Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Tea’

All you have to do is look (112)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 19, 2012

Zeng Xiaolong performs his “teapot skills” at the Ya’an Tea Ceremony in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, last month.

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akihabara Gagaku
akihabara gagaku

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

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

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

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