Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more photos check here: Joma Shinji Photos

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

Momote Shiki – Japanese Archery Ritual Video

On Seijin-no-Hi (Coming of Age Day) in early January in Japan, an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is held at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo for all those turning 20 for that year.10 Archers at a time shoot two arrows at a central target. The ritual is performed by the Ogasawara-ryu school of archery.

Here’s a short clip of a Shinto Priest shooting the Kabura-ya (whistling arrow):

February 17, 2008 Posted by | Archery, Blogroll, Coming of Age Day, culture, event, japan, japanese archery, japanese culture, kyudo, life, meiji shrine, momote shiki, ogasawara ryu, seijin-no-hi, Shinto, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, youtube | 1 Comment

Momote Shiki – Japanese Archery Ritual

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


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

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

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


Archers arriving at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

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

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


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

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

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


Before shooting, the archers give reverence

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Archers receive a ceremonial serving of sake after the ritual

A Zen Master of the Kamakura Period once wrote:

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

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


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

Sumo – More Than Just Big Guys in Thongs

Sumo – More Than Just Big Guys in Thongs
On gaining respect for Japan’s oldest sport


Two titans squaring off

Sumo — quivering mounds of flesh set into sudden motion that is at once jarring and engaging. It’s the sport of gods, literally. However, it took me some time to appreciate sumo. Long before I made my way over to Japan, my image of sumo was not a very flattering one. To me sumo was a match where two nigh-immobile mountains of flab come together with all the speed of erosion to push one or the other slowly out of the small ring they were in. In short, fat guys in diapers having a shoving match — not exactly my cup of tea.


Impact!

The erosion of my entrenched stereotype began with my first encounter with sumo. This encounter came from the TV broadcasts of the January tournament during my first month in Japan. At that time I was waiting for my new job to start up so I was lean on funds. My entertainment was limited to cheap beer, Doritos and whatever was on TV in my cramped little gaijin house. I just happened to stumble upon the broadcasts of the sumo tournament in mid-January. I couldn’t understand anything on Japanese TV at this point (and I still don’t; but for different reasons). Sumo, though, was simple enough to follow.


A great handful of salt tossed high to purify the ring

What surprised me right away was the speed of these seemingly slow behemoths. They were shockingly fast and agile. Their speed dispelled the notion I once held that overweight Americans could compete in sumo tournaments. I used to think there was no reason to go to Japan to see a sumo match when similar sport could be had by throwing a free bag of potato chips on the floor of the local Wal-Mart. How wrong I was.


Sumo Wrestlers despite their bulk are remarkably flexible at times

For one thing, despite appearance, most sumo wrestlers actually have less fat than their average working countrymen. What lurks under the deceptive rolls of flab is muscle — a lot of muscle. Sumo wrestlers “work” hard to get big, unlike my rotund countrymen who accidentally get big by eating cheese doodles all day on the sofa while watching TV. The wrestlers want this bulk for two reasons — (1) to give their thrusts more power and (2) to cushion the impact of their opponent’s blows.

To achieve their dual goal of fat and muscle, sumo wrestlers keep to a strict regimen of exercise and eating. They start exercising early in the morning between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. and do this for several hours. The wrestlers only eat twice a day but these are large meals after which they sleep. Lunch is the biggest meal and they sleep for two hours afterwards.

Chanko-nambe is one of the main staples of a sumo wrestler’s diet. Chanko-nambe is a stew with no rigid ingredient list but a little bit of everything. It’s high in protein and consumed in great quantities to add the necessary girth a sumo wrestler needs.


Ahem! ….well, now!

Not all sumo wrestlers though are the gargantuan titans of blubber that may spring to mind. In the 1990s, this type of image was enforced by Akebono (235 kilograms/520 pounds) and Konishiki (264 kilograms /580 pounds) both huge wrestlers in their own right but not Japanese. The current yokozuna (champion) are two relatively lightweight Mongolians — Asashoryu and Hakuho. Both of them have put on the necessary weight and tip the scales at over 300 pounds but their bodies still look relatively in proportion.


David and Goliath Sumo-style

The strength of these portly wrestlers is not to be underestimated. Over the long history of sumo, there has been tales of incredible strength by these stout giants from lifting huge heavy bales of rice to cannon balls weighing several hundred pounds. It’s no wonder that for many Japanese at a time when the average body build was smaller than today that they looked upon sumo wrestlers as superhuman.


Getting rolled in the ring

Agility is another surprising aspect of sumo wrestlers. Anyone who follows sumo knows these wrestlers will not only use their bulk and strength to win a match but their agility as well. Sometimes, this can be simply moving out of the way at the last moment and letting their opponent go sailing out of the ring on their own steam. Other times, an agile wrestler will quickly move to the side at the moment of contact and bring his opponent crashing down to the ground with one quick thrust.


Falls, tumbles, and throws are quite common in Sumo

Sumo falls — this is another surprising element of sumo matches. The big guys tumble, fall or are thrown down quite a lot. Despite their weight and the force of their fall, the wrestlers usually get back up rather quickly. Back home, if a large fellow went down, they wouldn’t be getting up so readily. An ambulance and possibly a crane would be needed to get them back up. Sumo wrestlers train in falling because the frequency of falls and tumbles are rather high. It’s part of what makes the matches so exciting. The matches aren’t the slow-moving shoving matches I once ignorantly assumed they were.

From my first initiation into the world that is sumo, I have since acquired a great appreciation for this sport that is not only a sport but a religious ritual as well. I try to catch at least one day of sumo whenever the tournaments come to Tokyo, which is three times a year. As interesting as it is to catch sumo on TV, nothing beats the excitement of watching it live.


Ooooffff!!!!

January 27, 2008 Posted by | asashoryu, Blogroll, extreme sports, japan, Shinto, Sport, sumo, tokyo, travel, wrestling, yokozuna | 1 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

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday

Celebrating the Japanese Emperor’s Birthday
Japan’s Emperor: Man and Institution


Well-wishers wave Japanese flags in honor of the Emperor’s birthday.

Japanese Emperor Akihito celebrated his 74th birthday Dec. 23. The emperor’s birthday is a national holiday in Japan. On this day, the emperor greets assembled visitors in an area of the Kokyo or Imperial Palace on his birthday. In 1950, his father, Emperor Hirohito began the traditional by making public appearances every birthday.

Emperor Akihito, son of the controversial Hirohito, has “ruled” since 1989. Unlike previous emperors, he was sent to school with commoners. He shocked Japan and his mother by marrying a woman who was not an aristocrat, and later in defiance of tradition, chose to raise his children at home rather than send them to be cared for by others.


Nijubashi Bridge – normally off limits most of the year

Emperor Akihito addresses controversy

“Japanese people must strive to properly understand their country’s history when they deal with the rest of the world,” Akihito said in his public address at his 72nd birthday in 2005 to the gathered assembly. <This year he commented on global climate change> With relationships between Korea and China deteriorating, these words touch on a sore spot of controversy, a controversy in which the institution of “Emperor” was used to spearhead military conquest in the early 20th century.

History, or rather the presentation of history, is a key issue in the relationship between Japan and the rest of Asia. Many feel that Japan has not seriously owned up to its past misdeeds while at the same time adding salt to the wound by putting forth history textbooks that gloss over some of these past horrendous actions. It doesn’t help matters either with politicians such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making official visits to Yasakuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine which contains the spirits of Japanese war dead including noted war criminals. <Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine since the war criminals’ enshrinement in 1978. Emperor Akihito has declined to visit as well instead sending only a lesser official in his place.>


Visitors walk past the seldom seen Fushimi Yugura guardtower

A Brief History of the Emperors of Japan

The cult of the emperor, which was the fountainhead of Japanese nationalistic fervor during the early half of the 20th century, is actually of recent origin, despite the long history of the Imperial institution.

Prior to the mid-19th century, emperors were secluded from the public to the point of being virtual prisoners. The shogun government restricted their movements and kept them confined in Kyoto, away from the people. The few foreigner visitors to Japan during its isolation period often referred to the shogun as the emperor and they had little reason to think otherwise. When the American statesmen Townsend Harris came to Japan to discuss a treaty, he too thought at first the shogun was the Emperor of Japan.


Visitors enter the assembly area outside of the Imperial Palace

According to Japanese mythology, the emperor is descended from Jimmu, a semi-divine being whose grandmother was Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess. Jimmu reigned in 600 B.C. However, there is little evidence to support this. Most scholars believe the Imperial system developed from the Yamato culture in central Japan around the 3rd century A.D. with Chinese influences.

The emperor was seen as the divine manifested in the flesh; a representative of the gods on earth. To oppose the emperor was to oppose Japan itself. This made it quite risky for any usurpers not of Imperial blood to try and take the throne.


A depiction of Emperor Jimmu the legendary first Emperor of Japan

The Soga family in the 7th century were powerful ministers who basically governed the country while the Emperor attended to the necessary rituals of his or her position. The Soga family pushed too far and it was believed they conspired to take over the Imperial throne itself. This belief gave their enemies just cause in destroying them utterly.

The fate of the Soga made an impression on ambitious men and taught them a valuable lesson — that in order to effectively rule Japan, one must do it from behind the throne in the emperor’s name. In addition, the office of the emperor could be used as a weapon against political enemies. The most dreaded crime a lord could commit was treason against the emperor. Since the emperor was in effect Japan, a clever minister could create enemies of the state by claiming his rivals defied the emperor.


Section of the Imperial Palace from where the Emperor greets visitors

By the 9th century, actual ruling power rested in the hands of the Fujiwara clan while the emperor was regulated to administering to court ceremony. The Fujiwara had risen quickly to power in the aftermath of the destruction of the Soga clan. The Fujiwara ministers often manipulated the succession to the Imperial throne for their own gain – yet always they would claim their actions were in the name of the emperor. One of the most famous and powerful of the Fujiwara ministers was Fujiwara-no-Michinaga (966-1027). He married his daughter to the reigning emperor, which produced his own grandson as heir.

Quote:
The Man who would be Emperor
Rebel Taira-no-Masakado sought the divine Throne


A Monument to Taira-no-Masakado in Tokyo

Still even with the gods and powerful ministers on the Emperor’s side this did not stop certain aspiring usurpers. In the mid-10th Century, the Imperial Court faced its gravest threat from a distant cousin several times removed known as Taira-no-Masakado. Masakado rebelled against the court and went so far as to name himself Emperor issuing decrees and appointing governing officials in the Eastern provinces. He was eventually killed in battle but supposedly his spirit is still a force to reckon with.

According to legend his head not being content to remain on display in Kyoto, flew off on its own accord. A priest in Nagoya shot the flying head down which came to land in the eastern part of Tokyo. His head was buried and a small shrine was erected. This tiny shrine still stands in the shadows of huge office buildings. Supposedly those who have tried to remove the shrine in the past have met with unfortunate fates.

Emperors tried to keep some control of state by creating the office of the Cloistered Emperor, which was an abdicated emperor in the robes of a Buddhist monk. It was often the custom for emperors to abdicate young — sometimes they were pressured to do so. Ironically, though, an ex-emperor often had more freedom and power than a “ruling” emperor.

Although an emperor theoretically did not have power, succession issues were still a great matter of concern. In the mid-12th Century, the cloistered emperor made his son abdicate the Imperial Throne in favor of his younger half-brother. When the cloistered emperor died, the ex-emperor made advances to regain the throne. He was able to draw on a lot of support from samurai families. This sparked off the Heiji Rebellion which, while only lasting a day, had major ramifications. The ex-emperor’s attempt failed and many of his military supporters were executed. The balance of power shifted amongst the ruling samurai families of the day which eventually led to the Gempei War (1180-1185).


The Imperial Palace was once the the castle stronghold of the Tokugawa Shoguns for over two centuries

Following the end of Gempei War, the first Shogun government was set up in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). The first shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, was concerned that his eastern warriors would become weak with the luxury of Kyoto and the Imperial Court so he set his capital far from Kyoto. Though power had long been out of Imperial hands, this move made the illusion all the more apparent. Technically, the shogun did everything in the emperor’s name, but it was definitely not with the emperor’s voluntary say-so.

An attempt was made in 1221 by Emperor Go-Toba to overthrow the Shogunate government, which itself was now, ironically, controlled by ministers, the Hojo Regents. The attempt failed miserably and the emperor was forced to abdicate and suffer exile.


The Emperor with his family speaks to the gathered assembly of elder Japanese and foreigners.

In the 14th century, Emperor Go-Daigo also attempted to restore Imperial power. After a few initial setbacks, Go-Daigo was eventually able to overthrow the Shogunate government and re-establish the Imperial Court as the governing body of Japan. The Go-Daigo Restoration only lasted a few short years. Samurai, dissatisfied with the rewards for their aid and fed up with haughty tones of court nobles, grumbled incessantly. One powerful ally, Ashikaga Takauji, turned against him and set up his own shogunate dynasty.

Go-Daigo fled to the mountain retreat Yoshino and set up a rival imperial court known as the “Southern Court.” For the next half century, Japan had two Imperial courts: one in Kyoto controlled by the Ashikaga Shogunate and the other in Yoshino which was without much authority. Supporters of the two courts fought off and on continuously until close to the end of the 14th century when the last emperor of the Southern Court abandoned Yoshino and submitted to the Imperial Court in Kyoto.


Fujimi Yagura Gatehouse

Though the Ashikaga Shogunate deteriorated towards the end of the following century, little attempt was made to restore the Imperial system. Instead Japan plunged into an age of unremitting warfare known as the Sengoku Period (Warring States), in which various warlords schemed and fought to increase their personal territories. The greatest warlords dreamed of uniting Japan under their banner and working in the emperor’s names as the previous shoguns and Fujiwara ministers had done before.


A helpful Boy Scout collects flags for visitors

Oda Nobunaga was able to realize this dream when he marched into Kyoto in the 1560s. He supported both the powerless emperor and the defunct shogun and worked to enhance their prestige with great building projects. The Ashikaga Shogun, however, rankled by being in the power of a warlord schemed against Oda. Oda eventually turned him out and no shogun was appointed until 1603.

Despite removing the shogun, Oda did not restore the Imperial system of governance. Instead, he ruled pretty much as the shoguns had before him but he lavished the emperor and his courts with gifts. After his death, one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruled in the similar manner.


Visitors exiting the Imperial Palace grounds from the normally closed Sakashita Gate

In 1600, two years after Hideyoshi died, a great battle was fought at Sekigahara. The warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals and was named shogun three years later. His shogunate dynasty lasted until the 1867 when the last shogun stepped down from power.

At long last the emperor was free to govern the country without interference, or so it would seem. Very little had changed, really, since the days of the Fujiwara ministry. Still, it was those around him that implemented policy — in the emperor’s name, of course.

The fanatical devotion to the emperor that led to the atrocities of WWII, banzai death charges, and kamikaze attacks developed partially in the wake of Imperial restoration. Under the new constitution, the emperor was placed above and beyond the law. But it wasn’t until Emperor Hirohito took the throne in the 1920s that imperialist propagandists began to make serious efforts to promote the cult of the emperor, particularly in the school system and military training institutions.


Russian girls celebrating the Emperor’s birthday

One of the myths floated about at the time touted the amazing fact of the long unbroken line of Imperial succession that stretched back to the time of the gods. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however, given the long history of manipulation by ministers and shoguns with the Imperial succession. The exiled court of Yoshino was the senior line of the Imperial office and it was never re-established.

Like the Fujiwara ministers from ages past, the position of the emperor was tightly controlled and utilized by others — in this case the military. The official civil government at that time was little more than a sham. There is still debate today as to whether Hirohito was just a puppet like so many emperors have been in the past in the decision-making process that led to war in Asia and the Pacific, or if he was a key mover in these affairs, or at least an active participant in them.

Hirohito escaped the noose that many felt he deserved after the war. Under the terms of the American Occupation he was forced to renounce his divinity. When he publicly announced the surrender of Japan, it was the first time that the public actually heard him speak.


Two small children take a break after seeing the Emperor

The “Cult of the Emperor” Today

Today, interest in the emperor has decreased significantly with younger Japanese generations to the point of nearly vague indifference. The majority of those attending the emperor’s birthday these days are mainly older Japanese and a number of curious foreigners. The notorious black van right-wingers make an appearance as well, shouting slogans in the parking lot that very few people pay attention to.

While those who still hold a keen interest in the affairs of the Imperial family wrestle with the notion of a female emperor ascending the throne in the future, other Japanese wonder if the Imperial system should continue at all.


Kikyo Gate
_________________

December 24, 2007 Posted by | akihito, birthday, Blogroll, castle, culture, event, Gempei War, hirohito, history, japan, japanese emperor, japanese history, japanese imperial palace, kokyo, koukyo, life, samurai, Shinto, tenno, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tokyo imperial palace, tradition, travel, yasakuni shrine | 4 Comments

Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri Video

 

¬†Mudslingin’ Fun!

March 21, 2007 Posted by | Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri, entertainment, festival, Hadaka, japan, life, matsuri, Mudslinging, Naked Festival, party, purification, sexy, Shinto, tokyo, travel, video | Leave a comment

Japanese MudSlinging Festival Brings Good Luck

Japanese Mudslinging Festival Brings Good Luck
Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri: Mudslinging Fun!


Would you believe this is a sacred spiritual ritual?

It’s a cold day in late February as men young and old clad only in thin white loincloths stand stoically shivering knee-deep in freezing cold water. At a signal they all rush each other flinging handfuls of mud at one another. They also wrestle and toss each other about in the muddy cold water. What may appear to be school boy rough-housing with a sado-masochistic bent is actually a spiritual ritual done to insure good harvest while simultaneously bringing luck to the mud-flinging participants and spectators. The Shinto gods must love a good free-for-all and the Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri gives them a good show.


Half-naked men gathered in cold muddy water to entertain the Gods.

The Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri is just one of many “naked” festivals held throughout Japan often in winter. Hadaka means “naked” but in actuality the participants of these naked festivals wear loincloths called fundoshi. Hadaka festivals can involve carrying large portable shrines, clambering up ropes in temples, fighting for luck and money, or mudslinging.


Babies borne aloft to be marked for good luck

One of the most notoriously violent Hadaka Festival takes place in Saidaiji in Okayama. There thousands of half-naked men fight to retrieve a sacred object and receive a year’s worth of luck not too mention a hefty cash prize. Even the yakuza (gangsters) reportedly show up to release a little steam through knuckle therapy. Though officially banned from participating (no tattooed participants are allowed), they are unmistakable in their black fundoshi and aggressive behavior. This year one participant died from the injuries he received at the festival.


A baby getting a good luck mud smear

The Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri at Musubi-jinja Shrine in Yotsukaido, Chiba is a far more tamer affair than the one in Saidaiji. There are no cash prizes to tempt the criminal element, there are no winners or losers, there are no injuries; there is only good fortune for all and lots of mud.

Prior to the mudslinging mayhem, parents hand over wailing infants to fundoshi-clad half-naked males. The males take the infants down to the pool and daub their faces with mud using a specially-blessed stick. The infants’ response to this situation is quite natural — they bawl their little heads off. And who could blame them? Being handed over to some strange nearly naked man and taken to a muddy pond to be smeared with mud is no doubt a very shocking experience to their little unwrinkled brains. The parents however are quite pleased because the ritual means good health and good luck for their child.


Human pyramids collide

The mudslinging event occurs periodically throughout the afternoon for about two hours starting around 1 p.m. and finishing around 3 p.m. The mud-slingers huddle together around a large fire near the shrine trying to stay warm. Then with the cry “Washoi!” they head down the hill to the cold pond.

They split up into groups and form human pyramids with several participants riding on the shoulders of their comrades. At a shout the human pyramids slowly slog through the cold muddy water towards each other. For a few brief moments the top-riding mud-slingers attempt to grapple with their opponents before all the pyramids collapse in on themselves into the mire. Then it becomes a free-for-all mudslinging event.

The mudslinging too only lasts for a few short minutes before they rush back up the hill to the awaiting warm fire. Along the way, the mud-slingers mark the faces of the spectators especially children with mud as they pass. In any other situation, smearing someone with mud would no doubt lead to some heated words and flying fists.

At the Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri, however, spectators are more than happy to have their faces smeared with mud because this means they too will receive good luck. Young and old alike are quite pleased to sport their muddy faces to show off their good fortune. Only the infants make a fuss about the mud-smearing.


Showing Off Good Luck Mark

The mud-slingers huddle around the fire once more soaking up its heat before heading down again for another bout of mud mayhem. They do this several times. At the end of their ordeal, they toss a Shinto Priest or two in the air in a bit of playful revenge.


Back to the Fray

The mudslinging participants of Musubi-jinja Shrine’s festival are few in number and the festival itself is a small one in comparison to so many others even in the same category. But what makes the Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri worthy of attention is the motivation behind the cold water mudslinging.

At Saidaiji, thousands of participants gather for the chance to win a year’s worth of luck and a fair bit of cash to boot. They also participate in order to get unlimited free alcohol and release some pent-up repressed aggression by bashing other participants. Basically their motives are aggressive, self-centered, and ultimately selfish.


A mud-slinger getting a dip from his fellow mud-slingers

At Musubi-jinja Shrine, the participants receive nothing for their putting up with the cold, the mud, and the numb-chilling water. From a ritual standpoint, they sacrifice their comfort for the sake of the community. Their actions bring about good luck for the whole area not just themselves.

And at the end of the day, spirits are in high form and no one is lying broken and bleeding in the mud. So while the Dairokuten-no-Hadaka may not be on the same level of excitement to watch, its participants are far more admirable for their selflessness and good natured spirits.


It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it

Mud – An Unlikely Lucky Symbol


Lucky Muddy Faces

At first glance, mud may seem like a doubtful symbol of luck. In fact, most people complain about it endlessly such as when they have the bad luck to get their vehicles bogged in it, their clothes dirtied by it, or when someone tracks it into their homes. But it should be remembered that much of Shintoism is rooted in agriculture. Many rituals such as fertility festivals, yabusame, and even sumo have long been performed to ensure good harvests. Water and mud are essential for the growing of crops particularly rice. The presence of mud meant an abundant harvest of rice.

Until the Meiji Restoration (1868), wealth in Old Japan was measured in rice. Provinces’ wealth was measured in koku – the amount of rice they produced on a yearly basis. One koku was equavilent to the amount of rice a person would eat in a year’s time. So mud was a symbol not only of harvest but also of riches.

March 8, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, Dairokuten-no-Hadaka Matsuri, festival, Hadaka, japan, life, matsuri, Mudslinging, Naked Festival, Shinto, tradition, travel | 4 Comments

Japanese Fertility Festival Has A Prominent Guest Of Honor

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The “Good Morning!” shrine is the guest of honor at this Festival

Japanese Shinto rituals can at times be solemn affairs but at Tagata Shrine near Nagoya, it’s rather hard to keep a straight face when an enormous 13 foot (3 meter) long penis rolls by. The gargantuan member is the guest of honor at the Honen-sai festival which is held every spring in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Honen-sai is a fertility festival that has common roots with ancient fertility rituals from around the world.

Fertility festivals are or were world-wide phenomenons whose traditions go back thousands of years ago to the beginning of agriculture. Farming has always been a tricky business subject at times to the whims of fate in the shape of bad weather, hungry animals, and crop sickness. It’s no wonder that people in ancient times tried to win favor from the various invisible powers they beleived in to ensure fate would be kind to their agricultural endeavors.

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The Phallic Sword makes an apt appearance at the Honen-Sai Procession

Ancient societies tended to link human sexuality with fertility of the soil. Fertility deities generally oversaw the fertility of humans, livestock, and farmland all of which were necessary for the survival of a community. Due to this connection, male and female sexual organs were common objects in many fertility rituals around the world. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians used phallic symbols in their fertility festivals to represent the missing severed member of the god Osiris. Osiris had fallen victim to his evil brother, Set, who trapped and later dismembered Osiris’ body. The goddess Isis found the pieces and reassembled them. She could not find his private parts so she fashioned one for him.

Fertility festivals never sat well with the Judeo-Christian crowd. All these sexual overtones and phallic images popping up all over the place disturbed their conservatively-repressed mindset. Jewish prophets railed against the creeping encroachment of paganism and heathen sexuality in Ancient Israelite society. The Catholic Church on one hand stamped out such pagan cults but on the other tried a bit of appeasement to recruit converts. The Church in its earlier days allowed festival days to still be celebrated so long as they were in a Christian setting. This assimilation process allowed some pagan symbols like the Easter Bunny to survive.

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Before the Procession, traditional music is played

When Japan opened its border after two and half centuries of seclusion in the late 19th Century, a number of westerners swarmed into Japan to gawk and wonder at customs that they saw as bizarre and sometimes downright heathen. At that time In the Western world, particularly in the English-speaking parts, prudish Victorian morals held sway over people’s thoughts and emotions. It was the heyday of sexual repression where the rare sight of a woman’s bare ankle could cause a man to swoon in lustful agony.

Some of these Western visitors to Japan who suffered from stuffy Victorian-ethics were quite naturally taken aback by what they saw as the loose morals of Japanese society. Mixed bathing so horrified them that the Japanese segregated the bathhouses and they remain so to this day with some exceptions.

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An Uninhibited Young Girl Posing by the Phallus

One straightlaced visitor was Amy Wilson-Carmichael, a missionary who came to Japan in the 1890s with the lofty noble goal of converting the heathen Japanese to Christianity. One day she chanced upon one of the many local matsuri (festival) that take place ever so often throughout Japan. Today, visitors would count their blessings to have stumbled upon such a celebration. Ms. Wilson-Carmichael, however, did not feel so fortunate.

“…A burst of ‘ all kinds of music,’ Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra in full swing, drowns our voices…Men and women in exchanged attire and gaudy colours flit past, and mingling with uncanny monster forms dance the wild Matsuri dance with abandonment inconceivable, every step a parody, every gesture a caricature. … Pale, expressionless faces are theirs, dead, vacant, joyless, their heavy half-shut eyes hardly glance at the revelry around them. We turn away heart-sick, for this is heathendom indeed.”

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A Very Graphically Detailed Banner

What Ms. Wilson-Carmichael encountered was a matsuri of common variety – no more decadent than any other local festival around the world. It’s quite obvious by her revulsion that she had never seen a matsuri the likes of the Honen-sai Festival. Her delicate mind no doubt would have snapped and her gentle soul would have gone on to meet her Maker after suffering a massive aneurysm from seeing an enormous phallus paraded past her.

Tagata Shrine’s principal deity is not the male organ but is actually a female, Tamahime-no-mikoto. She was once a daughter of a powerful lord living in the area during Japan’s Kofun Period (300-600AD). Her husband, Takeinadane, was a local prince but he died at an early age fighting in some far off place. The Honen-sai Procession represents a reunion of these two sundered spirits which in turn brings about good blessings for the harvest.

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The Two Deities are Re-united through the Honen-Sai Procession

The Procession begins at Shinmei Shrine in the afternoon. Leading the way is a herald who purifies the path by tossing handfuls of salt. This is similar to the way Sumo wrestlers use salt to purify the ring before entering. Following behind comes a large banner emblazoned with a painted phallus uncomfortably complete for some viewers with hair and veins. After the banner comes two small trees known as sakaki. Pink paper amulets hang from their branches given them the appearance of cherry blossoms. In the past, people used to rip these trees apart at the end of the festival in their eagerness to gain spiritual insurance from disaster while also guaranteeing the fertility of their fields.

Next comes the mikoshi – or portable shrine – of the visiting male deity: Takeinadane-no-mikoto. This symbolic reunion with his former love is an age-old theme that can be found throughout the world in ancient societies. One of the earliest accounts comes from Ancient Mesopotamia, where the god Tammuz died and was sent to the underworld. His lover Ishtar could not live without him and struck a deal with the Guardian of the underworld to allow Tammuz return to the world for a period of time each spring. Thus the returning male god represents the rebirth of life that comes with spring after the death that is winter.

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A Herald purifies the Procession path tossing handfuls of salt

After the male deity comes his enormously exaggerated pride and joy. The large phallus is carved every year from a single cypress tree. The tree is selected and felled in mid-winter then taken to the shrine for purification rituals. Using only traditional tools, the phallus is slowly carved into being. After the festival, the phallus will reside the rest of the year at nearby Shinmei Shrine until it is time to carve the next phallus.

When the large phallus passed by young men would smirk, old women would sigh, young women would blush, and old men would cry. Free sake was handed out to help those of a more prudish nature overcome their shock.

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Unlucky Woman carry Phallus for Good Luck

Following the phallus, comes a group of women all of them 36 years of age who cradle a twenty inch (sixty centimeter) wooden phallus in their arms like it were a baby. 36 is traditionally thought to be an unlucky age for women so the women gain protection as well as energy by carrying these phallus-es. Their revitalized energies in turn help to stimulate the energy of the male deity.

Behind the unlucky ladies comes a group of men carrying yet another phallic symbol that stands upright on long thin board. They sing old laborers’ songs with scarcely concealed sexual overtones.

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Dirty Old Geezers croon a dirty ditty

With all these abounding phallus-es one could easily make the mistaken assumption that it is the male organ which is worshiped at the Honen-sai. This is a common misconception with fertility festivals in general. It is the living-giving energies of the earth which is celebrated. Despite its size and popularity, the Honen-sai Phallus would be physically and spiritually impotent without these energies. Fertility festivals are/were in the minds of the participants a form of energy transference and revitalization. The participants, the fertility symbols, the fertility deities, and the earth share and transfer energy back and forth, each revitalizing the other in a mutually beneficial way.

The image of these ancient fertility festivals have been marred primarily by Judeo-Christians who viewed them as examples of decadent paganism. Today certain elements of modern society in its giggly adolescent attitude towards sex see ancient participants in these festivals as little more than hedonistic swingers. It is true that human sexuality and sexual practices were mixed in with fertility customs but this was ritualized. These ancient societies instinctively knew that sex was important to life. Ancient people, despite being superstitious to the point of sacrificing a fellow or two whenever the rains didn’t come down, seem to have been more mature at least in their attitude towards sex than many so-called modernly-enlightened people today.

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Some serious size overcompensation is going on here

February 8, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, entertainment, fertility, festival, folklore, japan, mythology, sexuality, Shinto, spring, travel | 11 Comments

Warm Weather Makes Japanese Wintry Dip Seem Refreshing

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


Less Blue Skin Than Last Year

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

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


Young Girls Brave The Cold Water And The Warm Winter

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


Preparing For Their Refreshing Wintry Dip

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


Heavy Snowfall Last Winter In Nagano

Even Tokyo was hit with a significant amount of snow.


Last Winter’s Snow In Ueno Park in Tokyo

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


Beautiful Autumn Foliage – But Two Days Before Christmas!?

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

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

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

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


Stretching Out Their Cold Limbs After Their Dip

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

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


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

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