Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

New Year’s Eve At A Japanese Shrine in Tokyo

New Year’s Eve at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine
Visitors brave the cold and sometimes snow for New Year’s blessings

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Entrance Torii Gate to Meiji Shrine

Every year around the New Year, millions of Japanese visit temples and shrines to pray for health and good fortune for the coming year.

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Crowd of visitors braving the cold weather

Typically Buddhist temples are visited on New Year’s Eve and Shinto shrines on New Year’s Day. With Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo, thousands of visitors descend close to the midnight hour to get a jump start on getting in their New Year blessings.

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A Snow-topped Chozuya for washing one’s hands and mouth

Meiji Shrine enshrines the spirit of the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and his wife, Empress Shoken (1850-1914) and was constructed in 1920. It was burned down in the air raids of WWII and rebuilt in 1958. Unlike the ostentatious Toshogo Shrine in Nikko, Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park is simple and austere in the traditional style of Shinto architecture.

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Visitors washing their hands and mouth with cold water

Two years ago a small snowstorm deposited several centimeters of snow on New Year’s Eve bringing the temperature down quite low. Still in the hour before midnight, Yoyogi Park was filled with visitors willing to risk the cold in order to pray for good health for next year – though staying at home probably would have been more effective for that.

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Crowds gathered at a Torii gate awaiting entrance

The police cordoned us off into separate small hordes and escorted us one slow agonizing step at a time.

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The gatehouse to Meiji Shrine all lit up

When they at long last reached the main shrine, people would throw coins then clap their hands together and pray.

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Hordes of visitors pray for a good New Year’s

From there visitors exit the main compound where they can stock up on good luck charms sold at the shrine’s stalls. Wooden prayer boards called ema can be purchased with the year’s animal painted on one side. Purchasers will write on the back their hopes and wishes and leave them at the shrine.

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Visitors exiting the main shrine compound

Meiji Shrine is a great place to visit early for New Year’s Eve but if you come late don’t expect a free champagne toast while you’re waiting in line.

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Shrine workers selling New Year’s charms

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Hot food for a cold night

December 30, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, japan, life, Meiji, New Years, Shinto, tokyo, travel | Leave a comment

Kodo Taiko Drum Festival On Sado Island, Japan

Taiko Drum Festival brings Cheer to Old Island of Exile
Kodo Taiko Group Celebrates the Earth with Music


A Taiko Drummer playing in front of a Shinto Shrine

In olden days, going to Sado Island generally meant one of two things: exile or gold. Sado Island, the 6th largest island of Japan, was for a long time not the pleasure excursion that is today. During the Heian Period (794-1192), Sado was often the dumping ground of political exiles from the Kyoto capital. The trend continued for nearly a thousand years up until 1700 with a scattering of dissent poets, irate Buddhists monks, and even an unfortunate emperor.

In 1601 gold was discovered and a new breed of exiles was flung upon the island: convicts and homeless. The gold came under the ownership of the Tokugawa Shogunate Government. No gold-digging prospectors or women of low virtues were allowed to clutter up the island. It was strictly controlled for the sake of the Shogunate’s coffers. Hard work and deadly misery not sudden fortune was the fate of these hard-pressed workers.

In more recent times, Sado became infamous for North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. Lying off the coast of Niigata in Northwestern Japan, it was in convenient reach of North Korea.


Fire Twirler on the beach at night

Given the island’s rather grim history, it would seem a strange place to hold a music festival celebrating taiko drumming and the earth itself. Yet this is exactly what happens every summer in the normally sleepy town of Ogi in the South-Eastern section of Sado.


A pair of impromptu drummers strike up a beat

Drums, drums, drums! For three days little Ogi resounds with the incessant pounding of countless booming drums. The mastermind behind this audio assault is the Kodo Taiko group. Kodo was formed 25 years ago and since then they have performed nearly 3000 times all over the world.


Female Taiko Drummer of the Miyake Taiko Group

Kodo’s main instrument is the Japanese Taiko drum. Taiko drums are very taunt drums that give off a deep booming resounance. Traditionally they were beaten to drive away evil spirits. In war, Taiko drums were beaten to give orders and quicken the blood of warriors.


Members of Kodo

Kodo makes all of its own drums and other instruments at Kodo Village, a 25-acre wooded area near Ogi. Kodo Village is where aspiring apprenctices learn their trade. The apprenticeship lasts for two years. During this time, the apprentices maintain a strict regime of diet, exercise, practice and work designed to improve themselves physically, musically, and spiritually. They also grow their own rice and other foods at the village using traditional farming methods that even the locals no longer use.


Rock-n-roller in a Kimono

While Kodo believes in following traditional methods when it comes to certain things, they are more than willing to experiment musically. Every summer on the third weekend of August, Kodo hosts Earth Celebration, a 3-day outdoor concert with workshops and fringe events. Here they present their musical collaborations along with a guest group.


Outdoor stage on Shinto Shrine Grounds

The evening concerts are held on the grounds of a Shinto Shrine. The first night Kodo plays. The second night the guest group plays most of the evening being joined by some of the members of Kodo towards the end. The third night is mix of both groups. Although photography and filming is discouraged, dancing is highly encouraged.


Urban Tap and Kodo Members

The previous guest group was Urban Tap, a unique group of musicians and dancers headed by Tamango, a tap dancer from French Guiayana. One of their dancers who hails from the African Ivory Coast performed on stilts. Tamango and he actually performed a dance-off together.

Urban Tap

Members of Urban Tap

Urban Tap is an eclectic collection of dancers and musicians headed by French Guianian tap dancer, Tamango. Urban Tap presents an intoxicating blend of rhythmic music and dance from a variety of sources ranging from tap, hip-hop, jazz, traditional African dance, and the Brazillian fighting-dance of Capoeria. Highly individualistic and yet brilliantly meshed together. Urban Tap and Kodo were a perfect combination for the 2006 Earth Celebration.

For more information, please check their website:
urban tap

Urban Tap and Kodo played so well together that I assumed they had been practicing for weeks together. However, I later learned they had practice only briefly! It certainly didn’t show! The two played with such harmony as though they had been playing together for years.

The concerts are held in the evening. During the day, there are a variety of workshops which teach drum making, traditional dance, taiko drumming, and so on. Workshops are often booked-up well in advance. For visitors without a workshop to attend there a number of fringe events to watch.


Miyake Taiko Group makes an entrance

One popular re-occurring fringe event is Miyake Taiko from Miyake Island renown for their unique style of taiko drumming. One of the group’s principal leaders has also aided in instructing Kodo apprentices. The Miyake Taiko group performs every day in front of the shrine.


Kodo and Urban Tap give a send-off performance

This year’s Earth Celebration concert was a scorcher both musically and meteriologically. The music was hot and so was whole area. A day before the concert began a typhoon passed over Japan and seemed to have sucked up all the winds along the way. Sado Island was like a becalmed ship in an ocean of still oppressive humidity. Sweat ran down in rivets on performers and spectators alike. But despite the heat, no performer passed out – a testament to their skill and training no doubt.

The day after the concert most of us boarded a ferry boat bound for the mainland. We were given a royal send off by some of the members of Kodo and Urban Tap. They played for us right next the ferry. When the ferry had pulled away from the pier, the players rushed to the edge of pier and kept on playing until they dropped out of sight. They really know how to make their spectators feel special.


A Demon Drummer

For more information about Kodo and next year’s festival, please check their homepage: Kodo

Demon Drummers of Sado
Demons Bring Good Health and Harvests by Drumming


A Demon Drummer Close-up

Kasuga-Onigumi Onedeko – the Demon Drummers of Ryotsu are one of the main symbols of Sado Island. There are over a hundred Onedeko groups on Sado as a matter of fact. Despite their fearsome appearance the Demon drummers actually are beneficial to humans. The tradition of demon drumming has been done for centuries to ensure bountiful harvests and good health.


December 21, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, Earth Celebration, entertainment, festival, japan, Kodo, life, music, music concert, Sado Island, Shinto, taiko, travel, Urban Tap | 7 Comments

YABUSAME: Japanese horseback archery

BEFORE THE SWORD CAME THE BOW

Early samurai history, when a bow and arrow was a weapon of honor, discipline


A yabusame archer wearing formal hunting clothes from the 13th century

It has often been said: The sword is the soul of the samurai. Much has been written in Japan and around the world about the Japanese samurai sword and its nigh-mystical aspects.

The sword was an indispensable weapon of the samurai warrior, even when guns began to steadily come into use during the 16th century. A sword was a mark of samurais status and honor. They were heirlooms to be passed down generation after generation. Swords of exceptional make were often given as gifts of great honor.


Yabusame depicted on a folding screen

And yet in the early history of the samurai, it was the bow, not the sword, that was praised. Early samurai warriors referred to their profession as the Way of the Horse and Bow.

Stories about a heros prowess with the bow abound in the folklore and military legends of this time period. Enemies both mortal and monstrous were often dispatched with a well-aimed bow rather than with a sword.

History of the Bow and Mounted Archery

Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 B.C. – 300 AD) Bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, is always depicted carrying a bow.

The use of the bow had been on foot until around the 4th century when elite soldiers took to fighting on horseback with bows and swords. In the 10th century, samurai would have archery duels on horseback. They would ride at each other and try to fire at least three arrows. These duels did not necessarily have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied.


Procession carrying yabusame targets

One of the most famous and celebrated incidents of Japanese mounted archery occurred during the Gempei War (1180-1185), an epic struggle for power between the Heike and Genji clans that was to have a major impact on Japanese culture, society, and politics.

At the Battle of Yashima, the Heike, having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by the Genji on horseback, but the Genji were halted by the sea.


An archer readies his arrow as he speeds by the target.

As the Heike waited for the winds to be right, they presented a fan hung from a mast as a target for any Genji archer to shoot at in a gesture of chivalrous rivarly between enemies.

One of the Genji samurai, Nasu Yoichi, accepted the challenge. He rode his horse into the sea and shot the fan cleanly through. Nasu won much fame and his feat is still celebrated to this day.

During the Kamakura Period (1192-1334), mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep samurai prepared for war. Those archers who did poorly might find themselves commanded to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide.

One cruel style of mounted archery was inuoumono shooting at dogs. Buddhists priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. This sport is no longer practiced, to the relief of dog-lovers and dogs everywhere, no doubt.

Yabusame Ritual Mounted Archery

As part of a Shinto rite, Japans indigenous spiritual belief, mounted archers wearing traditional hunting clothing of the Kamakura Period charge down a single narrow track to shoot at three wooden targets arranged at certain intervals. This rite is called yabusame. It is believed that the sound of an arrow striking the wooden target transfers the courage of the archer to the audience.


A perfect hit!

Yabusame was designed as a way to please and entertain the myriad of gods that watch over Japan, thus encouraging their blessings for the prosperity of the land, the people, and the harvest.

A yabusame archer gallops down a 208-meter-long track at high speed. The archer mainly controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow.

As he approaches a target, he brings his bow up and draws the arrow past his ear before letting the arrow fly with a deep shout. The arrow is blunt and round-shaped in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.


An archer speeds past after a successful hit.

Experienced archers are allowed to used arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. To hit all three targets is considered an admirable accomplishment.

Yabusame is characterized as a ritual rather than a sport because of its solemn style and religious aspects, and is often performed for special ceremonies or official events, such as entertaining foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Yabusame demonstrations have been given for the formal visits of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A yabusame demonstration was given in the United Kingdom for Prince Charles, who reportedly was fascinated and pleased with the performance.

To be selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor. In the past, they were chosen from only the best warriors. The archer who performs the best is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.

Famous Schools of Archery and the Impact of Zen

There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) to start a school for archery. Yoritomo wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.

Zen became a major element in both foot and mounted archery as it also became popular among the samurai in every aspect of their life during the Kamakura Period.

Yabusame as a martial art helped a samurai learn concentration, discipline, and refinement. Zen taught breathing techniques to stabilize the mind and body, giving clarity and focus. To be able to calmly draw ones bow, aim, and fire in the heat of battle, and then repeat, was the mark of a true samurai who had mastered his training and his fear.

The other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century at the command of Emperor Uda. This school became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawas Seven Samurai (1954) and Kagemusha (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshiro Mifune, was a noted student of the Takeda school.

The Decline and Revival of the Bow

With the arrival of the Portuguese and their guns in the mid-16th century, the bow began to lose its importance on the battlefield. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 well-placed groups of musket-men firing in volleys practically annihilated the cavalry charges of the Takeda clan.


An archer is awarded a white banner signifying divine favor of his skills.

Mounted archery was revived in the Edo Period (1600-1867) by Ogasawara Heibei Tsuneharu (1666-1747) under the command of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751). Given that the nation was at peace, archery as well as other military martial arts became more of a method of personal development rather than military training.

Today, Yabusame is held at various times of the year generally near shrines. It never ceases to amaze and thrill spectators. The excitement builds as a horse and an archer bear down the track toward a target. When a successful hit is made, the resulting sound is echoed by the cheers of the exuberant crowd.

A Second before Impact

August 7, 2006 Posted by | Archery, horses, japan, samurai, Shinto, Sport, Uncategorized, Yabusame | 19 Comments