Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Monks Cutting Bamboo Festival – Takakiri-eshiki

On June 20th, on Mt Kuruma north of Kyoto an interesting ritual is held where Japanese Buddhist monks hack at thick bamboo stalks in order to drive out evil and ensure good harvests. The ritual is known as Takekiri-eshiki and goes back over a thousand years.

The origin of the ritual is said to come from an encounter a monk had with two huge snakes in the 9th Century. The snakes were male and female and they no doubt saw the monk as a meal. The monk, however, was able to kill the male snake with a well-aimed prayer. The female snake pleaded for mercy and promised to guard the waters of the mountain.

In the Takakiri-eshiki ritual, bamboo stalks representing the male snake are cut by sword-wielding monks. There are two teams representing the ancient provinces of Omi and Tamba. It’s believed that whichever team cuts the quicker their represented area will have the better harvest.

For more photos:
Takakiri-eshiki photos
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September 21, 2012 Posted by | buddhism, japan, japanese culture, Japanese festival, Kyoto, mt. kurama, travel | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gods, Devils, and Geisha – Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara

Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara



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A Devil arrives with sword and torch at a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto

Setsubun (Feb 3rd) is a Japanese Spring ritual where Japanese drive bad luck in the form of Oni (devils) out of their homes with a handful of tossed beans. At temples and shrines, they do mame maki which is throwing beans and other things to gathered crowds. 

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Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha

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Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese holidays and I’ve been celebrating it for the past 6 years or more. In the past I always celebrated it at temples and shrines in or around Tokyo. This year I headed for Kyoto taking in Nara in the evening as well. I started Setsubun on the 2nd with some Geisha mame maki (geisha were throwing beans that is, not that they were throwing geisha). 

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On February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs watching for their shadows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha throw beans to gathered crowds at Yasaka Shrine. The Geisha actually are maiko who are Geisha apprentices. There were two groups of maiko, one from the Pontocho district and the other from the Miyagawacho district. Before doing mame maki they graced us with a brief dance performance – a rare treat.

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In the evening I went to Mibu-dera, a temple famous for its association with the Shinsengumi, a militaristic police group for the old Shogunate in the mid-19th Century, and for kyogen plays. Kyogen is type of comical play which was often performed as intermission pieces of more serious Noh dramas. Unfortunately for the visitor, no photography or video making was allowed. This was either to protect the performance or to keep away the distraction of camera shutters clicking, video cameras beeping, and those idiots who don’t know how to turn off the flash on their pocket cameras.

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Setsubun Devils are distinguishable by their horns and fetching tiger pants

Mibu-dera put on a special Setsubun kyogen for the occasion about a widow who encounters a Setsubun devil. The widow is visited by a devil in the guise of a traveler. He has a magic hammer which he makes an expensive kimono for himself and the widow. They begin drinking sake and the devil drinking too much falls asleep. The widow gets greedy and decides to make off with the hammer and kimono. As she strips away the “traveler’s” kimono she sees his true self and screams. The devil awakes and comes after her. Panicked, the widow reaches for the first thing to defend herself and throws it at the devil. What she threw at him was dried soybeans, the traditional beans of Setsubun. Devils hate beans for some reason and so the widow was able to drive the devil away. It was easy to understand the story despite my limited Japanese because it was all done through pantomime. 

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Setsubun Devils often wield huge iron-studded clubs

On the next day, Setsubun proper, I went to six places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes from the Heian Era (794-1192). The men wore a kariginu, the everyday wear of a court noble, which would later become the formal wear of the samurai in later ages. The women wore the costume of a Shirabyoshi dancer. Shirabyoshi were female dancers who wore men’s clothing and performed slow rhythmic dances that influenced later Noh performers. The Shirabyoshi tradition began in 12th Century, the last century of the Heian Period and until 1868 the last century in which governmental power would reside within the Imperial Court.

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Mame Maki participants wearing old court costumes

From Yasaka, I made use of my all day bus pass and leapt onto a northbound bus to Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine was built just over a hundred years ago as a replica of the old Imperial Palace. There I got a snatch of a Kyogen performance which thankfully allowed photography and video. What caught my attention was that one of the performers was female. Traditionally Kyogen like Kabuki and Noh was performed solely by males including the female roles. As this was a festival performance perhaps the rules were relaxed.

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Kyogen performers

From Heian Shrine I went to Shogo-In, a temple which normally lies off of the tourist trail as there is not much to lend itself to fame amongst so many other temples. However, this small temple puts on one of the more interesting Setsubun rituals. The priests dress as Yamabushi, which are a type of ascetic hermit who are known for often living in the mountains following a creed which is a blend of Buddhism and the native Shintoism.

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A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism

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Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power

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Yamabushi playing seashell horn

After a lengthy but catchy chanting ritual, three devils arrived wielding their massive iron-studded clubs. They were quickly subdued by bean-throwing Yamabushi and tamed into submission. Later the devils participated in mami maki by throwing the beans at us instead.

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An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans

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Setsubun Devil throwing beans rather than having them thrown at him

At another small temple Rozan-ji, a temple far too small to accommodate the number of visitors that Setsubun brings, three devils arrived bearing weapons while another gave blessings to visitors.

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A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings

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The weapon-bearing devils danced around before going into the temple. An archer came out sometime later to do a kind of archery exorcism ritual in which he shot untipped arrows in the four cardinal directions. Soon after the three devils emerged from the temple sans their weapons. They were staggering about reeling from the effects of the Setsubun exorcism rituals. After that mame maki was done and here they threw hard-shelled sweets and small mochi rice cakes.

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Archer performing archery exorcism ritual

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A Devil going down for the count

After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Setsubun exorcism demonstration in the evening. Nara was the first capital of Japan from 710-784. At Kofuku-ji Temple another lengthy exorcism ritual took place while the crowd shifted restlessly waiting for the main event namely the devils. The crowd was silently shouting in their minds “Get on with it! Bring on the Devils!” as the priests droned on. Finally after an eternity of waiting, the devils arrived both big and small. They pranced about the stage under the night sky waving torches and weapons. 

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A l’il devil

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Here the devils were apparently too tough to be defeated by just mere beans. At Kofuku-ji, they brought out the big guns in the form of Bishamonten or Bishamon, a Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. Bishamon battles all kinds of evils. North is the direction where Japanese traditionally believe evils come from so the Northern Guardian has to be pretty stout to deal with them. Bishamon took on all the devils by himself. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with (plastic) weapons.

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Bishamon – the Muhammad Ali of Buddhist Devil Fighters

After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. The shrine’s Setsubun was far more low-key. No gods, devils, geisha, mountain priests, or grasping hands for flying beans. They just had lanterns lit up for the night. It was very beautiful and serene. Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!

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Kasuga Taisha Shrine

February 10, 2010 Posted by | buddhism, devils, Geisha Dance, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, maiko, Nara, oni, Only in Japan, Setsubun, travel, video, vlog, weird | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Osu Kannon Temple and Shopping Market in Nagoya, Japan

I was visiting Nagoya and decided to drop in on Victor aka Gimmeabreakman aka Givemeaflakeman. He gave me a quick tour of Osu Kannon temple and its nearby shopping market during his break between classes.

Osu Kannon is quiet contemplative spot right in the middle of hectic downtown Nagoya.

February 9, 2010 Posted by | buddhism, Givemeabreakman, japan, japanese culture, Nagoya, Osu Kannon, shopping, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2009 New Years at Zojo-ji, A Japanese Temple in Tokyo

With the New Year coming up, I thought I’d dredge up some of my unused footage from this year and show how and where I rang in 2009. For those of you in Tokyo this New Years, Zojo-ji Temple in Hamamatsucho is worth a visit as they have lots of activities going on from Buddhist priests chanting, mochi-making, hatsumode (New Years Prayer), hot sake drinking, burning old New Year charms, ringing the huge bell, and selling charms and food.

December 30, 2009 Posted by | 2009, buddhism, japan, japanese culture, New Year's Eve, New Years, tokyo, Tokyo Tower, travel, video, vlog, zojo-ji | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gokaicho: 7-year festival at Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano, Japan

Every seven years, at the temple of Zenko-ji in Nagano City they reveal a statue that is normally kept hidden. The statue is a 13th Century replica of a Buddhist statue which supposedly was the first Buddhist statue to officially come to Japan in the 6th Century.

This first introduction of Buddhism set off a religious war which was more about political power than anything else between the Soga clan and the Mononobe and Nakotomi clans. The statue got tossed into the river but was later fished out and ended up at Zenko-ji in Nagano. A replica was made during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and that one is revealed to the public every 7 years.

The 7 year festival occurred this year and the last time to see it was the end of May so I went there during May to get a glimpse of the statue and a glimpse at Japan’s history.

December 9, 2009 Posted by | buddhism, culture, festival, Gokaicho, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, nagano, travel, video, Zenkoji | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Komuso Zen Priest Playing Shakuhachi Video

Komuso were Zen Buddhist Priests who used to travel about playing the Shakuhachi (Japanese Flute) for meditation and alms. Komuso means “Priest of Nothingness.”

I encountered this Komuso while I was in Nagoya. Komuso ceased to exist from the late 19th Century onwards.

The titles are bits of Zen sayings from samurai and Zen Masters. The subtitles tell the tale of the Komuso and their ultimate fate.

It’s up for possible airing at Current TV:
http://current.com/items/88939627_zen_priest_playing_the_shakuhachi

Register and hit the green “I like it!” button, please!
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May 8, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, buddhism, busking, culture, entertainment, flute, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, komuso, life, music, Nagoya, travel, video, vlog, youtube, zen | , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Chance Encounter with a Komuso Zen Priest – A Vision from Japan’s Past

Komuso – Japanese Zen Priest
A chance encounter with a vision from Japan’s past 

 
A vision from the past – A Komuso Zen Priest

While I was in Nagoya last month, I was walking to my temporary home for the night (i.e. an internet cafe) when I encountered a vision out of Japan’s past – a Buddhist priest playing a Japanese flute known as a Shakuhachi.

The Shakuhachi player was dressed as a Komuso, a type of Zen Buddhist priest who once wandered throughout Old Japan playing their flutes for alms and meditation. Like some kind of ghost, the komuso just stood there playing his flute while people walked around the him practically ignoring him as he ignored them. It seemed a thing unreal.


Komuso used to play the Shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo flute) for alms and meditation

Centuries ago in Old Japan the streets of cities and villages were accustomed to the sight of a Buddhist priest playing a bamboo flute with his head completely covered by a straw hat. This was the Komuso. Komuso were Zen Buddhists priests who wandered about Japan playing the Shakuhachi for both meditation and alms.

Komuso belonged to the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Fuke Zen comes from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen teacher from China in the 9th Century. Fuke however is the Japanese name for Pahua one of Linji’s peers and co-founders of his sect. Pahua would walk around ringing a bell to summon others to enlightenment. In Japan, it was thought the Shakuhachi could serve this purpose.


Komuso means “Priest of Nothingness”

Fuke Zen came to Japan in the 13th Century. The priest were known first as komoso which means “straw-mat monk.” Later they became known as Komuso which means “priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness.” Fuke Zen emphasized pilgrimage and so the sight of wandering Komuso was a familiar one in Old Japan.

Komuso practiced saizen which is meditation through blowing on the Shakuhachi as opposed to the sazen which is meditation through sitting as practiced by most Zen followers.


Komuso wore straw hats which hid their ego and their identity

The shakuhachi flute was the instrument used to achieve this desired state. Shakuhachi derives its name from its size. Shaku is an old unit of measure close to an American measurement of a foot. Hachi is eight which in this case represents the measurement of eight-tenths of a shaku. True Shakuhachi are made of bamboo and can be quite expensive going upwards to $5,000 in modern times.

Komuso wore a woven straw hat which covered their head completely looking like an overturned basket. The concept was that by wearing such a hat they removed their ego. What the hat also did was remove their identity from prying eyes. It’s no wonder that komuso was a popular disguise for spies and supposedly the deadly ninja.


Old and New Japan blending together

When the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power over a unified Japan at the beginning of the 17th Century, the komuso came under the government’s wary eyes. Many komuso had formerly been samurai during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (16th Century) and were now lay clergy. The potential for trouble was there because many of them had turned ronin when their masters were defeated – most likely by the Shogunate and their allies.

The Shogunate instead of destroying this potential menace instead turned the komuso into a positive force, at least from their perspective. Therefore komuso were granted the rare privilege of traveling through the country without hindrance. The reason for this special permission was that many komuso had been co-opted into becoming spies for the Shogunate. And some were outright spies in komuso disguise.


Many Komuso were former samurai

Only true Komuso, though, could play the honkyoku which were musical pieces of such complexity that only those adept with the Shakuhachi could perform them. Sometimes komuso were asked to perform these pieces to see if they were true komuso or the Shogun’s spies in disguise. However, it mattered little as some of the true komuso were also on the Shogunate’s payroll.


Komuso could move freely throughout Old Japan unlike Ronin (masterless samurai)

In 1868 when power was relinquished by the Shogunate to the Emperor, the komuso bore a significant brunt of the animosity from Imperial forces. Komuso were so synonymous with spies for the Shogunate that the Komuso were utterly abolished in 1871 and even the playing of the shakuhachi as a solo instrument was prohibited for several years.

The komuso had meddled in the affairs of the secular world and ultimately paid the price for it. The practice of the Komuso did not die out entirely though and shakuhachi continues to be played for both entertainment and meditation.


Modern Komuso are faint echoes of their past

May 8, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, buddhism, culture, flute, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, komuso, life, ninja, ronin, samurai, shakuhachi, spies, travel, zen | , , , , | 12 Comments

Golden Dragon Dance of Tokyo Video

Kinryu-no-Mai or Golden Dragon Dance is performed every year in Asakusa, Tokyo to celebrate the founding of Senso-ji Temple.

On March 18, 628 AD two fisherman found a small gold Buddhist statue in the river. Supposedely, a Golden Dragon appeared in the sky to mark the event. A temple was built for the statue and Asakusa grew from then on.

Music by the Secret Commonwealth:

The Secret Commonwealth

March 28, 2008 Posted by | Asakusa, buddhism, culture, dance, dragons, Golden Dragon, Golden Dragon Dance, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, Kinryu-no-Mai, Senso-Ji, tokyo, tradition, traditional art, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment

The Golden Dragon Dance of Tokyo

The Golden Dragon Dance of Tokyo
Golden Dragon Dance Celebrates Asakusa’s Beginning


The Golden Dragon of Asakusa

Once a year in Asakusa, located in the northeast edge of Tokyo, a special kind of early spring ritual dance is held. The dance — called “Kinryu-no-Mai” in Japanese — is conducted not by people but by a golden dragon.

Naturally, it’s not a real dragon but the dance commemorates the visitation of a “real” dragon of golden hue that appeared over 1,300 years ago.


The golden dragon entertains the crowd.

The golden dragon of today is merely a diminutive representation of the mighty majestic beast that dropped from the heavens one day long ago. The copy is a mere 15 meters long and weighs in at 75 kilos, while the real one was reportedly 30 meters long and weighed who knows what.


The golden dragon at rest

What brought about this unexpected celestial visitation was the discovery of a small golden statuette of a Buddhist deity by two fishermen in the Sumida River on March 18, 628. The statue depicted Kannon, a popular deity known for her compassion in the face of human suffering.


Touching the dragon’s head is thought to bring good fortune.

This small statue was enshrined and the area later became a popular spot for pilgrims. Over time, the village of Asakusa expanded and its temple, Sensoji, where the statue was kept, grew in importance.

Had the visiting dragon been of Western extraction, it no doubt would have devoured the two fishermen on the spot and made off with the golden statue and taken it to its private hoard.


The golden dragon about to devour a photographer

Oriental dragons, however, are generally more benevolent. They’re known for dispensing wisdom and happiness rather than fire and poisonous fumes.

Golden dragons are rarely seen because they are often invisible. They only appear at certain moments to mark auspicious events, as one dragon did when the Kannon statue was found.


Ladies in Geisha costume provide the Golden Dragon with Traditional music to dance to

The golden dragon dance is held in honor of both the dragon’s visit and the statue’s discovery which basically help to create Asakusa. Eight men hold the dragon aloft on poles and twist it about while ladies made up like geishas play music on traditional instruments. The dragon dances three times before it disappears for another year.


A mural of the dragon dance on the wall of Asakusa Station

March 26, 2008 Posted by | buddhism, culture, dance, event, festival, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, tokyo, tradition, travel | 2 Comments

Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review Video

Here’s a video-photo montage of Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review with music by Seven Cycle Theory:

http://www.myspace.com/sevencycletheory

The song is called “Only Once” which I think appropiate for life and traveling. You’ve only got one life – go somewhere and do something!

January 3, 2008 Posted by | 2007, 47 Ronin, Bavaria, Bayern, beer, belly dancing, biwa, Blogroll, buddhism, culture, entertainment, europe, event, festival, floats, geisha, Germany, japan, Kyoto, matsuri, montage, music, New Year's Eve, ninja, photographs, rock, sakura, seven cycle theory, sumo, taiko, tennessee, tohoku, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment