Saturday, May 31, 2008

Taishogun Shrine, Nishigamo, Kyoto

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Taishogun is short for Sei-Taishogun, which translates liberally as "barbarian fighting generalissimo", known more commonly as Shogun. Taishogun shrines, however, have nothing to do with the earthly shoguns, rather it refers to a group of kami that offer protection from the different directions. There are 4 Taishogun shrines in Kyoto, one each for the 4 directions, and this one is for protection from the north.
The shrine here was originally established by the local villagers who were rooftile makers. Taking into consideration that rooftile technology was imported from the Korean peninsular, and that this area, the Kyoto basin previously known as Yamashiro, was settled by immigrants from Korea, its a safe bet that this was a Korean shrine. The ruins of the old kilns are said to be still nearby.

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Once Kyoto was established at the end of the 8th Century, it became a Taishogun shrine as Chinese geomancy was very much in favor at that time. The main kami is said to be Susano, specifically the Susano of Yasaka Shrine in Gion, and originally the kami of Yasaka was Gozu Tenno, a Korean god who later came to be equated with Susano.

Due to its location near Kamigamo Shrine, there are tatesuna sandcones in front to the hondens.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dawn over the Gonokawa

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I live on the banks of the Gonokawa River, the longest river in Western Japan, and yet it's less than 200K in length. Geologically speaking it's a very young river, not yet having had time to create an estuary. Like all Japanese rivers it is now dammed and a lot tamer than it used to be. The river was sometimes navigable all the way upstream into Hiroshima Prefecture, and that was the route the silver from Iwami Ginzan was shipped out. My village, Shimonohara, is about 18 K upstream from where the river enters the Japan Sea at Gotsu. These photos were taken from almost the same spot about 1K upstream of where I live. The top photo was taken in November.

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This one was taken in May.

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This one was June

Coming soon 19!!!!!
And this one was January.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nishigamo Mura-sha

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After leaving Kamigamo shrine I set off t0 explore the foothills of the edge of the city to the west of Kamigamo in Nishigamo. On my walks I hope to discover the little-known "folk" shrines that were the norm in traditional Japan before the creation of State Shinto in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Sure enough, I found one at the top of one of the villages in the area. This one is called Mura-sha, which simply means "Village Shrine". It had this wonderful natural wood torii.

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Due no doubt to its proximity to Kamigamo Shrine, the hondens at the rear each had a pair of tatesuna, but unlike any other tatesuna I've seen, these each had a stone protruding from the top. I havent been able to find out what these stones represent, but my guess is that they represent Iwakura , (stone seat), which are rock outcroppings usually on the top of mountains where the Kami descend to earth.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tsuwano Koi (carp)

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This manhole cover is from Tsuwano, a small castle town in the mountains of western Iwami. It's a very popular tourist destination, and one of the things it is known for is its canals and ditches filled with colorful koi (carp). The town only has about 5,000 inhabitants, and they are outnumbered by the carp. They (the carp, not the inhabitants :)) were kept in the canals to serve as an emergency food supply in times of famine or siege.

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For more photos of Japanese manhole covers click here
For more photos of Tsuwano click here

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kamigamo Shrine

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Kamigamo Shrine is situated in a quiet residential area in the north of Kyoto, and is a little off the main tourist routes and therefore often less-crowded than shrines in the city centre, though no less impressive.
The shrine is a designated World Heritage site, and most of the shrine buildings are classified as Important Cultural Properties.
Established in the 7th Century, a hundred years before Kyoto (Heiankyo) was founded, it is nevertheless about one hundred years younger than its sister shrine, Shimogamo Shrine.
Both shrines were built by the powerful Kamo family who moved to this area from Yamato (Nara) probably to control this outlying area of mainly immigrants from the Korean Peninsula.
When the Imperial capital moved to Heiankyo (present day Kyoto) the Kamo shrines enjoyed imperial patronage and support that has continued to the present.
Kamo Sai, the correct name for Aoi Matsuri, one of the 3 major festivals of Kyoto, ends here after beginning in the Imperial Palace and passing through Shimogamo Shrine.
One approaches the shrine across a large open space that is lawn, rather than the more usual gravel, and this gives it the feel of a park.

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The most unusual thing about the shrine is the 2 large sand cones that flank the entrance to the main shrine building. Known as Tatesuna, opinion differs as to their original meaning, but the most commonly accepted is that they represent the sacred mountain just to the north of the shrine. Small cones of salt outside restaurant entrances are said to derive from the Tatesuna. Many of the smaller, local shrines in this part of Kyoto also have the tatesuna.
The sacred mountain is Koyama, about 2K to the north, and it is believed that the shrine was originally built much closer to it. Interestingly, Koyama is a Kannabiji, a sacred mountain where the kami resides inside it, rather than the more usual situation of a mountain that the Kami sometimes descends onto. Kannabi seems to be a concept from Izumo, and the original home shrine of the Kamo clan is at the base of Mt. Katsuragi between Osaka and Nara, and it is also a kannabiji with an Izumo kami, so there might be a connection between the Kamo and ancient Izumo.

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On September 9th the shrine holds the Crow Sumo ceremony, where young boys from the neighborhood compete at sumo to entertain the gods. Before the sumo, shrine priests perform rituals while emulating the call and movements of crows, hence the name.
Entrance to the shrine is free, but at 9:30 most mornings there is a short tour of the shrine including a purification ritual for which a 500yen “donation” is asked.
With advance notice, groups can book a tour of the shrine with a lecture in English, plus view some of the shrines treasures not normally open to the public.
Kamigamo Shrine can be reached by Kyoto Bus numbers 30, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, and 39, or Kyoto City Bus numbers 4, 46, and 67.

See more photos of Kamigamo here
Review of a book on Kamigamo here

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Iwami Kagura video

I've been experimenting with different ways of putting videos on the blog, and so far embedding youtube seems to be the best.



This video was shot last November in Oihikonomikoto Shrine, down the river from my village in Oda village, matsukawa-cho. It was at the annual matsuri. The dance is Kurazuka, and later in the dance the dancer becomes a fox. Kurazuka is an interesting dance because every kagura group does a different version,and usually there is some improvisation. All dancers in Iwami Kagura are male.

See lots of Iwami Kagura photos HERE

Monday, May 19, 2008

The village: Shimonohara

I live in a hamlet of less than 100 people, called Shimonohara, which means "lower field". About 150 years ago, when the modern state of Japan was created, Shimonhara was incorporated into the village of Tanijyugo, which means "inhabited valley". Tanijyugo was later incorporated into the town of Sakurae, which means "cherry inlet". 2 years ago Sakurae became incorporated into the city of Gotsu, which means Go Port, Go being the name of the river that enters the Japan Sea at Gotsu.

Shimonohara is about 20kms upstream of Gotsu on the bank of the Go.

My hamlet is further subdivided into 3 sections, Upper, Middle, and Lower. Each of these sections is composed of 5 household units called "Gumi". Gumi were created by the rulers of Japan as a form of political control. Each 5 household group was held collectively responsible for any crimes or misdemeanors committed by any member of the 5 households. This goes a long way to explain the extreme "interest" Japanese have in their neighbor's behaviour!

The gumi as a unit still function, though there is no longer any collective punishment! If there is a death, it is the gumi that is responsible for the funeral and the complex set of rituals connected to it.

Japan has a very aged population, and in the rural areas the younger people have moved to the cities for "convenience", so most people in Shimonohara are much older than me. Unusually, there are no empty houses in Shimonohara. Most villages I walk through have 30 - 50% of the houses empty. In the mountains there are many small communities that have been reduced to just one household.

The houses are built against the steep mountainside, around the large central area of rice paddies.

The road ends here, so there is no through traffic.


See more photos of Shimonohara

Red Hanya mask


For the past couple of years I've been making masks in the Iwami Kagura style. Iwami kagura is the local form of sacred dance theatre that is almost unknown in the rest of Japan, but round here people are fanatical about it. My masks are of course for sale, so if interested, please contact me.


The masks were originally carved from wood, but about 100 years ago new methods using paper and ground seashell began to be used. Like most Japanese crafts, making masks involves dozens of steps and can take several weeks to complete.
As well as being used in kagura, the masks are also put up in the entrance of peoples houses to drive away evil spirits and bad luck.


The Hanya is a female demon, and in the original story a woman fell in love with a priest, and , unable to consummate her love, her face became distorted with anger and jealousy. Some sources suggest the story originated in the Genji Monogatari (Tales of genji). The name "Hanya" comes from a certain gentleman named Hannyabo. He was a monk in the Muromachi Period ( 14th & 15th Centuries), and was a master mask-maker whose masks were really terrifying. There is a sense that the Hanya represents the anger and jealosy of any woman. If you have seen a Japanese wedding then you may have wondered about the meaning of the large hood that the bride wears. Its called a tsunokakushi , which means "horn hider".
The body language used to suggest someone is becoming angry or jealous is to put your hands to the side of your head with the forfingers extended to imitate horns.

To buy this or any other masks please email me.

I will be posting more images of my masks, and lots of posts on Iwami Kagura.

Blue Hanya

Regular Hanya

More photos of Iwami Kagura

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hinomisaki Shrine

Hinomisaki Jinja, Shimane.

Located about 8k north of Izumo Taisha in a small fishing village is Hinomisaki Shrine. Its current architecture was built under orders of Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1664, though the shrine is mentioned in the Izumo Fudoki so has been in existence for 1,000 years before that.

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Renovations and re-painting have been completed and the buildings, which are classified as Important Cultural Treasures, now shine in their former glory. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon and early evening when the setting sun shows off the vivid vermillion best.

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The shrine enshrines Amaterasu and Susano, and there is also an Inari shrine. When Lafcadio Hearn visited here in the late 19th century there was a "floating torii" in the sea, but this no longer exists.

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The shrine can be reached by bus from Izumo City or Taisha, and there are several small minshuku (guest house) in the fishing village. Nearby is Hinomisaki Lighthouse, the tallest in East Asia.

See more photos of Hinomisaki

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo (inside)

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The Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo is a large and excellent museum. Unfortunately photography is not permitted in the galleries!

The main collection is composed of several themed galleries. The first looks at the history of the grand shrine of Izumo Taisha. In 2000, excavations at the shrine revealed the base of 3 huge pillars that confirmed the old records that said the shrine rose to a height of 50 metres, making it probably the tallest wooden building in Japan, if not the world. There are paintings, artifacts, and models showing how the shrine looked.

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The next section deals with the Izumo Fudoki. Fudoki were gazeteers compiled in the early 8th Century at the request of the fledgling central government in Nara who were solidifying their control over the Japanese islands. The Fudoki contained information on the geography, history, and folklore of each province. Only the Izumo Fudoki has remained intact until the present-day, which goes some way to explaining why Izumo's traditions remain strong.

The main section deals with bronze implements, swords, and other ceremonial and grave goods. The centrepiece is one huge display case covering an entire wall that contains 358 bronze swords and 358 replicas of how they appeared new, before spending 1500 years buried in Kojindani. Before their discovery in Kojindani, there had only been 350 such swords discovered in all of Japan, a strong indication of the importance of Izumo in ancient times before the rise of the Yamato. Also on display are dotaku (ceremonial bronze bells), an ancient Chinese mirror, believed to be one of Himiko's mirrors, and the remains of an iron sword engraved with kanji which is believed to be the earliest known example of writing in Japan.

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Other galleries feature exhibitions on more recent Shimane history, Iwami Ginzan, and Izumo's ancient myths.

Entrance to the museum is a mere 600yen, and if you are a foreigner there is a 50% discount. Free digital audio guides are available free and give details on some of the exhibits in seceral languages.

One of the best museums I've visited in Japan!

Outside the Museum

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo (outside)

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This is the west wall of the recently-opened Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.
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Located adjacent to Izumo Taisha, the 9,400 sq. m. building was designed by Fumihiko Waki, who chose the rusted Corten steel to express Izumo's early history of iron and steel production.

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There is also lots of glass, and a shallow reflecting pool.
The grounds are extensive and include replicas of haniwa , the large clay figurines buried in association with early tombs.

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With the Kitayama hills as a backdrop, the museum strikes a good balance with its immediate environment and doesn't overshadow neighboring Izumo Taisha.

More on Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo

Monday, May 12, 2008

Golden Week: Inaka style.

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Golden Week occurs in early May, and is a very busy holiday period. Airports, train stations, and expressways are clogged with millions of Japanese tourists all travelling at the same time.
Where I live, out in the countryside, very few people go travelling however. Early May is time to plant the rice.

Most Japanese farmers are only part-time farmers, as japanese farms tend to be very small, and could probably better be called market-gardens. Most families in the village also have a rice paddy, tambo, and the huge subsidies paid by the government make it worthwhile to plant rice.


Rice growing is heavily mechanized, but the corners of odd-shaped paddies still need to be planted by hand.


More photos from my village

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Shimane Winery

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There are acres and acres of vinyl greenhouses in the area around Izumo Taisha. Most of them contain grapevines to serve Shimane Winery, a popular tourist destination offering free tours and tastings.
Wine from grapes was first introduced into Japan by Jesuit priests in the 17th Century, but production did not begin until the late 18th Century when Japan "opened". In the 1950's the fledgling Japanese wine industry expanded and many areas started to produce wine.

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I did try some Shimane wine once, and I am not a sophisticated consumer, but I would rank it about level with British wine!!

More photos around Izumo Taisha

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hananba Matsuri

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Every town in Japan has its own design of manhole cover. Usually the design reflects something of the towns traditions or culture. This one is for Tagi-cho in Izumo.
The design depicts a scene from the 2 annual festivals held in the middle of October at Tagi Shrine, and a few days later, at Takigi Shrine.
The men carry and pull a wooden horse covered in a giant umbrella composed of thousands of colorful paper flowers.

See more Japanese manhole designs

Kazenoko (windchild)

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This may look like a sculpture, but it's not. It's part of a device to teach kids about the wind. Kazenoko is located just off Route 9 in Tagi-cho, Shimane, just underneath one of the wind generators in the area.

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There is a large room with interactive displays for kids to play with wind, and several rooms where art and craft classes are held.
Kazenoko is located on the hill above Tagi JR station. Entrance is free.

Click here for more photos of Kazenoko

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