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Matsuri da! (32): Women pulling the load at the Gion Festival

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 15, 2007

UNLIKE MANY JAPANESE FESTIVALS, the Gion Festiva in Kyoto isn’t a one-night stand. Instead, it’s comprised of several events throughout the month of July. A few days ago, I wrote about the geisha and their apprentices from the Gion Kobu district donning matching yukata and visiting the Yasaka shrine to receive a blessing from the Shinto priest.

Yukata-clad women featured prominently in another Gion event on the 12th called the Hiki-hajime, in which several hundred young female students did whatever women do instead of spitting on their hands and then hauling five floats through the center of the city. It was not the main parade for the floats; that will occur on the 17th. Rather, the event was to take the floats on a trial run after they were assembled. Participation wasn’t limited to female students—anyone could join in.

The ladies certainly had to put some muscle into it. Those floats weigh more than 10 tons each. They heave away on the ropes with a shout of Enya-raya, but judging from the photo, they don’t seem to have worked up much of a sweat at all.

Those floats, by the way, are still built with traditional methods that use ropes instead of nails. For a closer look at one of them, by all means try this page.

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Yukata: Japan’s summer fashion statement

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 10, 2007

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN a Japanese woman who didn’t look lovely wearing a yukata? Neither have I!

A yukata is a lightweight cotton kimono for summer wear and has been part of the Japanese wardrobe since the Heian Period (794-1185). Court nobles wore first them as summer bathrobes, then the warrior class picked up the habit, and finally the fashion spread to everyone during the Edo Period. Both men and women wear them, sometimes as nightwear, sometimes for lounging around the house, and always after a bath at a ryokan, a Japanese-style inn. Guests are provided with yukata to wear along with the towels and washcloths.

The popularity of the yuakata is reportedly surging, particularly among young women, and according to some observers, they are increasingly being worn in public. As far I can tell, however, they never really went away—women have always worn them in public in the summer, particularly for festivals, but the industry reports that sales are soaring again.

Here are two superb examples of how yukata are worn in public, one in a specialized tradition, the other in a more recent popular tradition. Regardless of the circumstances, however, both result in a situation referred to in Japanese by the expression, hyakka ryoran, or a profusion of colorful flowers.

Last week on the 6th, about 100 geisha and apprentices from Gion Kobu in Kyoto (a famed hanamachi, or geisha district), visited the nearby Yasaka shrine in matching yukata as one of the events in the shrine’s month-long Gion Festival, which has been held since the 9th century (first photo). The ladies went to offer a prayer for good health in the summer and achieving excellence in the arts. They gathered on the shrine grounds at 9:30 a.m., greeting each other with o-hayosandosu, a variant of o-hayogozaimasu, or good morning. After walking quietly around the main shrine hall, they participated in a purification ceremony conducted by a Shinto priest.

College students
Meanwhile, the day before at Mimasaka University in Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture, students attended classes dressed in yukata in celebration of Tanabata, continuing a tradition they began in 1993 (second photo). Tanabata falls on the 7th, which was a Saturday this year, so the event was held earlier. According to school officials, about two-thirds of the student body of 1,400 came dressed in the summer robes. I’m not sure how long the link will last, but here’s a brief television report in Japanese about the students. (Just click on the black screen.) You don’t have to understand Japanese to appreciate the story. Good morning, little schoolgirls…I’m a little schoolboy too!

The Japan Times printed an article that never made it on-line a couple of years ago about the resurgent popularity of yukata. Here were the main points:

  • According to the Japan Federation of Yukata Manufacturers, demand for yukata peaked in 1964 when 13 million rolls of cloth were sold nationwide.
  • Production levels bottomed out in 2000 at 1.6 million rolls, rose in 2002, and climbed again to 3.5 million rolls.
  • Major department stores have been expanding their sales sections for yukata.
  • Fast Retailing Co., operator of the Uniqlo chain, now offers a 3,990 yen yukata set that includes an obi (sash).

The article also reported that while yukata are usually made of cotton, some companies are bringing out polyester varieties because they absorb perspiration better, dry quicker, do not crease, and are easy to wash. Considering the oppressive heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, a polyester yukata would seem to miss the point, but then I’m not about to try to figure out female fashions. They also mention that robes made of hemp are also selling well because of the material’s smooth texture.

This seems to be a later version of the same Japan Times article, though with less detail.

As you’ve already figured out, yukata are characterized by a striking visual beauty, derived from exceptionally colorful and imaginative patterns. If they remind you a bit of Hawaiian shirts, that’s probably because some think the original Aloha shirts were created by island shirtmaker Ellery Chun, who used yukata cloth to make them.

Here’s a nice website with an explanation of yukata and kimono. This site offers yukata for sale online, both to men and to women. Here’s an interesting snippet about an 87-year-old merchant who has 30,000 patterns in his collection, and includes a picture of a pattern from the Edo Period. If you want instructions in how to wear one, visit this page. And if you really want to check them out in detail, this Japanese-language site is an online shop with hundreds of patterns. Each of the icons at the left takes you to a different color group.

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Matsuri da! (23) Japan’s most elegant festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 15, 2007

If you’ve ever wondered what a living tradition more than a millenium old might look like, there would have been no better chance to find out than at the Aoi Festival today in Kyoto, the first of the three major festivals held annually in the city and commonly regarded as the oldest and most elegant in the country.

Officially called the Kamo Festival after the two Kamo shrines, it dates from the 6th century when there were a series of poor harvests in the area. The emperor sent an emissary to pray for a bountiful harvest. Later, imperial princesses substituted for the emperor, and today the festival is a recreation of the procession of those princesses to the two shrines.

The procession departs from the Kyoto Imperial Palace at 10:30 a.m. with a total of 511 participants and 40 oxen. The participants are dressed in the clothing of nobles during the late Heian Period (794-1185). The festival gets its name from the aoi, or wild ginger, decorating the headgear of the marchers, the oxcarts, and houses along the procession route.

They proceed across the Aoi Bridge to the Shimo-Gamo shrine (nice website!), where they conduct a Shinto ceremony. When this is completed, they proceed to the Kami-Gamo shrine to conduct a similar ceremony. The festival is held on the 15th every year and always attracts large numbers of sightseers. This year, Kyoto Police estimated that the crowd reached 32,000 at noon.

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