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.
Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara
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.
Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism
Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power
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.
An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans
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.
A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings
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.
Archer performing archery exorcism ritual
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.
A l’il devil
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.
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!
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
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.
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). On the 3rd, I went to 6 places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes then I went to Heian Shrine where they were doing Kyogen, traditional comedy plays set inbetween Noh dramas. After Heian I went to the small temple Shogo-In where they pelted 3 devils then later the devils threw beans at us! At a tiny temple near the old Imperial Palace, they had three devils arrive with weapons only to be driven away by beans and chants.
After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Oni demonstration. Here the devils were defeated by Bishamonten or Bishamon, Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with weapons. After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. They had their hanging lanterns lit up for Setsubun. It was very beautiful.
Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!
February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs and their shadows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha perform the Japanese version of Groundhog Day known as Setsubun. Setsubun is a sp…
February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs and their shdows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha perform the Japanese version of Groundhog Day known as Setsubun. Setsubun is a spring ritual in which Japanese throw beans to ward off invisible evils and hasten the end of winter. At many temples and shrines they do a bean throwing ceremony known as mami-maki.
At Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto some of the bean throwers are geisha or rather maiko – geisha apprentices. Geisha are known as geiko in the Kansai dialect.
I got a packet of beans and ate them (also a Setsubun tradtion) washed down with Kirin Beer (a Samurai Dave tradition)
In Kyoto, one can have tea with Geisha. One way is to pay a lot of money and get an invite from an establishment in order to have this privilege or go when the public Geisha dances are held.
I took the second option and had tea prepared by a geisha in a room with about 50 other people. The public dances cost about $30-$40 plus $5 for the tea ceremony. The tea ceremonies are a montage from 3 events – the Miyako Odori, the biggest and most famous production held every April, the Kyo Odori also held in April, and the Gion Odori held in November.
You can keep the saucer that the accompanying sweet comes on. I have about 6 of them now.
The music in the background is from street performers in Germany.
Samurai Dave’s 2008 In Review – Travels, Events, & Festivals
Another year has come and gone and it’s time to look forward to next year while reflecting on the last. This year I stayed in Japan save for two trips home. Fuel surcharges increased to ridiculous amounts sometimes more than the flight cost itself. Fortunately in Japan there’s always festivals going on year round to keep one occupied.
The first of the year saw me checking out the acrobatics of old Japanese firefighters, kimono-clad cuties at Meiji Shrine, Momote Shiki – an archery ritual for new adults, and a bit of sumo.
Old Style Meets New Style
February brought in a surprise snow storm on Setsubun, a day when Japanese drive devils from their homes in a kind of spring cleaning to symbolically end winter. It’s kind of like a pro-active GroundHog Day with devils. Later, I headed up north to the Tohoku region to face off against the deadly monster trees the Juhyo and hairy devils known as Namahage. I also saw a snow lantern festival and snow festival dedicated to the clever Akita dog. Later in the month, I went to Nikko to see the half frozen Kegon Falls then to Nagano, to see the snow monkeys again.
Setsubun Devils Survery the Wintry Carnage
Snow Lantern Festival
Namahage – the bane of lazy children
Snow Festival for Dogs
Plum blossoms, Japanese St. Paddy’s Parades, Swordsmen, an Anime Con, Sumo in Osaka, and a Giant Penis made for a interesting third month.
Hands up! Who wants pizza?
I have no idea who she is supposed to be and I don’t care
My first encounter with Tokyo Decadance – a risque subculture melting pot
April offered up yet another penis festival – this one with a very graphic erect to the sky penis carried by some unconvincing drag queens. I went back to Nikko where old style priests forced people to eat large quantities of rice – unfortunately this was all behind close doors. We only got to see them posing before and after so I don’t know if they actually ate any huge bowls of rice. At one of Tokyo’s major temples, I caught a display of Gagaku which is ancient dance style. A few days later I took in some free outdoor sumo at the controversial Yasukuni shrine. Nearby Yamanashi Prefecture had two festivals to honor their hometown here – Takeda Shingen. One had a parade with armored warriors and the other a re-enactment of his most famous battle – Kawanakajima.
Festival Sponsored by Viagra
Damn, that’s one big pipe!
Ancient Court Dance – Gagaku at Zojo-ji Temple
Japanese and Foriegners duke it out at a re-enactment of a famous samurai battle
Samurai swimsuits while protective weren’t terribly comfortable
Takayama Spring Festival
Traditional Japanese Wedding at Meiji Shrine
Yabusame Archer Scores a Hit
The first week of May is Golden Week – a time when just about the whole country goes traveling. I used to stay in Tokyo to avoid the troubles but after learning about the wonders of overnight internet cafes I started venturing out more. I went back up to Tohoku to see the Uesugi Matsuri which I saw the year before. Here too they re-enact the Kawanakajima Battle but from the other side’s perspective, Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda’s greatest rival. Since the battle was basically a draw both sides can celebrate it and pretend they won. Afterwards I went to Hiraizumi which in ages past was a rival of Kyoto and its replica Fujiwara-no-Sato. Back in Tokyo I saw the artistic chaos known Tokyo Design Festa for the first time. The last part of the month I went to Fukui Prefecture to see a festival with big warrior floats.
Ancient Dance performed at Hiraizumi
Kaminoyama Castle in Yamagata
Playing Old Games at Fujiwara-no-Sato in Period Clothing
A Ghostly Figure from Tokyo Design Festa
A Warrior Float from the Mikuni Festival in Fukui
June is the rainy season so not as much goes on then so I tend to stay indoors to avoid the rain and humidity. I did take a trip to Yunishigawa to see a festival celebrating the Heike exiles who founded the town. I caught the last day of the festival last year so this year I came to see both main days. I saw again my Biwa Player from last year who surprisingly remembered me. At the end of the month I went to a Tokyo Decadance event.
Went out to Chiba to see two new festivals I hadn’t seen before. One was a Gion Festival (Gion is one Kyoto’s big Festivals) at Narita City, the place many people zoom past on their way to Tokyo. The other festival only got an hour of my time due to work and inconvenient train schedules. Still it was an hour wellspent at the Sawara Matsuri with its floats of Japanese gods and heroes. Later in the month I went once again to Soma Nomaoi, the samurai horse racing festival. Can’t get enough of horse racing samurai! Maybe next year I’ll start placing bets.
Noh at Narita Gion Festival
Ota Dokan, original founder of Tokyo (then Edo) at the Sawara Matsuri
Coming around the bend at Soma Nomaoi
Female riders ride after semi-wild horses on the third day of Soma Nomaoi
Odaiba in Tokyo all lit up
As it was with last year, August was a busy month for both work and travel. Like last year I took the first week of the month off to travel north around Tohoku to all the different festivals in the region. I went again to the drumming festival of Sansa Odori, the somber but artistic Neputa Festival of Hirosaki, the 3D floats of Nebuta with their scary faces, the Tachi Neputa Matsuri of Goshogawara with its towering floats clocking in at 22 meters, and the bamboo balancing Kanto Matsuri in Akita. In between this I went to some new festivals – the Sansha Taisai in Hachinohe which also gave a display of polo lacrosse, the dancing festival of Hanagasa in Yamagata, and the decorative (but boring) Tanabata Festival in Sendai.
That should have been enough for me but no! I returned to Tokyo via night bus, work the same day then caught another night bus to Nagoya in order to catch a fire festival in Gifu which was pretty freakin’ awesome!
Later in the month I went to Niigata where I saw my third Kawanakajima Battle re-enactment! This time there was celebrity presence. The part of Uesugi Kenshin was played by Gackt. Yes, Gackt! Ok, I never really heard of him before either but he’s big in Japan and there were tons of girls there who normally wouldn’t be caught dead at a samurai festival. The next day despite the rainy morning I went to Sado Island to catch the last day of the Kodo drum concert festival. The rest of the month I stayed in Tokyo where I saw street performances in my old neighborhood Otsuka and Samba which got poured on.
Sansa Odori in Morioka
Polo Lacrosse in Hachinohe
Ornate Float from the Sansha Taisai Matsuri
Fan-shaped float from the Neputa Matsuri of Hirosaki
Ghostly Girls from Neputa
Samurai Float from Nebuta
Towering 18-meter float at Tachi Neputa in Goshogawara
Kanto Matsuri in Akita
Hanagasa in Yamagata
Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai
Samurai Dave at Inuyama Castle – oldest intact castle in Japan
Fire Festival in Gifu
Yasukuni Shrine on Aug 15th the date of Japan’s WWII surrender
Gackt is Uesugi Kenshin!
A Samurai Fights Deer on Sado Island
Otsuka Awa Odori
Wet Slippery Samba Girl
I had an old college buddy stay over with his GF in September so the first part of the month found me cleaning my dump of a shoebox of an apartment in prepartion for their arrival. I gave them the nickel&dime tour of Tokyo and took them down to Kamakura to see Yabusame and Diabutsu – the Great Buddha. One day we did a Triple Play – caught Kabuki in the morning, saw sumo in the afternoon, and watch a baseball game in the evening. The fans with their little plastic bats and choreographed cheering was most entertaining!
At the end of the month I flew home for my father’s 60th birthday. Damn fuel charge was more than the damn flight cost! While there I went to Nashville’s very own Parthenon. Yep, we got us one just like Greece except ours is concrete and it ain’t broke!
Kamakura Sake – they wouldn’t let us have any
Diabutsu and Diadavidsu
Japanese baseball fans
Nashville Parthenon – it ain’t broke!
After my father’s birthday I went to the East Tennessean town of Jonesborough to see a storytelling festival. Storytellers from all over the world go there to tell stories of all sorts. It’s a great event!
On the way back home I stopped at two caves – one, the Lost Sea which has the second largest underground lake in the world and is about to become really LOST if they don’t get more rain in the future. The other cave was Ruby Falls whose billboards I had seen for years and years all over the southeast which perhaps made me avoid it for so long. As it was, it was pretty darn neat. The last night in Tennessee Obama and McCain had one of their debates in Nashville which of course I couldn’t get near.
Back in Japan I was lucky to bump into a street dance festival in Ikebukuro and archery demonstration. I went to Kyoto to see the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) and the Fire Festival on Mt. Kurama despite the pouring rain. Back in Tokyo I rode once more the infamous Yamanote Halloween Train this time with cops and angry internet nerds.
A Cowpoke tells it like it is at the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival
The Lost Sea
A cat in a sink
Obama supporters on the night of the Debate
Procession of 1000 Warriors in Nikko
Samurai Street Dancers
Golden Pavilion of Kyoto
Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri – Festival of Ages
Fire Festival of Mt. Kurama
The Joker having fun at the infamous Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Train Event
Enjoying Tokyo Decadance’s Halloween Bash
November 3rd is Culture Day, a national holiday where there’s culture galore to be had. I got up late that day so I missed some of the culture but I did see Tokyo’s version of Jidai Matsuri and later a bit of Kendo at Budokan where the Beatles played many moons ago. Later that week I went out past the airport in Narita to see a festival which celebrated Japan’s history from over 1500 years ago. Young people dressed like the figures known as haniwa which were clay figurines buried or placed around earthern mounds known as kofun.
I went yet again to Kyoto to see a Geisha performance known as Kitano Odori then I went to the costume museum to try on some quite fetching 1000 year old threads. At the end of the month I flew home again for Thanksgiving because I love me some T-day turkey!
Swan dancers at Tokyo Jidai Matsuri
A hit, a palpable hit!
Geisha dances a Wintry Fan Dance at Kitano Odori
Does this make me look fat?[
A relic from the mysterious Old Stone Fort in Tennessee
The last month! Whew! Long year! While still at home I went over to Lynchburg, home of Jack Daniels to have a bit of southern cooking lovingly laced with whiskey. On my last night in Nashville, I saw a kickass show with Nashville Pussy and rockabilly legend the Reverend Horton Heat.
Once again in Japan, I did a little firewalking at one festival – ok, actually the coals were lukewarm before I strode over them! I went to the 47 Ronin festival again and a fair for selling New Years decorations known as hagoita. Tokyo Decadance had a Christmas event and I was able to see decadent cuties in scanty XMAS attire plus girls were making out together – thank you, Santa!
The last night of the year saw me in the same place where I had rung in the the year – Zojo-ji Temple. Couldn’t believe another year had raced by! It had its ups and downs, its thrills and chills but all in all another fine year. I say that because I didn’t have any stock investments.
I hope 2009 is as equally as interesting and exciting and more importantly sees everyone in much better spirits at the end!
A sign in Lynchburg – no drunken tomfoolery allowed
The Reverend Horton Heat
Come Firewalking with Me
The 47 Ronin with their enemy’s head
Hagoita – decorative New Year’s Paddles
Hello, 2009! Don’t disappoint!
Rain Fails to Dampen Japanese Fire Festival Spirit
Kurama Fire Festival in Northern Kyoto
Rain fails to douse giant torches at Kurama’s Fire Festival
Fire and water as a rule generally do not mix as the saying goes. One usually overcomes the other in abundance. Rain has often been the bane of many outdoor-related fire activities from barbeques, to camp fires, to bonfires but the Fire Festival of Mt. Kurama in northern Kyoto refused to be doused despite downpours.
Some of the torches can reach 5-6 meters (15-18 feet) in length
A portable shrine – mikoshi
The Kurama-no-Himatsuri is an ancient festival ritual going back to the late 8th century that come rain or starshine (it’s always at night) is performed every year on Oct. 22. The purpose of the festival is to guide spirits and gods by torchlight along their way through the human world to the spiritual realm. Wayward spirits might remain to cause mischief in our world so the festival served to clear the mountain and the capital below of potentially evil spirits.
Torches of all sizes are carried about the mountain. They range in size from one-handed deals to gargantuan ones that require four or five stout men to carry them. The large torches put off a lot of heat and periodically their bearers are doused with water to keep them from overheating.
A Family’s Treasure on Display
This was my second time at the festival. The first time the mountaintop was crowded with milling residents, tourists, and guiding police. This time the guiding police were still in force but they practically outnumbered the visiting spectators. The reason for this was the rain. For most of the day leading up to the festival, it had been raining quite steadily thus casting a wet blanket over the enthusiasm for visitors to make the journey up the mountain.
An impressive old family heirloom
I almost gave into the suffocating effect of the wet blanket preferring a warm cafe to a cold wet mountain. Fortunately, I was able to cast the blanket off and force myself to make the journey. Not long afterwards, I was quite happy that I had made the effort. Absent were the throngs of visitors that cluttered up the train and mountaintop the last time I had visited. The spirit of the festival, however, was undampened being still “fiery” as ever and this time I could be closer to the action.
Adding to the fun and the surrealness of it all were the number of attending Tengu – Japanese goblins. Kurama’s famous mythical denizen is the Tengu which come in two shapes – redskinned long nose goblins or winged crow-headed goblins. The long-nose goblins make for popular masks and quite a few people were sporting these.
A Tengu Goblin on the way back from Kurama’s Fire Festival
As for the rain, from time to time it did come down but it was only a minor inconvenience. The great torches sputtered and crackled but did not go out. The amount of smoke was considerable though due to this.
Koff! Koff! Must be in the the smoking section!
After the torches reached the shrine, a large bonfire was constructed. Then two large mikoshi – portable shrines – were brought down the steep path from the temple. On their backs rode two men in samurai armor sans helmet. The mikoshi bearers rocked the shrines up and down seemingly trying to knock the fellows off. All around them carrying regular-sized torches were men, women, and children singing the festival’s age-old chant of “sei-rei, sei-ryo!” which means something like “festival, good festival!”
And indeed despite the weather, it was a good festival and I was glad I had made it.
shouldering a hot heavy load
Kyoto’s Festival of the Ages
A look at the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) of Kyoto: Part II
An Imperial Guard – statues of these guards can be found at certain Shinto shrines
Court nobles and Imperial guards represent the Fujiwara Period (897-1185), a time when the powerful noble family, the Fujiwara, controlled the governance of the country as ministers to the imperial court. One of the most powerful Fujiwara ministers was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He arranged to have his daughters marry the emperors and have his grandson of one of these unions ascend the throne. In time the Fujiwaras’ power weakened and they had to rely more often on the warrior families, chiefly the Heike and the Genji, to control the country. Eventually, the Fujiwara would be succeeded by the military Heike family who in turn were destroyed by the Genji in the Gempei War.
The fierce Tomoe Gozen – samurai warrior woman
Following in the train of the Fujiwara nobles comes some of the most famous women of Japanese history. Astride a horse dressed in samurai armor carrying the deadly long-bladed naginata is Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe fought beside her husband, Minamoto-no-Yoshinaka, as one of his most trusted captains in the Gempei War. In 1183, Yoshinaka captured Kyoto from Heike forces. His success went to his head and his ever-suspicious cousin, Yoritomo, ordered his half-brother, Yoshitsune, to destroy the would-be upstart. Tomoe fought gloriously in her husband’s last battle. Reports of her end are mixed. Some say she died in battle, others that she took Yoshinaka’s head with her and perished in the sea, and others say she ended her days as a nun.
Famous Writers of the 11th Century: Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu
The writers Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu follow the warlike Tomoe. Sei Shonagon (966-1025) was a sharp-witted lady of the court whose observations of courtly life are preserved in her famous work: “Makura-no-Soshi” (The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon). Murasaki Shikibu (980-1014), also a lady of the court, penned the internationally renowned classic, the “Genji Monogatari” (Tale of the Genji).
The first Shogun and his troops returning after a successful campaign
The next military procession is of the early samurai warriors of the 9th century led by General Sakanoue Tamuramaro. Sakanoue was the first military commander to be named “Shogun” by Emperor Kammu. Originally, the title “shogun” was given temporarily to military leaders to subdue the turbulent Ezo (Ainu) natives of Tohoku, the northern region of Japan. This procession depicts the triumphant return of the Shogun Sakanoue after a successful campaign.
A court noble from Kyoto’s early days
Court nobles wearing straight swords come next to greet the emperor of the early Heian Period (794-1185). The colors of their robes signify their rank.
Boys dressed in colorful costumes with bird wings on their backs
Children wearing colorful costumes with the wings of butterflies or mythical birds on their backs precede the arrival of the mikoshi (portable shrine) of Emperors Kammu and Komei.
Mikoshi – portable shrine – of the spirit of the first and last reigning emperors in Kyoto
The Shinko-Retsu (Procession of the Sacred Carriages) brings a close to the Jidai Matsuri. The two mikoshi transfer the spirits of Kammu and Komei to the Heian Shrine.
Late 8th Century Archer who guarded Emperor Kammu’s procession into Kyoto on Oct. 22, 794
Accompanying the mikoshi are 8th – 9th century archers from the Tamba region noted for their skills with the bow. When Emperor Kammu first moved the capital to Kyoto, these archers guarded his sacred procession into his new capital. And with their departure, the Festival of Ages with its glimpse into the past draws to a close.
A Poet of an earlier age peeks out at the modern world
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
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