Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

14 Meter Tall Gundam Float and more Giant Gundam in Odaiba

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

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

Samurai Dave’s 2007 In Review: Travels, Festivals, and Events

Another year has come and gone and in soppy melodramatic fashion, it’s time to look back on all we’ve done and didn’t do. Instead of focusing on love or lack there of or personal growth, I’ve look back through the magic of film and video on all the places and things I saw in 2007.

January
I rang in the New Year between the traditional area of Asakusa and the sleazy area of Roppongi. Needlessly to say the 1st of January did not see me until much later in the day, in fact it was evening. My first activity of the New Year then was the following day after sleeping off an all-nighter in Roppongi. I went to the Imperial Palace on January 2nd to hear the Emperor’s New Year address. Didn’t understand a word he said (my New Year’s Resolution is to fix that problem by next year).

A week later I went to Meiji Shrine for Seijin-no-hi (Coming of Age Day) to see kimono-clad girls strut their stuff.

That weekend I went to Kanda Shrine to watch Shinto adherents prove their mettle by drenching themselves in freezing cold water. However given the unusual warmth that month, the normally chill-inducing spectactle looked rather refreshing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlFqaUYA_T4

The next week I went out to a temple in east part of Tokyo – Kameido. There they had a type of Noh performance. This was the first time for me to see Noh but by the end of the year while I would be no expert in Noh, I would at least know Noh much better than before.

February
The 3rd of February is one of my favorite times of the year. This is Setsubun which is like a mix of New Years, Groundhog Day, and Halloween rolled up togther. Every year I attend the mami-maki (bean-tossing) at different temples. This time I hit three temples – Senso-ji in Asakusa, Zojo-ji in Hammatscho, and Kichibojin in Ikebukuro. I always enjoy watching old ladies knocking people over for thrown washcloths, beans, and other trinkets.

I mainly stayed in Tokyo and when I wasn’t killing zombies and Nazis on my Playstation I was visiting gardens such as Hama-rikyu.

The end of February brings out the plum blossoms, the heralds of Spring. To see them I took daytrips to Kamakura which due to the warm winter had already shed its plum blossoms and I went to Mito in the Ibaraki Prefecture to see Kairaku-en Garden with its hundreds of plum blossoms.

February was a good month for armor. I got the chance to wear samurai armor twice. Once in Odawara in front of the castle for 200 Yen and another time in Ikebukuro at a store’s opening week for free. My inner geek was pleasantly sated.

I took another daytrip out to Chiba to watch another type of Shinto ritual where half-naked men wrestled in a cold muddy pond to ensure good fortune for all – its a Shinto thing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeXKz3L6fx8

February-March
The next day I embarked on an ardous journey into the heart of the urban jungle of Tokyo. Along with my comrade, Zen Master Jeff, I hiked around the Yamanote Line for five days. We stayed at an ryokan, an internet cafe, a karaoke box, and a capsule hotel. Our outfits were a mix of samurai, old style Yakuza, pilgrim, and backpacker. We met quite a few people and had several interesting adventures because of these costumes.

March
In March I went to Nagoya where the year before I had attended one of the most amusing festivals – the fertility festival of Tagata Shrine. Once again I saw that huge wooden phallus hove into sight admist the awes and chuckles of the spectators.

The next day I went to reconstructed castle whose original structure once belonged to warlord Oda Nobunaga.

Two days later I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at an Irish Pub with some co-workers where we listened to a kickass Irish band who were all Japanese.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq07MT6rYN8

The next day I went to Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple to watch the Kinryu-no-Mai – Golden Dragon Dance.

Showing the spirit of union solidarity I attended the annual March in March, a gathering of foriegn and japanese union members. It rained during the march but the sun came out at the end – The Man can now control the weather!

April
In April, I made my yearly Cherry Blossom pilgrimage to Kyoto where I enjoyed the Sakura both day and night thanks to nighttime illuminations.

On the second day of my trip, I went to Nara, the first official capital of Japan, to feed the semi-tame persistant deer and see the Diabutsu – Great Buddha.

The third day, I went to Yoshino which was an Imperial capital for some decades when there were two rival Imperial Courts for a time.

As it was there was a Geisha performance going on back in Kyoto at the same time in the Gion Quarter – the Miyako Odori. Luckily I was able to get a last minute ticket on my last day.

Though laden with controversy (and with good reason) Yasakuni Shrine hosts an outdoor sumo event in mid-April. While the blossoms fall, sumo wrestlers toss each other around for our free amusement.

A few days later I went to Kamakura to see Cherry Blossoms and watch a display of Yabusame – mounted archery. I injured my knee scrambling up a small tree for a better view. This injury would come back to haunt later in the summer when I was limping about.

Next Saturday, I went to Sumida Park in Asakusa to see another demonstration of Yabusame. It was here were I first saw it performed years ago and I go back to Sumida almost every year.

I went to Harajuku Park one Sunday to see the goth lolita anime folks. While I was there I was interviewed for a French cable TV channel called French Wave or something like that. It was suppose to air sometime in July but I had no way of seeing it.

That particularly Sunday in Harajuku I stumbled the remnants of the group that used to dominate Harajuku – the dancing rockabilly gangs. Don’t know why the cops drove them off 10 years ago.

May
Usually in May during Japan’s Golden Week, I stay put in Tokyo either working or killing people – on my Playstation, of course. Although I get 3-4 days off and sometimes more depending on my schedule, I don’t like to travel at this time because everyone is traveling. Prices are high and accomodations hard to come by. Still this year, I went up to Yonezawa in Yamagata Prefecture to see the re-enactment of Kawanakajima, one of the famous samurai battles of the Sengoku (Warring States) Period. The re-enactment was more like a high school play with a fair size budget but that was ok as it added a surreal element of watching smiling schoolgirl samurai swinging swords about.

I also try a bit of Yonezawa’s famous beef – which was a damn good (and expensive!) steak.

From Yonezawa I went north to Sendai and then to Hiraizumi where another festival was taking place. I watched Noh performed on a 300 year old outdoor Noh stage and drummers dressed in bizarre deer costumes. As for accomodations, I stayed for three nights in true backpacking style -at the Chateau de Internet Cafe.

The following week I was off again – back to Kyoto for 6 days. In Kyoto I went to the Silver Pavalion – Ginkakuji – named so even though it actually doesn’t have any silver. A grim jest of financial destitution or a tourist scam, you decide. Still, lovely building, silver or no.

I attended this year’s Kamogawa Odori geisha performance in Pontocho which had a story set during the civil war which burnt much of Kyoto and explained why Ginkakuji was silver-less.

That evening I went to Gion Corner to get a crash course in traditonal Japanese arts from Tea Ceremony, kodo playing (japanese harp), gagaku (court music and dance), geisha dancing, ikebana (flower-arranging), kyogen (the amusing plays inbetween the serious Noh dramas) finally to bunraku (puppet drama), All of this in under an hour.

I took the second part of the program and learned a bit on how to do make tea in the traditional tea ceremony way. My tea was a bit strong I’m afraid.

The following day I went outside of Nara to see the site of the oldest Buddhist temple – Horyuji. The current buildings do not date back to the 6th century, though.

In Nara for two nights I watched Noh by torchlight. There’s no Noh like torchlight Noh.

On Sunday I went to Iga-Ueno which was the hometown of some of Japan’s original Ninja. There I saw a short demonstration of Ninja fighting which basically means fighting dirty.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIEnsOZXKOM

Monday I went to Ise famed for its shrines which are the number one shrines in the Shinto faith. However, instead of going to these cultural meccas since I had been culturing it up anyhow, I went to a samurai theme park. Ise has one of the Edo Wonderland themepark chains this one based on the later half of the Sengoku Period. I watched a samurai stage drama which I didn’t understand but the plot was simple enough to follow – bad samurai wants precious sword that good samurai guards. Good guy won. Dammit! Gave away the ending – sorry!

On Tuesday, I watched one of Japan’s oldest festivals, the Aoi Matsuri which was my main purpose for my trip.

My knee had troubled me a bit at first but by the end of the trip, I was fine. However my knee injury would re-surface during the rainy season next month. Before that occurred I still had some weeks with a trouble-free knee and so two days back from my Kyoto trip off I went to Nikko to catch the tail end of the festival procession honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I caught a bit of Asakusa’s Sanja Matsuri as well. I was really still tired from my Kyoto trip to gave these last two as much time and energy. But I watched people carrying around Mikoshi -portable shrines – and had a good time. I aslo caught another bit of Noh (it was definately becoming a Noh year for me).

I was rested enough towards the end of the month to take in sumo. I was fortunate to be there the day Yokozuna (champion) Asashoryu lost a pivotal match which paved the way for a new Yokozuna. Well, fortunate for me not for him, I guess.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsowgV50igo

Two days later I was in an area known as Miura, a beach area 2 hours south of Tokyo, where I watched another form of Yabusame – Kasagake. Similar to Yabusame, kasagake has a more military practicality. The targets are placed in front and are lower down at the same height as a dismounted enemy.

June
June is the rainy season so I planned to take it easy for a change and just stay put but as luck would have it during the Sanja Matsuri I chanced upon a poster for a festival in some town I never of before. The festival was honoring a samurai family from long ago who fled to the village of Yunishigawa. I was intrigued so off I went. To my dismay I missed the procession of warriors in 12th century armor by a day but I caught something even better – women in colorful robes dancing in the street and an incredible performance on a biwa – a type of lute.

Biwa Performance

I injured my knee by putting too much stress on it running to work one day. I ended up limping into class. Through mid-June to mid-July I spent most of my days off at home but I did go to Harajuku park again one Sunday to see the inhabitants there.

July
In mid-July, I was back down in Kyoto once again. This time for the Gion Festival. Two-story floats filled with musicians and covered with old tapestries were pulled through the streets. Today the floats are dwarfed by tall modern buildings but back in the day, those floats must have really seemed gigantic.

I also went into the mountains behind Kyoto to Enryaku-ji which was once a huge temple compound with thousands of subtemples until the aforementioned Oda Nobunaga who apparently wasn’t much of a temple-going man burned many of the temples and killed a great number of priests. The priests, however, weren’t terribly temple-going types either has they maintained an army and used it to fight other temples and bully the capital.

There was a sumo tournament in Nagoya so I headed up there and spent the whole day at the sumo tournament where I watched the various ranks of sumo wrestlers from the lowest to the highest compete. I aslo got the chance to visit one of the sumo houses but it was after their dinner so I missed all the “big” sumo wrestlers. Only the “little” guys were there cleaning up.

I basically took it easy this trip though since the weather wasn’t all that great and my knee was bothering me. The last day I went on a type of fishing excursion known as ukai where cormorant birds are used to catch fish. It was dark and rainy and my camera kept fogging up.

Next week I was at it again – this time the Soma Nomaoi, a festival I went to 2 years ago. I saw again the armored samurai in the best historical procession I’ve seen. This time I stayed for the last day’s festivities of the 3-day festival. I watched pensioners round up semi-wild horses at a shrine.

August
August was a crazy month for me which made all the previous months pale in comparison. Starting Aug 2 I went on an 8-day 6-festival trip throughout Tohoku. I started with the drumming festival of Sansa Odori in Morioka.

Then I went to Akita City where I watched people balance huge bamboo poles with lanterns on their palms, hips, and heads.

South of Morioka, I spent two days at a festival where they had all kinds of dance performances but the best one and the one that brought me here in the first place was the Oni Kembai or devil dance.

I spent two refreshing nights in a business hotel during the Oni Kembai festival – this after two nights in two uncomfortable internet cafes – before going to Hirosaki to see Neputa.

then off to Aomori to see the last night of Nebuta in which they put some of the best floats in harbor while fireworks go off overhead.

The last festival was similar to Aomori’s Nebuta except that the floats were much taller – 3 of them clocked in at 22 meters high! This was Tachi Neputa, the tiny town of Goshogowara’s claim to fame. My knee bothered me so much at times I could barely walk.

A week later I was in Niigata on Sado Island to see once again the Kodo Taiko drum group’s 3-day concert. It was here I met with some sexy japanese belly dancers. I finally got myself a knee brace before going out to the island which helped me hobble about a bit better.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V5v01WaCNE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2Tb8pNKhK4

Near the end of the month, I was back in Asakusa to catch the Asakusa Samba Festival. Lots of cameras were clicking away as scantily-clad samba girls pranced about to a Latin beat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DivGNo0-UQg

The next evening I went to Kameido Temple to see another Noh performance this one by torchlight too.

September
September – typhoon season – I really did take easy though I still went to sumo on one of my days off.

In my neighborhood, I caught a festival. Though I missed the mikoshi, I saw a cool drum band.

During that time there was an Oktoberfest celebration going on near Tokyo station at Hibiya Park. I spent two nights there drinking German and Japanese beers eating sausages and watching German and Japanese girls prance about in leiderhosen – or whatever german girls wear – to German oompah music.

I had meant to go to a festival that month up in Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture but this time my laziness finally said no and I stayed home the whole time and killed zombies on Resident Evil/Biohazard 4.

October
October was another busy month as I took off to Europe to meet up with my parents, my sister and her husband, my cousin, and my uncle in a small family renunion in italy. I headed off first to catch the last two days of Oktoberfest in Munich. The last Saturday of Oktoberfest was so packed I was in mortal danger of going beerless at the world’s largest beer festival. Fortunately, the gods of beer smiled upn me and I was able to partake of the holy elixir.

Then I spent a week beer-guzzling while taking in the castles of Bavaria’s mad king, Ludwig II and listening to some really talented street musicians.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcsYOhlLBoA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhL6rPJlIkg

An overnight bus brought me to Zagreb where I spent the morning wandering around the old town admiring the rampant grafitti. At noon, I had my eardrums shattered by their noonday chime which is delivered by a WWII howitizer cannon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VYNIn_Swuo

From Zagreb I proceeded to Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia, a country which tires of being mistaken for Slovakia.

I spent a night there then spent a day at beautiful Lake Bled.

An overnight train brought me into Venice – well not at first since in my exhaustion I got off at the first station before Venice and had to wait half-an-hour till the next one. I spent the day wandering about the city which was all I could afford to do as admission prices are stupidly high and the lines were stupidly long too. That night I arrived in Florence and spent much of the next day there.

I met my family at a villa that was part of a small castle complex outside of Florence. Wasn’t use to this luxury – I had slept in a locker for two nights in the train station in Munich during Oktoberfest. From then on it was smooth sailing – except when we got lost on the winding roads of the Tuscan Hills which was often.

I went to several medieval walled towns that week in Tuscany and Umbria. Ah, the bloodshed and paranioa of past centuries left some wonderful sites to see throughout the area. My favorite was Monteriggiono outside of Siena.

I returned home to Tokyo just in time to catch a ride on the notorious Yamanote Halloween Train. Little did I know till later of all the controversy that had been swarming around the event. As it was, the killjoys helped to kill one Halloween Train but they knew nothing about the Halloween Train I was on – the killjoys left some amusingly angry comments on the Youtube video I made about the event.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5jVTNyw2BY

After the Halloween Train, I went into Roppongi for a bit fun and sleaze. I also went there on Weds, Halloween proper but it was dead and not int he Halloween sense. However, I did get a bit of grind action from a she-devil and her playboy playmate pal.

November
November was another quiet month. On Culture Day, Nov 3, I went to a small pocket in Tokyo’s urban sprawl to see a small demonstration of a Japanese lord’s procession from several centuries ago and to see one of my student’s samba group perform.

I went home for Thanksgiving where I got fat on some good southern grub such as fried catfish, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread. Also got to pet my doggies.

December
December was also a quiet one for traveling. I went to Sengaku-ji Temple in Shinagawa to see the festival honoring the 47 Ronin who 300 years earlier arrived on a snowy morning with the head of the lord’s enemy to lay at their masters’ grave.

Then on the 23rd I went to the Imperial Palace again. This time to hear the Emperor give a birthday address. Since 2002, I’ve always gone to the Palace on the Emperor’s birthday. Last year I missed the address though I was still able to go inside. This year I got to see and hear some welldressed Japanese rightwingers (and possible yakuza) get really into wishing the Emperor a happy birthday.

And the last 5 minutes of 2007 were spent at Zojo-ji Temple where hundreds of balloons flew off.

Whew! Well that’s that for 2007! Look out 2008! Actually, I think might just take the year off.

January 2, 2008 Posted by | 2007, 47 Ronin, akihito, belly dancing, cosplay, culture, dance, entertainment, event, festival, geisha, Gion, heike monogatari, iwate, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, Kyoto, life, martial arts, matsuri, misogi, morioka, Mudslinging, Munchen, Munich, music, Naked Festival, nebuta, neputa, New Year's Eve, New Years, ninja, Oktoberfest, parade, party, plum blossom, purification, ronin, Sado Island, sakura, samba, samurai, sansa odori, seijin-no-hi, sengakuji, sengoku, Setsubun, sexy, Shinto, soma nomaoi, Sport, spring, sumo, taiko, tohoku, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, travel, video, Yabusame, yamanote halloween train, Yamanote Train, yokozuna, youtube | 5 Comments

Rock the Vote! Vote for “An Eclectic Cultural Montage”

The above video I just sent to Current TV (current tv). It’s up for votes to get picked for TV so if you feel generous, please register and vote for my pod/video at:

http://www.current.tv/watch/47178271

Current TV is a cable show that puts on viewer-created material. Check out the Wiki article for more info:

Current TV

Now the way the voting system works is that newbie voter’s score is only about 1.5 points and more active members have a whopping 10 points behind their vote. So for those who really want to help, I’d advise voting – which means Greenlighting – and commenting on other pods/videos to get your score up before voting on mine. Here’s a small eclectic selection of a few pods/vids that I like which I think deserve votes:

A surreal vid on the Old West in the Old Communist East:

Bohemian West

A very interesting vid on the incompetent sale of weapons by the US government and the apathy of media and the public:

Big Media Fails Again

An environmentally friendly car:

electric car

You may have seen him on Youtube or Myspace, anything by Mark Day deserves votes for being funny, witty, and insightful:

Secrets of the universe

markday

another chlling political vid which shows the position of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf:

toys in the gulf

A candid look at a group of soldiers in Iraq made by the soldiers themselves:

Soldiers in an Iraqi city

These are are just a few of the great videos over there so surf around and vote for the ones you like. I plan to upload remastered versions of some of the videos here for later shows so please vote for them too!

Thanks!

The theme music is Jack’s Surf Shop by the exotic ones

June 14, 2007 Posted by | beefeater, culture, current tv, dance, devils, England, festival, geisha, japan, Kendo, Kyoto, life, martial arts, matsuri, media, montage, morioka, music, nebuta, ninja, politics, samurai, sansa odori, sumo, taiko, travel, TV, video, voting | 2 Comments

Overshadowed Neputa Festival of Hirosaki

Overshadowed Neputa Festival Shines With an Artistic Light
Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival Presents Finely Painted Floats of War and Peace

A Traditional Fan-Shaped Neputa Float

The Neputa Festival of Hirosaki, in northern Japan, suffers from being overshadowed by its more famous sister festival, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori City. Even many Japanese have never heard of it. Many think the word “Neputa” is just another word for “Nebuta” or a slip of the tongue. This is unfortunate because the Neputa festival is worthy of recognition in its own right.

A Kagami-e Fighting Scene

The first recorded Neputa festival goes back to 1722 but the festival itself is no doubt older. The Neputa festival has been named an important intangible national cultural heritage custom.

The traditional floats of Neputa are not the three-dimensional ones like those of the Nebuta Festival, though some of those type floats are used in the procession. The Neputa floats are two-dimensional large flat fan-shaped floats with paintings on both front and back surfaces. Like Nebuta, the floats are illuminated by light bulbs within the structure.

The floats range in size from small ones carried by one to six people to enormous ones pulled along by a team of people. In the larger ones, two or three people will ride on a platform inside the float in order to lower the top portion of the float so that it can pass under street lights and telephone wires.

The Demon and the Samurai
A Demon grabs a Samurai

In the Heian Period of Japan (794-1132), Rashomon Gate was said to be haunted by the demon Ibaraki Doji. Once it had been the grandest and largest of the gates of Kyoto but in the decline of Heian society, Rashomon Gate fell into ruin and became the haunt of human devils such as thieves and corpse despoilers. Unwanted dead were often left at Rashomon. In these details perhaps lay the origin behind the demon Ibaraki’s haunting of the Gate.

In the late 10th century, a brave samurai Watanabe no Tsuna went to Rashomon Gate to confront the demon. As he waited he grew drowsy and nearly fell asleep. He was rudely awakened before dawn by the hand of Ibaraki which grabbed him roughly from the back of his head. Tsuna cut the demon’s arm from its body and the demon swiftly fled leaving Tsuna with a unique and enviable battle trophy.

Tsuna put the arm in a box for safe keeping. Some days later his old nurse and aunt came to visit him. She was most curious to see her former charge’s souvenir. Tsuna could not refuse her request and promptly showed her the demon’s severed arm. All at once the countenance of his old nurse changed into the hideous demon Ibaraki. The demon quickly snatched its arm and flew off never to trouble Kyoto again.

A visitor will soon notice that the paintings of the Neputa floats have a distinct warlike theme to them. Like Nebuta many of the themes are based on historical and mythical characters from Japanese and Chinese stories.

Neputa’s themes appear more violent in depicting bloody swords, grisly baskets of severed heads, brutal beheadings, swallowing of eyeballs, and so forth. On the other side of the Neputa float, however, one often finds a beautiful portrait of a Chinese or Japanese lady in a gorgeous costume. The ladies often appear somewhat melancholy.

Ouch!

At certain times during the procession, the Neputa floats are rotated to show both sides rapidly. The larger floats are rotated by use of ropes pulled by four to six people while the bottom base remains stationary. The kagami-e is the heroic fighting side and the miokuri-e is the peaceful side often of sad women who are seeing off their brave menfolk.

A “miokuri-e” (seeing-off scene)

The reason for these contrasting images of war and sad beautiful women has to do with the nature of the Neputa Festival and its difference to the Nebuta Festival. Neputa is said to represent a war procession of warriors going off to battle. The fighting scenes are to steel their hearts and prepare them for the grim task of fighting ahead. The forlorn women on the opposite side represent their wives and lovers seeing them off.

The music of the Neputa also has a somewhat sadder more somber tone to it than the Nebuta Festival.

Chinese Hero Devours His Own Eye

A story of desperate culinary consumption

Eyeball anyone?

Xiahou Dun was a general during China’s Three Kingdoms period (180 AD – 260 AD). In the course of one the countless battles of that time period, Xiahou Dun was struck in the left eye with an arrow. He dramatically yanked the arrow from his eye with it still attached at the end and preceded to swallow it. He shouted: “The essence of my parents cannot be thrown away!” He then promptly killed the warrior responsible for the deed.

Xiahou Dun is highly admired to this day for his bravery, his loyalty and devotion to family. His master Cao Cao is not remembered so favorably, however.

A shocking display of unlady-like behavior

In contrast, the Nebuta Festival of Aomori represents the triumphant return from battle. The music has a more upbeat and merry melody to it. During Japan’s Sengoku Period (Warring States) in the 16th Century, no doubt people witnessed many such processions.

Typifying such a war procession, the Japanese Self Defense Force puts in an apt appearance by performing a sword and fan dance. A group of women marched together carrying the long deadly naginata — which is like a combination of spear and sword.

A Ghastly Ghost Haunts a Lady

Though Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri tends to hog the limelight, Hirosaki’s Neputa Matsuri deserves accolades for its impressively beautiful artwork, particularly on the rear section of the floats. The exquisite artwork of the floats is quite fitting because Hirosaki is after all the capital for culture and education in Aomori Prefecture.

In fact, while Aomori was for a long time just a sleepy port town, Hirosaki had been the official capital of the Tsugura clan’s domain from 1603 to 1868. When the Emperor Meiji came to power, he reorganized the area making Aomori City the capital. Being a landlocked city of no military value, Hirosaki was fortunate to be spared the dreadful bombing that Aomori City received during WWII.

Ordinarily it might be difficult for visitors to choose which festival to attend but fortunately both festivals last for nearly a week — the first week of August. It’s quite possible and definitely recommendable to see both.

Vampire Cat of Nabeshima

Dastardly cat thwarted by resourceful footman

 

 

Bad Kitty!

The tale of the Vampire Cat of Nabeshima is aptly ghastly addition to the grimmer aspects of the war-like Neputa Matsuri. Long ago the young lord of the Nabeshima clan fell ill under mysterious circumstances. He grew weak and listless. No remedy could cure him and he suffered nightly from terrible dreams. His family decided to appoint a samurai guard to watch over him. Yet every night against their will, the samurai fell asleep while the young lord got weaker and weaker. One day a lowly foot-soldier offered his services to guard the stricken lord. As the high-ranking samurai guard continually failed to remain awake, the foot-soldier was given the chance to prove himself.

When the unnatural sleep stole over the other guards, the foot-soldier resisted the pull by an extreme measure. He drove a knife into his leg and twisted it whenever his senses began to slacken. He was awake to see the lord’s mistress enter the room to check on the condition of her love. She was surprised to see the lowly foot-soldier still awake.

Soon after, the mistress stopped her nightly visits and immediately the mysterious illness of the young lord and the unnatural drowsiness of the guards dissipated. The foot-soldier now knew who was behind it all and he confronted the culprit in her room. What he did not expect to discover was that the mistress was actually a vampire cat creature which had disposed of the lord’s mistress sometime ago and assumed her image in order to drain the energy from the young lord. The cat creature escaped but was later hunted down and killed. The young lord recovered his health and the lowly foot-soldier was well-rewarded.

October 7, 2006 Posted by | aomori, aomori prefecture, Blogroll, dance, entertainment, festival, floats, hirosaki, japan, matsuri, nebuta, neputa, parade, samurai, three kingoms, tohoku, travel, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Japan’s Nebuta Matsuri – Giant Floats Frighten and Delight

Fujin the Japanese God of Wind

“Dragons, griffins, reptiles, fishes, birds there are, all dancing, waving fans, shouting, howling, singing, noising, in one form or another, in chorus perfectly bewildering.”
– Amy Michael-Carmichael, American Missionary to Japan, 1895.

Every summer, Aomori City’s Nebuta Festival brings in flocks of tourists from all over to gaze and wonder at the festival’s huge illuminated floats. Nebuta’s giant floats are the stuff of fantasy and nightmare depicting historical and legendary characters some of whom were of demonic origins.

A samurai fights the Shuten Doji devil who once troubled Kyoto

Visages of snarling faces of humans, animals, monsters, and demons of enormous proportions locked in grisly combat assail the eyes of visitors in a seemingly pagan-like splendor. If a 19th century Christian missionary had ever witnessed the Nebuta Matsuri, they would have probably thought that they had stumbled upon the heart of darkest heathendom. But Nebuta is not about worshipping the forces of darkness or warding away evil spirits. The festival is yet another creative and elaborate way for Japanese to ward away the sleepiness brought on by the summer’s heat through massive quantities of alcohol and gigantically terrifying floats.

Aomori City is the capital of Aomori Prefecture. It is a port city which was founded in the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1867) by the second lord of the Tsugaru clan. The city’s history had been rather quiet over the centuries until WWII when the Americans bombed it practically flat. Aomori rebuilt itself and in recent years discovered buried in its outskirts an ancient city inhabited over 7,000 years ago.

While the city has had a relatively uneventful existence – save for WWII bombings and one earlier fire – it hosts one of the most spectacular and unique festivals in all of Japan: the Nebuta Matsuri.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Ancient Chinese Story A Favorite Nebuta Theme
Chinese Hero Zhang Fei fighting one of his countless foes

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a popular re-occurring theme at Nebuta. The Three Kingdoms is ancient Chinese story based on historical events of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries when the Han Empire collapsed. China fell into three separate kingdoms that warred continuously with one another. Lui Bei is one of the prinicipal heroes of the Romance. He and his two brothers fought to restore the Han Dynasty but were unsuccessful. Instead they established the short-lived Shu-Han Dynasty, one of the three kingdoms in the Romance. Zhang Fei was not Lui Bei’s brother through blood but through the swearing of an oath of loyalty. He was great general but sometimes given over to strong drink which affected his judgment at times.

The origin of the festival is one that invites debate among those who care to debate such things rather than spending their time simply gawking at the enormous floats and dancing the nebuta odori dance in an inebriated haze. One theory is that the festival goes far, far back long when much of Tohoku represented a kind of Wild West frontier of hardy settlers and indignant natives.

Nitta Yoshisada a 14th Century Samurai Leader who fought for the Emperor Go-Daigo

In the 8th Century Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro,* led an expedition into the northern regions of Tohoku to subdue the indigenous Emishi inhabitants and increase the territory of imperial Japan. According to legend – but not fact – Tamuramaro built nebuta floats to lure the Emishi into an ambush. Legend states that this occurred in the area that is now Aomori City but in reality Tamuramaro’s campaign only reached as far as modern day Iwate Prefecture.

Suikoden – Outlaws of the Marsh
Another Chinese Classic – Another Popular Nebuta Theme
Heroes of Suikoden

The Outlaws of the Marsh or Suikoden in Japanese is another Chinese classic (Shuihu Zhuan in Chinese) that has received widespread popularity in Japan. Suikoden is a story based on historical outlaws during the Song Dynasty of the 12th Century who resisted corrupt government leaders. The story was set down officially in writing in the 14th century by Shi Nai-an. The story was later translated and adapted into Japanese in the early 19th Century. It became a huge sensation. The story was particularly popular with the lower class who admired the heroes of Suikoden for their defiance of the authorities. Tattoo art based on Suikoden became immensely popular as well.

Another theory is that Nebuta is an adaptation of the Chinese Tanabata festival. Tanabata comes from an ancient Chinese legend about two starred-crossed lovers forever destined to be apart save for a brief time every summer. The custom was to set a toro – a candle placed on a wooden plate covered with Japanese paper – adrift on the water. Nebuta’s floats grew in size and shape over time till they became the unique hulking structures they are today.

Tsugaru Tamenobu – First Lord of the Tsugaru clan

The third theory is a bit more mundane. Nebuta was believed to have come about as a way of warding off the drowsiness that comes with the summer heat. Some servants of the Tsugura lord began walking about in the summer evenings with lanterns. Others began to copy their habit. The word “nebuta” is thought to have been derived from the world “Nenpute” which means sleepy in the local dialect.

The giant decorative floats of today grew out of those lanterns used during the early beginnings of the festival. The making of the Nebuta floats is a community project. Many people will labor to create new floats every year. The principle artwork and design is handled by professional Nebuta artist known as Nebuta-Shi. Some of them have been designing Nebuta floats for decades.

The floats are made of tough Japanese paper placed over a framework of wood and metal. The floats can be up to 9 meters wide, 5 meters high, and can weigh up to 4 tons. They take about three months to construct though the whole process from design to last-minute touches can stretch from the end of one festival to the beginning of the next years. The cost of some of these floats can run upwards to $200,000.

Despite their ponderous weight and size, the Nebuta floats are not “floated” about by motorized vehicles. Good old fashion manual labor is employed to push and pull these massive floats through the city’s streets for nearly two hours. The float handlers will occasionally rush at the crowd as though they planned to ram them. Seemingly at the last moment the reckless advance is halted to the relief of those in the front. The handlers will then show off their skills by twirling their huge burden around. After the parade, the handlers celebrate their release from festive drudgery by feasting and drinking – lots of drinking.

11th Century Samurai Hero Minamoto-no-Yorimasa with retainer killing the Nue, a mythical beast, which had been troubling the Emperor

In the past the Nebuta Matsuri was a wilder affair attracting a rough crowd looking to drink and fight. Men of various districts of Aomori City and Prefecture would gang together and get into fights with other groups. All of them would wear black clothing generally of traditional wear. They were dubbed the Karasu Hanto – crow dancers. When travel to Aomori became more available to the rest of Japan, the number of tourists to Nebuta grew as did fears that the Karasu Hanto would be detrimental to tourism. Nowadays, the police are out in force to keep a tight rein on things. For adventurous types this may take some of the fun out of it.

The Nebuta Matsuri runs through the first week of August for a nearly a full week. At the end of the festival, all the large floats are taken out to bay and “floated” along like their tiny cousin, the toro lantern. However, the Nebuta Floats are not allowed to simply drift off out to sea. They’re brought back and later either taken apart or sent around to other cities and countries for display. Those chosen as the best floats of the festival will reside in the Nebuta Matsuri Museum for the next few years before they eventually deteriorate.

Don’t Just Watch – Join In!
At Nebuta visitors can dress up and join in
Nebuta Dave and friend

Visitors to Nebuta have the option of actually becoming a part of the festival procession if they wish. Fortunately, they won’t be made to push one of those massive floats but they can join in with the groups of dancers. Some dancing groups allow visitors to dance with them. Willing visitors need to rent or buy a Nebuta Odori costume in order to participate.

The Nebuta costume is not an easy thing to put on as I found out. I didn’t realize how bloody complicated it was to put on so the shop staff led me to a small ryokan (hotel) where someone would assist me. Before I knew it, I was down to only my boxers and socks in some strange woman’s living room. I was wondering if I was going to have to pay extra for this.

As she was getting close to grandma years, I relaxed my concern and my beer gut. With the robe, I got an underskirt in a very masculine shade of pink, a yellow sash, a red bow tied on the back, a polka dot head band, and it also came with bells – oh, yes! I removed most of them shortly afterwards as they started to get really annoying very quickly. 

The end of Nebuta can bring a sad sigh to the citizens of Aomori with the promise of coming Winter – it sometimes snows as early as late September. And yet with each festival’s ending there lies the hope of another Nebuta Matsuri just as grand and magnificent as the last.

*At this time the office of Shogun was temporary and was bestowed by the Emperor. Shogun means “Eastern-barbarian queller” referring to the original inhabitants of Northeastern Japan. From the late 12th Century to 1867, the office of shogun became a permant one which the emperor had little say in the matter.

September 18, 2006 Posted by | aomori, Blogroll, festival, japan, matsuri, nebuta, samurai, travel | 5 Comments