Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Yamagata’

All you have to do is look (44)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 10, 2012

Photo from the Yamagata Shimbun

A group of women beginning a four-day, Shinto-related retreat on Mt. Haguro in Tsuruoka, Yamagata. It ends today. Here’s an excellent video of that neck of the woods.

Posted in Photographs and videos, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Festivals, History, Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Snow scenes and cherry blossoms

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SNOW is seldom seen here in Kyushu, and when it does appear, it seldom survives more than a day. That’s just the way I like it.

Snow on the ground is a daily companion a few months out of the year in other parts of Japan, however. One man told me about moving into a rental house in the northeastern part of the country in midwinter. He didn’t realize there was a fence around the property until spring came and the snow melted.

The opportunities for outdoor fun in Snow Country would seem to be limited to skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and swapping frostbite avoidance strategies. That’s not how the people who live in that part of Japan see it, however, particularly the people of Yamagata. For example:

They play soccer in the snow.

For the past seven years, the folks in Yonezawa have a soccer tournament played on a snow-covered rice paddy instead of a pitch. They think it’s safe to assume there will be enough snow to hold the event every year. In addition to creating a chance to act goofy, the idea is to attract interest in the local Onogawa hot spring resort.

The rules have been modified to suit the playing conditions. The rice paddy pitch is 20 x 40 meters, the match is played with futsal rules with five members on a team (at least one of whom must be female), the players wear rubber boots instead of spikes, and using piles of snow to deliberately obstruct an opponent is not allowed.

The reports from Yamagata suggest the players of snow soccer have just as much fun when they fail as they do when they succeed. Footballers find it hard to run when their feet sink into the playing surface, and hard to stay serious when they fall on their face after kicking snow or air instead of the ball.

They go mountain biking in the snow.

For the past 17 years, the city of Higashine has staged a winter festival that includes an endurance race on mountain bikes over the local tundra. The bikers hit the trail on a special circuit laid out over 2.5 kilometers near another hot spring resort, and that location can’t be by accident. The course even includes jumps.

Contestants are divided into three groups: Men 50 and older, men 49 and younger, and women. Speaking of endurance, it takes about an hour to run the 2.5 kilometers, but that’s to be expected when tires are spinning in snow sherbet or in the air after the rider takes a spill.

They also have races with radio cars.

The engineering school of Yamagata University in Yonezawa sponsors a race over the snow for radio-controlled cars put together by the students. One of the objectives is to have students with different specialties work together on the same team, and this time five teams participated. It’s a timed race over a course that features jumps and other obstacles, and the course was laid out to require travel over snow of different consistencies.

All the entries were hot-rodded radio cars already commercially available. One team of students outfitted the wheels with belts instead of tires, and another added aluminum wings that rotated to bite into the snow and prevent slips. One team’s car didn’t get anywhere at all — the tires never got traction and they had to withdraw after the battery ran down.

Of course they have snow fights. In fact, in Hokkaido, they have international snow fights. With teams.

They’ve been duking it out in the snows of Hokkaido’s Sobetsu-cho over two-day competitions for 24 years now. The objective is to be the first team to reach the summit of Mt. Showashin. They’ve got more competition than the average gladiator match — according to reports, 150 teams with 1,500 members in all participate. That includes several squads from Europe, one of which last year was the winner of a similar event in Sweden. International exchange in the snow!

The Japanese media didn’t report on the rules governing the competition — there must be some — but this is what it looked like:

They don’t waste their time with mere snowmen, either. Back in Yamagata, they build snow monuments.

An estimated 70 snow sculptors in Oishida-machi created what they call a soba mascot in front of the JR Oishida Station. That’s the sort of monument people put up when they live in a town known for soba noodles.

The monument was 10 x 17 x 4 meters, with a “soba mascot” rendered on the front in a style of drawing traditional to the area called kotee. They also sprayed on the color, white alone being insufficient to create the desired effect.

The group consisted of members of the local Lions club, a construction industry association, an art group, and high school students. They also made snow slides and lanterns while they were at it. Odds are they made their way to a hot spring for a good long soak after all that cold weather work.

Speaking of snow lanterns, they make those in Yonezawa too. Those are for the annual Uesugi Toro Festival, a toro being a type of lantern. The event is held over wide area that includes the Uesugi Shinto shrine and Matsugamisaki Park. More than 103 local groups pitch in to make 248 of the snow toro, as well as a candle pyramid and 3,000 smaller lanterns of a different style.

In fact, the slogan for the event is “One lantern at each house”.

They even have flower festivals in the snow in Yamagata. With real flowers!

The festive winter flowers there are tree peonies, known as botan in Japanese, and the festival has been held for more than a decade at Takahata-machi. Perhaps for variation, they also had some flowers shipped in from Shimane, which is known as the peony capital of Japan.

The flowers are displayed on 35 straw mats that are a meter high. The main attraction is a six-meter mat with the flowers arranged in a special hina doll design. (Hina Festivals will be held throughout the country the weekend after next.) Adding to the fun are snow slides and peony miso soup with boar meat.

Yes, that’s what the report said. I read it twice to make sure.

Winter in Yamagata has several attractions for aesthetes as well as the type of people who play snow soccer. One of them is snow monster viewing at the Zao ski resort in Yamagata City. Local atmospheric conditions combined with falling snow means that the trees on the slopes are covered with hoar frost that hardens into unusual shapes. Snow monster fans from throughout Japan visit for the views, the skiing (on 14 slopes over 305 hectares with 42 ski lifts), and the hot springs resorts. There’s one outdoor hot spring at Zao that can accommodate up to 200 people at once, presumably of the same sex. Then again, the air’s so cold there’s plenty of steam, and people probably sink in up to their necks, so all that nudity would go to waste.

If all this talk of snow, ice, and numb runny noses has you longing for the warmer weather of spring, take heart — it’s already started in another part of Japan, despite the date on the calendar.

Way down south in Nago, Okinawa, they have a slogan: Spring in Japan begins here. That’s because for the past half-century, they have the country’s first official hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, at the Nago Sakura Matsuri at the end of January. Now that sounds like my kind of place.

In addition to the usual boozing, flower appreciation, singing, and more boozing, there are parades, dancing by women’s groups and other groups in period costumes, and performances by youth groups.

And I’ll bet they all relax at a hot spring when it’s over!

Here’s a brief video of the Zao snow monsters in Yamagata.

Through one of the quirks of the Internet, one of the suggested videos at the end is of a bunch of people in France shopping at a department store in their underwear.

And the media thinks Japan is weird!

Now here’s some good news.

Kumamoto, the leading watermelon-producing prefecture in Japan, just made its first shipment of the year on the 19th. Yeah, they were grown in a greenhouse, but they sure look good, they weigh four to five kilograms each (bigger than usual), they’re about 11-12 on the sweetness scale (average, and yes, that’s the first time I’ve heard of a sweetness scale too), and they’ll fetch JPY 4,000 – 5,000 in Tokyo and Osaka department stores. (If you have trouble believing that some people still buy produce in Japanese department stores, remember that the customers are of a small market segment that doesn’t worry about how much it spends.)

The shipment of 2,800 melons was sent out from Ueki-machi. They’ll ship an estimated 2.4 million by July. I’m ready now, but I’ll wait for summertime prices.

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Posted in Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Visions of mochi dancing in their heads

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 24, 2011

ARE there any people more culturally syncretic than the Japanese? Examples of that syncretism present themselves every day in Japan, but this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

A Fukushima City nursery school held its annual Christmas party this week, and about 50 parents and children attended. Though only about 1% of Japanese identify as Christians, secular Christmas parties are commonplace, as they are in some other non-Christian countries. Speaking of syncretism, one survey that broke down the national population by religious affiliation found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions.

This was a party for young children, so the guest of honor was Santa Claus. But it wasn’t the usual department store actor playing Santa. The report said this Santa was certified by the Finnish government. The newspaper was probably referring to the Lapland government, which has a Santa Claus office at the Arctic Circle.

So, how did the Fukushimanians show their appreciation for a visit from an officially certified Kris Kringle? They put him to work pounding mochi!

Mochi is a type of rice cake, for want of a better term, made with a particularly glutinous form of rice. The old-fashioned way to make it was to place the steamed rice in a large container called an usu that serves as a pestle, and to pound it with a wooden mallet known as a kine until it solidifies. Mochi is a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient, and the cakes are also used to decorate the home during the New Year. One traditional seasonal activity is to have a gathering of family or friends to do the pounding out in the yard. I’ve done it — once. It was worth it to be invited to be a part of the tradition and to see what happens, but it’s also real work that requires almost as much energy as chopping wood. Good timing and care is essential because two people work together: One to do the hammering, and the other to turn and wet the mochi in the usu. The rice will stick to the mallet unless it’s moistened, but the assistant has to get his hands out of the way fast.

The local report doesn’t say how long they put Santa to work swinging the kine, but it does say the kids got excited because he pounded so hard the water splashed on their faces. Good for Santa for getting into the New Year spirit!

Eating mochi also requires care, because it takes a long time to chew. Some people get impatient and swallow chunks of it that are too large. Early in the new year every year there are newspaper reports about the number of people nationwide who died from choking on their mochi.

By the way, any junior Scrooges concerned about exposing the kids to radioactive rice and air can relax. The nursery school bussed everyone to Yonezawa, Yamagata, for the event, where they used a borrowed space. The school has been regularly driving the kids to Yonezawa and back this year because it wants them to play outside without worrying about nuclear plant fallout. The head of the school said it allows them to talk to the parents about education rather than radiation.

That also allows Santa to return to the North Pole without having fed his reindeer any radioactive hay!

One of the best mochitsuki videos is this one showing a performance with music in the United States. The handclapping at the end is how parties are often ended in Japan.

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Posted in Food, Holidays, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Matsuri da! (122): The air’s apparent

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 27, 2011

THIS is going to stump everybody, including the Japanese readers: What is the object shown in the following photograph?

Here’s a hint, but it won’t help at all: Those are five-meter-square stainless steel sheets.

The answer? It’s a Shinto shrine in Asahi-machi, Yamagata.

In fact, that’s a photograph of the Kuki shrine’s main sanctuary, the site in all shrines which houses the shintai, the sacred object in which the spirit of the deity resides. The deity in Shinto is described as the yaoyorozu no kami, or the 800 myriads of divinities, which some (but not all) interpret as being different aspects of the One. Therefore, the presence of the divinity is manifest in every aspect of life.

Some deities are divinized ancestors or famous figures of the past. (That’s the point behind the often misunderstood concept of the Emperor as a “living god” until 1945, or the enshrinement of the spirits of the war dead in Yasukuni.) Natural phenomena are deities: the wind, sun, moon, water, mountains, trees, and rocks (including those that are phallic- and yonic-shaped). Man-made objects can be divinities: mirrors, swords, polished stones (tama), bells, clothes, dishes, and, after Buddhism began to exert an influence, paintings and statues. Mirrors have been used in Shinto worship since ancient times, so the creation of what is essentially a large mirror isn’t as odd as it might seem at first glance.

The deity worshipped at this shrine is air. That’s why it’s called the Air Shrine (unless you can think of a better translation for 空気神社).

On the approach to this site, one passes through monuments to earth, fire, wood, metal, and water, the five elements that created the cosmos.

As you might expect, Asahi-machi is located in a glorious natural setting — the somewhere in what city slickers would call the middle of nowhere — and the primary occupation of the residents is rice and fruit cultivation. Before he died in 1986, Shirakawa Chiyo, one of the older Asahi-machi natives, offered the opinion that the town should build a shrine in which air was the tutelary deity as a way to give thanks for the clean air that was a blessing to them all.

Nothing came of Mr. Shirakawa’s idea when he was alive, but it began to get serious consideration a year after he died in 1987, when the town launched a municipal development campaign. Because this is a religious institution, the money to build it had to come from private citizen/sector donations. Even though the Japanese are extraordinarily ecumenical, that wasn’t an easy sell. Still, they collected the money they needed and finished the shrine the following year.

Yeah, they pray there.

The idea behind the use of stainless steel for the air shrine was that it would reflect natural views of the surrounding area throughout the year from different perspectives. This would help people reflect on the existence of air.

Yeah, they have festivals there too.

The townsfolk designated 5 June as the local Air Day, which coincides with World Environment Day. They hold the Air Festival every year on the Saturday closest to Air Day. The main sanctuary is open to the public for viewing the divinity and pausing for reflections suitable for the spirit of the occasion. There’s also a performance by the miko of kagura, or Shinto Dance, which is traditional at shrine festivals. That’s shown in the photo above.

Oh yeah, there’s even a video:

And to conclude here’s a question theological but not rhetorical — Is the sound of the wind on that video the voice of the divinity?

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Posted in Environmentalism, Festivals, Religion, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Gun fun in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 15, 2011

LAST WEEK, we had a post featuring high school students competing in a calligraphy performance contest and a manga contest. Not all of the competitions for kids in Japan are so artistic, however. Some are just an excuse for having a ton of goofy fun and laughing until your stomach hurts.

Take for example the All-Japan Water Survival Contest held at the end of last month in Yoshinogawa, Tokushima. That was an organized water pistol shoot-‘em-up with rules. The junior gunslingers were split up into gangs of five each, which had an eight-minute showdown on a 20-meter-square court with obstacles placed inside. The idea was to shoot at the round paper targets they wore on their heads, but of course a miss was as good as a hit. The winners were the team that tallied the most head shots. The players could use the obstacles for cover, and having five team members meant they could employ pincer attacks to gang up on someone and squirt themselves silly.

About 250 people took part in the event sponsored by the local Yamakawa-cho JCs to promote outdoor sports. It also seems as if it would be a healthful way to promote the application of some old-fashioned masculine instincts. Among them were nine teams of primary school students, and the last men standing from that group were an outfit of desperadoes called the Buriburis. The team captain, a sixth-grader said:

It felt good to get drenched and it was a lot of fun. I want to do it again next year, too.

Shoot, anyone who’s ever been a boy knows exactly what he means. And if they wanted any practice beforehand, they could have joined the Wakuwaku Yuki Shooting Competition held in Nanyo, Yamagata last August. Instead of water pistols, they used rubber band guns made by hand from waribashi (splittable chopsticks).

This was part of a Saturday recreational program for local kids that sponsors monthly events. Participants came from Nanyo and nearby Nagai. The employees of the hall where the program is conducted taught them how to make the guns.

For targets they used the city’s promotional characters, the Nanyo Public Relations Groupe Arcadion. (To see what the Groupe looks like, try this Japanese-language website.)

Said one of the participants:

The gun was hard to make, but it was a lot of fun because the rubber bands flew farther than I thought they would.

Yeah! Wow!

Hey, look out! Here’s a clip of the Japan Rubber Band Gun Maestro firing off some clips during a television appearance…with his bazooka, machine gun, and gatling gun.

Did you notice that sign for the Japan Rubber Band Gun Shooting Association? You betcha they exist. They’ve even got a Japanese-language website with national championship rankings and everything!

The only problem I can see would be having to pick up all those rubber bands after you shot your wad.

In addition to having a good time, another benefit of the second contest would be for children to acquire the manual and mental dexterity required to make the guns.

I wonder…Would either of these events be possible in the United States today, or would some of the self-righteous find a way to drape a large wet blanket over them?

Shoot ‘em ‘fore they run, now.

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

Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 29, 2011

LIFESTYLE Luddites sporadically surface with the lament that globalization is holding a knife to the throat of indigenous cultures. Because cultures are less fragile and more resilient than they understand, however, this posture is really just a stalking horse for an unwillingness to allow the people of a particular place access to the same choices that globalization has allowed them. When the folk shed their colorful traditional garb for Western dress and develop a taste for musical styles other than those that rocked the world of their grandparents, it spoils the experience of enjoying them from afar, away from all the flies and the dysentery.

A look at the Japanese and their simultaneous embrace of their own traditions and the latest in global fashionability should be enough to improve anyone’s posture. The urban youth are just as likely as their fellows anywhere else to wear ugly untucked t-shirts, eat gloop, and listen to the unlistenable, but they are also just as likely to time slip without warning several centuries into the past to savor the celebrations of the ancients.

Earlier this month, for example, the Chokaisan Omonoimi Shinto shrine in the Fukura district of Yuza-machi, Yamagata — which dates from 871 at the latest — held its annual festival in supplication for a bountiful harvest. The event has several elements, including parades with three different mikoshi, or portable shrines. One of the mikoshi is for children, and another is in the shape of a ship that the carriers toss about to depict a sea voyage. The primary attraction, however, is the Hanagasa dance, or Fukura dengaku, a pre-planting rite. The dancers don headdresses with red decorations representing rice blossoms that rival anything worn by Carmen Miranda at the peak of her Hollywood career. Suspended from the brim are strips of paper called shide that represent the rain. Instead of castinets they provide clatter with an instrument called a sasara that for some reason is said to symbolize the croaking of frogs. At the end of their performance, the dancers toss the hats into the audience, and snatching one is supposed to guarantee good luck in the coming year. Anyone who’s been in the midst of a crowd in Japan during similar events knows the wisest course of action is to dive right in and grab one of your own. That’s beats being shoved roughly out of the way with an elbow to the ribs by somebody’s grandmother.

Though the festival dates from sometime in the Muromachi period, which ran from 1338 to 1573, and was designated an intangible prefectural cultural treasure in 1993, a look at this YouTube video featuring all the highlights is enough to see this isn’t a museum piece frozen in the aspic of the past.

In October 2007, the Yamagatans went on the road to Seoul to perform with other Japanese and Korean groups in the Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival, which you can see and read about here.

Teramachi Ichiza

Another of the benefits of globalization in Japan is the unexpected delights that result from all the mixing and mingling. One of the earliest manifestations of that was the chin-don bands, in which musicians dress in fanciful clothing to perform as a living jukebox stacked with global pop music on instruments both Japanese and Western, usually to advertise local shops. There are several excellent examples on-site that can be accessed at the tag below, but here’s another — Teramachi Ichiza from Iwate. The group, which usually works the Tohoku area, has won awards at national chin-don competitions for its performances. The members live in the mountainous part of the prefecture away from the coast, so they weren’t affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but they decided to suspend their activities after the disaster anyway in the spirit of self-restraint.

In the spirit of rebirth, however, they resumed performing in the Iwate city of Ofunato in the coastal area known as Goishi Kaigan at an event designed to buck up everyone’s spirits. (Enka megastar Sen Masao, an Iwate native, also sang.) The members of Teramachi Ichiza decided to bring their axes and blow because it had been 49 days after the earthquake. The 49-day Buddhist period of mourning originates in the Tibetan concept of bardo, the transitional period between one’s previous life and the consciousness’s entry into the life to come. Doesn’t that joyful noise contain an echo of the second line parade of brass bands in New Orleans switching from a dirge to jazz once they depart the cemetery after a funeral?

The chin-don band’s performance at Ofunato doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but their performance at the Miyako Horsehair Crab Festival in Iwate this February was.

This is what happened to Miyako one month later:

But destruction is not a permanent end. Doubters need only look to a small story at a park in a community center in the Kaminiida district of Yonezawa, Yamagata. A 300-year-old cherry tree on the center grounds collapsed last winter in the heavy snows. Before the deadwood could be cleared away in the spring, however, center director Nagaoka Takao spied shoots sprouting from the old trunk. He watered them with a PET bottle for the next two months. When cherry season arrived in the Tohoku region, so did the blossoms on the fallen tree.

Cultures included, we are all less fragile and more resilient than we sometimes think.

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The song, the scene, and the band’s name — they get it, too.

Posted in Arts, Festivals, Music, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Nippon noel 2010

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 26, 2010

CHRISTIANS ACCOUNT for just one percent of Japan’s population, but no one can spot the potential for a good festival better than the Japanese. That’s why they’ve adopted Christmas, with all its secular symbols, as a winter festival of light–most fitting for the time of the year in the northern hemisphere with the least amount of daylight.

One of the most attractive aspects of the season is the Japanese use of the Christmas tree as an art form. Here are some of this year’s examples.

Local volunteers in Nanyo, Yamagata, began decorating a 25-meter fir tree at a local primary school in 2003, and they’ve continued every year since. They’ve also been adding to the amount of bulbs they use to trim the tree, and this year they hung 20,000 in four colors. This is actually called an “illumination event” because the tree will be lit every night from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. until mid-January, but that didn’t stop the piano, flute, and violin trio from playing Christmas hymns as well as selections from the classics at the lighting ceremony.

What’s better than having a Christmas tree? Two trees! These two fir trees down south in Yamaguchi City, 26 and 20 meters high respectively, are estimated to be 450 years old. They’re festooned with 35,000 lights hung by 50 volunteers. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll be able to see them until 10 January.

This tree in a park in Anan, Tokushima, is only 15 meters high, but it’s decorated with 500,000 light-emitting diodes. A lighted Christmas tree is not just a seasonal decoration here—it’s part of the Anan Luminous Town Project that’s been held two or three times a year since 2003. This December was the 17th time the project was presented. Anan is a luminous town because it’s the headquarters of the Nichia Corp., the nation’s largest LED manufacturer.

The Tokushimanians devised a new way to build their tree this year. Previous trees were raised on site using ropes or a crane, but this year’s model was built with a bamboo frame. Nothing says Christmas in Asia like bamboo. A total of 120 lengths of 4-6 meter-long bamboo were used. They liked the idea so much they also built a 10-meter-high bamboo pyramid and bamboo wreaths.

In addition to being one of the Christmas colors, green is also the color of the ecological movement, and one way the Japanese put the green into Christmas is to make trees out of used PET bottles. Here’s a 7.25-meter PET bottle tree at the L’Espace City shopping complex in To’on, Ehime. How interesting that the “green” tree is blue, but that won’t surprise anyone who understands the language. The tree wasn’t erected solely to raise ecological awareness—it also is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of L’Espace City. That’s why the 16,000 LEDs will be lit from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. until end of January. It was assembled by a non-profit and some private companies in the city, which started collecting bottles at schools and shops in the fall. They found more than 10,000 in three months.

This PET bottle eco-tree adorned a Fukui City parking lot. Fukuan adults and kids have been trimming PET bottle trees in public for the past four years, and they used 700 PET bottles and electric lights for this year’s five-meter creation. To add to the holiday atmosphere, two Santa Clauses passed out candy, and they drew a picture of Snow White on the side of an adjacent building. The kids also built a haunted house. Why? Because it’s Christmas!

Fukui City adults and children also worked together to build this cardboard Christmas tree designed to lie on the floor of the gym at the Higashiago Primary School. The Christmas celebration for the grade schoolers included several events, including reading aloud from storybooks and group singing. This tree was created by 150 people working in groups of six or seven. It was 15 meters high and nine meters wide, and decorated with ornaments made from wrapping paper and milk cartons brought from home. They also set up and lit 200 candles in the form of a tree, and then went up to the second floor to enjoy the results of their handiwork from on high.

What else can be used for Christmas tree material besides PET bottles, bamboo, and cardboard? Glass! The employees of Aqua World, the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, created this glass tree from 108 individual pieces with tropical fish inside. They wanted small colorful fish for the decorations, so they chose the betta Siamese fighting fish. That breed is well known for aggressively defending its territory and fighting until the finish. Territorial disputes aren’t really in the spirit of the season, so the feisty fish have been isolated from each other within the tree. A lonely Christmas for them is the best solution for everyone.

Speaking of fish, the Kagoshima City Aquarium had kindergarten students from 42 schools in the city work since early November to create fish ornaments for their Christmas trees. Yes, trees—they had 34 in all spread throughout the facility. Now how’s that for a scheme. They got the kids to do all the work of making Christmas decorations and called it an art project!

The Japanese are known for their appreciation of ephemeral beauty, and here’s an excellent Yuletide example. The ANA Hotel Clement Takamatsu in Takamatsu, Kagawa, arranges the lights in 46 guest rooms on the northeast side of the building on floors 5-19 in the shape of a tree. They ask the guests in the other rooms on that side of the building to shut the curtains, and the result is a tree pattern that is 48 meters high and 43 meters wide.

The hotel does this only on Christmas Eve, and for only one hour, starting from 6:00 p.m. The more you think about it, the more Zen it gets!

Drivers in Mino, Osaka, can’t miss this tree, nor have they for the past 15 years. This creation of the Mino Chamber of Commerce is almost impossible to miss—it’s 50 meters high and towers over the Green Road Tunnel.

Christmas is not always filled with peace and light, as louts are on the prowl every day of the year. To remind everyone of the need to be alert even on 25 December, the police department of Muroran, Hokkaido, made a tree of 30 PET bottles decorated with handmade Christmas cards from each of the separate bureaus. Instead of the generic “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, the cards contained crime-busting messages, such as “Don’t forget to lock the windows and doors when you go out.” Said the Muroran police chief, “A safe and sound yearend is the best Christmas present after all.” The kids might not agree, but their parents probably will.

Incorporating the Christmas theme with all sorts of national symbols is a seasonal tradition everywhere, and Japan is no exception. That might be one of the reasons the Fuji Q Highland amusement park in Yamanashi built a 60-meter-high, illuminated steel frame representation of Mt. Fuji in their parking lot for the season. It’s decorated with 100,000 LEDs. The park says that other than free-standing electric towers, it is the highest illuminated object in Japan.

Snow is a key part of Christmas music and imagery, even in places where it doesn’t snow. So in keeping with the seasonal theme, here’s a photo of the first snowfall on Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi in November. Luckily it includes some Christmas reds for contrast. Snow has dusted the summit since 25 September, but this was the first time the whole mountain was covered. It was – 1º on the ground when the picture was taken but -12.1º on top of Old Snowy. Makes me glad to be in Kyushu!

Yes, this Ampontan Christmas card is a day late, but accept it in the spirit of Suzuki Saeko—don’t you wish it could be Christmas every day?

If you’re still in the seasonal mood, click on the Christmas tag for some truly inspired trees from previous posts.

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Music class

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 28, 2010

ALL THE BOYS had mixed emotions whenever we heard the sound of the upright piano rolling down the hall as the music teacher pushed it to our primary school classroom. Our initial reaction was delight because we would be spared some the rote drudgery of what passed for public school education even then. But in the back of our minds was the realization that we would be forced to sing some of the most dismal gloop ever put to music. The girls seemed to enjoy the act of singing more than we did, and they have more patience for that sort of thing, but they too must have been disappointed in the school songbooks.

Both the boys and the girls at the Yamagata Daihachi Primary School (P.S. #8) in Yamagata City appear to have more fun with their musical instruction, however. The school held a special class in traditional Japanese music for 91 sixth-graders last week. A local group of six amateur musicians performed on the shakuhachi and the so, and then divided the students into two groups for instruction.

Making a noise with a stringed instrument is easy, but they had trouble with the shakuhachi. Said 12-year-old Oka Fumika, “I play the trumpet and music for wind instruments, but the blowing techniques are different and very difficult.”

Here’s what it looked like:

The song they’re practicing is Sakura, Sakura (Cherry blossom), which all Japanese have long known by the time they reach that age. I’ve even heard some people suggest it would make a good compromise choice as national anthem to placate those Japanese republicans who dislike Kimi ga Yo. (The lyrics to the latter are a millennium old and were originally a love poem, but it’s now associated with the Imperial house.)

Here’s what Sakura, Sakura sounds like without its lyrics—performed on a chromatic harmonica!


To call that stringed instrument a koto is technically incorrect, as I understand it. A koto was originally something else and is written with a different kanji. The so has moveable bridges, while the similar kin has none. The report from Yamagata called it a so and specified that reading.

And to get linguistically carried away with myself, the Japanese have a different architectural term instead of bridge for the structure of traditional instruments. They use the kanji for column or post (柱), but pronounce it ji instead of hashira or chu.

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Marching through Yamagata and Tokyo

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 9, 2010

ARE YOU READY for this musical mix? The Tohoku University of Art and Design in Yamagata City held a concert on Tuesday night with performances by two groups. The first was by the school’s taiko group, called Taishin (太悳), and the second featured an American bluegrass group called The Fox Hunt. Then they tried a jam session.

How’s that for hip in a regional city of 255,000?

You can hear for yourself what it sounded like in this short video. It starts with Taishin, follows with The Fox Hunt, and ends with them both. The MC is John Taylor, who’s in charge of the cultural exchange programs at the American consulate in Sapporo.

His idea was to have young people think about world peace through music. I don’t know how much of that went on, but the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, even though rain forced the event indoors.

Seeing this made me wonder if there wasn’t a Japanese music style that would make a better partner with bluegrass than taiko. You know, something like…chin-don! Besides, I was way overdue for a chin-don post.

But the Japanese were way ahead of me, as it turns out–by almost a century. In 1919, a teenager named Soeda Satsuki wrote some goofy lyrics about Tokyo that he called Painopainopai, that also became known as Tokyo-bushi. He borrowed the music to Marching Through Georgia, written by Henry Clay Work in 1865 about Gen. William Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the American Civil War. The tune was already popular in Japan when Soeda wrote the lyrics.

Here’s a version of Tokyo-bushi performed by Daiku Tetsuhiro—from Ishigaki on one of the smaller Okinawan islands—in chin-don style. Does it work? Is makizushi wrapped in seaweed? The scenes in the video are of Tokyo in the 1930s, including the Marunouchi, Ginza, and Asakusa districts.

Now for a comparison, here’s a video of Marching Through Georgia that combines two versions–the first by a bluegrass band, which lasts about a minute, and the second done marching style. Yeah, that’s Tokyo-bushi all right.

The singer in the second version, by the way, is Tennessee Ernie Ford. In short, a native Southerner is singing a song about the Union army burning its way through the Confederate South.

And for more on the wonderful world of chin-don, get clicky with the tag below.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Music | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Sumo, the Olympics, women, and sex

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 3, 2010

WILL SUMO soon be an Olympic sport? The Japanese have been promoting the idea for a while, but now they’ve got plenty of other people on their side. According to one recent report:

“Japan has been active in the Olympic Games bidding campaign. Once a Japanese city succeeds in the bid, it will be time for sumo’s entry into the Olympics,” Mai Yaoxiang, vice president of the Asian Sumo Union, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

He thinks it would be easy to arrange:

“We have organised sumo championships on every continent. Currently, an international sumo system has been founded, establishing a strong foundation for the future development of the sport,” he said.

Japanese efforts over the past 20 years to popularize the sport internationally through the International Sumo Federation are bearing fruit. Many of the top rikishi in Japan are not Japanese, and Europeans in particular do well in amateur international competitions, according to this Xinhua report:

“At the sumo world championships, eighty percent of the gold medals go to Europe,” said Stephen Gadd, the General Secretary of the European sumo union, at the first SportAccord Combat Games here on Sunday.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The rules are simple—put the opponent out of the ring, or put any part of his body other than his feet on the ground, and you win. Anyone who can handle Greco-Roman wrestling, the defensive line in American football, or rugby should be able to transfer those skills to sumo.

A few sports seem more closely related. Some people cite Mongolia as the point of origin of sumo. Here’s a video of Mongolian buh, which is performed in a field rather than a ring. Note the bird-like dance, which makes for an intriguing comparison with the ceremonies of sumo rikishi.

It then spread to the Korean Peninsula before arriving in Japan. Try this video of Korean ssireum. Note the loose sand in the ring rather than the packed dirt.

The article was distributed by IANS (the India-Asia News Service), who in the space of a few paragraphs display an incompetence equal to that of their fellow guild members overseas. For example:

In Japan…wrestlers have strict restrictions in dressing.

Strict? They wear what’s called a mawashi, which is essentially a beefed-up loincloth. That’s it, unless you include the hairstyles.

They also claim:

In Japan, women are not allowed to play sumo.

Yes, women do not compete at the highest professional level, but otherwise this statement is incorrect, as a glance at the photo will show. Or, you could look at the photo gallery of champions in the annual women’s tournament in Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido, on this Japanese-language page. And there’s no mistaking the sex of these children, some of whom are of pre-school age, having a go in matches last year.

Those willing to do the basic research will find a lot of information and misinformation on the web about women’s sumo, both in English and Japanese.

Here’s a Kyodo report from five years ago about moves to revive—not start—women’s sumo.

The author states that women’s sumo was as popular as men’s sumo in Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii until the 1960s, when it disappeared. She also claims there’s a “persistent prejudice” against it, and “many people remain tight-lipped about women’s sumo”. Speaking of tight-lipped, she neglects to mention that any avoidance of the subject is due to the connections between women’s sumo and prostitution, as we’ll see in a bit. Then again, I’ve yet to meet any Japanese who are tight-lipped about anything that was supposedly popular until the 1960s, not to mention anything to do with sex.

She’s also incorrect when she says that women’s sumo originated in the 1880s, but does get it right when she says it was banned in the 19th century as being harmful to public morals. Novelist Hayasaka Akira, who at the time was planning to write a stage play about the sport, said he saw a women’s sumo tournament under a tent on a vacant lot in Ehime around 1941. (He wrote the screenplay for this TBS drama called Onnazumo, or Women’s Sumo.) On the other hand, a Mainichi Shimbun article no longer on line states that women’s sumo originated with World War II and the shortage of men.

Meanwhile, this page on a Russian website comes closer with its assertion that onnazumo began in Osaka in the 1700s and was performed by prostitutes. They also report that women competed with blind men. (Feel free to take a few minutes to consider all the possibilities of those matches before continuing to read. I did. And I dare you to say you wouldn’t pay to see that at least once.)

The site contains the claim that it was banned in 1926, which contradicts other sources. It also asserts that people in Japan don’t talk about it, but they openly cite the associations with prostitution. That makes sense on a superficial level, but it still doesn’t sound like any Japanese people I know. Where I live, more than one person has shown me the location of the red-light district during the Edo Period. (Small apartment houses now occupy the site.) Come to think of it, that might explain the Kyodo article’s statement that it was more popular than men’s sumo at one time.

Keep clicking at that site, by the way, and you’ll find photos of enormous Russian women grunting, grabbing, and shoving each other. One of them is performing a split that’s quite impressive considering all that poundage on her frame. But be warned: Just because the photos are work-safe doesn’t mean you should eat lunch and look at the same time.

Japanese-language sources clear up a lot of the confusion. According to one, the earliest reference to women’s sumo is found in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), which was finished in the 8th century. In fact, this is supposed to be the earliest written reference to sumo at all in Japan. It appears in Vol. 14, which describes women removing their kimono to put on loincloths and grapple in the presence of the Yuryaku Tenno (The 21st Emperor) in September 469. So yes, the idea was to appeal to the prurient interests of the spectators. The sources also say the next written references didn’t appear until the 17th century, but they assume the raunchy and randy aspects of the bouts meant that people continued to do what comes naturally; they just didn’t write about it. They suspect it was most often performed in those days as a titillating diversion for men and women in the pleasure quarters.

The women’s matches went public again in 1744, and the Osakan blind man’s bluff described by the Russians began in 1769. Throughout the Edo period, women wrestlers assumed professional names in the same manner as the men, but their names were often sexual puns. It was banned shortly thereafter, but emerged yet again in 1848. You can’t keep a good woman down, now can you? Well, some people try–It officially became forbidden fruit once again in 1874, perhaps this time to forestall the newly arrived Westerners from puritanical moralizing or to prevent them from grabbing all the ringside seats for themselves. There are also reports of public performances in 1890, however, which suggests the ban was more nominal than real. Perhaps the Western influence had an effect; women began dressing more modestly in the ring and competing seriously. At the turn of the century there were as many as 23 barnstorming troupes of various sizes, based mostly in Yamagata. The Hawaiian performances were popular from 1930 until they ended in 1941, and then resumed in 1951.

There were other differences between the male and female versions besides the sexual aspects. Sumo began in Japan about 2,000 years ago as a way to entertain the deities during festivals, and many Shinto rituals are still used for the matches today. (Here’s a good summary of the religious aspects, though the information at the end is dated.)

That was not the case with women’s sumo, however. Entertainment seems to have been the primary objective, even during the 19th and 20th centuries. Japanese women participated in tournaments called gonin nuki (beating five wrestlers in succession), which is not part of the men’s tournaments, and performed hajikara. The latter is a type of entertainment that more closely resembles the circus: The wrestlers picked up rice straw with their teeth and pounded steamed rice on their bellies into the dough used for rice cakes. (That’s probably a variation on mochitsuki, a New Year’s custom in which a special variety of especially glutinous rice is pounded by friends, family and neighbors to make the rice cakes, or mochi, which are eaten during the holiday.) Performances also included traditional singing and dancing.

There’s a touch of irony to all this. Women were banned from sitting at ringside to watch the professional sumo matches until the 20th century, and they’re still forbidden to enter the ring. The ban has to do with the Shinto insistence on purity. Women in primitive societies were considered unclean because they menstruate, and big-time sumo still hasn’t gotten over it. Even the men have to purify the ring before they step into it; that’s why they throw salt into it first.

The International Olympic Committee refused to go along with the idea of sumo in the Olympics in the past because of the lack of female participation. But those grounds for opposition no longer apply.

Besides, as Mr. Mai explained, everyone’s stepping into the ring. The Women’s Sumo World Championships have been held every year since 2001. Here’s an article about women’s sumo in the U.S. written by California Sumo Association President Andrew Freund that same year. Taking advantage of journalistic privilege, he quotes himself in the third person: “We are very proud of our women’s team.” And here’s a 2003 article from Britain’s Daily Telegraph that focuses on British sumo.

A national organization for women’s sumo was formed in Japan in 1996, called the “New Sumo Federation” to forestall any objection to the participation of women, and their first tournament was held in Osaka 1997. Try this YouTube clip of an attractive NHK announcer showing off her moves during a tournament. She seems a bit too slender to go for the Olympic gold, but the intensity of her fighting spirit certainly caught her opponent by surprise.

I had hoped it would show the women competing in the traditional style wearing only loincloths, but no such luck!


A comparison of the statements in the Kyodo article in particular and the last video, made just four years later, demonstrate the pitfalls in accepting at face value blanket statements about Japan and the Japanese, particularly those that are negative, and just how quickly the silent path of change in Japanese society renders those statements obsolete.

For those of you who read Japanese, some of the shikona for women in the Edo period included 玉の越, 乳ヶ張, 姥ヶ里, 腹檜, 貝ヶ里, 色気取, 美人草, and 穴ヶ淵.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, History, Sex, Social trends, Sports, Traditions | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Let the fun and games begin

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THERE’S ALWAYS room for more fun in the world, and you can count on the Japanese to be on the lookout for ways to contribute to the world’s fun balance. In particular, they seem to have a flair for employing everyday items to modify existing games or to create new ones. For example, here’s a post about yacurling, played indoors with a traditional kettle instead of on ice with a stone. This one’s about bowling using squash (the vegetables) instead of tenpins and a ball.

Poster for an event at the Makkari spa in Hokkaido

Now here’s one more: Slipper ping pong, in which house slippers are substituted for the rackets. There’s no shortage of potential Japanese racketeers; one report claims there are 50 million fans around the country. In fact, the world championships of slipper ping pong are held every year in Kahoku-cho, Yamagata.

Yeah, I hadn’t heard about it, either.

The folks in Kahoku-cho decided to host the competition because it’s the municipality with the highest slipper production in Japan. Considering that everyone removes their shoes before entering homes and some buildings here, there are sure to be plenty of rackets at hand. They launched the event as a national championship in 1997, but upgraded it to a world championship in 2004. That was more nominal than real in those days because it took a few years before anyone not Japanese showed up to play. Since then, however, they’ve had participants from China, India, and South Korea.

Most of the players in the Kahoku-cho world championships use slippers and balls that are larger than normal. Ordinary house slippers are fine, but participants can’t use official slipper rackets for other tournaments, slippers made with special materials, or slippers with open toes. Otherwise, the rules of the game are the same. There are two entry requirements—you have to be at least of junior high school age, and you can’t consider yourself to be good at ping pong.

The sport has an estimated 50 million fans, so of course this isn’t the only event of its type. Earlier this year the PTAs of the Higashinakasuji primary school and junior high school in Shimanto, Kochi, held a competition using regulation school slippers. The schools conduct a joint annual sports festival for the students, so the idea was to get the teachers and the parents on the same page. They recruited 12 teams of three persons each—two parents and one teacher.

Said the PTA chairman when it was over:

We were worried no one would think it was fun, but everyone got more excited than we thought. We want to do it again next year.

They surely will, too. Another slipper ping pong tournament was held recently in Ureshino, Saga, as a charity event to raise funds for the Miyazaki cattle and pig farmers devastated by the recent foot and mouth epidemic. (The final restrictions on unnecessary travel in the prefecture were finally lifted this week, and a local JA official said it would take the livestock industry eight years to recover.) Ureshino is a hot springs town, and the restaurants at the local resorts use Saga beef, which comes from cows that were used to breed most of the Miyazaki beef cattle. It cost JPY 100 yen to enter, and the losers chipped in JPY 500. The matches themselves must have proceeded smartly, because all it took to win was five points.

Nakazono Shoichi from Oita said:

Instead of it being just an event to raise money, it was better to be able to have a good time and contribute money at the same time.

It’s curious that Mr. Nakazono came to Ureshino from Oita, by the way, because the hot spring resorts are much better where he lives. It’s a bit of a variation on the old expression about carrying coals to Newcastle, except that Mr. Nakazono left Newcastle to look for coals.

Chabudai kaeshi

Chabudai kaeshi means “overturning the tea table”, and Japan holds the world championships in this event too, at the shopping mall Aruco in Yahaba-cho, Iwate. This year’s showdown was held at the end of June.

Here’s how it works. A small tea table is set on a goza, or straw mat, and a tea service is placed on top. A woman seated next to the contestant gives a signal by saying, “Anata, yamete.” (Stop it, dear.) The contestant then reaches underneath the table and flips it while shouting his own response. Officials measure how far the teacups fly, and the person who sends them the farthest is the winner. The world’s record of 9.20 meters was set at last year’s contest. It might not be as easy as it seems, however, as one of the contestants managed only a two-centimeter shot this year. Among the prizes taken home by the winner is a gold-colored tea table.

Chabudai kaeshi

The contest was started by local merchants to promote the sale of agricultural products, but media coverage elicited national interest. Participating is easy—all you have to do is walk up and apply by the time the competition starts. The rules, however, are strict. The contestants must use an “official” tea table, and they have to flip the table from a seated position on the goza. If the table itself flies off the goza, it’s a foul. People may say whatever they like when they sling the table, with the exception of anything “in violation of world peace”.

One married couple seems to have used it to let off a little domestic steam. The woman yelled, “You tricked me, gaining 20 kilos since we got married seven years ago!” (She probably didn’t finish before the teacups hit the ground.) Her husband’s yell: “Cook some more food.”

There were 29 contestants this year, and the winner was an English teacher in Gumma named Marcus Smith, whose flip sent the dishes flying more than eight meters. He shouted, “I don’t know what the rest of you are saying.”

He didn’t see what the rest of them were doing, either, because he wore his shoes on the goza until someone pointed it out to him.

Now to the tape! The first is the Saga television station’s report on the Ureshino event, and the second is Marcus Smith in action in Iwate. Previous events were held outdoors, but the weather must have been bad this year. Also, while the Japanese reports say the table isn’t supposed to leave the goza, it clearly does on his winning shot.

First, slipper ping pong.

Second, chabudai kaeshi.

Wouldn’t you want to try these at least once? I sure would!

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, I couldn't make this up if I tried, Popular culture, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hydrangea heaven on earth

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 17, 2010

HYDRANGEAS have been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a comfortable house in Baltimore with two large, attractive hydrangea bushes, so perhaps that’s where it started.

When I moved to California, I was pleased to be able to rent a house with a superb hydrangea bush in the front yard in front of the bedroom window. And I was delighted when I moved to Japan to discover that hydrangeas, known here as ajisai, were popular throughout the country.

When my wife and I built a house and talked about what to plant outside, my first suggestion was a hydrangea bush. Unfortunately, my wife doesn’t care for them as much as I do. She explained that she associates hydrangeas with the rainy season, when the weather is always hot, wet, and muggy whether it’s raining or not. Many Japanese find the season unpleasant, which is why they usually don’t associate summer with outdoor fun the way Americans do. So we planted azaleas and other flowering shrubs instead.

That hasn’t limited my opportunities for hydrangea viewing, however, because plenty of other people like them enough to have them in their yards. But one of the best places to see the flowers in Japan is the Deshiomonju-do in the Murakisawa district of Yamagata City. If there were such a thing as hydrangea heaven on earth, that might be it. The city has held a hydrangea festival there for the past 15 years. One of the attractions features another of Japan’s summer delights—a yukata fashion show, yukata being the traditional lightweight robes worn in the summertime. Had I been lucky enough to see on the 11th the 40 varieties of 2,500 hydrangeas in full bloom along a 500-meter path at Deshiomonju-do with the yukata-clad women in a full bloom of their own, my eyes might well have thought they had died and gone to heaven.

There were 30 models in the show, ranging in age from 1 to 70+, with hair-legged boys as well as women modeling the yukata. Some of them weren’t even Japanese! And if that wasn’t enough excitement, local adults and children performed dances and sang.

YouTube’s been used for a lot of things, and now here’s a 1:50 clip solely of hydrangea flowers, which I’ve added below. It’s well done and gives everyone a good idea of what Deshiomonju-do looks like. It gets particularly interesting at the one-minute mark. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show us what the models looked like!

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Matsuri da! (112): Festival of the phantom publicans

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 1, 2010

IN ONE SCENE of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Jack Nicholson walks into the bar of the hotel where he’s working as the winter caretaker and is served a drink by an apparition.

Meanwhile, at the end of May every year in Tsuruoka, Yamagata, apparitions or phantoms (bakemono in Japanese) serve drinks to people lining the street to watch the Tenjin Matsuri (Festival). The festival is also known locally as the Bakemono Matsuri. Give them credit for a good idea: Isn’t blaming a ghost as good an excuse as any for coming home with liquor on the breath?

Most Japanese festivals are as old as the hills, and that would likely prove true for this one, too, if it were possible to use carbon dating for events. It’s sponsored by the Tsuruoka Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine that moved to its current site in 1674. The enshrined deity is Sugawara no Michizane, a leading scholar, poet, and political figure who lived from 845-903. He was falsely accused of plotting against the throne and banished to Kyushu. According to legend, his followers wanted to offer each other a bit of the rice wine to drown the sorrows of parting, but felt compelled to disguise themselves to prevent their discovery by the authorities.

One of the festival highlights is a parade that includes a recreation of the Michizane procession to Kyushu. During the parade, the local phantoms, wearing the amigasa headgear knit from reeds and with tenugui, or hand towels, covering their faces, pour free sake, soft drinks, or tea for thirsty people along the parade route. In addition to the procession, there are dancers performing in traditional and contemporary styles, and children carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines.

Legend has it that a person’s wishes will be granted if they can disguise themselves as a phantom for three consecutive festivals without being recognized. Anyone would be ready to accept a challenge with that payoff, but I’m 198 centimeters tall, so the chances of being rewarded with a harem of my own would be mighty slim. The city’s Department of Tourism helps make the dreams of standard-sized people come true by lending costumes to the streetside publicans—some of whom won’t be recognized at all, because they come from out of town just for the fun. The city does make allowances for modernity in the bakemono apparel, however. People were unlikely to have disguised themselves by wearing sports shoes in Michizane’s day.

Here’s a YouTube video with plenty of scenes from the different events. There aren’t any French maid costumes, robot weddings, rent-a-friends, or geeky otaku wearing doofus shirts. All they could manage to fit in the video instead were normal Japanese people enjoying themselves on a weekend afternoon in the spring doing what they’ve been doing in Tsuruoka for several hundred years now.

What a radical idea!

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Matsuri da! (110): Here, catch!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 22, 2010

SOME SHINTO FESTIVALS in Japan can have a surprisingly competitive aspect that makes it seem as if the participants are squaring off in a rough-and-tumble sporting event, either between individuals or between teams. The winners are thought to have been blessed with the spirit of the divinity, but in this case winning requires more pugnaciousness than prayer.

Some festivals can also have a strong sexual aspect, which involves phallic or yonic symbols and simulated sex.

Maku zo!

But the Osaijin-sai held at the Hirashio Kumano shrine in Sagae, Yamagata, on 28 February is the only one I know of that combines both of those elements in one observance, and has a third for good measure–Shinto priests tossing out goodies for the crowd, as happens at the Setsubun festivals of 2 February.

There’s no mystery about what the deal is right from the start. Parishioners from the neighborhood and representatives from the shrine get together to carve phallic representations out of pine. The objects are from 20 to 40 centimeters long (about eight to 16 inches), and they make 18 of them. These are called dankon-sama, with dankon literally meaning “male root”.

The priests conduct a Shinto rite at the shrine, during which the dankon-sama become infused with the divine spirit and are transformed into saijin-sama. Dressed in white robes, the priests and some parishioners take the objects at night to a mound about 500 meters to the east, known as Osaijin. They conduct a ritual of offering at the site, which represents the female.

Then one of the priests stands on top of the mound in front of the crowd and shouts, Maku zo! Maku means to sow or scatter seeds by hand, and yes, the idea of sowing wild oats occurred to me, too. He then tosses each of the objects into the crowd one by one. This is supposed to bring benefits to the people who come away with them, such as healthy children. (That’s not surprising considering what’s gone before.) What sets this ceremony apart is that no one just stands around letting other people catch one—a struggle ensues to gain possession of every one. Ask and ye shall receive isn’t part of the script here. Men have been known to fight over women before, but this is the first time I’ve seen them tussle over a phallic symbol.

The Hirashio Kumano shrine has been around for a quite a while now, as it was established in 721. This page is in Japanese, but it has five photographs of the site that are worth a look. The festival itself is a bit more modern, however–it dates back only about 700 years. If anyone knows how it started, they haven’t posted anything about it on the net.

Seeing is believing, they say, and you can see all the goings-on for yourself in this video that covers the high points in just over a minute. There’s some Japanese script, but if you’ve read this far, you already know what it says!

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