Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year in Japan

My first experience of New Year in Japan was in Kyoto. We decided to visit the nearby Shimogamo Shrine a little after midnight for hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year. We left home about 11.45 planning on getting to the shrine after midnight. After walking for a while I asked Yoko what the time was and she told me it was 00.05!!... I had been waiting for the noise to mark the new year, but it was totally quiet. Every country I have ever lived in marks the turning of the year with noise,... fireworks, church bells, car horns, boat horns, or people cheering and singing, but in Japan....nada!

I had never been to Shimogamo shrine before, so I was looking forward to looking around. Hah! fat chance!... to say it was crowded would be an understatement. The throng was so tightly packed that I could easily have lifted both feet off the ground and been carried around by the shuffling masses.

Next year we decided to do hatsuhinode, watching the first sunrise of the year. We went down to Shionomisaki, the southernmost tip of the Wakayama Peninsular, the southernmost point of Honshu. We slept out on the cliff along with a couple of dozen other people, and were joined in the pre-dawn light by several hundred others. It was a cloudy morning, so not particular memorable.

My best experience of New Year in Japan was a couple of years ago.

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I'd heard about a mountain behind Arifuku, Honmyozan, that people went to to watch the first sunrise, so we contacted friends who live in Arifuku to ask where the trail up the mountain was. Very kindly they contacted the ujiko (parishioners group) of the small shrine on the mountaintop, and they offered to take us up there with them.

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We got to the top around 22:00, built a big fire, then settled into the tiny shrine to drink sake and eat wild boar stew caught by some of the hunters in the group.

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A few hours before sunrise more people started to arrive after having climbed the mountain in the dark.

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By sunrise about 40 people were gathered together in the freezing cold. The sunrise was worth waiting for as it was a cloudless sky. The views from the mountain were impressive.

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We came down the mountain through the sun-dappled forest.

Not sure what we'll do this year. It snowed all day yesterday, and a thick blanket of white still covers the ground.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Susuharae



Priests at Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine perform Susuharae.

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Susuharae, or susuharai, refers to the year-end housecleaning that all "good" Japanese housewives are busy with right now, but the term has an older meaning specifically relating to shrines.

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Susu is commonly translated as "dust", but actually refers to a form of spiritual pollution ( tsumi, kegare) that collects particularly in corners. Here the priests are using long pieces of bamboo as brushes to sweep away the susu from the front of the main hall at the shrine in preparation for the new year.

I visited several shrines last weekend in Fukuoka, and they were all busy getting ready for the expected influx of visitors for the first visit of the new year, often the busiest day of the year at many shrines.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Itsukushima Shrine, Setogashima, Hamada

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Setogashima is a tiny island in the harbor of Hamada. The Itsukushima shrine is the only shrine on the island. The three sisters enshrined here (daughters of Susano) are known to be protectors of fishermen, so Itsukushima shrines are common in fishing villages.

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The 3 home shrines of the Munakata sisters are located in north west Kyushu, one on the mainland, and the other 2 on 2 small islands. The Munakata clan were responsible for protecting the sea lanes between Kyushu and the Korean peninsular.

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The shrine has no secondary shrines within its precincts, and no kagura den, so for matsuri they use the nearby Shimoyama Inari Shrine. The channel seperating Setogashima from the mainland is only a stones throw wide, so a small bridge connects it, but still a huge multi-million dollar bridge was constructed.

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It's actually a very quiet, picturesque fishing village of a few dozen houses, and as one of the main harvests in this area is squid, it's not surprising to see squid drying in the sun.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Jinmen (god mask)

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Jinmen, or kamimen, are the standard masks for most of the male characters in Iwami Kagura, excluding the very old, Susano, and the demons.

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Variations in the mouth, eyes, eyebrows, and facial hair can make the character younger or older, or sterner.

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Hachiman, Yamato Takeru, Tenjin, and all the other assorted warriors and aides will use variations of this mask.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Nakayama, Tottori

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This is the draincover for Nakayama Town, now incorporated into Daisen Town, on the southern slope of Mount Daisen in Tottori Prefecture.

The plant depicted is Hamanasu (lit. Shore pear), Rosa Rugosa , a Japanese Rose native to east Asia. The coast in Nakayama is the southernmost point of the plants habitat in Japan.

The Japan Times this week has an excellent short article on the history of decorative drain covers in Japan. Access it here.

I've also come across a website (in Japanese only) that has a map of draincovers in Japan. They don't have all of them though. Access it here

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The bridge at Aquas revisited.

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I've posted pics of the bridge at Aquas before, but on our recent visit there the light and weather was different, so I post some more.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Sacred Texts & Buried Treasures:

Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0824820304

333 pp

Farris's book is a much needed addition to English-language scholarship on early Japanese history, and not only that, it is that rarest of books, a highly readable book on archeology that manages to bring to life and make real aspects of life in Japan in the period of 100 AD to 800 AD.
The books contention is that the explosion of archeological research in Japan during the past few decades has challenged many of the assumptions held on early Japanese history that until now had been dependent on just a few written sources. He has chosen four topics and explores in depth what Japanese archeology has discovered that throws new light on them.

The first topic is the great "Yamatai Debate".
The first written records of Japan come from China in the 3rd Century when Chinese historian Chen Shou wrote of the "Wa" people who lived in a country called Yamatai, ruled over by a shamaness named Himiko. Just exactly where Yamatai was is the subject of the ongoing Yamatai debate. Until the late 19th Century it was believed that Yamatai was the country known as Yamato, present-day Nara Prefecture, in the Kinai, but for the last century Japanese historians have been split between believing Yamatai was in the Kinai, or in Northern Kyushu. This section of the book reads like a mystery novel, as each new piece of archeological evidence is used as proof for one side of the debate or the other, and sometimes even both interpret the discovery to their own advantage. If there will be a solution to the debate, it must be somewhere in the future, as to date the evidence remains split.

The second section of the book concerns Japan's relationship with Korea during the 4th and 5th centuries, a subject that has consequences and repercussions that continue today: it was Japan's claim that parts of Korea were colonized by Japan at this time that was partly behind their "re" colonization of Korea in the 20th century. In the 1950's, Egami put forward his controversial "Horse rider" theory - that Japan had been colonized by a northern people through the Korean peninsular. Since then the controversy has been was Japan a colony of Korea, or vice versa? On this topic Farris does offer a conclusion. During the period in question, the Korean Peninsular consisted of 4 separate kingdoms, with changing borders and alliances. Japan was dependent on Korea for technologies and natural resources, most notable metals, and in return for these Japan supplied military force to various sides of the inter-kingdom disputes. The conclusion reached by Farris is that all the Korean kingdoms and Japan were roughly equal to each other with no one being dominant enough to colonize another, though the Korean kingdoms were generally more advanced technologically.


The third section looks at the building of Japan's first permanent capitals, Nara, Kyoto, and the less well known Fujiwara, and Naniwa (Osaka). These capitals are commonly referred to as Chinese-style capitals, but there was plenty of Korean influence as well as indigenous Japanese influence on their designs rather than the wholesale adoption of Chinese styles. Farris's own specialty of the impact of disease and famine on populations comes in here as he examines the economic and population pressures that cause some of the capital building to remain incomplete, and the recycling of materials from some of the capitals to build the newer ones


The final section deals with a new form of archeological resource first discovered in 1961, wooden tablets with writing on them dating from the 8th century. To date almost 200,000 of these tablets have been discovered and they have greatly added to our knowledge of such things as the daily life of the aristocracy, the operations of the bureaucracy, the tax system, and how the Taika Reforms were implemented.


For anyone interested in early Japanese history this book is a treasure trove of material much of which has not been available in English before. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Around Aquas

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Last week when we went to Aquas we didn't actually go into the aquarium, but explored behind it (there is no entrance fee to the park :))

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I was very pleasantly surprised, it is a nicely landscaped garden with artificial stream and pond.

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There is a solar-heated atrium, and from inside it one can descend and come out

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...behind an artificial waterfall.

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There is a big playground for the kids ( and adults who can appreciate it :)
The bright, sculptural play area was designed by painter Kei Amatsu who lives in Tsuwano and who has executed a lot of public art in Shimane and across Japan.

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And of course, across the bridge in front of the aquarium is 5 kilometres of fine sandy beach.

All in all, you can spend a pleasant few hours at Aquas without spending any money

More posts on Aquas

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hiroshima Kagura



A couple of months ago we were driving along a backroad in SE Hiroshima on our way to Shikoku when we saw a small shrine at the side of the road with all the banners flying and the parking area full of cars, matsuri!!

We pulled in and were delighted to find kagura being performed.

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The kagura in this area is related to Iwami kagura, but one noticeable difference is that the "heroes" don't wear masks but rather use makeup.

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It was a very small shrine, but it had a kagura-den, which was in fact the largest building at the shrine. The audience was small, and mostly elderly people. The kagura group was from somewhere else in the region.

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The steps down from the shrine to the kagura den were lined with shimenawa, creating a sacred space for the kami to descend to the performance. I asked the locals who were manning the stalls what the name of the kami was, but they didn't know so they suggested I ask the priest. He had been enjoying the O-miki (offering sake shared by the congregation and kami) and he admitted he had forgotten!

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As is usual in the back country of Japan, the villagers were very friendly and we were treated as honored guests. They gave us a bunch of yakitori and a pack of the areas speciality, candied peanuts.

Visiting village matsuris is one of my favorite activities. There is no comparison to the crowded, tourist-filled events that are the famous city matsuris.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shimoyama Inari Shrine, Hamada,

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Shimoyama Inari shrine is on the large hill at the mouth of the Hamada River on the opposite bank to the Castle Hill.

If one counts all the smaller Inari shrines in the grounds of other shrines then Inari shrines are the most common in Japan.

Like most kami, Inari has had, and continues to have, multiple identities and meanings. Primarily it is the kami of foodstuffs, but also the kami of industry, which is why many companies either erect Inari shrines on their property, and/or donate torii to established shrines. Inari is often erroneously called a "fox god", but in fact the foxes are just the messengers of Inari.

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At this shrine the main kami is listed as Kuramusubi which believed to be another name for Ukanomitama, the most "official" of representations of Inari, and a son of Susano. Inari has both male and female identities, Uganomitama being female. Inari also has hindu/buddhist manifestations, primarily as Daikiniten. The head shrine of Inari is at Fushimi near Kyoto. It was founded by the Hata family, an immigrant clan considered to be from Korea or China, though there are some who believe they are a lost tribe of Israel that wandered across Asia.

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At Shiroyama Inari there is a secondary shrine to Sarutahiko who is also considered a manifestation of Inari sometimes, and a secondary shrine to Izanagi and Izanami, the creator couple who created the islands of Japan.

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Underneath this shrine you can see a hole in the base. This is fairly common and exists to allow the "spirit foxes" to enter and leave.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Aquas (outside)

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The Aquas aquarium building is not much to look at as you speed by on Rte. 9, but a closer look reveals that it represents a shark

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Opened in 2000, the building was designed by the Nikken Sekkei design company.

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The dorsal fin?

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The main body.

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The mouth, "Jaws"!

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and the tail.

Recently opened was a new Penguin House, a white concrete box to the side of the mouth. Maybe it represents a big piece of polystyrene trash that litters Japanese beaches. I once showed some photos of beaches in Cornwall to some neighbors, and the first question they asked was "where is the trash?". I've been repeatedly told that the mountains of trash on Japan Sea beaches comes from Korea, and some of it indeed does, but most of it has kanji, hiragana and katakana on it, meaning its from Japan.

More posts on Aquas

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Aquas Aquarium

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Aquas is the largest aquarium in western Honshu and is located within Iwami Seaside Park on Route 9 between Hamada and Gotsu. More than 400 species of critters are on display.There are lots of flying fishes, the Prefectural fish.

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The changing colors of the Cuttlefish fascinated me. It had been more than 40 years since I had been to an aquarium, and I was pleasantly surprised at the displays and environment, not the dark, damp, concrete structures I remember from my childhood.

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What fascinated me the most were the jellyfish, particularly the gentle writhing of their (tails? tendrils?

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I kept coming back to them.

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There is a transparent tunnel under the largest tank filled with turtles, sharks, and all manner of aquatic beings.

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The main attraction is a show by a pair of white Belugas. Apparently they blow bubble rings. I didn't see the show as I was too busy watching the jellyfish.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Typical Japanese Landscape 12

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Japan is mostly mountains, so this time some mountain shots!

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For those who have never been to Japan, it is hard to fathom just how much concrete there is, and how much "nature" is manipulated and controlled.

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I can't remember whose quote it is, but "The Japanese have a wonderful sense of beauty...... and absolutely no sense of ugly!"

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More Typical Japanese landscapes
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