Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Toyama’

All you have to do is look (130)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, December 7, 2012

The fall festival of the Hojozu Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine in Imizu, Toyama. They don’t know when it started, but the oldest of the 13 floats dates to 1650. The floats gather at the harbor district for viewing, and they’re decorated with lanterns at night.

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All you have to do is look (121)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The annual cleaning of the Great Buddha of Takaoka, in Takaoka, Toyama. It is one of the three great Buddha statues in Japan, and required 25 men to clean.

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All you have to do is look (71)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Headed for Tateyama on a local Toyama railroad. There are scenes such as this throughout Japan, though the bridges aren’t always so high.

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Females, food, and fertility rites: Is there a finer combination?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2012

SCANNING the back pages and far corners of local Japanese newspapers, either in print or online, has been a delight for the past month. It’s rice-planting time in Japan, and that means hundreds, if not thousands, of ceremonies are held throughout the nation honoring the tradition of wet paddy cultivation, each one a spectacular in miniature.

The priests of the proto-religions in some cultures sacrificed their young virgins to appease the volcano gods and other sullen spirits. Man, that’s just screwy, and I’ll bet it didn’t make the gods any happier than it made the young men of the tribe. In Japan, they keep those precious young virgins alive for more productive endeavors. One of those activities is to serve as miko (Shinto shrine maidens), who dress in colorful costumes, sing, dance, get barefoot, and snork rice seedlings into the mud by hand. They’re sometimes accompanied by the Shinto priests, who get down and get dirty right alongside them.

If you want to know what it looks like without getting out of your chair, you’ve come to the right place.

The local branch of the national agricultural cooperative pitched in to help plant a sacred paddy at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, shown in the first picture. (That shrine link is in English, by the way.) The ceremony is held in supplication for a good harvest, which in this case will be turned over to the shrine itself. It started with a procession of 70 people to the site and continued with a Shinto ceremony conducted by the priests. That was followed by a dance performed by the miko and the planting itself in a 17-are paddy. (An are = 100 square meters or 0.0247 acres, and 100 ares = a hectare)

The home in the background is that of the Wada family in Ogi-machi, Shirakawa-mura, Gifu, and has been designated an important cultural property of the nation. It’s one of a settlement of homes that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.  The name for the architectural style translates as “prayer hands”, which is particularly effective for dealing with the area’s heavy snows. The houses were home to extended families on several floors, who usually worked in the sericulture industry.

Reports say that the 20 girls at the Wada family paddy were singing while they worked, which makes me wonder if I should have been a farmer instead.

Yeah, they grow rice in Tokyo too — technically in Chofu, a municipality within the Tokyo Metro District. This ceremony was conducted at Jindai-ji, a Buddhist temple, which is not surprising considering the mix-and-match approach of the Japanese to religion. There’s been a temple on this site since at least 733. The ceremony was conducted jointly with their sister city in Kijimadaira-mura, Nagano.

In addition to planting the seedlings in this paddy, the seven farmerettes passed out some to the spectators to grow at home. One later said, “It was a lot of fun to be able to experience something I don’t normally do.” If you think she was just being polite, look at that sweet smile in the photo above. Girls who are ready for a new experience, even if it means manual labor while sloshing around in the mud, will always find shelter from the storms of life at my place.

This short video of the temple grounds is well done, by the way.

One intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is the frequency with which some of those traditions disappear and then reappear. For example, the folks associated with the Izumo Daijingu Shinto shrine in Kameoka, Kyoto, haven’t conducted this ceremony in 84 years. It was last held to coincide with the ceremony marking the formal installment of the Showa Tenno. Last spring, the shrine recovered some land it had leased out, so they decided to use it this year to put in some sacred rice. Sixty people in all participated, including the high school girls who served as the miko in the 500-square-meter plot. There was also a gagaku dance performance, which goes together with these events as well as peaches and cream. Gagaku is the music associated with the Imperial household, as are shrines with the –jingu suffix.

This shrine knows a lot about tradition, too. It dates from 709. They think.

The rice planting festival conducted by the Mikami Shinto shrine website in Yasu, Shiga, was also held every year to coincide with the Showa Tenno ceremony in 1928, but they skipped it last year due to a shortage of participants. The Shigans decided not to let that happen again, so a woman who’s been involved in the event for more than 20 years organized a group of 50 to take care of business this time. There was singing and dancing and planting in time to the beat of the taiko drums. When it was done, the woman said her hips hurt, but it was worth it. Try this website for more photos, including some black and white shots from a more pastoral age.

They didn’t have any problem finding enough women to carry the mikoshi in May 2010 at that same shrine’s Hyozu festival, however. The festival features a parade of at least 35 mikoshi (portable shrines transporting the shrine deity), two of which are carried by women only. This one’s called the Ayame, or iris. How can anybody not love sweaty shouting girls with cool clothes and hair?

Another intriguing aspect of a country with nearly two millennia of traditions is how relaxed people can be about those traditions. Look at those costumes: Centuries worth of convention from their hairstyles to their ankles. Below that, they’ve wisely updated to sports shoes.

The Takase shrine in Nanto, Toyama, goes out of its way to plant koshihikari seedlings, reputed to be the best variety of rice in the country. Five girls from ages 14 to 20 got 500 of the seedlings started on a 25-meter-square paddy. After the rice is harvested in mid-September, some will be given to the Takase shrine, and some to the Ise-jingu, also associated with the Imperial household.

The Tozawa shrine in Shinjo, Yamagata, doesn’t have the tradition of other institutions — it’s been around only since 1893. They talked 13 girls into planting the rice here, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The same ceremony is conducted in turn by 11 branches of the shrine in the region that are members of the Association of Shinto Shrines, and you really ought to click on this link to see their headquarters building in Tokyo.  The reports didn’t say what they’d do with the rice harvested in late September or early October, but somebody somewhere is going to eat it.

For a rural extravaganza, try the Mibu no Hanadaue in Kitahiroshima-cho, Hiroshima, which is both an important intangible cultural property of the nation and registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property.  Two groups of 74 musicians jam while the miko sing and plant rice on an 87-are plot, assisted by 14 bulls.

Did you think I was exaggerating when I said extravaganza?

What the heck, one more update. This ceremony was held on the grounds of the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City’s Hakata Ward, which means it’s one of those downtown paddies. They only had room for 280 seedlings in the nine-meter-square paddy, planted by 10 miko and shrine parishioners after a procession that consisted of 20 people. They expect three kilograms of rice later on this fall. Said 18-year-old Tachibana Yui, who became a miko in April, “I was nervous because it was a religious ceremony, but I’m looking forward to the fall harvest.”

Washing all that rice down requires some sort of beverage, and the finest beverage for that is green tea, which is now in picking instead of planting season.

This tea was planted on a 10-are plot during an event conducted by the Kumano shrine in Tanabe, Wakayama, with prayers for better quality product and the prosperity of the industry.

Wouldn’t you know it? This shrine is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last month, two miko and five members of the shrine’s women’s association harvested the first batch of otonashi tea, which was sent to the area from Kyoto about a thousand years ago during the Heian period.  The district has 40 households growing tea on seven hectares, and they produce about 18 tons a year.

The first batch went to the Imperial household, and the second will be picked at the end of this month.


I eat rice nearly every day, and 95% of it is brown.

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Nengajo 2012

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 1, 2012

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

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

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

Third rate

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 13, 2011

It’s not your business model that sucks. It’s you that sucks.
– Andrew Breitbart, addressing the media covering a political meeting

READER Aceface sent a link to an article from the February issue of Factia Online. The title, roughly translated, is The Tokyo Bureaus of the Overseas Media: A lineup of third raters. Here it is in English. Be advised that this is a translation for the purpose of providing information. Factia is solely responsible for the accuracy of the content.

To hear the Tokyo correspondents of the overseas media tell it, there is no more degraded journalism than that produced by the Japanese media. But what about those reporters from the overseas media? As the documents that surfaced in Wikileaks demonstrate, they’ve given up their function of monitoring authority. The extent to which they’ve all become mere carrier pigeons is just a matter of degree.

Disbelief rippled through Nintendo’s investor relations office at about 2:30 on the afternoon of 29 September last year. The company’s stock, which had firmed slightly at around JPY 24,500, suddenly jumped to near JPY 25,000, then plunged again just before the close of trading.

The reason for the volatility was a report from the American news agency Bloomberg that the company’s Nintendo 3DS, their newest handheld gaming device and a product critical for their earnings recovery, would go on sale for JPY 18,000 on 28 October. The Nintendo stock reacted, as it had been expected the new game would not be ready in time for the yearend season.

Nintendo executives denied the story at a Makuhari game show the same day. Investors started selling, and as if it were on a roller coaster, the price fell to nearly JPY 23,000.

The villain was a group of Bloomberg reporters assigned to breaking stories called the Speed Team. The leader of this team filed the report after mistaking the existing DS package with Super Mario and others for Nintendo’s 3DS.

The Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission launched an investigation, and Bloomberg deleted the erroneous article with the author’s byline. They then published an article under a different byline stating that Nintendo had delayed the sale of the 3DS, and hung it on the peg of Nintendo’s downgrade of their results forecast announced after the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed.

Bloomberg did it again a week later, on 6 October. They reported that the Financial Services Agency was considering more rigorous capital requirements for megabanks in Japan only. That touched off a plunge not only in bank stocks, but the market as a whole. The Financial Services Agency, however, denied the story. What happened was that the Bloomberg reporter had a quick, casual conversation with a Diet member, became too eager for a scoop, and got carried away.

It’s the same story with the New York Times, whose reporters don’t even understand the fundamentals. A female reporter in their Tokyo bureau who covered last year’s story on the Toyota recall became angry at an out of order coffee machine in Toyota headquarters and tweeted “Toyota sucks”. That’s the behavior of a bratty delinquent.

The Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal is criticized for what appears to be conflicts of interest. They have a rule that reporters cannot cover organizations at which a spouse or other close relative is employed. The husbands of two of the bureau’s female reporters are executives at Morgan Stanley, a leading American financial services company. The husband of a deputy bureau chief is a banker in Hong Kong. The husband of another is the chief administrative officer of the Tokyo branch of Morgan Stanley. She writes stories on finance, and Morgan Stanley’s competitors complain there’s no guarantee her articles will be impartial.

The problems are not exclusively those of American-affiliated outlets. A Japan-U.S. financial symposium was held last October in Hakone with financial experts from both countries. What puzzled participants was that a reporter for The Economist, who was rumored to have left the company, attended with name cards identifying that reporter as a special business and financial correspondent for the magazine. A different Economist reporter with the same title was in Tokyo at the time. Those in attendance who were interviewed wondered which one was legitimate.

Also attending was a female reporter whose father is a well-known economist. Known as a troublemaker who sued The Economist, she claimed the company was at fault because she developed a neurosis as a result of a dispute with the magazine’s editorial board. The reporter is said to be on sabbatical, but the magazine allows her to walk around with the company’s name cards after leaving their employ, just to cover up the stench.

The Financial Times, another British publication, is no better. They’re known for having been critical of Goldman Sachs, but when Goldman purchased advertising for a book review event, the criticism was suddenly softened. Not a sound is heard from their former bureau chief, who wrote a book about the bankruptcy of the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.

The Japanese media is second rate? They’re the ones who are intolerable prigs with preconceived notions and vanilla coverage. How long do they think what they really are will remain hidden? The overseas media, and the reporters at their Tokyo bureaus in particular, are unquestionably third rate. They’re the ones who suck.

(end translation)
Chin-don is my preference for infotainment delivered by a vehicle for advertising. Here’s the face-off for the championship in last year’s national chin-don competition in Toyama. They’re pretending to advertise a stomach remedy. The second team won.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Crossing over the cloth bridge to paradise

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HERE WAS THE PROBLEM: How were women to be allowed to reach the Sukhavati paradise, the pure land of bliss in the Jodo sect—enlightenment, in other words—when it was forbidden for them to enter Buddhism’s most sacred sites? Leave it to the Japanese to come up with a solution in a visually stunning ceremony whose elements seem as much artistic as religious, and which is still reenacted today.

The harsh restrictions for women in ancient Buddhism did not apply in this country when the religion crossed over from the Continent. Records indicate there was not an extreme imbalance in the number of male monks and female nuns, and the latter were allowed to have public duties. Some theorize that the example of Japanese female shamans was still fresh. Women in those days also held administrative positions at court.

But the view of women that prevailed in Buddhism in other lands eventually became the theological standard several centuries later, and females became subject to what was termed the Five Obstacles to rebirth. The Big Five are said to originate in the Vinaya, or monastic regulations, and include rebirth as the god Brahma, the god Sakra, Mara, a universal monarch, and as a Buddha. As did many ancients, the Buddhists considered women impure because they bled during menstruation and childbirth. (That’s also the reason they aren’t allowed inside sumo rings, but let’s not stray from the path.)

That meant women couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Toyama to climb Tateyama, one of the three sacred mountains of the Edo Period (1603-1868), for dhyaana (intense meditation; it is also the seventh of Pataanjali’s eight limbs of yoga). But because the Buddhist establishment encouraged the pilgrimages—which also generated income through donations—a way was found to allow women to participate.

The solution was a ceremony called the Nunobashi Kanjoe, literally the Cloth Bridge Sacrament, and it was held during the autumn equinox. The women dressed in white robes, symbolizing shrouds for the dead, and gathered in a hall where they were condemned by the Lord of Hell. (At this point, married men might be forgiven for thinking turnabout is fair play.) They were then blindfolded and led to a bridge, over which they crossed on three strips of white cloth (nuno). The side from which they started represented confusion, and the far side represented enlightenment.

The view of the Tateyama Hell Valley below the bridge and the nearby mountain Tsurugi-dake was supposed to represent…well, hell. In addition, there’s a pond in Hell Valley with a reddish color due to the iron sulfide content. That’s the science, anyway. According to the story told by the male Buddhists, women fell into the pond during childbirth or menstruation, so the color came from their blood. Crossing over the bridge blindfolded allowed them to pass over to paradise while bypassing hell. The expiation of their sins was a bonus.

To make sure they didn’t go astray on the path, or heaven forbid, fall into the bloody Hell Valley pond, they were escorted by priests from the nearby Ashikura temple. To create the proper mood, they listened to music with Buddhist scripture set to verse, called shomyo. They also heard gagaku, the traditional music of Japan’s Imperial house, and which is therefore more associated with Shinto than with Buddhism. With forebears so nonchalant about the extensive intermingling of Shinto and Buddhism, it’s no wonder the religious attitude of many Japanese is anything goes–as long as it doesn’t turn into devil-may-care.

Safely across the bridge and cleansed of their sins, the ladies were led to another hall where their blindfolds were removed in pitch darkness. The shades covering the large windows were lifted, enabling them to see the sacred mountain, which by all accounts is an impressive sight. The experience, they say, is ineffable.

For the return trip over the bridge, they removed their headwear and left their blindfolds behind.

Buddhism fell into disfavor in the early Meiji period, and the last Nunobashi Kanjoe of that era was conducted in 1872. Tateyama was no longer considered a sacred mountain, and women could finally come and go as they pleased.

But it seems that ceremonies can be reincarnated as well as people, because this one came back to life almost 130 years later for the National Cultural Festival in 1996. Three years ago it was held as a “healing ceremony” for the current Heisei period. And this year on 27 September, 71 blindfolded women crossed the Nunobashi once again.

The organizing committee invited women from different parts of the country to come to Tateyama for a modern pilgrimage, and musicians were brought from Tokyo for the shomyo gig. An estimated 3,000 people watched the ceremony, and another 120 people crossed the bridge behind the women, though without the costume or the blindfolds.

The nature of any illumination received by the monks allowed to enter the innermost sacred area of the mountain may be unfathomable to most of us today, but the description of the Nunobashi Kanjoe makes me wonder if the women staked out a plot of their own on the Higher Ground of the Pure Land despite the Five Obstacles—and they didn’t have to become ascetics to do it!

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

From chin-don in Nagoya to the Passage Choiseul in Paris

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

REGULAR VISITORS know that we sure love us some chin-don music at Ampontan. In fact, there’s a post about halfway down the page about Tchindon, a new French film in which the key element is this musical style/instrumentation/manner of presentation.

The musicians in the movie are played by the Adachi Sendensha group, but there are plenty of other working bands in the country that could have just as easily stepped into their shoes. Another important outfit is the Osaka-based Chin-Don Tsushinsha. Rather than being a single band, they seem to consist of a larger contingent of musicians that splits up and travels to different sites. How else is a band supposed to play 700 gigs a year?

As you can see from their English page (pdf), their calling card is their PR potential rather than their musical skills. That’s not to say they can’t play; it’s just that publicizing commercial establishments is how they make a living.

But in addition to their ability to attract customers, they also have the musical chops. They’ve taken first place 10 times in the annual national chin-don championships in Toyama, and performed overseas 22 times.

Their Japanese-language website has a link to a YouTube video of one of their performances in Osu, Nagoya, at a commercial fair this fall. Here it is, and it’s a classic!

And that reminds me!

The street scene in this video is of a typical Japanese shotengai, or pre-shopping mall-era urban shopping and service cores. These permanent commercial districts are packed with streets of shops; they could be just as easily be described with the words marketplace, bazaar, or souk.

As in the district shown in the video, some of the streets in the shotengai are open, but most of the area is occupied by a shopping arcade or gallery covered by iron beams with hard translucent plastic sheets that admit light and keep out the rain. That’s also the case with this neighborhood in Osu, as I confirmed after a bit of scouting around on the web.

I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post about the shotengai for a while now. For one thing, they’re unlike anything I saw in the U.S., where retail commerce has become increasingly mall-dominated. I grew up not far from a small American-style shopping arcade, but unlike its Japanese counterparts, it wasn’t as open to the outside, nor did the shop proprietors live on the premises.

The shotengai in Saga was the social/commercial center of the city when I arrived in 1984. The place was always filled with people, even during weekday afternoons, but it was ram jam city on weekend nights in August when they held their commercial fairs. It opened in 1964 and was in its golden age by the time I first saw it. Only a half-hour at most was required to walk around its circumference, but it had everything most people needed: a movie house with five screens; the city’s best grocery store, bookstore, record store, and Chinese restaurant; a French pastry shop operated by a man who learned his trade in Paris; the best drinking establishment I’ve ever patronized, and a coffee shop with more jazz LPs than a record company warehouse.

But the increased ownership and use of automobiles and the amendment of the Large Retail Store Law at American insistence put an end to all that. The American mall culture gained a foothold in my part of Japan about a decade ago and has been growing ever since. Meanwhile, the local shotengai is nearly dead. More than half of the shops have been torn down, and operations have been drastically scaled back at the ones that still exist.

A few of these centers are still thriving. I visited one in Nagasaki a few years ago that was quite crowded late one Sunday afternoon, and the big ones in Fukuoka City are still hale and hearty, particularly the one in Tenjin. (At one end of the shotengai near the Nakasu-Kawabata subway station is a relaxing Shinto shrine with plenty of trees, one of the unexpected pleasures of Japan.)

It’s encouraging to see that this shotengai in Nagoya seems to be doing well, but regardless of the few viable districts that remain, they have permanently lost their predominant position in the commercial life of Japanese cities. It’s a shame, because they were built and operated on a human scale that shopping malls will never have, and they were free of the latter facilities’ contrived, impersonal, and hard plastic edge.

I hadn’t given much thought to how the Japanese developed their concept of shotengai, except to vaguely assume that it had evolved organically. But here’s some serendipity: On the same day I saw the Chin-Don Tsushinsha video and wondered again about the possibility of a post, I stumbled across a reference to French shopping arcades called passages couverts. They were created in Paris in the 1860s and later spread throughout France. Then I searched a bit and found this recent photo by Clicsouris of the Passage Choiseul in that city:


That’s a shotengai, right down to the roof covering and the three-story buildings! (Except that the roof is glass and not plastic.) Double the width of the passageway and change the language on the signs, and that could be any one of hundreds of sites in Japan. The basic idea is obviously the inspiration for the Japanese version that took root and thrived a century later on the other side of the planet.

Now I ask you: Wouldn’t you rather spend your time at place like this–either in France or Japan—than at a shopping mall?

And why did we make that collective choice anyway?

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Matsuri da! (81): It’s good to be growled at!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 20, 2008

THE SHISHI-MAI, or Lion Dance, is commonly performed at Japanese festivals today in more than 9,000 forms. According to this excellent site on the right sidebar describing (and selling) Japanese Buddhist statuary:

(It) is performed while wearing the headdress or various masks. Shishi masks take on many forms, some with horns, others looking like a dog, a deer, or a lion. This dance was probably introduced to Japan by or before the 8th century owing to frequent Japanese missions to China’s Tang Court during the 7th-8th centuries AD. Shishi-mai dances became widespread in Japan thereafter as both a form of festival entertainment and as a means to ward off evil spirits, to pray for peace, bountiful harvests, and good health.

The Nirami Shishi-mai is thought to be a forerunner of the Shishi-mai, and is still performed in Takaoka, Toyama. KBS TV filed this report of its performance on the 18th. Jump on it–who knows how long the link will last?

Here’s what the announcer is saying, translated into English.

The Nirami Shishi-mai, said to be roughly 700 years old and the original form of the Shishi-mai (Lion Dance), was offered at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Fukushiki Ichinomiya, Takaoka, on the 18th.

The Nirami Shishi, which originated roughly 700 years ago at the Keta Shinto Shrine in Takaoka (Toyama) and is characterized by relaxed movements, is a homespun version of the Shishi-mai. The participants wear simple costumes and there is no appearance of the Tengu to tease the lion.

That’s why it’s thought to be the original form of the Shishi-mai, and has been designated an intangible cultural folk treasure of Takaoka.

During the festival, the Nirami Shishi dance is offered in front of the main hall of the shrine after the lion leads the mikoshi (portable shrine) around the shrine grounds. The lion, which is more than seven meters long, then performs the old and unique ritual.

Legend has it that being glared at by the lion will drive away evil. The onlookers were thus overwhelmed by the powerful impact of the lion as they offered their prayers.

For a look behind the scenes, here’s a YouTube video showing two men practicing the dance without costume.

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Shogatsu: Miko make the New Year wheels go round at Shinto shrines

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 1, 2008

POPULAR CHRISTMAS MYTH has it that Santa’s little helpers work hard all year long at the North Pole making Christmas presents for good little girls and boys. New Year’s Day in Japan is an analog for Christmas, and so presents are given to good little Japanese girls and boys in celebration of that holiday too. They receive only one gift, however, and that is an o-toshidama, or cold hard cash, and the printing and stamping work for that is handled by the elves employed at the National Mint, headquartered in Osaka.


If there is a match for Santa’s elves, it would be the miko, or young female assistants at Shinto shrines. A lot of the work associated with the activities related to New Year’s Day shrine visits—especially the production and sale of good luck talismans–falls on their shoulders. Here’s a sample of what they’ve been doing behind the scenes leading up to the three-day New Year’s period that began today.

O-mikuji, literally the sacred lottery, are slips of paper with printed fortunes sold at Shinto shrines, often from a sort of vending machine. The Keta Taisha in Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture, makes about 200,000 individual fortunes for the first Shrine visit of the new year, but there are only 50 different predictions. To ensure the random distribution of the fortunes, the miko hold a ceremony every year called the Mikujiawase. One look at the picture above tells you exactly what’s involved. This year a total of 21 miko participated.


Here the budding shrine maidens clap their hands together before the divinity as they take part in training to become a yearend miko. About 70 high school and college students from Taga-cho and Hikone got schooled in the ABCs of the costume and the proper work attitude at the Taga Taisha in Taga-cho, Shiga Prefecture.

The miko will have their hands full dealing with the throngs of people who visit shrines starting on the night of 31 December and continuing for the next three days. Knowing how to deal with the public is a critical task for any company employee, but it’s all the more important at a Shinto shrine overseeing a tradition more than a millenium old.

Some of the job requirements during their employment include prohibitions on dyed hair, smoking, and cell phone use, as well as the polite reception of the shrine goers and a clean, wholesome appearance. 
The seasonal shrine help are shown wearing their traditional outfits consisting of white tops called hakui and red pantaloons called hibakama.


Meanwhile, the Kashihara Shingu shrine in Kume-cho, Kashihara, Nara Prefecture replaced its large ema, or votive picture, with a new version bearing the symbol of the Oriental zodiac sign for the coming year—the year of the rat.

The ema is where shrine goers hang their written requests for the divinity. It is characteristic of Shinto that shrine visitors tend to skip the unctuous flattery during their prayers and get straight to the point of asking for whatever it is they want.

This year’s ema is 4.5 meters high and 5.4 meters wide. Atsushi Uemura is responsible for the artwork every year, and this year he designed a picture of two rats with ears of rice. Uemura is a member of the Japan Art Academy, a special institute affiliated with the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The large ema were first placed here in 1960 to commemorate the birth of the Crown Prince.


One of the tasks of the miko and the Shinto priests are to make hama-ya. Here they are beavering away at the Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
These hama arrows are sold at shrines during the holidays. The crew at this shrine made 200,000 60-centimeter types, which will sell for 1,000 yen ($US 8.92), and 45,000 90-centimeter types, which will sell for 2,000 yen.

The word hama is written with the characters that mean “to repel evil spirits”, though it originally meant target. Some still uphold the tradition of the mother’s family sending the arrow with the hama-yumi, or bow, to her male children on New Year’s. In some places, boys once held archery competitions on New Year’s to predict the fall harvest.

The arrows are made of bamboo, wrapped in washi (Japanese paper), and attached with a special head and a bell. The practice itself originates from the bow and arrow Minamoto-no-Yoriyoshi presented to this shine in the 11th century. Yoriyoshi was the head of the Minamoto clan and led Imperial forces in a successful campaign against the northern rebels. He also founded this particular shrine in 1073, which became the primary shrine of the Minamoto clan when they began the Kamakura Shogunate about a century later.


They’re also decorating auspicious objects for shrine visits at the Shirayamahime shrine in Shirayama, Ishihara Prefecture. This photo shows the work involved in decorating these hama-ya, which are said to repel disaster and attract good fortune. Other decorations include pictures of a rat (as in The Year Of The–) and earthen bells.

The shrine makes eighty different auspicious objects and keeps adding to their product lineup all the time. Last year, for example, they added a kite. They will make about 100,000 individual items for sale in all.

Work was recently completed at this shrine on the major repairs in advance of the ceremonies for its 2,100th anniversary this year. They expect from 180,000 to 200,000 visitors over New Year’s. The auspicious items will be sold for prices ranging from 500 yen ($US 4.46) to 10,000 yen ($US 89.28).


The seven miko and Shinto priests at the Takase Shinto shrine in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, are also preparing auspicious objects. They churned out about 200,000 hama-ya, rat figurines, and, as a new item this year, lucky charms for success on exams or in sporting competitions. They also sell charms for a good harvest or family safety.

The shrine expects from 220,000 to 230,000 visitors during the New Year’s holidays.

The Shirahige Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kuroda Ward dates from 951. It is one of five shrines in the area associated with the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, and about 50,000 people make the rounds to all five during the first week of the year.


The miko at this shrine are making treasure ships for the munificent seven to sail on the Sumida River. This originates in the old custom of slipping a picture of the seven on board a treasure ship under the pillow on the night of 1 January to make the first dream of the year a lucky one.

These ceramic boats are 19 centimeters long and 7 centimeters wide with chopsticks for masts. Those who put figurines of the seven on board and place them in the home are said to have good fortune sail their way. They cost 1,000 yen each, with the figurines going for an additional 300 yen each–a small price to pay for a year’s worth of good luck.

May a treasure ship sail your way in 2008, or Heisei 20, whichever counting method you prefer!

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The apprentice geisha

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 22, 2007

IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN an apprentice geisha perform, this is your chance.

KNB-TV in Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture (which has a 70% chance of snow tomorrow) broadcast a 59-second report on a maiko, an apprentice geisha in Kyoto, returning to her former nursery school in the city of Kurobe to perform for the children.

If you have RealPlayer, you can access the clip here.

Following is a quick translation of the newscaster’s report:

“A Kyoto maiko originally from Kurobe visited her former nursery school on the 21st and performed a graceful dance for the children.

“The visitor to the Ishida Nursery School in Kurobe was the Kyoto maiko Miharu (17), whose original name was Yurina Jodo.

“Miharu attended the Ishida Nursery School, and on the 21st she performed the dances Kyo no Shiki (The Four Seasons of the Capital [Kyoto]) and Gion Ko’uta (Gion Song) for the students and local residents.

“Miharu wanted to become a maiko in her primary school days. After being graduated from junior high school, she trained in Kyoto and debuted as a maiko in October 2005.

“The children were thrilled to see an authentic maiko, and they were captivated by her charming and graceful dances.”

Partway through the broadcast, there is a shot of three girls saying “kawaii” simultaneously. That’s the word for cute.

This should play if you have RealPlayer. If there are a lot of problems, let me know and I’ll see if I can figure something out.

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

Matsuri da! (53): Out of the waterfall into the fire!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, October 6, 2007

A QUICK QUESTION: If you were going to purify or drive the evil from a religious object, how would you do it?

The Japanese choose to cover all their bases. Sometimes they use water—parading a mikoshi, or portable shrine, under a waterfall—and sometimes they use fire, by marching another mikoshi through a blaze built on shrine grounds. It doesn’t pay to take any chances!

One example of the first occurs as part of the Mikoshi no Takiabi Festival (literally, the festival for bathing the mikoshi in a waterfall) held by the Shirataki Shrine in Happo-cho, Akita Prefecture, early in August.

The festival itself was conducted for many years without using the 17-meter waterfall located just behind the shrine as a purification device. A group of roughly 40 men gather early in the morning at the shrine, which is said to date from 853, and depart at about 7:00 a.m. to parade the mikoshi through the neighborhood. It is described as a “rough festival”, in which the bearers violently swing the mikoshi from side to side and up and down during their procession. This is said to denote the strength of the spirit within.

But August in Japan is intensely hot, and one year just before the start of the Second World War, when the men returned to the shrine in the early afternoon–probably dripping with sweat–they decided on the spur of the moment to cool off under the falls. They enjoyed themselves so much they took another spin underneath the water, adding the chant, “Wasse, wasse!” And thus a new tradition was born!

The event was originally a purification ceremony, but it now incorporates wishes for domestic safety and prosperity in business.

In contrast, the 1,800-year-old Kushida Shrine in Imizu, Toyama Prefecture, burns the badness out in a festival held in mid-September. As in the Akita Prefecture festival, the men start by carrying the mikoshi through four surrounding neighborhoods during the day. They are accompanied by traditional lion dancers, a common part of festivals in Japan. When they make their way back to the shrine at around 6:00 p.m., the priests start a fire using old cedar on the path leading from the entrance to the main shrine building, just past the torii gate.

The first to pass through the fire are the lion dancers, and the men carrying the mikoshi follow just behind and tempt the flames. This is said to rid the area of evil.

The origins of the event are unclear, but local stories say it started at an old Buddhist temple in the area by adherents of Fudo-myoh, giving the Shinto rite an added dimension.

Didn’t I say the Japanese like to cover all their bases?

Try this site for an impressive photo of the mikoshi near the waterfall. And here’s another great shot.

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Matsuri da! (19): Ringing the bell at the Gon-Gon Festival

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2007

THERE MUST BE SOMETHING in the water in Himi, Toyama Prefecture, because 70-year-old Kiyoharu Hayashi has retained his crown as King of the Gon-Gon Festival. During this festival, held this year on the 18th at the Jonichi-ji Buddhist temple in the city, adult participants use a 50-kilogram pine log in a competition to ring the temple bell. (Traditional Japanese bells are rung from the outside and not the inside.) The person who rings the bell the most in one minute wins. The name of the festival, Gon-Gon, is the onomatopoetic representation of the sound of the bell.

Not only has Hayashi won the event several times, he also holds the record for the number of times he was able to ring the bell in one minute—96. When I’m 70, I’ll be happy just to hoist a 50-kilogram log up to my shoulders, much less whack a bell with it more than three times every two seconds for a minute without stopping. Hayashi received 10,000 yen (about $US 85) for finishing in first place.

There’s a kid’s division, too. Children of junior high school age or younger try to hit the bell five times with a 20-kilogram log.

The Gon-Gon Festival originated during a drought. The local farmers went to the temple and asked the priest to pray for rain. They were so excited when the rains actually came that they rushed to the temple and started banging on the bell. They obviously got a big charge out of it, because they’ve been doing it annually ever since.

If you’ve got the time, click on the link to the temple to view a Japanese page with three nice photos. One is of the temple itself, another is of the bell during the daytime, and the third is of a tree on the temple grounds that is more than 1,000 years old. In fact, the story goes that it was planted when the temple was founded in 681. The trunk has a circumference of 24 meters.

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Matsuri da! (16): Japanese festivals can be sweetness and light, too!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 18, 2007

LOOKING BACK on our recent festival reports, it occurs to me that you could easily come away with the impression that Japanese festivals are a marvelous melee of sex, sake, or some intense competition serving as a substitute for combat.

While a lot of that certainly does go on, it’s not fair to emphasize those aspects while ignoring other, more refined events. To provide a little balance, let’s take a look at the annual Marumage Matsuri held on Wednesday in Himi, Toyama Prefecture.

Dating from the Edo period, which ran from 1600-1868, the Marumage Matsuri features a procession of younger women clad in colorful kimono who parade sweetly through the town to express their wish of finding marital bliss. The female phalanx winds its way through the city’s commercial district and after an hour finishes at Senju-ji, a Buddhist temple that itself dates from 681. There, each woman offers an individual prayer to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, to receive the blessings of happiness in matrimony.

The event started out strictly for unmarried geisha, who gathered on their only day off during the year to participate. They had their hair done specifically for the occasion in the marumage style, which was the hairstyle for married women in those days. The word is derived from maru, which means round, and mage, which is a topknot.

Over the years the event gradually died out as the geisha population declined, but it was revived to great popularity in 1987 when the geisha requirement was waived and any single woman could apply to join. Interest grew beyond the city, and young women throughout Toyama Prefecture competed for a spot in the procession, which now numbers about 100. Since then, the rules for participation have been relaxed to allow married women, and this year, seven foreign English teachers were part of the group—at least one of whom was married.

The photos here show the hairstyle itself, as well as the participants in last year’s festival. While this year’s rain dampened the enthusiasm, it also served to add another element of color, as the ladies carried traditional crimson Japanese umbrellas.

There is one concession to modernity, however. Not everyone these days has hair long enough for the marumage, and it would take quite a long time to dress the hair in that style—not to mention the time it takes to put on a kimono—so all the women wear wigs. Even still, they require hairdressers to put in place, and are reportedly quite heavy.

I don’t know how long the link will last, but you can find a filmed report of the festival shown on the local news here. Watch it and see for yourself that not all Japanese festivals are booze-fueled testaments to the power of testosterone!

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Matsuri da! (13) At this Japanese festival, they make you drink!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 11, 2007

YOU CAN STROLL through the archives to see how often sake winds up being the primary element in some Japanese festivals, but the Saketori Festival to be held today (April 11) in Oyabe, Toyama Prefecture, is the first one I’ve heard about where the idea is for loincloth-clad men to force the onlookers to drink.

This being a Japanese festival, of course the sake is ladled out by Shinto priests on the grounds of a Shinto shrine. Now you know why that old time religion is still good enough for plenty of folks in Japan!


Twenty men are selected from the group who reached an unlucky age this year. The event begins after five in the afternoon. A lion dance is performed for about 15 minutes before they get down to the serious drinking. Someone starts pounding a taiko drum, which is the signal for the men to let out a yell and rush from the large torii to the shrine’s hall of worship. There, the Shinto priests give them the sake in dippers. The unlucky devils then return down the path from which they came and make the people lined up on the side drink the sake.

The reports don’t say how they go about doing this, but I suspect it doesn’t require a lot of coercion. In fact, the locals are probably more than willing to help their neighbors change their luck. Tradition has it that the more people they can make drink the sake, the better their luck will be during the year. They also have to spray some on the ground while they’re at it.

In fact, between splashing the sake on the shrine grounds and twisting the arms of the onlookers to make them down another free drink, the men have to keep running back and forth to the shrine to get replenishments. Reports suggest it is difficult to round up enough unlucky guys to participate every year—perhaps Oyabe has a small population–but they still go through 27 liters of sake in about 20 minutes. It’s a lot easier to line up the people to get free drinks.

The festival began in the early 17th century when a skeleton was dug up during the construction work for one of the shrine buildings. After the priests failed to perform the proper Shinto ceremony for the dead, misfortunes befell the city. So the residents took it upon themselves to splash sake on the ground to appease the divinities.

City authorities say that in 1869, the townsfolk decided it was wasteful to slosh the sake around like that—no surprise there—so they decided to drink it all themselves. That year the area was plagued by fires and a poor harvest.

Needless to say, they never did that again!

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