AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Niigata’

All you have to do is look (78)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The 25th Taishita Mon Ja Matsuri in Sekigawa-mura, a village of about 6,500, in Niigata last August.

The name of the event is a play on words, with taishita mon ja being a funky way of saying, “It was a serious matter”, and ja being one of the readings for snake.

The festival was first organized 25 years ago as a way to remember the destruction of the Uetsu flood on 28 August 1967. The bamboo and straw snake is intentionally made to be 82.8 meters in length, and it is the longest taishita mon ja in the Guinness Book of Records.

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All you have to do is look (60)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scenes from the National Sake Barrel Tug of War Championships held at the end of last month in Nagaoka, Niigata. The event started in 1965, and nine male and five female teams participated this year. Each match was divided into three rounds, and the winner was the first team to win two rounds.

Note the paper folded into a zigzag shape on top of the barrels. That’s called a shide, and is used to denote a sacred space in Shinto.

The photo above comes from the Hibi Zakka website

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Life on the hypotenuse

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 1, 2012

THE shipping business on the Kitamaebune route from Osaka to the Hokuriku district in the northwestern part of the country was a profitable enterprise during the Edo period, when forging connections between regional markets was difficult. It was particularly profitable in the Shukunegi district on the island of Sado in Niigata. In that district 100 households, mostly ship owners or ship’s carpenters, squeezed into a hectare of land for the chance to make a very good living. Space was at a premium, and that sometimes resulted in odd-shaped lots. People built homes to fit the shape of the property, and there you have the reason for the triangle house shown above.

Shukunegi is the only nationally designated important traditional structure group preservation district in Niigata. That’s why it attracts tourists, and naturally the tourists are anxious to see the triangle house. It’s usually closed, but it was opened to the public earlier this year for the first time in quite a while.

Now I ask you: Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a three-sided house? Perhaps it wouldn’t have been that unusual for people who might have had quarters in the bow of a ship, but that doesn’t look like a comfortable dwelling space. The area was thriving at the time, so even a residential area might have had more than the usual amount of traffic — especially with that population density. It seems as if one would feel both exposed and claustrophobic living in that house, particularly near the apex.

The Kitamaebune route and the ships no longer exist — first the telegraph, and then railroads rendered it unnecessary. But the triangle house remains.

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If you find it difficult to picture yourself living there, imagine what it would have been like for the owner to listen to Jim Reeves.

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

CENTURIES OF TRADITION inform the festivities during the New Year holiday in Japan, making it an analog for the Christmas holidays in countries with a Christian orientation. That includes customs, activities, and events at home and in public, 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.

That’s how I began the New Year’s post for 2011. Beats me if I can think of a way to improve it, so that’s how I’ll begin the Ampontan nengajo for 2012. The first paragraph may be recycled, but the rest isn’t!

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Cleanliness really is next to godliness in Japan. One reason is that the concept of kegare, or impurity, is an important part of the Shinto worldview. A manifestation of that on the mundane level is the conduct of spring cleaning at yearend. Then again, spring was traditionally considered to have begun with the New Year, an idea that survives in the nengajo message that offers congratulations on the “new spring”. Shinto shrines are also given a thorough spring cleaning at yearend. That ritual is called susubarai, which translates as an exorcism or purification of the soot.

Here’s a scene from this year’s susubarai of the main hall at the Kashima Shinto shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki. Those bamboo poles are four meters long. Ibaraki is near the three prefectures that were hardest hit by March’s Tohoku earthquake, and the shrine’s torii and beams in the main hall were heavily damaged. Said the chief priest:

The shrine deity is the one who limits earthquake damage, so I think that’s the reason it wasn’t any worse. We want to have the new torii finished by the 2014 spring festival. I pray that next year will be a good one.

He’s not alone in that.

The susubarai at the Oyama shrine in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, is called the sendensai, or the festival for purifying the hall. It is a festival of sorts, as the miko shrine maidens start by performing a traditional dance, which is followed by a rite for purifying the tools used for cleaning. If cleanliness and purity is the point, half measures just won’t do.

Then they got to work and exorcised the soot at the main hall. It was 2º C when the picture was taken. That isn’t the most spring-like of temperatures, which is the main reason I’m not excited by the custom of spring cleaning at home in December. Surely they were wearing something warm underneath. The entire operation was handled by 12 people, and those poles they’re wielding are seven meters long. Take the time to look at this photo of the shrine’s front gate: the architecture is both striking and unusual.

It stands to reason that some shrines will be easier to clean than others. Among the others is the Tosho-gu shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, which has more than 500 kirin (sorry for the Wikipedia) and dragons on the outside. That’s particularly true when the kirin and the dragons are national cultural treasures. The shrine was established in 1617, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of none other than The Shogun himself, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It takes 100 people to do all the work here.

Buddhist temples also get the yearend purification treatment, and the insides of the temples get just as dirty as the outsides. The priests and parishioners of Nishi (west) and Higashi (east) Hongwan-ji, a temple complex in Kyoto, have a unique method for driving out the old year’s dirt using bamboo sticks and large fans. It must work: They’ve got 445 tatami mats in the main hall in the west and 927 in the east to clean, and they’ve been cleaning them on 20 December every year since the 15th century.

It starts when the chief priest gives a signal, and the entire line starts whacking and waving. The more nimble climb a ladder to the transoms and blow it out that way. The ritual is also a way to give thanks for a safe year, and it ends when one of the priests draws the character for long life in the air.

While some shrines have to deal with the cleaning of kirin or dragons on the exterior, some Buddhist temples have challenges of their own, such as cleaning statues of the Buddha. That’s quite a challenge at the Kiko-in Obihiro, Hokkaido, whose 6.8-meter-high statue is the largest wooden Buddha north of Tokyo. To be specific, it is a statue of Amida Nyorai. Those bamboo poles are three meters long. It only takes them about 30 minutes, however, as the work surely becomes lighter when it’s sanctified. It’s also a gesture of thanks for the past year.

The cleaning involved with sending off the old year includes the disposition of more than dirt. The shrines also have to do something with all the ema that people entrusted to them during the year. Ema are small wooden plaques on which people write their prayers and wishes. They’re left at the shrine, where they’re received by the divinity. It’s unacceptable to just dump them in the trash, not only for emotional or spiritual reasons, but also because a shrine can have 45,000 of them, as the Hofu Tenman-gu in Hofu, Yamaguchi, did last year. Many of them bore wishes for success in upcoming entrance exams, and most of them were probably granted. It’s an elegant solution: The shrines combine ritual purification and an environmentally friendly fire lit by candles.

Once they’ve taken care of the old year’s business, it’s time to get to work on the new. Speaking of ema, most shrines put up big ones of their own with the symbol from the Oriental zodiac for that particular year. Happy year of the dragon!

Here’s the Big Ema installed at the Kumano shrine in Wakayama. Big in this case means 2.8 meters high and 3.9 meters wide. The eastern-central part of Japan was lashed by a summer typhoon that caused substantial damage, and the Kumano shrine was not spared. Therefore, the painting on this year’s ema has the image of a rising dragon breaking through the black clouds of disaster. The chief priest painted it himself in four days, and it took six priests to carry it to the grounds and replace the old one in the back with the new one.

Just as some Western families hang wreaths on their homes at Christmas, the Japanese adorn the outside of their homes or offices with kadomatsu (corner pine), which is viewed as a temporary abode for the divinities. The folks at Omi-jingu, a shrine in Otsu, Shiga, are known for their jumbo kadomatsu. This year’s version is just as jumbo at four meters high, and it was arranged to resemble a soaring dragon. It was made by a group of parishioners, who also handled the susubarai. For the past seven years, they’ve used a pine tree on the shrine grounds that they temporarily transplant, roots and all. Said one of the kadomatsu designer/gardeners:

There were all sorts of disasters this year, so we made this with the wish that everyone would have a happy life next year.

Another decoration for home or shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope that denotes a sacred space in general, and the temporary abode of the toshigami, the divinity of the new year, in particular. Of the 30 hung at the Kogane shrine in Gifu City, the one at the front is a jumbo version eight meters long, 40 centimeters in diameter at the thickest part, and 30 kilograms in weight. It’s made from straw from mochi rice stalks, mochi being an even more glutinous variety of rice than japonica.

The Kogane shrine is known for providing good fortune to those interested in money and wealth. In fact, the kanji used for the name of the shrine is the same as that for money, but with a different reading. Shrine officials expect 130,000 hopeful high rollers to visit in the first three days of the new year.

While we’re on the subject of jumbo decorations, here are two jumbo origami of dragons in red and white, the Japanese national colors, at the Tsurusaki Shinto shrine in Hayashima-cho, Okayama. (Japanese language, but nice photos.) They’re 1.8 meters high and four meters long, and if you can’t make it for New Year’s, don’t fret — they’ll be up until the end of the month, and they’re illuminated until 9:00 p.m. every night. Said the chief priest:

With Japan covered by a dark cloud due to the disasters and other reasons, we hope this year everyone can soar again like the dragons that push their way into the sky.

As evidence that old religions can incorporate new elements, this is only the 11th year for the shrine’s origami displays. They started in 2001 with the year of the horse. To symbolize their support for Tohoku recovery, they procured the paper from a wholesaler in Sendai.

An even newer New Year twist on a traditional Japanese art is a public performance of calligraphy by a priest at the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, on a platform in front of the main hall. The folks at the shrine, which is the same one with the big ema above, started the tradition just two years ago. In keeping with the theme of jumbo-ness, this calligraphy is three meters square and was rendered with a brush one meter long. The character can be read as either kirameki or ko, and it means glittering.

Calligraphy is not done with just a flick of the wrist; it also demands internal stillness. The reports from Wakayama say the priest stared at the cloth for a time for spiritual preparation before he started. The reports also say the priest put his entire body into it, which the audience appreciated. One of those watching was a woman from Nagoya, who said:

There was a dignified and awe-inspiring atmosphere, and I found myself straightening my back without realizing it.

Said the calligrapher/priest:

Conditions were very harsh this year with the Tohoku disaster and the typhoon. I hope that next year, each one of us recovers and shines.

Are you noticing that people use the holiday as a way to cleanse themselves of more than just dirt and old objects?

You’ve also probably noticed that the priests aren’t doing all this work by themselves. Their helpers are the Japanese equivalent of Santa’s elves, the miko shrine maidens. Those are the young women dressed in white hakui and red hibakama. (There are those colors again.)

So many people visit during the three-day period that the shrines have to hire extra miko part-time to help. They’re usually high school and college-aged girls, and dealing with the public in a manner befitting a religious institution requires special training in manners and speech. That training also includes instruction in how to wear the clothing, and how to properly hand over the amulets that people buy on their visits. Here’s a scene from the orientation for the 23 arubaito miko conducted by the Toishi Hachiman-gu in Shunan, Yamaguchi, which will celebrate its 1300th anniversary next year. To give you an idea of why the shrines need to supplement the help, the Toshi Hachiman-gu expects 200,000 people to drop by from 1-3 January.

Bigger shrines require more miko, and the Kitano Tenman-gu in Kyoto needed 70 this year for New Year’s duty. (That one’s in English.) They expect 500,000 visitors in the first three days of the New Year. One reason so many people come is that one of the shrine divinities is the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, renowned for his learning and erudition. That attracts all those who want to pray for success on the entrance exams for schools or places of employment.

The first order of business for miko training at Kitano is to say a prayer at the main hall, after which the priest performs a purification ritual. That’s followed by an explanation of the buildings, fixtures, and amulets, and the proper way to interact with the worshippers.

Most of the shrines are somewhat strict about the appearance of the Jinja Girls — dyed hair is usually prohibited. Well, wait a minute, let’s modify that. The women old enough to dye their hair, i.e., post high school, are old enough to know that they can buy a bottle or tube and go back to basic black for a few days before getting stylish again.

While they’re sticklers for appearance, the shrines are downright ecumenical about identity. The job is usually open to young women of any nationality. I read one account of a Korean university student in Nagasaki who enjoyed her experience so much one year, she signed up for a second. I’ve also read about one shrine hiring an Italian woman for the season. In fact, here’s an article from China talking about New Year’s customs and the Chinese girls who also serve as miko. Aren’t those hairbands nifty?

Meanwhile, the Gokoku shrine in Kagoshima City trained 40 new miko to help greet their expected visitors. One 20-year-old said she had wanted to wear the white clothing for a long time and was happy to finally get the chance. She also promised to do her best to ensure that the worshippers will be able meet the new year with a good feeling. About 150,000 people are likely to drop on by, so let’s hope she doesn’t get tired from being that cheerful for that long to the crowds. Then again, it isn’t as if she he’ll have to cope with the “behavior” of American shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here’s the training for 20 miko at Tottori City’s Ube shrine, which is thought to have been founded in 648, so they’ve been at this for more than 1,300 years. The chief priest told the novitiates he wanted them to be sure to give the parishioners a cheerful smile, which might be more difficult than it sounds. How easy is it to be solemn and smiley at the same time?

This shrine also has a connection with money matters, and is said to be just the place for those praying for success in business. In fact, it was the first Shinto shrine to be depicted on paper money — an engraving of the shrine and the founder appeared on the five-yen note in 1900. It also showed up on five-yen and one-yen notes into the Showa era, which began in 1925. They make only five- or one-yen coins instead of notes now, but in those days, a yen was still a yen.

If the global economy doesn’t improve, I might get on the train to Tottori myself.

Hey now! Some guys like photos of women with large silicone implants hanging out of small bikinis. Me, I go for the miko! It’s my website and I’ll steal the photos I want, and I want one more:

Here they are receiving instructions at the Kamegaike Hachiman-gu in Kanagawa City. This is a popular New Year’s destination because it has all the Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Fortune of Japanese mythology and folklore. Legend has it that the munificent seven come to town on New Year’s and distribute gifts to good little boys and girls of all ages, just like Santa Claus. Instead of a reindeer-powered sleigh, they show up on the good ship Takarabune, which literally means treasure ship. In another Christmas analog, children are given money in envelopes on New Year’s as a gift, and sometimes these envelopes have a picture of the Takarabune on them.

The Kamegaiki shrine is also a good place to go for those who are desirous of safety in traffic and the luck in the draw in the lottery. Then again, the sacred sake the shrine gives away is another attraction. Clever punsters that they are, some Japanese employ the word for a Shinto shrine to refer to the holy hooch as “jinja ale”, and no, I did not make that up.

The more you think about it, the more appealing Shinto gets.

Speaking of grog, the Takara Shuzo sake brewers of Kyoto conducted a survey to find out everyone’s favorite New Year’s drink, and topping the list was sake. (That’s the same takara as the treasure in the takara above.)

The survey was conducted in the Tokyo and Kinki regions among 400 men and women aged 20 to 60+. When asked to name their New Year’s poison, 57.8% replied sake, 53.6% said beer, and 21.2% said wine. (Multiple (hic) answers were possible.) Sake was the leading choice in all age groups except for the people in their 30s.

It’s not all good news for the brewers — some people said they drink it only on New Year’s Day. The explanation of 56.9% was that it’s a special occasion. Others said they just go along with the choice of their family and friends.

In addition to downing the regular old sake, another special holiday custom is three sips from a cup of o-toso, sake mixed with (originally) medicinal herbs and mirin. The survey found that 88.6% of the respondents knew what it was, and that 50.8% drink it either every year or occasionally on New Year’s. The survey also turned up the fact that 53.5% of the people mistakenly thought it was a specially brewed sake, rather than being a mixture. That group consisted mostly of young people.

It was originally drunk to flush out the illnesses of the old year and promote long life in the future. The characters for toso, by the way, are 屠蘇 (the o is the honorific). The first means “to massacre”, and the second is most commonly used to mean a revival or resurrection. Some Western Christians get carried away by the connection they see, but the standard Japanese explanation is that the second character originally represented “the demon that causes illness”. In other words, o-toso is drunk to slay the demon. It’s more likely the origin of the expression Demon Rum than a derivative of the Easter story. Different season altogether.

Of course there’s a connection between liquor and miko, and not what you’re thinking, either. Here are some shrine maidens out tachibana citrus fruit picking at the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu in Kyoto. Iwashimizu is so famous for the fruit that it’s used as a symbol on the shrine crest. The trees are planted on the east and west of the main building, and the miko can pick 10 kilograms of the three-centimeter fruit in 30 minutes of farm labor. These fruit are not for eating — they’ll be the main ingredient in tachibana citrus fruit wine instead. Nowadays they subcontract the work to a sake brewery in Joyo, Kyoto, and it will take three years before it’s drinkable. They donate the finished product to the Imperial household. During the Edo period, they also passed some of the stash around to the shoguns.

Speaking of the Imperial household, the members like this place. There’ve been more than 250 household visits to the shrine since 860.

And speaking of all this booze, here’s a report from Asahi TV about making New Year’s sake in Utsunomiya, Tochigi. It was below zero on the morning this segment was filmed:

But back to the miko and New Year’s amulets! They do more than sell them — they make them, too. See what I mean about Santa’s elves?

Here they are at the Atago shrine in Fukuoka City making o-mikuji fortunes for the New Year. They’ll offer 14 kinds, including the red daruma and, for the first time, the medetai mikuji. Medetai is a word for a joyous occasion, but the pun is in the shape of the fish — the tai, or sea bream, which is served at other joyous occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. The Japanese like the fish so much they have an expression that insists they’re great even when they’ve gone bad. The shrine made 800,000 last month for the 700,000 visitors they expect, so they might have a few left over.

They also made lucky arrows at the Tsuruoka Hachiman-gu in Kamakura, Kanagawa, the most important shrine in the city. These arrows are called hamaya, which are sold as amulets that drive away evil spirits. Some also say they provide safety to the home and prosperity to business. The sale of hamaya is derived from the days when the exhibition of archery skills was a part of New Year celebrations. They’ve got two varieties here: One 60 centimeters long and the other 94 centimeters long. They’re wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), have bells on the end, and are affixed with kabura, a device that makes a whistling sound when the arrow is fired. It was once a popular item among the archers participating in contests or banditry. The shrine makes 245,000 of them, which takes most of the year.

They’re also readying amulets for sale at the Hakusan shrine in Niigata City. Shrine officials think the facility was built in either the 10th or the 11th century, but they’re not sure because two fires in the 16th century destroyed some of their records. In this case, the amulets are rakes and arrows, and people got a head start on buying them on the 26th. The shrine prepared 40,000 for their 170,000 visitors to come.

The word for the traditional bamboo rake is kumade, literally a bear’s paw, and they were used to rake leaves and grain. They started selling them as New Year’s trinkets during the Edo period so folks could play croupier and rake in the good fortune.

New Year’s amulets are also produced outside the shrines. One example is the dragon dolls, for the year of the dragon, made at a studio at the Toyama Municipal Folk Craft Village in Toyama City.

Another is the earthen bells in the form of dragons made by the Nogomi Ningyo Kobo in Kashima, Saga. A nogomi ningyo is a local toy conceived by the late studio’s founder soon after the war. He passed the business on to his son Suzuta Shigeto, a national living treasure for his fabric dyeing artistry, so we’re talking serious art here.

The studio is offering three types this year, one a design by the founder, another a jade (colored) dragon, and another designed by Shigeto to represent a dragon riding the clouds. He said he wanted to create the image of vigorously climbing and riding beyond the troubles of the past year. All of them are handmade, and the report said that the slight variations in sound and color would beguile potential customers. They’ll make only about 7,000 to sell throughout the country for the holiday, and all things considered, they’re probably more expensive than the items on sale at a shrine.

Shinto isn’t the only source for New Year’s ceremonies. A traditional ritual for presenting water from the fountain of youth to the governing body of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, now Okinawa, is still held today, and this year was held on the 25th in Naha. Forty people dressed as government officials and female priests lined up for some water carrying. The elixir in question is a mixture of two varieties of water that’s been concocted at the Enkaku-ji Buddhist temple. The original idea was to meet the New Year with a wish for the kingdom’s peace and the king’s health and long life.

Which to choose? The Ryukyu waters, sacred sake, or o-toso?

Finally, it isn’t possible to discuss New Year’s in Japan without a mention of the Kohaku Utagassen. That’s a New Year’s Eve musical variety show based on the premise of a singing battle (utagassen) between the female Ko team — Red! — and the male Haku team — White! It debuted on radio in 1951 as a one-hour special, but has now evolved into a four-hour extravaganza broadcast simultaneously on TV and radio. At one time it was the highest-rated single show on Japanese television, but changing times and tastes have taken it down a few notches. Nevertheless, it is still the highest-rated musical program every year.

An appearance on the program is a sign that the performer has made it in Japanese show business, and because NHK requires (or used to require) that all singers pass a singing test to appear on the network, it meant that viewers would be getting quality entertainment. It features all styles of music, including enka for the old folks (Sakamoto Fuyumi was on last night for the 23rd time) and straight pop for the kids. Selected members of the AKB 48 girls also appeared for the third time as a group last night, early in the evening, and I was surprised at how good they sounded.

In keeping with Japanese ecumenicalism, foreigners, especially East Asians, are frequently invited to appear; the South Korean pop idol BoA has been on six times. Largely unbeknownst to their fans in the West, Cindy Lauper and Paul Simon once performed in the same year.

Last night, the Red team won the contest for the first time since 2004. The White team has the series edge to date, 33 to 29.

Whose performance to pick from the wealth of options on YouTube? I’ll go with the special one-off appearance of the Drifters in 2001. Those aren’t the American Drifters, but the Japanese group. They started out as a band in the late 50s and evolved into a comedy team whose television program ran from 1969 to 1985 and became the highest-rated regular program. (They also made a couple of movies, at least one of which was quite entertaining.) Older folks might remember their 40-second performance as the opening act for the first Beatles concert in Japan.

The man in the green is Ikariya Chosuke, the nominal leader, who died in 2004. Later in his career he starred as an attorney in a courtroom drama series similar to Perry Mason, but with lighter moments. He also won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film Bayside Shakedown. He was the host/narrator of the Drifters’ TV show, and often wound up as the guy getting dumped on by the others.

The man in the orange is Shimura Ken, who started working with the group in 1968 and became an official member after replacing one of the originals in 1974. Most of The Drifters weren’t really comedians, but rather performers acting in comic sketches. Shimura is an exception, however, as he is a talented comic, and at his best was as funny as any comedian anywhere. (You other foreigners can cool it with the wise lips right now.) He took over The Drifters program with a show of his own that was often hilarious and sometimes bordered on the surreal. He and the staff of that program were masters of running gags, both within a single program, and also from show to show.

Translating the lyrics wouldn’t be productive — did you catch the brief background chorus of papaya, papaya? — but it’s more fun to watch the dance troupe anyway.

Shimura Ken might say, Dafun Da!, but I’ll stick with: Akemashite, o-medeto gozaimasu. Happy New Year!

UPDATE:

Very late on New Year’s Eve (one report said early New Year’s morning), one of the three most-wanted criminals in Japan gave himself up to police:

Makoto Hirata, a member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo subways in 1995, surrendered to police last night, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

Hirata, 46, and fellow Aum members Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi are listed as Japan’s three most-wanted fugitives, on a police website. Hirata was wanted in connection with the murder of a notary, while the other two are alleged to have been involved in the poison gas attacks.

Hirata turned himself in at the Marunouchi police station in central Tokyo, NHK said, citing the Metropolitan Police Department. He is being questioned at the Osaki police station, according to the broadcaster.

Another New Year’s cleansing of impurities, is it not?

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Posted in Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thousand islands

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 15, 2011

THEY’RE not foolin’ when they call it the Japanese archipelago — the textbook boilerplate is that the country consists of four main islands, though it’s becoming more politically correct these days to include the main island of Okinawa as the fifth. But few people, even among the Japanese, are aware the other roughly 1.000 islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, give the country an Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.46 million square kilometers. That’s the sixth-largest EEZ in the world.

Of the inhabited islands, the westernmost is Yonaguni and the southernmost is Hateruma, way down south near Taiwan, both part of the Yaeyama Islands (English-language website on right sidebar). Of those on which only seagulls reside, Okinotorishima represents the extreme southern edge of Japan, and Minamitorishima the farthest point east.

Some of the better known among the rest are Tsushima in the Korean Strait, which some excitable Koreans like to pretend is theirs; Tanegashima in Kagoshima, the site of the first recorded contact between Europeans and Japanese in 1547 and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center; and Sado in Niigata, the sixth-largest island in the country and the authorities’ choice from roughly 700 to 1700 as just the place to send the dissidents and disgraced into exile. In fact, Charles Jenkins, the U.S. Army deserter and husband of North Korean abductee Soga Hitomi, could be considered a voluntary exile there now, though it is his wife’s home town.

That’s not to mention the Senkakus, on which the Chinese and Taiwanese have designs; Takeshima, which the South Koreans occupy; and the four islands off Hokkaido referred to as the Northern Territories, which the Soviets seized after Japan surrendered in 1945.

Awareness of these outlying islands is growing in Japan, particularly the semi-tropical warm ones, as pleasant places to visit. The inhabitants also are developing an awareness of their own. For example, the fourth annual national tournament for junior high school baseball teams from the outlying islands was held this year, and a team from Kamijima, part of Ehime, took home the trophy. (Most of the inhabited islands have junior high schools, but not as many are large enough to have high schools.)

Japan Hands will not be surprised to learn there is a National Institute for Japanese Islands devoted to promoting interest in and the interests of the one thousand. Earlier this month, they published a map that squeezes every last one of them on one side of an 80 x 110-centimeter sheet. That required a scale of 5 million to one to accomplish. The other side features larger maps of regional island groups on a scale of 750,000 to one. The map also includes a list of their names and all the air routes to make it handy for visits. At JPY 525 plus about JPY 180 for domestic postage, that’s cheap even at twice the price for a fanatic such as me.

Said the institute:

We hope that people look at the map and get a real sense of Japan as a country made up of many islands.

If you live in Japan and are interested getting a real sense of the island nation Japan, here’s the institute’s Japanese-language website where you can order one for yourself. Scout around on the site and you’ll also find a page that sells food and liquor from the islands, too.

And if you don’t have the time or the money for a trip, here’s the next best thing — a YouTube tour of Yonaguni with a local folk song as accompaniment.

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Tomato bread

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 21, 2011

A NOVEL combination of the staple foods of East and West is bread made with rice, which is available in every Japanese supermarket. (Rice bread wasn’t on American supermarket shelves when I left in 1984, and I don’t know if it is now.) Rice bread tastes a lot better than the plain white variety made with cardboard and library paste — what doesn’t? — but whole wheat bread is still my preference.

Tomato bread its own self

“Why stop there?” must have been the inspiration for the Bon Ohashi Bread Co. in Nagaoka, Niigata, and a research group at the School of Agriculture at Niigata University, because they’ve jointly developed a new type of bread made with both tomatoes and rice. They’ve applied for a patent on the production method, and three of the company’s directly operated outlets in Niigata City began selling the tomato bread earlier this summer.

The research group was studying ways to process ultra hard rice. That’s unsuitable for rice bread, but it is effective for preventing diabetes and obesity. After working on the method for about a year, their Eureka moment arrived when they decided to let the rice germinate and cook it without milling it first. Adding raw tomatoes to the dough reportedly gives it a rich aroma and limits the amount of active oxygen. Bon Ohashi makes four kinds of tomato bread and sells it for 268 yen a loaf, which is a bit steep.

Even though I’m not a loafer too lazy to slice tomatoes for sandwich use, I’d try the tomato rice bread if I lived within shouting distance of Niigata. It looks fine in that photo. I wonder how it toasts?

*****
Speaking of rice bread, one of the hit products in Japan last year was Sanyo’s rice bread baking machine. My wife has borrowed one from a friend a few times, and it does produce tasty bread.

Here’s a description of that product from Reuters. It contains one of the most ignorant statements I’ve ever seen in a newspaper article, which is saying something, even for Reuters:

Though a Sanyo spokeswoman said she thought novelty was behind the machine’s popularity, food analyst Hisao Nagayama attributed it to changing eating habits — a trend toward more Western food and busy lives that make it harder to find the time to cook rice, consumption of which has gone down.

Finding the time to cook rice should never be a problem, no matter how busy anyone is. I speak from experience, because I often make the rice at home. It takes five minutes at most to put the rice in a bowl, rinse it off several times, put it in the rice cooker, add water, close the lid, and press the button. Add 15 seconds if you make it the night before to eat the next day and set the timer for starting the cooking process.

Most Japanese eat white rice, and that takes 30 minutes of unsupervised cooking. We usually eat brown rice, and that takes 90 minutes. Our cooker also has a function that speeds up the cooking if we’re in a hurry. In contrast, the rice bread machine my wife borrowed requires three to four hours of preparation time and unsupervised baking from start to finish.

“Busy lives that make it harder to find the time to cook rice”? Snort. Nagayama Hisao is a he rather than a she, but knowing about modern rice cookery is unrelated to sex or food analyst certification — it takes about a week of living in a Japanese home.

Another real possibility is that Reuters took it upon themselves to add the part after the dash (or after the phrase “Western food”) in the quoted excerpt.

Either way, if the industrial mass media can’t get something as basic as this right, they can’t be trusted to get anything right.

*****
The backup singers were brothers named Bret and Bo Terre.

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Posted in Food, Mass media, New products | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The worst and the worse

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, September 12, 2010

If there’s one thing I’ve learned up here (in Washington)…the only way to get Congress to balance the budget is to give them no choice, and the only way to keep them out of the cookie jar is to give them no choice, which is why – whether it’s balanced budget acts or pay as you go legislation or any of that – is the only thing. If you don’t tie our hands, we will keep stealing.
– Tom Perriello, Democratic Party congressman from Virginia

Current Keio University Professor and Former Man of Many Portfolios in the Koizumi Cabinet, Takenaka Heizo, last week described the Democratic Party of Japan presidential election as a contest between “the worst and the worse”. He didn’t specify which one of the candidates was which, but deciding which tail to pin on those two donkeys would be enough to stump anyone.

Here’s what the former Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy and Minister for Financial Services said about Kan Naoto:

There are no experts who think Japan’s economy will improve with Prime Minister Kan’s economic policies.

And about Mr. Ozawa:

His approach to democracy is extremely unsound. Historically, when the conflict between political parties creates a stalemate, dictatorships emerge.

Mr. Kan was challenged by an interviewer earlier this week on his view that employment drove economic growth, rather than the opposite. He answered:

If the national government provided subsidies for the salaries of long-term health care workers, for example, to increase employment, it would enhance those services and boost consumer demand. Economic growth would result.

He plans to fund those subsidies, of course, with a massive consumption tax increase. The best description of measures of that sort is Your Party President Watanabe Yoshimi’s analogy of an octopus feeding off its own tentacles.

The people who filled Mr. Kan’s head with these sugarplum visions must realize fiscal stimulus of this type is a sugar high whose growth ends when the stimulus ends. The only sustainable growth achieved is in the money the government filches from one set of pockets to place in another. How is the employment supposed to continue when the subsidies stop? Regardless of whether the subsidies to hire more long-term care workers are a short-term measure or a long-term government employment program, they are little more than a form of unemployment compensation.

Is not the conclusion inescapable that they don’t want the subsidies to stop? More money under the control of the government and the bureaucracy is where they perceive their interests to lie. In Mr. Kan’s case, it has the advantage of being in accord with his political philosophy.

The long-term health care industry isn’t even a true growth sector. Even assuming a rise in consumption from the workers employed with the subsidy money, the revenue from the services they provide depends on the social insurance premiums paid by the public. Which is more likely to result from rising social welfare expenditures for an aging population: families spending more disposable income, or increasing their savings in anticipation paying for those welfare expenditures? One of Mr. Kan’s economics tutors, Ono Yoshiyasu, would attribute the higher savings rate to the public’s “love of money”, rather than to the public’s common sense. Yes, ivory towers populated by social engineering elites with little or no real-world experience also exist in Japan.

This outlook also ignores the true engine of growth, which is not consumption, much less consumption resulting from artificially created employment. The factor that spurs economic growth is net private-sector investment. Mr. Kan might benefit from reading that link:

Politicians, if they truly wish to promote genuine, sustainable recovery and long-run economic growth, need to focus on actions that will contribute to a revival of private investment, not on pumping up consumption.

But Mr. Kan, a lifelong leftwing citizen activist, was unfavorably disposed toward the supply side even before his recent remedial economics tutorials began.

The prime minister might be an all-in-one package of the worst and the worse himself. Here is his answer to a similar question in a different setting:

Q: You’ve brought employment policies to the forefront. What specific policies do you have in mind?

A: There are three elements. The first is to create hiring by such means as long-term care, for which there is long-term, latent demand, and relaxing the issuance of visas to foreigners. The second is (ameliorating) the mismatch between (job-seekers and employers, i.e., more of one than the other). One more is protecting employment to prevent the disappearance of jobs when plants move overseas. Employment will be created by providing subsidies to build new plants for a low-carbon society.

That idea of issuing more visas to foreigners came out of nowhere, by the way, and so far hasn’t generated much comment. How many visas he would issue to whom and for what jobs, he hasn’t specifically addressed. This wouldn’t be the first time he regurgitated undigested briefing material: His blunder about discussing a consumption tax increase during the recent election campaign was another example. One wonders what other schemes are being discussed behind closed doors that he’s managed to keep from blabbing about so far.

And as for green jobs stimulus, even the Socialist government of Spain admits their program was a disaster that cost the country 2.2 jobs for every one it created.

The punch line to this sick joke is that the English-language media and commentariat are peddling the story that Mr. Kan is a “fiscal conservative”, thereby obliterating what little credibility they had about people and issues in Japan to begin with. One suspects their journalistic probes went no further than the nearest source in the Finance Ministry, which already has the Japanese print and broadcast media marching in lockstep and sounding off about the necessity for a consumption tax increase.

Now comes word on Friday that the Cabinet of Mr. Fiscal Conservative has approved another stimulus, this one worth $US 10.9 billion:

“We will ensure growth by laying the basis for employment and ensure employment by encouraging growth,” Kan told his economic ministers.

He probably thinks that was a clever line.

Ozawa Ichiro

At least Mr. Kan has the excuse of his lifelong political philosophy. Ozawa Ichiro has no excuse at all.

In fact, he seems to have forgotten the practical wisdom of his political patron and father figure, Tanaka Kakuei. Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Tanaka’s 1972 book, Building a New Japan:

Some people claim that high growth isn’t necessary, or that they would rather not see industrial development, or that we should enhance welfare services in the future instead. But it’s a mistake to think it must be a choice of either growth or welfare, or either industry or the lives of the people. Social welfare is not bestowed upon us by heaven, nor is it something provided from overseas. There is no other way to obtain the funds required than to use the vitality of the Japanese people to expand the economy, and to create that society through economic strength.

Instead, Mr. Ozawa now speaks in non sequitur:

Everyone wants to hear about what we can do to expand employment. We must be forward-looking about improving the economy with public spending.

It gets even worse. As reported in the 13 September issue of the weekly Aera, he says that extraordinary measures are required because conventional policies are unlikely to lead to recovery. One of these extraordinary fund-procurement measures he touts is the securitization of national assets. He claims this will raise the money to pay the bills for all the pork in the 2009 DPJ manifesto that the country can’t afford. In some cases, he seems to be using the term securitization loosely, by referring to the conversion of housing for civil servants into homes for the elderly, or the public/private joint use of public buildings as a revenue source.

For example, he would issue zero coupon bonds to obtain the money for highway construction. Instead of receiving interest payments, those who bought the bonds would be exempt from inheritance tax. The government would benefit by getting off the hook for some or all of the JPY 7.7 trillion in interest payments that they paid last year.

But it’s immediately obvious that the bond purchasers will not be exempt from inheritance tax. They’re just making a deal with the government to pay a lump sum in advance and call it by a different name.

The Mainichi Shimbun points out only 4% of all estates are large enough to trigger the payment of an inheritance tax. The government received JPY 1.3 trillion in revenue from these taxes in FY 2009. It would require a substantial amount of tax exemption for this scheme to work, which means the government would receive less revenue over the long term.

The Mainichi also noted this is not the first time the idea has been floated. It was suggested during the Hashimoto administration in 1997 as a way to retire the pre-privatization debt of the Japan National Railway, during the Mori administration as a way to raise revenue in 2000, and during the Aso administration in 2008 as an economic stimulus. Yet it’s never been adopted.

In some cases, the scheme would also “securitize” government-owned office buildings and residential properties by selling them to investors. The government would continue to use the properties for a rental fee, while receiving the income from the sale. If any securities are issued, it would be by the purchaser of the property, who would use the land, buildings, and the rental income as collateral. The Finance Ministry doesn’t care for this idea. They say it could generate losses over the long term, i.e., after the amount of the rental payments exceeds the revenue received.

Others have noted that at the end of FY 2008, the government’s assets totaled JPY 665 trillion, with fixed assets and real estate amounting to JPY 183 trillion. Of the latter category, however, roads, bridges, military bases, and other public financial assets that do not generate revenue accounted for JPY 143 trillion. Mr. Ozawa said he would securitize JPY 200 million worth of assets. What exactly does he intend to securitize?

Mr. Kan offered his opinion on the matter, which is of interest to those who would like to know the Finance Ministry’s view. Here’s what he had to say on NHK:

The securities would have little liquidity, and the interest payments could be higher than for bonds. I’m studying this, but it would be difficult.

Difficult in Japanese is a euphemism for impossible. When he said “study”, he used the expression benkyo suru, as if he were in school, rather than study in the sense of examine. Give him credit for honesty.

Some speculate Mr. Ozawa is not offering a serious proposal, but rather an overture to Your Party for an ad hoc coalition if he were to win the election. In their upper house election platform earlier this year, Your Party called for securitizing two-thirds of the government’s JPY 500 trillion in financial assets. (Your Party does think outside the box, but some of their ideas shouldn’t be taken out of the box to begin with. During the dark days of 2008, Watanabe Yoshimi seriously suggested that the government issue a second, temporary currency.)

Precedents

Few government securitization schemes have been implemented in Japan. Niigata Prefecture successfully raised money in 2006 using a residential building for prefectural employees they owned in Tokyo’s Kita Ward. They “securitized” it, but it was a de facto sale of the land to real estate developer Morimoto for JPY 2.5 billion, as the prefecture’s website clearly states. (Configuring the sale as a securitization gave everyone tax breaks.) Morimoto tore down the building and put up a five-story condo with 69 units for themselves and a seven-story building with 20 units for the prefectural employees. The prefecture pays rent to Morimoto for the latter building.

What actually happened is that the prefecture sold the rights to the land and its use to a special purpose entity created with the funds from the real estate developer. That entity issues the securities for sale, rather than the prefecture.

What did they do with the money? This is also on the prefecture’s website:

In regard to the connection with the prefectural baseball stadium, (the income from this transaction) exceeds the JPY 1.9 billion from general finances required for now, so we’ve gotten the funding we need.

There you see the problem. Niigata automatically expects that everyone will understand the need for a prefectural baseball stadium. But the people in Niigata and other prefectures who use baseball stadiums are high school teams, adult recreational leagues, and semi-pro teams. If those teams in the United States can get by playing their games on high school diamonds or in public parks with non-permanent bleacher seating and restroom facilities instead of the unneeded stadium superstructure, Niigata (and the other prefectures) could certainly do the same. They could have spent that money on essential services, or better yet, not spent it at all.

Unfortunately, the Japanese public’s sense of urgency for tying the hands of the politicians flares up only sporadically and hasn’t reached the prairie fire proportions of the United States. The American movement arose only because of the combination of a severe economic downturn, a rapid increase in unemployment, and stimulus programs that succeeded mainly in throwing money down the public sector rat hole. The ruling elites here are perhaps not as overtly arrogant as those in the United States, but they compensate with the blithe nakedness of their self-interest. The Japanese electorate is more than willing to throw the bums out when the opportunity presents itself, but their righteous anger has yet to manifest as a sustained force.

That might change before long, however. Whether the DPJ chooses the worst or just the worse in this week’s election, their stewardship of the Japanese economy is about to become a lot uglier.

Yes, Japan has a serious debt problem. The solution to a debt problem, however, is to stop spending money you don’t have–not to allow the people who are responsible for the problem to figure out ways to find more money to spend. There’s no reason to reward failure.

Afterwords:

Another strain of thought that has yet to appear in the public debate is the one expressed by David Warren of Canada:

(T)he only measure that can possibly save us from riding over that cliff…is, quite frankly, the complete dismantlement of the Nanny State, and the restoration of the status quo ante — governments focused on the provision of national defence, and domestically on the machinery of law and order. Full stop.

While that happens to be the only available formula for mitigating our impending economic and social catastrophe — leave people free not only to earn, but to help each other flexibly and directly — the issue of freedom itself lies deeper. For the Nanny State isn’t, and never was, compatible with the organic development of a free society. We do need laws to be enforced against specific, definable evils. But insofar as we are adults, we have never required comprehensive daycare.

Political criticism in Japan is often framed by saying that an opponent’s idea or behavior is counter to the principles of democracy, but that misses the point. Democracy is not a principle, or a means to feed, inform, educate, or distribute money. It is instead the means by which the people hire their representatives in the legislative and executive branches of government.

The issue is not democracy. It is, as Mr. Warren observes, freedom.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Matsuri da! (113): It’s about that time!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 25, 2010

EVERY COUNTRY seems to fill its calendar with commemorative days, weeks, and months that most people never know exist, or would never care about if they did know. In the United States, for example, June is both National Polka Month and Bath Safety Month. The second week of June was Law Enforcement Training Week and School Guard Crossing Week. The 16th was National Fudge Day, the 14th was Blood Type Awareness Day (that’s every day in Japan), and the 10th was American Log Cabin Day.

In Japan, meanwhile, the 10th was set aside as the day to commemorate time. Unlike American Log Cabin Day, it did not pass by unnoticed, particularly by the folks in Otsu, Shiga. They did what comes naturally to the Japanese—they had a festival!

That event was the Rokokusai, or Water Clock Festival, held at the Omi-jingu, a local Shinto shrine. As the jingu name suggests, this shrine is associated with the Imperial household, and the enshrined deity is the spirit of the Tenchi Tenno (emperor). He was number 38 and lived in the seventh century. In contrast, the shrine itself is relatively new—it was built in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial reign, dating back to the legendary first Tenno, Jimmu.

The reason they got all excited about water clocks is that the Tenchi Tenno introduced the use of those timekeepers to Japan 1,340 years ago. Several of those clocks and other historical timepieces are on display in a museum on the shrine grounds. Naturally, the local timepiece manufacturers take a special interest in the shrine and this event. They each donated a sample of their new products to the shrine for presentation to the divinity with a prayer for the prosperous growth of their industry.

The festival included a performance of kagura, or Shinto song and dance, and there was a procession with 400 people. The photo shows some of those participating in the procession presenting the donated timepieces to the divinity. They’re dressed in the manner of uneme, which means “selected women”. During the Heian period (794-1185), they were chosen from a nationwide talent pool—probably for their timeless good looks—to be court attendants and serve the Tenno at table. This was a formal role, though they likely did not serve the Tenno in other ways that some of you lecherous types are probably thinking about. He had official concubines to handle that aspect of his life.

Because the Japanese Tenno has primarily been a religious figure, the uneme were considered to have a religious role, and they were also his personal property. Therefore, violating an uneme was a serious breach of the law that was severely punished as one of the “eight abominable crimes”.

Watching attractive women in period costume carry around clocks might not ring most people’s chimes, but one participant saw it differently:

When I sat inside the quiet shrine precincts with the guardian deity for time, I reflected on how much time I’ve wasted. I hope to live my life hereafter with a real sense of the importance of time.

Tenchi’s water clocks sounded the passage of time with a bell, but some later timepieces used a boom. On Time Day this year, Kadoya Shoji of Nagaoka, Niigata, displayed a taiko drum clock that he recreated based on an original model dating from 1793 now in the collection of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo (link on right sidebar). The interior of that clock is hollow, however, and how it worked is a mystery. There are no surviving designs, so Mr. Kadoya, who repairs timepieces for a living, had to come up with some ideas on his own.

His task was complicated because Japan used what is known as the temporal time system during the Edo period. Instead of dividing a day into 24 equal periods of 60 minutes each, the period from dawn to dusk was split into six equal intervals, as was the period from dusk to dawn. Therefore, the operation of the clocks varied from month to month. The period of daylight is longer than the night in summer, but that’s reversed in winter. Thus the “hours” progressively grew longer until this time of year (this week in fact), when they began growing shorter.

This manner of timekeeping was used until 1873, when the Japanese government adopted the Western method of using equal hours with no seasonal variation, as well as the Gregorian calendar.

Mr. Kadoya contrived a system with two scales – one for day and one for night—and used lead weights to operate it. He said it was difficult to create the mechanism for the automatic switch from the daytime scale to the one used at night. The weights are raised and readjusted once a day. The clock itself is 108 centimeters high (3.54 feet), 45 centimeters in diameter, and 20 centimeters thick. In addition to the drum beat signaling the hours, a bell sounds at the equivalent of noon. A mechanical bird attached to the upper part of the drum also moves at midday, in accordance with contemporary accounts of the original drum.

He’s been at this quite a while; Mr. Kadoya first repaired a Japanese clock 35 years ago at the request of a customer. That piqued his interest, and he has repaired more than 200 since then.

Asking someone for the time of day is usually a simple matter, but Mr. Kadoya might have a more complicated answer. You should specify the century first!

Afterwords:

For a photo of the face of an older Japanese clock, plus more details on their operation, try this post on the website of novelist Gina Collia-Suzuki.

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Posted in Festivals, History, Imperial family | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

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Matsuri da! (76): Putting a happy face on Sado

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 31, 2008

IF ANY PLACE IN JAPAN is star-crossed, it just might be Sado Island. The country’s sixth largest island, located 22 miles from Niigata, Sado became the Japanese equivalent of Siberia during the Heian Period (794-1192). It was there the rulers in the Kyoto capital exiled political troublemakers, as well as poets, Buddhist monks, and even one Tenno (emperor).

The poet Hozumi no Asomioyu was the first to receive this punishment, finding himself on the slow boat to the island in 722 after criticizing the Tenno.

Rank did not have its privileges, however. One member of the Imperial house wound up on the short end of the Sado stick himself: Juntoku Tenno was dispatched to Sado after helping his father, the nominally retired Go-Toba Tenno, in an attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate during the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. He lived there for 21 years, writing poetry criticism and the Kimpisho, a work on court ceremonial procedures. (His father, also a poetry lover, was sent to a different island.)

The last exile of a troublemaker to Sado occurred in 1700, almost 1,000 years after the first. But that was a century after gold had been discovered, which brought a different class of undesirables to the territory. The discovery did not create a gold rush for prospectors and prostitutes; the gold here was the property of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the people doing the digging and sifting were convicted criminals and the homeless. They were ill-treated drones in de facto slavery, and being sent to toil in the Shogun’s mines was another form of permanent exile.

When people weren’t being brought to Sado against their will, they were being taken away by force. Soga Hitomi was 19 years old when she and her mother were abducted by North Korean agents and taken to that country for a life of involuntary exile and teaching in the Japanese language and cultural education program it had set up for spies. That tells you all you need to know about the country’s desperate living conditions: the Japanese just have to overpay for underqualified foreigners to work as teaching assistants in their school system. Pyeongyang had to kidnap them.

It was in North Korea that Ms. Soga met and married Charles Jenkins, a deserter from the American army. They and their two children were eventually allowed to leave, and Mr. Jenkins finished serving out his time by spending a month in the brig. Now they’re all back in Sado—home for Soga Hitomi, exile of a more amenable sort for Mr. Jenkins.

This unpleasant history notwithstanding, the islanders enjoy themselves as much as any Japanese during their traditional festivals. One was held earlier this year at the Kobiei Shinto shrine. Called the Ta’asobi, or Playing in the Rice Paddy, it might be more accurate to describe it as the annual reenactment of a comic sketch based on the hardships of agricultural work. Many similar festivals are held throughout Japan before planting season arrives.

In the Sado City event, a mock rice paddy is set up in front of the shrine’s main hall. A small group of men mime the tasks carried out during the year, starting with the preparation of the paddy and ending with the planting of rice.

Their labors are complicated by the appearance of several other men impersonating moles and magpies, whose roles call for them to literally act their part and disrupt the men at work. They go so far as to paint the faces of the hapless farmers black, as you can see from the photo, and tie them to trees with ropes.

The festival is offered as a form of supplication for a good harvest in the fall. The zanier the moles and magpies behave, the louder the spectators cheer, and the better that year’s crop will be. The event originated about 160 years ago—life had become easier without the threat of exile or working in the mines—but was discontinued in the mid-1920s. The local residents (Sadomites?) restored it about 25 years ago.

Considering the history of the island, the best part of the festival might be that after the actors are untied from the trees, everyone is free to go home.

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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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Matsuri da! (44): Bon odori and butt pinching

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 12, 2007

THIS WEEK IS O-BON SEASON IN JAPAN, and bon odori, or bon dancing, is a part of every midsummer festival. Women, often middle-aged and elderly, dance on platforms erected in the middle of the street or on open lots. People of all ages perform the dance during parades down Main Street, usually as part of a group from their place of employment—bank employees, school teachers, department store clerks…

It’s pleasant to watch, albeit rather tame. This style of dancing involves waving your arms in the air, swaying to and fro, and following a pattern of steps. No shaking of hips or smacking of lips—it’s all perfectly respectable.

But according to this article from the Daily Mainichi’s WaiWai, passing on information from the monthly magazine Cyzo, that wasn’t how it used to be in the old days. In a reversal of the usual trend, the now domesticated bon odori was once a much wilder affair. So wild, in fact, that it was banned as indecent.

Now doesn’t that pique your interest? It certainly piqued mine, so I had to find out more—in the spirit of strict scientific detachment for my matsuri studies, of course. I looked for some Japanese language sources on the Web and was surprised to discover there wasn’t a lot of information available on line about dirty O-Bon dancing. I did find out there was a common perception a century or so ago that bon odori was synonymous with an orgy. Apparently, the authorities banned it several times, starting in the Edo Period.

The lewd bon odori was not a problem in the cities, but rather in the rural areas. Living on the land is always a difficult proposition, and it’s even more difficult for young people looking for some excitement out of life. They had to work hard for little return and had few opportunities for socializing. In fact, early Japan had the custom of tsumadoi, in which women continued to live with their family after marriage. Their husbands paid them occasional conjugal visits. The women didn’t leave the household because they were needed for farm labor.

New Year’s and summer festivals were some of the few occasions young men and women living out in the country could meet each other, and the weather at New Year’s is not conducive to outdoor fun. Young people didn’t let their chance for summertime socializing go to waste, so bon odori in those days was just a quick prelude to finding a dark spot in the bushes.

That didn’t happen in the cities because it was much easier for people to mingle with the opposite sex. In fact, the custom of bon odori had died out entirely in the urban areas.

The WaiWai article notes that some customs from those days are still alive today in slightly altered form. One of these festivals is the Shineri Benten Tataki Jizo in Niigata Prefecture’s Uonuma. During this festival, held annually on June 30, a special area is set up in which any woman who enters is liable to be pinched, and any man who pinches a woman is likely to be whacked on the shoulders.

Golly, matsuri research sure does turn up a lot of fun facts!

Ah, so. I should have known. It turns out that the word shineri is derived from a combination of the words shiri, which are the buttocks, and tsuneru, which means to pinch. Tradition has it that the women who get pinched and the men who get whacked will have good fortune for the coming year. Sounds like a good excuse as any to me! By all accounts, things get a bit rambunctious during the night of the festival.

I’ll bet!

Of course I scouted around for some photos, and I found some, too. I’ve posted one here—still in keeping with a strict scientific detachment for matsuri research, of course. The children are sitting astride a shinten, which is the object at a Shinto shrine or festival in which the spirit of the divinity dwells. They dance around it during the festival.

I have to admit, if one is on a spiritual quest and looking for God, that’s as good a place to find him as any. And a lot better than most places!

Now doesn’t this religious ceremony seem to be a more pleasant way to spend a summer evening with your children than going to a church supper?

For a slide show of this year’s Shineri Benten, try this site in Japanese. If you can’t read it, click on the area with the gold lettering above where it says “new”.

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Matsuri da! (22): This Japanese festival is literally a bash!

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 10, 2007


EUROPEAN AUTHORTIES worry about soccer hooligans getting drunk and starting a fight. The Japanese authorities in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, however, aren’t so concerned about brawls started by people who’ve been drinking. In fact, the religious authorities actually encourage it once a year in Itoigawa’s Fighting Festival that is a local harbinger of spring!

The point of a festival is to have a good time, which means having a bash, and that’s just what these folks have been doing in mid-April every year for about 1,800 years now, according to local records. Two groups of young men representing different neighborhoods gather in the hours before sunrise and remove two mikoshi—portable Shinto shrines carrying the spirit of the divinity–from their storage areas. Then they perform different purification rites, which in Shinto almost inevitably involves sake at some point.

At about nine in the morning each group takes a mikoshi and carries it through the streets in a procession. They start off slowly, following different courses, but after a while they begin running. Music from taiko drums and flutes contributes to the atmosphere. Their paths finally merge. The idea is for the second group to catch up to the first group as it tries to enter the goal area. If the second group catches up and spots the other in the act, they win; if not, they lose. At stake is the divinity’s guarantee of an abundant harvest in the winning district.

Then the men jam one end of the poles used to carry the mikoshi into the ground, and the two groups slam them into each other, breaking off chunks of the sacred relics in the process.

You’ve heard of church wrecking in gospel music? Well, in a manner of speaking, that’s exactly what happens here, with the young men doing the wrecking purified by liquor and spurred on by the crowd.

One woman interviewed after the festival this year said that she gets excited every time she sees it. (I’ll bet!)

The bashing is later followed by a performance of the more elegant kagura, or Shinto dance, until sundown.

An even more fascinating aspect is that this is an ecumenical event, as the festival is jointly conducted by a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. (No, the Shintoists and the Buddhists aren’t squaring off against one another.) Most Japanese festivals are held by Shinto shrines. While there are a few Buddhist ceremonies, they are seldom conducted jointly.

For an idea of what it all looks like, you can try this RealPlayer file for video. (I highly recommend this. The link will work, but you may have to click the section to the right of where it says RealPlayer on the page that comes up.) There are also websites here and here for excellent photos.

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