Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Risque Japanese Action Figures

I was strolling through Geek Town, Akihabara in downtown Tokyo where geek is chic and dork is bork. Amongst the myriad stores bulging with electronic doodads, gizmos, and whatdahellisdats I stumbled upon several stores offering the titillating (with emphasis on “tit” )  plastic fun of action figures that I never saw under any Christmas tree when I was a wee one – and its probably just as well all things considering.

Here are some of the rather risque action figures I saw for sell in non-porn affliated stores.

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Ah, yes the ubquitos school girls in their short, short sinfully short skirts with a maid friend of theirs

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S&M Action figures put you in the box

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Goth French Maid Action Figure ready to serve you at only 500 Yen

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A collection of sweety-kins in their undergarments

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School Girl Action Figure with standard huge bust

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Daffy super heriones – one who has the slit of her dress in the front rather than the side

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Somebody’s imagination ran wild here

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Life-size School Girl Action figure for only 300,000 Yen (nearly $3000). Why anyone would want or need a life-size school girl action figure is too naseusating to even contemplate. Best to just move on…

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Big-Busted Super Herione. Saving the World by creating embarrassing erections in the criminal underworld

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Whoa, nellie!

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A demure maid waiting for geek cliente at her Maid Cafe

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Now this is just going into the realm of Wrong…

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Now this isn’t a suggestive position. Not at all.

October 8, 2006 Posted by | action figures, akihabara, Blogroll, cute, entertainment, geek, risque, sexy, tokyo, travel, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Overshadowed Neputa Festival of Hirosaki

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

A Traditional Fan-Shaped Neputa Float

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

A Kagami-e Fighting Scene

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

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

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

The Demon and the Samurai
A Demon grabs a Samurai

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

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

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

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

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


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

A “miokuri-e” (seeing-off scene)

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

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

Chinese Hero Devours His Own Eye

A story of desperate culinary consumption

Eyeball anyone?

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

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

A shocking display of unlady-like behavior

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

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

A Ghastly Ghost Haunts a Lady

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

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

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

Vampire Cat of Nabeshima

Dastardly cat thwarted by resourceful footman



Bad Kitty!

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on “Lost in Translation” and Tokyo

©2005 Zoetrope

Bob Harris: Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?
Charlotte: I’m in.

I recently re-watched “Lost in Translation” on DVD. Watching the movie again, I was reminded of the first time I saw it in Tokyo and the Japanese reaction to the film. It was in a small, overheated theater in Shibuya last spring. It had taken close to seven months for the movie, which had been shot entirely in Japan, to finally open here.

The theater was packed with Japanese, and boy were they upset! At the end of the movie they began to attack the few gaijin (foreigners) in the theater.

Actually, the Japanese audience seemed to really enjoy the movie. I heard a lot of laughter. I don’t know why there was so much controversy when it was first released in the States. In time the movie became popular enough among Japanese to be shown in quite a few movie theaters (with better heating systems) throughout Japan.

Many Japanese I talked to liked the film. There were a few things they thought were a little too much, such as the interpreter for Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) for a Suntory Whiskey commercial who translated only the barest amount of the director’s comments, and often inaccurately.

“Lost in Translation,” in my opinion, is not “anti-Japanese,” as a few people apparently think it is. It is rather “anti-Tokyo,” and subsequently, “anti-big city.”

Tokyo is a huge city even for the Japanese, more megalopolis than metropolis. One of the main complaints from residents is that the city has very little in the way of nature. At times it can seem as though every square meter of Tokyo has been covered in concrete and has a convenience store placed upon it.

A train pushes through the urban chaos of Tokyo.

For a culture whose roots lie in the nature-based spirituality of Shintoism, places like Tokyo can be difficult even for the Japanese to bear. However, what is not shown in the film, and is often overlooked by visitors and foreign residents alike, is the way in which many Tokyoites have brought nature, albeit on a small scale, into the big city. Countless small but elegant gardens dot Tokyo. Flowers are everywhere, from temples to train tracks. The city may be crammed with buildings, but it does possess parks where city dwellers can completely lose themselves and forget they are in one of the largest cities in the world.

Some Tokyo parks are virtually a forest within a city.

A good deal of “Lost in Translation” focuses on the urban loneliness that can affect both visitors and residents in Tokyo or any big city. At times Tokyo can feel like it is crushing one’s senses with all its buildings, neon, noise, confusion, oddness, traffic, and massive amount of people. Tokyo is definitely a city people have to come to terms with on their own.

Tokyo is a busy city for busy people with busy plans. For those who are in a transition or a stagnant period of life, such busy-ness can be overwhelming. The “Lost in Translation” effect is the alienation that anyone stuck in a rut can feel, not only in Tokyo, but in any place that is new and strange.

The main characters of the film are only in Tokyo for a week or so and much of the time they seem to spend in their hotel. The few times they venture out, they generally seem to have some fun, such as when they go to karaoke.

Their animosity towards Tokyo and the Japanese seems to stem more from the underlying loathing they have for their own lives and their lack of direction. By the end of the movie, however, we see they don’t really hate Tokyo, as Scarlett Johansson’s character, Charlotte, jokingly suggests to Bill Murray they could start up a jazz band and never leave.

Panicking on an overcrowded train

Overall, I thought the movie did a good job in its portrayal of two lost souls in the urban chaos of Tokyo. Murray gave a fine performance by simply not going overboard and giving us the “Bill Murray” from the movies and “Saturday Night Live.” He was funny in a low-key, genuine way.

Johansson never gave into dramatic displays of despair or soul-wrenching monologues that scream “I’d like to thank the Academy…” Both actors gave earnest performances that were stronger for their restraint. In a time where over-acting melodramatics abound in cinema, it was nice to see a movie that didn’t seem like a movie. It felt like the kind of bittersweet story that either has happened or could happen to any of us in our lives.

Now, from the point of view of a foreigner living in Tokyo, I thought “Lost in Translation” was quite accurate, though I have never stayed in a five-star hotel in Japan, had a high-priced prostitute sent to my room, or gone to any of those ritzy strip clubs depicted in the film. Had they filmed more scenes in izakaya (Hub Pubs), cheap noodle places, and sleazy meat-market dance clubs in Roppongi, I could have related more to the movie.

One of the myriad of drink machines that inhabit Tokyo.

A few extra things I feel the film needed to make it even more representative of Tokyo:

  • Elevator doors that squash you.
  • Revolving doors that kill you.
    Japanese goth girls
  • Drunk salarymen vomiting everywhere, especially on the platforms while they are trying to catch the last trains — I have seen more vomit on an average Friday night in Tokyo than I ever saw at Oktoberfest.
  • Drink vending machines everywhere.
  • The seemingly prerecorded programmed speech of “irrashaimase” you hear from service staff every time you enter a convenience store, restaurant, department store, brothel, etc…
  • Tissue-packet people who make it impossible to get by without taking a packet.
  • Those lovely, photogenic Sunday Harajuku Goth freaks in front of Yoyogi Park.
  • The orange-skin girls with Day-Glo make-up.
  • Massage girls in the street harassing men saying, “Massagee? Massagee?”
  • Pampered, neurotic little dogs.
  • Asking fast-food staff to hold an ingredient like mayo from a sandwich/burger and receiving a look of severe confusion.
  • Monstrous crows — the governor of the Tokyo area has made it his personal crusade to rid Tokyo of these winged pests after two crows viciously attacked him on a golf course.
    One of Tokyo’s large crows enjoying the cherry blossoms
  • People walking and e-mailing on their phones all the time, oblivious to everything around them.
  • Drunk, embittered English teachers in tacky blue shirts and badly knotted ties — I’m convinced the jazz band at the hotel had day jobs as English teachers.
  • Neurotic expats that make such a point not to look at you that you are very aware that they are making a point not to look at you. (There is a certain breed of expats in Japan who have adopted the xenophobia of right-wing Japanese and pretend to be Japanese at all costs.)
  • Road construction crews and the guy whose only job is to wave people through with a flashlight.
  • Oppressive cuteness.
  • Trains so overcrowded at rush hour that people have to be squished into the car by white-gloved train attendants.
  • Convenience stores on nearly every block. There must be a law that states there have to be at least 10 convenience stores in one square kilometer around any major station.
  • The little animation of women on ATM and train-ticket machines that bow to you after you make your transaction.
  • Annoying department store music that repeats itself over and over again.
  • The knee-high boots and short-skirts fashion in the winter — a personal favorite of mine.
    Passengers pack themselves in
  • September 18, 2006 Posted by | Bill Murray, Blogroll, Goth Girls, Harajuku, japan, Lost in Translation, media, Scarlett Johansson, sofia coppola, tokyo, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

    The Drums of Tohoku – the Sansa Odori Festival

    Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival rolls out the Drums

    A Devil’s Flight – A City’s Delight


    Young Girls Give a Drum Demonstration before the Station

    Tohoku – the northern region of mainland Japan – likes its summer festivals (matsuri). The whole area in the first week of August seems to erupt with big and grandiose festivals – each one apparently trying to outdo each other in extravagance. It’s like a keeping up with the Joneses (or the Tanakas) affair with each city vying for attention and visitors.


    Traditional Sansa Odori Dancer

    For visitors to Tohoku in August, they have their pick of festivals to attend. With a bit of luck and transportation fiddling, they can almost do all of them or at least a good number.


    One of the 600 Flute Players of Sansa Odori

    Morioka’s Sansa Odori Festival has some stiff competition from Aomori’s famous Nebuta Matsuri with its gigantic floats to the North, Akita’s Kanto Festival with its tall, tall lantern poles to the west, and Sendai’s colorful Tanabata Festival to the south. Even many Japanese are not familiar with the Sansa Odori but the festival boasts a procession of 20,000 participants in colorful robes, 5,000 drums, and 600 flutes. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.

    Power Rangers on Parade

    Morioka is the capital of the Iwate Prefecture and was founded in 1597. It was a castle town administrated by the Nambu clan during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The origin of name of Iwate and the Sansa Odori are linked to the same legendary event.

    Sometime in the distant past, a devil terrorized the area around Morioka. The people prayed to a local god for deliverance. The god answered their prayers and defeated the devil. He made the devil swear never to bother the people of the region again. As a sign of his pledge, the god had the devil place his hand upon one of three stones. The handprint remained and the name Iwate was born which means “stone-hand.”

    The people were so relieved that they put on a festival – the Sansa Odori – to celebrate the devil’s departure. Sansa Odori is held throughout the first week of August. During the day near the train station several dance demonstrations are held. In the evening a long procession is made involving 20,000 people in various colorful attire. Some are dancing, others are playing the flute, but the largest contingent is the drummers.

    The drummers carry a miniature taiko drum on their chest with the drum heads facing left and right. The drummers range in ages from grandmothers to toddlers. One would fear that the noise of all these drums would make a horrendous un-rhythmic catastrophe of music. Fortunately, the procession had a pleasant rhythm that was unbroken and quite catchy.

    The participants chant “Sansa! Sansa!” and something like “Sakkora Cholwa Yasse” which most Japanese can’t even understand. The phrase the participants chant is a linguistic soup mix of the local dialect and old Japanese with a bit of Emishi for flavoring. The Emishi were the original inhabitants of the Iwate area before they were absorbed after much effort a thousand years ago.

    I was passing through Iwate on my way to Aomori and the Nebuta Festival. I knew nothing about the Sansa Odori when I arrive in Morioka. When I saw pretty young girls in flowing dresses near the station, I thought to myself that this bore further investigation. I was not disappointed.

    In the evening I watched a two hour long parade of drumming, dancing, and fluting(?). Along with the pretty girls, I saw a number of unique displays of individuality in the shape of Power Rangers, walking vegetables, a group of monkeys that seemed to have materialized from some drug-induced nightmare, and some very unconvincing drag queens.

    She’s not a natural blonde but she drums well

    I heard from witnesses that the Sansa Odori in the past was more uniform in appearance but is now evolving (some say de-evolving) as Japanese society itself changes with the times.


    A disturbing Monkey – what nightmares are made of

    Sociology aside, Morioka’s Sansa Odori is a worthy addition to anyone’s festival schedule while they are in Tohoku in August.

    August 18, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, dance, devils, entertainment, festival, folklore, iwate, japan, matsuri, morioka, oni, sansa odori, tohoku, travel, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

    YABUSAME: Japanese horseback archery


    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

    Japanese Snow Monkeys Enjoy a Warm Dip to fight Winter’s Chill

    Generally when one thinks of monkeys and their environment, one imagines tropical jungles, not snowy hills. This is what makes the native Japanese monkey, the macaque or “snow monkey,” so unique. The Japanese macaque is the only species of monkey that lives as far north as it does. Macaques can be found in several places in Japan in environments raging from subtropical to sub-alpine. The northernmost group of Japanese macaque grow thick furry coats in winter.

    Japanese Macaques have thick winter coats

    In the 1970s Life magazine first featured the Japanese macaque monkey enjoying a wintry dip in a hot springs near Nagano. Thus was born the international fame of the so-called “snow monkeys” of Japan. With their thick fur coats, almost human-like faces, and their deep, soulful eyes, the snow monkeys quickly won the hearts of people worldwide.

    Playing in the snow

    Macaques grow to 79 to 95 cm (2 to 4 feet) and weigh 10 to 14 kg (20 to 60 pounds). The males are generally larger than the females, but females outnumber the males in their social groups. Macaques live about 30 years and reach adulthood around 3 or 5.

    DO NOT stare into thoughtful eyes
    Monkey and visitor exchange glances

    Although the snow monkeys possess such wonderful and thoughtful eyes, visitors should NOT stare directly into them. Staring is seen as an act of an aggression and a visitor looking to commune with the spirits of nature may suddenly find their nose communing with the sharp teeth of an enraged snow monkey.

    Macaque groups, called troops, have a strict hierarchy. An older male monkey with several male helpers rules a troop, deciding on where and when to migrate, as well as providing protection from other troops. Troops are composed of males and females of various ranks.

    Enjoying a Massage at the Onsen (Hot Spring)

    Males will move from troop to troop, but females will stay in their troop their whole life. Female rank is very important, as their babies will retain the hierarchical rank of their mother. Troops leaders have sometimes received their status due primarily to the position of their mother within the troop.

    Photographers swarming to get pictures of oblivious bathing monkeys

    Macaques are known to transmit acquired knowledge to each other. Scientists observed a female macaque washing a sweet potato before eating it. She was the first one to be observed doing this behavior. Soon after, the rest of her troop began washing their sweet potatoes before eating them.

    This behavior then apparently spread rapidly through all macaque groups in Japan. This phenomenon led to the Hundredth Monkey Meme that after a certain number of monkeys learn new behavior this behavior somehow will spread throughout monkey-kind. It was also believed this that theory explains how ideas are spread in human societies. The theory, though discredited, persists, particularly among New Agers.

    Baby monkey enjoying a bath

    Monkeys hold a special place in Japanese religion and folklore. In native Shintoism monkeys are seen as the messengers of river and certain mountain gods. With the influx of Buddhism and Chinese culture, in which monkeys also had an important place, monkeys flourished, and their legends spead accordingly. Monkeys became demon-quellers and the protective spirits for childbirth and for warding off evil. The famous “hear, speak, and see no evil” monkeys are believed to have originated at the Tendai Shinto Buddhist complex on Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto.

    The Monkey and the Jellyfish
    How a Clever Monkey Saved His Liver
    A Thoughtful Monkey and Gullible Jellyfish

    Japanese Monkey Tales often exalt the cleverness and resourcefulness of monkeys. One of the most popular stories about monkeys in Japan is the story of the monkey and the jellyfish. A long, long time ago the great Sea King’s wife was sick and for some reason the only thing that would cure her was a monkey’s liver.

    Since monkeys lived on land and fish is the sea, it seemed a hopeless task to procure one. However, one marine creature was the obvious choice for such a quest – the jellyfish. With its strong bones and hard shell, the jellyfish was well-suited to go onto the land and seek out a monkey. The jellyfish soon found a curious monkey to whom it impressed with its description of the Sea King’s Palace. The jellyfish offered the monkey passage to the wondrous realm of the Sea King upon its hard shell.

    The eager monkey agreed and off they went. Along the way, the monkey grew concerned about the nature of their conversation which seemed revolve around livers particularly his own. The jellyfish eventually went too far and let slip the purpose its visit. The monkey was naturally alarmed as anyone would be if they found themselves in the middle of the ocean on the back of a jellyfish’s shell and discovering that their liver was to be the guest of honor rather than themselves.

    But with cleverness being his birthright, the monkey hid his fear and began to lament. He told the jellyfish that in his haste to go to the Sea King’s Palace, he had unfortunately left his liver hanging in a tree which of course is what all monkeys do when they go climbing. The jellyfish not being the smartest of Scyphozoans believed him and rushed back to land with his liver-less monkey. When they reached land, the monkey leaped into the trees and instead of monkey liver, the gullible jellyfish received only monkey laughter. The Sea King was noticeably put out when he heard the quaking jellyfish’s report. He ordered the bones of the jellyfish to be removed and its shell to beaten to a pulp. And today the jellyfish and its descendants float about boneless and shell-less while giving monkeys a wide berth.

    In areas like Nagano, where snowfall can reach record depths, the macaques seeking respite from the cold head for hot spring areas. North of Nagano city is the hot spring area of Yudanaka, which is popular with humans and simians alike. In the early 1960s a female macaque arrived here and found the hot springs to her liking, and others soon followed. A park was later created in the area where monkeys and their distant cousins humans could mingle.

    A Dignified Snow Monkey enjoys his bath with admirable restraint

    Although the Monkey Park goes by the ominous-sounding name “Hell’s Valley” (Jigokudani), the monkeys seem unperturbed by it as they play and bathe with reckless abandon. To them, Hell’s Valley is simply heaven. At the entrance to the park is a hot spring center for humans, where they can share a bath with monkeys if they so desire. There are two outdoor baths that adventurous monkeys will wander down to in order to observe the bathing rituals of humans. For those who might be put off by monkeys gawking at them, there are indoor baths as well.

    The macaques of Japan number between 35,000 to 50,000. Due to destruction of their habitats and shootings by farmers, the macaque population has declined, and they are now on the endangered species list. Those wanting to learn more about Japanese snow monkeys and watching them live can check the following website:

    Onsen bath complete with Snow Monkey Companion
    Getting there
    Snowy path and a snow monkey face carved in snow

    Getting to the monkeys requires a bit of time if one is not staying in Yudanaka itself. From Nagano City, take the Nagano Dentetsu train to Yudanaka. It takes about an hour or so. From Yudanaka station take a 15 minute bus ride to Kanbayashi Onsen. Go up the hill and follow the signs to the beginning of the trail. It’s a 30-minute walk along a narrow trail. In winter, the trail is covered in snow so one must be careful of slipping and from falling patches of snow from evergreen branches. /

    August 6, 2006 Posted by | animals, Blogroll, cute, japan, jigokudani, macaque, monkey, nagano, snow monkey, travel, Uncategorized, yudanaka | 6 Comments

    Remembering the Scandals of the 90s or why I lost respect for the Media

    A look back at the newsworthy items that American media pumped out to the masses
    Coming from America, a country that is at one point news-obsessed with countless news programs on TV, newspapers, and magazines available and yet at the same time often oddly unaware of what is going on in the world, I’m used to having the news media giants dictate what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Prior to the 90s, I had little reason to question the media’s competency and objectivity. The media still seemed to possess some element of aloof professionalism. Of course, I was horribly young at the time and easily influenced.It had to be the Buttifuco scandal in the early 90s that first shook my faith in the professional media. A New England tart decided her boyfriend, a man twice her age, was worth keeping to the point of shooting his wife point blank in the head. Her aim was not as true as her love apparently as the wife survived as the story hit nationwide. For some reason this was worthy of national news. But it wasn’t just one blurb on the nightly news – spoken and soon forgotten – it became an obsession of the nation fueled by numerous follow-up reports.

    Amy Fisher’s Mugshot
    2006 Wikipedia

    Shortly after came the infamous Bobbitt case where a young wife tired of her husband’s cheating ways, decided to releive him of his pride and joy while he slept. The conscequences of her actions rode a slurpee cup to the operation room and into the living rooms of millions of Americans. What should have been tabloid fodder became food for thought for the professional media to ponder over.

    John Wayne Bobbitt briefly became an Adult Film Star after his brush with a kitchen knife
    2006 Wikipedia

    When that began to die off yet another scandal arose – the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding Olympic figure ice skating fiasco where Ms. Harding had decided to even the odds in her favor with a crowbar to Kerrigan’s legs. This newsworthy item dragged on to its bitter end with Ms. Harding crying pitifully to the judges over a skate whose lacing had come undone.

    Tonya Harding cries over loose laces as many Americans shake heads in disgust
    2006 Wikipedia

    Then came the be-all grandest scandal that shook the media world to its knees. Not Somalia, not the Yugoslavia War, it was the (cue trumpets and drums) the OJ Simpson scandal – undoubtably the grandest of all scandals that dragged on and on and on and on like some B-grade horror monster that refuses to die no matter what.

    When OJ Simpson’s white ford bronco hit the LA streets one warm summer evening, media moguls must have shed a tear of gratitude as their fingers speed-dialed their news offices.

    OJ Simpson’s white Ford Bronco leads the LAPD on a slow chase
    2006 internet

    By that time I had reached a point of utter disgust and distrust of the so-called professional media. Gone seemed to be the days of the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. “This is what the public wants!” was often the defense for the coverage of these stories. Perhaps, but is it what the public needs from the professional media? Let the tabloids print the tabloids.

    The Jerry Springer Show
    The True Media Circus without the Pretension
    The Ringmaster: Jerry Springer

    For the astute followers of American pop-culture, they are no doubt aware that the controversial talk show: “The Springer Show,” came about in the midst of these scandals. The Springer Show hosted by former mayor of Cinnicinata, Jerry Springer, allowed trailer trash, ghetto garbage, flashing exhibitionists and theirl like to debate their differences, ie swing fists and chairs at one another while the audience chanted “Jerry! Jerry!”

    Jerry Springer gave the public what it wanted but he never made the pretense that his show was anything other than a type of public circus. In the face of critics, he has even said his show is dumb. Therein, I think, lies the difference between his show and the professional media especially in regards to their coverage of similar topics. / David M Weber

    The icing on the proverbial cake had to be the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair that followed in the wake of the OJ trial. The theater of the absurd was in full swing as an American President was nearly impeached over a completely overblown non-issue. And the professional media was there to discuss the finer details of Presidential deposits on intern dresses.

    Monica Lewinsky gets a hug from President Clinton
    2006 Wikipedia

    Finally at the end of a long decade of tabloid scandals which were given more media attention than was possibly needed, came the debacle of the 2000 Presidential election coverage. Here was an actual newsworthy event and they bungled it royally. Before all the votes were in, FoxNews declared current President Bush the winner. Many of the other media sources fell in line save a brave few. This premature call just caused more confusion in the months that followed as the results were being sorted out.

    6 years, two wars, and thousands of dead later, one wonders how different the world might have been if the professional media had just done its job and not jumped the gun so quickly.

    For these reasons whenever criticism is leveled at citizen journalism, I just roll my eyes and think just how objective and professional the professional media has been in my country over the last 15 years or so as they chased one tabloid story after another. Thanks to such indepth coverage, Americans knew more about the dresses the prosecutor wore at OJ Simpson’s murder trial than they did about Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

    August 6, 2006 Posted by | 1990s, Amy Fisher, Blogroll, Bobbit, Clinton, media, Monica Lewinsky, OJ Simpson, politics, scandals, Tonya Harding, TV, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

    Saga of a Ronin English Teacher in Japan

    Ronin Dave contemplates his employment options.

    Finding a teaching job in Tokyo isn’t always as easy as one would think. Though there is a plethora of English schools available, not all of them are very good to work for. Some offer low wages, long hours, little vacation time, and a host of hidden responsibilities they expect to be taken on. Then there’s the matter of financial stability. English schools come and go, sometimes with very little warning to their employees.

    One of the more infamous cases of a school closing virtually overnight was Howdy English. Teachers arrived one morning to discover their school closed and locked. The owner, it appeared, had absconded to France still owing her employees their last month’s wages.

    Some schools go out with scarcely a whimper as my first company did.

    I had arrived in mid-December, which was not exactly the best time to go looking for teaching work. I had originally planned to come to Japan in September, but this was in 2001 so naturally I had to delay my departure. The money I had saved up dwindled over the next three months until finally I decided it was now or never, and departed to Japan without much of a plan or savings.

    From the get-go my finances were tight. It’s often advised that someone coming to live in Tokyo should bring anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to live on till their first paycheck. I showed up with less than half of the minimum amount advised to bring. This was not a good thing, for with some companies it can take from six weeks to two months to receive a first paycheck.

    Instant oatmeal packets from home kept me alive the first week as I scoured the Internet and papers for employment. Pickings were slim and employers were picky. One attempt ended in shambles because I did not have enough experience and I was an hour late for the interview. I kept getting lost in the labyrinth of Tokyo’s metro, which cost me other potential jobs.

    For some bizarre reason I was hesitant to go with the big companies like Nova, Berlitz, or ECC. I think I was going through an anti-big-business phase at the time. I wanted to have more independence and say-so in a company’s direction — which would have been impossible with a large factory-like English-school business.

    I was out of my mind. I soon learned that a timely and financially secure monthly paycheck far outweighs any advantage independence has.

    I finally got one interview with a small company that was easy to get to, though it was an hour outside of Tokyo. The company was English Square. It was a new company recently split off from another new company. English Square was the brain child of Canadian Adam Cantrememberhislastname. His Japanese partner was someone called Ashida, who provided the financial backing.

    They offered 250,000 yen per month, the low-standard monthly wage for English teachers in Tokyo. Many teachers would not accept this wage as Tokyo is an expensive place to live. Since I was in desperate straits I jumped on it like a beggar on a moldy crust of bread. What had attracted me was their promise of profit-sharing. I failed to realize at the time though, you have to have profit in order to share it.

    Over the next few months, my hopes for fruitful employment rapidly declined until it plunged into dark despair eased only by cheap beer and bitching sessions with the other employees of the company — which happened to be only one, Ivan Campbell.

    Ronin Ivan

    Toward the end of this “learning” experience, I was inspired by my suffering, like all writers are, and wrote the following account:

    In the time that I have been in Tokyo, I’ve squandered my time in various ways: starving, jumping the gates at train stations, teaching the spawns of Satan, learning the deadly arts of chopsticks, pursuing a black belt in tea, and working for a good company.All right, I’m lying, except for the starving, jumping, teaching, chopsticks, tea part; the rest is lies.I’ve been teaching English to children from ages three to 10, or at least trying to do so. Ah, children! They’re not just our hope and future, they’re also gaseous balls of snot and flatulence filled with demonic energy out to leech the very life from our bones. No, seriously, this experience has taught me to love kids, especially in lemon and butter sauce. Accompanied with a light Chianti, they can’t be beat.

    As for my company, well, it started off as a good idea with lots of hope and grandiose dreams but it ended suffering from a terminal dose of reality. Originally, the plan (or what passed for a plan) was that every month they would hire more teachers and open more schools and just keep expanding with the hordes of students they expected to pull in through word-of-mouth advertising.

    They figured in seven months they would be in Osaka. At the rate we were going (since I represented 50 percent of the workforce), we’d have been lucky to be across the street by next year.

    My company seemed to be lacking in certain crucial business essentials: brains, customers, my pay, and anything resembling an actual working plan. What pay I did get was late and taxed to bits, including the transportation reimbursement. This is what I get for a joining a new start-up company.

    At the beginning of this fiasco, before it became apparent that it was a fiasco, back when I naively still had hope and the dignity to pay full fare on the train, I thought, “Hey, this would be a good company to be with from the ground floor.” Unfortunately they pushed the wrong button and it ended up in the basement where it caught on fire and burned down the whole building.

    If my company was a racehorse, it would be a sleek, massively impressive horse that people would bet their unborn children on. When the starting gates opened, it would burst from them and tear down the track like a bolt of lighting, then drop stone dead after an impressive 20 feet.

    As one who put his future on this horse, namely, the hope to be able to buy food in order to ensure my future, I would have a strong word with the owner and the manager of this ex-horse. But they have been too busy working other jobs trying to come up with the cash in order to bury their dead horse.

    Our company finally just folded quickly and quietly in the night, still owing me the last month’s pay. Fortunately, I know where my boss lives so the ever-imminent threat of my burning his house down is motivation enough for him to pay up when he has the money.

    So now I’m a Ronin English Teacher in Japan looking to sell my services to the highest bidder, or any bidder for that matter. As I sharpen my skills I look over the necessary tools I will need for specific clients. For the business man, I have my blazer and tie. For the housewife and office lady, I have my wit, charm and my baby-blue eyes. For children, I have my squishy ball and my patience.

    Now am I prepared to go forth and walk the ronin path.

    I walked the ronin, or “masterless samurai,” path for several months. To get by, I did a number of substitute teaching jobs for different companies and one intensive course where I screamed at Japanese students near Mount Fuji. I even did TV extra work where I was paid $30 a show to be part of a foreign audience whose job was to cheer on a Japanese pop star as he struggled to say a few lines in English.

    I never did get my last month’s pay from English Square. Adam mysteriously disappeared a month before the company folded. Ashida kept making excuses for his absence. To this day I wonder if Adam fled back home to Canada or if in a fit of rage Ashida did him in.

    Our interview suits

    I did get three good things out of English Square: 1) a working visa, which helped me acquire work during my ronin phase ; 2) a good friend — Ivan, the other 50 percent of the work force; and 3) a valuable lesson in avoiding start-up English schools.

    Ivan ended up with an apartment way outside of Tokyo in order to be closer to work he thought he would get from English Square. He currently works in the center of Tokyo and has an hour-and-a-half commute each way. Ivan didn’t despair of the long commute, however, and he has just now finished over 400 books, which he read while on the train.

    Eventually, I overcame my big-business phobia and got a job with one of the big schools. Sure, I became a slave to the system, but I became a paid slave with a secure paycheck.

    Three years later, with an actual bank account with actual money in it, I haven’t regretted that decision. My ronin days are (for now at least) behind me.

    Ronin were samurai without a master. During the Warring States Period (1467-1615), ronin could always sell their swords to new masters but in the Edo Period (1615-1867) their existence was rough.Some became wandering swordsmasters like the famous Miyamoto Musashi and teachers of martial arts. Others became little better than bandits. Ronin were both admired and scorned by society for their free way of life.

    July 23, 2006 Posted by | Blogroll, english teacher, english teaching, japan, job searching, ronin, samurai, tokyo, travel, Uncategorized, work | 6 Comments

    Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance 2006

    The Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance
    The spring dances of Kyoto offer a rare glimpse of Geisha performances

    A young Maiko (Geisha Apprentice) performing in the Kamogawa Odori

    True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto’s elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall.

    Spring dances are traditional events held every year to celebrate the ending of winter. Most of the year, the general public only has the chance to occasionally spy geisha as they scurry along the streets of Gion and Pontocho to their assignments. These spring dances represent a chance for the public to see the geisha in all their glory performing ancient traditional dances.

    Before the performance guests may observe a tea ceremony

    The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s few remaining geisha districts, the most famous being Gion. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872.

    The Kamogawa Odori is perhaps the most famous of the spring dances. It has certainly attained international attention attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau.

    Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories. The first performance was a love story set in Kyoto sometime in the distant past.

    The young ladies fight over the “handsome” fan maker

    The story revolves around Kasumimura, a young handsome man (played by a geisha) who makes fans. He is quite popular with the ladies, but his heart is set on only one girl, Akane, to whom he proposes marriage. One of his highborn clients is not satisfied to let him go so easily.

    The noble lady lures the handsome Kasumimura to her residence with the promise of work. She wants a special fan made with a portrait of herself drawn upon it. As he follows the noble lady’s carriage to her abode, the weather suddenly becomes colder and snow flakes begin to fall ominously.

    The noble lady reveals to Kasumimura that she is the dreaded Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit. Yuki-Onna offers her love, but Kasumimura bravely declines. Yuki-Onna’s love, however, is not easily cast aside. Her loves freezes the hapless fan maker.

    Yuki Onna: the Snow Woman

    The deadly but beautiful Yuki-Onna

    Yuki-Onna, the snow woman, is winter manifested in a deadly, ghostly form. She is depicted as all white with long black hair wearing a white kimono — beautiful but deadly like winter itself. And like winter, Yuki-Onna was cruel and ruthless in killing unlucky souls caught in her icy realm. She was particularly known for killing mortals by either breathing upon them with her icy breath or simply leading them astray so they would die of exposure.

    Yuki-Onna is best remembered from author Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, a collection of various strange and ghostly tales. She attacks two men in a lone hut in the wilderness but spares one because of his youth and good looks.

    His fiance, Akane, comes and rescues him. Through the strength of her love, Akane is able to defeat Yuki-Onna and revive Kasumimura. Yuki-Onna, heartbroken, weeps warm tears and melts away as winter slowly comes to an end.

    Akane and Yuki-Onna fight over Kasumimura’s love

    The fan maker and his brave fiance return and spring comes to Kyoto. Here again is a vibrant echo from that ancient theme of the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, stories were told about the goddess Ishtar visiting the underworld to free her love and subsequently end winter.

    Kasumimura returns as Springs begins

    The second half of the performance was a series of dances representing a selection from the 11th century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. At the beginning of her book, Sei Shonagon, an imperial court lady, wrote about the four seasons and the times of day of each season that she enjoyed the most.

    Sei Shonagon: Observant and Opinionated Court Lady

    Curtain representing the seasons

    Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial Court in the beginning of the 11th Century. She kept a personal diary of sorts in which she wrote down her experiences but mainly her feelings. Such diaries were common at the time and were called pillow books because these books were often kept next to people’s pillows in which they would write their experiences and observations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives an invaluable insight into the world of the Imperial Court of Kyoto a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon’s observations are witty, wry, poignant, and at times condescending. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary – however, not a friend – of the famed novelist Murasaki Shikibu who wrote The Tale of the Genji.

    Young maiko dance in kimonos the color of cherry blossoms

    In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

    A Geisha dancer representing summer nights

    In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as fireflies flit to and fro…

    Autumn evenings

    In autumn the evenings … when the sun sets, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

    A Geisha plays as a servant working on a winter morning

    In winter the early mornings — the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal; how well this fits the season’s mood!

    The Kamogawa Odori is held every May. For those who wish to see authentic geisha performances, the Kamogawa Odori shouldn’t be missed.

    The Finale

    July 23, 2006 Posted by | dance, Geiko, geisha, Gion, japan, kamogawa odori, Kyoto, maiko, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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    July 23, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments