Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Joma Shinji – Kyudo (Japanese Archery) Exorcism Ritual for New Years

Joma Shinji is a New Year’s Japanese Archery Ritual for driving away evil for the coming year. Six archers dressed in formal samurai kimono known as kariginu shoot two arrows a piece at a large circular target. On the back of the target is painted an upside kanji character for “oni” which means “devil.” Striking the target is believe to expel evil particularly shots which pass through the oni character.

Since ancient times in Japan, arrows have been seen as having the power to banish and destroy evil. Even the twanging of bow strings is thought to ward away evil spirits. During New Year’s, decorative wooden arrows are sold at temples and shrines as good luck charms for the coming year.

Joma Shinji takes place at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura on January 5th. The ritual dates back to a time when Kamakura was the military capital of Japan (1185-1333). The first hereditary shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, promoted a variety of military type rituals usually involving archery such as Joma Shinji. In his day, the bow was the primary weapon of the samurai, their profession being known as “The Way of the Horse and Bow.”

Yoritomo was keen that his warriors not become soft even in times of peace. He was all too mindful of what had happened with his enemies, the Taira family. The Taira were once the dominate samurai clan of Japan but they became too intoxicated with the luxuries that power can bring and many of them preferred to excel in non-warrior pursuits such as music and poetry.

War broke out between the Taira and Minamoto and eventually the Taira were utterly defeated in 1185. It has often been pointed out that the Taira’s love of luxury and leisurely pursuits were a major factor in their downfall. Yoritomo did not want the same happening to his samurai so he decided to place his shogunate capital in Kamakura far away from the debilitating influence of the aristocratic culture of Kyoto and he encouraged the continual practice of the bow in annual rituals and contests.

Today the Ogasawara Ryu, a school of Japanese Archery, conducts the Joma Shinji Ritual. The Ogasawara school and clan was established in the Kamakura Era by Ogasawara Nagakiyo who became an archery instructor to Yoritomo. The Ogasawara Ryu does a number of archery events throughout the year including Yabusame, mounted archery.

For more photos check here: Joma Shinji Photos

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January 22, 2012 Posted by | 2012, Archery, culture, history, japan, japanese archery, japanese culture, japanese history, Japanese martial arts, kyudo, New Years, Shinto, travel, youtube, zen | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Christmas in the Trenches – Christmas Truce of 1914

The following song is from a practice session I recorded of The Secret Commonwealth doing a rendition of John McCutcheon’s Christmas in the Trenches. The song is based on an unexpected and unofficial truce made by the common fighting men on both sides and not the higher ups who frowned on such things.

As I said, it’s a practice session so it might be a little rough and there’s a cough or two.

The singer is Don Clark

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Uncle-Don-Clark/99407330337

He is often a guest member of The Secret Commonwealth http://www.myspace.com/thesecretcommonwealth

December 26, 2009 Posted by | 1914, christmas, Christmas in the Trenches, Christmas Truce, history, John McCutcheon, music, singing, video, world war I | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Look at the Northern Japanese City of Morioka

Morioka in northern Japan is the capital of the Iwate Prefecture. I went there recently for a festival where they burn makeshift boats for Obon – the festival for honoring their ancestors’ spirits.

In this video I take a look at the city of Morioka itself and talk a little about its past and some of its sites.

September 9, 2009 Posted by | history, iwate, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, morioka, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment

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

Remembering the Great War – November 11th

Remembering the ‘Great War’
Nov. 11 marks 90th anniversary of WWI’s end


Trench warfare – static and deadly – became the norm for most of World War I

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
Wilfred Owen – died 1918

Ninety years ago at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the great guns fell silent and Europe experienced a silence it had not known in years. It was the end of the “Great War,” the War to end all Wars. Today, we know that was a hopeful but futile sentiment as the War to end all Wars is now known as World War I.

Two bullets and a lost driver set off a powder keg whose explosion engulfed Europe. In the summer of 1914, a driver made a wrong turn and ended up in the path of a young assassin who had actually given up trying find his intended target and was just finishing off a sandwich. The young assassin was a Serbian belonging to a radical group known as the Black Hand. Their target was the Arch-Duke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was touring Sarajevo. They had tried earlier that day to assassinate him but failed. Now Fate through the hands of a lost driver delivered the Arch-Duke into one of the assassin’s hands who took full advantage of his good luck and fired his pistol killing Ferdinand.

The assassination caused the collapse of the house of cards that were the national alliances of the day. Austria-Hungary with German support declared war on Serbia. Russia was allied with Serbia so they entered the war. France was allied with Russia and so they entered the war. Germany in order to swiftly attack France violated Belgium’s borders by crossing it with their troops. Britain had an alliance with Belgium and so they entered the war. Eventually other nations would enter the war as well including the United States.

World War I in many ways was the “War to end all Wars” in that it was every war past and future rolled up into one. There were Napoleonic charges, aerial bombardment, a few misguided cavalry charges with actual horses, tanks, machine guns, artillery barrages, air combat, poison gas attacks, flamethrowers, submarine warfare, and primitive hand-to-hand fighting that came down to knives, sharpened spades, and clubs. The future met the past in a brutal collision.


Soldiers dehumanized by their gas masks

While fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia, and the borders of Italy and Austria, the bulk of the fighting took place in the area known as the Western Front. The Western Front was a long series of extensive trenches between France and Germany stretching into Belgium where most of the intensive fighting of the war took place. So many men died in such a concentrated place.

While WWII has a far higher casualty rate, this was widespread throughout the globe. The majority of WWI casualties, however, occurred along the several hundred kilometers of the Western Front from the North Sea to the Swiss border. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British lost over 50,000 dead and wounded in the space of a few kilometers.


Stretcher-bearers trudge through the mud with a wounded victim

The trenches were hell on earth – mud, water, snipers, artillery barrages, barbed wire, machine gun fire, and the rotting corpses of those who fell in No-Man’s Land, the deadly area between the opposing armies’ trenches. Plus there was rampant disease, lice, and rats grown fat from feeding off of corpses.

“In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.”
Siegfried Sassoon – 1918

The Second World War often gets more attention in the popular imagination. Countless movies, books, comic books, documentaries, TV shows, magazines and so on focus on the many aspects of the war. Battles, generals, strategies, policies, ideologies get constantly battered about from academic circles to office water coolers. It’s a subject many have some knowledge of whereas World War I only brings to mind to some (particularly Americans) the Red Baron, the imaginary nemesis of the Peanut’s comic strip character, Snoopy.


Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron – Germany’s Flying Ace

And there’s a good reason for that. With World War II there was a clear reason to fight. For the Allies, it was to defeat the conquering Nazis and Imperialist Japanese. For the Germans, it was to revenge their humiliation with the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. For the Japanese, it was believed they were saving Asia (though they didn’t bother to ask the rest of Asia). It is easier for modern day audiences to understand the rationales and motivations of those who fought in that war.

The reasons for fighting the First World War, however, are rather vague. The motivations for the soldiers fighting are also vague. It’s hard to understand the patriotic fever which led to so many men signing up to fight a war that appeared to have been fought for the sheer hell of it and no other reason. In modern academia, the “isms” of nationalism, militarism, imperialism are blamed for causing the war.

For war enthusiasts, World War I is a hard one to get enthusiastic about. Most of the literature and films on the subject have been anti-war save for a few on WWI pilots and Sergeant York which was released when America was entering WWII.

Then there’s strategy. With WWII battles there was often a lot of planning and logistics that went into major battles on both sides. Armchair military historians can easily while away the hours discussing the many stratagems of WWII generals.

The battles of WWI on the other hand appear to have been planned by generals who were either appallingly stupid or monstrously callous to causalities that their battles produced. At the Battle of the Somme, soldiers were ordered to advance at a walking pace. This was to keep the lines orderly and lower the chances of friendly fire – it also made the British soldiers perfect targets for German machine gunners.


Soldiers make their way on catwalks over flooded trenches

The whole war in retrospect seems a comic-tragedy of epic proportions. Men died in the thousands for a few yards of earth. The British comedy series Black Adder brilliantly showed the insanity of WWI strategy in its fourth season – “Black Adder Goes Forth.” In one episode, a general is looking at a scale map of the last battle and asks his aide for the scale. His aid answers “one to one, sir!” and the general shows no surprise but is glad that 17 square feet of mud is no longer in German hands.

The Great War ended over 90 years ago but the consequences still live with us to this day. The war changed the maps, changed class systems, changed the way in which wars are fought, and changed technology. Iraq is one of those changes having been created out of the territory of the old Ottoman Empire.

Ultimately, Nov. 11 is a bittersweet day to remember the end of a terrible war and all those who died in it. Nov. 11 is also a day to reflect on the futile hope of the time that there would be no other wars to follow. If we truly wish to honor veterans, we must pledge to rid ourselves of the thing that took so many of their comrades’ lives.

World War One Airmen
Heroes of the Skies


Air technology changed drastically throughout the war

The patriotic fever that led so many to enlist to fight in the Great War soon died in the mud of the trenches. The mud tended to swallow up heroes and with men dying in droves in the matter of minutes, the glory of war faded in the wake of grim reality.

However, there was one area in which war romanticism found a new home. The Great War ushered in the age of aerial combat and it was here that heroes could be found or made. Flight was still in its infancy at the beginning of the war but it became caught up in the technological race. Planes went from observation scouts to reconnaissance observers to bombers to fighters. Fighter pilots were a new breed of soldier and they quickly became the apple of the public eye.

The best of the pilots became celebrities and were wined and dined by the rich and famous. Canadian Fighter Ace William “Billy” Bishop had an audience with Britain’s monarch even.

But fame could not ward off the spectre of death and even the best went down in flames. The difference though between the death of the landlocked soldier and the pilot was that the former often died anonymously while the other could reap headlines and a formal funeral. The death of aces, though, could also shock an entire nation as it did with the deaths of the famous Red Baron and the beloved French ace Georges Guynemer.

November 11, 2008 Posted by | air combat, airplanes, armistice day, Blogroll, culture, europe, european history, history, life, November 11th, peace, red baron, remembrance day, tradition, tragedy, veterans day, world war I | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Tribute to WWI Airmen

In honor of November 11th – Veteran’sDay/Armistice Day this video is a tribute to the airmen of World War I using photographs, paintings, and prints.

90 years ago at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War (WWI) came to an end but its consequences live with us to this day.

WWI produced the first fighter pilots and their names live on to this day most notably Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron. They were the national celebrities of their day and their deaths could shock a nation.

Music by the Secret Commonwealth
The Secret CommonWealth

November 10, 2008 Posted by | air combat, airplanes, armistice day, Blogroll, history, life, November 11th, red baron, veterans day, video, world war I, youtube | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri – Festival of Ages Part 1

Kyoto Celebrates History with Festival Parade
Japan’s Imperial city on full display during ‘Jidai Matsuri’


An Imperial Princess with two attendants from yesteryear

Every year on Oct. 22, the city of Kyoto celebrates its long history with the Jidai Matsuri — “Festival of the Ages” — a long procession of participants dressed in the various fashions of Japanese history. The festival was created in 1895 to mark the 1,100 anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as Japan’s imperial capital.

On Oct. 22, 794, Emperor Kammu decided to relocate the imperial capital to what is today modern Kyoto. The imperial capital used to be 30 miles to the east in Nara, a city brimming with powerful, politically scheming Buddhist institutes. While the capital was in Nara (710-794) a certain amorous Buddhist priest nearly got himself named emperor by a lovesick empress. She died, however, before he could make his dream a reality and all the priest received was a swift banishment for his efforts. This incident and the strong influence of the Buddhist Temples on the imperial court, helped to prompt the move away from Nara.

The Imperial Court remained in Kyoto until 1867 when it was relocated to Tokyo. Kyoto was crushed by the news — even today some of Kyoto’s citizens will refer to Tokyo as the “new capital” despite the fact that all of Japan had been ruled from Tokyo since the beginning of the 17th century. Still, pride in their city is unflagging and a few decades later, Kyoto was seen celebrating its long and glorious history. In 1895, the Heian Shrine was constructed, which is a 2/3 scale model of the original imperial palace. The first Jidai Matsuri marked its opening.

The Heian Shrine and the Jidai Matsuri honor the spirits of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806) and Emperor Komei (1847-1866), the first and last reigning emperors of Kyoto. The participants in the procession represent famous moments and people who left their mark on Kyoto, Japanese history, and culture. The costumes are historically accurate and have been painstakingly recreated using traditional methods.

The Jidai Matsuri begins at Kyoto Gosho — the old Imperial Palace — and winds its long way to Heian Shrine. There are over 3000 participants in the Jidai Matsuri and the procession lasts for two hours. It takes the participants 2.5 hours to reach their destination at the Heian Shrine.

The Jidai Matsuri follows a reverse chronological order, starting in the mid 19th century and going backward to the founding of the city a thousand years earlier.

The first participants arrive in horse-drawn carriages that would have looked right at home in Victorian London, except for the dress of their passengers. Inside the carriages sit Japanese and foreigners dressed in kimono symbolizing the opening of Japan to the world in the 19th century.


Horsedrawn carriage with Japanese and Foreign Occupants from the Meiji Period

Behind them comes the Royal Army of the Meiji Restoration which fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate government in Tokyo in order to restore the power and dignity of the Imperial Court, led by Emperor Meiji. A number of Imperial supporters actually wanted Japan to remain closed off from the world but after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it became all too apparent that Japan could not remain isolated any longer.


Meiji Troops – they fought supporters of the Tokugawa Shogunate to restore the Emperor’s power

The Edo Period (1615-1866) is represented by a delegation from the Tokugawa Shogunate paying a visit to the emperor. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, won a great battle at Sekigahara which assured his power as sole ruler of Japan. The emperor bestowed upon him the title of Shogun in 1603.


Representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Though he retired in favor of his son two years later, Tokugawa still oversaw much of the governance of the country until his death in 1616. The seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate was Edo — modern day Tokyo. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s successors and their ministers were less inclined to deal with foreign affairs and so they passed a series of edicts which basically closed Japan off from the rest of the world for almost 250 years.

Another representative of the early Edo Period is Izumo-no-Okuni (1600) who was the originator of the art of Kabuki. She was once a maiden in the service of the Izumo Shrine, one of Japan’s holiest Shinto shrines, and became famous in Kyoto for her dancing. She created the first Kabuki dance with young women dressed as samurai. The dancing was apparently too distracting for the samurai and other men that the stuffy Tokugawa Shogunate banned women from the stage as of 1629. From then on, all roles, including those of the women, would be played by men.


Izumo-no-Okuni – creator of Kabuki dance with one of her players

A large ornate oxcart represents an official visit paid to the emperor by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. Toyotomi arose to power from humble beginnings in the wartorn Sengoku (Warring States) Period. After the death of his lord, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi continued his master’s work in uniting Japan under one banner.


A colorful wagon pulled by an ox

Under Toyotomi, the tea ceremony rose in popularity amongst the samurai and later other classes. Though a creative and innovative leader, in his later days he foolishly attempted to invade China through Korea, which bogged both countries down in needless destruction and death.

Following Hideyoshi is Oda Nobunaga. His entry into Kyoto in 1569 represented the culmination of many warlords’ life dream during the Sengoku Period. To be able to march into Kyoto and proclaim to fight in the emperor’s name was the ultimate sign of warlord’s success in those turbulent times. Many had been unable to do so because they were beset upon all sides by enemies.


Oda Nobunaga and his troops entered Kyoto in 1569

In 1560, a powerful warlord, Imagawa Yoshimoto, tried to march all the way to Kyoto but was killed enroute in a surprise attack by Oda Nobunaga. Oda fought many battles to quell the warlords who would not submit to his power — he even fought against the militant Buddhist clergy. His bloody career came to an end in 1582 when he was killed by one of his own generals in a surprise attack.

The gap in years shows with the arrival of Kusunoki Masashige, which jumps the procession back over 200 years to 1330. Kusunoki was a samurai of the early 14th century and fiercely loyal to the emperor. Japan was ruled at the time by the disintegrating Shogunate government in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). Emperor Go-Daigo plotted to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate, but was exiled. Kusunoki aided in the emperor’s escape and fought against Kamakura forces with skill and ingenuity.


The loyal Kusunoki Masashige

In 1333, the Kamakura Shogunate fell and Imperial power was restored, but only temporarily. Many samurai were dissatisfied with their reward for their aid and with the court noble’s high-handed attitude. One of the chief leaders at the time, Ashikaga Takauji, sided with the discontented samurai and drove Go-Daigo into exile where he set up a rival imperial court in the south which lasted several decades. Ashikaga Takauji then went on to set up a new Shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. He and his successors have been left out of the Jidai Matsuri entirely. I realized with this conspicuous absence that this “Festival of Ages” is not so much a celebration of Japanese history, but a celebration of Kyoto’s history and its emperor. Those who neglected the emperor have been left out of the procession.

However, in 2007 the gap between Oda Nobunaga and Kusunoki Masashige was finally filled with the added representation of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji.


Ashikaga Takauji finally gets to appear in the Jidai Matsuri

As for the faithful Kusunoki Masashige, he remained loyal to Go-Daigo and died heroically in battle against Takauji’s forces in 1336. A statue of Kusunoki was erected in Tokyo nearly six centuries later to commemorate his selfless devotion.


Kusunoki Masashige’s colorfully-attired troops from the early 14th Century

Behind Kusunoki comes the Lady Shizuka, a famed Kyoto dancer of the late 12th century, who was the lover of the hero Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune. Hers is a sad story. Yoshitsune was a brilliant Genji general in the Gempei War (1180-1185) fought between the great families of the Heike and the Genji. His success, however, earned him the jealously and distrust of his half-brother, Yoritomo, the leader of the Genji. In 1185, Yoritomo forced his half-brother to flee and live like an outlaw.


Shizuka Gozen (Lady Shizuka): tragic herione of the late 12th Century

Four years later facing capture and certain execution, Yoshitsune committed suicide. Shizuka, pregnant with his child, was captured by Yoritomo. Reportedly, she danced for him and so charmed him that Yoritomo spared her life and that of her unborn child only if it was a girl. Unfortunately, the baby turned out to be a boy and was soon put to death so it would not grow to manhood and seek vengeance for its father.

Representing the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) are the Yabusame Archers. Yabusame is a Shinto ritual with military practicality. A Yabusame archer had to shoot an arrow at three targets spaced out along a track while riding a galloping horse. The first Kamakura Shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, encouraged his samurai warriors to practice Yabusame to keep their skills sharp. Yoritomo set his capital in the east in Kamakura away from what he thought of as the debilitating influence of Kyoto.

Sometime after Yoritomo’s death, the position of the Shogun was usurped by his wife’s family, the Hojo, who ruled in the name of the figurehead Shogun as Regent. They established a firm government that resisted an attempt by one emperor to overthrow them (which probably reflects the absence of the Hojo in the Jidai Matsuri) and two invasions by the Mongols. They were financially weakened by their efforts to defend Japan against the Mongols. Half-a-century later, the Kamakura Shogunate was overthrown by forces loyal to the emperor.


A Yabusame Archer and his retainers

October 27, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, festival, Festival of Ages, history, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto, life, travel | , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Why I Like Japan

This is a video asnwering the question that is often asked of people who live in Japan which is basically  “Why do you like Japan?”

Mainly my three reasons:
*History
*Festivals
*Culture

Plus I also like the food, hot sake, and cold Sapporo beer.

When I first came to Japaan, I didn’t have the economic security to spend much time getting around or getting into the culture. I slowly came to acquire a love of Japan rather than coming over here head-over-heels with Japan to begin with.

On my trials and turbulations during my first year, check out my Ronin Teacher Saga:
https://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2006/07/23/saga-of-a-ronin-english-teacher-in-japan/

Background music by Super Girl Juice. I meet them in Tokyo and bought their CD last year.
http://www.sgchannel.com 

February 27, 2008 Posted by | history, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, life, travel, video, vlog, youtube | 1 Comment

Momote Shiki – Japanese Archery Ritual

Momote Shiki: Japanese Archery Ritual
Centuries-old ritual held for the fortune of new adults


Archers in old style kimono preparing to shoot n the archery ritual known as Momote Shiki

Seijin-no-Hi or Coming of Age Day is celebrated all throughout Japan on the second Monday of January. Throughout the country, similar ceremonies and activities take place among those newly turned 20 such as the wearing of special kimono, going to shrines, attending speeches, and so on. At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a unique ceremony takes place that is often overlooked in favor of seeing the kimono-clad girls that populate the shrine on that day.

Behind the main shrine complex an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is performed for the good fortune of all those turning 20 and becoming new adults. Archers wearing a style of formal kimono that samurai once wore in olden times shoot two arrows a piece at a central target.


Archers arriving at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

The Momote Shiki ceremony is conducted by the Ogasawara-Ryu, one of the oldest schools of Japanese-style archery. The Ogasawara family has long been associated with martial arts training most especially archery. The founder of the Ogasawara line was Nagakiyo who was born in the mid-12th century. He excelled as a mounted archer and was granted the surname of Ogasawara by the Emperor after the name of his birthplace in modern Yamanashi Prefecture.

12th century Japan was a transitionary time. In prior centuries, the Emperor’s Court ruled the land from Kyoto. Nobles held the reigns of power but as time progressed they began to lose their power to the emerging warrior class. With the increase of violence, the noble administrators had to rely more and more on the formerly despised warrior class to quell the problems. Eventually the warrior class came into its own in the mid-12th century when the powerful warrior family, the Heike or Taira, came to dominate the Imperial Court.


The archers wear a style of kimono worn by samurai 800 years ago

The Heike became arrogant in their new found power thus breeding many enemies. War broke out between them and their powerful rivals the Genji or Minamoto clan. The leader of the Genji was Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Yoritomo destroyed the Heike family and came to rule all of Japan as Shogun. He ruled from his capital Kamakura which lies an hour south of Tokyo by train.

Nagakiyo had been Yoritomo’s mentor and instructor in mounted archery. With Yoritomo’s ultimate victory, the Ogasawara’s fortunes rose. Yoritomo was keen that his warriors keep their martial skills honed even during peacetime. The reason for this and his decision to set his capital in Kamakura far from Kyoto was the precedent set by his former enemies, the Heike family.


Before shooting, the archers give reverence

One of the prevailing opinions of the day as to why the once powerful Heike family fell so completely was their descent into decadence. They spent more time worrying about their appearance and their poetry ability than they did on their martial skills. One Heike general was famous for abandoning his position in abject terror when a flight of geese so startled him that he thought the Genji were attacking. A great part of this stemmed from the Heike’s close proximity to the culture of the Imperial Court.

Yoritomo did not want his followers to become soft and weak like the Heike. He wanted to establish a strong legacy so he set his new capital in Kamakura far from the Imperial Court. Furthermore, he avidly supported the Ogasawara clan in training warriors to maintain their skill and discipline. A number of archery rituals still practiced today were started because of Yoritomo’s stern insistence that his followers retain their martial fighting skills.


A Shinto Priest preparing to shoot a special arrow to begin the ceremony

Archery whether mounted or on foot was strongly emphasized because at this time the much-praised samurai sword had yet to truly come into its own. In Yoritomo’s time, the bow was the principle weapon of the samurai and the symbol of his profession and spirit.

Yoritomo’s shogunate government lasted until the early 14th century. After his Spartan policies were ignored, the Kamakura Shogunate leaders became lax with luxury and in the end they fell to more determined and stronger enemies. The Ogasawara survived the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate and went on to serve the new shogunate government establish by the Ashikaga clan.


A Shinto Priest loosens and removes his left sleeve so it will not hinder his shooting

Sometime after the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu established a new shogunate government set in Edo (today Tokyo) in 1603. He requested Ogasawara Tsunenao, the head of the clan at the time, to be a mentor and instructor to his son.

The Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an unprecedented two centuries of peace. Fighting skills were no longer in great demand; however, practice of the martial arts continued but took on a new form. Archery and other martial skills became less about the physical and more about the spiritual. Archery became viewed as a way to self-improvement; of disciplining the mind and soul.

The Ogasawara clan continued to serve the Tokugawa shogunate until 1868 when the shogunate was abolished. In the midst of a rapidly modernizing Japan of the late 19th century, the Ogasawara continued to teach their traditional arts. However, since there were no more samurai to train in Japan’s new society, the Ogasawara opened their school to the general public.

Today the Ogasawara perform a number of archery rituals throughout the year at a number of shrines. Every spring in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, they perform the mounted archery ritual of Yabusame.

The Momote Shiki ritual is carried out on Seijin-no-Hi, Coming of Age Day though the ritual predates the holiday by centuries. Momote – means “hundred hands.” The ritual is a bit of Shinto mathematics: ten archers at a time shoot two arrows a piece. The number of archers times the number of arrows equals 100. The type of arrow used has white fletching or feather. This is the same type of arrow which is sold as good luck charms at shrines during New Years. The Momote Shiki ritual is the origin of this arrow charm. The Momote Shiki ritual used to be held in private until the Edo Period (1603-1867) when it became open to the general public.

Before the archers begin, a Shinto priest shoots a Kabura-ya, a special red-colored arrow with an turnip-shaped head. The arrow makes a whistling noise as speeds along. The noise is believed to drive away evils from all four directions.


Archers draw the bow above their heads before bringing it down to aim

The archers wear a type of kimono known as a kariginu. The kariginu was the everyday dress of the samurai of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and was based on clothes worn on hunting expeditions. On their head is an eboshi — a type of hat worn by court nobles in earlier centuries.

The traditional way of shooting the bow is very slow and meticulous. The archers begin by slowly uncovering their left arm and shoulder leaving them and the left side of the chest completely bare. The purpose for this is practicality rather than for ritual purposes.

Traditional kimono robes are loose and flowing which could easily inconvenience the shooting of the bow. Female archers however do not reveal their shoulders and chest. They put their arm through a specially designed hole on the sleeves of female kimono then tie up the sleeve.

The bow is raised upwards and brought slowly down while the arrow is pulled back past the ear. Then at last the string is let loose and the arrow speeds towards the target. The emphasis of the ritual and Japanese archery in general is not on striking the target accurately but on the spiritual repose the archer achieves and maintains throughout the whole ceremony. Balance is sought between spirit and bow when the mind is empty but not dwelling on emptiness.


Archers receive a ceremonial serving of sake after the ritual

A Zen Master of the Kamakura Period once wrote:

No target’s erected
No bow’s drawn
And the arrow leaves the string;
It may not hit,
But it does not miss!

Once all the archers have shot the required number of arrows, they receive a small portion of sake and the ceremony is considered concluded. The health and good fortune of the new adults is thus spiritually assured for the year.


February 17, 2008 Posted by | Archery, Blogroll, culture, event, history, japan, japanese archery, japanese culture, japanese history, kyudo, life, martial arts, meiji shrine, momote shiki, ogasawara ryu, samurai, seijin-no-hi, Shinto, tokyo, tradition, travel, zen | 10 Comments

The Millennium New Years at the Great Pyramids

Ringing in the Year 2000 at a New Age Concert at the Great Pyramids
Remembering the Millennium New Years
 

It was the Eve of the Millennium. As part of the world geared up to party like there was no tomorrow – and certain religious and new age prophecies blatantly hinted as much – another segment of the world awaited Apocalypse that they felt was sure to come either by the Hand of God or the crashing of a million computers. Devout Christians prepared for their departure in what they felt would be the Second Coming of Jesus and the glorious Rapture which would whisk all the righteous away to Heaven. Survivalists stocked up on supplies and ammo expecting the modern world to come to a screeching halt when the dreaded Y2K took effect at midnight when the clock turned 2000.

New Agers felt the Millennium would herald a completely new change for mankind coming either from the supernatural world or extra-terrestrials. Doomsday cults geared up for the coming cataclysm that they were sure was going to rock the Earth and wipe out most of mankind. Meanwhile, money-grubbing clubs and venues charged exorbitant prices for their millennium soirees. All in all, it was an exciting paranoid time filled with hope, fear, and horniness.

Technically the new millennium would not dawn until 2001 but most people and venues did not care what crusty chronological academics had to say on the matter. 2000 was the magical date – either it would be the end of the world whether religiously, cosmically, or computerly or it would be the dawn of a whole new era of peace, love, and UFOs. So the party that night for many thrill-seekers might be the last one forever – cue the Prince music.

The approaching Millennium found me in Egypt a country which has seen its fair share of millenniums. In Cairo, I had been teaching English for very low wages even by Egyptian standards to bank employees for nearly two months. I had spent Christmas in the backpacker resort area of Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula along the Red Sea. My original plans were to also spend the New Years there as well in a drunken stupor amongst the Bedouin, camels, and equally drunk backpackers. I felt if it was to be the end I didn’t want to be aware of it. However, there was an itching in my brain to do something special to mark this New Year of New Years.

For weeks I had seen the advertisements for a huge concert at the Great Pyramids. In the weeks leading up to the event, a vicious rumor had spread amongst the wandering backpackers of Egypt that Pink Floyd would be playing. The official concert was to be one Jean-Michel Jarre, a new age French musician many of us had never heard of. Still the Pink Floyd rumors persisted despite evidence to the contrary. Some said they were going to appear as a surprise guest band sometime after midnight.


Jean-Michel Jarre looking quite fetching in his Doctor Who scarf

Regardless of who was playing I had reasons for not wanting to go at first. For my meager savings, $50 for a ticket seemed a bit too steep even for a Millennium Concert at such a prestigious place as the Great Pyramids. In addition, even in these happy pre-911 days, there was the lingering presence of terrorism. It was felt that the Pyramid Concert would be primarily a foreigner affair and therefore a perfect target for terrorists. It had only been a few years earlier when a group of tourists had been gunned down in Luxor. However, on the New Age Front, I heard through word of mouth of a rumor that UFOs would gather at the Pyramids to announce their presence (perhaps they would bring Pink Floyd with them). Whether it would be to benefit mankind or harvest it wasn’t exactly clear.

Despite all my reservations, I decided at the last minute to head back to Cairo by overnight bus two days before New Year’s Eve. The bus was really a mini-van with no heater to combat the wintry desert night air and a dozen of us were crammed into it. I ended up in the front seat in the middle right above the hot gears which while leaving my rear warm also left it with blisters. It was a horrible freezing blistering ride in which our sleep – what little we could get – was shattered occasionally with bone-jarring rattles from the myriad of bumps and potholes along the way. Then there were those fear-soaked near head-on collisions with other vehicles that kept many of us wide awake. We might have had fewer of those close-calls had our vehicle and the oncoming ones kept their headlights on longer than a fewer minutes at a time.

I arrived in Cairo early on the 30th exhausted with a blistering headache and a blistered rear-end. Amazingly, I was still able to buy tickets to the concert that day and for less than I originally expected – $15. The next day I bought some cheap Egyptian wine and some snacks in which to enjoy the all night concert. I went there with a Korean girl I met on that horrible overnight ride from Dahab and some of her friends.

The entrance to the Pyramids was not the ordinary one used by daytime visitors. We were ushered into shuttle buses and taken around on the far side of the Pyramids to the left of Menkaure’s Pyramid, the third and smallest of the three Great Pyramids. In this area, there was a type of large dell that formed a natural amphitheater. At the top of the dell at the rear was a wooden building with a wide balcony. Drinks, food, and uninterrupted views could be had by those who paid premium prices from $150 to $4000. The rest of us were down in the sandy dell.

But before we could go down into the dell we had to go through a security checkpoint. They were checking for weapons, explosives, inflammables, and – to our shock and dismay – alcohol. The rules of the land forbid the consumption of alcohol even at a site that predates Islam by three millennium. Alcohol-toting foreigners and a few Coptic Egyptians found themselves herded to the side where we had to either dump our sacrilegious elixirs or consume as much of them as we could before entering. Never had I seen such generosity amongst drinkers before! Nor had I seen so many rejections for free booze either. Everyone was trying to consume their own supplies as best as they could or share them with whomever was willing rather than let it go to waste. Many offers were turned down because people had more than enough alcohol to take care of without taking on any more. It was amazing that any of us could stagger back through the checkpoint. Fortunately for me the sickening sweet cheap Egyptian wine prevented me from imbuing too much beyond my measure and one gulp of Egyptian whiskey was enough to make me graciously decline any further offers.

I had originally thought the concert would be primarily foreigners but to my surprise the majority was Egyptians. Many of them were young and they really got into the concert dancing away to the mix of new age and traditional Arabic music.

The concert I much later found out was called the Twelve Dreams of the Sun. The name was based on the Ancient Egyptian belief that when the sun sets in the West, it travels on a boat through the underworld and passes 12 gates in 12 hours before rising again in the East.

Over 1000 performers were involved in the concert from dancers, singers, musicians, to an orchestra section. The cost to put on the concert came in at about $9.5 Million. The price would have been even higher had plans to cap the Great Pyramid with a 9-meter golden pyramidion not been scrapped (and good thing too else my adventure climbing said pyramid months later would have been more difficult had they left it up there). More than 120,000 people attended the concert including Egyptian President Mubarak.

There had been criticism leading up to the event as tickets did not sell so rapidly at first to justify the expense – hence my ability to purchase a ticket so easily the day before the concert. Ramadan fell over the Millennium that year so some Islamic groups complained bitterly about the cost and it’s timing with Ramadan. However, the concert began after sundown and ended with the sunrise so it did not interfere with the traditional sunrise to sunset fasting period of Ramadan. Another major bone of contention was the proposed pyramid capstone. Certain critics claimed Zionist Freemasonry was being imposed upon Egypt since the capstone looked eerily similar to the Freemason pyramid symbol on the American dollar bill.

Jean Michel Jarre was keen to incorporate Egyptian elements into his concert from singers, dancers, and instruments. For this reason despite my yearning for Pink Floyd I believe Jarre to have been the right choice. He made the event very much for the attending Egyptians. His music was more Millennium-minded as he blended old and new musical styles together. Jarre scored major points with the Egyptian audience when the ghostly voice of Um Kalthoum, Egypt’s diva goddess, floated out on the misty night air. The concert crowd went ecstatic. Catch any cab in Egypt particularly in Cairo and you will hear the lingering hold Um Kalthoum continues to have on Egypt.

The beginning of the concert was marked with fireworks and light displays. The Pyramids in the background were used as movie screens to project a variety of light images on from symbols to Ancient Egyptian gods. From time to time, performers in Ancient Egyptian outfits or Arabic desert robes rushed about in the background waving torches. One group was dressed as giant penguins – wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Multi-colored floodlights illuminated the Pyramids which changed in hue from time to time.


Giant Millennium Penguins Cross the Desert in some baffling display of New Age symbolism

During one of the set breaks, people ventured over to the Pyramids and began climbing them. Archeologists had also complained about proximity of the concert to the Pyramids and they would have howled had they been there. However, the climbers did little or no damage to those nigh-impregnable massive structures. Certainly far less damage was done than one intolerant Egyptian Caliph did to Menkaure’s Pyramid early in the last Millennium of the Common Era when in a desire to destroy the profane symbols had a huge gouge made in the structure.


I climbed up one of the small satellite pyramids of Menkaure and chatted with others for a while. I could see in the gloom dozens at the midsection of Menkaure’s Pyramid. I heard from one concert-goer that he climbed Khafre’s Pyramid up to its limestone cap. The Egyptian police on their pristine white camels eventually came over to herd us wayward concert-goers back to the venue site. They were surprisingly professional, friendly, and nonchalant about the whole thing.

Around midnight, Jarre did a 100-second countdown. When it reached zero the sky lit up with fireworks that spelled out 2000. The Millennium had finally arrived! No righteous people disappeared suddenly, no great earthquakes struck, no UFOs hovered into view. I breathed a sigh of relief as I noticed Jarre’s heavily computer-depended music and light show did not suddenly crash from the dreaded Y2K bug. Everything was going to be ok much to the dismay of doomsday cultists, Apocalyptic-awaiting Christians, UFO New Agers, and Y2K survivalists who were no doubt quickly cancelling their subscriptions to Y2K Survival magazines.

The lightshow and fireworks continued throughout the night but unbelievably a thick mist began to develop early on which was rather unusual for this time of year. Perhaps it was from the exhaust of the approaching UFOs bringing Pink Floyd. The mist grew thicker and thicker swallowing up the Pyramids from view one by one. Menkaure’s Pyramid remained visible the longest still serving as a canvas for Jarre’s images but eventually even that – as close as it was to us -disappeared into the mist.

It wasn’t until many years later on YouTube that I was able to see what was going on at the concert while I was there. After 1, the mist so enclosed us that we couldn’t see the fireworks that were exploding just above our heads. We could only see patches of mist light up in a slightly different hue. Even the whole stage was obscure from view if we stood too far towards the back. At first, I regretted not bringing my camera but as it was I would not have been able to take a picture of anything anyways.

President Mubarak was probably glad that the original plans to cap the Great Pyramid of Khufu with a golden pryamidion by use of a helicopter had been abandoned. No one there would have been able to see such a monumental and expensive gesture.

The concert took a long set break sometime around 2 though recorded music continued to play softly throughout the night. Many people left but a good number stayed on. Like quite a few others, I took the time to get some shut-eye. It was rather chilly so I pulled my arms and head into my sweatshirt and slept like a malformed turtle for a few hours.


Jarre of Arabia

I was awoken before dawn by the sound of bagpipes being played by Egyptian musicians in white desert robes. The last part of the concert was to take place now – the greeting of the New Millennium Sun. Jarre wore an Arabic headdress and played a handheld Middle Eastern drum with similarly attired Egyptian drummers.


Millennium Morning Wake-up Call at the Pyramids

The mist was lighter now but still thick. The sun unfortunately never appeared and the concert finally ended with Jarre and many of the performers parading towards the Great Pyramid which was dimly visible to the rest of us. All in all, despite the mist, it was a memorable experience and one hell of a show. I was glad I went in the end.

In hindsight, one could, I suppose, take the misty Pyramid Millennium Dawn as a portent for the confusion and uncertainly that was to follow in the years to come with the US presidential election fiasco later that same year, global terrorism, horrendous large scale natural disasters, the ongoing turmoil in Iraq, the plague of reality TV shows, etc… At that time, however, those of us at the Pyramids that Millennium morning were just happy to have witnessed a kickass concert not to mention having seen Armageddon safely pass us by. Still the UFOs would have been cool – if we could have seen them through the mist.


Trekking off into the Misty Millennium Morning

December 29, 2007 Posted by | 2000, Apocalypse, cairo, cheops, egypt, entertainment, event, festival, fireworks, giza, great pyramid, history, humor, Jean-Michel Jarre, khufu, life, Millennium, music, music concert, New Age, New Age music, New Year's Eve, New Years, party, pyramids, travel, Umm Khulthum, Umm Kulthum, Y2K | 2 Comments