Friday, February 27, 2009

Shakechi Hachiman Shrine, Hamada

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Shakechi Hachiman Shrine is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood just off Route 186, the main road south out of Hamada towards Hiroshima.

Like most shrine it is unmanned, but I was surprised to see a display case with ofuda and Omamori for sale, until I learnt that amulets from this shrine are known specificly for traffic safety, so when you get a new car this is the place to come for protection while driving.

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There are quite a few secondary shrines within the grounds including this Inari Shrine.

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There is an Ebisu shrine, and Omoto Shrine, and a Jyunisha, which I believe is a shrine to the 12. animals of the Chinese zodiac.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Invented traditions: Emperor Jimmu & Saint Valentine

Invented traditions are not unique to Japan, they are the mainstay of all nation-states, but Japan does seem to have an inordinate amount of them.

This month we have had two of them.

On Wednesday, February 11th, it was National Foundation Day in Japan. National Foundation day was created in the Meiji era to celebrate the founding of Japan by the first Emperor Jimmu on February 11th 660 BC! This date comes from the early chronicles of Japan written in the late 7th Century by the Yamato rulers to justify their rule over Japan. Historians believe Jimmu, and the nine emperors after him, are pure fabrication. Certainly the date of 660BC is hundreds of years before the first of the people who would later be known as the Japanese started arriving in the islands. Its also 1,000 or more years before the Yamato rose to regional prominence in the Kinai area.

From the Meiji era until the end of the Second World War these ancient fairy tales were taught as history, and while this is no longer strictly true there is certainly an encouragement to believe them as history even nowadays. There is a school history textbook that includes a map of Jimmus invasion from Kyushu to the Kinai, and nowhere does it state that this is myth not history. Also even today in front of Heian Shrine in Kyoto is a sign in English about "2,600 years of Imperial rtule in Japan".

There is. I believe , a general tendency in Japan to believe that Japans culture and history go back much further in time than historical fact. (an excellent book looking at Japanese historians and the ancient myths is here)

Then, on the 14th of February we had Valentines day. I know valentine traditions are quite varied around the world, but for me there are two aspects that define it. One, it is a day for romance and romantic love, and secondly, there is the element of anonymity and secrecy. Japanese Valentines day has neither of these elements.

Valentines Day in Japan is for women to give chocolates to men. This should include your boyfriend, if you have one, but mostly its for giving chocolate to your boss and your male co-workers. There is no anonymity, as the chocolate is "giri choco", obligation chocolate, and one month later on March 14th, White Day, the men are supposed to return the favor to the women who gave them giri choco. In actual fact White Day is much more low-key, and I believe there is far less return-gift giving.

The chocolate companies in japan make half their annual sales in the few weeks leading up to Valentines Day. There lies the clue as to who invented this unique Japanese tradition.

The Englishman has some funny post on Japanese valentines chocolate...

Monday, February 23, 2009

The floating Torii of Miyajima

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I'm going against the grain of the title of my blog this time as this is MOST familiar japan.
It is of course the floating torii in front of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, probably the second-most photographed scene in Japan after Mt. Fuji.

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One of the 3 " best views of Japan", and part of a World Heritage Site, the torii is visited annually by millions.
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It, and the shrine, were damaged slightly in a typhoon a few years ago and so has been repaired and is sporting a new paint job. This actual torii was constructed in 1875, and at 16 metres in height is the largest wooden torii in Japan.

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Constructed of Camphor, it is a classic example of what is known as Ryoubu Shinto design, I've heard it referred to as 3-legged, and 4- legged, but to me it seems like 6-legged!

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Floating torii are not unique to Miyajima. There is another famous one at the head Shirahige Shrine on Lake Biwa near Kyoto, I've seen one on the Oki Islands, and Hinomisaki Shrine near Izumo used to have one when Lafcadio Hearn visited there.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hamada is kagura crazy!

Another lunchbreak 1947

When I first moved to the Iwami area I had never heard of kagura, let alone Iwami Kagura, but it didn't take long to notice that people in Iwami take their kagura very seriously. Kagura images are everywhere, nowhere more so than Hamada.

The above demon is on a huge window at the Yuhi Park roadstation.

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Susano battling Yamata no Orochi has recently appeared on some small draincovers.

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Shoki quells a demon on the side of a "honey wagon" (trucks for emptying the cesspits)

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The inside of this little bar is also decorated with masks and paraphenalia from kagura.
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And of course there are sites to see kagura performances, not just the shrines and their matsuris, but shopping malls, visitor centres, road stations etc.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Spring has sprung!

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Though the official start of spring, Setsubun, was a few weeks ago, for me the sign that spring is here is the arrival of the plum blossoms.

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Like the Chinese, I find the plum blossom more enchanting and exciting than the cherry blossom.

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We have quite a few plum trees in the area...and at least they grow fruit, which is more than can be said for the cherry blossom.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.

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The Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art is located on the waterfront in Kobe, and was opened in 2002 as part of the post-earthquake reconstruction.

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Designed by Tadao Ando, an architect I am coming to appreciate more and more. The Hyogo musuem is in many ways similar to the Fort Worth museum he built at around the same time.

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I will post more later, but for now here are some of the spiral staircase between 2 of the 3 main buildings.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tada-Ji, Hamada

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Located in the hills just to the east of Hamada, Tada-Ji is the oldest existing temple in Hamada.
Founded in the early eighth Century by a student of Kukai it is a fairly large complex with several huge trees over 1,000 years old.

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Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi is the founder of the Shingon sect, bases at Koyasan near Osaka/Nara.

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This statue of Kobo Daishi stands in front of an Inari Shrine. Around the statue is a short path with 88 stone markers representing the 88 temples of the famous Shikoku pilgrimage. Miniature versions of pilgrimages are common throughout Japan, but this may be the shortest I've seen. Why walk 1,400 kilometres to visit 88 sites when you can walk it in 14 metres!

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Of course there are hundreds and hundreds of miniature statues as at most temples.

Interestingly there is also a kagura-den with small shrine within the grounds.

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Inside the main worship hall are 59 wooden statues that were found washed up on a nearby beach. Experts date the statues to about 1,000 years ago. They were found in 1870 around the time the new Meiji Government had a campaign to suppress Buddhism. Thousands of temples were razed and buddhist artworks destroyed, obviously sometimes by throwing them into the rivers and sea. The sea current here comes from the west so there is a high probability that they came from a temple in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

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There is a big Matsuri here in early march that I hope to attend as I have never been to a Buddhist matsuri.

More posts on Tada-ji here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Typical Japanese Landscape 15

Mount Sanbe

With 10% of all the active volcanoes on the planet located in Japan, a volcano must be a typical Japanese landscape. This one is Mount Sanbe here in Iwami, and at 1126 metres is the highest point in Iwami, but a dwarf compared to Japans most famous volcano, Mt. Fuji.

The last eruption was about 1,400 years ago, but 3,500 years ago there was a major eruption that buried the forest under hundreds of feet of ash.

Actually Sanbe has 7 peaks, with a caldera about 1k across between them.

In the foreground is the Gonokawa River.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mizokuchi demons

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This is the draincover for the town of Mizokuchi in Tottori Prefecture. A story concerning the mythical 7th emperor of Japan visiting the area and fighting the local Oni, demon or ogre, is considered to be the earliest mention of Oni in Japan.

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Up until recently the town had an Oni Museum, but apparently it has closed down due to lack of visitors. The giant statue on top of the building was visible from quite a ways off.

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There was a small collection of demon masks from around the world.

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And a small collection of demon masks from around japan.

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A nice wooden Hanya mask.

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Off course it wouldn't be Japan without "cute" demons!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Japan on 1,000 yen a day.

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Was over the river at the store yesterday and saw this guy come cycling through the village. It is rare we see any foreigners in this part of the world, and rarer still foreigners touring by bicycle, but with full panniers that was obviously what he was doing. I stopped and asked him if he needed any help or information, and asked the obvious first question "where have you cycled from?". My jaw dropped with his answer "England!"

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Justin, from Sheffield, left England at the end of July, cycled across Europe, then Asia, and arrived in Shimonoseki on a ferry from China on January 18th. He then did a circuit of Kyushu before coming back to Honshu and is now on his way up to the northernmost point of Tohuku before heading back down to Tokyo for a flight to Canada.

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His answer to the question "why?" is simple and obvious "because I like cycling".

Since 2002 he has cycled his away across all the continents of the planet, with brief returns to England to work at a job for a few months to raise the cash to go cycling again. Other than the times people invite him into their homes for the night he camps out every night by the side of the road and prepares porridge, vegetables, and japatis to eat everyday.

Our offer of a cup of English tea he found impossible to refuse, and while chatting our offer of fish and chips and a bed for the night was accepted.

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He is travelling the back roads in Japan, and reckons Japanese roads are some of the steepest he's encountered. In terms of being a cyclist he reckons the Japanese are the worst drivers in the world, but he has no real complaints and is thoroughly enjoying his time here.

So, if you live along the Japan Sea coast, keep your eyes open for him during the next month, and trade a bed and a meal for some fascinating stories.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Shimane by numbers. Part 2

More fascinating fun-fun-filled facts and statistics about where I live.

Per capita there are more museums and art galleries in Shimane than any other prefecture bar one. I have been unable to find out what that prefecture is, so if anyone knows, please let me know.

Why do we Shimaneans have more museums and galleries?

The answer is simple, because we are an incredibly sophisticated and cultural people!

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We have museums for sand!

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And we have museums for water! Actually this is one of my favorite museums I've come across in Japan, it's only a few minutes from my house. I will post more on it later.

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In Hamada we have a huge Childrens Art Museum.

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And lets not forget concert halls and auditoriums like this one in Daito, a town of 5,000.

The cynical among you might suggest that the real reason we have so many museums is because Shimane is the biggest recipient (per capita) of central government public works funds, so as well as all the museums we have...

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........bridges to nowhere..........

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... well protected mountains,........

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.. and well protected rivers and coastline!

One final statistic...... it is estimated that 90% of the public works in Shimane are subject to dango! Dango is the Japanese word for bid-rigging, whereby a small group of companies get together and decide among themselves which company gets which project, and then they set an extremeley overpriced bid.
Bid rigging is of course illegal, but like many laws in Japan it masks the fact that bid-rigging is the standard way of doing things in Japan. The construction companies make huge profits, some of which is channeled to the political parties that bring the pork, the bureaucrats that award the contracts get nice cushy post-retirement jobs in the companies they have awarded contracts to, known as amakudari, and the prefecture gets infrastructure it neither needs nor wants. The losers are of course the tax-payers who fund the process.

I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, so was really miffed when someone sent me this link to a New York Times article last week that covers the same subject even using Shimane as the example.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Omoto Shrine. Hamada

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Tucked away up a little lane about 200 metres from the Otoshi shrine near the harbour in Hamada is a small Omoto Shrine.

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I have been unable to find any information on the shrine. Omoto probably refers to the kami Omotojin, or it may refer to the fact that this shrine is built on the earliest shrine in the area before the Yamato Awashima Shrine. Or it may mean both things.

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There is a small kagura-den and a small secondary shrine in the grounds, and I found these paper flowers which may have come from a Hana Mikoshi.

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I love wandering around the alleys and narrow lanes of the old parts of Japanese towns. Without traffic it is easy to imagine how things were in earlier times.

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Some people put plastic bottles of water around their doorways and houses in the belief that it will stop neighborhood cats from peeing there. I have no idea if there is any truth to this old-wives tale, but several houses in the area had put plastic flowers in the bottles which added a nice touch.

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