Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Saga’

The pictures of Japan inside your head

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 16, 2009

WALTER LIPPMAN ONCE OBSERVED that the popular conceptions of people, places, and events outside the range of our direct experience are informed by pictures inside our heads, and that these pictures are often created by journalists incapable of seeing beyond the pictures in their own heads.

As long as we realize that the prime directive for the print and broadcast media has always been to entertain rather than to inform, the damage will be no greater than that caused by the stories we habitually tell ourselves in our daily lives anyway. The problems arise when the journalistic drones start believing the pictures they create and cause real trouble by spreading falsehoods among people without the means to educate themselves otherwise.

While this phenomenon exists in the print and broadcast media everywhere, it is endemic in the overseas English-language media dealing with Japan. The pictures in their heads amount to a full-blown hallucination.

Here are brief descriptions of three newspaper articles that appeared today, all about the preparation of food. What sort of cognitive dissonance is created with the pictures in your head when you read them?

Japanese cooking school in Seoul

Shunted off to the side of page 11 in the Nishinippon Shimbun was a brief article covering the announcement that the Nakamura Culinary School of Fukuoka City will open a Seoul branch in September to provide instruction in the preparation of Japanese cuisine and Western confections. Licensed chefs in both fields will teach the classes assisted by Korean interpreters.

The school will offer two courses—one for prospective chefs, and one for professionals already working as chefs. The course for the pros will be limited to 24 students, and will include 132 hours of instruction over a six-month period. In addition to the school’s regular instructors, food preparers at well-known Japanese hotels, ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants, very expensive) and patisseries will also be used as teachers for the course.

The Nakamura Culinary School thinks it sees a business opportunity because there has been a surge of popularity in Japanese food in South Korea over the past few years. More than 1,000 South Koreans came to Japan last year alone to learn how to prepare Japanese food at local culinary institutes.

But the sharp depreciation of the won caused attendance to dip this year. School head Nakamura Tetsu decided to offer instruction in Seoul to make it cheaper for the students. It’s also easier for the students to learn from courses conducted in the Korean language. (Instruction at cooking schools in Japan is of course entirely in Japanese.)

The article notes this is the second cooking school to open a South Korean branch, after Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute.

Now how does this—and the many other similar stories I’ve presented here—clash with the pictures in the heads of people who have been entertained with tales about how the Koreans and the Japanese just hatehatehate each other?

Incidentally, the Fukuoka Asian Urban Research Center conducted a survey by questionnaire in February and March of residents in the major cities of South Korea to determine the city’s name recognition and its image in those areas. The survey found a name recognition of greater than 80% for their sister city in Busan, South Korea. That percentage soared to 95% for Busan women in their 20s and 30s.

The reason cited by the center for that stratospheric percentage among young Korean women was the frequency with which they or their friends hop across the Korean Strait to go shopping in Kyushu.

That doesn’t surprise me at all, but then I live near Fukuoka City, have seen and met many of those same young women, and know how easy it is to travel between the two cities because I’ve done it myself. Forgive me for believing the picture inside the dim cave of my own head.

The reggae izakaya

Takeo in Saga is a town of about 50,000 people roughly midway between the two slightly larger towns of Saga City and Sasebo, Nagasaki. It takes about a half hour to get from Takeo to either city, and an additional hour or so to travel to either Nagasaki City or Fukuoka City.

Buried even further in the back of today’s Nishinippon Shimbun was a blurb about a new dish being served at a “reggae izakaya” in Takeo called Nuf Nuf. (An izakaya is a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place.)

Nuf Nuf is run by 36-year-old Koga Manabu. The photo accompanying the piece showed a man with a genial smile and a knit tam covering what appears to be an impressive growth of dreadlocks.

Mr. Koga created a new dish that his customers think is quite tasty. He started with Sicilian rice, added wild boar meat, and used locally grown lemongrass as a flavor enhancer. He said he slices the boar meat very thin to neutralize its distinctive odor.

He offered it first at a trial tasting party on 31 May, and it went over so well he put it on the Nuf Nuf menu. He serves it with soup on the side and charges JPY 800 ($US 8.14), which sounds reasonable.

I’ve never been to Nuf Nuf, but I know people who have—including a Jamaican woman who enjoyed living in Saga for several years. She told me Koga Manabu was a nice guy and the food was good.

But aren’t the Japanese supposed to be xenophobic islanders turning even more inward and nationalistic? What’s this about some guy in dreadlocks in a town in the middle of the sticks creating new recipes using Sicilian rice? He’s going to ruin all those pictures in your head of Japanese who can’t abide foreigners or bear to put any kind of rice past their lips other than the plain but pure white variety grown on the islands.

Robo-chefs to take over Japanese kitchens

That’s what the headline in the New Zealand Herald said, and who are we to quibble with a source chosen as the Best Media Website in 2007, 2008, and 2009 in the Qantas Media Awards?

Here’s the first sentence in the article:

“They’ve got ones that clean, and others that pour drinks, so it was only a matter of time before Japanese inventors came up with robots that can cook.”

Just out of curiosity, have you seen one of those robots cleaning a house or pouring your drinks anywhere?

Neither have I.

But the best media website for three years running says it was just a matter of time before those robot-mad Japanese inventors came up with robot chefs.

Various prototype robo-chefs showed off their cooking skills at the International Food Machinery and Technology Expo in Tokyo, flipping “okonomiyaki” Japanese pancakes, serving sushi and slicing vegetables.

When did machines start to have “skills” instead of functions? And when did either machines or people start to “flip” okonomiyaki? Is poetic license the reason they’ve won that string of awards? It certainly isn’t because the person who wrote that article has seen anyone make those “Japanese pancakes”.

The real story here is that the Japanese have a knack for automating different types of labor that the biens pensants once lamented as dehumanizing, particularly on assembly lines in auto plants.

Robots are also efficient, dependable, show up for work sober and on time, and don’t have labor unions that demand retirement packages preventing the company from making a profit on the cars they manufacture. Ask the management personnel who used to work at General Motors, assuming you don’t have to chase them down on the golf course while they enjoy their severance packages.

“We all know that robots can be very useful. We want to take that utility out of the factory so that they can be used elsewhere,” said Narito Hosomi, president of Toyo Riki, manufacturers of the pancake-cooking robot.

Well, why not? Isn’t this just a logical progression from machines that mix carbonated water and flavored syrup in on-site dispensers at restaurants to give customers the soft drinks they order? Or the machines at any other plant the world over that manufacture and package food products in processes that are almost entirely automated?

Take a few seconds to think about it, and it turns out to be just the normal course of events in the development of any kind of technology. People come up with different ideas, spend the time and money to make them a reality, and see if they fly in the marketplace. If their ideas are useful, they make a profit. If not, they might be able to apply the new technology to different fields. It makes the world turn around that much more smoothly, and it’s even worth an article in the daily paper.

But how much more entertaining it is to create pictures in peoples’ heads of Robo-Chefs Taking Over Japanese Kitchens to flip okonomiyaki, presumably leaving the human Japanese to march around their rabbit hutches plotting new ways to conquer the Korean Peninsula! This time for sure! Taking an occasional break for sex with their inflatable dolls, of course.

If the media thinks they have to provide fictitious images to their consumers for the sake of entertainment, when the real information is much more entertaining, more enlightening—and much less dangerous—that’s the business model they have to live with.

But it’s too bad for them the soaring number of media bankruptcies and disappearing ad revenue isn’t just a picture inside their own heads.

Posted in Food, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Mass media, South Korea | Tagged: , , , | 16 Comments »

Matsuri da! (106): The Korean divinity at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 11, 2009

SOLDIERS BRING HOME all sorts of souvenirs when they return from foreign battlefields—unusual rocks from uninhabited beaches, Luger pistols, hachimaki headbands, severed ears and other body parts, unpleasant diseases, and war brides speaking unfamiliar languages, to mention a few.

The <i>kachigarasu</i>

The kachigarasu

Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the Korean Peninsula twice in the 1590s, and his staging area and jumping off point was located in what is now Chinzei-cho in Saga. He had the Nagoya Castle built there in just five months; after the Osaka Castle, it was the largest in Japan at the time. In those days, the area was part of the Nabeshima domain, ruled by Nabeshima Naoshige. A skilled military leader, Nabeshima’s epigrams and deeds were recorded in the classic samurai how-to manual Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, an attendant of the daimyo’s grandson Mitsushige.

Nabeshima accompanied Toyotomi on his Korean excursions and brought back two unusual souvenirs. One was a type of black-and-white magpie known in Japanese as the kachigarasu, which is still found in Japan almost exclusively in Saga and Fukuoka.

Though the bird resembles the karasu, or the all-black crow that lives throughout Japan, it is of a different genus and species. The Koreans call it the kkachi, so the etymology is very clear. They like to nest in utility poles—there are probably some right now peering down on the street in my neighborhood—which gives the Kyushu Electric maintenance men a spring- and summer-long headache.

Nabeshima’s second war souvenir was a Korean ceramist named Lee Sam-pyeung, who arrived in 1598 and would later revolutionize ceramics production in Japan from his base in Arita, Saga. Because he couldn’t find the proper type of clay in the area to make the sophisticated Chinese/Korean type of porcelain already in demand in Southeast Asia and Europe, Lee initially worked with a group of 12 Korean ceramists to make what is known as Karatsu ware.

That changed in 1616, when Lee struck kaolin—the ceramist’s equivalent of gold—at Mt. Izumi in Arita. That’s where he built the first noborigama, or climbing kiln (sometimes called dragon kiln) in Japan required for firing fine porcelain. It was the first of two strokes of exceptional luck for the Japanese ceramics industry.

The second occurred when the Ming Dynasty in China collapsed in 1644. The European nobility and wealthy merchants were buying enormous quantities of Chinese porcelain, but the turmoil at dynasty’s end caused many kilns to shut down. Some were damaged in the battles between the dynasty and the Manchus. The succeeding Qing Dynasty government then stopped trade altogether from 1656 to 1684. The end of supply from China spurred the Dutch East India company to turn to Arita porcelain to fill the prodigious demand. The Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to maintain a presence in Japan at the time, and they had an office on Dejima, a small island off the city of Nagasaki. (Land reclamation operations later made it part of the city itself.) As a result, an enormous amount of porcelain was shipped from Arita to Europe from then until the mid-18th century.

Two factors drove this demand. The first was that in Europe in those days, porcelain was a beautiful and exotic rarity from distant places barely imaginable for most people. The first porcelain manufactured on the continent was in Meissen in 1709. The production techniques existed only in Asia, so porcelain items were considered treasures. Deliveries took several months over the Silk Road or in sailing ships. Some even thought porcelain had magical properties, and believed it would become discolored and crack if it came into contact with poison.

The second was that the only people who could afford to indulge themselves with porcelain purchases were the European and Ottoman Turkish nobility, and the wealthiest of the merchant class. The customer base may have been limited, but those customers had plenty of money to spend on whatever struck their fancy. Their passion for collecting became a mania that was almost degenerate in its profligacy. One German Elector traveled to the Amsterdam docks to buy immense quantities right off the ship. Their frenzy culminated in the creation of porcelain rooms, in which the entire chamber was filled with porcelain displays from floor to ceiling, and sometimes included the ceiling. The rooms often had mirrored walls to enhance the effect. A single room wasn’t enough for Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He built the Japanisches Palais in Dresden, a palace for holding and displaying the more than 20,000 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain in his collection. (It was never used for that, however, and became a library instead.)

Though the huge shipments to Europe ended in the mid-18th century, Arita is still one of the premier ceramics-producing areas of Japan. Every year during the Golden Week holidays, a period in which five public holidays fall from 28 April to 5 May, the town holds a ceramics fair in which the entire business of the residents is given over to selling ceramics and porcelain from their storefronts or stalls in the street. That includes barber shops and cafes as well as the ceramics merchants and producers who do it for a living.

arita lee festival

The 106th Arita ceramics fair ended last week, and this year 1.13 million visitors just as eager as the 17th century nobility to buy porcelain (for much cheaper prices) flocked to the town with a population of slightly more than 21,000 in an area of 27.09 square kilometers, 70% of which is wooded. It was the second-highest number of visitors in the history of the event, with the highest coming in 2003. It was also the seventh straight year that more than one million people came. The organizers thought the economic downturn and fears of influenza would depress attendance, but a special discount on expressway tolls during the holidays in conjunction with the introduction of a new electronic toll collection system seems to have encouraged people to make the trip.

Shinto festivals have long been held to coincide with commercial events, and vice-versa, so it’s not unusual that the Tozan Shinto shrine in Arita-cho would hold one of their festivals on the 4th. The tutelary deity of the shrine, which is said to have been founded in 1658, is the Korean ceramist Lee Sam-pyeung. There is also a monument to Lee at the top of the mountain behind the shrine, where the ceremonies are usually held, but rain forced it indoors this year. About 100 people from Japan and South Korea were in the procession and witnessed a performance of kagura (Shinto dance), as shown in the photo.

One of those watching from South Korea was Kim Gi-hyeong of the South Korean Ceramics Culture Association. He said:

“We pledge to keep alive the pioneering and creative spirit of Lee, and bring forth a more beautiful friendship between South Korea and Japan.”

It’s curious that some people are so anxious to claim that the Japanese are either ignorant of or loath to honor the Korean contribution to their culture, and that other people are so ready to believe it. That means one of the many positive aspects of Japan-Korean relations they overlook or ignore is this Shinto shrine and event honoring a Korean ceramist who lived 400 years ago and whose life’s work and lucky strike still enrich everyone in the area today—which the Japanese readily acknowledge.

Here are two brief YouTube clips showing the shrine, with Japanese voiceovers. (Number one and number two) It’s Sunday night, and I’m not up for doing a transcription/translation, but they’re worth viewing even if you don’t know Japanese. Both show the unique ceramic installations at the shrine, including the underglaze blue (sometsuke in Japanese) on the torii. The first also includes shots of the monument to Lee.

The entire range of Arita ware is offered for sale during the fair at reduced prices. Those prices get progressively lower every day, so some rather attractive pieces can be bought at dirt cheap prices on the last day. The items sold include both the finest quality porcelain as well as leftover odds and ends. My first year in Japan, in 1984, I visited the fair and purchased for pocket change a surplus tea mug specially produced to commemorate the anniversary of a small Shinto shrine elsewhere in Kyushu. It was sitting in a crate along with some other remainders. Now it’s sitting on my desk, and I still use it to drink tea.

Posted in Arts, China, Festivals, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Kageura to hang up his spikes

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 26, 2009

IT’S OFFICIAL: Kageura Yasutake (62) will retire from the Japanese major leagues at the end of the current season, bringing to an end the longest baseball career in Japanese history at 37 years. Mr. Kageura will have played all 37 of those seasons with the Hawks’ franchise, first for the Nankai Hawks in the Osaka area, and now for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Fukuoka City.

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

Kageura was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1972 and his career began as a pinch-hitter nonpareil. He is known for using an extra long bat dubbed the monohoshizao (clothesline pole), as well as his love of Japanese sake. He is so pickled from his nightly drinking expeditions, the story goes, that he sends up a spray of sake whenever he hits the ball.

He became one of the starting nine after the franchise moved to Fukuoka City and emerged as the team’s premier slugger, winning the Triple Crown three years in a row. He enjoys the rare distinction of playing with his son, a pitcher, on the same team this year. His uniform number, 90, is expected to be unofficially retired.

The player’s taste for the grape—or in this case, rice—began during his high school days. Appearing in a regional high school championship game, he used garlic to hide the smell of liquor on his breath, and despite a mammoth hangover, hit a mammoth, 508 ft. walk-off home run. While circling the bases after his winning hit, however, he vomited on the field. The smell of sake was so overpowering the umpires (this being high school) disqualified him and removed the runs from the scoreboard.

Mr. Kageura announced his decision to retire while having a drink at the bar run by his father-in-law. It was made public in the 860th installment of the comic Abusan in the 5 April edition of Big Comic Original published by Shogakkan. (The publication is known as a comic book for adults. That does not mean they run X-rated content; rather, it means that the book publishes comic stories for adults rather than children.)

Abusan is Kageura’s nickname and is derived from the Japanese pronunciation for absinthe. (Some people mistakenly write it as Abu-san, which works in Japanese as Mr. Horsefly.) The comic was created and is still written and drawn by Mizushima Shinji. Familiar even to contemporary college students, the series is known for incorporating actual events in Japanese baseball into the story and the appearance of current players, managers, and team owners. It is so widely known that a new manager of the Fukuoka Hawks joked that his first comment after looking over his roster of players was, “What happened to Kageura?”

Some say one reason for the comic’s popularity is that Japanese salarymen identified with his character, particularly in the 1970s. He played for a team in the less popular Pacific League during the age of supremacy of the Central League’s Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, his role as a pinch hitter rather than as a star endowed him with an Everyman quality, and he was a serious drinker.

Abusan and his batting title award

Abusan and his batting title award

Ordinarily, I might not have brought this story up, except that there’s a real-life connection—I’m casually acquainted with the former pro ballplayer who is the model for Abusan. That’s Nagabuchi Yozo, an outfielder, DH, and briefly a relief pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nippon Ham Fighters. Mr. Nagabuchi won the batting title in 1969, his first full year in the major leagues, with a .333 average.

Here are his career statistics for those of you who read Japanese. He usually batted third and played right field, and wound up with a lifetime batting average of .278. Mr. Nagabuchi was very much the contact hitter: he seldom struck out or walked, and even better, rarely hit into double plays.

The real Abusan once described his motivation for playing major league baseball:

“When I played for Toshiba (as a Toshiba employee in the company leagues), my monthly salary was 30,000 yen, but I had an outstanding bar bill of 200,000 yen. There was no way I could pay that off, so I thought the only thing to do was to sign a pro contract. I figured it would be enough if I played for just a year or two, so I signed for a low (annual salary of) 3.3 million yen.”

Most of that is probably true, except that Kintetsu drafted him in the second round that year, and he had already flunked one pro tryout two years before that.

Mr. Nagabuchi is still a legend in Japanese baseball for his drinking exploits. He usually went drinking after every game and often played the next day with a hangover. There is even a story that he, like Abusan, threw up on the field during a game, although he was playing in the outfield at the time.

After his career ended, he returned to Saga and opened a yakitori shop that he and his wife still operate. It’s about a 10-minute walk from my house, and I was last there for a party in January. I came to Japan as an English teacher, and his daughter Kaori was in the first class I taught on my first day on the job. Kaori later married one of the other students in that class, and I attended their wedding reception.

The real Abusan is a relaxed, personable fellow who is very easy to strike up a conversation with. It’s no surprise that he’s very sharp about baseball, even the way the game is played in the United States. Before Nomo Hideo blazed the trail for modern Japanese players in the American major leagues, many Japanese fans had the mistaken impression that the American game was not really a team sport but played mano-a-mano between pitcher and hitter. I’ve heard Mr. Nagabuchi gently correct his customers on that score on more than one occasion.

Here’s something else that will come as no surprise: The name of his yakitori is Abusan. And most nights after he closes up about 11:00 p.m., he and his wife take a five-minute stroll down the street and around the corner to a koryori-ya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place), where he sits at the bar and drinks sake straight out of a glass.


All the Japanese sources have his name pronounced as Nagabuchi, but I could have sworn that the family pronounces it as Nagafuchi (I was his daughter’s teacher, after all.) Then again, most people refer to him as Abusan, so I haven’t heard anyone use his family name in a while.

This discrepancy would not be unusual for Kyushu. It’s a little difficult to explain to people not familiar with the Japanese language, but there is a tendency, at least here in Saga, for people to dispense with the dakuon in their family names. For example, I know a man who insists that the proper pronunciation of his family name is Takaki. Everyone else in Japan says Takagi, so he lets it go without comment. I also know a man who pronounces his family name as Shinotsuka, rather than using the more common Shinozuka.

I’ve always been a bit disappointed that the Americans adopted the expression “walk-off home run” for a round-tripper that ends the game either in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. It’s actually a relatively new expression there. (I never heard it during my youth, and I watched and played a lot of baseball.)

I would have loved it had they adopted the Japanese term, which is “sayonara home run”. It’s something that everyone in the U.S. would immediately understand, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they understood it in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries that play baseball, too.

Too bad!

Posted in Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Wings of a man

Posted by ampontan on Friday, February 27, 2009

FOR THE PAST WEEK, I’ve been spending an hour a day at a local organization here in Saga reviewing their video assets to see what can be uploaded to the web and used for publicity. One of the videos I watched this week was the film Ningen no Tsubasa (Wings of a Man), which the organization was responsible for producing.


Made in the mid-90s, the movie depicts a few years in the life of Ishimaru Shin’ichi, a native Sagan who was a star pitcher for the forerunner of the Chunichi Dragons in the early 1940s. He later became Japan’s only professional baseball player to die as a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron.

The movie was screened throughout Japan, particularly in schools, as it received the approval of the Education Ministry and the National Association of Parents and Teachers.

It was extremely well done for a low-budget, independent project. Not only is it worth watching on its own, it’s very educational for people with an interest in that period of Japanese history.

Some of the more noteworthy aspects include:

  • A home plate umpire forgetting that it was no longer acceptable to use the enemy word sutoraiku for a called strike, and quickly switching to yoshi! (The word hazure was used to call a ball.)
  • The baseball uniforms evolving into semi-military uniforms by mid-war
  • The baseball players enrolling in night school at university to avoid the draft, until that deferment was ended
  • The cruelty of some zealots in the Japanese military, both toward other soldiers and toward civilians
  • Officers pressuring their men to “volunteer” as kamikaze pilots because a failure to do so would disgrace the entire unit
  • Members of Ishimaru’s family and his fiancé’s family encouraging him to choose a path that would enable him to survive a war they realized Japan would lose.

In addition to being an eye-opener for those who don’t know much about those days, the film might delight those people who appreciate Japanese dialects. All the dialog in the scenes taking place in Ishimaru’s hometown is performed in very broad Saga dialect.

Wayne Graczyk of The Japan Times gave the film a favorable review when it appeared, but his article doesn’t seem to be on-line. Here’s another review from the excellent Kamikaze Images website.

It’s a shame that the movie exists only on videocassette (and probably the original film, somewhere), because it was made before the DVD era. The organization doesn’t have the funds to produce a large volume of DVDs, though they might be able to handle a one-off. Those people in Japan who still have video decks and are interested in borrowing a copy can talk to Mrs. Yamashita at 0952-25-2295.

It’s been more than 10 years since I saw the film the first time, and watching it again this week reminded me of something.

Anyone who can get through this film without crying—or at least being on the verge of tears—has got a heart of stone.

Posted in Films, Sports, World War II | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

Matsuri da! (102): The Imari Tontenton festival is a life and death affair

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
– Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

PEOPLE IN WESTERN COUNTRIES are losing the right to enjoy themselves by freely engaging in activities with an element of risk through the coincidental action of three groups: Those who resort to frivolous lawsuits to compensate for their avoidance of personal responsibility, the corporations and governmental bodies justifiably afraid of being held liable in those lawsuits by vacuum-brained jurors, and the nanny-state meddlers who hold us all hostage to their yearning for a make-believe, safe-as-milk world.

We’ve all read and been entertained by tales of wacky legal action. One website uses as example the man who won $50,000 from a company that makes basketball nets because he claimed the company was responsible for his teeth being caught in the net while dunking a ball. Mirable dictu, a jury believed him. One plaintiff not as lucky was the nudist who burned his feet after participating in a firewalk. He sued the man conducting the event, despite being warned in advance of the danger, but his suit was dismissed.

The legal feeding frenzy forces companies and local governments to protect themselves. This month in England, municipal authorities in Halesowen, West Midlands, ordered the local Rotary Club either to install a belt on Santa’s sleigh (which they sponsor) as he rides through town, or fork over an extra £200 in insurance premiums. The sleigh is towed by a Land Rover at a speed of 5 mph.

Some intrusive bureaucrats are even worse. Britain’s Department for Children, Schools and Families printed a leaflet for public distribution this year warning of the dangers of Christmas. The leaflet advises readers that 1,000 people are hurt by Christmas decorations annually–that killer tinsel again–and another thousand have to visit the hospital after accidents with Christmas trees. Perhaps there is some benefit in cautioning people about the proper use of sharp instruments when assembling toys or opening presents. But try to imagine what sort of government drone thought it would be an excellent idea to include in the leaflet the possibility that holiday dinner guests who have had too much to drink could “crash to the floor when they miss their seat at the dinner table”.

The following story makes clear, however, that Japan still seems to be immune from these bacilli. Do I have to tell you this story is about a festival? Hah! In fact, it’s about one of the three most famous fighting festivals in Japan.

That would be the Imari Tontenton festival held in late October every year. There’s a good reason it became a fighting festival—the participants disagreed over how to conduct the event and chose to settle their argument with a rumble on the city streets. They enjoyed themselves so much they turned it into an annual scrum.

In other words, the municipal authorities and the religious institutions of Imari have sanctioned—indeed, encouraged—symbolic citizen violence in public.



Imari once had two Shinto shrines in the same neighborhood that held their festivals on different days. One was the Kokitsu shrine, whose event was offered to ask the divinities for a bang-up harvest. The other was the Totoshima shrine, whose festival was conducted in supplication for an abundant catch of fish.

The story goes that the authorities ordered the two shrines in 1829 to hold their festivals on the same day. The organizers couldn’t agree on the order of the procession or the rules of conduct, but they did agree to settle it like men and fight with their festival floats under specific rules of engagement. The battle continued even after the two shrines merged with a third shrine in 1962.

Actually, that should be “battles” in the preceding sentence. The three-day festival starts with a parade of the two floats on the first day. As they march through town, the lifters chant “Chosanya”, which once upon a time meant, “We’re going to the Imperial court!” The street fighting lasts all three days, however. The first day’s fight card features one or two bouts, while as many as five can be held over the next two days. For the climax on the final day, they duke it out next to a river where the original festival is said to have been held.

Forcing the opponent into the river is not an issue because that’s where both teams are going to wind up. The point of this particular contest is to see who can climb out of the river first. If it’s the team with the float from the old Kokitsu shrine, that signifies a rich harvest. If it’s the team from the old Totoshima shrine, local dinner tables will be groaning from the weight of the fish caught over the course of the year.


Perhaps as a way to justify the jousting, the folks in Imari added another layer of symbolism to their festival fighting. The two sides square off to represent the competing lines of the Imperial household in the 14th century, referred to as the Northern and Southern dynasties. The Kokitsu shrine float is actually a mikoshi, or portable shrine containing the spirit of the divinity. It is supposed to represent the forces of Kusunoki Masashige. Meanwhile, the other float, known as a danjiri (the one with colorful decorations) represents the forces of Ashikaga Takauji. (You can read more about this complicated period of Japanese history here.)

This is no American Civil War battle reenactment in which fat old guys wear ill-fitting period costumes and goof around while pretending they know how to use a musket. The Japanese participants may not hit below the belt, but they are healthy, vigorous men who intend to win, and in this case winning means using enough strength to overturn another float weighing about 600 kilograms (1,322 lbs). In fact, when the two teams square off, one side challenges the other by chanting, “Kiwa-enka“, which is older local dialect for “Come on!”

The spectators get as caught up in the action as any soccer hooligan, and they’re probably just as liquored up too. As the two sides stare each other down, the crowd starts yelling “Aore, aore!” (Literally, that’s a command to quit screwing around and get on with it.) The leaders of the two teams are known as shogun, or military commander. The field generals wait for the right moment to launch their attack, which they signal by raising a flag. The danjiri team employs a taiko drum to whip up the martial spirit, beating it three times. The onomatopoetic representation of that drumbeat—ton-ten-ton—has become the name of the festival itself.

Dangerous fun

All Japanese grow up knowing that getting in the middle of some of the more masculine festivals can be dangerous business, so they assume that everyone is aware of the risk involved before signing up. They’ve been thrashing and bashing and pushing and shoving each other in the name of winning divine favor for more than a millennium, so the accidents that can and do happen are not a surprise.

The organizers of the Imari Tontenton Festival are no exception. The members of the fighting teams have to register in advance, at which time they are presumably warned once again. All the city’s ambulances are brought to the scene of the battle to deal promptly with injuries. After the winner of one bout has been determined, the two floats disengage to allow the wounded—including any spectators who jumped into the fray—to be treated and sent to the hospital if necessary. It is a tradition for the crowd to see off the departing ambulances with a round of applause. Those with minor wounds return to fight again.

In October 2006, those ambulances were needed. One 17-year-old onlooker got carried away by his emotions and joined in the pushing and shoving for the team that wound up losing. When their float was overturned, he was crushed underneath and killed. Another 22-year-old spectator who also dashed into the heat of battle to support the losing side received an injury to his spine, and newspaper reports say he still has difficulty walking. (They do not say whether he has been paralyzed from the waist down; either he hasn’t been, or the local newspapers prefer to use euphemisms.)

That was enough to give even the most intemperate of hotheads and diehard traditionalists pause, so the festival was suspended entirely in 2007. The organizers resumed the parade this year, but the suspension remained in force for the battles between the mikoshi and the danjiri.

Those of you who think it’s a good idea for Santa to buckle up his seat belt while being pulled at 5 mph in his sleigh might be surprised at what happened next.

Neither the high school boy nor the young man had registered in advance as participants—their involvement was on the spur of the moment. Therefore, when the surviving man sued the organizers and five officers for damages of 100 million yen ($US 1.1 million) and asked that they admit their negligence, the defendants balked at the latter demand. They countered that they weren’t negligent because the plaintiff hadn’t formally registered as a participant.

They were willing to provide financial compensation, but not for as much as the man demanded. The committee had 6.7 million yen in operating funds as of the end of October, so they also asked for financial contributions from the 3,600 households in the district where the battle takes place. The man will receive something, but it appears that the matter will be settled out of court for whatever amount the organizers can come up with.

And if you think that means the end of the festival, you might be surprised again.

Reports this week say that local citizens who want to resume the fights have formed the Association for Protecting the Traditional Culture of the Imari Tontenton Festival. They hope to create sentiment for reopening hostilities and plan to start a street corner petition campaign from January to April. They’ll submit the signatures they collect to the festival organizers, the Imari shrine, and the city.

The members of the association aren’t rubberneckers with a taste for bloodshed; they’re the men who actually do battle in the streets and the river.

One member said:

“We are deeply cognizant of the accident and understand the opinions that counsel prudence about resumption. But we want to do something to preserve the fight, which is an Imari tradition.”

Some people in this world are oh so anxious to rearrange everyone’s life—under their supervision, of course—to make sure it is as harmless as a closed safety pin under lock and key.

Meanwhile, some men in Imari know exactly what they want to do. They enjoy it and so do many of their friends and neighbors. They understand that they could wind up dead or maimed, but they’re willing to take that risk. The other folks who aren’t interested can mind their own business and not show up.

I’d sign their petition any time they ask.

Afterwords: There aren’t any good videos of the Tontenton Festival, but this YouTube offering, while called a video, is actually a slideshow put to music. It’s worth watching, however, and the second song might get you to thinking about having a nice glass of shochu mixed with hot water. Dig the ton-ten-ton drumbeat at the start.

Notice also the picture of the young father holding his young son in his arms toward the end of the video to watch. As I said, Japanese grow up knowing the dangers involved.

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Downright neighborly

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 14, 2008

WHILE POLITICIANS on both sides of the Sea of Japan continue to troll for votes by creating hobgoblins that arouse the sort of people who like to argue in the on-line comment sections of newspaper websites, everyone else in the neighborhood seems to be getting along just hunky-dory. That’s particularly true in the nether regions of both countries, which–not coincidentally–is the area where Japan and South Korea are geographically the closest.

One example is the region’s female commercial fishermen. Twelve women who fish for a living from Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, and Yamaguchi prefectures went to Busan, South Korea, on the 12th to hold their second annual meeting with six women from the host city’s federation of maritime industry cooperatives. Those four prefectures lie just across the Korean Strait from Busan. Among the mutual problems they discussed were soaring fuel costs and the difficulty in finding successors to their business.

The Korean delegate tasked with giving the welcoming address said, “We hope to achieve mutual development with our neighbors across the sea.” In reply, the Japanese speaker during the opening ceremonies remarked, “We will look for new ideas through our exchange.”

Here’s another example: The Fukuoka Asia Art Museum (link also on right sidebar) and the Busan Museum of Modern Art announced the signing of a cooperative agreement on the same day. Starting next year, the two museums will loan each other works from their collection for exhibits, exchange staff members, and conduct joint surveys. They decided to get started next year because that will mark the 20th anniversary of the sister city arrangement between Fukuoka City and Busan. To commemorate that relationship, next year has been declared the friendship year for the two cities.

The first exhibit resulting from the new agreement will be a showing of the Fukuoka museum’s works at the Busan museum in the autumn of 2009. The Japanese museum is the only one in the world devoted to Asian art, while the Korean museum focuses on modern art and art from the southeastern part of the peninsula.

Finally, a symposium will be held tomorrow at Kyushu University’s International Hall on the topic, “Regional Ties that Transcend International Borders: A new venture for Fukuoka and Busan” . It is being jointly sponsored by a South Korean academic society and the Kyushu University’s South Korean Research Center. Their stated objective is to continue working toward the formulation of mechanisms for creating a transnational economic sphere.

Stepping back and looking at the region from a broader perspective makes it clear that there is a growing contemporary awareness among people in Kyushu and the southeastern Korean Peninsula that they constitute a de facto economic zone with shared cultural traits. Intraregional ties have waxed and waned for centuries, but now people are realizing the time to make it a formal, permanent reality is drawing near.

It might not be too much longer before these disparate groups in both countries will be able to stand together and tell their political representatives that if they aren’t willing to be part of the solution, they’re part of the problem…so either get with the plan or get out of the way.

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Matsuri da! (99): Bringing it all back home

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 2, 2008

THIS POST last June briefly examined the importance of rice in Japan and included capsule summaries of the many rice-planting festivals held in late spring throughout the country. Now you know darn well that if people are going to take the trouble to have a special ceremony for planting the rice, they’re going to have another when it comes time to harvest it. And here they are!

The ritual for cutting the rice itself is variously called the nuihosai, the nuibosai, or even the nuiboshiki, but they all mean the same thing. Some of the rice (and other crops) harvested during these ceremonies is offered to the divinities a month later in a ceremony called the niinamesai. Here’s a quick look at what’s been going on out in the fields. Don’t be shocked—some of it involves putting schoolgirls to work doing manual labor on the farms!

Shingu, Wakayama

Five junior high school girls clad as otome, or rice paddy maidens, hacked away during the nuihosai at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, a Shinto shrine. The Shingu otome worked in a 10-are (quarter acre) wet paddy planted in April. The paddy yielded 480 kilograms of rice, which made everyone pleased as punch. The rice itself will be used for shrine ceremonies, while the ears were offered at the Ise shrine. (That’s closely associated with the Imperial family, making it one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The enshrined deity at the Inner Shrine is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the mythological ancestor of the emperors.) Teenaged Japanese girls don’t have a lot of practice at wielding the scythes, so the onlookers had to give them the benefit of their experience—whack from below and at an angle. That’s one thing about old folks—they like to stand around kibitzing. Here’s another—they’re usually right!

Naruto, Tokushima

Held at the O’asahiko Shinto shrine, this nuihosai started with a Shinto ceremony. Then five karime, or cutting girls, from the local primary school, went to work. Meanwhile, about 40 people watched from the sideline and gave the girls the benefit of their extensive experience. (Whack from below and at an angle!) The rice was planted at the end of May, and the harvest totaled about 450 kilograms. It will be offered at the November niinamesai and to the shrine every day throughout the year.

Sabae, Fukui

Instead of rice, the karime at this nuihosai harvested foxtail millet, a plant frequently cultivated in East Asia and infrequently seen in Japanese supermarkets. Millet can grow to a height of five feet, which might require different whacking techniques than those used for the smaller rice plants. A local farmer planted this small field in June. The crowd estimated at 170 who came to watch and make speeches included area residents and officials from the prefecture, city, and JA (the national agricultural cooperatives association). The millet will be dried and offered both to the Imperial household in Tokyo and at the local niinamesai.

Minamiechizen-cho, Fukui

Fukui also harvests the traditional rice instead of millet, and that’s what the sixth-grade karime are doing here. You can’t see him, but helping out the girls is Ishikawa Tetsuji, who planted the field in May. Mr. Ishikawa said that growing the rice in such a natural setting enabled him to derive a sense of spiritual culture. He said he also felt a particular responsibility because Fukui is the home of koshihikari rice. That’s a super-premium strain of rice created in the 1950s, and it has become one of the most popular in the country. It’s also popular at the Imperial Palace, where the crop was recently offered. It will be used later this month at the niinamesai with Fukui millet and other rice from around the country.

Mine, Yamaguchi

The Imperial household is going to have enough rice to feed the entire diplomatic corps when these ceremonies are all over. Two liters of the rice harvested in Mine, Yamaguchi, which was cut by 15 karime, are also being shipped to Tokyo. This year the job of planting the ceremonial crop fell to Kitahara Masahiko, which he did in May on his three-are (300 square meter) field. Mr. Kitahara allowed as how the great weather this year resulted in an excellent crop. Now when was the last time you heard any farmer anywhere talking up his harvest? The average farmer would rather choke on his cut plug than talk about how good he’s got it. It might make the government think twice about agricultural subsidies, for one thing. (The Japanese usually soft-pedal their good harvests by saying they are mazumazu, or not so bad.) He also said he was thrilled to do the work because it was the greatest honor that could be received in a lifetime of farming.

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

They call it a nuiboshiki in Hamamatsu, and theirs was held at a rice paddy near the Iinoya-gu Shinto shrine, which every year grows isehikari rice received from the aforementioned Ise shrine. Eight grade-school girls dressed up as otome to harvest the rice they planted themselves in the spring, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves. A group of about 10 people stuck around to kibitz, telling them to whack from the bottom at an angle. The crop this year was about 100 kilos–sounds about right for grade school girls–which was dried for offering at the shrine. More was offered in mid-October at the Ise shrine itself at a ceremony called the kannamesai.

Omaezaki, Shizuoka

Hey, where did that hair-legged guy come from! That’s Masuda Noboru, stomping around his own rice paddy in Omaezaki, where he planted koshihikari rice on 2,818 square meters in April. That yielded a harvest of about 500 kilograms—better than the usual crop, according to Mr. Masuda. He cut the rice plants himself for presentation to the tenno (Emperor) at the niinamesai. It’s a wonder the Imperial family doesn’t have a weight problem with all the food people send them from around the country. The Palace’s cut was 1.8 kilograms. According to the city government, this was the first time the ceremony was conducted in the municipality. Sometimes in Japan a centuries-old tradition can start just this year, and sometimes it can be a one-man operation.

Iwanuma, Miyagi

Iwanumanians use the term nuihoshiki to describe the ceremonial rice harvest at the Takekoma shrine, which dates from 842. The harvest was also a study session–about 50 Shinto priests went out to work in the fields, some of whom were shrine officials and priests from six prefectures throughout the Tohoku region taking part in religous training. A guy just can’t go out there and start hacking–you have to learn how to do this the right way first. (Whack from the bottom at an angle.) After the main priest ritually purified the paddy and offered a prayer, shrine officials and miko (shrine maidens) dressed as otome formed a row to cut the rice stalks. It’s a shame the miko weren’t closer to the camera. The priests bundled the rice and presented it to the divinities in thanks for the harvest. This year’s crop was said to be average, despite the heavy rains of late August. After the rice is dried in the sun, it will be offered at the niinamesai in late November.

Sanuki, Kagawa

Nuihoshiki? Check. Rice paddy? 200 square meters. Niinamesai? Check. The local shrine’s cut? 1.8 liters. Growth time? Four and a half months. Yield? Pretty good, despite the lack of rain and the heat. Participants? About 100, including city and prefectural government officials and 18 members of the farmer’s family. This one seems to have been a ceremony for the regular folks. I hope they’re not looking for a needle in the rice stacks.

Ise, Mie

And here’s the Ise shrine’s own nuihoshiki, which this year was held in the rain. The rice was harvested by the priests from a shrine rice paddy in Kusube-cho. Those are some elegant threads and umbrellas for agricultural work. What’s the guy in yellow saying? “Whack from the bottom at an angle”? The event is a statement for self-sufficiency, as the rice grown and harvested here will be used for events at the shrine. Participating in the event were about 80 people, including shrine officials and area residents. After the initial prayer, they entered the paddy to cut the rice with sacred scythes. Don’t you wish you had a sacred scythe, too? The rice was separated into two groups, one for use in the Inner Shrine and one for use in the Outer Shrine. It was then stored after inspection by lower ranking priests, called negi. Both ordinary rice and the more glutinous mochi rice were grown in the paddy. (The latter variety is used to make the rice cakes for New Year’s decorations.) About 240 bags were harvested, and the first offering will be at an event called the kannamesai on 15 October.

Tsuruoka, Yamagata

This ceremony was held by JA, the national association of agricultural cooperatives, to harvest rice for the Dewasanzan Shinto shrine at their own ceremonial rice paddy. The torii in the photo shows just how close the shrine is. That photo also shows just how much work religion can be sometimes. The 17-are (0.42 acre) rice paddy is known as a kensenden (a paddy that is an offering to the divinities). It was created just last year in the hope for a divine reboot of area agriculture, which has been suffering lately due to bad weather. The work was done by 40 JA employees as well as the miko, and they certainly don’t need any kibitzers telling them how to to go about chopping rice. The event started off with a miko dance, a lottery offering, and a religious ceremony. That’s something for everybody! (I pick the first.)

Kashima, Saga

Those ladies look like they’re having fun. Maybe they’re playing Tom Sawyer and trying to con us into painting the fence. That’s the nuiboshiki in a consecrated paddy at the Yutoku Inari Shinto shrine in Kashima to give thanks for the fall harvest. The miko, clad as otome, formed a horizontal row to cut the rice plants. This traditional ceremony gathers the rice used for the niinamesai on 8 December and is more than 300 years old. To start, 11 miko perform a solemn dance at the shrine in supplication for a big harvest. Then three miko use flutes and percussion to perform a song for an abundant year while the other eight go to work with a scythe. The harvest was better than average, and the priest was glad there was no typhoon damage. The shrine’s rice planting ceremony was covered in the June post, and the miko wore the same clothes then. And then washed them for this ceremony, of course.

Buzen, Fukuoka

Good morning, little schoolgirl…I’m a little schoolboy too! The Otomi shrine leaves nothing to chance during its nuihosai—they have three taosa, or paddy bosses, overseeing the work of the six karime from primary and junior high school on a special 1.5 are consecrated rice paddy. One boss for two girls? Now that’s labor intensive agriculture! This was just the shrine’s 14th rice harvesting event to offer thanks to the divinity for a bountiful harvest. They cut in time with music provided by flutes and taiko drums. The rice was a local prefectural variety planted in June. Fukui Aya, one of the karime, was out cutting for the second time. She said, “When you put on the clothing, it definitely gives you a sacred feeling.”

And with that, the granaries are filled for the winter!

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Matsuri da! (96): When girls do it

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, August 31, 2008

OVER THE CENTURIES, men have handled most of the heavy lifting, fighting, and other grunt work that is often a part of Japanese festivals. This has been changing in recent years, however, as more women are getting into the act by forming groups to carry their own mikoshi, or portable Shinto shrines. So many women want to help carry one of the mikoshi in the summertime Tenjin festival in Osaka, for example, that they have to formally apply and pass a screening process first.

Another festival with women-only mikoshi is the Dotchan Matsuri, held earlier this month for the 19th time in Imari, Saga. Imari was the port from which the famed Arita ware ceramics were shipped overseas in the 17th and 18th centuries. (There are a few kilns there now, but in the old days all Imari ware was Arita ware.)

According to the organizers, the name Dotchan is derived from the phrase Dotchan magiro ka na, which they explain in modern, non-dialect Japanese as Dotchi e iko ka na, or Where shall we go? The story has it that the people who kept asking the question were the tradesmen from around the country visiting Imari and wondering which of the local merchants to patronize. They supposedly had trouble deciding because all the merchants were very hospitable and offered superb merchandise.

In fact, the festival features not one, but two women-only mikoshi, as you can see from the photo. The two groups do not stage a battle on the city streets, however, which is often a part of these events. The idea behind the competitions is that the divinity will be on the side of the winning team, whose neighborhood will be blessed with a good harvest or catch of fish. Everyone likes a winner–even the gods!

People are sometimes injured in the heat of the competition, and the organizers have ambulances standing by. In fact, the objective of the mikoshi clash in the Ton-Ten-Ton Festival held in October in the same town is to drive the other team into the river. A local high school boy was killed during that festival three years ago.

The Dotchan Matsuri seems to be more tame. In addition to the mikoshi parade, there is bon odori, or summertime street dancing, taiko drums, a junior high school brass band, and a race with people carrying rice bales, which by traditional standards weighed 60 kilograms. (That’s more than 132 pounds, so it’s unlikely women get involved in that.)

But who wants to see a rice bale race when you can watch the stuff that’s going on in the photo instead!

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Matsuri da! (93): How’s the weather up there?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 20, 2008

WHAT THE DICKENS is that nearly-naked man doing in the tree—playing Tarzan? Well, anything can happen at a Japanese festival, so it’s not entirely out of the question. But no, he’s not swinging on vines from tree to tree looking for Jane.

Actually, he’s forecasting the weather!

Don’t laugh—the technique he’s using has sometimes been more accurate than the Weather Bureau’s predictions.

What he’s doing is called the Hata-Age, or Flag (pennant) Raising. That’s part of the festival conducted on 15 July by the Ayabe Hachiman Shinto Shrine in Miyaki-cho, a town of 9,000 in Saga.

During this part of the festival, three young men clad in loincloths skinny up a 20-meter gingko tree on the shrine grounds. When they’ve climbed as high as they can go, they tie an 18-meter length of bamboo to the trunk. Stuck on the end of the bamboo is a pennant made of flax.

The chief priest will observe how the pennant is tossed by the wind twice a day until 24 September, the date of the Hata-Oroshi, or Flag Lowering. Based on the condition of the flag and how it curls on a particular day, the priest is supposedly able to predict the crop and the weather for that season.

Dating to 951, this method is said to be the oldest weather forecasting system in Japan. The shrine hasn’t always used the same gingko tree, however—the one they hang the flag on now is only 700 years old.

So far this year, the flapping of the flag indicates that area farmers will enjoy their best crop in more than 10 years. The priest thinks the early end of the rainy season has something to do with that.

The priest insists the forecasting technique works. Before you’re tempted to dismiss this as superstitious nonsense, however, you should realize that a study conducted by Saga University backs him up.

Miyaki-cho is located in the valley of a mountain range, and the wind blows straight through the valley between the Ariake Sea in the southeast and the Tsushima Strait in the northwest. The university study confirmed there is a cause and effect relationship between the wind and local meteorological conditions, and that careful observation of the flag can identify those conditions.

In 1993, the Fukuoka District Meteorological Observatory predicted a hot August with mostly sunny days. The priest at the shrine begged to differ. After observing the flag, he predicted there would be many cloudy days and frequent rain—and he nailed it. In fact, the heavy rains that month caused a lot of damage.

It will come as no surprise that the wind divinity is the tutelary deity of the shrine.

Now you know why the Japanese are so interested in the Divine Wind. And they’ve been keeping a trained eye on it for a long time!

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We all scream for doburoku ice cream

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, July 10, 2008

WE ALL SCREAM for ice cream, goes the old children’s rhyme, which attests to the universal popularity of the dessert. Include the Japanese in that–they scream for ice cream as much as anyone else.

They like it so much that they’ve created new flavors to please the local palate that might cause folks in other countries to scream in a different way. Green tea and azuki ice cream are two examples that come quickly to mind. (The azuki is a sweet red bean.) I drink green tea every day, and have no problems eating azuki in bean form, but other people are welcome to my share of either of those ice cream flavors.

A small sake brewery not far from me has come up with a new and exotic flavor that just might cause screams of delight, however. The brewery, Sachihime of Kashima, Saga, announced it had developed doburoku ice cream and launched sales on the 4th.

Doburoku is a milky white, very sweet form of sake that has not been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside. It has the image of an old-time country drink, and it is sometimes made for use in Shinto festivals. Try here or here for previous posts on doburoku, particularly the first if you want to see what it looks like.

But that milky quality and hyper-sweetness also make it a natural for combining with ice cream. It’s a wonder someone hadn’t thought of it before.

The new ice cream has an alcohol content of less than 1%, but the brewery says it definitely has that sake bouquet. The company president claims Sachihime is Japan’s first sake brewery to offer doburoku ice cream and explains, “We hope to sell it to people who normally don’t drink sake and thereby create more fans for the beverage, whose consumption is flat.” Sake’s market share is being squeezed by the popularity of shochu and beer. In other words, they hope women and young people will eat the ice cream and get hooked on the hard stuff later.

Founded in 1934, the brewery received a license to make doburoku in 2005 and began to produce and sell it. They brew six kiloliters a year, which is the equivalent of 1,585 U.S. gallons—this is a specialty item, after all—and ship 720-milliliter bottles nationwide. One cup of the ice cream contains 130 milliliters (slightly more than one-fourth of a liquid U.S. pint) and sells for 315 yen (about US$ 2.94 today). The brewery worked with a nearby dairy for two months and wound up with a mixture that is 95% vanilla ice cream and 5% doburoku.

On the day the product went to market, company representatives visited the nearby Yutoku Inari Shinto Shrine, one of the three most important Inari shrines in Japan, to pray for good sales. They were thoughtful enough to bring along some samples. One of the miko (shrine maidens), 22-year-old Kusaba Yu, sampled some and rendered her verdict: “Ordinarily I don’t drink sake, but this tastes so good I could eat two at one sitting.”

No, I don’t think they were trying to get the girl tipsy—with less than 1% alcohol content, Yu would have to make a pig of herself to feel even a little woozy!

They may be a small brewery, but they keep coming up with big ideas. They’ve also produced yokan (a jelly made with the ever-popular azuki) and cake using their sake. The president said the idea for doburoku sake came up during a conversation with a visitor to the brewery.

Sachihime hopes to sell 30,000 cups a year. The brewery is the only place where customers can buy it over the counter, but they’ve sent samples to Fukuoka City department stores and other companies to try to create sales channels. Said the company president, “Doburoku and ice cream make a better combination than I thought. I hope we can develop the product here in the Saga countryside and get national attention.”

What the heck–If you’re in Japan and want to know if they’ll ship you some, give the brewery a call at (0954) 63-3708 and see what happens. I might stop by and try some myself. After all, I tried green tea and azuki ice cream once, too!

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Matsuri da! (89): You art what you eat!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE INTRODUCTION OF WET PADDY rice cultivation some 2,000 years ago defined the Japanese nation. Growing rice was once considered a religious act, in which the spirit of the rice plant was invoked. It required labor-intensive farming, advanced water control systems, and the combined effort of the greater community. That created the environment in which the traditional extended family system evolved.

Until modern times, the rice crop was the standard used for managing land and levying taxes. The word for cooked rice itself is synonymous with a meal; the other foods served with it, even expensive beefsteak, are considered o-kazu, or side dishes.

Children in the region where I live are sent on field trips at least once during their school career to plant rice by hand. Dressed in gym class t-shirts and shorts, they slosh around in the wet rice paddy in bare feet to find out first hand how to place the seedlings in the mud to make sure they don’t fall over. What better way to understand the work required to put their daily bowl of rice on the table?

The Daijosai, sometimes translated as the Great Food Offering Ritual, is the third of three ceremonies through which a new tenno (emperor) ascends the throne. The preparations include an ancient divination technique to select consecrated paddies for growing the rice to be used. It is cultivated using ritual procedures, and when harvested is sent by special minister to the ceremony site. The tenno offers this rice to the sun goddess Amaterasu and other divinities before eating it himself to partake in spiritual communion with them.

“You are what you eat” is a concept as old as humankind and has been incorporated in religious worship throughout the world. The Catholics believe in the concept of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Believers partake of this on Sunday mornings, after confessing their sins on Saturday.

And that’s how the Japanese came to believe that the tenno was a living god.

June is the month for planting rice in Japan, and the start of the season is celebrated by hundreds of rice-planting festivals everywhere in the country.

One is the Yukisaiden Otaue Matsuri held on the 1st in Okazaki, Aichi, shown in the first photo below. The first festival was for planting the rice used in the Daijosai of the Taisho tenno, the current tenno’s grandfather. The song, dance, tools, and clothing used in the ceremony have been designated intangible folk cultural treasures of the city

Members of a local preservation society and sixth-graders in primary school trooped into the fields to plant 2,500 rice stalks by the traditional method as they sang a local rice-planting song. Girls or young women are usually the ones to do the ceremonial planting, and the language even has a special word for them: saotome.

All the rice planted was of the same Banzai variety used in the Daijosai 90 years ago. The rice was derived from the leftovers a local farmer discovered in his farmhouse in 2005.

Sometimes the planters work to a song or musical accompaniment. The 23 saotome in the Suwa Taisha Shinto shrine festival in Suwa, Nagano, however, plant the seedlings on signals from a foreman. These saotome are in their teens and 20s and were selected to represent each district served by the shrine. The harvested rice will be offered at the Niinamesai, the Shinto harvest festival, in November.

All 33 saotome in the festival held in Goshogawara, Aomori, on the 16th were high school seniors. A local high school conducts the festival every year, rather than a Shinto shrine. The girls wear clothing made by predecessors who did the planting 10 years ago. It looks like comfort was their primary consideration.

It required 55 saotome from local junior high and high schools for the Taga Taisha shrine festival in Taga-cho, Shiga, however. The girls received the rice plants at the shrine and proceeded to the paddy. After they arrived, miko, or shrine maidens, ritually purified the paddy with hot water. Only 32 of the girls did the planting, while the rest performed the dances and songs. The rice will be harvested in September at the Nuibosai ceremony and offered for consecration in November at the Niinamesai.

Meanwhile, it took only five saotome to do the planting in Maeda Toshiharu’s 200-square-meter paddy in Torahime-cho, Shiga, but the rice will still be sent to the tenno as an offering. Here the miko performed the ceremonial dance and the first ceremonial plowing before the high school girls did the dirty work.

The festival of the Tsumakirishima shrine down south in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, was held on the 7th with 12-grade girls serving as the saotome. This event started sometime during the Edo period (1603-1868), but stopped in 1940 because of World War II. The older folks in Miyakonojo remembered how much they enjoyed it, however, so they decided to start it up again in 1989. It’s been an annual event ever since.

Here they use a special variety of red rice. Not all rice is brown—there are 1,500 varieties in Japan, and some of them come in different colors. It’s a veritable rainbow coalition of cereal diversity. There are even varieties of black rice, which my wife and I add to the genmai (brown rice) we eat for dinner. We mix it because the black rice is gummy and sticky and not ideal for eating by itself. I tried it once, and it didn’t work out well. Cleaning the rice cooker afterward wasn’t so appealing, either.

One saotome said the festival was a lot of fun because she enjoyed the sensation of her bare feet squishing in the warm mud. I wonder if that was the girl smiling for the camera. Hi there!

Miyakonojo’s festival was suspended during the war and didn’t get restarted until almost 50 years later, but the Hikamianego Shinto shrine in Nagoya has kept theirs going since 1933 without a break. Legend has it that this shrine was established in 195 and moved to its present location in 690. Note that those dates have only three digits.

The 10 saotome working in the shrine’s sacred paddy aren’t schoolgirls, but flesh-and-blood farming folk or employees of the local agricultural cooperative. The report says they sing a planting song as they work. They do resemble a chorus line, come to think of it.

The festival of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto is well known throughout the country for being photogenic, even though it is relatively recent—it started in 1948. It was held on the 10th, with girls performing the o-tamai (rice paddy dance) as both men and women handled the planting.

The rice will be harvested in another Nuibosai festival and offered to the divinities. Reports say the festival mood is solemn. Those folks up on the wall do look like a serious bunch, don’t they? That’s the o-temai the girls are doing.

The local farmers also play an important role in the Nitta Shrine festival in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima, as they swing bamboo sticks called yakko in a ritual to drive away the insects. Here the planting is done by 24 men and women, this year in the rain, as they sing a rice planting song.

Singing in the rain! Whistling while they work! Swatting insects with bamboo sticks!

The Tashibunosho district of Bungotakada, Oita, looks remarkably like a farming village in the Japanese middle ages. Their planting festival was held on the 8th by the Usa Jingu shrine. It started with a Shinto ceremony and was followed by 150 planters taking care of business, with the paddy’s owner and students from Beppu University helping the saotome.

They start planting when Buddhist priests from the Fuki-ji temple give them the high sign by blowing on conch shells. This is an example of ecumenism Japanese style—many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples once shared the same facilities, and the Usa Jingu and Fuki-ji were a combined operation as far back as the 12th century.

This one’s not such a solemn affair. It starts with a comical sketch of a cow dummy and a herder in the paddy. The cow gets stuck in the mud and falls over, and later runs amok to avoid the work. Perhaps she didn’t care for her bare hooves squishing in the mud.

The miko do all the work at the 300-year-old festival of the Yutoku Inari shrine in Kashima, Saga. They serve as the saotome to plant the rice, perform the o-taue dance, and provide the musical accompaniment with clappers and flute. Maybe they ought to think about organizing a union.

This rice is also harvested at a Nuibosai festival, and some of it will be made into sake for the Niinamesai.

The high school girls are back as the saotome in Mitoyo, Kagawa, for the festival conducted by the Hokohachiman-gu shrine. This event is nearly 100 years old, and the rice will be used for a December Niinamesai. They alternate the use of private paddies, and this year’s field was chosen as the lucky one for the first time in nearly 50 years. Crop rotation with a long lead time makes it easy on the local farmers.

Instead of an o-temai, they perform a lion dance, or shishimai, to the accompaniment of taiko drums

You can be serious and still have fun, as this event held last Saturday demonstrates. The planting in Himeji, Hyogo, was not part of an old Shinto ritual. It was to create rice paddy art using eight rice varieties with different colors. Viewing the paddy from above after the rice plants grow will reveal a picture of the Himeji Castle. The 1.6-hectare rice paddy covers nearly as much ground as the castle itself.

About 100,000 rice plants were used for the planting, which took three days to finish. On the first day, 340 people turned out and used a diagram to plant the different strains in just the right spots. Pointillism in agriculture.

The castle is slated to undergo major repairs this fall. The chairman of the organizing committee said they conducted the event not only to promote tourism, but also to reeducate area residents about food and farming.

The paddy castle magic will be best seen in mid-July, and the prime view is from Mt. Shosha, which has a convenient ropeway for carrying people to the summit.

Is this another take on “you art what you eat”? Or is it art you can eat?

Posted in Festivals, Food, History, Imperial family, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

The struggles of the Japanese ceramics industry

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 25, 2008

THE JAPANESE HAVE BEEN making things out of clay for 12,000 years, so the use of ceramics for use in daily life and as art objects is an inseparable part of the national culture. Indeed, their ceramic tableware is an inspired example of how utility can be combined with esthetics.

ceramics glasses 1

One aspect of their approach toward ceramics is that while enthusiastically adopting the latest innovations and technology over the millenia, usually from China, the Japanese still produced earthenware with characteristics that can be traced directly back to antecedents from the Neolithic era.

A major ceramics production region is Arita in Saga, where the Korean ceramist Li Sam-pyung discovered in Izumiyama large deposits of the kaolin required to make porcelain of the highest quality. Enormous volumes of Arita ware have been shipped throughout the world, and the customer base once included the royal houses of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

How big is the industry in Arita? The combined sales of the two largest companies and three cooperatives with a sales system shared by 370 other companies amounted to 7.2 billion yen in 2007, or almost US$70 million.

And that’s what has them worried. Those are the lowest aggregate annual sales since the local industry began keeping official records in 1985. Not only was this a 6.2% drop from the previous year, it was the 11th straight downturn in sales and 30% off the record high set in 1991.

According to the local officials who conducted the survey, orders from the commercial sector keep falling as more ryokan (Japanese inns) and hotels switch to inexpensive imported ceramics. Sales also have been poor to individual consumers, for whom changing lifestyles means fewer traditional Japanese meals. That’s a problem because in the traditional style of dining, individual foods are served on separate plates or dishes, each with a distinctive shape, rather than on a single plate on which everything other than the salad has been dumped, as in the West. For example, the simple lunch my wife and I had in a Japanese restaurant yesterday required four different plates or bowls, in addition to which were the teapot, tea cups, and ceramic chopstick rests.

In contrast, the survey found that demand continues to grow from Japanese power companies for ceramic insulators and other devices used in the power industry for high voltage power lines. Exports to African nations of parts and products used in power facilities also continue to be brisk, buoyed by Japanese government ODA.

Left unmentioned, but sitting in the middle of the room like the proverbial 800-pound elephant, are other social changes. More women work, which means they have less time or inclination to do all the dishwashing that Japanese cuisine requires. And because people marry later or not at all–and have fewer children when they do marry–the purchase of a full set of ceramic tableware is no longer the priority it once was.

ceramics glasses 2

The officials suggest the industry has been slow to respond to these changes. In its report on the story, the Nishinippon Shimbun cited one example as a successful response to consumer preferences: the “supreme shochu glass” for individual consumers. (To get up to speed on shochu, a distilled beverage that resembles gin or vodka and outsells sake, try this previous post.)

The glass (actually a ceramic cup) was developed by local kilns and put on the market in November 2005. The two photographs accompanying this post show examples of the supreme shochu glass—the first incorporating different patterns, and the second sporting the logo of the Kansai area-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team, which has one of the most rabid fan bases of any sports franchise in the world.

Before the supreme glass was created to add elegance to their drinking experience, most shochu drinkers used glassware for the beverage, served either warm or cold. But the designers at Arita came up with a new product that makes everybody happy—the kilns sell more merchandise, the drinkers can savor the taste and bouquet better than before, and the members of the prototype testing team enjoyed the heck out of themselves putting the product through trials.

A single supremo sells for about 2,300 yen ($US 22.25), is 97 millimeters in diameter at the rim (about 3.8 inches), and 95 millimeters high.

Here are the improvements that the manufacturers tout for the product:

  • The glass mouth has been widened to improve both the bite of the shochu as well as its taste.
  • The sides slope upward at a 75º angle. Making the glass progressively wider allows the shochu to evaporate faster, creating a more full-bodied flavor.
  • There’s a small protuberance at the bottom of the glass to improve the internal crosscurrents. The manufacturers say this leads to a more balanced flavor, and I see no reason to doubt their word.
  • A knurl has been added outside the glass near the base to make it easier to grip, which I’m sure becomes more important as the night wears on.
  • Finally, the base of the glass under the knurl is hollowed out underneath, creating a platform effect. This helps the beverage remain hot or cold regardless of the air temperature.

What conclusion can we draw? Between the insulators for power lines and the supreme glasses for shochu drinkers, the Japanese ceramics industry may yet find a way to overcome demographic trends and the disappearance of trade barriers and traditional dietary habits.

N.B.: Those who still think the Japanese have a bad attitude about their neighbors on the other side of the Sea of Japan might be surprised to know that the Korean Li Sam-pyung is the tutelary deity at a Shinto shrine in Arita, and a festival is held in his honor there every May.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Demography, Food, New products, Social trends, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (69): Falconry as a Shinto rite

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 25, 2008

ALL SHINTO SHRINES have an enshrined deity, and most have more than one. The spirit of the deity can be almost anything; it is often that of a person, but it can also be a natural object, such as a tree. There is a Shinto shrine about a 20-minute drive from my house where people go to worship a phallic-shaped rock (particularly if they want children).

The enshrined deity in the Suwa Shinto shrine in Hamatama-cho, Karatsu, a small city on the Sea of Japan in Saga, is a falcon.

Late last November, the shrine held an annual event in which falconers fly several types of falcons as an offering to the deity. Shown in the photo is 13-year-old Ishibashi Misato of Takeo, the youngest female falconer in Kyushu.

The story goes that falconers first came to the shrine about 1500 years ago from the Korean Peninsula. The event during which the flights occur is part of the shrine’s fall festival, and since last year, they have asked the World Falconers’ Club of Kyushu to participate.
Miss Ishibashi is shown flying a Harris hawk, which has a wingspread of about one meter. She lets the hawk fly freely, but it will return to the glove on her left hand when she blows a whistle.

For some people, the image of Japan is a land of Hello Kitty, robots, cartoons and comic books, and otaku who spend too much time alone in their rooms. From my perspective, however, this story and all its constituent elements are just as much a part of modern Japanese life as anything mentioned in the previous sentence. And it’s just one small event in one small town in one corner of the country.

Multiply this by several million more stories, each just as unique its own way, and the real picture starts to emerge.

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Matsuri da (59): The Confucians do it too!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 7, 2007

MOST JAPANESE FESTIVALS are associated with Shinto shrines, and a few with Buddhist temples, but there are exceptions for everything. The Confucian temple in Taku, Saga Prefecture, holds its Sekisai Festival every spring and fall, and this year’s fall festival was held on 28 October.

Yet in one of those examples of syncretism that makes Japan such a fascinating place, one of the highlights of the Sekisai Festival is the performance of gagaku, traditional music of the Japanese Imperial court.

The Sekisai Festival has been held twice a year at the Taku temple since it was built, and preparations are already underway to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2008. The festival starts with the mayor and other city officials making offerings at the temple’s statue of Confucius. These offerings include chestnuts, sweet sake, and other food, as well as a traditional dance, performed by local students in Chinese-style dress. The folks in Taku perform the dance both in the spring and fall, but Confucian temples in China offer it only in the fall.

The festival day is the only time the general public is allowed to see the interior of the shrine. This year’s festival was held in conjunction with the local Taku Festival, which the people of the area said enhanced the festival synergy.

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Matsuri da! (37): All in a day’s play in Northern Kyushu

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 23, 2007

SUMMER VACATION started this weekend in Japan, and that means there will be more festivals held throughout the country every day than it’s possible to keep tabs on. Here are two that were held in northern Kyushu on Saturday. It would be fun to see both, but that can’t be done in the same year because they’re held on the same day,

Hita Gion Festival

Now designated an important intangible cultural asset by the national government, the Hita Gion Festival in Hita, Oita Prefecture, dates back to 1714 in its present form. The festival is held to pray for protection against illness and disasters caused by the weather. It features a parade of nine elaborate floats whose decorations are based on themes from kabuki stories.

These floats are paraded through the town both day and night. They are not merely lifted and taken from one spot to another—the men doing the carrying rotate them and raise them up and down as they proceed. The people of Hita think the hayashi, or musical accompaniment, performed with flutes, taiko drums, and shamisen, is distinctively different from others performed in Japan. At the top of the page of this Japanese-language link is WAV file that will give you a sample of the music. You’ll quickly recognize it from the moving musical notes. This link has several photos taken in the daytime at the 1995 event.

And this page has an 11-minute video that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen of a Japanese festival.

Hamasaki Gion Festival

The folks in the Hamasaki district of Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, a coastal town on the Sea of Japan, also have a Gion festival on the same day. Their festival dates from 1753, when a local merchant visited the Gion shrine in Kyoto on business. Passing through Hakata on the way back, he saw the excitement generated by their Gion festival and organized one for Hamasaki. It’s held to pray for protection against illness and for a rich harvest.

There are three floats, built separately and maintained by groups of local fishermen, businessmen, and farmers. Each float is 15 meters high and weighs about five tons, making them among the biggest used in any Kyushu festival. The people in Fukuoka reduced the size of their floats with the advent of overhead power lines and stoplights, but the city fathers of Hamasaki had their priorities straight and decided to keep the height of the floats the same. They’ve mapped out the parade route to avoid any obstacles. It takes 150 men to lug one of these bruisers around town.

It’s difficult enough to imagine the effort it takes to keep them erect on a city street now. Imagine what it must have been like years ago before the streets were paved.

The floats are rebuilt every year, and the decorations are based on famous scenes from traditional stories. The Hamasaki festival uses more than 10 hayashi tunes, performed with flutes, taiko drums, bells, and shamisen. There are subtle differences in the tunes played by the musicians on each float, and they change the tune depending on the road conditions. Slower numbers are played when going up hills, and the tempo picks up whenever they round curves.

The highlight comes late at night when the three floats converge on the shrine grounds after their parade through town. The folks in Hamasaki aren’t satisfied with anything as mundane as merely pulling the floats through town. No sir. They light the lanterns on the floats and spin them around dozens of times, creating the effect of rings of fire against the backdrop of the night sky.

After the festival, the groups responsible for the floats completely disassemble them. They will have disappeared by the next morning. Work on the floats for the following year’s festival will begin in six months and finish about two days before the festival starts.

Make sure you click on this link with photos of last year’s floats in the daytime. It puts the Rose Parade to shame!

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