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)
Sumo, J-Pop Cuties, Samurai & Fighting Monks
A Japanese Setsubun Devil Preparing for his Annual Exorcism
Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese traditions. It’s the day that Japanese seek to drive bad luck or evil out of their homes by throwing beans.The bad luck is personified as devils known as Oni. Oni apparently have an acute allergy to beans which causes them to go blind. People throw beans and eat them to effectively ward off the evil of the dreaded Oni.
Mame-maki – throwing beans and other items at a shrine in Tokyo
At temples and shrines, crowds gather to have beans thrown to them. This is known as mame-maki. Priests and local dignitaries sometimes celebrities will throw beans and other items which people try to catch for good luck.
Prayer Sticks burned at a Tokyo Temple in order to convey their messages Heavenward on Setsubun
I’ve been going to temples and shrines in and around Tokyo for the last four or five years to celebrate Setsubun. I always take the day off if I am scheduled to work that day. I usually try to hit 2-3 places for Setsubun festivities. This year I was able to squeeze in four Setsubun ceremonies though I actually started my Setsubun a little early.
Setsubun Parade in Shimokitazawa
Long Nose Goblin (Tengu) Float
On January 31st, I went to the small neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo. There they have their Setsubun celebration on the weekend before Setsubun (Setsubun is always Feb. 3rd). Leading the procession is long nose goblin known as Tengu. The Tengu is a mythical creature known for being both mischievous and kind. Some of them trained the hero Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune on Mt. Kurama near Kyoto almost a thousand years ago.
Two Tengu side with the humans against Setsubun Devils
Tengu and Company
The Tengu is the guardian spirit for the local temple in Shimokitazawa. With him is a Karasu Tengu or Crow Tengu. This Tengu has the face of a crow and follows the long nose Tengu. Now at first glance, one might think these two were part of the hoary hordes of devils to be chased away but perhaps the Tengu seeing which way the wind was blowing decided to align themselves with the humans on Setsubun.
A Long Nose Tengu
Karasu (Crow) Tengu
On the day of Setsubun itself, I started the day early around 9 am heading an hour east of Tokyo to the city of Narita. Narita has one of the largest Setsubun celebrations in Japan. It certainly was the most crowded Setsubun event I had ever attended. A large number of police were there to guide the crowd. Due to the press of people, the police issued a warning to people not to reach for beans that fell to the ground for fear injuries would result.
Naritasan Shinshoji Temple
One of the main reasons that Narita draws such a large crowd is their celebrity power. Narita brings out the Yokozuna – sumo champion – and some of the big name celebrities at the height of their popularity. This year, several of the actors of this year’s samurai drama were in attendance throwing beans. One of them was former Prime Minister Koizumi’s son.
Yokozuna (sumo champion) Asashoryu and Hakuho
Yokozuna Asashoryu preparing to throw some beans
I was too far in the back of the crowd to be in any danger of being hit in the face by a strong-armed sumo wrestler (like I was last year) or get crushed by bean-catching crowds. Once the madness had passed, I left Narita and headed back into Tokyo; this time to Kanda Myojin Shrine. I went there last year during a sudden snow storm which I assumed was the work of Setsubun devils since they also represent Winter. This year, it was unseasonably warm – perhaps the devils have switched their tactics and are now promoting Global Warming.
Mame-maki Maid – Akihabara is close by the shrine
Ancient Imperial Guards
At Myojin Shrine there were also some celebrities such as Dengeki Network and AKB48. Dengeki Network known in English as Tokyo Shock Boys is a comedy stunt troupe known for their extreme and crude acts like lighting fire-crackers in their posterior. AKB48 is a dance idol group based in Tokyo’s electronic and anime mecca, Akihabara. They’re popular with Akihabara types.
Dengeki Station – Tokyo Shock Boys
AKB48 – Akihabara’s Jailbait Dance Troupe
Although I got hit in the head with an orange, I still managed to catch a few chocolates at this mame-maki. Afterwards, I headed west towards Nakano in Western Tokyo. Here at a small temple called Hosen-ji I saw once again the small parade of warrior monks which I had first seen several years ago.
Warrior Monks – Sohei – armed with Naginata
Warrior monks known as sohei were once a troublesome class of Buddhist Priests who used to dispense Buddha’s Blessings with the sharp edge of a naginata. They quarreled amongst themselves, with the Imperial Court, and with local Daimyo (warlords). They needled one daimyo so much that he finally decided that enough was enough and promptly set out to burn them out – literally. This was Oda Nobunaga one of the great unifiers of premodern Japan and the site of his vengeance was Enryaku-ji Temple on Mt. Hiei north of Kyoto. In 1571, he razed many of the temples there, killing and burning to death several thousand priests and their families.
The sohei of Hosen-ji were of milder disposition being that most had seen far too many Setsubun to be of any threat to anyone. After the aging sohei were seated, a bonfire was lit and prayer sticks were burnt in order to convey their messages heavenward.
I did not stick around for the mame-maki session as I had one more place to visit but I did get a spot of sake and an orange for my troubles. I then headed swiftly northwards to the town on Ashikaga in Tochigi Prefecture which is almost two hours outside of Tokyo.
Ashikaga is a small town that was the hometown of the ancestors of the Ashikaga Shoguns (1336-1573). To celebrate Setsubun and their town’s past, Ashikaga puts on a procession of armored samurai. The armor covers the time period of the 12th Century to the beginning of the 17th Century, a time when Japan entered a period of peace known as the Edo Era when armor was no longer a necessity.
Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune – hero of the Gempei War (1159-1189)
At the local temple, the armored samurai performed a short mame-maki. Afterwards, certain samurai went around back to fire their old-style guns. From the mid-16th Century when guns were first introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders to the early 17th Century, guns played a major role in samurai warfare. When the shooting samurai had fired their last shot, a bonfire was lit and the all the samurai did a rallying cry. Then the ceremony concluded and with that my long Setsubun finally drew to a close at 9 o’clock at night – but I still had a long train ride back home! The devils of bad luck and winter had been defeated but the devils of sleep were demanding their due and there weren’t enough beans to drive them away.
Setsubun is February 3rd and it’s kind of like Groundhog Day, New Years, and Halloween all rolled up into one. It’s a day where Japanese seek to drive Oni or Devils from their homes by throwing beans at them. Oni don’t like beans – makes them go blind apparently.
Also many temples and shrines have mami-maki which is where people throw beans and other items at gathered crowds. To catch these items is to bring you good luck all year.
This Setsubun a sudden snowstorm struck in Tokyo. A rather ominious sign as the Setsubun is a Spring Ritual and exorcising the devils is like driving Winter out. I think it was a sneak attack by the Setsubun Devils myself. However the ritual must have worked because the next morning the sun was out.
Background music by Super Girl Juice:
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?
Setsubun Devils enjoying the sudden snowstorm in Tokyo
A sudden snowstorm swept in silently and swiftly during the early morning hours in Tokyo this Feb. 3. Three centimeters of snow covered the capital in a fairly heavy snowfall. Train services were disrupted, traffic backed up, flights were cancelled, and at least 100 people were injured. Although snow is not unusual in Tokyo, these days, however, snow has become less common over the years. Last year it only snowed once and very briefly at that.
Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple
Shrine attendants work to clear a path
What makes this snowfall particularly significant if not ominously suspicious was the date. Feb. 3 is the Japanese holiday of Setsubun, a day when Japanese seek to drive bad luck out of their homes and bring in happiness. Setsubun is a more active version of Groundhog Day where Japanese take matters into their own hands to try and bring an earlier end to winter. On the old Japanese calendar, Setsubun was considered the day before Spring – despite the real Spring being a few more weeks away.
Praying to a snowy Buddha for perhaps warmer weather
The bad luck is represented by Oni – Japanese devils. There are many devils in Japanese folklore which can be good, bad, or neutral. The Setsubun Devils are known for being one of the bad ones. They are typically believed to be invisible intangible spirits that will inhabit places to bring misfortunate to all if they are not driven out. Their visible appearance is that of a shirtless devil with horns, shaggy hair, sharp claws and teeth, and wearing tiger pants. They come in red, green, and blue colors. If their sharp teeth and claws aren’t enough, they have heavy iron-studded clubs as well. This fierce creature is partially based on the Chinese Zodiac signs of the ox (ushi in Japanese) and tiger (tora in Japanese). Ushitora is related to “North Gate.” North was considered a very unlucky direction in Ancient China (probably because so many invaders came from that way) and this belief was adopted by the Japanese in the 8th and 9th Centuries.
A Snow-covered Kabuki Star
Snow at Senso-ji Temple is Asakusa, Tokyo
Along with bad luck, Setsubun Devils represent Winter and the old year too. The ceremony of driving the devils out symbolizes the ending of Winter and the coming of Spring while making everything new for the New Years. Setsubun is close to the Chinese New Years and before Japan switched to the Western calendar system, Setsubun was the day before the Chinese New Year. Japanese want their homes to be free of all the old bad feelings of the previous year. Setsubun is a bit of “out with the old; in with the new” of New Years, spring cleaning, and exorcism at the same time.
Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo
This Setsubun if one were inclined to see the supernatural in everything and believe in omens as people did in olden times this, they might believe the sudden snowfall to be devil-wrought. Perhaps the snow was a diabolical sneak attack by the devils in the early morning hours to thrawt the Setsubun exorcism activities at shrines and temples. In these places, beans and other such items are thrown “to” not “at” gathered crowds. This is known as mame-maki. It is believed that to catch such items, a person will have good luck all year.
Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji
Ninja Chips – crunchy and deadly snackfood for the assassin in all of us
Although the devils threw quite a bit of snow which caused a number of train delays, there were still crowds of people at temples and shrines, their hands outstretched looking for a bit of luck. I went to my favorite temple for mame-maki: Zojo-ji in Hamamatsucho. Zojo-ji always has a few celebrities and a sumo wrestler doing mame-maki. Their mame-maki has more than just a handful of tossed beans. I got several bags of snack food, two wash clothes, nine packets of bean, and six health bars. the health bars were dangerous! I got hit in the head twice and once right smack in my face.
Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine
Decorations at Kanda Myojin Shrine
After that I went to Kanda Myojin Shrine where I saw two Setsubun devils prance about on a catwalk seeming to enjoy the mayhem the weather had caused. At Kanda Myojin Shrine they do a traditional mame-maki where they throw handfuls of individual beans rather than packets. The beans were rather difficult to pick out from the heavy snow flakes that were coming down. No one bothered to pick any of the beans up that had fallen on the ground. At Zojo-ji because everying is in a package, you have people going up and down for mame-maki. This makes for a writhing crowd as some people are jumping up to catch packages while others are diving down to get the fallen ones and getting bumped heads in the process.
A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm
A Kimono-clad girl indulging in mame-maki at Kanda Myojin shrine
After Kanda Myojin’s mame-maki, we were lead into a room where we could choose small packages of beans, candy, and oranges. All in all I had a decent Setsubun mame-maki haul by the end of the day.
A decent Setsubun Mame-Maki haul
In the end despite the weather, the Setsubun exorcism ritual must have worked. The next morning the sun came out and melted the snow away. Better luck next year, devils!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The next evening I went to Kameido Temple to see another Noh performance this one by torchlight too.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Japanese Drive Out Devils in Spring Ritual
Setsubun Festival celebrated with a fanfare of bean-throwing exorcisms
A pair of Japanese Devils terrorize kindergarteners
Once again devils have been driven forth from the homes and workplaces of the Japanese with a hand-full of tossed beans in the age-old rite known as Setsubun. Setsubun, which occurs on February 3, is kind of like Halloween, New Year’s, and Groundhog Day all wrapped into one with a little bit of Christmas and Madri Gras tossed in.
Grasping hands reach for tossed packs of beans at Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo
Originally, before the adoption of the Western Calendar, Setsubun was the day before the lunar New Year’s. Now it falls coincidentally one day after America’s Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2 Americans, in complete disregard for meteorological science, put their faith for the ending of winter’s cold weather in the auguries of a groundhog’s reaction to its shadow. If it sees its shadow, supposedly six more weeks of winter will follow but if not, spring will come early.
A Priest blessing objects before a sacred fire
Setsubun is similar to Groundhog Day, without the groundhog and yet with the same desire of hastening an end to winter. Setsubun is seen as the beginning of spring despite February being the coldest month. Wishful thinking or grim humor could perhaps best describe the motives behind the Groundhog Day and Setsubun rituals.
Sumo Wrestler Tossing Beans Instead Of Opponents
In modern times, we tend to forget how terrible winter could truly be in a time before convenience stores, central heating, and winter fashion. Today, winter means skiing, snowboarding, snowball fights, knee-high boots, and days off from school and work. In the past long winters could mean unbearable cold, famine, sickness, and death. It’s no wonder that these spring rituals were so concerned with bringing winter to a close as soon as possible.
A Fiercesome Oni – Japanese Devil
With Japan’s version of Groundhog Day, the Japanese don’t have to worry over the precarious nature of an oversized skittish rodent to determine whether winter will end or not. It’s not the shadows of groundhogs that concern the Japanese. It’s the devils infesting their homes that they are worried about. Instead of calling upon the professional services of an exorcist, however, the Japanese take matters into their own hands.
Buddhist Priests herald the arrival of the brave Demon-quellers
Japanese purify their homes and drive out any unwelcome invisible devils by tossing beans and shouting: “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Good luck in!”). This tradition comes from a Buddhist priest who over 1,000 years ago exorcised devils using beans. Some beliefs say that beans will make the devils go blind, so they flee before the beans hit them.
The brave Demon-quellers ready to do battle with the dreaded Oni devils
Japanese devils, called oni, are a mix of indigenous spirits and old supernatural immigrants who came over with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th Century AD. Unlike devils of Christian belief, who are entirely evil, Japanese devils can be both good or bad depending on their individual nature or the situation. Following the acceptance of Buddhism, oni devils became mainly associated with causing harm to humans through illnesses and natural disasters. More benevolent devils became the protectors of Buddhist institutions.
The physical appearance of a typical Japanese demon is that of a large human-shaped creature with a mass of unruly dark hair from which two horns project. They have the requisite horrendously sharp teeth and claws that all monsters must have. Sometimes oni have extra eyes, fingers, or arms. Their skin color varies in hue with red, blue, and green being the most popular. The standard accoutrement of an oni is a cruel-looking iron-studded club of enormous proportions.
Children vanquishing an oncoming red devil with beans
Oni are powerful creatures, often possessing an impressive array of magical powers. They can change their shapes, control the weather, or summon up fire, and yet a handful of roasted soybeans tossed in their direction can drive them off. If only the Catholic Church knew of this. Their exorcism rituals could be considerably simplified. The movie “The Exorcist” would have been over before the opening title sequence finished had someone just thrown some beans at Linda Blair the moment her voice started sounding funny. However, perhaps it is only Japanese demons who have this allergy to beans.
Devils easily disposed of with one quick toss
In olden days either beans were not effective or no one knew about them, because there are many stories of oni terrorizing the countryside, killing and looting, and making off with beautiful maidens. They could only be bested by the bravest of heroes. Nowadays, they are symbolically and rather degradedly driven off by packs of bean-throwing kindergarten children. How the mighty have fallen!
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, enjoying throwing bean packets on Setsubun
This ritual of humiliation is carried out at a number of temples on February 3rd. Afterwards comes the mame-maki – the bean-throwing ceremony in which large crowds of people will gather to receive beans thrown at them by priests, sumo wrestlers and celebrities. Things get a bit hectic as normally stoic Japanese go wild grasping for beans and other cheap trinkets. It’s similar to the madness that consumes people at Madri Gras in New Orleans when they risk life and limb and possible life-term sentences for murder as they scramble to recover beads that cost less than a dollar thrown from festival floats.
Mame-Maki: bean-throwing ceremony at Kishbyojin Temple
In Tokyo, the largest crowds of bean-seekers head to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa and Zojo-ji Temple in Hamamatsucho. I went to Zojo-ji one year and watched sumo wrestlers and TV celebrities pelt the crowds with beans, candy, and washcloths. I saw on old lady get beaned in the head with a pack of beans thrown by a muscle-bound sumo wrestler. She quickly recovered, though, and bowled over a younger salary man in order to grab another pack of beans that landed by his feet. I came off much better than she as I only got hit in the head with a rolled-up washcloth. Had it been an orange like they throw at some temples, I might been sent into a coma and gone down under a swarm of bean-grabbing pensioners.
Dangerous Mame-maki with oranges
In Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo, a small Setsubun procession is made not on Feb. 3rd but on the roving day before the lunar Chinese New Year’s. The long-nose Japanese goblin, the Tengu, is given the honor of throwing beans to drive away devils. The Tengu goblin is pulled along in a type human-drawn chariot. With him march the seven Japanese gods of luck.
A few of Japan’s Seven Gods of Luck accompany a Tengu in his Devil-quelling mission
In another part of west Tokyo at Hosen-ji Temple in Nakano, Buddhist priest dress up as warrior monks from the Sengoku (Warring States) Period (15th – 16th Century). In sharp contrast to the peaceful doctrines of Buddhism, Japanese warrior monks donned armor and carried the deadly naginata into battle against rival sects and secular warlords.
Warrior monks at a Setsubun Ritual who were often devils in their own right in the past
They proved to be more trouble to Japan than the devils. They became such a nuisance that in 1571, the great warlord Oda Nobunaga viciously destroyed one of the greatest strongholds of warrior monks at Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto. Nakano’s modern “warrior monks” are a little too long-in-the-tooth to cause much of a nuisance to anyone. Instead of throwing spears, they throw beans, oranges, and peanuts to the gathered assembly.
Some Japanese Celebrities throwing beans at Zojo-ji Temple
In last year’s record-setting winter of low temperatures and heavy snowfall, the Spring ritual of Setsubun did not seem to have had much effect on the devils of winter. When the sun had set that day, the temperatures plunged drastically. A few days later it snowed again in Tokyo. Also in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where every Groundhog Day people gather to watch the actions of Phil, the town’s famous Groundhog weather forecaster, the prediction was for six more weeks of winter. This year with the warm temperatures, it probably comes as no surprise that Phil predicted an early Spring.
A Demonic Bag of Chips looks on in amusement as his bean-allergic brethern flee
The most important part of Setsubun is a reminder to eat healthy to thus ensure yourself of a life that is long, healthy, and hopefully Devil-free!
Longnosed Tengu goblin driving away devils
Strong Foes with an Achilles’ Heel to Health Food
Vampires and Devils beaten by vegetables
Japanese devils despite all their strength, meanness, and magical abilities seem to be easy pushovers if all that it takes is a couple of tossed beans to get rid of them. However, they are not alone in the supernatural world of night terrors with such an odd weakness. Further down the power scale but still a threat in its own right is the vampire of Western folklore. These undead dangers possess superhuman strength, unnaturally prolonged lives, the ability to change shape from bat to mist, and the power to hypnotize their victims before they drain them of their precious life blood. Vampires are notoriously difficult to kill and yet one clove of garlic will send these unholy terrors packing.
If one looks at the situation from both a folklore and medical point of view, one can that the devils and vampires represent not only bad luck but also bad health. Vampires with their pale skin and thirst for blood represent a kind of blood disease. Eating garlic promotes healthy blood circulation so garlic-eaters will never have to worry about becoming a vampire. With Japanese devils, beans represent good health and life. As part of the Setsubun ritual, people eat the number of beans that correspond to their age. Following these superstitious traditions, a person is actually ensuring their health and long life.
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