Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Yamaguchi’

All you have to do is look (142)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A festival for offering the uni, or sea urchin, back to the sea as a gesture of thanks, conducted by the Akama Jingu in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, where a lot of them are caught. The local sea urchin cooperative is the sponsor. This year’s event was the 54th, and about 100 people in the industry participated.

Posted in Festivals, Food, Photographs and videos, Traditions | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (133)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 10, 2012

A stage presentation at a local Shinto shrine of historical events related to Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, extending from the Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185 to the Irregular Militia (kiheitai) participation in fighting off foreign invaders in the Bombardment of Shimonoseki in 1864.

(Photo from the Asahi Shimbun)

Posted in Arts, History | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

All you have to do is look (126)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 3, 2012

Handling and bidding on the potentially fatal fugu (blowfish) at the Haedomari Market in Shimonoseki, Yamagata. The market handles more fugu than any other in Japan. The auction is conducted by pulling the broker’s fingers in the black cuff. The highest price this day was JPY 11,000 per kilogram.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Food, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (90)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harvesting rice at a nukihoshiki ceremony in Ube, Yamaguchi. The rice will be used as an offering.

Here’s a video condensation of the same event at a different location from start to finish, from the inside out. Excellent!

Posted in Agriculture, Photographs and videos, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

All you have to do is look (51)

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 17, 2012

The Bakan Festival, held late last month to mark the end of summer in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi. Participating were 4,000 dancers and Nishiyama Masashi, a Shimonoseki native who won a bronze medal in judo at the recent Olympic games.

Posted in Festivals, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

To fight is human; to forecast, divine

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 14, 2012

THE earliest Japanese emperors have the equivalent of an asterisk next to their names because they are considered to be legendary. One of these was the Emperor Chuai, whose reign is nominally assigned the years of 192-200. He might have existed, not as a Tenno figure, but perhaps as a regional warlord. He is also supposed to have been the father of the Emperor Ojin, who is not legendary.

Legend has it that the legendary Emperor Chuai and his wife Jingu were leading a punitive expedition against the Kumaso, who lived in the southern part of the country. He ducked into a local Shinto shrine to pray for victory, which he was granted.

That was the Suoichi no Miya Tamano’oya shrine in what is now Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi. A divination ceremony was held to predict the outcome, and that become the origin of a ceremony of divination for victory or defeat in battle. For centuries it was held on 15 August by the lunar calendar, but after the current calendar was adopted during the Meiji period, it was moved to 24 September. Nowadays the ceremony, called the Urate Jinji, is held near that date in the evening before the shrine’s annual festival the next day.

Looks like a sumo match, doesn’t it? That’s one reason it’s also called the Urate Sumo. Here’s a page of excellent photographs of the ceremony and the site itself.

Click on the green lettering down at the bottom and it’ll take you to a second page. There is no actual fighting, though the word for the role the two men play translates literally as warrior. The divination is done based on the condition of their hands. The Japanese explanation says there isn’t a lot of written information on that part of the ceremony itself, so I suspect it’s something that only the priests and perhaps a few other people know.

In April, the same shrine holds a festival to give thanks to old eyeglasses that have been disposed after years of service. They’re burned after a 30-minute ceremony. This is the East. Even inanimate objects have a spirit.

Posted in Imperial family, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

More votes are in

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 30, 2012

The public’s will is not the commotion in front of the Kantei, but demonstrated in the procedures of democracy. For a person to run for governor by shouting about the minor issue of abandoning nuclear power is nonsense. Mr. Hashimoto (Osaka mayor) had the judgment of an adult (when he agreed to the resumption of operations at the Oi power plant)…Even former comedians can win local elections. The anti-nuclear power movement has less strength than show business personalities.
– Ikeda Nobuo

DOUBTLESS you have read either the articles or the headlines trumpeting the story of the thousands of people who surrounded the Diet building on Sunday to protest the restart of nuclear power plants in Japan. The RSS feed coughed up more than 30 articles on the subject yesterday and today. One image the journos particularly liked was “anti-nuclear protestors form human chain around Diet building”. There was no mention of the other productive activities they engaged in, but shouting loudly was probably one of them.

You’ll have to dig a little deeper in the English-language media to find articles about the real demonstration of functioning democracy yesterday in regard to the issue of nuclear power, however. Here’s a hint: They weren’t playing ring-around-the-rosie in Tokyo.

There have been two gubernatorial elections in Japan since Prime Minister Noda authorized the resumption of nuclear power generation, and both times one of the anti-nuclear power candidates tried to turn the balloting into a single-issue referendum. The first was held earlier this month in Kagoshima, where the anti-nuke challenger lost by a 2-1 margin. The second was held yesterday in Yamaguchi.

That election attracted much more media attention, both in Japan and overseas. The interest was due in part to the participation of Iida Tetsunari, the founder of the Institute for Sustainable Energy policies. Mr. Iida is one of those fellows whose priority is to keep his eye on the main chance, and he’s leveraged his slippery ambition into public prominence for his anti-nuclear energy positions and theories. He likes generation using biomass materials, the sun, and the wind.

The Yamaguchi election presented the opportunity of an excellent platform and bully pulpit. The current governor was stepping down after four terms, and the early favorite was the uninspiring, 63-year-old ex-Land, Industry, and Transport bureaucrat Yamamoto Shigetaro. Chugoku Electric Power plans to build a new nuclear plant at Kaminoseki in the prefecture. Mr. Yamamoto supported the idea, so that set up the perfect confrontation. He was backed by the bad old Liberal Democratic Party, now in the opposition, and their New Komeito allies. In contrast, Mr. Iida is 10 years younger, 10 times more photogenic, a media sweetie, and had the support of Sakamoto Ryuichi and other show business personalities.

The initial construction on the new Kaminoseki plant stopped after the Fukushima nuclear accident. The issue of finishing the construction became the proxy for the current national debate on nuclear power. The noise from that debate and Mr. Iida’s candidacy caused Mr. Yamamoto to declare that he would “freeze” work on the plant. On the day he made his official announcement, he said:

“It is natural to disconnect ourselves from a dependence on nuclear energy. It is the people’s wish (for Japan) to become a nation that, to the extent possible, does not depend on nuclear energy.”

The qualifications and exit ramps in that statement are obvious, but in any event, he seldom addressed the issue during his campaign. He concentrated instead on promises to revive industry and create employment by building ports, roads, and other infrastructure.

In contrast, Mr. Iida talked about little else, though he did try to tie that to a program of overall reform. He also came out strongly against the deployment of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft to a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi. That deployment created strong opposition, both in Yamaguchi and nationwide, because of safety concerns about the aircraft and the planned low-level training flights.

In other words, he had the wind of the media and show business culture at his back, and he chose to sail on the tide of opposition to controversial policies. Another factor worth noting is that Elmer Fudd Yamamoto had 27 Twitter followers while Iida the Cool Guy had more than 60,000. Twitter is used more frequently in Japan than it is in the United States to disseminate political messages.

It appeared an upset might be in the making.

The election was held yesterday. Here are the results:

* Yamamoto Shigetaro: 252,461 47.5%
* Iida Tetsunari : 185,654 35%
* Takamura Tsutomu: 55,418
* Miwa Shigeyuki: 37,150

After all the whiz-bang and pixel shooting, Mr. Iida’s 35% of the vote was roughly the same as the now-forgotten anti-nuclear energy candidate in Kagoshima. The people are speaking, but some other people don’t want to hear what they’re saying.

Also of interest are the results of an exit poll that asked voters what they considered the primary issue to be. They were:

* The economy and employment: 31.0%
* Energy policy: 15.3%.

Thus, the man who framed the debate in Yamaguchi was Yamamoto Shigetaro. If Iida Tetsunari could not turn nuclear power generation into the National Vibration with all that free PR and show biz mojo, it’s not going to happen.

The dogs that didn’t bark

Incidentally, the man who finished a distant third, Takamura Tsutomu, was a lower house MP from the ruling Democratic Party who resigned his seat to run for the office. (Another election must be held by next summer, and many DPJ MPs know it’s time to start thinking about a career change in anticipation of being relieved of their duties.) Mr. Takamura was also one of the 28 members of the small faction headed by Prime Minister Noda, but neither the prime minister nor any other DPJ bigwigs came to Yamaguchi to campaign. They knew it was pointless.

Most interesting was that two of Mr. Iida’s former associates also failed to make the short trip to Yamaguchi to stump for him. They were Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and Osaka Governor Matsui Ichiro, both of the One Osaka group. Mr. Hashimoto is known for having a Kitchen Cabinet of prominent advisors on his payroll, called “brains” in Japanese. Iida Tetsunari was his energy policy advisor, and was perhaps influential in the mayor’s initial opposition to the resumption of operations at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui.

Shortly after Mr. Hashimoto changed his mind and agreed to the plants’ restart, Mr. Iida resigned to run for Yamaguchi governor. Many wondered whether the mayor cut him adrift after he had served his purpose, or whether Mr. Iida saw the kanji on the wall and split while the splitting was good. Everyone was interested in watching what help Mr. Hashimoto or Mr. Matsui might provide to their former associate. It’s fewer than three hours by Shinkansen from Osaka, were they inclined to visit in person. They might also have offered remote support with a video hookup of the sort Sakamoto Ryuichi used, as shown in the photo above.

Neither man came to Yamaguchi or appeared live on video. That’s because neither man endorsed him.

The Iida negatives

Perhaps one reason for the cold shoulders is that Mr. Iida is more controversial, and the subject of more legitimate criticism, than the English-language media knew existed. Ishii Takaaki, a freelance journalist who writes about science and technology, has explained the reasons for the controversy and criticism in detail.

Mr. Ishii has followed the Iida career closely and has interviewed him several times. He said that he once respected him for his views — until 11 March last year. He has referred to Mr. Iida as a “trickster”, a good public speaker adept at presenting black-and-white frames for his policies, but who also spoke out of both sides of his mouth – one side for government officials, and the other side for anti-nuclear power radicals.

In a column published last night, Mr. Ishii dismissed the candidate and his campaign as revealing the limits of “typical citizen activism”. He noted that while no power industry reform is going to happen without the cooperation of the power companies, Mr. Iida spent most of his time bashing them to win media applause. He charged that a favorite Iida technique was to spread false rumors among the public, creating greater confusion. He also added that “people involved with energy-related issues” knew of the energy advisor’s negative influence on Osaka policy, and that his extremism caused (unexplained) difficulties on the Kansai-area committtees of which he was a member.

He had sharp words for Mr. Iida on policy grounds as well. The candidate wrote a book several years ago praising the policies of some North European countries that allow citizen groups to work out arrangements with the government and power companies to promote renewable energy. This was offered as “the path for Japan”, which Mr. Ishii thinks naïve. He noted that Sweden retains its nuclear power plants, and Denmark, a country of 5.5 million, imports “solid fuels” (read coal) for 21% of its energy needs. It also uses domestically produced oil for 41% of its power generation. (The idea that Japan should adopt the policies of small European nations, when Japan itself has a much larger population than any European country, is not uncommon here.)

The journalist also dismissed outright many of Mr. Iida’s statements as “clearly mistaken”, including:

* In the near future, nuclear energy will be supplemented by natural energy.
* Japan has sufficient energy now.
* There is a conspiracy of the nuclear power interests.
* Europe is the ideal.
* There is a lot of “hidden energy” in Japan.

Another indication of the forked Iida tongue was a brief flap over his membership in the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals as a research fellow since October 2009. Prominent members of that think tank include the former news reader Sakurai Yoshiko and freelance journalist Yayama Taro. They are conservatives who think Japan should actively pursue its national interests internationally, including the TPP negotiations. They are also not the sort of people the Asahi Shimbun editorial staff or Sakamoto Ryuichi would want to hang out with.

When it was brought to his attention that his name was on their Japanese-language website, Mr. Iida denied that he had ever been associated with the group. The institute quickly responded with a statement that said it was not possible they would accept anyone without their consent. Mr. Iida then remembered that it had slipped his mind.

Behind the Times

Little, if any, of the foregoing will be fit to print in the New York Times. Here’s why: Last week, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote an article on the Yamaguchi election remarkable for a tone of condescending snottery exceeding the level that is customary for the overeducated spitballers, particularly when Japan is the subject. While Tabuchi didn’t write the headline:

“In Conservative Japan Enclave, Antinuclear Candidate Gains Ground”

She did write the first sentence:

“In ordinary times, an election for governor in this rural corner of Japan known for puffer fish and tangerines would hardly be worth much of a mention in the national press.”

Didn’t waste any time jumping into their narrative, did they? Opposition to nuclear power is such a powerful issue that it’s even beginning to appeal to the inakappe who make a living by putting food on everyone else’s table.

The veil covering the superior attitude slips with the use of “enclave”, which has the meaning of a group or area different from its neighbors, either politically or ethnically. It most often describes territory that is alien to its surroundings. It’s unlikely that Tabuchi has spent much time there, unless she took an expense-paid trip to hear an Iida speech.

The newspaper missed an opportunity to unload another dump on the place when they failed to mention that the largest city, Shimonoseki, is home to Japan’s whaling fleet. Speaking of ports in this enclave in a rural corner of Japan, Shimonoseki is also one of the terminals for two separate ferry lines to South Korea (a three-hour trip) and China both.

But then:

“(N)early a year and a half after Japan’s nuclear disaster, the election is making news as it evolves into an informal referendum on nuclear power’s place in the country’s future.”

As we’ve seen, Mr. Iida failed to turn it into that referendum, but if they insist on viewing it that way, the votes are in.

“The vote Sunday pits a leading figure in the nascent antinuclear movement, Tetsunari Iida, against a former bureaucrat who was considered a shoo-in in a conservative prefecture that has long been a loyal bastion for his party. But polls have shown Mr. Iida, an independent and a political novice, rapidly gaining on Shigetaro Yamamoto, 63, who in many ways epitomizes Japan’s old guard.”

This was followed by a long paragraph of LDP bashing and explaining their role in nuclear power plant construction. While predictable, it’s also pointless: the demonstrations were touched off by the current DPJ government’s moves to restart the generators.

It is true that the Yamaguchi vote was an old guard election in many ways, however. Mr. Yamamoto is that kind of a guy, and Mr. Iida used the classic version of the old Japanese guard opposition tactic, “We oppose everything you say!”

“Mr. Iida’s campaign has taken off in part because it has attracted more than 1,000 volunteers who are working the phones, staging rallies and walking the prefecture’s sleepy towns and cities to spread Mr. Iida’s message.”

Sleepy, eh? Bright young energetic man with progressive ideas shakes awake the denshakan (田舎漢) and brings them into the 21st century. With all the snot in this piece, Tabuchi must have had a cold when she wrote it.

If his campaign “took off” so explosively to reach the 35% level in voting, Yamaguchi’s sleepy ones must have been the anti-nuclear power forces.

“He was little known before the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but his media savvy helped him become a go-to commentator on environmental issues as the country dealt with the world’s second-worst nuclear accident.”

She doesn’t mention who was doing the going-to, and after today, she never will. The compulsion to corral stray college profs and self-declared experts to act as media mouthpieces and cite them as “go-to” sources is closed-loop self-absorption, not news reporting.

The obvous lesson is that the objects of contempt are the true reality-based community the sophisticates presume themselves to be. They know what works and what doesn’t because their survival depends on it. The fashion statement of “Split wood not atoms” isn’t a survival choice, and hoping the wind blows and sun shines won’t be for some time yet.

Many nuclear energy critics like to say that “lives are more important than money”. Perhaps they should be given an enclave of their own to see how life goes when they don’t have any money.

The driver of the anti-nuclear energy movement is emotion — actual facts are unwelcome. All emotional issues tend to wane with the source of the emotional stimulation. As the memory of Fukushima recedes, and normalcy is once again defined by the absence of once-in-a-millenium disasters, so will the movement.

In the meantime, it is possible that some of the politicians bandwagoning on this issue — Hatoyama Yukio, Ichiro Ozawa, Your Party — will recede from the movement themselves now that they’ve read the election returns. It will be left to the radicals to carry on.


* Perhaps now the election results and the comparison of the number of Twitter followers for the two primary candidates will help debubble the froth about the triviality that has been exalted with the term “social media”. Well, that and the Facebook IPO flop.

* The Mainichi Shimbun released the results of a recent poll that are fascinating. They asked whether people felt sympathy with the demonstrators, and the results were evenly split at 47%-47%. Even more interesting is the age breakdown. Here are some percentages for age groups that felt sympathy for the demonstrators:

People in their 20s: 37%
People in their 50s and 60s: More than 50%

In other words, opposition to nuclear power in Japan is a Gray Panther issue.

The Mainichi poll also shows that support for the Noda Cabinet is the lowest they’ve recorded at 23%. That rate’s been in the 20s for a while, so nuclear power is not the reason for those numbers.

* One of the few DPJ politicians who openly endorsed Iida Tetsunari was Diet member Hiraoka Hideo, who was also the Justice Minister for all of four months until January. He was replaced in a larger Cabinet reorganization, in part because it was revealed that he chose as an aide a man with a criminal record. Mr. Hiraoka represents a district in Iwakuni, where the Marine Air Base is located.

He is also the only Diet member to have attended a graduation ceremony of a Chongryun school, the zainichi group affiliated with North Korea. He wants to legalize pachinko gambling, a business which has significant zainichi participation. He also criticizes the laws on foreign contributions to political campaigns, claiming that it is stricter than in other advanced countries. (Not the U.S.; it’s very much against the law there too, but that didn’t stop the Obama campaign.)

In other words, he might as well be wearing a sandwich board proclaiming his ethnic heritage (or, at a minimum, his political funding sources). That says quite a lot about Mr. Noda’s choices for Cabinet, designed in part to balance the party’s internal factions rather than select quality people. It also says quite a lot about the DPJ itself.

Mr. Hiraoka, incidentally, won his Diet seat outright in the last election. You never can tell the sort of people the hayseeds in backwater enclaves might vote for.

Iida Tetsunari wasn’t one of them.

Speaking of energy flows, here’s Sakamoto Ryuichi letting his fingers do the talking instead of his mouth.

Posted in Government, Mass media, Politics, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

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?

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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

Plankton picture book

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WHAT other country’s knowledge and appreciation of marine life can match that of Japan on a national scale? Sushi and sashimi have become international cuisine, they’ve made seaweed of all sorts palatable and its cultivation quite profitable, they’ve prepared the potentially poisonous fugu as a dish for gastronomes for centuries, the appreciation of carp and their breeding is an elegant pursuit, carp streamers are part of the national culture, and their expertise on the best ways to eat whale and dolphin drive some people to spittle-flinging rages.

They also know a thing or two about plankton.

Plankton can be small enough to be measured in nano-units (one-billionth of a meter) or as big as a whale. Those that breed by absorbing carbon and phosphorus are classified as flora, while those that feed on the flora plankton are classified as fauna. When some types of plankton reproduce abnormally, they can change the color of the sea water. Those are the buggers responsible for red tides, which kill fish by reducing the oxygen supply in the water.

The Yuu Microlife Museum in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, the country’s only facility specializing in marine microorganism research, published this year an illustrated encyclopedia of plankton that has generated a surprising response for a work of this type. They intended for it be of interest both to the general public as well as the specialist, and they seem to have succeeded. It’s easy to carry around and has many color photographs of plankton for quick recognition, including those that cause the red tides. Local government employees responsible for measuring sea water purity for the early detection of red tides now consider it an indispensable reference.

The 205-page book on A5-sized paper is an updated version of a similar book for the plankton of the Seto Inland Sea, which the museum published at the end of 2008. Researchers from the Fisheries Research Agency in Yokohama helped the museum put it together to present the primary 172 species of plankton inhabiting the seas around Japan.

For the hydrospace enthusiasts, there are color microscope photographs of the plankton and charts enabling the identification of species by their characteristics, including size and the presence or absence of tentacles and legs. There’s a companion DVD showing video of the plankton floating in the sea.

How often is a scientific reference book appreciated by children, research scientists, and commercial interests? This seems to be one. The museum published 2,000 copies in January, and the first print run has already sold out. Demand is such that they printed 2,000 more. Apart from the researchers and university libraries who would normally be expected to buy the book, it’s also popular among local government employees and people who just enjoy flipping through the photos.

The Yamaguchi Prefecture Maritime Research Center has issued the book to all four of its branch offices. Their employees are rotated once every two or three years, and some whose job it is to conduct periodic seawater inspections find it difficult to distinguish the different plankton species. Some were willing to drive two hours to the center just to refer to the book.

The center has also suggested that the firms breeding fish in seawater farms use the book as a reference for identifying harmful plankton and thereby minimizing losses.

If a plankton picture book seems to be just the thing for your home library, or, with Christmas on the way, you want to give a thoughtful gift to the marine biologist in your family, call the museum at 0827-62-0160 and get ready to send them JPY 2,520.

Put it on the shelf next to the Dialogues.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Books, Science and technology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (119): What a cool crash!

Posted by ampontan on Friday, October 21, 2011

DESPITE the priests dressed in ancient robes who conduct ceremonies and offer prayers that are centuries old, the main activities of some Shinto festivals seem as if they were conceived by bored college frat boys with a buzz on and looking for anything else to do besides study on a midweek evening.

You won’t think I’m exaggerating after you read about the Honyama Shinji held annually in late September at the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu (shrine) in Shunan, Yamaguchi.

It started roughly 300 years ago, when this area, then part of the Tokuyama domain, suffered a particularly bad harvest. They created and conducted this festival in supplication for a bumper crop the next year.

Festival floats in Japan are often called yama, which is the word for mountain. This one has three: The honyama, or main mountain; jiiyama, or grandfather mountain, and baayama, or grandmother mountain. They’re assembled using traditional methods, which means mortised joints and no nails at all. The honyama is 2.7 meters long, 2.6 meters high, and weighs nearly a ton. They are lashed together with the kazura vine and adorned with sacred pine boughs for good luck, as well as lanterns.

The three floats are paraded through two districts near the shrine in the days leading up to the festival. Then, early in the evening on festival day, they’re taken as far as the torii in front of the shrine itself. That would be a simple matter in most instances, but in this case the Yamasaki Hachiman-gu torii is at the top of a steeply sloped hill 10 meters above the ground below.

But no logistical problem is unsolvable at a Japanese festival if there’s enough manpower and grog for the task. The solution is to pull all three floats to the top of the hill on rollers one at a time — first the jii, then the baa, and then the one-ton honyama. On board the honyama are about 10 people, including a priest and musicians.

The floats are met at the torii on the top of the hill by a group that has carried down a mikoshi — a sort of palanquin bearing the shrine’s tutelary deity — from the shrine itself. A brief Shinto ceremony is conducted with the three floats and the mikoshi facing each other.

Then they turn the floats around and push them down the hill to crash at the bottom: first the jii, then the baa, and then the honyama. When they come to a stop, the locals quickly scramble to snatch the pine boughs and the shide paper streamers that denote a sacred space. Possession of one brings good luck in the year ahead. Luck in the harvest is determined by the direction in which the honyama collapses at the bottom of the hill.

After that, the folks from Shunan disassemble the crashed floats and retrieve all the salvageable material, which is used to build next year’s floats.

Nothing’s mentioned in the newspaper reports, but it’s safe to assume that after the festival, the participants — including the priest — get just as ripped as any of those collegians in the frat house living room.

How did they come up with this idea 300 years ago? That isn’t mentioned in the newspaper reports either, and the city’s website offers no explanation.

But this is what it looks like:

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Letter bombs (21): What we have here is a failure to communicate

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 4, 2011

IT MUST BE exasperating for the self-regarding credentialed elites of politics and journalism to have to ask the approval of that recalcitrant, slope-browed mob of social inferiors — i.e., the public — once they’ve reached a consensus on how to make the world safe for social democracy and everything else that is Good and True.

European voters have rejected in at least eight national referendums measures related to EU integration, including the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and the use of the Euro itself. The European elites’ SOP for dealing with the churlish ingrates is to make a few concessions, twist more than a few arms in the government in question, and make the people vote again until they get it right.

They’ve even lashed logic to a bench and tortured it to explain why taking any issue to the people is a bad idea. Here’s Britain’s Lord Patten (AKA Chris) in a 2003 interview with David Frost while serving as EU Commissioner for External Affairs:

I think referendums are awful…I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak.

Really, what is all this business about allowing the people a voice in their own governance anyway? They’d just make a mess of everything. The most recent example is the German Bundestag’s approval of a euro bailout fund. Public opinion polls show that roughly 82% of Germans opposed the bailout, but the measure passed the German legislature with roughly 84% of the delegates voting in favor.

Most of the media courtiers contributed to the cause by concealing that information (assuming they even knew). Indeed, the first sentence of the Huffington Post report is revealing:

Germany kept alive hopes that the 17-nation euro currency can survive the sprawling debt crisis when lawmakers in Europe’s largest economy voted overwhelmingly on Thursday in favor of expanding the powers of the eurozone’s bailout fund.

Keepin’ hope alive! Little did Jesse Jackson know that the EU and its supporters would commandeer his slogan after all these years!

There was no room in the reports to mention, of course, the growing apprehension that it would be difficult to keep the regional and global economies alive if the euro is kept on life support.

The same phenomenon is just as easy to spot in Japan as in the West — if not easier. The Finance Ministry has succeeded in neutering the anti-tax elements of the Democratic Party government and steering the ship of state in the direction of large tax increases. They also bullied and cajoled the local media courtiers into serving as their outsourced PR wing, and most of the national newspapers have written editorials blithely declaring, without explaining, that it is in the people’s interest to give the government more of their money.

The public bought the line at first, perhaps because everyone knows the Tohoku reconstruction/recovery will be expensive, but then the government and the bureaucrats seem to have gone a bridge too far. It didn’t take long for people to realize that the Noda government has become Kasumigaseki’s wind-up doll, and that there are other ways to foot the bill for Tohoku other than through taxes. There’s been a sharp reversal in polling numbers as a result.

It took only one month for the public to flip. Respondents in the most recent Kyodo poll were opposed to new taxes for reconstruction by 50.5% to 46.2%. The opposition was 52% to 39% in the Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll, and 58% to 39% in the Mainichi survey. Just a month ago, the Nikkei/TV Tokyo poll had the public supporting a tax increase by 63% to 28%.

If you want a prediction on what will eventually happen in the Diet, however, the Bundestag vote is probably a leading indicator.

More fascinating are the recent decisions by the voters given a chance to express their opinion on the issue of maintaining nuclear power, still just seven months after the nuclear accident at Fukushima. It was natural for public opposition to emerge after the accident, just as it is natural to expect the opposition to wane with the passage of time. The half-life of that opposition might be shorter than people expected, however.

There was a report on Sunday that traces of plutonium have been found in the soil 40 kilometers from the Fukushima plant. Here’s how the Financial Times (which requires registration) chose to present it. Notice the last clause:

Small amounts of plutonium believed to have escaped from Japan’s tsunami-crippled nuclear plant have been detected in soil more than 40km away, say government researchers, a finding that will fuel already widespread fears about radiation risk.

But as a link sent by Andrew in Ezo shows, the widespread fears of some voters just won’t be fueled again. Here’s a report of an election in Hokkaido held on the same day the FT article appeared:

The mayor of Iwanai town, Hokkaido, an advocate of restarting idled reactors at a nearby nuclear power plant, was reelected Sunday with a landslide victory over an antinuclear challenger.

When they say landslide, they mean that the winner’s vote was more than three times higher than that of the loser.

Some might argue that the residents of Iwanai were concerned about the economic effect of a plant shutdown. That might well be true, but since they’re only 10 kilometers from the facility, it can also be argued that they’re unconcerned about the possibility of any fallout from a nuclear disaster.

The Mainichi article concludes:

The election came a week after the reelection of the mayor of Kaminoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, an advocate of Chugoku Electric Power Co.’s plan to build a nuclear power plant, who also beat an antinuclear challenger.

What we have here is a worldwide failure to communicate.

The elites don’t listen to the people, and the people tuned out the elites long ago.


The polls also showed a drop in the rate of support for the Noda Cabinet by about 10 percentage points over the last month, though the support is still more than 50%. It’s widely assumed that reflects public dissatisfaction with their tax policies, though the standard reversion to the mean is probably a factor as well.

Most interesting were the results for the underlying individual questions. Broken down, Mr. Noda polled more than 50% only on the question of whether people had a favorable view of him as a person. He was below 50% for every other question, such as leadership ability (roughly 39%). In other words, people support the Noda Cabinet because they are disposed to like him, not what he wants to do or what they think he is capable of doing.

Once upon a time, they used to ask what the simple folk do. The solution for the modern throne folk seems to be to ignore them altogether.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Mass media, Science and technology | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Still more true facts

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, January 27, 2011

SCROLLING THROUGH the comment section of an American website recently, I read a note in which the author blithely asserted, as if it were common knowledge, that Japanese and Koreans despised each other. There were dozens of other comments on that post, but nobody objected to his. The other readers probably thought it was common knowledge too.

The author of the note knew this, he said, because he lived in Japan for a couple of years. Ah, that explains it. A man of the world.

Meanwhile, here’s some uncommon knowledge about what’s actually been happening in this part of the world, where the Japanese and South Koreans are just a hop, skip, and a 30-minute flight from each other.

So far this month.

* Saga Prefecture and Jeollanam-do Friendship Pact

Saga is a small, largely rural prefecture with a population of about 800,000 between Fukuoka and Nagasaki and next to the Sea of Japan. The prefectural government this month signed a friendship agreement with Jeollanam-do of South Korea. Saga Gov. Furukawa Yasushi called it the first step in the prefecture’s plan to develop greater ties with regional governments throughout Asia. At the signing ceremony, Jeollanam-do Gov. Bak Joon-yung said he believed the agreement will help promote ties between the two countries, not just the two regions. It is Saga’s first friendship agreement with a local government from a foreign country.

* Starflyer Plans Busan Route

Kitakyushu-based budget airline Starflyer announced plans to begin roundtrip flights to Busan in July 2012. There are already many flights between Busan and Incheon in Korea and Fukuoka and Kitakyushu in Kyushu, as well as several high-speed ferries operating between the Port of Hakata and the Port of Busan. Starflyer intends to establish a niche in the highly competitive market with early morning and late night flights.

* Ferry Service Begins between Gwangyang and Shimonoseki/Kitakyushu

Gwangyang Ferry of South Korea will begin ferry service between the city of Gwangyang in South Korea and the cities of Shimonoseki and Kitakyushu in Japan. (Shimonoseki is in Yamaguchi Prefecture, just across a narrow strait from Kyushu.) The ferry will have a capacity of 740 passengers and make two round trips a week to Shimonoseki. It will also sail once a week to Kitakyushu on a trial basis. The operators see the potential for demand from travelers (and freight shippers) from the western and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula to Kyushu. Gwangyang is South Korea’s second largest container port after Busan. Currently, people traveling between the two cities by sea have to go through both Busan and Fukuoka City.

* Fukuoka City Sponsors Educational Homestays with Busan, South Korea

Fukuoka City sponsored 10 first-year junior high school students from Busan, South Korea, for a local homestay for six days through the 17th to provide them with an understanding of junior high school life in Japan. The students attended English and other classes at three junior high schools, and teachers from both countries took the opportunity to get better acquainted. Fukuoka City said its objective is to help foster children with an international perspective.

* South Korea’s Jin Air to Operate Budget Charters to Saga Airport

Low-cost carrier Jin Air of South Korea began to fly regularly scheduled charter flights from Incheon Airport in Seoul to Saga Airport for tourists, which will continue until 1 March. They plan to operate a total of 19 round trips in all. They are the first flights by any low cost carrier into Saga Airport.

* South Korean Baseball Team Shifts Camp from Miyazaki to Beppu

Last year’s foot-and-mouth epidemic among livestock in Miyazaki Prefecture (and the new outbreak of avian flu there last week) could have kept the Dusan Bears of South Korean professional baseball from their annual training camp in Miyazaki, but they came anyway for a shorter session. They’ll move to Beppu in Oita on the 26th.

OK, I’ll cheat. Here’s one from last month

* Record High for Air Busan’s Occupancy Rate

Air Busan, which launched daily roundtrip flight service between Busan, South Korea, and Fukuoka City last March, revealed they had a flight occupancy rate of 83% for the month of November, the highest monthly rate ever on the route. The rate from May to September ranged from the 60th to the 70th percentiles, but the higher yen and lower won began to have an impact in October. The increase came mostly from Japanese passengers.

OK, I’ll cheat again. This one includes China

* Regional Economic Partnership Agreement in Works

Ten cities in Japan, South Korea, and China, the members of a group promoting economic exchange in East Asia, held their fourth meeting in China and signed a memorandum agreeing to create an economic partnership agreement for the Yellow Sea rim region. The group includes four Japanese cities, including Kitakyushu, Fukuoka City, and Shimonoseki; four Chinese cities, including Dalian; and three South Korean cities, including Busan and Incheon. The idea is to create a free trade agreement of their own in the region without waiting for their respective national governments.

We’re going to be reading the inevitable Closed to the Outside World stories about Japan written by the bien pensants in the upcoming months as the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks get serious. Let’s see how many of these stories will be mentioned, particularly the last one.

American journalist P.J. O’Rourke has spent much of his career traveling overseas as part of his work. He once wrote that the best way to improve international relations was to sleep with someone from overseas.

In that spirit…

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Education, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, Social trends, South Korea, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Holidays, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Nengajo 2010

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 4, 2010

FOLKS IN WESTERN COUNTRIES have exchanged seasonal greetings by sending Christmas cards through the mail for at least 170 years. The Japanese also use the mail to exchange seasonal greetings, but they wait another week for their most important yearend holiday to send nengajo, or New Year’s Day cards. The custom of visiting others to deliver a New Year’s greeting in person began as long ago as the 8th century, according to Japanese historians. About two centuries later, the practice of sending written greetings to people too far away to visit began to take root.

It wasn’t until the creation of the modern postal system in 1871, however, that nengajo started to become part of the holiday landscape. A further impetus was provided in 1873 when the Post Office began printing and selling nengajo as inexpensive postcards. The practice became a general custom after 1899, when the Post Office established procedures for handling the cards separately from individual mail. Nengajo entrusted to the postal authorities by a certain date are postmarked 1 January and delivered on that day, anywhere in the country.

I was busy with one thing and another throughout the yearend period, so I missed the delivery deadline for this website, but here is the 2010 Ampontan nengajo, with best wishes for a ferociously good time in the Year of the Tiger.

Some websites like to offer visitors photos that are Not Safe For Work, but doesn’t happen around here. I’ve always been the type who prefers to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the flesh rather than vicariously. Instead of the modern silicone-enhanced attractions, this post contains some of what might be called Shinto cheesecake. Herein are photos and descriptions of the activities of miko, or Shinto shrine maidens. They are analogous to altar boys in Catholic churches, and they also pull double duty as Santa’s elves during the New Year’s holidays.

The Japanese flock to Shinto shrines throughout the first three days of the New Year, and to handle the influx, the shrines hire young women as part-time miko. The successful candidates are young, unmarried women who speak Japanese, but it’s not necessary to be Japanese. Two years ago, we had a post that contained a report on a Korean university student who returned for a second year on the job because she enjoyed it so much the first time, and this year I saw an article about an Italian woman signing up for service as a miko at a Kyoto shrine. As an example of the freewheeling Japanese ecumenicalism, I once knew a woman who was a very serious Catholic—she kept a portrait of Jesus under the clear plastic covering of her desk at work—but who also served as a miko on weekends, mostly for wedding services. No one thought this odd. Nor are any of the following stories.

Shunan, Yamaguchi

The miko uniform consists of a white top with red hibakama, which is a divided skirt. (Those are also worn by men in traditional formal attire, though in more subdued colors.) This isn’t daily attire, so the first order of business is instruction in how to wear the outfit. The Toishi Hachiman-gu shrine in Shunan, Yamaguchi, hired 19 young women this year, and here they are learning how to dress themselves and having a jolly good time in the process. It’s not easy to tie the belt and attach it with special implements, and few get it right the first try. Their duties started on 26 December when they cleaned and decorated the shrine grounds, and they continued during the three-day New Year weekend when they sold amulets, including hamaya, or arrows that drive away evil spirits.

The Toishi Hachiman-gu, by the way, was established in 708; note the three-digit date. Most shrines with “gu” at the end of the name are associated in some way with the Imperial family. In this case, the shrine’s tutelary deity is the Ojin Tenno (emperor), #15 on the list, who is said to have lived in the 4th century.

Dazaifu, Fukuoka

They also took wardrobe lessons on 28 December at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture. This shrine expected 2.1 million visitors over the three-day holiday period, so they hired 70 young women, mostly college and vocational school students, to serve as miko. They must have needed a large dressing room. One 18-year-old junior college student from Fukuoka City remarked, “I was nervous. I want to be able to make it through without catching a cold.” That’s not an idle concern—it’s winter and most miko spend all day outside or in booths with little or no heating.

Echizen-cho, Fukui

The miko are more than just Shinto shop clerks and yard boys. They also give performances of kagura, or Shinto music and dance, at festivals throughout the year. Here 10 junior high school girls are practicing the kagura they later performed in the main hall at the Tsurugi shrine in Echizen-cho, Fukui. This particular dance took two minutes to present. The dancers performed in pairs using fans and small bells, and were accompanied by taiko drums and flutes.

Though Shinto shrines are as old as Japan itself, and kagura isn’t much younger, the Tsurugi shrine debuted these New Year’s performances shortly after the end of the Pacific War. They are offered with the prayer that all those who visit the shrine during the season will be granted their wishes. The girls had only three days to get it together, so they practiced the choreography for four hours a day. Said 14-year-old Mita Miho, “It was difficult because there was so little practice time, but I hope we can synchronize our breathing and do the dance properly.”

Fukutsu, Fukuoka

Established sometime around the year 400, the Miyajidake shrine in Fukutsu, Fukuoka, has more than two million visitors every year. Roughly half of them show up during the New Year’s period, so the shrine hires about 60 miko to handle the rush. In addition to learning how to wear the costumes, their training includes instruction on how to interact with the visitors. Included in that training is the proper way to offer greetings–the ABCs of interpersonal relations in Japan–and even the proper way to hand over the souvenirs that have been purchased. That requires role-playing, and the Shinto priests play the role of the parishioners. Their first rule for customer contact is same as that for any café or department store, much less a Shinto shrine: “Greet them with a smile”.

Nagaokakyo, Kyoto

The instruction at the Nagaoka Tenman-gu in the Kyoto Metro District even includes the proper way to bow. This year the shrine hired 24 new miko to work with their six veterans, and training started on 20 December. These ladies will work a bit longer than their counterparts elsewhere—the shrine’s events last until 7 January and include a calligraphy contest. Their training is also a bit more detailed. They’re taught some of the shrine’s history, and the proper way to bow when passing through the torii. (Memo to Barack Obama: Observe that no one is shaking anyone’s hand. Notice also that their backs are straight.) They are enjoined to give a proper bow when facing parishioners because their role is that of a surrogate for the divinity.

Hiroshima City, Hiroshima

The miko at the Hiroshima Gokoku shrine in Hiroshima City started their lessons on 20 December. This year the shrine took on 120 miko, of which 36 are new to the job, and their training involves some classroom work. The photo shows the young women listening to an explanation of the names and uses of the various shrine implements, including the miki, or containers for sacred sake, and the items offered for sale.

The Hiroshima Gokoku shrine is relatively new, having been established in 1868. The memorialized spirits are those of the people from western Hiroshima Prefecture who gave their lives for their country up to the Second World War, and the students mobilized to work in war-related industries who died during the atomic bombing. The associations are apparent from the designation gokoku, which means protecting the nation. The idea is that those people who died defending the country will become guardian spirits of the state.

Niigata City, Niigata

One of the items near the top of the to-do list to prepare for the visitors is to make the amulets that will be sold during the holiday, including these hamaya, which were mentioned above. The miko here are pitching in to make arrows at another Gokoku shrine in Niigata City. Five young women were responsible for making 8,000 of them, which cost JPY 3,500 each (about $US 37.60). The local police expected 150,000 visitors at the shrine from 31 December to 3 January, so there’s a good chance they sold out.

As the name indicates, this is another shrine established to honor the war dead, as it was created in 1869 for the commemoration of those from Niigata who died in various wars up to the Second World War. A total of 79,729 spirits are enshrined here. The earliest are those from the Boshin Civil War, which was fought to overthrow the Shogunate and restore imperial rule. That conflict lasted about 18 months, from January 1868 to June 1869.

Toyo’oka, Hyogo

These miko at the Izushi shrine in Toyo’oka, Hyogo, are gathering and sorting the items to be offered for sale during the New Year period. They’re putting the amulets, arrows, ema (votive pictures), earthen bells, small rakes, and other items into bags for package sale to those who will pay their first (and these days, perhaps only) visit to the shrine during the year. During the full three-day period, that’s usually around 23,000 people for this shrine, which is thought to date to the 8th century; the first recorded mention of it is in the 9th century.

The shrine’s tutelary deity is Amenohiboko, who, according to the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicle of Japan, the oldest Japanese historical record), was a prince of Silla. Yes, that was in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Another ancient record describes him as a divinity. The ame part of the name means “heaven”; when included in the name of an ancient, it usually refers to a divinity closely related to the ancestry of the Imperial house. He is the only prince from a foreign country to have the ame character (天) in his name. If any of the anti-Nipponites who consider the Japanese to be Korean-haters and deniers of their ancient ties to the peninsula are disturbed by this contribution to their disillusionment, consider it enlightenment instead.

Legend has it that the Big A was the guy who fixed up the Toyo’oka Plain for habitation, which was supposedly a sea of mud before he worked his magic on it. That’s why the shrine has traditionally been a destination favored by civil engineers and members of the construction industry.

But there are other reasons people like to stop by. The shrine starts receiving visitors at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and the first 500 receive a shot of sacred sake.

Kagoshima City, Kagoshima

There’s plenty of work to do on the outside of the shrine as well. How to clean underneath those roofs? Instead of rickety old ladders, the priests and the miko make it easy on themselves by using four-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass leaves attached to the end. At the Terukuni Shrine in Kagoshima City, they make a point of doing the spring cleaning every year on 24 December. Well, the name for the New Year season is Shinshun, after all–New Spring.

They also hung a large ema—one meter tall and seven meters wide—in the shape of a tiger at the shrine gate. This shrine, whose tutelary deity is the former feudal lord Shimadzu Nariakira, expected 370,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Fukuyama, Hiroshima

Once they’ve finished with the soot and cobwebs that collect under the roof, they’ve got to sweep the grounds too. But that’s not an annual ceremony—that’s a daily event at most shrines with a staff on the premises, including this one: The Sanzo Inari shrine in Fukuyama, Hiroshima.

This shrine hires six miko every year for holiday duties. They were encouraged to study the procedures well during the instruction period, and the chief priest told them, “What’s important is the issue of spirit.” Isn’t it always? With that, they set to work tidying things up, which is one aspect of the Nippon essence that one wishes they could bottle and export inexpensively. They also spend a few hours learning the proper way to pour the sacred sake and to deal with the parishioners. If they get confused, they can always ask for help from one of the nine regulars.

Speaking of Shinto cheesecake, this shrine sponsors the Miss Sanzo Inari Shrine Contest with the assistance of local corporations during the November festival of thanksgiving. The contestants must be younger than 27 and unmarried, and they undergo two rounds of judging to winnow the field to the final eight, whom you can see here. Three are selected from this group, and one of the honors that comes with their selection is to serve as miko during the New Year period.

Naruto, Tokushima

After the shrine is cleaned, it’s time to put up the seasonal decorations. One of the essential adornments is shimenawa, which demarcate a sacred space. The one hung at the front of the main hall at the O’asa Hiko shrine in Naruto, Tokushima, was 4.5 meters long and 20 centimeters in diameter. The priest and his helpers hung a total of 30 shimenawa of different sizes throughout the premises. They also didn’t forget to install a special collection box especially for the holidays, which was nine meters wide and four meters deep. The parishioners walk up and toss in the money themselves, a method more restrained than that of the Christian churches, which tend to stick the basket in your face. This shrine, which dates from the 9th century, expected 260,000 visitors during the holidays

Proving yet again that there’s no telling what you’ll discover in Japan if you keep your eyes open, the shrine grounds are the site of the Germany Bridge (photo here), which was built in 1917 by German prisoners of war held nearby. No, I don’t think it was a prelude to the bridge over the Kwai River. That same group of prisoners, by the way, is reputed to have given the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan.

Kobe, Hyogo

The kanji used to write the name of the city of Kobe (神戸) are those for divinity and door, or gate. Take a few linguistic liberties and one might parse that as the gateway to heaven, but with Shinto, that’s more likely to be the gateway for the divinities to this earthly plane. There’s a reason for the name; the city’s Central Ward has several very old shrines, one of which is the Ikuta jinja, which dates from the 3rd century.

One New Year’s custom is to place kadomatsu at the entryway; those are decorations made of pine and bamboo that serve as an abode for the New Year divinities. The Ikuta shrine does not follow this custom, however, as it refuses to have anything to do with pine trees. In Japan, that behavior borders on the eccentric, but they’ve got their reasons. Legend has it that years ago, pine trees weakened by floods toppled onto the main hall and crushed it. To make sure that never happens again, the shrine replaces its kadomatsu with a display of cryptomeria branches. Yes, it does look a bit like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? Thirty shrine employees mustered out at 8:00 a.m. sharp on 27 December and put the 3.5-meter high decoration together with about 2,000 branches.

Instead of an angel, the top is adorned with a eulalia branch, which symbolizes a bountiful harvest, and it is wreathed with a shimenawa. Those who purchase fortunes at Shinto shrines and get bad news tie the slips of paper to pine trees on the site, because the word for pine—matsu—is a homonym for the word to wait. That’s not possible at the Ikuta shrine, however, so they use this cedar decoration instead. If the past is any indication, it will have been turned white by now.

This particular shrine has survived its share of hardships, incidentally, including floods in 1938, air raids in 1945, and the Hanshin earthquake in 1995. The damaged areas have been rebuilt each time, and that’s why it’s become a destination for those Japanese looking for divine assistance to make a comeback from adversity.

Himeji, Hyogo

Young women make any place look more attractive and alive, and that hasn’t escaped the notice of Shinto priests, who are certainly not bound by any vows of celibacy and therefore don’t have to kneel down and pray for forgiveness whenever they think of such things. (Most men would rather pray for something else whenever they think of such things.) So what could be more natural than to have the miko pose under the lanterns at the Himeji Gokoku Shrine in Himeji, Hyogo? The shrine holds the Shinnen Mantosai (New Year 10,000 Lantern Festival) every year from 1-10 January, and here the miko were serving as in-house electrical inspectors when the lanterns were tested on 27 December. It’s not quite as taxing a job as it sounds—they really hang only 2,000 lanterns instead of 10,000. They’re separated into 23 rows, and the entire display is 70 meters wide and 40 meters deep. The switches were turned on from sundown to 8:00 p.m. until the 3rd, and then shortened to 7:00 p.m. until the 10th.

This is another gokoku shrine; the Himeji was built on a site that was employed for services commemorating war dead starting in 1893. It formally became a Shinto shrine in 1938. During the Allied occupation, GHQ made them change the name because they thought it had connotations of militarism, but when the occupying armies left, the Japanese changed the name back. The occupiers should have realized that it’s not possible to hustle The East. Try this photo for a look at the shrine location, next to the Himeji Castle.

Not long ago, calendars were one of the most popular promotional tools for Japanese companies. The English school where I once worked received so many every year there were enough to hang three in every room of the building, fill every room of every employee’s house, and still have some left over. Since the collapse of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, however, budget cutbacks mean there aren’t as many calendars floating around as there once were. (Japan Air Lines distributes one of the most sought-after items. It features pictures of beautiful women from around the world posing in exotic locations, and it makes you want to hop on the next airplane and fly wherever it is they are. JAL still makes the calendar, and the demand is still greater than the supply.)

This post has 13 photos that might make an appealing calendar, with one picture left over for the cover illustration. Maybe I should send an e-mail to the Shinto Shrine Association!

Posted in Holidays, Shrines and Temples | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The world’s first whale soy sauce

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 9, 2009

THE JAPANESE TAKE PRIDE in using as much of a whale as possible to eliminate waste when converting it to food products. One example is their creation of a canned paste of sorts made with whale cartilage and placed as a topping on rice in the same way natto beans are eaten.


Now Yamaka Shoyu, a soy sauce brewer in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi (the home port of the whaling fleet), the National Fisheries University in the same city, and a local council for promoting the development of new food products announced they have developed the world’s first soy sauce made using whale meat. The whale varieties used are the minke, caught during the government whaling expeditions in the South Pacific, and the sei whale. They’re not putting prime cuts into the sauce—the company uses scraps that were previously discarded by a local food company when processing the meat for market.

The product contains only the soybean and wheat base used to make soy sauce, salt, and whale meat. Those who have tried it say it isn’t as fishy tasting as other fish-based soy sauces and has strong umami characteristics. The ingredients are mixed, stirred daily for a month at a constant temperature, and then allowed to ferment for a month.

Yamaka plans to launch sales of the product in June in Yamaguchi in department stores and at retail outlets at tourist sites (in other words, they want to turn it into a “special local product”). There are also plans to sell it in Tokyo. One bottle will set you back 600 to 700 yen (US$ 6.50 to 7.60).

Does the whale soy sauce have potential or is it being made and sold for its novelty value? Koizumi Takeo, a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture noted for his adventuresome approach to food, has given it his imprimatur. “Not only is it delicious,” he said, “but it’s also good for you.”

Well, what more can you ask for? Just make sure to transfer it to a plain bottle or server when sensitive foreigners come to dinner!

Posted in Food | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »