Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Tokyo Hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing) Party Video

Violence, Robots, Cherry Blossoms, and more Violence!

It’s a Youtuber Hanami Gathering in Tokyo!

See Youtuber ShotAmerican mercilessly pummel fellow Youtuber TkyoSam repeatedly!!!!

This all came about because Tokyocooney put together Tokyo Youtube Hanami Gathering:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJm18Y…

This footage is from the pre-hanami gathering the night before in Ueno Park.

In attendance were:
Gimmeabreakman who lives in Nagoya:
http://www.youtube.com/gimmeabreakman

ShotAmerican whose handle I misspelled with an extra “a” in the video – Sorry!
http://www.youtube.com/shotamerican

TKyoSam:
http://www.youtube.com/TkyoSam

Tokyocooney made a brief appearance as well but I didn’t catch on camera at the time:
http://www.youtube.com/tokyocooney

Music by Mozart and the Exotic Ones:
http://www.myspace.com/exoticones

April 2, 2008 Posted by | cherry blossoms, japan, japanese culture, life, party, sakura, spring, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | Leave a comment

Sakura – Japanese Cherry Blossom Montage Video

Sakura – Japanese Cherry Blossoms have been a part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. They’re the subject of countless poems from waka to haiku.

The Short Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

This is a photo montage I actually put up a year ago but never made public. It contains shots that I have taken over the years in different locations of sakura. You’ll see scenes from Tokyo, Kyoto, Kamakura, Himeji and few places you may not be aware of such as Ofuna and it’s giant Kannon statue. I put in a few Japanese poems to go along with the photos.

The geisha are from the Miyako Odori which is an annual geisha pulbic dance performance in Gion.

Music by the Secret Commonwealth:

The Secret Commonwealth

March 30, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, cherry blossoms, geisha, hanami, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, montage, music, nature, photographs, sakura, secret commonwealth, spring, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | 2 Comments

Setsubun – Japanese Spring Cleaning Exorcism (Vlog Video)

https://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2007/02/06/setsubun-devils-driven-out-in-japanese-spring-ritual/
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:
http://www.sgchannel.com

February 7, 2008 Posted by | culture, demons, devils, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube, zojo-ji | Leave a comment

Devils Make Sneak Attack on Japanese Spring Ritual – Setsubun

Sudden Snowstorm Interrupts Japanese Spring Ritual
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?

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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.

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Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple

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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.

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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.

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A Snow-covered Kabuki Star

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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.

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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.

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Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji

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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.

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Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine

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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.

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A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm

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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.

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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!

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February 7, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, demons, devils, event, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, ninja, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, winter, zojo-ji | 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

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring
Before the Cherry Blossoms there were the Plum Blossoms

White Plum Blossoms signal the coming of Spring

“The Cherry may be the prettier of the two; but when once you have seen the red Plum-blossom in the snow at the dawn of a spring morning, you will no longer forget its beauty.”
Fujiwara no Kinto (996-1075)

With the coming of Spring, all of Japan becomes very vigilant and watchful. They’re not watching for any suspicious North Korean vessels in their waters, but for the first signs of the blooming of sakura – cherry blossoms. For over a thousand years, cherry blossoms have played a large role in the lives of the Japanese mainly as an excuse to party. Hanami is the name for these cherry blossom viewing parties which involves plopping a blue tarp down under some blooming cherry trees and preceding to get sloshed amidst the pink foliage.

However, long ago, it wasn’t the cherry blossom that held the hearts of Japanese in thrall. It was the diminutive and demure plum blossom (ume) which moved poets nimble hands and made emperors weep. Plum blossom hanami was one of many customs that came from China during Japan’s developing phase. The plum tree was not originally an indigenous plant in Japan but was brought over from China. It quickly took root, though, in the fertile soil and imagination of Japan.

Plum blossoms are seen in Japan as the heralds of Spring, the restrained forerunners to the bold cherry blossoms. They typically bloom from mid-February to mid-March before making way for the grandstanding cherry blossoms.

Plum Blossom Maidens at Mito’s Kairaku-en Garden

The cherry blossom was said to represent a woman’s beauty while the plum blossom was said to represent her purity.

Plum Blossoms near Mt. Mitake east of Tokyo

Plum blossoms were associated with literacy and intellectual pursuits. An old Chinese verse runs:

When literacy is loved
The plum blossoms will open
When learning is prohibited
The plum blossoms will close.

Plum tree blooming over the thousands of ema prayer boards left by worried students at Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo

One of the Plum blossoms greatest patrons was the noted scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903).  He was a scholar and Imperial advisor before his downfall. When he was exiled from Kyoto to a lonely island, legend says his favorite plum tree uprooted itself and flew to his place of exile to comfort him. Later, Michizane was deified as a Shinto god of learning and shrines were erected to honor him. Plum trees are often planted at his shrines which bloom over the thousands of prayer boards known as ema left by students seeking Michizane’s aid in passing their exams.

Sugawara-no-Michizane
Patron of Plum Blossoms and Entrance Exams
The scholarly deity Sugawara-no-Michizane

Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903) was Japan’s Man for all Season in the 9th century. After his death, he became the Most Unfriendliest Ghost. In life, Michizane was a gifted scholar, poet, and politician. He earned accolades and titles but also the animosity of his rivals. The powerful Fujiwara family who practically ran the country did not like the influence Michizane had over Emperor Uda. When Uda retired, as was the fashion, they poisoned the new Emperor’s ear against Michizane claiming he conspired to supplant him. The young easily-swayed Emperor gave heed and had Michizane exiled.

Michizane died only a few short years later, heartbrokened by his fall from grace. Sometime afterwards, a number of calamities struck the capital in Kyoto. Lighting struck the Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s sons died mysteriously while plague and drought stalked the land. It was believed by many that Michizane’s unhappy spirit had become a goryo – a vengeful spirit – and was now enacting his revenge for his wrongful exile. To appease his angry spirit, a shrine was built in his honor and his titles were restored to him. Later he was elevated to deity status as the god of calligraphy and learning known as Tenjin.

Since Plum blossoms were his favorite in life, they are always planted at his shrines. They come into bloom at the same time the ema prayer boards multiply at his shrines from students praying for his assistance with their entrance exams.

Plum blossoms are smaller in size and therefore do not cover their branches to the degree that cherry blossoms do. Plum blossoms, however, have a fragrant scent unlike their odorless successors the cherry blossoms. This scent has been popular theme for a number Haiku poems from famed poets.

Plum Blossoms at Kairaku-en Garden in Mito

Scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Great moon
wrapped in plum scent
all mine
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Far away the water flows
Past the plum-scented village.
Shohaku (1443-1527)

Plum Wind
Fragrance alone, I thought
Was the wind’s burden,
But petals too
Are circling the plum garden.
Okuma Kotomichi (1798-1868)

Kairaku-en Garden
A Benevolent Lord’s Gift to his People

Kairaku-en is an unique garden park, not just for it’s three thousand plum blossom trees and elegant manor house but for its history of being one of the few gardens of Old Japan which was open to the general public. The lords and samurai of Old Japan built lovely gardens for themselves and their associates but they were off-limits to the common folks.

The Mito province where Kairaku-en built was blessed with two great lords who cared about the welfare of commoners. Mito Mitsukuni (1628-1700), the secord lord of Mito, was greatly concerned about the administration of justice and the abuse of power. He used to travel about in secret to observe administrative authorities to make sure they did not oppress the people under them. Stories, books, and television shows have popularized his life and made him virtually a household name.

The ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), was of the same vein as Mito. He constructed an enormous park encompassing over 130,000 square meters in which he had more than 3000 plum trees planted. In a sharp contrast of protocol, Nariaki threw the doors open wide for all to enjoy hence the name – “Kairaku-en” (“the garden for sharing pleasures with people”).

So while the cherry blossom has long dominated the scene and continues to do so, the plum blossom still holds it own with its own grace and charm. Without the plum blossom and the tradition of hanami (blossom viewing) brought over from China along with the tree itself, there may never have been any cherry blossom tradition and Japanese Spring would be a quieter and duller time than it is today.

Plum Blossoms in the heart of Tokyo

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy
Issa

On the back of the mirror,
A spring unseen,
A flowering plum-tree.
Basho

Plum-blossoms everywhere,
I should go south,
I should go north.
Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Harbingers of Climate Change?
Early blooming plum blossoms

Due to the unnaturally warm weather in Japan this year, plum blossoms bloomed in certain areas weeks earlier than usual. The photograph above was taken at a temple in eastern Tokyo in mid-January, nearly a month earlier than the normal season.

While a few people are still skeptical of climate change and global warming, for others the recent trend of unusual weather from snowless winters, icestorms, powerful hurricanes, and melting icecaps bodes ill for the future.

And though those few would have us do nothing considering it be a natural phenomenon, others like Al Gore feel that the last century’s immense pollution output has had a considerable impact on the environment and that action is required.

April 8, 2007 Posted by | global warming, hanami, japan, Kairaku-en, mito, plum blossom, spring, sugawara no michizane, tokyo, travel, ume, yushima tenjin | 6 Comments

The Short, Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

The Short, Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

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Shikishima no
Yamato-gokoro wo
Hito-towaba,
Asahi ni niou
Yamazakura bana.

(If one should ask you concerning the heart of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry flower glowing in the sun.)

— Norinaga Motoori (1730-1801)

Cherry blossoms, called sakura in Japanese, are taken very seriously in Japan. Any tourist or long-term visitor can easily notice this whatever time of the year they arrive. Sakura can be seen everywhere — art, tea cups, TV commercials, wrapping paper, and so on.

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The Great Buddha of Kamakura with cherry blossoms

The official flower of the Japanese imperial family is the stately (and hard-to-pronounce) chrysanthemum. The unofficial national flower is the cherry blossom. Of all the flowers and blossoms in Japan only the cherry blossom can bring the country to a halt: Japanese drop whatever they are doing to rush and grab a blue tarp mat so they can sit under the blossoms.

Every spring, the Japanese wait eagerly with an anticipation that borders on mania for the first blooming of the cherry blossoms. They have been doing this for well over a thousand years.

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Enjoying a cherry blossom “snowfall”

Flowers and blossoms are revered to such a degree in Japan that blooming times are duly noted on calendars and Japanese often plan their vacations around them.

The blooming of the cherry blossom is the most important and the most widely celebrated. In spring, cherry trees barren from winter’s cold grip suddenly burst forth into color and transform the landscape into a fairy tale-like wonder world.

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Ogaki Castle defended by a row of cherry trees.

Even bleak urban centers become almost welcoming under a canopy of pink and white and sometimes yellow blossoms. Cherry blossoms accentuate traditional places such as shrines, temples and castles to their fullest glory. Samurai warlords often went to great lengths to beautify their castles, built for defense, with gardens, fish ponds, and cherry trees.

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A lone blossom petal floats upon the water of a shrine’s purification basin.

The samurai warriors of Old Japan came to take the cherry blossom as their spiritual motif. They saw in the beautiful but brief life of the sakura their own fate. The sakura falls at the height of its beauty rather than withering away. This “death” is much in the same way the samurai wished to die: In the war-torn period of Japan many samurai, like the blossoms, fell at the height of their youth and glory long before reaching old age.

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Enjoying the blossoms with just a few thousand others.

Nighttime finds the Japanese gathered under the blossoms to drink, eat, and be merry as they have done for generations. Hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) is a tradition that goes back to at least the Nara Period (710-784). Hanami was originally an aspect of Chinese influence, but it was the early-blooming plum blossoms that were honored. In the following period known as the Heien (794-1185), the cherry blossom won the attention of the Japanese and the word hanami came to be associated with cherry blossoms.

At first hanami was mainly the pastime of aristocrats but over time the practice spread to people of all walks of life. Hanami celebrants of the past enjoyed poetry games in which contestants tried to come up with new stanzas to continue a poem. Nowadays, for better or worse, portable karoake machines tend to take the place of poetry.

Food stalls selling all manner of Japanese cuisine are a common feature wherever the cherry blossoms are the thickest. Popular food items are okonomiyaki, a Japanese-type pancake of seafood and noodles, takoyaki, breaded balls containing octopus tentacle, yaki-tori, skewered chicken strips, and of course sushi.

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An old cherry tree in Kyoto

The blooming season is brief — too brief for the masses of overworked office workers. The peak period is a time for fleeing the shackles of the office.

Popular cherry blossom viewing spots are crammed with people, food vendors, and blue mats. Inebriated viewers often have a difficult time navigating themselves back to their party through a sea of hanami participants. Companies will book places in advance for their staff parties and send out rookie employees to guard the mats and alcohol during the day.

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Clouds of cherry blossoms! / Is that temple bell in Ueno or Asakusa? — Basho (17th Century)

With the arrival of Western visitors en masse to Japan in the late 19th century following the end of over two centuries of isolation, the Japanese mania for cherry blossoms every spring was viewed with some wry amusement. Certain visitors, who were more practical and with a mind for productivity, just could not see the attraction to trees that, while beautiful, did not bear fruit that could be eaten or sold. The cherry blossom was called by one such visitor as an aristocrat among flowers: not working but wanting to be admired for its beauty.

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Boating under the cherry blossoms at Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo.

This view has changed and nowadays visitors together with the Japanese rush around to see the cherry blossom anywhere it blooms and admire its brief but beautiful life.

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If there were no cherry blossoms in this world / How much more tranquil our hearts would be in spring. — Ariwara no Narihira (10th Century)

April 5, 2007 Posted by | cherry blossoms, hanami, japan, Kyoto, life, party, sakura, samurai, spring, tokyo, travel | 4 Comments

The Easter Bunny Conundrum

Is the Easter Bunny a Controversial Christian Symbol or a Godless Pagan Icon?

It’s Easter again. Time for young children to be forced against their will by their parents to put on uncomfortable tight-fitting new Easter clothes so they can be exploited by picture-snapping, cheek-pinching relatives. Then it’s off to Church where suffering tykes have to endure a lengthy and boring Easter Service that they can’t possibly hope to understand.

The only thing that brings them comfort and makes the day worth it is the traditional hunt for colorfully painted Easter eggs left by Santa Claus’s estranged cousin: the Easter Bunny.

Christian Symbol or Furry Pagan Idol?

The Easter Bunny is so thoroughly mixed into Easter traditions that he often upstages the main focus of the holiday namely Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus had to be crucified, buried, and resurrected in order to qualify for a second holiday. The Easter Bunny did not have to go through such ordeals and yet he gets equal if not top billing on Easter.

Due to the bunny’s traditional presence on Easter, some feel he is too Christian of a symbol to use in certain secular situations particularly in government. Recently, the city council of St. Paul, Minnesota, felt it necessary to remove Easter Bunny decorations from its premises lest someone not of the Christian faith become offended by the sight of a toy bunny with a basket of fake Easter eggs.

Apparently no one on St. Paul’s city council has ever had a chat with fundamentalist Christians on this matter. Fundamentalist Christians would have applauded the removal of the Easter Bunny but for different reasons. To them the Easter Bunny is just a bit of leftover godless pagan idolatry.

How did that wascally Easter Bunny worm his way into a holiday that seemingly has nothing to do with him? The rabbit and his close cousin, the hare, have long been regarded as the heralds of spring in ancient cultures throughout many parts of the world. They were seen as symbols of Spring’s promise of new life and fertility.

The Germans in the 16th Century incorporated the old pagan view of the rabbit/hare into a slightly modified new role as Oschter Haws. Oschter Haws it was believed would actually lay a nest of magically colored eggs for all the good girls and boys. One is hesitant to think about what he left for bad children but chances are it would have been less preferable to the lumps of coal Santa would leave for such children.

Eggs like the rabbit had long been seen as symbols of life and renewal. Servants were once given eggs as gifts from their masters on Easter during the Middle Ages. From this came the concept of the Easter Egg but it was not until the late 19th Century that the eggs and bunny would truly come together.

German immigrants to the New World in the 1700s brought over their Oschter Haws tradition. Over time the Easter Bunny tradition was born and became firmly entrenched in American culture.

Overall it should not come as much of a surprise that two completely non-Christian symbols such as the rabbit/hare and eggs have become so tightly woven into the Easter holiday.

The Easter holiday itself represents a bit of early Catholic salesmanship to potential pagan converts. It was noted by Christian missionaries that many pagan cultures already celebrated spring fertility rituals around the same time as the remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. The word Easter, according to the the 8th Century English historian monk Bede, is derived from the pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring and fertility, Eostre. The hare is beleived to have been her sacred animal.

The Goddess Eoster and her Hare

Mythologically-speaking the resurrection of Christ, the Easter Bunny, and Easter eggs are very much the same in their symbolism. They all represent new life that comes with the Spring season so it was only natural that pagan converts would retain these images and mesh them with their new faith.

Despite these symbolic similarities, however, some fundamentalist Christians see red every time that heathen bunny hops onto the scene each Easter with his hell-wrought basket of godless Easter eggs – the Easter Basket tradition actually comes from an old Catholic custom of blessing food in a basket on Easter but fundamentalists often don’t hold Catholicism terribly high either above paganism.

An Easter Postcard of an Angel that looks similar to the old Eoster

While the St. Paul city council recently felt the Easter Bunny symbol too Christian, two years ago a fundamentalist sect in Pennsylvania was under no such illusion. They demonstrated their animosity towards this pagan interloper in a religious play.

In trying to get Easter back to its roots with the fertility cults, eggs, maypole dances …. oops! that is: Jesus Christ and the resurrection, the Pennsylvanian Glassport Assembly of God during a morality play decided to whip up on the ole Easter Bunny while chanting: “There is no Easter Bunny! There is no Easter Bunny!”

They whipped and beat a person dressed up as the Easter bunny and broke Easter eggs in a frenzy of Christian cleansing. Their purpose they claimed was to show that Easter is not about the Easter Bunny but about Jesus Christ.

Needless to say many of the 3-6 year old audience members were a bit confused over the message the Glassport Assembly of God was trying to convey. The small young audience members simply wondered through their big bubbly bright tears why the Easter Bunny was getting the stuffing knocked out of him.

With both situations, it’s a case of overreaction coupled with sheer foolishness. The Easter Bunny is a harmless entity much like Santa Claus. If it gives children joy and eases their suffering on Easter Sunday, then more power to the Easter Bunny.

March 22, 2007 Posted by | animals, Blogroll, easter, easter bunny, easter eggs, fertility, life, mythology, spring, tradition | Leave a comment

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

Setsubun – Devils Driven Out In Japanese Spring Ritual

Japanese Drive Out Devils in Spring Ritual
Setsubun Festival celebrated with a fanfare of bean-throwing exorcisms
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Longnosed Tengu goblin driving away devils

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Strong Foes with an Achilles’ Heel to Health Food 
Vampires and Devils beaten by vegetables

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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.



February 6, 2007 Posted by | asashoryu, Blogroll, demons, devils, festival, folklore, Groundhog Day, japan, life, mythology, Setsubun, Spirits, spring, sumo, tokyo, tradition, travel, vampire | 15 Comments