Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Tochigi’

Matsuri da! (137) Getting in hot water

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 15, 2012

THERE’S no better place in the world to take a bath in Japan, whether it’s at home, a small public bath in the neighborhood, a large public facility with extra features (such as massages and meals), or a hot spring resort.

The Japanese understand better than anyone that they’ve been blessed with hot water, and that’s one of the reasons for the annual festival held at the Shiobara hot springs in Shiobara-machi, Tochigi.

The Shimobarans themselves don’t know how long they’ve been taking the waters, but it was already well before 1659, when the supply was abruptly cut off by a tsunami. The folks in the neighborhood were so concerned they offered a prayer at a local shrine. Lo and behold, the water was restored. Hallelujah!

Grateful for their good fortune, they held a ceremony to distribute the sacred water to other shrines nearby.

Every year since then, they recreate that ceremony to give thanks for the spa waters and to pray for the prosperity of the resorts. It starts with a special Shinto rite for scooping out and dividing the water. That’s performed by five miko, or shrine maidens, who are second-year junior high school students. The water is then taken in a procession of 100 people dressed in white robes to the Shiobara Hachiman Shinto shrine, and then to other shrines and ryokan in the area.

It all concludes with a performance of the Urayasu dance by third-year junior high school students.

Well, it really concludes with a hot bath followed by a cooling beverage, but you know what I mean.

Here’s what the Urayasu dance looks like when performed in another location.

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A feast fit for a shogun

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 8, 2012

RECORDS exist of a banquet Henry VIII of England gave on 25 February 1528 at Windsor Great Park. Here were some of the dainty dishes fit for a king:

The account includes beef, veal, bacon, oxen, calves, hens, kid goats and lambs and “conies” – an old word for rabbits. In addition to this, some unusual birds were ordered for the table, including 12 plovers, 48 pipers and no less than 96 larks. Two herons were also ordered. It was often the custom to roast birds whole, in some cases arranging the feathers back onto the bird after cooking to create a visual centrepiece for the table to amuse and impress the guests… the letter accounts for a total of 750 eggs, 90 dishes of butter and 5 gallons of cream. Along with these vast quantities of meat, this may help to explain Henry’s expanding waistline and later decline in health.

By expanding waistline, they refer to a suit of armor made for Henry in 1540 that measured 52 inches around the waist. The later decline in health is thought to have resulted from his dietary habits, and some people now think he had diabetes. Also, an ordinary person at the time consumed a gallon of ale daily, and historians assume Henry must have downed more — it’s good to be king, right? So some of that must have been a beer belly.

Records also exist of a meal eaten by the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, at Shakujo-ji, a Buddhist temple in what is now Kawaguchi, Saitama. Rather than a feast, it was a meal eaten while on the road for a 1728 visit to Nikko Tosho-gu, a Shinto shrine in Nikko, Tochigi. (Both of those institutions still exist. The temple was more than 250 years old when the Shogun ate lunch there, and the shrine more than 100 years old. The links will take you to photographs on Japanese-language websites.)

Looking for some PR, the city of Kawaguchi recreated the meal and served it for lunch last week to the man who would have been the 18th Tokugawa shogun, 72-year-old Tokugawa Tsunenari.

The temple records indicate only the foods that were served and not how they were prepared. Prof. Shimazaki Tomiko of the Kagawa Education Institute of Nutrition consulted some cookbooks from the Edo period and supervised the cooking at Ebiya Mikakumon, a local Japanese restaurant.

The meal they served the shogun is shown in the photo at the top. In addition to rice and miso soup, it included roasted tofu and steamed abalone. The desserts at Henry’s feast included a lot of sugar, but that was still a rarity in Japan at the time, so the food was lightly seasoned in soy sauce and (for the abalone) sake. Said Mr. Tokugawa:

“Lately, there’s a lot of food that’s much too sweet, but this was lightly seasoned and quite delicious.”

The Tokugawas don’t wear armor anymore, but he doesn’t need a suit with a 52-inch waist, either:

Modern epicures seldom have the opportunity to eat the plover, heron, or lark dishes favored by Henry and his wives, but if they’re in Kawaguchi in a party of five, they’ll be able to feast like a shogun for JPY 4,000 each at the same restaurant. The meal is called the Yoshimune Lunch on the menu. Would that be the red lacquer special?

Those who read Japanese and are interested in recreating Edo-period dishes themselves might try this cookbook . It was just reprinted as an affordable paperback.


I read two newspaper accounts of this meal in Japanese. One said there were 12 separate dishes in the meal, and the other said there were 14. Journalists!

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Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 8, 2012

CLICK on the Food category on the left sidebar and you’ll discover that the Japanese enjoy experimenting with different fruits and vegetables as substitutes for the standards in all sorts of dishes, including snack foods and beverages. One part of this post, for example, presents the strawberry sake made in Shimanto, Kochi.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the people outside of Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Yoshihara Hideo has created and is selling a craft beer made from strawberries. Mr. Yoshihara quit his day job at a company at the age of 55 and decided he wanted to spend his days growing the fruit. He chose the Natsuotome variety developed by the prefecture’s agricultural research institute that reaches maturity in the summer and fall. After studying strawberry cultivation on his own, he built two greenhouses to produce them seven years ago, and is now the only man in town growing Natsuotome.

One of the characteristics of that variety is a hint of acidity inside the sweetness, and Mr. Yoshihara thought they might be suited for a beer that would appeal to the feminine palate. Well, it’s technically a low-malt beer-like sparkling beverage, because it doesn’t conform to the legal requirements for beer. No matter what it’s called, the function is surely identical.

Plenty of people like it. He made 700 bottles for sale through a liquor store last year and unloaded them all. Now he plans to make 1,000 this year. The alcohol content is 5%, and each 330 ml bottle costs JPY 600. That’s close to double what a regular bottle of beer that size would sell for.

If you’re in Japan and the idea of strawberry beer has you salivating, call the Yoshidaya liquor store in Tochigi at 0288-54-0167, and they’ll probably find a way to get you some.

Some years ago, Kuwata Keisuke and the Southern All Starts had a radio hit with a song called Melody, in which the singer praises his “hot strawberry lady”. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which are the adjectives and which are the nouns in that title. A cold strawberry beer and a hot strawberry lady sound as if they’d be an excellent combination, don’t you think?

No SAS version on YouTube, but here’s the Southern Band doing it live in Okinawa.

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Child abuse

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 7, 2012

IT’S long been thought in Japan that a crying baby is a sign of a healthy baby. Now combine that with the tradition of Shinto shrine festivals, the connection between sumo and Shinto, and the multitudinous and variegated ways people find to enjoy themselves in this country, and the idea of holding baby-crying sumo matches at the shrines isn’t a stretch at all.

These events are held in many parts of the country throughout the year. The photograph here shows the battle of the bawlers held at the Hiyoshi Shinto shrine in Yonago, Tottori, an institution founded in 1637.

The rules are simple: The one who cries first wins. The infants’ wails are met with delighted smiles from their families and spectators in the audience. In fact, the best way to incur parental disapproval is to start crying before entering the ring, or to stay calm and complacent throughout it all. In the recent Tottori competition, 28 crybabies from the age of six months to one year competed. The word yama, or mountain, was attached to the end of the boys’ names, and the word kawa, or river, was stuck on the end of girls’ names to create a resemblance to the names adopted by sumo wrestlers.

The father of one rikishi said:

“I was a little disappointed that it ended in a tie with him not crying, but I hope to raise him as a healthy boy.”

The photo below was taken at another event last Sunday at Mihama, Fukui. They’ve been doing it for more than a century as part of a larger festival that also includes real sumo matches with older children and taiko drum performances.

The video below was taken at yet another baby-crying sumo match on the same day in Kanuma, Tochigi, at the Ikiko Shinto shrine. The shrine’s name is written with the characters for living and child, and I don’t think it was a coincidence they selected it as the site.

Would something like this be possible in the West, or would some adult crybabies looking for a cause find a way to turn it into an issue of child abuse?

To decide whether it’s cruelty or an innocent good time, all you have to do is click on the video and see for yourself.

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All you have to do is look (24)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The 2012 Mo’oka Doronko Volleyball Championships held last week in Mo’oka, Tochigi. 36 teams with 288 people participated. A youth club for farmers organized the event.

The photo is from the Mo’oka Shimbun. And this photo of the Mo’oka train station is by Saniboh:

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Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

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Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not alone in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Said the calligrapher/priest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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‘Tis the season for Koshiens

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 8, 2011

THE summer edition of the national high school baseball championship got underway at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo this weekend. That is a very big deal in Japan: NHK broadcasts every game of the tournament live, nationwide, without commercials. One of the classic scenes of daily life is the family get-together during the mid-August O-bon holidays with the eating, the drinking, and the attention of the males alternating between the people in the room and the games on television. The format of an elimination tournament adds an element of spice to the drama — the losers go home, while the championship team will have been undefeated, starting with the first game of the local prefectural round.

All the games are played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Hyogo. The park was built in 1924 specifically to serve as the venue for the summer tournament, which dates from 1915, and the smaller spring invitational tournament, which debuted the year the stadium opened. So closely is the park associated with the championship that the event is referred to simply as Koshien. Ask someone whether their high school has ever been to Koshien, and they’ll know immediately what you mean.

In fact, the term Koshien is now applied to other summertime high school competitions, including events that have nothing to do with sports. One of these is the Calligraphy Performance Koshien, staged on 31 July in Shikokuchuo, Ehime. Though it is based on calligraphy, it was conceived in the 21st century — this year’s competition was only the fourth. Teams of 10 calligraphers use brushes and ink on sheets of paper four meters high by six meters wide to render artistic and/or philosophical messages as they dance to music that accompanies their performance.

Representatives from 15 high schools around the country participated in the finals, and the squad from Oita High School in Oita City, Oita, won for the second straight year. This year, most of the participating schools created works based on the theme of earthquake/tsunami recovery. In addition to the normal criteria used to evaluate calligraphy, the teams were judged on the degree of completion of their work, the movements of the team members as they brushed on the characters, and their dance routines.

The creation of the Oita High champs was based on the theme of compassion (思いやり) and they used the form of a mid-summer greeting card (shochu o-mimai) as their motif. Said the team captain:

We can thank the people around us for our consecutive victories. We wondered what we could do to help the people in the area, and decided to encourage them with our calligraphy.

The students of the calligraphy club at Mishima High School in Shikokuchuo came up with the idea as an event to attract people to the local shopping district. Their inspirational spark fired everyone’s imagination, they were invited to appear on television, and then the rest of the country got into the act.

See you in the funny papers!

You don’t even have to ask — of course there’s a Manga Koshien for high school students. That’s the term commonly used to refer to the annual High School Manga Competition, which was held this past weekend in Kochi. This year’s event was the 20th, and the winning team came from Tochigi Girls High School, which inked it out with 24 other schools in the final round.

In this competition, the teams are given the same topic and have to create a comic on that topic immediately. They do this twice — the topics for the Saturday preliminaries and the Sunday finals are different.

The topic for the final round this year was “The 100th Manga Koshien”. The Tochigi girls came up with a comic depicting the 100th anniversary event, which in their imagination offered a prize of JPY one million (100 man en in Japanese), had 100 judges, but very few schools participating because of the population decline due to the low birth rate.

The head of the judge’s panel, Makino Keiichi, said:

Some (judges) thought that was a negative concept, but it is (in the spirit of) manga to depict things honestly.

Said Oki Ayano, one member of the winning team:

It was a good idea to deal straightforwardly with a social issue. I’m really happy.

The cartooning champs said they’ll donate their JPY 300,000 award to the Tohoku relief effort.

Consider what these two events have to say about the health and cultural dynamism of the Japanese. Who else would have thought to combine the elegance of the centuries-old art and discipline of calligraphy with pop music dance routines and turn it into an extra-curricular activity for high school students? Consider also that the winning Manga Koshien high school team was aware of a contemporary social issue, had the wit to come up with an idea based on that issue on the spur of the moment, incorporated it into the general outline presented to them, and had the guts to put it on paper as their entry in the championship round.

Now consider how seriously to take those people who enjoy talking and writing about the malaise in Japan.

Here’s the Oita High School team strutting their stuff in the paint at the first Calligraphy Performance Koshien four years ago. Notice the touch of placing the seal on the lower left-hand corner of their work at the end. Baby love!

Dang, I got to find a way to get me to Ehime next summer!

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A Japanese wedding bell, Shinto (and Buddhist) style

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 25, 2009

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW what that yellow thing hanging from the post is when you first see it—I didn’t either—but the inspiration for its creation was a combination of love (or lust), religion, and commerce. That should be a dead giveaway the location of the photo is Japan. To be specific, it’s hanging near a 200-year-old Japanese linden tree (shinanoki; tilia japonica) designated as divine on the shores of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Tochigi.

A Nikko <i>miko</i> and a yellow bell

A Nikko miko and a yellow bell

It turns out that the yellow thing is a bell. It’s 55 centimeters long, 20 centimeters in diameter, and weighs six kilograms. Made of steel and painted yellow to attract good fortune, it’s modeled after a 10-centimeter hand bell excavated at nearby Mt. Nantai that was used by devout Buddhists to summon the spirits of the divinities.

So what’s the bell doing on a post out in the open? It’s next to a sacred tree at the Futarasan Shinto shrine, one of the Nikko shrines and Buddhist temples that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin—a Buddhist monk—it has two swords that are national cultural treasures. He had already established the famous Rinno-ji temple complex 16 years before. For centuries the temple and the isolated location made the site a destination for ascetics, and it became a resort area in the modern era when people began to think that asceticism was kind of a drag compared to the delights of the material world.

But more to the point in this case is that one of the tutelary deities of the Shinto facility is Daikoku-sama, the god of marriage. The Japanese linden has also been traditionally associated with connubial bliss. And nearby is a small hall in which is enshrined Aizen, the guardian (or god) of love of the esoteric Mikkyo sect.

As this excellent site explains, Aizen is the:

King of Sexual Passion, (who) converts earthly desires (love/lust) into spiritual awakening; saves people from the pain that comes with love; three faces, three eyes; six arms (typically holding weapons; often wears crown containing a shishi (magical lion); red body, symbolizing the power to purify sexual desire; often carries a bow and arrow (like Cupid).

Aizen is a Japanese Buddhist deity that is not known in India, though he was also given a Sanskrit name. This is the first I’d heard of him, but then a divinity that purifies sexual desire is even less appealing than asceticism these days.

The bell was also created to symbolize a happy marriage, and it was purposely cast to make a sound resembling “kon”. Kon is the reading for the second kanji in the word kekkon, which means marriage, and the kanji itself also has that connotation.

The whole bell idea is the brainchild of the priests at Futarasan Shrine. Tourism in the area is slumping, and they hoped the bell would become a symbol of the town, giving it the image of a romantic getaway. They thought it might entice engaged or newly married couples to visit in the hope that the good mojo would rub off on them. Purifying their sexual desires is probably the least of their cares.

So to sum up, the officials at a famous Shinto shrine created a bright yellow bell designed to look like a religious artifact found during an archaeological dig. They hung the bell next to a tree associated with marriage near a Shinto shrine whose deity is associated with marriage, and a small hall with a Buddhist deity that is the King of Sexual Passion and carries bows and arrows like Cupid. Their intention was to attract more tourists to come and ring the bell, which would result in local merchants more frequently ringing up the cash registers.

Evidently, being a part of a UNESCO World Heritage site with a history dating back more than 1,200 years in a district with the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and plenty of hot spring resorts isn’t enough to appeal to potential tourists.

Considering the integral role rice plays in Japanese culture, it’s a wonder they didn’t find a way to work in the Western custom of throwing rice at newlyweds as they leave the church after their wedding ceremony. With all those other ingredients in that gumbo, no one would think the rice was unusual at all, and some would think it made the dish even tastier.

Who knows, it might attract even more people who want to live happily ever after their unique wedding ceremony!

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Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 2, 2009

MOST OF THE TIME, a Shinto shrine is all but deserted. Shinto isn’t a religion in the way people usually understand it—there are no written doctrines and no set times for worship. People visit a shrine when it suits their mood, their circumstances in life, or to participate in a few festivals or other events.

During the New Year’s holiday from 1-3 January, however, the shrines will be packed with people on a hatsumode, the customary first visit of the year. In most cases, people will visit three shrines in one day.

It would be impossible for the regular crew to handle the immense influx of visitors descending on the shrine in such a concentrated period of time. The chores required to receive those visitors, as well making and selling good luck talismans for the year ahead, require that the staff be reinforced with part-time employees. These are young women hired to serve as miko, or shrine maidens, who roughly correspond to altar boys at a Catholic church. While the larger shrines already have a few miko on call, particularly to assist at wedding ceremonies, most shrines have to hire them for the season.

Left over right? Right over left?

Left over right? Or right over left?

Because they’re working in the service of a religious institution and not a convenience store, the miko must conform to certain standards (i.e., no dyed hair). The priests provide additional training for the proper speech and deportment to be employed when greeting the shrine-goers, which demands a level of courtesy beyond that usually required in Japanese society.

This training includes instruction for dressing oneself in the traditional red and white garments, one of which is a hakama, or divided skirt. That’s normally part of a man’s formal wardrobe, particularly for traditional wedding ceremonies. While they aren’t as difficult to deal with as a kimono, wearing one is not intuitive and requires that someone show the wearer the ropes, or the drawstrings in this case.

The first photograph shows some miko-in-training learning how to dress at the Fukuyama Hachiman-gu in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. The training session, which also included lessons in the manner of address and the correct way in which to hand over lucky talismans to purchasers, was held about a week ago for the 40 women who will help out this year. The shrine needs the help: They expect 200,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Said the shrine’s priest, “The role of the miko is to connect the worshippers with the spirit of the divinity. I want them to approach that role with a pure heart.”

Santa’s elves

The shrines have plenty to do to prepare for New Year’s, which is still the most important holiday on the calendar. Some of the shrines that sell the talismans make them on the premises. That means the miko have been beavering away in the workshop as if they were a Japanese version of Santa’s elves.


The second photo shows a group of the 17 miko at the Onoyama-cho Gokoku shrine in Naha, Okinawa, making traditional fukusasa talismans by tying them into bundles after the materials were purified in a ceremony. Fukusasa is a combination of the words “lucky” and “bamboo grass”. A lot of lucky items will be sold to Japanese over the next few days in addition to bamboo grass, including fukubukuro, or lucky bags from department stores filled with merchandise and certificates for bigger-ticket items. One woman interviewed on television today was so intent on getting her fukubukuro that she rented a hotel room near the department store to ensure a spot in the queue enabling her to elbow her way inside when the doors opened in the morning.

The bamboo grass was specially cut by the priests in some nearby mountains. Said the chief priest Kaji Yorihito, “The bamboo grass grows pointing straight to heaven and is symbolic of the life force. We hope that as many people as possible will visit the shrine and add a sense of stability to their lives.”

The fukusasa are affixed with bells and small gourds, and then purchased and displayed by the parishioners who hope the luck will rub off in the form of domestic safety and business prosperity. It doesn’t take long for the miko to create a lot of potential luck. They can make 1,000 fukusasa in two days, as well as 10,000 hamaya, or exorcising arrows. When you expect 240,000 visitors, it’s good to have sufficient stock on hand. Besides, if you absolutely had to have an exorcising arrow, would you want to stand in line at the shrine and then be told they were sold out?

Cocoon balls

Meanwhile, work lasted for more than a week at the Kinomiya shrine in Atami, Shizuoka, to make the mayudama talisman for sale to those looking to get lucky in their business dealings. A mayu is a silkworm cocoon, and once upon a time the shrine attached real cocoons to willow branches and offered them over the counter.

That’s too expensive these days—silkworm cocoons were sold until recently on Japanese commodity exchanges, and the adventuresome investor can still buy raw silk from the cocoons on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. (For an idea of how people in East Asia view silkworms, the single kanji for the word is written by combining the characters for heaven and insect: 蚕.)

The more economical option today is the use of brightly colored balls (the tama of mayudama) made of rice meal. These and other decorations are attached to the branches of the hagi, or Japanese bush clover. The girls at the Kinomiya shrine made 3,000 this year, and you can see an example of their handiwork in the third photo.

Cleaning house

The miko are also responsible for performing the more housewifely tasks at the shrine, such as the yearly cleaning and dusting. Here’s a 40-second video of the miko banishing the cobwebs from the high ceilings using three-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass on the business end instead of a mop or feather duster. Note how the priests are the model of liberated males, grabbing poles and working alongside the miko. But considering those spotless white outfits they’re wearing, one has to wonder how much dirt they expect to remove. Then again, how dirty can the inside of a shrine get in a year?

That’s the Hokkaido Jingo shrine in central Sapporo, by the way. They’re expecting 730,000 people to drop in this year. The end of the video has a shot of the shrine exterior that’s worth seeing for its stark Japanese beauty. Besides, it’s a lot better to view the shrine from the outside by video instead of in person at this time of year. Judging from the amount of snow on the ground and surrounding trees, I’d be hibernating until spring if I lived there.

Supersized kagami mochi

If you think cleaning the corners of the ceiling with bamboo poles and leaves is an unusual assignment, watch what the miko do at the Yasuzumi shrine in Takanezawa-machi, Tochigi. The shrine is noted for offering a jumbo three-level kagami mochi (decorative New Year’s rice cake) every year at this time in the hopes the divinities will see fit to bless them with a good harvest and that Japan’s print and broadcast media will see fit to give them a minute of free publicity. It works like a charm—this video is one of at least three from Japanese TV floating around on the web.

It shows some parishioners pounding the very glutinous mochi rice with wooden mallets to form the uncooked cakes, a forklift bringing in the first two layers, and the miko bringing in the third mochi cake in a procession as if they were transporting a daimyo in a palanquin. It concludes with the priests topping off the creation with one of the most delicious citrus fruits known to humankind: the bampeiyu. They resemble grapefruit about half the size of a basketball but without the sour tartness. And they’re coming into season soon!

Take a few seconds to imagine a ceremony that involves a forklift, a traditional pallet carried by young women in ceremonial clothing, and a giant citrus fruit used in place of a cherry to top off an enormous food offering. Ain’t Japan grand?

Takanezawa is one of Tochigi’s prime rice growing districts, and the shrine began making the jumbo kagami mochi in 1982. It took the parishioners two days to make this bruiser. The first level is 110 centimeters in diameter (3.6 feet), the second is 80 centimeters, and the third is 60. It’s about 90 centimeters high and weighs about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) when fully assembled. If you’re passing through Tochigi, you can stop by and see it until the 20th. After that, the monster mochi will be removed and chopped up into smaller pieces for distribution to parishioners during the Setsubun festival on 3 February, unless Godzilla comes ashore and swallows it whole first.

Restoring a two-year tradition

There’s more to a miko’s lot than wearing traditional costumes to fashion handicrafts in the shrine sweatshop, serve as cleaning ladies, or do the heavy lifting of decorative rice. The two miko shown in the next photo are practicing the Urayasu-no-Mai (a dance), which was performed for the first time in 67 years at the Teruhi Shinto shrine yesterday in Osaki-cho, Kagoshima.


The dance for women is performed to music resembling gagaku with an elegant and deliberate choreography. It appears traditional, but it was actually created and first offered at the Ise shrine in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial line. (That anniversary was a very big deal in 1940, but that’s another story.)

The 79-year-old Fujioka Tomio of the local kagura preservation society says he was in the audience during the inaugural performance as a lad of 10 and has never forgotten it. The dance was performed for only two years—the Japanese had other fish to fry by 1942—and he’s been at the forefront of efforts since then to bring it back. He worked with a local teacher of traditional Japanese dance to teach it to two girls, one a first-year junior high school student and the other third-year high school student. They began practicing in November, and shown here is a photo of the miko in a dress rehearsal last week at the shrine. Mr. Fujioka and the shrine parishioners hope this will start a new tradition that will last longer than two years this time.

It might seem as if there is a sense of Japanese exclusivity and exoticism hovering about all these activities—young women dressing in traditional Japanese clothing to make traditional Japanese crafts for the celebration of New Year’s at Shinto institutions that they cleaned with ritual implements and adorned with ritual food offerings, and then performing a special dance created at a shrine closely associated with the Imperial house to celebrate more than two millennia of Imperial rule. Some might like to think the Japanese are so exclusionary and this behavior so defining that participation by anyone else would be unthinkable.

Think again. There’s another video floating around the web of a recent TV report on a miko training session at a shrine in Nagasaki City. The video wasn’t particularly distinctive, so I didn’t include it here, but a brief interview of one of the trainees casually tacked on to the end might cause cognitive dissonance among those who enjoy being narrow-minded about Japan.

This particular trainee was a 21-year-old Korean university student attending a local university. The woman was not learning about miko practices—she was taking a refresher course. She had already worked as one during the 2008 New Year’s holidays and enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.

You didn’t really buy that line about the Japanese being xenophobic Korean-haters, now did you?

Lest old acquaintance be forgot, let’s not forget this post from last year all about miko and some of the other delightful things they do.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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December means spring cleaning in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 15, 2008

IT’S DECEMBER, and that means the Japanese are getting started on their spring cleaning chores. Families throughout the country will soon be freezing their fannies off as they clean their houses inside and out. It’ll make a lot more sense when you realize that one expression in Japanese for New Year’s is shinshun, which is literally “new spring”. New Year’s in Japan is considered a time of renewal, so it’s a spring cleaning in more ways than one.


And in Japan, where cleanliness is closer to godliness than anywhere else, the cleaning has become an annual religious ritual at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The first photo shows the Spring/New Year’s cleaning of the shinkyo, or sacred bridge (literally divine bridge) at the Nikko Futarasan Shinto shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, on the 12th. The activity is called a susuharai, which is a combination of the words susu, or soot, and harai, or cleaning, with the added nuance of purification.

About 20 people were involved, including priests, shrine maidens, and members of the local committee for preserving cultural treasures. They used three-meter-long sticks with sasa, or bamboo grass, on the end, to wipe off the posts. More conventional methods work best for the steps however, so they used old-fashioned mops and cloths to clean those. It took only 30 minutes to do the whole bridge, but susuharai goes a lot faster when a crew of 20 works together to apply the elbow grease.

Nikko Futarasan is a cultural landmark, incidentally—UNESCO combined it with the nearby Nikko Tosho-gu shrine and the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple to make it a World Heritage Site, but it was famous long before UNESCO came along. The shrine also has two swords that are national treasures of Japan and more buildings and cultural artifacts registered as important cultural assets than you can shake either a stick or a susu broom at.

The bridge itself, which crosses the Daiya River, is also famous, and you’ve undoubtedly seen other pictures from different perspectives. In fact, the shrine has a website with photos taken throughout the year that it offers to the news media. And for those who want to see what the bridge looks like this very minute, the shrine also provides a live camera view, which you can see here. A truck was driving by the last time I looked.

Getting clean at yearend in Japan is not just a Shinto custom—the Buddhists do it too. The second photo shows priests at Kashozan Miroku-ji, a temple in Numata, Gunma, cleaning their famous tengu masks on the 12th.


No, it is not out of the question for a Buddhist temple in Japan to have as a prime attraction three large masks of a mythological creature whose Pinocchio-like nose is surely a phallic symbol. Those noses, by the way, are from 5.5 to 6.5 meters long.

It is not possible to briefly explain what tengu are, so here’s a link that will provide more information on the checkered but fascinating background of these characters. One intriguing legend is that they were said to punish Buddhist monks who used for their own ends the supernormal powers gained through religious practices. Having three big reminders staring at the priests every day as they go about their business makes it a lot less likely they’ll misuse their magic with female parishioners, despite the ideas those noses must put into their heads.

Look at that photo of the brooms wiping off the tengu noses long enough and you’ll be convinced there are jokes just waiting to be found about sneezing and all sorts of other activities. There’s probably a particularly rich vein to be discovered by exploring the phallic symbolism, and wouldn’t you know, the phrase “coming clean at New Year’s” floated into the ether all of a sudden. Perhaps there’s a Buddhist sutra I can chant for keeping my mind from drifiting too far off course.

There’s been a temple on the site since 848, incidentally, so the local wise guys have probably had that territory well covered for more than a millennium.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the temple bells in Japan toll the joya no kane, which are 108 strokes to cleanse away the 108 delusions of mankind. It’s an old Buddhist ritual, so don’t start thinking about 108 strokes, tengu noses, and coming clean at New Year’s.

The chief priest played it straight, however. He said, “This has been a year of uncertainty both in politics and in the economy. We hope to wash away that uncertainty along with the dirt, and move on to the next year with the firm tread of the ox.” (Next year is the year of the ox.)

When you’re a priest taking care of tengu with noses that long, playing it straight and hiding your supernormal powers is the safest option. I wouldn’t turn my back on them either!

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Noh by firelight

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 1, 2007

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

firelight noh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fireside no 3

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

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

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

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

The mosquitoes!

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