Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Ganbaremasu Japan! Support for Japan in the wake of the 3/11 Earthquake and Tsunami

This is a video I made in support of Japan after the earthquake and devastating tsunami which caused much damage and loss of life in northeastern Japan in the Tohoku region.

Over a couple of days I got Japanese and foreign-residents to show their support and togetherness in dealing with the aftermath. I included footage of various Japanese festivals to showcase Japanese spirit and strength. Many of the festival clips were taken at events in the Tohoku area. The singing is from the World Cup celebrations this past summer.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | 2011, culture, earthquake, festival, japan, Japan Earthquake, japanese culture, Japanese festival, tohoku, tokyo, video, vlog | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Japanese Igloo Festival – Kamakura Matsuri in Yokote

Japanese Igloo Festival
Kamakura Matsuri

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Kamakura Matsuri – Japanese Igloo Festival in the northern Japanese city of Yokote

In the small city of Yokote in northern Japan, the citizens eschew the modern conveniences of warm homes in the middle of February and pile into small snow huts known as Kamakura. It’s the Kamakura Matsuri and they’ve been doing this for over 400 years.

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Sori – old fashion sled for transporting toddlers and supplies

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Kamakura occupants wearing old fashion hanten coats or donbuku in the Akita dialect

These Kamamura-style igloos are two meters in diameter made of piled-up snow which is then later hollowed out. Inside is a charcoal brazier in the middle to keep the place warm. The temporary inhabitants of these Kamakura sit on cushions while cooking sweet mochi which is a type of a chewy rice cake and heating up a type of non-alcoholic sweet-tasting type of sake known as amazake.

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On the far side wall is a makeshift altar to Suijin-sama, the Shinto god of water. One of the origins of the festival is that one time Yokote suffered from a lack of drinking water and the Kamakura were erected to get Suijin-sama’s attention. Suijin-sama’s attention is also requested in the form of rain in order to provide enough water for the coming planting season.

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Visitors are invited to enter the Kamakura and freely partake of the mochi and amazake. Many of the occupants of the Kamakura are rather short. This is due to the fact that many local children play house in the snow huts. They are the hosts and hostesses which explains why it’s hard to find hot sake or beer in many of the Kamakura. The ones with bigger inhabitants will sometimes have the necessary liquid refreshment.

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Cooking mochi

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In addition to the charcoal braziers, the locals stay warm by wearing a straw cape called mino and a traditional winter coat known as a hanten. Hanten is a short winter coat with thick cotton padding which became popular in the 18th Century. In the Akita dialect it is called a donbuku or donbugu by older generations.

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Yokote Castle 

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Most of the Kamakura snow huts can hold up to about 4-6 people but at the end of the evening I ended up in one that held 17 people! These were all full grown people so there was booze a-plenty leaving me very warm that cold night but with a raging headache the next morning.

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The Kamakura Festival is a simple but beautiful festival and it’s very friendly and inviting. The festival is held every year February 15th and 16th from 6pm to 9pm.

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Hundreds of miniature kamakura dot the city of Yokote

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February 27, 2010 Posted by | Akita, festival, japan, japanese culture, Kamakura Matsuri, matsuri, snow, snow festival, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, Yokote | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Boating Through a Japanese River Gorge – GeibiKei Video

Geibikei is a scenic river gorge in the northern prefecture of Iwate where people can take flat-bottom boats piloted by singing boatmen. The boatmen guide the boats along with poles much with the gondaliers of Venice.

I was back up in Iwate again for festivals (in case you can’t tell I have a thing for festivals). One of them was rescheduled later on the weekend so I had to extend my trip.

With my extra time, I decided to go to Geibikei, a place I visited on a whim 3 years ago with my folks when we were touring the Tohoku area.

It costs about 1500Yen for a 90-minute trip there and back. At the half-way point, you can walk around a bit. On the way back, the boatmen sings traditional songs.

October 23, 2009 Posted by | boating, boats, geibikei, iwate, japan, nature, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Geibikei – Floating Thru a River Gorge in Northern Japan

Floating Through a River Gorge in Northern Japan
Geibikei Gorge – Iwate Prefecture

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Flat-bottom boats ply the river in Geibikei Gorge

In northern Japan in the prefecture of Iwate is a little known natural treasure known as Geibikei. Geibikei is a river gorge enclosed by tall rocky cliffs some 100 meters high. Visitors can take large flat-bottom boats piloted by a singing boatmen who pole along the shallow slow-moving river somewhat like the gondoliers of Venice.

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The boat pilots guide the boats with poles like the gondoliers of Venice

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The round-trip boat journey takes about an hour with a stop in the middle for a quick walkabout. The walk ends at a cul-de-sac where one can try their hand at getting a bit of luck. There’s a hole in the canyon wall across a pool which people try to cast charms into in order to get good luck. For 100 Yen ($1) visitors can purchase 5 stones that have charm characters carved into them. The five are for long life, love, luck, destiny, and your own personal wish.

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My first toss went straight into the hole and thinking myself done I gave my other charms to some of my fellow passengers. I forgot until later to see which charm was the lucky one.

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Good Luck Charms for throwing

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Visitor try to cast their good luck charms into the hole to make their luck come about

On the return, the boat pilot will sing old traditional songs that echo off the cliff walls. It’s a very serene Zen-like experience to be floating along that slow-moving river with the cliffs looming high above, the occasional piercing cry of a bird of prey on the wing, and fish swimming past as the boat pilot sings old folk medleys from long ago.

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One of the highlights of the trip is the boat pilots singing old traditional songs as they pole along

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My first visit to Geibikei was completely by accident a few years ago. My parents were visiting and having seen Tokyo and Kyoto before, they wanted to venture into the more unknown regions of Tohoku, the northern section of Japan.

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A small shrine along the river’s edge

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Tohoku is a region which often goes overlooked by overseas travelers especially by those in Japan for the first time. Tokyo and Kyoto and the surrounding areas tend to lure visitors to them and use up much of their time leaving little if any time to explore the hinterlands. It’s a shame because Tohoku has a lot to offer, Geibikei being one such place.

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I had only seen the name Geibikei in passing in one of my guidebooks. I had no intention of going there until I stumbled upon a poster of it in Hiraizumi, a town we were visiting at the time. The picture was enough for me to decide to schedule it into our itinerary.

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Although close to Hiraizumi, like much of Tohoku, Geibikei isn’t easy to reach. Trains don’t run so regularly as they do further south. We took the southbound train which runs about twice an hour to the little city of Ichinoseki where we transferred to the sometimes-once-hour-sometimes-less train to Geibikei station.

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Not much there but there was a convenient store, ever the bastion of civilization in the woolly wilds of the hinterlands or the concrete jungle of Tokyo.

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The boats can fit up to 60 people but we were fortunate not to need its full capacity. Instead we had plenty of space to have a picnic and more importantly, drink beer. Like Japanese fashion on land, we had to remove our shoes before boarding.

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We passed other boats filled to the gills with giggling school kids from junior high. My folks got a kick out of watching kids just being kids despite being in school uniforms. The kids were laughing and joking and some girls had their feet in the water.

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One boat of school kids, however, was quiet and somber. We found out why as it passed us – the school teacher was on that one. The kids on that boat were well-mannered and a little glum, no doubt cursing their luck to have wound up on the same boat as the teacher.

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For those adventurous types on the loose in the northern country, Geibikei is certainly worth a visit. Geibikei can be reached in about 30 minutes by train or bus – neither of which run frequently – from Ichinoseki in southern Iwate.

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October 3, 2009 Posted by | Blogroll, boating, boats, geibikei, iwate, japan, japanese culture, nature, photographs, photography, tohoku, travel | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nishimonai Bon Odori – Japanese Dance for the Dead

Japanese Town Dances to Remember the Dead
Nishimonai Bon Odori

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Nishimonai Bon Odori – Japanese Dance for the Dead

Obon is the time in Japan to pay respect to ancestral spirits. Japanese will travel to their home towns in order to pray at their ancestors’ graves. It’s believed the spirits of the departed return during the 3-day holiday – mainly in mid-August. These returning spirits are not to be feared like the ones that come with Halloween. In fact, they are welcomed and many communities put on a variety of celebrations.

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Some dancers wear a black hood to represent deceased spirits

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One of the most common features of Obon is the Bon Odori, a special dance for Obon. Bon Odori dances vary from region to region each having their own particular form.

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Some of the dancers wear a straw hat known as amigasa

In the small town of Nishimonai in the northern prefecture of Akita, the locals perform a Bon Odori which is a mixture of an old harvest dance and a memorial to a fallen samurai lord.

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The Nishimonai Bon Odori is unique in that some of the dancers were a black hood to represents the spirits of the deceased. Other dancers wear a patchwork kimono of silk fabric known as hanui and a woven straw hat called a amigasa.

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Some dancers wear hanui a patchwork kimono of silk fabric

The dancers’ faces are obscured by the hoods and straw hats giving the dance a surreal ghostly-like quality.

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The singers sing in the old Akita dialect which many Japanese outside of Akita have difficulty understanding.

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The Nishimonai Bon Odori takes place just after the traditional dates for Obon from August 16-18, the big day being the 18th where the dance lasts for several hours in the evening.

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September 22, 2009 Posted by | Akita, Bon Odori, culture, dance, festival, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, Nishimonai, Nishimonai Bon Odori, Obon, tohoku, tradition, travel | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Funekko Nagashi – Japanese Boat-Burning Festival Video

Here’s a video on a Japanese Boat-Burning festival known as Funekko Nagashi which takes place in the northern city of Morioka. The festival is part of the Obon tradition, a time when many Japanese travel to their hometowns to pray at their ancestors’ graves.

Here they contruct makeshift boats, pack them with fireworks, and set fire to them as they float down the river.

September 10, 2009 Posted by | festival, fireworks, Funekko Nagashi, iwate, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, morioka, Obon, Only in Japan, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

14 Meter Tall Gundam Float and more Giant Gundam in Odaiba

This is a short follow-up to my Gundam vid. Here I talk about a 14 meter tall Gundam float made of Japanese paper – washi – that I saw at a festival in Aomori, the “Gundam Gap” in my Japanese Anime experience, my video game experience with Gundam: Federation vs. Zeon, and a little bit more about this Gundam’s “secret” potential.

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Anime, festival, goshogawara, Gundam, japan, Japanese Anime, japanese culture, matsuri, nebuta, neputa, Only in Japan, pop culture, tachi neputa, tohoku, tokyo, travel, vlog, weird, WTF, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Japanese Golden Week

Golden Week is a spring holiday in Japan when many Japanese travel. May 3-5 and to some degree April 29th are national holidays and the whole country seems to move to the other side of the country. 

Here I talk about the tradition of Golden Week and the hassles of traveling during this time. Still it’s nice to get up to a week off, something we never get in the States.

Here I talk about How I spent my Golden Week Holiday past and present.

The first few years I worked or stayed home. In 2007, I started traveling going to a samurai festival in Yamagata Prefecture then another festival in Hiraizumi in Iwate.

In 2008 I saw ancient Imperial court music known as Gagaku and dance Bugaku at Meiji Shrine on Showa Day – April 29th. Then I went again to the samurai festival in Yamagata and a castle nearby. I went to Hiraizumi again and the day after to a replica of what Hiraizumi once looked like.

This year I went to Tohoku yet again starting in Kakunodate a town with samurai houses in Akita. After that I stopped by Lake Tazawa then went to a Jomon site, a stone circle in northeastern Akita that goes back over 4000 years.

I took a ferry boat from Aomori city that night to Hakodate and saw the last place of defense for the old followers of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The next day I took a ferry to ShimoKita where I went to the land of ghosts known as Osorezan. It’s a smoky sulphuric dead landscape said to be where people go when they die.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | festival, Golden Week, hakodate, hokkaido, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, Jomon, tohoku, tokyo, travel, video, vlog | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Japanese Devils Scare the Laziness out of Kids

Japanese Devils Scare the Laziness out of Kids
Namahage – Japanese Devils with a Strong Work Ethic

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Namahage – the bane of lazy children

“Twas the night before my skinning…”
Imagine you were a young child living in the Northwestern part of Japan on the small peninsula of Oga. It’s the holiday season and instead of waiting eagerly for fat jolly old elf with a sack full of toys to bring you presents, you’re dreading the arrival of a bunch of hairy scary devils with a handful of butcher knives who threaten to peel off your skin if you’ve have been lazy all year. It makes the lump of coal Santa Claus leaves with naughty children pale in comparison. If you can get your head around that, perhaps you can understand this bizarre bit of psychological child abuse known as the Namahage.

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Part of the Oga Welcoming Committee

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Namahage come in a variety of shapes and colors throughout Oga

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The Namahage are Japanese devils who visit villages on the Oga peninsula every New Year’s Eve. They wear straw coats, carry large kitchen knives, and wooden buckets. They come in the night down from their mountain homes howling and waving torches. The Namahage burst into homes stomping about looking for lazy children. If the children are hiding, the Namahage will flush them out threatening to take them into the mountains.

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Namahage are your childhood nightmares in the flesh

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Namahage stomps around the house looking for hiding children

The head of the household will try to appease the devils with a specially prepared meal accompanied with sake. He assures them that no one has been lazy in his household. Then the Namahage seeing all from their mountaintop look into their secret book which records the doings of every household and challenge that statement. The head of the household again promises that all have been obedient and hard-working and pleads with the devils not to take his wife and children into the mountains. It takes considerable effort to control these devils with their strong work-ethic.

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Hard Negotiations with Namahage

As the negotiations drag on, the head of the household offers more sake and along with mochi – rice cake – while begging that his wife and child not be taken away. Eventually the Namahage relent placated by the offerings and the sincerity of the head of the household. They bless the next year’s harvest and wish good health to all the members of the household. As the Namahage leave, they promise (or rather threaten) to return next year.

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Devils Coming Thru!

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Namahage – Oga’s unofficial ambassador

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For children the whole experience can be rather nerve-wracking. When the Namahage arrive they immediately seek out any hiding children and make as though they will take off with them right then and there. The parents or grandparents make a show of trying to save their child without much luck and only through careful negotiation amply accompanied with sake are they successful. Thus children learn gratitude for being saved from drudgery of working in the mountains for the harsh Namahage.

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In the old days, Namahage terrorized both lazy children and wives

In olden times, communities in areas such as Oga could not afford the luxury of laziness especially with the winters as long and harsh as they are. It’s not difficult to understand why community leaders would have gone to such efforts to instill a strong work ethic in their youth. Today the ritual is traditional. In the past it was a more serious matter – teaching the youth to work hard for their community’s survival and their own.

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Namahage have a strong work ethic

The original legend runs that the Namahage Devils arrived from China and caused the people of Oga much trouble. A deal was struck between the people and the Namahage that if the Namahage could build a thousand-step staircase for the main shrine in a single night, the people would supply them with a young woman every year; but if they failed, they would leave the people alone. The Namahage readily agreed and set to work.

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Namahage working hard to win their wager

The lusty devils were so efficient that by the end of the night they had only one stone left to lay before dawn even hinted in the sky. One fast-thinking person however came to the rescue and mimicked the cry of a rooster thus signaling that dawn had arrived. The Namahage, believing they had lost, left and went into the mountains but they return every year for their pound of flesh.

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A Namahage hears a mimicked rooster and thinks they have lost

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The Namahage go into the mountains but promise to return once a year

There are several theories as to the origins of the Namahage. One theory is that Namahage are derived from an ancient mountain deity. There are many native traditions of gods coming for a visit – though not quite with the fanfare of the Namahage. Another theory is that they are based on Yamabushi – shinto priest who leaved hermit-like existence in the mountain.

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Yamabushi – Shinto Hermit Priest – one suspect for the Namahage origin

Yet another theory hints that the Namahage might be based on shipwrecked sailors from Europe most likely Russia. Given the age of festival, it could be that they were those hardy explorers, the Vikings. It would explain the trouble they caused probably in foraging raids and the bet with the supply of woman.

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Shipwreck Foriegners might be another possible origin of the Namahage

The name “namahage” comes from the local dialect. “Nama” refers to the patch of skin that forms on the skin if someone sits too long at the fire ie being lazy. “Hage” means to scrap away the mark. This is why the Namahage carry their large knives to scrape away the laziness of their victims.

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Namahage carry large knives to scrape the laziness from victims

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For travelers, New Years is not a good time to see Namahage as it’s primarily a private affair. Participating households don’t want a bunch of camera-flashing tourists to ruin the effect of scaring their kids straight. Some of the local hotels arrange Namahage visitations but given it’s the New Years the whole thing can be rather pricey. Fortunately for the Namahage-seeker, there is the Namahage Museum in Oga where year-round, they can see a performance of the New Years’ event sans the crying children.

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Making a Namahage Mask at the Namahage Museum

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Visitors can become a Namahage at the Namahage Museum

In February, there is the Sedo Matsuri or simply the Namahage Festival which takes place next to the Namahage Museum in Oga. In the evening several men come down a hillside wearing straw coats. Near the shrine, two Shinto priests bless Namahage masks then precede to mask the men. Once they are all masked, they begin stomping and howling. Thus the Namahage are born.

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Dancing Devil

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A little while later they come down again with blazing torches. While young children cry and hide, others chase after the Namahage seeking to grasp a straw from their coats for good luck. Some of the Namahage dance, some of them play Taiko drums, and some of those of softer disposition play Rock, Paper, Scissors with children brave enough to match wit and hand with the Namahage.

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Namahage playing Rock, Paper, Scissors

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Drumming Devils

At the end of the festival, a priest presents an offering of mochi – rice cake – burnt black on a fire. The Namahage grudgingly accept the offering then return to their mountain lair. But everyone knows the Namahage keep watch on them and will be back without fail next year.

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Priest offering mochi to Namahage

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The Namahage promise/threaten to return next year

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Akita, culture, devils, drums, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, music, Namahage, New Years, Oga, Only in Japan, Roving Ronin Report, taiko, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival in Hirosaki

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival
Brightening up the Winter Sky

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Snow Lantern Festival of Hirosaki

Winters are long in Tohoku, the northern region of mainland Japan. Snow and ice are common fare there. A skier’s boon but a common man’s burden. In ages past before sports skiing and winter fashion, winter was something to be dreaded and suffered through. It is no wonder that a multitude of snow festivals dot the Tohoku region. These festivals are the locals’ way of making Winter seem little less unfriendly and little less bleak.

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Hirosaki Castle

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One such festival takes place in the city of Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture which is the northernmost area of the Japanese mainland. Capitalizing on the beauty of winter, residents of Hirosaki create lanterns made completely made of snow in early February.

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The lanterns for the most part resemble the type of lantern found in Japanese gardens and shrines. There are hundreds of these spread through the grounds of Hirosaki Castle. Some of the snow lanterns however are rather avant-garde shaped with just a hint of the essence of a traditional stone lantern.

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Avant-Garde Snow Lantern

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Mickey Mouse Snow Lantern Shows Off Japanese Obsessive Love for all Things Disney

Where in the stone lanterns there would be empty spaces for the placing of candles, painted portraits are set. The portraits resemble closely that of Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival in Early August. The Neputa Festival consists of large oval shaped floats with painted scenes from Japanese and Chinese stories.

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Snow Lantern with Mt. Iwaki

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The Snow Lantern Festival’s portraits depict the faces of Japanese women, samurai, and legendary Chinese heroes from the works of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh. In the evening, they are illuminated from within much in the same way the Neputa floats are.

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While the Neputa Festival goes back centuries, the Snow Lantern Festival goes back only decades – three to be exact. The Festival started in 1977 as a way to bring the community together during the long cold winter. It has since become one of the five biggest snow festivals in the Tohoku area.

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One of the few non-lantern structures to be seen at the festival

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Throughout the Festival, local volunteers patrol the grounds looking to repair the lanterns and clearing the pathways. They place the portraits on the lanterns and fasten them in place with short bamboo sticks. Across the old moat, dozens of small kamakura – or snow huts – are set up each with an individual candle.

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A Volunteer Repairs a Snow Lantern

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Three hundred miniature Kamakura snow huts dot the the bank of the castle moat

Hirosaki’s Snow Lantern Festival may not be a major extravaganza like the Snow Festival a little further north in Sapporo but it has a pleasant charm of its own. The Snow Lantern Festival in this respect represents the Japanese character best – simple but elegant; the quintessential concept of Japanese wabi-sabi.

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The only drawback to all this charm and elegance, however, is the music they choose to play in the background. Instead of playing traditional Japanese music particularly the guitar-like shamisen which Hirosaki is known for, they play less than quality modern music that is a cross between old style enka and modern pop music from mediocre artist without financial clout to sue the city for playing their music.

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Music aside, the illuminated snow lanterns and the miniature kamakura snow huts with Hirosaki Castle as a backdrop make for a winter fairy-tale land.

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February 22, 2009 Posted by | culture, event, festival, hirosaki, history, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, snow, snow festival, snow lantern festival, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

   

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