Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Nara’


Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Narazuhiko Shinto shrine in Nara City repairs and rebuilds one of its three shrine pavilions every 20 years, and this year was one of those years. The focus this time was on roof repair. When the work was finished, the shrine presented a performance of okinamai. Designated an important intangible cultural treasure of the nation, okinamai is a “Shinto ritual and play of prayer) thought to be the origin of Noh.

This site provides a more detailed explanation, one part of which notes that the actors go through a period of “purifying abstention and fasting” before the performance because it is a Shinto ritual.

Here’s what the shrine’s performance looks like. The interesting part for me is the relatively casual behavior of the audience, despite the high seriousness of the performance itself. The audience is also as close to the performance as an audience can get.

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Don’t get too horny, deer: A reprise

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 10, 2012

IT’S that time of year again in Nara — The annual ceremony to deantlerize the deer in Nara Park was held on Saturday. This traditional event dates back to the Edo period, and is conducted at the start of mating season to keep the male deer from injuring park visitors or other deer with their antlers. Here’s a previous post on the same event from four years ago. But better yet, this year we have some Youtube video:

Another ceremony with deer as the main attraction was held in Nanjing, China, last week:

(D)ozens of tourists rushed to a dear farm in Nanjing on Wednesday, lining up for a drink of blood extracting from deer horns. The drink, which apparently is good for one’s health, caused some onlookers to faint, reports China’s news website the

The caretaker cut down the deer horn with a saw, then handed over the bloody horn to the tourists, who sucked the blood pooled in the inside…A bloodier scene continued. A worker cut a neck artery of a female deer, extracting blood directly and pouring it into a cup. A woman immediately drank it out, leaving her mouth with bloodstains.

“There is nothing horrible about this. Deer blood is the diamond of bloods: it’s good for the kidneys, sex enhancement and metabolism. Ordinary people do not have the chance to enjoy it,” a tourist was quoted by the news portal as saying.

It’s all for medicinal purposes, don’t you know. Deer blood is a traditional Chinese health food:

According to Chinese medicine, all parts of a deer can be used as medicine, especially deer blood, which is believed to cure diabetes. A professor of a Chinese medicine hospital at Jiangsu province warned that deer blood is not suitable for all patients. Some will become impatient after drinking it.

It might be appropriate to reprise part of another post — an excerpt I recently presented from Tsukuba University Prof. Furuta Hiroshi discussing China:

“…These rules for mealtime manners, wedding ceremonies, and clothing for all occasions, have been considered standards for etiquette since ancient times. They are considered to be a matter of proper behavior.

“The reality of courtesy changes over time, even in China, so these rules have not been uniform. Those who do not observe the prevailing standards of behavior, however, are considered barbarians. Their thesis is that the group upholding this etiquette is China (中華), the center of civilization. That is unchanged now from the past.

“Of course, the idea that one is the center of civilization is to be found here and there throughout the world. In Europe, the French are noted for it. But their attitude has not approached, as it always has with the Chinese, the haughty position of invincibility (in the belief that) their manner of eating, of conducting ceremonies, and the outward appearance of their clothing is correct (正しい) and therefore superior…”

Prof. Furuta thinks a useful image for understanding Northeast Asia is to picture the region as a group of nations living in different eras in terms of their political, economic, and social systems. Japan, he holds, is the only country that has reached what he calls the “post-modern” stage of development in the West. He thinks South Korea and Taiwan are in the “modern era”. Finally, he argues that the coastal regions of China have just entered the modern era, and that the interior of the country and North Korea are still in the Middle Ages.

In China, the great domestic disparity between systems is being compounded by their rapid entry into the modern era, sometimes resulting in sharp jolts of psychological dislocation and disorientation.

How many people in the West have a clear picture of what’s going on here? Not enough, I’m afraid.

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

All you have to do is look (42)

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Heijokyo Tempyosai at the old capital of Nara late last month. It is at the site of the Heijo Palace, which was the Imperial Palace for most of the 8th century. More than 10,000 candles were placed in cup holders for the event.

Photo and video from the Asahi Shimbun

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Matsuri da! (128): The white horse

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 3, 2012

THERE’S no telling what delights await rediscovery just by pulling down the old records from the top of the filing cabinet, blowing the dust off the cover, and opening the book.

The inspiration for this rediscovery was the wish to offer prayers for the recovery of the Tohoku area after last year’s triple disaster and the Kii Peninsula after the damage caused by Typhoon #12.

A ranch operator in Ibaragi suggested to the chief priest of the Niu Kawakami Shinto shrine in Shimoichi-cho, Nara, that an ancient ceremony once held at the shrine be revived. It was first held as a state festival in 763 — note the triple digits — to stop droughts or excessive rains. The tutelary deity of the shrine is the water divinity. When they wanted to end a drought, the Imperial court presented a black horse at the shrine. Stopping excessive rains required the presentation of a white horse. The damage from the tsunami and the typhoon called for the offering of a white horse, so one was borrowed from a riding club in Kyoto.

It might have taken them more than a few huffs to blow the dust off the records to check the procedures. The ceremony hadn’t been held since 1450, when they had had enough of the rains. For reasons unexplained, they stopped after that, and the custom wasn’t revived until this year.

For the first time in 562 years.

There’s no video of the white horse — and certainly none of the black — but this short clip is still worth watching to see the attractive shrine at a beautiful location.

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Ecumenism and equanimity

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 28, 2012

THE scene in the photograph above contains what today are incongruous elements, as Japanese will immediately recognize. But in another sense, the scene is neither new nor incongruous at all.

At the upper right are Shinto priests from the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa, conducting a Shinto service in front of the Great Buddha in the Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. Todai-ji dates from 728, while the Tsurugaoka shrine is the junior institution, having been founded in 1063.

The story of the relationship between the indigenous proto-religion Shinto and the continental import Buddhism is too long and complex to examine here. Relatively speaking, they are separate and equal, but were more closely connected at times in the past, with some buildings used as both shrines and temples. The Meiji-era government ended all that by decree.

They came together again to conduct a joint Buddhist-Shinto ceremony at Todai-ji on the 21st to pray for the souls of those who died in the Tohoku disaster and for the recovery of the area. It began at 6:30 a.m. with a Buddhist memorial service in which 300 people participated. Monks read from 600 scrolls of the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra.

The delegation from the Kamakura shrine included about 100 people, and their part of the service started with a Shinto prayer. Shrine maidens (miko) performed a kagura (Shinto dance) to pray for peaceful seas. There were eight dancers in the group, a larger number than usual, and this is what it looked like. (Again, the image of miko in front of the Great Buddha is an incongruous sight nowadays.)

Finally, the Junior Chorus Ensemble, consisting of 20 junior high and high school girls from Minamisoma, Fukushima, performed the well-loved classic Furusato, or Home Town. It was composed in 1914 for children to sing in school.

The two institutions also have a long relationship. The tutelary deity of the shrine is one of the early shoguns, Minamoto no Yoritomo. He provided assistance to the temple after it was destroyed during the Siege of Nara in 1180. The smaller Taira army overwhelmed a larger group of warrior monks in established defensive positions in Nara to burn down much of the city, including all but one of the Buddhist temples. The Heike Monogatari describes the original Great Buddha statue at Todai-ji melting in the heat of the fire.

The performance of Furusato probably sounded something like this.

Here’s an excerpt of the kagura dance, Urayasu no Mai. It’s not as old as you might think. This dance was created in 1940 as part of the national celebrations commemorating the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial line.

Could one of the reasons the Japanese were not overcome by hysteria during the Tohoku disaster be a certain perspective and equanimity inculcated over many centuries as a result of the vicissitudes of history, snippets of which are described above?

Do I read too much into it all? Perhaps.


* That’s an unfortunate choice of words in the book review at the link:

…(L)ike Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, (Japan) embraced reactionary modernism.

Nothing “reactionary” about them at all, unless you were a Stalinist. Fascism was a progressive movement, as even the progressives — such as FDR — recognized. The term was coined in 1984 by Jeffrey Herf.

* My sister gave me a print of this illustration of Minamoto no Yoritomo as a gift not long before I started studying Japanese. She had no idea who it was, but she said it reminded her of me.

Posted in Festivals, History, Music, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The masters of multiculti

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 29, 2011

IN a recent post, I mentioned a survey which broke down the national population by religious affiliation and found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions. While religious purists might find that appalling, the Japanese, perhaps the most naturally syncretic people on earth, wouldn’t even blink at the news. For example, I once worked with a young Japanese woman who was a such a serious Roman Catholic that she kept an illustration of Christ under the clear vinyl covering on her desk. Yet, for extra income (and probably because she enjoyed it), she also served as a miko, or Shinto shrine maiden, on weekends to assist priests during wedding ceremonies. No one thought this was unusual at all, including, I suspect, the Shinto priests.

One reason for the laissez-faire approach is the partial syncretism that has existed between the proto-religion of Shinto and the latecomer Buddhism, which showed up in the archipelago in the sixth century. The partnership got off to a rough start in 698 when a Shingon sect established a temple near the Ise shrines because they thought the Shinto deities required the Buddha’s spiritual guidance. That demonstrated some serious Shingon sack, because one of the enshrined deities at Ise is Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe and the progenitrix of the Imperial line.

They paid for the blasphemy, however, as the damage from a typhoon in 772 caused the shrine to be temporarily dismantled. The typhoon was said to be a sign of divine displeasure at the presence of Buddhist symbols so close to the most important Shinto place of worship.

But proselytizers everywhere are relentless, and the Japanese Buddhists kept plugging away throughout the Heian period (794-1185) to promote a synthesis. Their efforts culminated with the development of the Ryobu Shinto (Dual Shinto) school, one of the main tenets of which held that Amaterasu was the manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana), or the Great Sun Buddha. Ryobu Shinto lasted for centuries, influenced straight Shinto thought, and allowed Buddhist temples to take control of Shinto shrines. Sites with both temples and shrines were common in Japan for close to a millennium. That arrangement ended in 1868 when the government ordered their separation as part of the program to establish State Shinto.

Exceptions remain, however, as can be seen in the photograph, which shows a Shinto shrine in front of Nigatsu-do at the Buddhist temple Todai-ji in Nara. That temple is known for housing the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Japan, as well as being the largest wooden building in the world. It dates from the 8th century, but is affiliated with the Kegon sect rather than Shingon.

An estimated 99.39 million of the 127 million Japanese visited a shrine or temple (usually the former) during the three-day New Year period in 2009, so the Nara collocation makes it a convenient holiday stop.

In fact, ceremonies from the two traditions are combined here at an annual Buddhist rite called the Shunie, which is a gathering of priests for prayer and purification in February under the old calendar. (Nigatsu-do translates as February Hall.) Nowadays it starts on 1 March and continues for 14 days. The ritual at Todai-ji is one astonishing combination of elements that could happen only in Japan: disease-curing water magically traveling 175 kilometers, an archery demonstration, sake drinking, frenzied dancing with torches lit by sacred fire by Buddhist priests on retreat for exorcism and to pray for world peace while eating only one partial meal a day, and thousands of people who come to watch and hope that the sacred sparks fall on them. It was started by a Buddhist priest in 752 out of atonement for going fishing instead of going to a prayer meeting. (Read all about it at this previous post.)

Before the priestly procession holes up at Nigatsu-do, they stop off at the Shinto shrine and say a prayer to the tutelary deity. The procession is then blessed and purified with a gohei, a wooden wand with cloth streamers called shide that is used in Shinto rituals. (Here’s a Japanese site with a simple video and diagrams of how to make ’em, including a photo of the finished product.)

Some of the too-cool-for-school rational secularists out there could learn a few things from the Japanese.

Here’s a 30-second commercial for JR Nara showing Todai-ji and featuring scenes of the torch ceremony. The background music is Stranger in Paradise.

See what I mean?

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Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Tea party

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 10, 2011

TO outsiders, the Japanese tea ceremony can be a stiff and starchy affair that leaves some wondering why it’s been such a big deal for so long. To insiders, however, it integrates the appreciation of green tea (a fine beverage) with aspects of traditional architecture, gardening, ceramics, calligraphy, and religion. Its history is closely linked with that of Buddhism in Japan, particularly Zen.

The appreciation of tea was not always conducted in such an elegant atmosphere, however. For example, tea tournaments became popular among the aristocracy during the Muromachi period (1333 to 1568). The nominal objective of these contests was to distinguish which of the teas served was the “true tea”, i.e., that grown from seeds brought from China in the 12th century, and which were derived from newer strains. Extravagant prizes were awarded, more sake than tea was consumed, and the government banned them after they became an excuse for rowdiness.

The early master Sen no Rikyu founded his own school for the tea ceremony that branched off into three schools that survive to the present. He eventually became the tea guru for the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, receiving extensive land holdings from the latter and officiating at tea ceremonies for both, as well as for the Emperor Ogimachi. Rikyu became too successful for his own good, however; he irritated Hideyoshi for reasons that remain unclear and was forced by him to commit suicide in 1591. (Among the theories: he had a life-size statue of himself built, he refused to give his daughter to Hideyoshi as a concubine, and he charged too much money for his tea utensils.)

While the tea ceremony has become more sedate in the intervening centuries, it is still possible to catch glimpses of the past funkiness. One example is the annual Ochamori ceremony at Saidai-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, held this year on the 9th.

Those who visit the temple for the ceremony drink the same matcha that is consumed at other tea ceremonies. Matcha is a finely-ground, powdered, high quality form of the tea that is shade-grown. On this day, however, it is drunk not from the small, individual tea cups esteemed for their artistic value, but motherbruisers that are 40 centimeters in diameter, weigh from five to 10 kilograms, and are passed around to five or six people. In fact, the cups are so large the drinker needs help from the people on either side to handle them. (That’s where the “O” in Ochamori comes from. It isn’t the honorific but the character that means “big”.) They sometimes wind up with matcha-covered faces, which is an unlikely spectacle at a conventional tea ceremony.

The Ochamori originated more than 750 years ago in the Kamakura era with Eison, a high priest of the Shingon sect. In those days, tea was still a luxury item. During the January convocation of the monthly meeting for Buddhist instruction, he first offered the tea to the divinity, and then made sure it was passed to the parishioners and townspeople, most of whom wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The story goes that everyone wanted to drink sake instead — this is Japan, after all — but religious precepts prohibited it.

Reported a 15-year-old high school girl who came over from Hyogo for the event this year:

“It’s the first time I’ve ever drunk from a teacup this big. It was heavy!”

And to see just how heavy it was, try this brief clip from an Ochamori of the past.

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Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 3, 2011

EVERYONE associates saunas with the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, particularly Finland, and the bathing culture with the Japanese. But when baths in private dwellings became commonplace in Japan after in the postwar period, many of the sento, or bathhouses, installed saunas to attract customers. Now a good public bath in Japan combines the best of both worlds.

Less well known, however, is that the Japanese have had saunas of their own for quite some time — in fact, since at least the 8th century. That’s when the Empress Komyo, a devout Buddhist, had the Hokkei-ji temple built in Nara as a convent with a bath and a steam sauna. It’s a big enough deal to have been designated an important tangible cultural asset of the nation.

The sauna in its current form dates from the Edo period, and consists of two chambers of 2.5 square meters walled with Japanese cypress. Water is boiled in an adjoining room and passed through the floor. After the temple was repaired in 2003, the priests have opened the temple’s sauna to the public once a year. This summer, 30 people showed up to sweat out the sinfulness. No temperature readings were provided for the interior heat, but the 30-minute limit for individual bathers is about twice as long as I stay in a modern sauna. Then again, a young female grad student from Kyoto compared her perspiration volume to the flow after a hot yoga practice (such as Bikram yoga), so it must get steamy enough.

The Empress Komyo had several temples built, including at least three others in Nara. She is also said to have employed the same sauna mechanism for 1,000 people in a bath. Hey, cleanliness is next to godliness, right?

Special Buddhist memorial services are held every 50 years on the anniversary of a person’s death, and here’s a video of bugaku (Court music and dance) being performed at Hokke-ji in May 2010 to commemorate the 1,250th year of the empress’s death. Because it is associated with the Imperial Court, bugaku is more closely connected with Shinto than with Buddhism, but this is Japan — the world champs at mixing and matching.

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Posted in History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Scoopin’ up the gold

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 29, 2011

GOLDFISH swallowing was a fad that surfaced in the 1920s and reemerged in the 1930s in the US, popularized by that omnipresent and amorphous pool of college boys who have a hyperactive imagination, a disinclination for schoolwork, and are always game for doing something new and goofy.

The Japanese have enjoyed pastimes using live goldfish since at least the 19th century, but here they scoop instead of swallow them. The rules are simple: Grab the most in a certain amount of time and you win.

In fact, Yamatokoriyama, Nara, has held a National Goldfish Scooping Championship every year for the past 17 years. No one will be surprised to learn that the city is one the largest goldfish production regions in the country, or that they think the championship is a marvelous way to promote the industry. More than a few people will be surprised, however, to discover that there were 1,801 competitors at this year’s event last weekend — and that new event records were set in both the Adults and Kids divisions.

The new champion in the adult division is a 19-year-old bucko — the perfect age! — from Kashihara in the same prefecture. He scarfed up 87 fish in three minutes. Interviewed by the media after his victory, he said, “I was lucky. I’ll shoot for a hundred next time.” He’s got the professional athlete’s postgame attitude down pat, doesn’t he?

The winner in the Kids division was an eight-year-old boy from Osaka who managed to scoop 73. Now this is a boy who’s got the right stuff. He told reporters, “I’m happy, because this is the first time in my life I’ve become number one in Japan at anything.” It sounds as if he thinks becoming number one in Japan at several other things later on in life is a foregone conclusion.

This a serious competition with official rules, by the way. You don’t just bring a dipper, buy a ticket, and go fish. The contestants face off in 26 separate pools, which are filled with about 1,000 fish each. In addition to a three-minute time limit, there’s a rule that contestants have to use the official goldfish scooper, which is called a poi. It is made with a round wood frame and washi, or traditional Japanese paper, to cover the business end. Scooping circuit veterans advise beginners to start from the fish head and avoid the tail, whose flopping could tear the paper. In fact, the Yamatokoriyama website has an English-language page with helpful hints on goldfish scooping, which I’d link to, but the WordPress software isn’t accepting hotlinks at the moment for some reason.

It’s a tradition to have the participants in these competitions take all or some of the fish they scoop home with them. That might present a problem for the winners of the event. Just what do you do after you’ve become responsible for 87 new goldfish all of a sudden?

Swallow them?

Goldfish swallowing is harder to do in the U.S. these days, but then it seems harder to have any kind of fun there these days. Some Christian churches used it as a way to help children overcome the Fear Factor. PETA didn’t like it:

“We all agree that children must come to terms with their fears,” said PETA director Debbie Leahy, “but causing tiny goldfish terror and pain as they are eaten alive is no way to teach kids a lesson.”

Leahy’s group claims “fish are intelligent, sensitive animals who have developed cognitive abilities and who experience pain and fear, just as all animals do.”

PETA had no comment on the terror and pain of tiny goldfish as they are eaten alive by birds or animals in outdoor pools, or fed to the predatory species some aquarium hobbyists keep, or even roughly jerked out of their home environment by the hundreds as amusement in Japan.

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

The sporting life

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 20, 2011

Our politicians, left and right, are, to belabor the metaphor, the wastrel son: they are free to spend, to chase fantasies, and to squander resources, for the resources are not theirs, and there is no penalty for their misuse or loss.
– David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge

DAVID Mamet’s analogy of the wastrel son for the generic politician’s spending patterns works better than that of the drunken sailor. After all, the sailor earned the money he‘s burning.

Consider the wastrel sons and daughters of Nagata-cho. The Koizumi/Abe administrations had the national budget on a path from deficit toward surplus, almost inconceivable after the collapse of the economic bubble and the Lost Decade of legend. In the four years since 2007, however, they’ve boosted the budget deficit by roughly 500% — yes, that’s the right number of digits — to almost double the total when Mr. Koizumi took office. Now consider that no one has any idea of the size of the bill for the cleanup and reconstruction of the Tohoku area after the earthquake/tsunami. Some estimate that it could run as much as JPY 40 trillion, which is almost the size of the current DPJ government deficits.

So, during the national crisis, what spending measure did the Diet deem essential to enact last Friday? Here’s the first sentence of a Kyodo report:

“A basic law outlining the promotion of sports and physical activity as a state responsibility was enacted Friday with bipartisan support, fully revising for the first time a 1961 law that has served as the main legal basis for sports-related measures.”

Doesn’t the idea that promoting sports and physical activity is a “state responsibility” have a tinge of Iron Fist statism? The Soviets established a Supreme Council of Fitness Culture in 1920, and this paper explains that state’s responsibility:

“(a) perfect the scientific system of bringing sports within the reach of the whole population, (b) build and operate sports facilities, (c) train coaches and instructors, (d) manufacture sports goods and equipment, (e) stage country-wide competitions, and (f) maintain international contacts and cooperate with other state agencies as well as the trade unions and Young Communist League organizations. The promotion and administration of sports is to be carried out by the party, government, trade unions, Young Communist League, and sports organizations.”

Other than (d), those are the same general objectives of the Japanese legislation:

“The 1961 sports promotion law was created with an eye to building facilities for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and improving school gymnasium curricula. The new law covers professional athletes and those with disabilities, while acknowledging the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.

“The two main pillars of the basic law are improving the performance of top international athletes and supporting local sports clubs across the country, with the need for the state to take fiscal and tax-relief measures in pursuing such goals being noted.

“The lawmaker-sponsored legislation, which is the culmination of more than three years of efforts by a supraparty league of lawmakers, also makes it easier to get the government’s financial guarantee for a bid to host the Olympic Games and other international sports meets.”

Who says there’s government gridlock in Japan? Plenty of bipartisanship here.

Kyodo reports that the bill acknowledges the existence of something no one knew existed before: “the right of all people to enjoy sporting activities.” That idea is just as vapor-based as my “right” to enjoy a harem using government-owned facilities. By definition, a right requires a collective and individual obligation to allow everyone the opportunity to exercise it. Both sports and sex are voluntary recreational activities that are usually beneficial for health.

My wife wouldn’t allow me to work out exercise that right in the spare bedroom, but the state should be on my side. It would make a lot of people happy and we’d all get our calisthenics in, the opportunity for which is the state’s responsibility to provide. It’s the law!

Had I access to the voting records in the Diet, I would be curious to see who supported the legislation. It would be educational, but not surprising, if among the aye votes were those who tout themselves as small government types, such as Your Party and the Rising Tide wing of the LDP. One LDP marveloso wrote on the Web that he wanted to make Japan a Great Power in sports.

Politicians that they are, they pre-packaged the bill with justifications:

“The government intends to set a basic plan on sports based on the new law, aiming to establish a new sports culture to help revive regions and cut medical spending by capitalizing on the benefits offered by participating in sporting activities.”

A new sports culture was also one of the ideals of The Third Reichians, who increased the amount of phys. ed. time in schools from two hours a week to two hours a day. I’d bet cash money that none of the MPs supporting the legislation could offer a convincing explanation of how this will revive the regions, even if you cornered them with a knife in the alley. It’s understandable that the government wants to cut medical spending, since they’re already responsible for the bulk of it, but this excuse is just a running broad jump away from justifying the rationing of medical services. That’s one Western government budget-cutting innovation the Japanese have yet to adopt, though given the decline in the birth rate and the rise in longevity, it shouldn’t be long before someone argues for its importation.

Nevertheless, it is possible to catch glimmers of intelligent life among the politicos. The same day the Diet passed this bill, the municipal council of Koryo-cho in Nara Prefecture approved a resolution calling on the Diet to eliminate the tax-funded political party subsidies and allocate the funds to the relief of the Tohoku region.

Political parties with at least five members are eligible for the subsidies, which will total roughly JPY 32 billion this year. It’s the law! The funds are allocated based on the number of seats a party holds, so the DPJ will wind up with slightly more than half of the money. That provision means it’s also a life insurance policy for incumbents.

Here’s some of the language from the resolution:

“Continuing to receive political party subsidies while receiving corporate and group donations is tantamount to deceiving the public.”


“Today, public funds account for the major portion of a party’s finances. That means the parties are disengaged from the people, and it engenders the disengagement of the people from politics.”


“It is criminal that parties eat up tax funds when so many people are suffering from poverty. That idea grows stronger when we think of those who suffered in the disaster.”

While Koryo-cho has a population of only 34,000 and 16 council members (two of whom were absent for this vote), it is yet another data point for the argument that many people at the local level are more clear-headed about how a government is supposed to behave than their betters in Tokyo.

Subsidy supporters claim it is the cost of democracy. Others would suggest the real cost of democracy is having to suffer fools who’ve made a profession out of spending other people’s money. The subsidies were created to prevent politicians from being obvious about going on the take. They are a result of the national spasm of revulsion over money politics in the early 1990s, one example of which was the gold bullion Kanemaru Shin stashed for the LDP at home.

In other words, the real reason is this: “We are too corrupt, undisciplined, and immoral to govern our own affairs without taking dirty money, so to minimize that temptation, we’ve discussed it among ourselves and agreed to confiscate it from you.”

The best part of the story — and yet another reason I no longer read fiction — is that the legislation was introduced by a Communist, one of two party members on the Koryo-cho council. Eleven delegates voted in favor, including members of the DPJ and other “conservative” independents, as the report had it, while the New Komeito representatives were among the three opposed. What “conservative” means in this context is unclear, because the source of the report was Akahata (Red Flag), the house organ of the JCP. Japan’s Communists are the only party in the Diet that refuses to accept the funds.

What does it say about a nation’s political culture when the Reds are the only party with an occasional sense of fiduciary responsibility?


The name of the Buddhist temple shown in the above photo of a Koryo street scene is Kudara-ji. Kudara is the Japanese reading of the characters for the Korean Baekche, one of the three ancient kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula. This blurb in the Britannica explains how the other two Xed it out by 660. It doesn’t explain that Japanese forces fought alongside those of Baekche, and that some of the Koreans fled south across the Korean Strait after their defeat. Many of them settled in Nara.

No one is sure when the temple was founded, except that it was A Long Time Ago.

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Posted in Government, Sports | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Nengajo 2011

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 16, 2011

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analogue for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events, both semi-sacred and secular, specific to the season. For example, just as others send Christmas cards, the Japanese send New Year’s cards to family, friends, and business associates called nengajo. If they’re mailed by a certain date, the post office will deliver them smack dab on 1 January, but, as with Christmas cards, their late arrival is acceptable.

Here’s the Ampontan nengajo for 2011 with my apologies for its delayed delivery, which pushes the limits for acceptable late arrivals. As we get ready for our Great Leap Forward in the year of the rabbit, let’s take a quick look back at what happened in Japan during yearend 2010.

It started with a thorough housecleaning, as December is the month for spring cleaning in these parts. That includes Shinto shrines, which are de rigeur as a destination on New Year’s Eve or the first three days of the New Year for those who follow the tradition. Instead of climbing on tall ladders in those clothes for susubarai, or cleaning the dust from the eaves, the shrine priests and the miko (the Shinto equivalent of altar boys) make it easy on themselves by attaching bamboo grass leaves to poles so they can swipe from the ground. Here, eight priests and miko at the Gokoku jinja in Oita City, Oita are wielding four-meter-long poles in their devotion to ensure that cleanliness is next to godliness.

They also hung a 10-meter-long shimenawa, a rope made of rice straw denoting a sacred space. This one weighed about 200 kilos, and was made with the help of senior citizens clubs and veterans groups. The straw came from rice grown in a special field called a shinsenden (offering/paddy).

Everything—everything—gets cleaned at yearend, and that includes the 24 loggerhead and green turtles at the sea turtle museum in Tokushima City. Here’s Hamataro getting sponged to remove the moss and crud, after the big guy reached the turtle equivalent of kanreki (age 60) this year. They also changed the water in the pool to give their charges something clean to gurk around in. The museum likes to encourage visitors this time of year because turtles are traditionally thought to bring good luck, and it’s hard to keep a turtle in one’s pocket instead of a rabbit’s foot.

Shinto shrines aren’t the only ones who settle the heavenly accounts at yearend—Buddhist temples get involved too. The priests at the Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a temple in Narita, Chiba, near Tokyo’s international airport, burned all the ofuda amulets from the year in their annual ceremony to give thanks for blessings to Fudo Myo’o, who is one nasty-looking dude to judge from the photo at the link. He’s a divinity reputed to convert anger into salvation and who also brings financial blessings.

It took 15 priests to create a fire from a 1.5 meter high pile of cryptomeria branches to burn all 50,000 of the tapped-out amulets while parishioners prayed. The temple says the ofuda are the body of Fudo Myo’o, (an East Asian echo of the Eucharist?) and returning them to flames gives thanks for health and safety.

The temple expected as many as three million visitors during the three-day New Year period.

Shrines need extra help to deal with all the people who turn up on their doorstep, so in addition to serving as the equivalent of altar boys, the miko play the role of Santa’s helpers. They hire young women specifically for this role to handle the public during the yearend holidays to augment the miko already on their staff. The recruits undergo a day of training, during which they’re taught how to properly conduct themselves on the premises, receive guests, and how to wear the unfamiliar clothing—the white hakui and red hibakama. The new miko above were among the 80 local university and junior college students hired by the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki.

If there’s anything better than a photo of miko trying on clothes, it’s two photos of miko trying on clothes, especially when they’re having so much fun. Here are some ladies learning the ropes—or perhaps the knots—from the full-timers at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. Dazaifu is a large shrine, and they also hired 80 part-timers to work until the 7th. They expected two million people to visit during the first three days of the new year, the largest turnout in Kyushu.

Once they’ve finished decorating their bodies, it’s time to decorate the premises. There are almost as many types of New Year’s decorations as there are Christmas decorations, and one of them is this shimekazari being hung by Tokushima City Mayor Hara Hideki on the front gate at the Chuo Park in the city. He had to stand on a four-meter high ladder to put up the one-meter-long shimekazari, which weighed three kilograms.

It’s actually being hung to greet spring—Shinshun—which is a synonym for New Year’s, and was up until just yesterday. The gate naturally had to be cleaned before His Honor ascended the ladder, and that chore was handled by two city officials. As yet another demonstration of how that old time religion is still good enough for many, this is an older custom that had fallen out of practice but was restored in 1989. A matching decoration was hung on the entrance to the gardens of the old Tokushima castle located next door.

Another New Year’s decoration is the kadomatsu, which is placed in front of homes as an abode for the divinities. This 3.5-meter-high number was set up in front of the Ohmi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, on 13 December. It took two hours to make using mahonia berries and flowers as well as the traditional pine, bamboo, and plum. The Otsuans used to cut down the pine trees for their kadomatsu until six years ago, when they decided to get ecological and dig up a pine tree on the shrine grounds instead. They replanted it on the 15th.

Some shrines don’t use a kadomatsu, however. The Ikuta-jinja in Kobe creates a tree-like facsimile using 2,000 cryptomeria branches, a talisman the shrine has long used for good luck in the New Year. It too stood until the 15th.

The folks at the Ikuta shrine chose cryptomeria instead of pine because centuries ago a pine tree fell over during a flood and smashed the main shrine building. These are priests, after all, and they know how to pay attention to omens when they see one.

A group of about 30 priests and miko wrapped a 5-meter-high pole in straw and then arranged the branches.

Now for the souvenirs. Here’s a group of miko at the Asakunitsuko-jinja, in Koriyama, Fukushima, making hamaya, the arrows sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits, and which some also think provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. Dang, I need me one of those!

The four miko attached small trinkets to the hamaya that symbolize wishes for children or a bountiful harvest, and others that represent the rabbit. They made 5,000, and since they’ve been at this for centuries, they probably have a good idea of demand before they start. The proper way to dispose of these arrows, by the way, is to burn them in a ceremony at the end of the year, as with the ofuda amulets above. And no, they don’t shoot any flaming arrows!

The hamaya arrows are made and sold throughout the country, but some shrines think locally and produce unique items. For example, the Urahoro-jinja in Urahoro-cho Hokkaido, makes and sells oppai mori, or literally, breast protectors. The shrine has a reputation nationwide as a Mecca (to mix religious metaphors) for those wishing to have children, give safe birth, or give milk during nursing. That means their oppai mori is a popular product.

The custom derives from the tutelary deity for the shrine, which was a breast-shaped bump on a nearby large nara tree (called the common oak in English). Some women who had difficulty giving milk and went to the shrine to pray for help in early 20th century had their wish granted. The tree eventually collapsed, but the priests took their eyes off the sparrow and switched them to the important part to salvage it. That section of the tree was moved to a new shrine in 1982 at the request of the Urahoroans.

Sold for JPY 1,000 since 2006, the oppai mori are made from the wood of the nara tree and given a decoration based on a painting by a local artist. A nearby studio produces them individually in the shape of the human breast. Some have straps so they can be used for cell phones, and I’ll bet that’s a conversation starter.

Jack Seward, the unofficial patron saint of students of the Japanese language and country, died last year at the age of 86. Any native English speaker with any interest at all in fluency beyond a standard textbook has read his memoir/manual, Japanese in Action. Here’s one passage discussing local drinking habits:

The large family of gods (in Shinto mythology) who founded Japan were heavy sake drinkers. They were often drunk, and the mythology nowhere implies censure for this drunkenness. If it was good enough for the gods, why not for us? the Japanese ask. Think of what our attitude toward drinking might be if the Bible told us that Christ and his disciples met every afternoon at a Jerusalem cocktail lounge and got glassy-eyed.

So now you won’t be surprised that the Sanzo Inari-jinja in Fukuyama, Hiroshima, sells divine sake made by a brewer at nearby Minoshima-cho for New Year’s visitors. They even had a special packaging ceremony during which the head priest filled the first large bottle. He was followed by the three Misses Sanzo Inari, who filled 100-milliliter bottles and attached labels.

In the good old days, the parishioners could have a swig on site when they made their New Year’s visits, but the shrine changed its policy in 2007 and now only gives out bottles of the heavenly brew. They say it’s to prevent DWI, but it might also prevent some guys from getting any ideas about volunteering for oppai mori duty after eyeballing the young miko. Noshima Naomi, one of the misses, said:

We did this with the wish that people would feel good (kimochi yoku) as they greeted the new year.

I’ll bet!

Mochi rice cakes are a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient in Japan, and during the New Year, they’re also used to decorate the home. These are called kagami mochi, and some families still pound them out in the yard for the holidays.

The ingredient is a particularly glutinous form of rice, and Takanezawa-machi in Tochigi is a big rice production center. That’s how the local Yasuzumi-jinja got the big idea to decorate their shrine with jumbo mochi. The priests and miko don’t have to make it themselves, as the locals donate it as thanks for a good year and supplication for a good harvest next year. The mochi cakes they use have gotten jumboer over the years, and now weigh 500 kilograms. As you can see from the video above, they need some equipment to help haul it. The lower level is 110 centimeters in diameter, while the second is 80. The miko tote only the top level.

Though many people pay the traditional first visit to a shrine on the first, any time through the third is fine. The photo above is of the Taga-jinja in Taga-cho, Shiga, the shrine with the largest turnout in the region. About 160,000 people showed up on the first day of the year to pray and buy amulets. That was about 10,000 fewer than last year, but equilibrium was achieved when 150,000 people showed up on the 2nd, 10,000 more than last year.

The holiday shrine pilgrimage is an ecumenical affair, as even Buddhist priests come too. The priests at Kofuku-ji in Nara joined the Shinto priests on the 2nd in a prayer for peace in while paying their respects at the local Kasuga Taisha (a World Heritage site) and its affiliated Wakamiya-jinja. The Buddhist priests used to read sutras at the shrine every day during the Edo period, but that practice ended when the government legally forced the separation of the institutions during the Meiji period. They still hold joint ceremonies once a year, and this year the procession included nine priests of both varieties and two miko. They offered sake and rice during the Nikkuhajime-shiki ceremony and the priests took their chance to read some sutras. They they trooped over to Wakamiya and the Buddhists read the heart sutra just to make sure.

To top it off

Once upon a time before video games, children had special amusements on New Year’s—kite-flying, hanetsuki (a type of badminton) and top spinning. There are 450 years of tradition behind the Hakata koma, or tops, in Fukuoka. Upholding that tradition is the current Shuraku Chikushi, a woman, who describes how she maintains that tradition, performs, and makes the tops she uses during her performances in this fascinating English-language interview. The interview tells you as much about Japan and the Japanese as I could—including her intention to pass the art down to her taiko-playing, jazz-listening son. There are no videos on the Net, alas, but that photo of her balancing a spinning top on the edge of a folding fan is still impressive.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s natto for everybody

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

THREE JAPANESE MEN who became friends when I was studying the language at an American university invited me to dinner at the apartment they shared. We met when they saw me puzzling my way through a Tanizaki novel in the student union, and they struck up a conversation.

It was late spring, and guys will be guys, so the meal was an informal affair—make-it-yourself makizushi (rolled sushi). One of the ingredients they offered with the rice and the dark green nori rolling material was natto, fermented soybeans sold in a commercial package. It’s made with special bacteria that give it a distinctive odor and taste that cause even some Japanese to wrinkle their nose. Pick it up with chopsticks and you’ll see that it’s coated in transparent, stringy gloop.

One of them said, “You probably won’t like this. Foreigners usually don’t.”

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that one of the secrets to establishing good relations with people from overseas is to eat whatever they offer you. The reason they’re serving it is because they consider it a special treat, after all. I thought I could use that advice to my advantage, because I’ve always been willing to eat anything once.

That’s why I slathered a generous serving of natto into the middle of the rice and rolled it up. It certainly got their attention.

I took a bite and almost gagged.

“What do you think?”

There’s no backing down when you’re in that far, especially for a young man among young men, so I gulped it down and told them it was great. They actually believed me. I stuck with natto makizushi the rest of the night, though I gradually reduced the proportion of natto to rice after that.

Wouldn’t you know it? They invited me back for dinner a month later, and when I got there, one of them said, “You liked natto so much last time we decided to have it again tonight.”

My wife thinks that no dinner is complete without natto, but she didn’t force it on me. Shortly after getting married, I saw a television program that presented convincing evidence for its nutritious and healthful properties, so I steeled myself to trying it again. She heard that mixing the natto with grated daikon radish reduces the odor and the stickiness, and that got me eating it every day. After about a year, she decided it was too much trouble to keep grating the daikon, but by then I had gotten used to it. Now I consider it health food.

The Japanese aren’t sure when they started eating natto, but it was a long time ago. They’ve figured out their ancestors had the technical means for making it in the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD), but the oldest documentary evidence for its consumption comes from the mid-11th century in the book Shinsaru Goki by Fujiwara no Akihira (989?-1066), a Confucian scholar and man of letters. He listed shiokarai natto (salty natto) as one of his favorite foods. To put that in perspective, they’ve been eating it in Japan before William the Conqueror’s victory in the Battle of Hastings.

In the Edo period (1603-1868), peddlers hawked it in the streets of Kyoto and Edo every morning. It was also a regular menu item for soldiers and sailors during the war.

The governor and Miss Natto

Despite that illustrious history, the Natto Cooperative Society Federation of Japan (Japanese only) still works to promote the food. Since 2005, they’ve selected an attractive young woman to serve as Miss Natto and publicize the dish nationwide. This year, the reigning Miss Natto is Tashiro Sayaka, who is the fourth in line. Last month, she paid a courtesy call on Nara Gov. Arai Shogo, as you can see from the photo.

There’s a reason Nara was selected for the promotion. The ancient capital was established in Nara in 710, and this year they’re commemorating the 1,300th anniversary.

The Japanese have long used a linguistic device called goroawase, in which syllables or short words from one expression are combined to create other words or expressions for an interesting or comic effect. It’s often employed in TV commercials using the variants for the pronunciation of numbers to create a word or expression that makes it easy to remember a telephone number, for example.

In Japanese, a child could convert natto into 710.

Said Ms. Tashiro at her meeting with the governor:

There are probably many people who hate natto and don’t eat it, but I really wish they would because it’s very healthful. I recommend natto toast. Spread some natto and cheese on bread and toast it.

She’s right, it’s as healthful as the dickens, but dumping it on top of white bread and the rubberized melty cheese they sell in supermarkets might negate its benefits. The governor has his own favorite:

Natto became popular when I was a college student, and I like it now. I think it’s good to mix with nori and eat like a snack.

Mr. Arai likes it now? Does that mean he too didn’t like it at first and had to grow accustomed to it? It’s not out of the question.

If the idea of natto cheese toast or a natto/nori snack doesn’t whet your appetite, take a look at this post about the natto rolled cake a high school class invented. It looks scrumptious.

They sold out, too.

And if that doesn’t convince you, think of this: Eating it might make a natto angel out of you!

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Posted in Food, History, Popular culture | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (2)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BAREFOOTIN’ IN TEE-SHIRTS and short pants, all the better to deal with the 30-minute turnarounds of pouring rain and blazing sun: yeah, summer has arrived at last in Japan. During the dog days, the archipelago offers all sorts of hot-weather delights, including watermelon, shaved ice, and best of all, the transformation of even the most neo-radical of young women into traditional beauties once they exchange their jeans for yukata (a summer kimono).

What else is going on up and down the islands? Well, take a look and find out!

Firefly festivals

Once upon a time, summer nights on the East Coast of the United States came alive with a light show au naturel created by fireflies. The march of progress and suburbia seems to have ended all that, but the lightning bugs, as we used to call them, are still alive and flickering in the countryside here.

This is Japan, so take it as given that people know just when to expect their appearance every year, just how long it will last, and how to organize the viewing parties and festivals held to coincide with those dates.

Lightning bugs!

Lightning bugs!

The photo shows the fireflies near the Ayu River in Tanabe, in the southern part of Wakayama. It’s one of several locations in the area known as superb firefly viewing sites from the end of May to the beginning of June.

But as with the cherry blossoms and the rainy season, the firefly front keeps marching north, and right now the folks in Yonezawa, Yamagata, are enjoying a month-long firefly festival at the Onogawa spa. The festival is sponsored by the spa’s tourism association and the Yonezawa Firefly Protection Society. The opening ceremony was held at the local memorial firefly tower to pray for the safety of the participants during the event. Those Yonezawans must really like fireflies!

It’s not a festival in Japan without liquor, so right after the prayers they perform another centuries-old ritual by knocking open the head of a sake barrel with wooden hammers and passing the hooch around. They say some people see double when they drink too much, so you can imagine the sort of visions that light up the retinas of the festival-goers when a wave of fireflies floats by.

The viewing in Yonezawa begins on the riverbank right after it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and lasts until 9:00. The area is such a firefly mecca that three different species breed here, and who but the entomologists knew there were different types of lightning bugs? For a spot of relaxation after all this excitement, the open-air baths stay open until nine, and there’s a tea house set up temporarily next to the firefly tower. The festival fun lasts until 31 July, but some people like to time their visit for the amateur entertainment contest on the 4th and 5th.


Sliding over from zoology to botany, here’s a photo of the festival held by the Miyajidake Shinto shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, for the first cutting of Edo irises in a local garden. The purpose of the event, called Hatsukiri—first cutting, appropriately enough—is to present the irises as an offering to the divinities. They’ve got plenty of flowers from which to choose, because the garden has 30,000 individual plants. While the priests grunt, bend over, and swing their scythes, two miko hold irises as they perform a dance accompanied by a flute. More than 200 people came to watch. A small turnout, you say? That’s not a bad crowd for watching two girls perform a centuries-old dance in costume in a garden in a town of 56,000 while priests cut flowers. How many people would show up where you live?

hatsukiri 2

The shrine held its Iris festival on the same day. They place 70,000 irises in front of the shrine and light ’em up until 9:00 p.m. for 10 days. The shrine has its own iris garden too, started from bulbs sent by the Meiji-jingu in Tokyo in 1965. They now have 100,000 plants in 100 varieties. That’s a heck of a lot of irises, but they need that many to go around for all of Shinto’s yaoyorozu divine ones. (Yaoyorozu is the traditional number of divinities in Shinto. It literally means eight million, but figuratively represents an infinite number, signifying that each natural object has a divine spirit.)

Seaweed cutting

Irises weren’t the only flora getting cut for a Shinto ritual. Four priests from the Futamikitama Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, boarded a boat with some miko and sailed offshore for some seaweed cutting. They present the seaweed—fortunately an uncountable noun—to the divinities, allow it to dry out for a month, and then distribute it to their parishioners to drive out bad fortune and eradicate impurities.


At 10:30 a.m., the priests set sail on their skiff festooned with red, yellow, green, purple, and white streamers, with bamboo grass placed at bow and stern, and headed for the special seaweed site 770 meters northeast of the Futami no Meoto, sometimes called the Wedded Rocks. (The word meoto designates a pair of something, one large and one small.) Since this is a special ritual, they can’t just start cutting—first they have to circle the divine Kitama rock on the seabed three times, then they haul out a three-meter long sickle and get to work.

Sea goya

Since the subject is aquatic plants, now’s as good a time as any to report that the Fukuka Aquaculture Center in Kin-machi, Okinawa, is ramping up production of a new variety of sea grapes they hope to popularize in Japan after sales start next month. The center has dubbed the new type “sea goya”, after the knobby bitter squash for which Okinawa is famous. (Here’s a previous post about sea grapes in Okinawa and goya in general.)

Tastes as good as it looks!

Tastes as good as it looks!

The center’s director said they discovered these particular sea grapes among a batch imported in March 2008. The new variety flourished in the southern climate, and that gave people the idea to turn it into a new product, particularly as they were looking for ways to juice the market after the prices of regular sea grapes and mozuku seaweed tanked.

They decided to call the new plant sea goya because it’s more elongated than regular sea grapes and has the bitter flavor of goya. The center has already applied to register the name as a trademark, and they’re confident the application will be approved. After hearing about the new product, more than 10 companies inquired about handling the distribution.

Nara ayu

After insects, irises, seaweed, and sea grapes, here come the freshwater fish: namely the ayu, or sweetfish, which we’ve encountered before in a post about their encounters with traditional traps.

Some sweetfish just for you

Some sweetfish just for you

These sweetfish, however, were caught by means with an even longer and exalted pedigree—trained cormorants. The birds require keepers that are somewhat analogous to falconers, all of whom ply their skills for the Imperial Household Agency because the technique is a tradition of the Japanese Imperial household. (Dig their costumes in the photo at the link.)

Six keepers were employed to catch the fish at the Imperial fishing grounds on the Nagara River in Gifu City, but the keepers can handle up to a dozen birds on the end of ropes, so they must have taken quite a haul. They go out in boats too, but at night, and they take along lighted torches. The fish are attracted to the flame like maritime moths, and the birds dive in after them. The lower part of the cormorants’ necks are collared to prevent them from swallowing the fish, and after they’ve snatched one, the keepers reel them in and make them cough it up. That’s got to be more cruel than feeding a dog peanut butter.

The fish were packed into paulownia boxes and shipped to the Kashihara-jingu, a Shinto shrine in Kashihara, Nara, as well as the Imperial Palace and the Meiji-jingu, another Shinto shrine in Tokyo. Both shrines have an Imperial connection.

The Japanese have been using cormorants to catch sweetfish since at least the 8th century—don’t you wonder who came up with that idea?–and the Nagara River event is more than a millennium old, but this shrine has been receiving the sweetfish shipments only since 1940 to offer in prayer for the safety of fishing and a good catch. (The 1940 date suggests it might have begun as part of the celebrations that year marking the 2600th anniversary of the establishment of the Japanese Imperial House.)

Contributing to the delinquency of minors

Yet another sign of summer in Japan is the yaoyorozu of rice-planting festivals held throughout the country. It’s easy to figure out why—they grow the rice in wet paddies, which are made even wetter by all the rain that falls this time of year.

high school sake rice project

But the students at Miyoshi High School in Miyoshi, Tokushima, weren’t planting this rice as part of a festival; they were getting classroom credit. The lads aren’t planning to be farmers when they grow up–rather, they’re enrolled in a course covering the brewing and fermentation of food products. They’ll harvest that rice in the fall and use it to make sake.

The rice is grown on a 3,000-square-meter paddy the school rents from area residents. The teachers do most of the planting with a machine, and then some of the second year students wade right in and plant by hand those parts the machine can’t reach. They expect to harvest 1.5 tons of the rice in mid-September, which can probably be converted into enough sake to keep the town of Miyoshi more lit than a riverbank full of fireflies until New Year’s. The school started the project last year, and this year they increased the size of the cultivated area six-fold to use only the rice grown by students.

One of those students, 16-year-old Fukuda Shinya, had planted rice before, but he said the seedlings were more difficult to handle because the size was different than that of regular table rice.

Now why couldn’t I have gone to that school!

Shochu collector

While the high school students were outdoors sweating and getting dirty as they planted the rice for the sake they will later brew, Masuyama Hiroki (73) of Izumi, Kagoshima, was relaxing with an adult beverage as he contemplated the success of his 12-year effort to collect one bottle each from all the prefecture’s shochu distillers. This is Kagoshima, where everyone drinks shochu and almost no one drinks sake, so he had his work cut out for him.

shochu collector

He’s so proud of his accomplishment he’s got them lined up on the wall, and hasn’t twisted the cap on a single bottle. Mr. Masuyama decided to make it is hobby after he retired from a job with the prefectural government in 1996 and started working in sales. His business trips took him throughout Kagoshima, and after he got the idea—probably in a bar during one of those business trips–he made a list and started buying while he was selling. He started with 1.8 liter (1.92 US quarts) bottles, but they were too heavy and took up too much space, so he switched to bottles half that size. He had a few difficulties completing the collection, and no, one of them wasn’t a tendency to polish off a bottle before before he could display it on the rack. For one thing, the smaller bottles were sold mainly to commercial establishments, but he applied his salesmen’s skills to get what he wanted. Another was that he didn’t have much of a chance to go to the prefecture’s many outlying islands on business. After retiring from his second job, it took two more years to finish the project.

Mr. Masuyama says he enjoys looking at his collection while having a late-night drink, but his libation doesn’t come from those shelves on the wall. He hasn’t opened any of the bottles and says it would be a waste to drink them.

Now there’s a man with discipline!

Miko class

Shinto shrine maidens, known as miko, get to do all sorts of fun stuff. In this post alone, they’ve sailed out to the Wedded Rocks to help the priests cut seaweed, carried the sacred sweetfish caught by cormorants, and danced while the priests cut Edo irises in Fukutsu. Even better, they get to handle the money at the shrine during New Year’s.

miko class

Doesn’t that sound like a great part-time job? If that’s the kind of work you’re looking for, the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, is offering a beginner’s level course that provides instruction in how to become a miko. Even better, the class will last only one day, on 17 August—the middle of summer vacation!

Kanda Myojin conducts the class every year with the idea of giving young Japanese women a better idea of their traditions and culture, as well as teaching them more about the shrine. Last year, the student body consisted of 24 women who got to wear the red and white outfit for a day as they studied the shrine’s history, the daily conduct of affairs at the shrine, and its religious ceremonies.

Considering they charge only JPY 5,000 yen ($US 52.40), that sounds like a good deal. They’re looking for 20 unmarried young women this year from 16 to 22, and enrollment is open until the end of the month.

The declaration of the eisa nation

Start with a party, end with a party. This particular hoedown is the eisa dance native to Okinawa. Centuries ago, it was performed as a rite for the repose of the dead, but now it’s done for entertainment and is more likely to wake the dead than ease their way into the next world.

eisa summer party

Okinawa City issued a proclamation declaring itself Eisa Town earlier this month, and held a Declaration Day Eisa Night event outside the city offices to lay claim to the title. Six groups made their eisadelic statement as they performed in original/trad clothing they created themselves. Eisa Night means that eisa season has officially started in the city, and summer in this city means that local youth groups will give public performances every weekend until the really big show, the Okinawa Eisa Festival in September.

During her greeting at the ceremony, Mayor Tomon Mitsuko said, “We hope you come to Okinawa City on the weekends and enjoy yourselves.” Then the dancing started and everyone proceeded to do just that.

It’s not just for the Ryukyuans, either. One of the six groups performing was the Machida-ryu of Machida, Tokyo, who started their own group in 1999 after a trip to Okinawa. They were so captivated by the dance they had to do it themselves at home. Now the troupe has more than 100 members.

There’s an idea: create your own Okinawan dance and drum ensemble and visit Eisa Town next year. If you want to learn, watching the video is a great way to start!

Posted in Agriculture, Education, Festivals, Food, Imperial family, New products, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 8, 2009

TECHNOPOLIS TOKYO is the image of Japan for many—-an ultra-sheen world of hyper-intense, manga-reading otaku and hyper-style-conscious gyaru wearing fake hair color, fake designer clothes, and fake undergarments, all jazzed on robots and consumer electronics and with a cell phone welded to the palms of their hands.

For most of the country, however, that’s just an alternate reality flickering in and out of existence over a template of tradition more than a millennium old. Here people can flirt with fashion while staying within eyesight of customs maintained for hundreds of years. The following stories are recent examples of how the timeless in this country is still the quotidian. All of them occurred in the space of less than a fortnight, and Tokyo was the location for only one.

Kakimoto Festival
Kakimoto Festival
Waka and tanka poet Kakimoto no Hitomaro (662-710) was the most prominent of the poets represented in the Man’yoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, which itself dates from the 8th century. The Toda Kakimoto shrine in Masuda, Shimane, held its annual festival to honor Kakimoto on the date he is said to have died, as it has for more than 1,200 years.

Kakimoto is the tutelary deity of the shrine, which was built in his honor when someone from the area returned with a lock of hair from his corpse.

After the primary ceremony, a mikoshi (portable shrine) holding his spirit was carried 300 meters from the main shrine to the site of his birth. Local children dressed as miko, or shrine maidens, performed a dance there in his honor while ringing bells, and the 70 people watching quietly bowed their heads.

Naoe Kanetsugu Lantern
Naoe lantern
Naoe Kanetsugu (1560-1619) was known for his service as retainer to the Uesugi daimyo, his seamanship, and his love affair with Uesugi Kenshin in the beautiful samurai style. The Uesugi clan fought on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which cleared the way for the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A recent NHK television program renewed interest in Naoe and his life.

In December 1600, a few months after the battle, Naoe presented a lantern to the Kasuga Taisha, a Nara City Shinto shrine whose close ties with the Uesugi family dated from 1588. (The shrine itself was founded in 768.) It was offered in supplication for the peace and tranquility of Kenshin’s adopted son Uesugi Kagekatsu, who assumed control of the clan and had also fought with Hideyoshi in Korea before his defeat by Tokunaga Ieyasu.

The 56-centimeter-high bronze lantern usually hangs in a corridor of the shrine’s main hall, but shrine officials recently displayed it outside so everyone could see it.

Nara Yabusame
nara arrows
Those who went to see the Naoe lantern at the Nara City Kasuga Taisha could have shot two birds with one arrow by watching a group of 40 archers from the Ogasawara school of yabusame (equestrian archery) offer a display of their technique to the shrine.

One ceremony was the Hikime-no-Gi, in which arrows called kabura-ya were fired over the roofs of buildings as a way to drive out evil spirits. If you were standing next to a building and the sky was suddenly hailing arrows, wouldn’t you leave too? They also performed the Momote-shiki, which is part of their daily practice. Ten archers lined up in front of the shrine dressed in white robes and fired 10 arrows apiece in pairs at a target. The depth of the tradition involved is such that the paired arrows have names; the first is called haya and the second is called otoya. Ten times ten equals one hundred, which is the origin of the ceremony’s name: momote in Japanese means a hundred hands.

Tokko no Yu
Tokko no yu
Enough of this new stuff whose age in centuries you can count with your fingers—here’s another millennium-plus story.

Legend has it that the famous monk/scholar/poet Kobo Daishi, who introduced the Shingon teachings in Japan, washed his ill father in the chilly waters near Izu, Shizuoka. For some reason he decided to break a rock with a tokko, an implement used in Buddhist services, and lo and behold, water sprang forth. That’s the origin of the Shuzen-ji hot springs. The annual Tokko no Yu (the hot water of the tokko) ceremony is held to commemorate the founding of the spa about 1,200 years ago, to thank the monk for picking that spot, and to placate his spirit. The original location of the incident is said to now be submerged in the Shuzenji River, and the spa itself was moved downstream this year to escape flood damage caused by heavy rains.

A group of 34 women wearing pink kimono and yukata and carrying wooden buckets departed from the grounds of the Shuzen-ji Buddhist temple and headed for the spa in a procession accompanied by children. Each of the women received spa waters from monks waiting at the site, paraded through the town, and returned to the temple to offer the water. After a reading of sutras, the water was presented to several local ryokan (Japanese-style inns).

Ise Spring Festival
Ise spring festival
The Ise shrine in Mie, closely associated with the Imperial household, held its spring kagura festival of Shinto song and dance on a stage specially built on the grounds. The festival is held in both the spring and fall to pray for peace and give thanks for the blessings of the divinities.

Two male dancers entered the stage bearing halberds (a spear/battle-ax combo) and purified the area to the accompaniment of flute and taiko drums. This was followed by another Shinto dance called the Ranryo’o, after which four female dancers wearing brightly colored butterfly wings performed the Kocho. The performances were presented twice a day for a three-day period.

Picking Tea in Shizuoka
shizuoka tea picking
No story of Japan past or present is complete without a green tea pick-me-up, so here’s a photo of the Misono tea picking ceremony held at a special plantation at the Sengen shrine in Shizuoka. The four tea-picking miko wore period costumes and worked in pairs as 60 watched. They wound up bagging 3 kilograms, which a local society used to brew for offering as sencha (medium-grade tea) to the divinities at a separate tea festival.

Here’s the best part: This is a new event that this year was held for only the fifth time. Considering the content, however, it could just as easily have been 500 years old as five. In Japan, the new being the old and the old becoming the new is just a matter of nichijo sahanji—literally, daily rice and tea, meaning an everyday occurrence.

Akihabara Gagaku
akihabara gagaku

Another example of nichijo sahanji is the combination of the very old with the very new, as demonstrated by the live gagaku performance held at Akihabara, the Tokyo district famous as the Mecca of consumer electronics. It was presented by the nearby Kanda shrine to publicize an upcoming festival. The site was a stage at a vacant building in the district most often used by budding pop singers and dancers. But shrine officials wanted to attract to their festival younger people who had never been before, so this was their first-ever gagaku performance outside shrine grounds.

The miko performed a dance usually reserved for wedding ceremonies to the accompaniment of flutes and drums.

And I’ll bet the first thing they did when the dance was over was to check their cell phones for messages!

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Banzai for the 10,000 yen bill

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 1, 2008

IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO today, at 9:00 a.m., that the Bank of Japan issued the first 10,000-yen note, still the highest denomination of Japanese currency in circulation. The BOJ started shipping all those bills to its branches at the start of work that day.

It must have been a big deal to get your hands on one. The average starting salary for a new college graduate in those days was 12,000 yen a month.


The first bill bore the likeness of Shotoku Taishi, and the watermark was a view of the Horyu-ji Buddhist temple in Nara. They were 84 millimeters wide (3.3 inches) and 174 millimeters long (6.85 inches). Twenty-six years later, in 1984, the likeness of Fukuzawa Yukichi replaced that of Shotoku Taishi, and the size was reduced to 76 millimeters wide by 160 millimeters long.

Downsizing the money was a step I was all in favor of. That was my first year in Japan, and the older version of the bill didn’t fit completely in my American wallet. The top edges stuck out of the side, and the bills got wrinkled in my back pocket. It looked sloppy every time I pulled the wallet out.

The new, reduced size solved that problem. Now I only wish I had a few more of the bills to stick in there every month, wrinkled or not. Too thick is a better problem than too wide!

Afterwords: If I remember correctly, they also started phasing out the 500-yen bill and minting more 500-yen coins the same year.

And if you’re a foreigner who can remember the old 10,000-yen notes and the 500-yen bill, maybe that’s another one for the Too Long in Japan category.

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