Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Ryuhyo – Japanese Drift Ice in Hokkaido

Japanese Drift Ice – Ryuhyo

Ryuhyo is drift ice that appears along the northern coast of Hokkaido (in northern Japan) in the Sea of Okhotsk from about late January to early April. Visitors can take hour-long cruises on ice-breaking ships from northern coastal towns like Abashiri. Drift ice is important to the region’s ecosystem because it helps plankton grow which are the base of the food chain for the region. Unfortunately in recent years Global Warming has reduced the amount of drift ice.

This footage is from about 2 years ago that I just now got around to editing. I was in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri/Snow Festival and decided to go to Abashiri to see the drift ice. This was actually my second time having gone before a few years earlier. I was lucky on both occasions to see the drift ice because some days you can’t see it as it depends on the weather and wind conditions.

March 2, 2011 Posted by | abashiri, drift ice, global warming, japan, nature, Ryuhyo, Sea of Okhotsk, snow, video, winter | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reduce Global Warming – Tell Ghost Stories!

In Old Japan, the summertime was the time for ghost stories. Japanese summers tend to be hot and humid and ghost stories are a form of old fashion all natural air conditioning.

Given our problems with Global Warming and Global Recession, perhaps turning off our air conditioners and telling ghost stories might have to ease the burden of both.

Here I tell (as best as I can) the story of a curse kimono that caused death to its owners and is believed to be the source of one of the worst fires Tokyo suffered from in its early history.

The story can be found in Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn.

August 17, 2009 Posted by | culture, folklore, furisode, Ghost Stories, Ghosts, global warming, japan, japanese culture, kimono, Lafcadio Hearn, Storytelling, tokyo, video | 1 Comment

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring
Before the Cherry Blossoms there were the Plum Blossoms

White Plum Blossoms signal the coming of Spring

“The Cherry may be the prettier of the two; but when once you have seen the red Plum-blossom in the snow at the dawn of a spring morning, you will no longer forget its beauty.”
Fujiwara no Kinto (996-1075)

With the coming of Spring, all of Japan becomes very vigilant and watchful. They’re not watching for any suspicious North Korean vessels in their waters, but for the first signs of the blooming of sakura – cherry blossoms. For over a thousand years, cherry blossoms have played a large role in the lives of the Japanese mainly as an excuse to party. Hanami is the name for these cherry blossom viewing parties which involves plopping a blue tarp down under some blooming cherry trees and preceding to get sloshed amidst the pink foliage.

However, long ago, it wasn’t the cherry blossom that held the hearts of Japanese in thrall. It was the diminutive and demure plum blossom (ume) which moved poets nimble hands and made emperors weep. Plum blossom hanami was one of many customs that came from China during Japan’s developing phase. The plum tree was not originally an indigenous plant in Japan but was brought over from China. It quickly took root, though, in the fertile soil and imagination of Japan.

Plum blossoms are seen in Japan as the heralds of Spring, the restrained forerunners to the bold cherry blossoms. They typically bloom from mid-February to mid-March before making way for the grandstanding cherry blossoms.

Plum Blossom Maidens at Mito’s Kairaku-en Garden

The cherry blossom was said to represent a woman’s beauty while the plum blossom was said to represent her purity.

Plum Blossoms near Mt. Mitake east of Tokyo

Plum blossoms were associated with literacy and intellectual pursuits. An old Chinese verse runs:

When literacy is loved
The plum blossoms will open
When learning is prohibited
The plum blossoms will close.

Plum tree blooming over the thousands of ema prayer boards left by worried students at Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo

One of the Plum blossoms greatest patrons was the noted scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903).  He was a scholar and Imperial advisor before his downfall. When he was exiled from Kyoto to a lonely island, legend says his favorite plum tree uprooted itself and flew to his place of exile to comfort him. Later, Michizane was deified as a Shinto god of learning and shrines were erected to honor him. Plum trees are often planted at his shrines which bloom over the thousands of prayer boards known as ema left by students seeking Michizane’s aid in passing their exams.

Patron of Plum Blossoms and Entrance Exams
The scholarly deity Sugawara-no-Michizane

Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903) was Japan’s Man for all Season in the 9th century. After his death, he became the Most Unfriendliest Ghost. In life, Michizane was a gifted scholar, poet, and politician. He earned accolades and titles but also the animosity of his rivals. The powerful Fujiwara family who practically ran the country did not like the influence Michizane had over Emperor Uda. When Uda retired, as was the fashion, they poisoned the new Emperor’s ear against Michizane claiming he conspired to supplant him. The young easily-swayed Emperor gave heed and had Michizane exiled.

Michizane died only a few short years later, heartbrokened by his fall from grace. Sometime afterwards, a number of calamities struck the capital in Kyoto. Lighting struck the Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s sons died mysteriously while plague and drought stalked the land. It was believed by many that Michizane’s unhappy spirit had become a goryo – a vengeful spirit – and was now enacting his revenge for his wrongful exile. To appease his angry spirit, a shrine was built in his honor and his titles were restored to him. Later he was elevated to deity status as the god of calligraphy and learning known as Tenjin.

Since Plum blossoms were his favorite in life, they are always planted at his shrines. They come into bloom at the same time the ema prayer boards multiply at his shrines from students praying for his assistance with their entrance exams.

Plum blossoms are smaller in size and therefore do not cover their branches to the degree that cherry blossoms do. Plum blossoms, however, have a fragrant scent unlike their odorless successors the cherry blossoms. This scent has been popular theme for a number Haiku poems from famed poets.

Plum Blossoms at Kairaku-en Garden in Mito

Scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Great moon
wrapped in plum scent
all mine
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Far away the water flows
Past the plum-scented village.
Shohaku (1443-1527)

Plum Wind
Fragrance alone, I thought
Was the wind’s burden,
But petals too
Are circling the plum garden.
Okuma Kotomichi (1798-1868)

Kairaku-en Garden
A Benevolent Lord’s Gift to his People

Kairaku-en is an unique garden park, not just for it’s three thousand plum blossom trees and elegant manor house but for its history of being one of the few gardens of Old Japan which was open to the general public. The lords and samurai of Old Japan built lovely gardens for themselves and their associates but they were off-limits to the common folks.

The Mito province where Kairaku-en built was blessed with two great lords who cared about the welfare of commoners. Mito Mitsukuni (1628-1700), the secord lord of Mito, was greatly concerned about the administration of justice and the abuse of power. He used to travel about in secret to observe administrative authorities to make sure they did not oppress the people under them. Stories, books, and television shows have popularized his life and made him virtually a household name.

The ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), was of the same vein as Mito. He constructed an enormous park encompassing over 130,000 square meters in which he had more than 3000 plum trees planted. In a sharp contrast of protocol, Nariaki threw the doors open wide for all to enjoy hence the name – “Kairaku-en” (“the garden for sharing pleasures with people”).

So while the cherry blossom has long dominated the scene and continues to do so, the plum blossom still holds it own with its own grace and charm. Without the plum blossom and the tradition of hanami (blossom viewing) brought over from China along with the tree itself, there may never have been any cherry blossom tradition and Japanese Spring would be a quieter and duller time than it is today.

Plum Blossoms in the heart of Tokyo

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy

On the back of the mirror,
A spring unseen,
A flowering plum-tree.

Plum-blossoms everywhere,
I should go south,
I should go north.
Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Harbingers of Climate Change?
Early blooming plum blossoms

Due to the unnaturally warm weather in Japan this year, plum blossoms bloomed in certain areas weeks earlier than usual. The photograph above was taken at a temple in eastern Tokyo in mid-January, nearly a month earlier than the normal season.

While a few people are still skeptical of climate change and global warming, for others the recent trend of unusual weather from snowless winters, icestorms, powerful hurricanes, and melting icecaps bodes ill for the future.

And though those few would have us do nothing considering it be a natural phenomenon, others like Al Gore feel that the last century’s immense pollution output has had a considerable impact on the environment and that action is required.

April 8, 2007 Posted by | global warming, hanami, japan, Kairaku-en, mito, plum blossom, spring, sugawara no michizane, tokyo, travel, ume, yushima tenjin | 6 Comments

Hokkaido Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece

Hokkaido’s Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece
In northern Japan, one can commune with nature and hungry sea gulls

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An ice-breaking ship of the Aurora Fleet

Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers winter-loving visitors not only incredible man-made structures of ice and snow — the most notably being at Sapporo’s internationally renowned Yuki Matsuri— but along the northern coast one can see nature’s own winter masterpiece in the form of drift ice. From mid-January to mid-April, the Sea of Okhotsk is choked with ice fragments drifting their way south to oblivion in warmer climates. The Hokkaido coast is the southernmost area in the Northern Hemisphere to experience drift ice.

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In ages past, drift ice would be a thing to be avoided at all cost by sea-farers. Though not as dangerous as icebergs, drift ice could catch unlucky vessels in its clutches and hold them for long stretches of time, sometimes till death took the crew. Nowadays, with the aid of modern ice-breaking ships, drift ice has become a tourist attraction.

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In the northern coast city of Abashiri, tourists can take an hour cruise for JPY 3000 (US $25) on the ice-breaker Aurora ships. Abashiri is famous in Japan for a spartan prison that was set up there at the end of the 19th century. Getting sent to Abashiri was equivalent to getting sent to Siberia in Russia. The weather can be harsh and unrelenting in winter and Japanese prisons have never been known for their comfort.

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Seagulls on Ice

Drift-ice cruises offer visitors the chance to catch a rare glimpse of seals and seal pups in the wild. Most of the time, however, the drift ice wildlife around Abashiri is confined to opportunistic sea gulls. Sea gulls follow the ships closely looking for free hand-outs from the tourists. One popular way of feeding the sea gulls is to hold out a piece of bread or a potato chip and let the sea gulls snatch it while in flight.

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The tranquilty of this frozen world of the northern sea is broken only by the sound of the crunching ice under the steel hull of Aurora’s ships and the old Enka music blaring from the ship’s speakers.

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Drift ice has a significant impact on global climate conditions. It redistributes fresh water and latent heat energy, which has an effect on regional climates. The freezing process of drift ice removes the salt from seawater creating freshwater. If too much freshwater is released it can have damaging effects on the climate. It is believed that such a release caused a disruption with the Gulf Stream, resulting in a small ice age 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.

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Hokkaido’s drift ice has unfortunately become a casualty of global warming. In the last twenty years the amount and thickness of the drift ice has lessened. The season for viewing drift ice has shortened, as well.

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An extended potato chip grabs a sea gull’s attention

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January 30, 2007 Posted by | abashiri, Blogroll, drift ice, global warming, hokkaido, ice, japan, life, snow, travel, winter | 2 Comments

Warm Weather Makes Japanese Wintry Dip Seem Refreshing

Warm Weather Makes Japanese Wintry Dip Seem Refreshing
Warm Winter Weather Portents Of Severe Global Warming?

Less Blue Skin Than Last Year

“From the earliest period Shinto exacted scrupulous cleanliness … It is not uncommon for the very fervent worshipper to invoke the gods as he stands naked under the ice-cold rush of a [waterfall] in midwinter.” – Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation, 1904.

Recently an annual purification ritual at Tokyo’s Kanda Myojin Shrine was held. The ritual involved men and women jumping into a shallow pool of freezing cold natural water and showering themselves vigorously with bucketfuls of icy water. These purification-through-freezing-water rituals known as Misogi are often held in Winter to display the fierce dedication of the participants.

Young Girls Brave The Cold Water And The Warm Winter

Most winters, particulary the record cold one last year, this ritual would be viewed as brave, strong, and more than a little insane. However, this winter given the abnormally warm temperatures, it actually looked rather refreshing.

Preparing For Their Refreshing Wintry Dip

With the exception of a few storms here and there, Japan’s winter has been exceptionally warm this year. This is in sharp contrast to last year when record snowfalls blanketed the northwestern coast and over a hundred people died in snow-related injuries.

Heavy Snowfall Last Winter In Nagano

Even Tokyo was hit with a significant amount of snow.

Last Winter’s Snow In Ueno Park in Tokyo

The winter has also been conspiciously late. Autumn leaf viewing has long been a popular tradition in Japan but in Autumn! Autumn and Winter seemed to have set their seasonal alarm clocks rather late. People were viewing Autumn leaves in Kyoto as late as New Year’s Eve!

Beautiful Autumn Foliage – But Two Days Before Christmas!?

A number of Japanese ski slopes only received their first heavy snow within the last few weeks. Several skiing events had to be cancelled or relocated to better slopes.

The warm weather is not only in Japan. Prior to the ice storms now sweeping across much of the US, the weather in many places felt like a fine day in April rather than January. The ice storms themselves are byproduct of the unnaturally warm weather.

Perhaps Former US Vice-President Al Gore saw the Kanda Myojin Shrine event and took note of the lack of blue skin of the participants because he was in Japan recently urging Japanese business leaders to set the example for the world to follow on environmental policies.

Gore mentioned Japan’s unusually warm winter and the early blooming Cherry Blossoms in Washington D.C. were ominious signs that not all was well.

Stretching Out Their Cold Limbs After Their Dip

“Our planet now has a fever. And it’s not going away,” Gore said. “We have a moral obligation to those coming after us.”

Gore was also promoting his documentary An Inconvenient Truth on global warming.

Obviously Smarter, The Japanese Snow Monkey Prefers A Hot Bath To A Cold One In Winter

January 19, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, global warming, japan, life, matsuri, misogi, news, politics, purification, Shinto, snow, snow monkey, tokyo, travel, winter | 3 Comments