Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Nagano’

Matsuri da! (139): Drunken elegance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 26, 2012

DID you get well and truly sloshed over the long weekend that included Christmas Eve and Christmas? The percentage of Japanese slumped face down on the bar or snoring in their easy chairs was probably no larger than it would be for any other weekend, however. Christmas is a working day here, unless it falls on Saturday or Sunday.

drunken elegance

Besides, not everyone in this part of the world behaves badly when they redline on liquor. In fact, there’s a certain tradition of drunken elegance that’s been turned into a religious ritual and dance. It’s called the konju, which originated as an imitation of the movements of some Chinese guy in ancient times who got a snootful and started rambling. It arrived in Japan in 736, but doesn’t survive in its original form. That’s because it was modified during the reign of the Emperor Ninmyo, which places it somewhere in the early to mid-Eighth Century.

The dance is so elegant, in fact, it’s often performed at Shinto ceremonies throughout Japan. One example was its presentation at the Bugaku festival of the Hodaka Shinto shrine in Matsumoto, Nagano. The folks at the Hodaka shrine thought it would be fun to couple a traditional dance festival with their Daisengu Festival, which rolls around once every 20 years. The konju was part of the choreography.

The performance was held at a site just as elegant for its beauty. The backdrop was the 3,190-meter-high Mt. Okuhodaka in the Japanese Alps. The stage was placed next to a bridge and a pond.

Come clean, now — that’s not how you behaved at the office Christmas party, was it?

Here’s a performance of the dance at a different time and different place. He does look a bit ripped, doesn’t he?

Posted in Arts, China, Festivals | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

All you have to do is look (89)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 27, 2012

World Boxing Association women’s strawweight (105 lbs. max) champion Miyao Ayaka, from Chikuwa, Nagano, after her title match last month. She won by a 3-0 judges’ decision. This seems to be the last round.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Sports | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The barstool philosopher

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 6, 2011

READER Camphortree wrote in this week to suggest that incipient Alzheimer’s was one possible explanation for Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s behavior. While that’s possible — nothing can be ruled out with Mr. Kan, after all — my suspicions lie in the direction of a long, lush life of alcohol consumption.

Consider, for example, what a columnist in the Nikkei Shimbun reported him as saying in the Diet on 20 July:

The earth has passed through 4.6 billion years of history, but we have relied on nuclear power for only a few dozen of those years. Therefore, I do not think it holds that we must rely on it for eternity.

Doesn’t that sound like the sort of wisdom you might hear dispensed with a solemn, authoritative air by a slightly gasping and swaying geezer with purple veins in his nose and gravy stains on his lapel, sliding over a few bar stools to strike up a conversation?

The sort of fellow who would seize on any comment you made, no matter how brief or noncommittal, to expound on his liquid insights in a different direction altogether? Such as this one the prime minister belched forth at a public meeting in Nagano, which was reported in the press on 1 August.

The old men (おじいさん) who went to the mountains 200 or 300 years ago to gather wood were able to manage everything with that firewood or whatever. All we have to do is to convert that into a new technology, and that is completely possible.

Don’t forget, he was awarded an engineering degree from a reputable university. It brings new meaning to the word “technocrat”.

It’s a mystery why guys like this never seem to have to go to the bathroom so you can move to another part of the bar (or another bar altogether) before they get back. The amount of fluids they consume combined with the size of their prostates should mean their frequency of head calls would be higher instead of lower.

My favorite is this one from the same speech:

We can’t take a risk even once that would destroy the planet, even if there’s just a one-in-one hundred million chance.

It has to be the liquid courage that gets him out of bed and out of the house every day to defy the odds that the earth could split open at any moment and swallow him up right there on the sidewalk!

Here’s another speaker three sheets to the wind who leaves his audience in tears.

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Posted in I couldn't make this up if I tried, Quotations, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (3)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 12, 2010

JAPAN MAY OR MAY NOT become the world’s next cultural hegemon, but the daily parade of cultural phenomena in this country is too immense and diverse to keep track of it all. It’s better just to let it wash all over you and enjoy whatever you can whenever it flows by.

Here’s a baker’s dozen of rivulets from the recent flood.


The Nio guardian statues stand guard as sentries at the entrance gate of temples. As the Buddhists have it, they are emanations of Vajrapani Bodhisattva that represent the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death. It takes two to guard the gate, one with mouth open, and the other with mouth closed.

But just like the rest of us, the alphas and the omegas need something to cover their bare feet. The solution in some places is supersized waraji, or straw sandals. That’s no exaggeration–Kataoka Tsuneo in Echizen, Fukui, recently made a pair more than two meters long. Or to be precise, they were 2.1 meters long, 85 centimeters wide, and 14 centimeters thick. At 6 feet 10 inches, they’re longer than most people are tall. They also weighed between 40 to 50 kilograms each.

To be even more precise, Mr. Kataoka didn’t make them by himself. “It’s an impossible job for one person when they’re this size,” he admitted, so he called on two apprentice cobblers to help. It took the trio a week to put the sandals together.

This isn’t the sort of thing that people regularly do, even in Japan. Said Mr. Kataoka, “It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve made any sandals that big.” He made a one-meter pair for some smaller Nio last year, but said, “Orders for something like this don’t come around all that often. Even if I wanted to make some, it’s hard to find the time.”

He gave them to a temple in Yamagata this month after he applied the finishing touches.


Every alpha has its omega, and even the strongest of straw sandals wear out eventually after standing sentry duty at the temple gates for so long. But when those waraji are no longer usable, they can’t just be tossed out in the trash. Many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, and that goes double for objects that require specialized skills to make and were used at a religious institution. They’ve been invested with a lot of ki, after all. Disposing of them requires a special ceremony.

The most famous giant straw sandals in the country are the pair used at Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. That’s the oldest temple in Japan, and you can read about its origins here.

The practice of hanging waraji at Senso-ji started in 1941 when lower house MP Matsuoka Toshizo donated the first pair as a symbol of national defense. They’ve been replaced once every decade since then. The sixth pair was 4.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide, and weighed one ton each. They were donated in 1998 and hung on the Hozomon (gate). This particular pair was made by a resident of Murayama, Yamagata—Matsuoka Toshizo’s hometown—and they’ve been on display in that city since being returned in 2008.

But all good things must come to an end, so they were dispatched in a rite called the Otakiage. After an initial Shinto ceremony, about 50 Murayamanians took them apart by removing the wires holding the straw in place. A fire was then lighted to burn the straw, during which a Buddhist mass was conducted. And since it would have been a shame to waste that nice bonfire, the 200 or so people who showed up to watch were given mochi rice cakes, which they stuck on the end of bamboo sticks and roasted.

If that ain’t the alpha and the omega, I don’t know what is.

Since many Japanese believe that inanimate objects have a spirit, no one was surprised when the chairman of the event said:


I’ll be darned if I can come up with a satisfying English translation that does justice to the original and is still comfortably readable. Let’s try this:

“The sandals didn’t lose their shape and did us the favor of making every effort to hang together until now, so we want to thank them for their service.”

Regardless of how it sounds in English, that sounds perfectly natural in Japanese.

The world’s largest lawnmower?

Streetcars still run in some Japanese cities, including Nagasaki City and Kagoshima City. Several years ago, Kagoshima City planted turf in between the tracks to ameliorate the heat island effect and add some greenery to the city at the same time.

But as anyone who has a lawn knows, that grass grows and it has to be cut. Hiring students part-time and sending them out with a fleet of lawnmowers wouldn’t cut it on the streetcar line.

So the Kagoshima City Transportation Department and the Osaka Sharyo Co. recently began trials of what they think is the world’s first grass cutting train, with the objective of putting it into regular service at the end of the month. The train also is able to water the grass, if only to make sure they have something to cut. Either that or it’s a make-work project for the railroad workers union.

The first trial was run on a stretch of track on which the grass wasn’t high enough to cut—it doesn’t grow so fast in winter down south in Kagoshima. They just wanted to test the all the equipment to see if it functioned.

Function it did, so the next day they switched to a track where the grass had grown. Everything worked quite well, though there was one drawback. The train moved at a speed slower than a human walks, and that caused a lot of strain on the driver. Maybe they’re not unionized after all.

One thing the reports didn’t mention—what are they going to do with all those grass clippings? I can’t imagine the Japanese just leaving them there on the street.

The crop’s not for eating

They were also cutting some plants down to size out in the country last month.

Backyard drama!

Last month some more plants were cut down to size. Instead of cropping grass, the farmers in Ogimi-son, Okinawa, were harvesting their crop of futoi, or what the dictionaries say is called zebra rush in English.

Whether in Japan or the Anglosphere, however, the use of the plant is the same—it’s for decoration. Urges one English-language website, “Add authenticity to your backyard wetland habitat by planting zebra rush.”

Backyard gardeners are now recreating authentic swamps? I’ve been away for longer than I thought. But wait, it gets better:

“The distinct alternating green and white stripes of the Zebra Rush instantly add pattern, density, and vertical drama to your backyard paradise.”

I’ll stick with the humdrum azalea bushes and dogwood trees.

The plant grows three feet tall, or as the website would have it, “narrow spiked stems tower 3 feet tall”, but that’s too big for its Japanese use. Here it’s employed as a prop in flower arrangements, where it presumably lends drama to the art of ikebana. Do the farmers in the Kijoka district of Ogimi-son, the national leader in futoi production, consider it so dramatic? They probably don’t care as long as they can make a buck at it.

By all accounts, the winter crop in Kijoka was a bumper harvest because of the warmer weather in that part of the country this year. The farmers rushed their zebra rush to the closest JA cooperative, which by now must be blase to all that drama. They collected it, bunched it, and sent it to auction markets throughout the country.

White lightning

After all that work, it’s about time to knock back a drink, don’t you think? As they say in the U.S., it’s bound to be 5 o’clock somewhere in the world, and whaddaya know, a quick look at my watch shows it’s just now chiming five in Zanzibar.

It’s not out of the question that the mochi roasters in Yamagata, the grass-cutting train operators in Kagoshima, or the futoi farmers in Okinawa chose to relax with some doburoku, the Japanese version of homebrew for the mass market. Doburoku is a milky white, sweet type of sake that hasn’t been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

Not just anyone can make the hooch, however—the 131 breweries producing it need a special license and they have to be located in one of 91 designated districts around the country. But unless one has a special taste for it, most people think of it as that funky stuff over there on the next shelf that they might buy once every few years for a change of pace or out of nostalgia.

The members of the Sakebunka Institute in Tokyo had a big idea, however. They decided to hold the Tokyo Doburoku Festival 2010 in January, which they claim was the first event of its kind. One of the institute’s stated objectives for the festival was to spread the sake culture. Since Sakebunka means “sake culture”, they’re just doing what they were organized to do. And since this is a cultural kaleidoscope, we’ll pitch in and do our part.

The institude asked all the producers in the country to submit entries, and they received 75. The liquor went through two rounds of judging. For the first round, the institute formed five groups of 30 people each, who swilled 15 different types. They voted, some sober assistants tallied up the totals, and those in first and second place moved on to the finals.

The judges in the second round consisted of five specialists—including sommeliers—and five regular folks. Seven of the beverages were awarded grand prizes, with one chosen as the primo stuff and two others chosen as pretty dang good. The brewers in Iide-machi, Yamagata, were excited that their Iide Nakatsugawa doburoku, shown here, was chosen as one of the seven grand prize winners. It didn’t finish in the top three, but its aroma and flavor lifted it up into the upper 10% of all the entrants. Others favored its slight sweetness, fruitiness, and good balance.

The Iidenians had good reason to be thrilled–the district was designated as a doburoku producer in March 2004, which means they’re still relatively wet behind the ears. This particular brand is known for using 100% sake rice and a lot of rice malt.

Cultural mavens and liquor lovers who read Japanese can see the results on the Sakebunka Institute page here. Those interested in reading about a more righteous doburoku festival at a Shinto shrine can do so here.

Drinking like a fish

You’ve heard of lushes who drink so much they get pickled? Well, in the same Iide-machi doburoku district, they use the booze to pickle the fish—specifically, the seem fish, or yamame in Japanese. The pickling project was conceived and launched last year by employees at the local Shirakawa-so ryokan. The idea was to create a new product using local fish, the local doburoku, and the local cold weather.

The fish are soaked for 15 hours in a special sauce made from the doburoku and tamarijoyu, a soy sauce made from refined soy. Then they’re dried for three days in the cold air. They process about 3,000 fish specifically for the guests at their ryokan. Those who’ve eaten the sake-soused fish say it has a unique and rich flavor. The pickling work ended in mid-February, so all that’s left is the eating.

It’s not every product that would receive attention from sommeliers and gastronomes at the same time, but the Iide Nakatsugawa seems to qualify.

The antidote is in the poison

There’s more you can do with sake than to get high or to get pickled. The Shurei sake merchants of Naha, Okinawa, have developed and are selling an awamori-based medicinal herb drink called Genkoku. They’ve acquired a patent for their manufacturing process after a wait of seven years.

Like doburoku, awamori has a different legal classification. That’s because it’s made only in Okinawa with a different kind of yeast, and some varieties still use rice from Thailand. Awamori is a form of shochu rather than Japanese sake, but of the many distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori.

Genkoku has nine ingredients, including local turmeric, eucalyptus, gardenia, and safflower. You can make up your own mind whether that’s a waste of good shochu or a waste of good medical herbs. The president of the distillery created the product by idly mixing herbs brought by a friend into his awamori. The result is an amber liquid with a mild taste that is said to be very drinkable. It’s now sold in specialty stores and some supermarkets with little or no advertising. They charge JPY 4,200 yen (about $US 46.50) for a 720 ml bottle, which is about 40 proof according to the U.S. definition. They sell about 7,000 bottles a year, 70% of it to people outside Okinawa. Fans of the beverage say it makes them feel better or sleep better.

The herbs must cover the first part. Most any hooch will take care of the second.

A southern fish burger

Now that we’ve had the aperitifs, it’s time for dinner, and the first selection on the menu is the Minami burger. That’s a culinary creation by the Minami-cho Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Tokushima using local finfish and shellfish. They’ve already conducted a trial by selling 100 Minami burger meals with the main course made from fried ribbonfish, or tachiuo in Japanese. A Minami burger consists of fried fish, lettuce, cucumbers, and tartar sauce. That sounds pretty tasty, and you can’t beat the JPY 200 price ($US 2.21). The Tokushimanians came up with the idea because novel burger-type sandwiches are all the rage, and local fishermen catch a heap of ribbonfish.

They chose the tachiuo to start because it is caught nearly year-round, and ribbonfish fry is popular in local restaurants. It’s been so successful they’ve been mulling the creation of more new burgers upscale epicures using Ise ebi and turbin shells (sazae). If sales go well at the local Ise ebi festival, they’ll try to get shops in town to make them.

Burgers on the sly

If stealth food is more to your taste than ribbonfish, you might be tempted to try the Ninja Burger cooked up by students at Konan High School in Koka. Shiga. As part of their studies of dietary habits and health, the students were asked to create 11 new products for a food stall in a parking area of the Shin-Meishin Expressway, and that’s how the Ninja Burger snuck into the menu. The sales outlet chose that dish to sell because it can be served five minutes after ordering, it was more efficient to make, and it uses an old strain of local rice with ninja connotations.

The students replaced the bun with a fried combination of black rice, mochi rice, and white rice. That’s filled with chicken, cabbage, and lettuce, and this burger sounds tasty too, doesn’t it? The shop sells it as part of a set with a small salad and soup for JPY 500, but offer only 10 servings a day. Whether it was because of the ingredients, the scarcity, or the ninja cachet, the product took off. One diner interviewed said the aroma and the sweetness of the chicken were a good match.

Koka is the home area of ninjutsu, and the ninja were said to fancy the black mochi rice. Perhaps that’s because it contains anthocyanin, which improves the vision. Some of the other ideas the students came up with were a black rice parfait, in which the rice is powdered and mixed with ice, and takoyaki (octopus balls fried in batter) using local beef instead of octopus.

Make mine the ninja burger!

Zaasai’s the limit

Zaasai is what the Japanese call zha cai (搾菜, or pressed vegetable), a Chinese dish that is the pickled stem of a species of mustard plant, first made in Sichuan. The plant itself is related to mustard greens, which are eaten as funky food in the southern U.S.

The Chinese salt, press, and dry the stem, rub in red chili paste, and allow it to ferment in a process similar to that for kimchi. The result is spicy, sour, and salty, and is said to have an aroma similar to sauerkraut with chili paste.

The Japanese variety is not spicy and only slightly sour. It is most often cut into small pieces and eaten as a topping on rice. My wife and I often ate it until my wife decided not to buy any more food coming from China, and apparently she was not alone. Most of the zaasai consumed in Japan is grown in China, but sales have taken a hit in recent years. The demand is still strong, however.

That inspired a research group consisting of 34 farming volunteers in Takahata-machi, Yamagata, to start a three-year project to grow the plant themselves. Before the planting, they held discussions with farmers in Tsukuba, Ibaragi and Miura, Kanagawa, who also grow the crop. It turns out that cultivation is not much different from that for other green vegetables. It also can be grown in greenhouses. As you can see from the photo, they’ve already harvested some. In addition to the parts used to make zaasai, they’ve sold the unused parts of the plant to companies and Tokyo Chinese restaurants.

Good luck to them. I liked it myself, and if they can come up with a viable Japanese version, maybe my wife will start buying it again.

Pucker power

After feasting on doburoku, minami burgers, and ninja burgers, the next thing we’ll need is some mouthwash to freshen up the breath. Fortunately, there’s something new in those lines, too.

We’ve already had a post about the terrifically tart shiikwasa fruit, or hirami lemon, native to Okinawa, that is used to put capital letters on otherwise simple flavors and as a health drink. Now Tennen Kobo of Okinawa City, which develops and sells aromatherapy products, has found another use for the citrus fruit. It recently began sales of Clear Gift, a mouthwash made using shiikwasa extract. The juice works to harden the proteins and oils in the mouth, making them easier to remove and improving the breath. The product contains no surface activating agents, artificial fragrances or colors, or preservatives. The extract is combined with xylitol and four tea extracts.

Tennen Kobo is promoting its use for older people and children who don’t like mint and have trouble brushing their teeth. The company sells it through dental clinics and hopes to move 10,000 bottles the first year. If the idea appeals to you, it’s also sold on the net for JPY 3,700 yen for a 500 ml bottle. It took a year of work with the sales agency Ryubi Sangyo of Naha to come up with the product.

I can see how it would be effective. Shiikwasa are so tart any bacteria that wanted to survive would flee its presence.

New wine in old bottles

Eat, drink, and be merry, goes the saying, and right about now it’s high time for the merry part. With gagaku, though, you’ll have to find your merriment through quiet contemplation rather than cutting the rug.

One form of gagaku is an ancient music that originated on the continent which gradually took on a Japanese cast and became associated with the Imperial court. It’s still performed by musicians working with the Imperial Palace, which makes it the longest continuous stage art in the world. But there are also gagaku groups that play music written by contemporary composers in the classical style. The foremost of those groups is Reigakusha, which is shown here performing in Fukushima in January. The concert was held to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Music from Japan, an organization that performs contemporary versions of traditional Japanese music around the world. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to New York City and Washington D.C. to present the first performances of two new pieces. The group frequently appears in New York, and they are actually funded in part by the New York state government. Last month they performed at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, and no, I don’t want to know how a concert hall admitting the general public (or should I say pubic?) wound up with that name.

Here’s a minute-and-a-half taste:

Venus de Jomon

For the devotees of wine, women, and song, we’ve had everything in this post but the women. But the last shall come first, says the Christian holy book, and nothing comes more first than a hot babe!

Now I ask you—is she hot, or is she hot!

There are two types of figurines among the ancient cultural treasures in Japan, the doguu and the haniwa. The former come from the Jomon period, while the latter, which are much better known, come from the kofun or burial mound period.

All the doguu are females. While scholars say it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the sex of the doguu, there is no mistaking the gender of some male haniwa. There was an exhibit of the former at the Tokyo National Museum last month (right sidebar), which presented 67 in all, including some designated as national treasures.

The old saw about some artists having to go abroad to find fame and recognition before being recognized in their homelands might work for cultural artifacts, too. The Cultural Affairs Agency sponsored this exhibit in the British Museum in London from September to November last year, and it went over so well they decided they might as well show it to the Japanese themselves.

There’s no mistaking the sex of the doguu shown here. She’s familiarly known as the Jomon Venus, probably because of those heavy hips. Now that’s a lot of Ponderosa! She’s only 27 centimeters high, and hails from an archaeological site in Chino, Nagano. She’s also known as the Detchiri Doguu, and no one will be surprised to find out the first word is a Japanese creation that means protruding butt. She also seems to be pregnant. Were women built like that in Japan in those days, or is that just Jomon cheesecake?

Most of the doguu date from 2,000 – 1,000 BC, and they are thought to have been fertility symbols. Well, flash a protruding butt in front of any male at any time in human history and what do you think’s going to happen?

That brings to mind a comment of one of the world’s most famous living lechers, former President Bill Clinton of the U.S. During a visit to view “Juanita”, a recently discovered Incan mummy displayed at the National Geographic museum, he commented, “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”

They’re going to have to erect Nio guardian statues to keep that man out of the National Museum on his next visit to Tokyo!


Speaking of inanimate objects having a spirit, here’s a story: I recently bought a used nine-volume set of the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, the premier English-language reference work on the country. I already had the single-volume version, which itself is probably second on the list, but there’s nothing finer than the full set.

I spent an hour or so in the used bookstores of the Kanda district in Tokyo last October looking for it, and finally discovered a set on sale for JPY 100,000 (about $US 1,100). That’s expensive, but I was still willing to pay the price–the reference is that good.

Just before spending the money, however, I spoke to a woman whose husband died a couple of years ago. He had a set of his own. I asked her about the possibility of buying it, and she was more than happy to let me have it. She knew I really wanted it, and said that her husband would have wanted me to have the books. She added, “Besides, the books will be happy too.”

I don’t think it’s weird at all.

Posted in Agriculture, Archaeology, Food, History, Music, New products, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (108): Slippery when wet

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 14, 2009

WATER FIGHTING for fun seems to be a universal human phenomenon. Put two children into a stream or swimming pool, and it won’t be long before they’re splashing away at each other and laughing like crazy. What kid doesn’t like water pistols and water balloons? We’ve all been to carnivals where one of the attractions involves throwing a ball to hit a spot on a board connected to a switch that pulls the seat out from under a hapless volunteer sitting atop a pool. Sometimes they don’t even bother with the mechanism and just let people throw big wet sponges at a guy with his head stuck through a hole in the board. And I remember one summer evening as a kid watching in envy as my parents and a few adults in the neighborhood got gloriously silly while having a mock battle with a garden hose.

Of course the Japanese like water battles too, and of course they go everybody one better. At the Kashima Shinto shrine in Fukushima, Okayama, they turn one into a religious festival every year on the fourth Sunday in October.

It all began more than 800 years ago when a plague ravaged the area. On the instruction of the divinities, some “bright children” (the reports say prodigies, but they don’t explain why) started splashing each other with muddy water, and the plague disappeared.

Here’s the sequence of festive events as handed down over the centuries. After an initial ceremony at the shrine, the parishioners parade through the area with a mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine, to a separate location. There another ceremony is held to open the cask of consecrated sake, which in this case is doburoku.

Wouldn’t you know there was liquor involved! And in this case, it’s consecrated, so they’ve got a legitimate reason for calling it “spirits”.

After opening the barrel of spiritually infused sake, everyone heads back to the shrine. The various festival officials take their seats in a specified order at a special site erected on the shrine grounds called a mizuya, or water house. Then they sing the Noh song of Takasago.

Liquor: Check. Singing: Check.

Once the song is over, they offer the consecrated sake to the divinities twice. That’s what a group of young men outside the mizuya have been waiting for. All the young dudes start yelling “Mizu da!” (It’s water!), and douse the older guys inside with muddy water from buckets. But the festival officials inside aren’t defenseless—oh, no, not at all. They fight back with ammunition from tanks of water of their own under the floor. Soon water is flying inside and out across the engawa, an interior porch in traditional Japanese dwellings.

Just in case everybody isn’t wet and dirty enough, they add some straw to the muddy water in larger tanks outside, and then toss in people who’ve gotten married in the past year. According to one account they also push in married men who’ve taken their wife’s family name (which happens sometimes in Japan) and middle-aged people. Apparently no one leaves the premises dry.

Now that everyone’s gotten good and wet and laughed themselves silly, the shrine officials toss pieces of mochi rice to the crowd and everyone goes home and gets wet again in the shower. The festival, which has been designated an important cultural treasure of the prefecture, is held in supplication for the good health and prosperity of the residents. Who knew muddy water could be good for you? If it comes to that, who knew a water fight could be turned into something so exalted?

Lest you get the wrong impression, here’s another festival that demonstrates the Japanese are perfectly capable of demonstrating their veneration and respect for water. This one’s called the O-Mizugaeshi, or Water Returning, and it’s held at the same time of year at a local pond in the Azumi district of Matsumoto, Nagano.

This event is much more recent—it began in 1992, and one of the prime movers was the Azumino Tourist Association. It starts with a ceremony at the Hotaka Shinto shrine, which is next to the pond itself. After the ceremony, some priests and local representatives board two boats and make a slow circuit of the pond. They bring along some water taken from the local Sai River at the point where it and the Hotaka and Takase rivers converge. Then, once they’ve finished circling the pond, they ceremoniously pour in the river water. And that’s it.

This year about 50 attended the festival, which is held to prevent shipwrecks and other disasters involving water. One of the men on the boat was a university professor studying local festivals (now there’s a gig I’d like to have). He said, “These days we take the existence of water for granted, but it’s very important to have a festival of this sort, which gives thanks for water.”

Doesn’t that go to show you really never can tell? Suppose someone told you there were two festivals, one involving a fight with muddy water and the other an elegant ceremony of reverence for nature, and that one of them began 800 years ago and the other was not quite 18 years old.

Would you have been able to match the festival with its age?

Afterwords: It’s been almost six months without a festival post. That’s way too long! Mea culpa and moshiwake arimasen!

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

The DPJ and the pero-guri pol

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 18, 2009

IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens–and sometimes it seems even he wouldn’t have been up to the task.

Tanaka Yasuo

Tanaka Yasuo

For example, spearheading the drive for the devolution of governmental authority are Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, two Dickensian characters who have parleyed their celebrity into a national soapbox to present the case for stronger local governments. The former is an attorney turned television performer, and the latter was a television comedian associated with Beat Takeshi, himself a famous comic and film director under his real name of Kitano Takeshi. The nation’s mass media are happy to give the TV veterans and audience favorites that soapbox, and the pair are just as happy with the chance to perch themselves on top and promote their cause while indulging their inner publicity hounds.

Working in a loose alliance, they’ve had a significant role in shaping the parameters of the national political dialogue this year with a potentially landmark lower house election due next month. But constant media attention and popular support is a dangerous combination that can drive anyone over the top. Over the past month, Mr. Hashimoto might finally have found the adult supervision he needed, while Mr. Higashikokubaru did indeed go over the top, but we’ll save that for later.

Of interest this week was the sudden reemergence of the celebrity governor who foreshadowed nearly a decade ago the appearance of the Dynamic Duo on the national political radar. That would be Tanaka Yasuo, an award-winning and best-selling novelist, governor of Nagano for six turbulent years, and now a national at-large delegate in the upper house of the Diet for his vanity party, New Party Nippon.

Mr. Tanaka has agreed to act as an electoral assassin for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan by running in Hyogo’s 8th district against incumbent Fuyushiba Tetsuzo of New Komeito, who has a Dickensian background of his own. Mr. Fuyushiba began his lower house career as a member of Komeito in 1986, switched to the New Frontier Party in 1994, served as a party official when former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro led the group, and then switched back to New Komeito when it reorganized in 1998. He later served as New Komeito’s secretary-general, but resigned that post in 2006 to serve for two years as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.

With his New Frontier Party background, Mr. Fuyushiba might be considered an Ozawan-style conservative, if that concept still has any meaning. Like the DPJ, he supports voting rights in local elections for those people of Korean ancestry born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Yet the DPJ, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either trying to eliminate New Komeito as a political force because Mr. Ozawa detests them, or making them an offer they can’t refuse to have them defect from the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. But let’s get back to Mr. Tanaka.

The incumbent might seem to be in a strong position. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. The membership of that group is said to have a relatively high proportion of Japanese-born Korean citizens, as does the population of Hyogo.

Mr. Tanaka might be able to overcome these disadvantages because he is well-known in the area for his hands-on volunteer work during the recovery from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. He told the Sankei Shimbun that those volunteer activities opened his eyes to the necessity for changing politics and society. He added, “I want to create a type of politics with a close connection to the local residents, and destroy the vested interests of rule by the bureaucracy.” And this is definitely a year for the anti-incumbents.

La vie est belle

La vie est belle

What would Dickens make of him? He wrote a best-selling novel while still a university student, as did the granddaddy of celebrity governors, Ishihara Shintaro—with whom he is engaged in a long-running feud.

After a career as a novelist and critic, and recording one LP as a singer, Mr. Tanaka became involved in community grassroots activities. He spent six months helping the earthquake victims and then campaigned against the construction of the Kobe Airport. He was asked to run as the governor of Nagano, where he lived as a child after his father began teaching at Shinshu University. He originally declined, saying that he thought he could be more effective outside politics, but changed his mind.

Sui generis is the only term to use to describe his politics. He favors stronger local government, but is opposed to municipal mergers, particularly in remote areas. He is an anti-bureaucracy reformer who was blood-in-the-eye-angry over former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post, citing as his reason concerns that the measure would allow foreign interests to purchase it. Though he is known to have a personal relationship to some degree with Ozawa Ichiro, he dislikes both the LDP and the DPJ and calls himself an “ultra-independent”. He dismisses both the major parties as “department stores”, staffed by personnel seconded from business and industry groups in the case of the former, and labor unions in the case of the latter. He is critical of the influence of what he calls the Labor Aristocracy in the DPJ.

Mr. Tanaka also says he combines the best qualities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, though it isn’t clear if he knows what they actually did, or is attracted to what he perceives as their image. He has somewhat nativist tendencies—the URL for his party’s website includes the string “love-nippon”–and he thinks that Japan should stake out a more independent international position. Yet he is also well-known for his taste in foreign automobiles, particularly Audis and BMWs. He rejects the label anti-American, preferring to refer to himself as a critic of America. (The Japanese expression he uses is the difficult-to-translate 諫米, if anyone wants to take a crack at it.) But he strongly supported Bill Clinton and redoubled that support after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (We shall see the probable reason for that shortly.)

He ran for governor in Nagano after his predecessor became embroiled in scandals, which parallels Higashikokubaru Hideo’s entry into prefectural politics. He campaigned in opposition to unnecessary public sector projects, most notably a local dam. He was opposed by every political group except the Communist Party, as well as local legislators. But he was one of the few people in the country to understand and act on the hunger of the Japanese electorate for anti-establishment politicians. Assisted by the publicity that a friendly national media provided, he won the election and assumed office in 2000.

The media coverage lavished on his administration very much prefigured that now bestowed on Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru. At one point his approval ratings were slightly above 90%, outdoing even the other two, whose ratings still languish at the 80% level.

Tanaka Yasuo 3

Mr. Tanaka recently sat for a long interview with the Sankei Shimbun, but his scattered line of thought makes it too difficult to describe concisely what he said, much less translate. Let’s look instead at this interview from four years ago in the Japan Times. It too is scattershot, combining a serious discussion of legitimate issues, grandiose unsupported statements, and more holes than a pound of sliced Swiss cheese. There are too many hard truths to keep it from being useless, but too many flaws that prevent it from being important. Complicating matters is an amateurish interviewer who seems more interested in producing hagiography than bringing to the attention of a non-Japanese audience a man who then was a nationally prominent politician. It all starts with the second sentence.

After converting his private office into a glass-walled room to make his work as transparent as possible…

Excellent PR, isn’t it? “I have nothing to hide.” It also screams, “Hey, everybody, look at me!” The glass substantiated one of the most common criticisms of Tanaka—that he’s nothing more than a publicity hound.

It’s puzzling why a journalist would be making positive references to the glass-walled room at that point in his term. Not long after he became governor, Mr. Tanaka demonstrated his transparency by entertaining a female television personality in this office. They shared a drink together while she sat on his lap. The glass walls made it easy for someone to take their photo and send it to a weekly magazine, which promptly published it. That embarrassed the people of his prefecture, who probably expected him to behave like most politicians and dally somewhere other than his office on his own time. For Mr. Tanaka, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Gov. Yasuo Tanaka defiantly declared “No More Dams” in a direct counter to the local economy’s heavy reliance on public works projects at the expense of ecological concerns. He also abolished the traditional, self-serving press club system in his prefecture.

Here we give the man credit where credit is due—Japan could use more governors (and prime ministers) who pursue the same policies, even when the ecology isn’t a consideration. He brings up other worthwhile points in the interview.

Besides tackling local politics, the flamboyant 49-year-old devotes his time to writing columns for magazines and criticizing and analyzing national and local politics on radio and television programs. He is also a well-known restaurant critic….When he was still a student at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 1980, he received the prestigeous Bungei Award for his novel “Nantonaku Kurisutaru (Somewhat Like Crystal).”

But he hasn’t written a worthwhile novel since then. He has, however, written a regular column for a magazine called The Pero-Guri Diaries. Here’s how Time Magazine explained it a few years ago:

“To understand Yasuo Tanaka, you need a piece of slang you won’t find in any Japanese-English dictionary. Pero-guri is a phrase Tanaka coined himself to describe the sexual act. More specifically, his sexual acts. It’s an onomatopoeic word, the pero coming from the slang pero-pero, which means to lick. The guri comes from guri-guri, which means to grind….Tanaka is Governor of Japan’s mountainous Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo, but he’s also a writer, specializing in autobiographical pero-guri tales, which reveal a predilection for flight attendants, married women and fine champagne.

“‘Appointment with Mrs. U. Nap at Park Hyatt. The entire floor must have heard us. Midnight. She goes home to her husband… Dom Perignon at Roppongi’s Kingyo. Head to Chianti at Iikura for an espresso chaser but end up on the roof of the adjacent building, pero-pero guri-guri with the Tokyo Tower in the back. Her screaming fills the air. Pull out moist wipes from the bag and clean up.’”

Once upon a time, they used to say a gentleman never tells…And leave it to the Japan Times to fail to mention any of this in the interview.

After graduation, Tanaka at first joined the oil giant Mobil, only to leave three months later to pursue his career as a writer.

Tanaka also got married soon after joining Mobil, but got divorced 11 months later to pursue his career as a pero-guri writer.

…in 2002, conservative assemblymen who were upset by Tanaka’s challenge to tradition and decades of pork-barrel politics passed a no-confidence vote against him, and forced him from office.

Yes, they were upset by his challenge to pork-barrel politics…and creating undesirable attention for Nagano Prefecture by drinking in his glass-walled office with celebrities on his lap, his pero-guri tales, and endless self-promotion.

In the ensuing gubernatorial election, however, Tanaka made a successful comeback, thanks to overwhelming popular support.

Showing once again how desperately the Japanese voting public craves a reformer.

Then…he expanded his curriculum vitae yet again when he became leader of New Party Nippon, a new political party founded to challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 11 general election.

His party mates are strange bedfellows for a reformer—in addition to Mr. Tanaka, the other four members of his party all voted against Mr. Koizumi’s reforms in the Diet. In other words, they are anti-reformers who support the status quo of tradition and pork barrel politics.

At least the other members ran for the Diet, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t. He just went around the country giving interviews about his new party, leaving the citizens of Nagano to shift for themselves in his absence.

Though (the party) is small…

So small, in fact, that they had to “borrow” one member from another party of anti-reformers to meet the minimum requirements for selection in the proportional representation phase of the election.

Tanaka hopes his fledgling party will make a difference in Japan by encouraging people to think twice about Koizumi’s ongoing reform drives, which he believes fall far short of being true reforms.

Though his interview strangely lacks any concrete suggestions for reform.

On to the content:

Many young Japanese can only define themselves by naming the company they work for or the designer brand they wear. Our society is filled with people who can’t objectively describe themselves without the help of company names or brand products.

If I were Mr. Tanaka, I wouldn’t be so quick to complain about people incapable of objectively describing themselves.

Just as I described in my book, Japan is an affluent society with an abundance of material goods, where people have no need to worry about food or clothes. But who can be proud of, or be happy about, being a member of this society?

The basic needs of human beings are food, clothing, and shelter. Despite admitting that Japan is remarkably successful in providing the basics that so many other countries lack and offering an abundance of pero-guri opportunities, Mr. Tanaka thinks this is nothing to be proud of or happy about.

Japan’s debts have increased by 170 trillion yen since [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi took office four years ago. What’s more, 100 people take their own lives each day.

That’s called a non sequitor. He might be able to do something about the first, but he’ll never be able to do anything about the second.

The interviewer, Sayuri Daimon, pipes up:

How can we reform this sick society?

Before you can call it a sick society, Sayuri, you have to show us some of the symptoms. Too much food, shelter, clothing, and pero-guri? Plenty of countries are just waiting to come down with that disease. But if the problem is pork-barrel politics, why is Japan being singled out for an illness that is endemic over the globe?

Back to the governor:

In my case, if someone gives me a hard time, I write or speak publicly about it. So I think people decided not to give me a hard time.

Was that before or after you were removed from office in a no-confidence vote?

What do you think about Koizumi’s postal reform drive?

Answer 1
Where would the money in the postal savings and postal life insurance go once they were privatized?

Uh, nowhere?

Answer 2:

What happens if a foreign company takes control of the privatized postal savings company and the postal insurance company?

Is his alliance with the anti-reformers beginning to make more sense now?

I think politics should be about what politicians actually say. For example, South American countries may have some political turmoil, but the debates in their parliaments are like an art formed by the politicians’ speeches.

Yes, Japan could learn a lot about parliamentary democracy from the politically stable and economically thriving South American countries.

…in other non-English-speaking countries, such as Thailand, there are foreign-language media that enjoy a leading position in those countries. But in Japan, unless something is reported in Japanese-language newspapers or it appears on Japanese TV, it does not become “evidence” to be taken seriously.

If the foreign-language media in Thailand have a leading position, what does that say about the indigenous media? And how can media that the Thai people—or Japanese people–can’t understand have a leading position?

My current girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to get married.

No surprise there.


Are you going to run for another term as governor?


I will do what the Nagano people want me to do. I want to listen to what people in Nagano say, whether they say I should stay or leave office.

The people of Nagano were already speaking, but he wasn’t listening. As of the date of that interview, Mr. Tanaka had the lowest approval ranking of any Japanese governor. (35% unqualified approval, 40% unqualified disapproval; when combined with those who approve somewhat, his approval rating exceeded 50%)

In fact, he was defeated for reelection the following year in 2006. He began his term as a media favorite, but his stance against the kisha club system that allows major media outlets to monopolize information put the kibosh on that. (More than politics and government needs reforming in Japan.) He certainly didn’t help himself with the prefecture’s voters by neglecting local affairs to start his own political party and get involved in a national campaign. And what can you say about the lack of common sense demonstrated by his failure to escort a female companion to a private spot for a tête-à-tête rather than share a drink with her in his glass-walled office on government property?

Nevertheless, to his credit, he did succeed in producing budget surpluses seven years running and slashing the amount of money required to win bids on local public works projects by making bidding practices more transparent.

Now imagine what will happen if he wins the Hyogo seat and joins an alliance with a government led by the DPJ, whose membership ranges from Nanking Massacre deniers to de facto Socialists looking for a piece of the action instead of holding meetings in coffee shops with the rest of the faux Social Democrats. Team them up with the corrupt petty baron Suzuki Muneo, the paleos of the People’s New Party, and the Social Democrats themselves, and circus will not be the word to describe what ensues.

But even Charles Dickens could not find the words for that.


Japan’s lax residency requirements for running in an election, which allow Mr. Tanaka to parachute into Hyogo at the last minute (though Ozawa Ichiro claims the decision was made a long time ago) are more conducive to political maneuvering in the back rooms of upscale Tokyo restaurants than they are to serving the people of a particular area.

The longer I’m in Japan, the more I’m convinced that the political class remains stuck in the Warring States Period:

(F)or all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.

The only way this ends is if the electorate reminds these people just who serves whom and makes them unemployed every time they get the chance to vote.

Posted in Books, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Wasabi–the mouth-watering, nose-running condiment

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 23, 2009

ANYONE WHO’S EVER EATEN nigirizushi knows about wasabi—the green, horseradish-like paste spread between the fish on top and the rice on the bottom. Yet few who’ve eaten it realize all the trouble people went through to get that condiment on the sushi to begin with, and to keep it fresh once it got there.


For one thing, the wasabi is purposely placed between the fish and the rice to preserve its pungency. The paste quickly loses its distinctive flavor and aroma when exposed to the air. In fact, just about everything involved with the cultivation and preparation of wasabi takes time and trouble. Take a look at the accompanying photo, for example. It shows Murakami Takeo and his wife Torae, both in their 80s, harvesting their wasabi crop last week.

The Murakamis grow their wasabi in the shallows of the Tani River that flows behind their home in Tanabe, Wakayama. There are two types of wasabi, and the kind the Murakamis cultivate is called sawa wasabi. That variety must be grown in pure, constantly flowing water—the colder the better. The couple planted this crop two years ago in the sandy river soil, around which they’ve built a stone wall.

They have to harvest the plant by hand, pulling out the main root from the earth and removing the leaves and smaller hairy roots. They’ll put two kilograms of the roots in a specially built wooden box to ship to market, because the roots also go bad quickly. Some of their wasabi will be sold at shops in the city that purchase produce directly from the farmers.

Wasabi grows wild in Japanese stream beds and mountain river valleys. The Japanese themselves think they’ve been eating it since the Nara period, which occurred during the 8th century, but the plant is so difficult to cultivate they didn’t successfully farm it until 800 years later in what is now Shizuoka City. The story goes that some was given in feudal tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s last shogunate in 1603, and the great man loved it so much he forbade its use outside his castle. It began to be used for soba and sushi during the Edo period, which ran from the early 17th century to 1868. Today, Nagano is the top wasabi producing prefecture when the crops of both the sawa variety and the soil-grown variety are combined.

The distinctive spiciness is due to allyl isothiocyanate, and inhaling the vapor from the plant has been shown to have an effect similar to smelling salts. In fact, some Japanese researchers are trying to use the wasabi odor to create a smoke alarm for the deaf, as you can see from this site, which includes a BBC report. Researchers conducted experiments by spraying canned wasabi extract into a room in which people with hearing impairments were sleeping. It woke 13 of the 14 test subjects up within two minutes—one of them in just 10 seconds.

Indeed, some think that wasabi has numerous health benefits as well. This website makes the case for its ingredients being effective in both preventing and treating cancer. They claim it is also an antioxidant, an antibiotic, an anticoagulant, and an anti-inflammatory agent. Even more, it is said to promote bone calcification.

There’s only one problem: They don’t tell us how much of it we have to eat to reap those benefits, and how much havoc it will wreak on our mucous membranes until that amount is consumed!

Posted in Food | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

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! (83): The shrine gates are burning!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 6, 2008

TORII ARE STYLIZED GATES standing on the path that leads to the main hall of a Shinto shrine. They both mark the sacred space and serve as symbols of the shrine itself. Where there’s a torii, there’s always a shrine nearby.

The reverse of that axiom is not always true, however. There are a few shrines that don’t have torii, and two are in Matsumoto, Nagano. The parishioners don’t mind, however—there’s a good reason for their absence, and they make up for it in a big way once every year.

About 60 of these parishioners conducted the traditional Toriibi, or torii fire, in Matsumoto for three nights starting on 16 April. They placed pine torches on the side of a mountain in the eastern edge of the Shimauchi district to create the outlines of the shrine gate.

The event is held by those two shrines without torii in supplication for a bountiful harvest and household safety. Both shrines have major festivals starting on the 19th, so the Toriibi also includes the symbolism of welcoming the divinity.

The group members have their work cut out for them. The mountain rises at a 40º angle, so navigating the slope to create the roughly 60-meter-square pattern can be tricky. At 8:00 in the evening, the group of men spread out on the mountainside. After a seashell is blown to signal the start of the event, the men lift their torches and let out a loud “Oooh” to summon the divinities. They also set fires in the pattern of the kanji for 大 (large) and 一 (the number one).

The origin of this custom dates back more than 500 years, to the Warring States period that began in 1467 and lasted for about a century. Sometime in that period, members of the Ogasawara family built and defended a castle immediately to the south. This era is called the Warring States period because of the internal conflict that occurred throughout the country between local feudal lords and the military governors appointed by the Muromachi shoguns.

During one of the battles, an insurgent army attacked the castle from the northeast. As part of their attack, they set fires to besiege the castle walls and used a wind out of the north to accelerate it. The castle caught on fire and threatened the defenders. This fire eventually spread to the nearby torii, consuming one part of it in flame. When the torii fell, the wind suddenly shifted to the opposite direction, whipping up the fire and sending it toward the invading army. The castle defenders employed this stroke of luck to their advantage and routed the invaders. They believed that divine intervention caused the wind to shift and chose not to rebuild the torii. Since then, the residents’ creation of a torii out of burning pine torches is considered an act of reverence toward the divinities.

Well, that’s one explanation. Another is that some people will seize on any excuse to make huge bonfires at night and have a party!

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Matsuri da! (74): Shinto snowball fights

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE JAPANESE EXPRESSION “Hyotan kara koma ga deru” (Ponies come out of gourds) is used to express the idea that unexpected things often happen. That phrase perfectly explains the one constant among the many different ceremonies the Japanese perform in Shinto festivals.

While the formal services conducted by the priests during the festivals sometimes resemble the rites performed in churches, temples, and mosques around the globe, the sheer variety of the activities in which the parishioners participate staggers the imagination. There is just as likely to be a sake-drinking contest or a struggle between nearly naked men in frigid weather as there is to be a performance of an elegant kagura dance. And sometimes these events seem to resemble the playful hijinks of children looking for a good time.

An example of the latter type of festival is the Otaue Matsuri that was held on the 9th this month by the Kariyasawa Shinmei-gu (Shinto shrine) in Sakakita, Chikuhoku-mura, Nagano. The name of the event translates to the Rice Planting Festival. With its roughly 400-year history, it has become an intangible folk and cultural treasure of the prefecture. The object is to pray for an abundant harvest and the prosperity of one’s descendents.

While it begins as an agriculturally inspired event, it certainly doesn’t end that way. First, the villagers form a circle outdoors in front of the main hall of the shrine. Then, some parishioners dressed in white robes march three times around the circle. The ones at the head of the line carry papier-mâché cows and imitate bovine sounds. That’s not “moo” in Japanese—it more closely resembles the “mo” sound in the word “motor”. They are followed by other parishioners carrying a local agricultural tool called a manga, which is yoked to the cows and tills the soil, while others carry plows.

While it’s unusual for people in religious ceremonies to walk around with models of cows while making animal sounds, it still is clearly in the category of festivals that mime the agricultural process, which are often held throughout Japan. Often, this type of festival involves some sort of humorous interaction between those playing the role of farmer (or farm animal) and the local residents watching the ceremony. This one is no exception.

The exceptional part comes next. The villagers in the circle outside the shrine don’t just stand around and watch—they pelt those walking in the procession with snow. By the time three circuits are completed, the scene resembles the aftermath of a village-wide snowball fight.

The reports or the publicity for the festival available on the Web don’t explain the reason for the snow throwing, but here’s one possibility. As we’ve seen before, the parishioners of one shrine down in Fukuoka every year dress one young man in white, get him drunk as a lord, and then throw mud at him. The more mud that sticks, the story goes, the better that year’s crop will be.

Perhaps the same idea is being applied here, with snow instead of mud. Then again, who could pass up the chance to take a free shot at someone with a snowball?

Would you rather wind up smeared with mud, or covered with snow? I choose the mud, if only because it would be warmer!

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Matsuri da! (66): Mist, mystery, and myth in a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 15, 2008

THE MOST WELL-KNOWN JAPANESE FESTIVALS are conducted outdoors with audiences that can number in the tens of thousands watching participants provide the world’s best free entertainment by reenacting offerings to the divinities in ceremonies hundreds of years old.

Other lesser-known festivals arise from traditions just as old, if not older, but are performed late at night in the dead of winter with only a few villagers and visitors present. One of these is the series of Shimotsuki festivals held by 11 different shrines that started on 1 December and continued throughout the month in remote parts of the Toyama area in southern Nagano.

These festivals have been designated important intangible cultural treasures of the nation. The ceremonies are at least 800 years old, and some reports say the content of the festivals is even older. They feature traditional Shinto dance and musical accompaniment, specifically the Yutate Kagura, or Boiling Water kagura. (A kagura is a Shinto dance.)

Shimotsuki literally means frost month, and it is the old name for November in Japan under the lunar calendar. Nowadays that’s December, which has the fewest hours of daylight during the year. The ancients thought this symbolized the waning of life, so the festival is held to summon the divinities to bathe in boiling water. Their aim is to seek the regeneration of the spirit by having the divinities convey their own spirit to the water, giving it exceptional potency. It is then splashed or sprinkled on those in attendance for their regeneration in the coming year.

One of the festival sites is Kami-mura, a village of roughly 1,000 with little flat ground for rice cultivation. The Yutate Kagura there is performed with a juzu, or Buddhist prayer beads—yet another example of the older mixture of Buddhism with Shinto—to worship the mountain divinity, who has dominion over hunting, forestry, and farming on the mountain slopes.

Village legend also has it that this ceremony is performed to propitiate the spirits of the Toyama family, their former feudal lords, against whom they revolted almost 400 years ago and killed.

The local shrine parishioners build a fire in two specially constructed stoves, boil the water, summon the divinities, and perform several dances and ceremonies. After their bath, the divinities rise up as steam. The parishioners dance with them, offer a prayer for a bumper crop and good health, and allow the divinities to depart.

The other dances and ceremonies include:

  • Tasuki-no-Mai (Ornamental sash dance), formerly a ritual at the Imperial Court
  • Hazoroe-no-Mai (Fan dance), another court ritual in which men dance in women’s kimono
  • Kandayu-Fusai-no-Mai (Mr. and Mrs. Kandayu’s dance), based on the tale of an aged couple who founded the shrine. They perform a comic dialogue with ad-libs. The woman playing the part of the wife holds a branch of the sakaki, the sacred Shinto tree/bush, hitting the residents with it to bring good health.
  • Yomote-no-Mai (Dance of the Four Gods), performed by people representing the divinities of water, earth, fire, and wood. The divinities of water and earth splash out the boiling water with their bare hands to purify those it touches. The ritual is said to come from India.
  • Tenpaku-no-Mai (Tenpaku dance): The Tenpaku divinity is also known as the Golden Monkey divinity. The last dancer to appear, he is dressed in golden hunting clothes and wears a mask representing the god. He shoots arrows in the four directions, into the sky, and into the ground to drive away evil spirits.

The festival ends with the Asobi Nusa, or nusa game. The nusa is a sacred wooden object for prayer made in the shape of a cross. The villagers throw it up into a square-shaped decoration suspended from the ceiling, where the divinities waited above the stoves during the Yutate Kagura performance. It will bring good fortune to the thrower if the nusa hangs on the bar.

Where else will you find a single event that blends ceremonies and objects from India, Shinto, Buddhism, Japanese Imperial Court rituals, animism, regicide, and a carnival game with a divine dimension, performed as it has been in small farming villages since the 13th century?

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Shogatsu: Japanese New Year decorations

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

JUST AS WESTERNERS observe Christmas by hanging wreaths or stringing colored lights on their home–or in some cases assembling elaborate tableux that cover the entire roof and front yard and use enough electricity to power a Thai village for a year–so do Japanese decorate their homes and businesses with distinctive displays during the New Year season.


One of the most common and visually striking of these decorations is the kadomatsu. The word literally means gate pine, because they are placed in the front of the home or business establishment. According to tradition, they were considered a dwelling place of the toshigami, the divinity who brings good luck at the beginning of the year. A kadomatsu incorporates several elements considered auspicious in Japan—pine, bamboo, plum, the colors red and white (represented with flowers), and crane and tortoise decorations. They are usually, but not always, displayed until 7 January. 

One horticultural company in Konko-cho, Asaguchi, Okayama Prefecture spent most of the month making kadomatsu decorations, and their work ended just two days ago. The company makes eight different models, ranging from those 50 centimeters high for placement on a desk to those two or three meters high for exterior use. Their mainstay product consists of three pieces of bamboo cut and arranged in a distinctive pattern. Ten employees worked all month to create about 100 by hand.

At one time, several companies in Asaguchi made this decoration, but demand has fallen in recent years, and only one remains. The chairman said the company makes the products with respect for the tradition so that everyone can enjoy greeting the New Year.


Another exterior decoration frequently seen at New Year’s is the shimekazari, constructed around a hanging straw rope. These are placed over the front door to signify that the home is the temporary residence of the toshigami and to prevent the entry of evil spirits. (No home should be without one!)

One company that makes the production of these decorations their seasonal specialty is the Shinshu Engimono Seisakusho in Minowa-machi, Nagano Prefecture.

The company hired 25 local farmers for the job, and they’ve been hard at work since September assembling these ornaments using straw harvested locally the month before. The company will ship 30,000 of them to area stores, where the most popular will sell for about 1,500 yen ($US13.36) each. This year, larger 70-centimeter models costing 6,000 yen ($US53.45) have been popular, with sales running 20% to 30% higher than last year. The company president observed that people often say New Year’s decorations sell the best when the economy is down, but after more than 30 years in the business, he hasn’t noticed a connection.


Just as American homes are decorated with poinsettias during Christmas, flowers are a common indoor decoration during the New Year season here. It’s no surprise that one of the most commonly used flowers is the chrysanthemum, which has been cultivated in Japan since at least the 5th century. It has long been associated with nobility, and a stylized representation of its blossom is used for the imperial household crest.

Okinawa is one of the primary chrysanthemum production regions in Japan, and horticulture companies there have been working overtime to ship their product to the four main islands. Starting at 3:00 a.m. on the 20th, there were five late-night flights from Naha filled with the flowers to Haneda airport for the Kanto region alone. They shipped an estimated 52,500 cases in that five-day period containing 10.5 million plants weighing 630 tons. The first flight was filled with 2,000 cases of spray designs of 400,000 flowers.


Just because an activity is traditional doesn’t mean people can’t come up with new twists, and one recent trend in New Year’s decorations has been the use of the phalaenopsis orchid. Companies have been putting in overtime to meet the demand for orchid shipments, producing flowers both in pots and cut for the market. The orchid is produced and shipped year round in Japan, but demand peaks at year end.

Companies report the most popular potted variety used for decorations contains three plants. A spokesman for one company says the business may not be so profitable this year, however, due to high fuel prices and heating expenses.

My wife tends to be a traditionalist, but which of these decorations did she choose for our house this year? The orchids, which are the least traditional decoration of all.

Women are inscrutable the world over!

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Nippon noel: Christmas trees in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE START OF CHRISTMAS SEASON means that children everywhere begin dreaming about the present they will receive under the small artificial tree on the 25th and the treat of Christmas cake that awaits them. Young singles look forward with excited anticipation to (or obsess about their prospects for) the traditional heavy date with their significant other on Eve.

Meanwhile, adults get in the spirit by making the rounds of the “forget-the-year” parties held throughout the month. Others with a more sober disposition, particularly women and the elderly, enthusiastically support the combined amateur/professional productions of Beethoven’s Ninth throughout the country with their attendance or active participation.

And everyone looks forward to a finger-lickin’ good fried chicken dinner with their friends or family.


Yes, that’s what Christmas means in Japan. Not everyone stuffs themselves with turkey, hangs stockings by the chimney, or sings about Mommy kissing Santa Claus.

After all, they’ll be eating rice porridge and dried fruit soup in Finland, cabbage, sausage, and brown peas in Latvia, dried salted codfish in Portugal, and fried carp, potato salad, and fish soup in the Czech Republic.

Hungarian children will receive presents in shoes they’ve placed outside the door or window. In some places the Baby Jesus brings the presents, while in Russia the goodies are delivered by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who employs his granddaughter the Snow Maiden as his helper rather than elves and reindeer. Mexican children have to wait until 6 January for their presents, while those in Russia hold out until the 7th. And in Australia and Brazil people are more likely to go to the beach than go dashing through the woods in a one-horse open sleigh.

Some might wonder why Japan, with a Christian population estimated at 1%, would celebrate Christmas. The answer is that the Japanese love a festival better than anyone, and more than a millennium of experience with secular celebrations based on religious ceremonies gives them a head start.

Let’s be honest—while there are many Christians who focus on the religious aspects of the holiday, millions of people throughout the world celebrate the day and the season as a grand Winter Festival. What could be more natural than for the Japanese to do the same?

Christmas Trees in Japan

The most visible aspect of Christmas in Japan is the public display of Christmas trees. In addition to knowing all about festivals, the Japanese are past masters at borrowing elements from another culture and adding some flair of their own to create something distinctive. The design of public Christmas trees is just another example.

Most of these trees, of course, are erected at department stores, shopping malls, or in commercial districts. One of the first to go up was the Fantasy Tree, shown in the first photo, which was lighted for display on the 23rd at Tokyo’s Yurakucho Seibu Department Store.

Seven meters tall, the Fantasy Tree has 8,000 blue bulbs and is trimmed with a motif of white angel wings. It will be lighted every night through Christmas night.

Visitors who came to see the lighting ceremony were treated to a live concert with several performers, including Korean singer Len (Lee Gi-chan), who performed duets with the Japanese singer Lio from their recent CD LxL.

It might be ungenerous to suggest that blue is an unsuitable color for the season, by the way. In the American city where I grew up, one family in an upscale mid-town residential district on a busy road decorated their house and the hedge surrounding their large yard entirely in blue bulbs. Everyone loved it, and folks still recall it fondly three decades later.


Representing a more religious approach to the holidays is the tree unveiled on the night of the 24th at the Megumi Chalet Karuizawa , a Christian conference center in Karuizawa-cho, Nagano Prefecture. This is also a seven-meter high tree, but it’s trimmed with human beings instead of electric lights. About 80 members of the local Ueda Church clad in red robes arranged themselves in the wooden structure to represent Christmas decorations. They sang Kiyoshi Kono Yoru (Silent Night), Morobito Kozori (Joy to the World), and five other hymns. (Second photo)

The wooden tree—well, that’s what they call it–has seven platforms ringed by green walls decorated with lights. Since this is a Christian facility, the tree is topped with a cross. The human tree was just part of the Christmas decorations and lighting that were unveiled on the same night, which was a chilly 1.1 C—perfect Christmas weather for northern Europeans and North Americans.

The decorations will stay up until the 25th of December, with performances every weekend until then.

The facility says it’s the first outdoor installation of its kind in Japan, but the idea originated in the United States. In fact, they paid two million yen (about US$ 18,500) to have the tree platform shipped from the United States.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to get the Americans to send a diagram and hire local carpenters to build one themselves? Ah, but in the spirit of the season let’s let that slide? Besides, it’s their money!

For a more artistic expression in holiday trees, the Verde Mall shopping district at the JR Kakogawa Station in Kakokawa, Hyogo Prefecture, held a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on the 22nd to present the Kakogawa River Fantasy, which includes not only an illuminated tree but an entire illuminated shopping district. A crowd of about 1,000 turned out on the first night to see the display, which uses 45,000 light bulbs, 5,000 more than last year. (Third photo)


Yes, there was music underneath the tree in Kakogawa, too, as six groups selected through a preliminary competition performed songs with a winter, rather than a Christmas, theme. The popular female duo Kiroro appeared and sang Fuyu no Uta (Winter Song) among other numbers.

The lights will be lit every night from 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. until January 14. That’s even later than Russian Christmas!

Some people in this country—the usual suspects—find Christmas in Japan incongruous. But why should anyone begrudge the Japanese a good time, especially at this time of year, or snicker behind their backs because of the local Christmas customs? There’s a word for folks like that.


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Matsuri da! (56): Walk through the magic ring…

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 25, 2007

THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION is still good enough for many in Japan, as some have observed, and the chinowa festivals shown in the photos are as old as any religious ceremonies in the country. They’re still being held throughout the archipelago today.

Chinowa, or more properly chi-no-wa, literally means “ring of the chi plant”. This is a eulalia grass found throughout East Asia and goes by several names in Japan, including kaya (which might be the most common).

The Bingo Fuduoki contains the first mention of chinowa. The fudoki were records kept over a 20-year period starting in 713 for each of Japan’s provinces at the time. They include agricultural, geographical, historical, and mythological information. The Bingo region corresponds to what is now the eastern half of Hiroshima Prefecture.

According to the Bingo Fudoki, the divinity Susano’o-no-Mikoto gave a chinowa to a local hero named Somin Shōrai, who escaped the effects of an epidemic by wearing it around his waist. (We’ve discussed this particular divinity before, here.) As a result, chinowa festivals are held throughout Japan in midsummer, when people were most concerned about the spread of contagion.

The first photo shows priests passing through a two-meter wide chinowa at the Inaba Shinto Shrine in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture. After the priests go back and forth a few times, the shrine parishioners will follow suit. This is said to protect against illness and disaster.

Not all chinowa festivals are conducted to receive the blessings of good health, however. The Susukimizu shrine in Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, uses a three-meter- high wreath in its festival to promote growth and intelligence in children. Their festival, which is not shown here, dates from the Edo period.

An elaborate variation, shown in the second photograph, is found at the Aoiaso shrine in Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Prefecture. They don’t use eulalia grass in the construction of this chinowa. While keeping the general shape, they employ a bamboo frame instead. Strips of paper called gohei are hung from the frame. These are used to mark sacred areas or to attract the attention of divinities.

When I said old-time religion, I was serious; this shrine was established in 806, but they didn’t get around to holding a chinowa festival until 1386, almost 600 years later. (And that itself was more than 600 years ago.) The shrine stopped holding the festival for a time–no one exactly knows why–but they resumed in 1533.

The objective of this ceremony is to remove the sins and impurities of the parishioners. That chest the priests are carrying contains hundreds of human representations, called hitogata, which are drawn on more gohei. Those local parishioners who are unable to pass through the ring themselves, for whatever reason, write their name, address, age, and sex on the paper (and pay a fee). The priests hold a ceremony in which the sins are transferred from the person to the gohei before they are put in the chest. Then they walk through the ring three times. in this ceremony too, they are followed by area residents.

As often happens at traditional Japanese events when something good is free for the taking, this festival ends in a mad melee when the parishoners try to grab one of the gohei for themselves. Heaven help you if you get in the way. Those people who succeed in getting one place it on their kamidana, a sacred Shinto shelf in Japanese homes. Meanwhile, the priests dispose of the hitogata by setting them afloat on the river in another ceremony.

Now here’s a thought: this ceremony ends where Christian baptism begins.

But I’ll leave any speculation on the shape of the chinowa in the first photo to you…

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Noh by firelight

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 1, 2007

WHAT DO THE PEOPLE IN JAPAN associate with summer? The intense, otherworldly sound of cicadas, wind chimes, sweat, snow cones, watermelons, sweat, grade school kids exercising in an open lot while listening to the Rajio Taiso (Radio Exercise) program broadcast on NHK at 6:30 in the morning, a mountain of homework, and more sweat.

firelight noh

Less frequently mentioned, but just as much a part of the summer landscape, are the performances of takigi Noh, or bonfire Noh. For those unfamiliar with the form, Noh dramas are the oldest remaining professional theater in the world. Most of the repertoire dates from the 14th and 15th centuries, though one popular drama in the canon dates from the 19th century. It is extremely stylized; the actors wear masks, the lines of text are delivered in a distinctive chant (as intense and otherworldly in its own way as the cicadas), and the stage movements are rather deliberate and strictly defined.

For a good explanation of Noh, I recommend this excellent overview by Paul Binnie. He seems to sincerely love the form and does a good job of explaining its appeal. (For an in-depth look, try the Noh and Kyogen website on the right sidebar.)

Noh is usually performed indoors, often in a theater built specifically for that purpose. Come summer, however, Noh performances are staged outdoors at night with small bonfires for illumination. There have been dozens of performances throughout the country in recent weeks.

One, held at the Izumi Shinto Shrine in Kumamoto City, demonstrates that this is a living tradition; those outdoor performances began in 1960.

They are not a Japanese version of summer stock theater, either. The renowned Kuroemon Katayama IX, a national living treasure, appeared in four different dramas, including a kyogen performance, at the annual Shinshu Azumino Bonfire Noh in a local park in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture, with about 800 people in attendance.

Meanwhile, 700 people came to see Noh by firelight at Nikkozan Rinno-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. Many also made the trek to the countryside in Asahi-mura, Niigata Prefecture to see performances that are an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture. Noh dramas have been presented in Asahi-mura annually for 150 years, though the outdoor Noh performances date back only 20 years.

One word that the media invariably use to describe bonfire Noh is yugen. That’s one of those inscrutable Japanese words with no direct equivalent in English. The late Alan Watts explained it this way:

The Japanese have a word yugen, which has no English equivalent whatsoever. Yugen is in a way digging change. It’s described poetically, you have the feeling of yugen when you see out in the distant water some ships hidden behind a far-off island. You have the feeling of yugen when you watch wild geese suddenly seen and then lost in the clouds. You have the feeling of yugen when you look across Mt Tamalpais, and you’ve never been to the other side, and you see the sky beyond. You don’t go over there to look and see what’s on the other side, that wouldn’t be yugen. You let the other side be the other side, and it invokes something in your imagination, but you don’t attempt to define it to pin it down

That’s the Zen hipster definition; the one in a standard Japanese dictionary is more mundane. There it’s identified as “something with a profound and unfathomable aspect”. Actually, unfathomable is a good word to describe the whole business. Because most Noh plays are several hundred years old, the language of the texts is no longer the language in common use today. The unusual chant used to deliver the lines renders them even more difficult to pick up.

fireside no 3

I’ve been to two Noh performances, one in a theater and one outside with firelight, and I quickly gave up trying to understand what was going on. It’s best just to sit there and enjoy the spectacle.

It’s not much easier for Japanese to understand, either. At the theater performance, the audience consisted mostly of women who brought books containing the text of the plays and used those to follow the performance.

It was next to impossible for me to dig the change of yugen at the outdoor Noh, however, because the entire experience was downright uncomfortable. First, Japanese summers are oppressively hot. Sitting outside on a sweltering night has all the negatives of a sauna with none of the positives, especially when you lack the foresight to bring along some refreshing beverages. Second, while the bonfires may help create the ineffable yugen experience, they certainly don’t make the area around the stage any cooler.

Yet, I could have managed all that but for one additional element that made my visit to a takigi Noh nearly unbearable:

The mosquitoes!

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