Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Visit to Dracula’s Tomb

A Visit to Dracula’s Tomb
Vlad Tepes – the original Dracula

Romania is a beautiful country. I had plenty of time to admire it since it takes forever to get anywhere in that country. In the land of Dracula, it’s not vampires that one should dread but the slow transportation system. Communism’s lazy hand still lingers over the land when it comes to public transportation. In much poorer countries like Egypt you can always get something from bus, minivan, to camel to get you just about anywhere.

Enterprising Romanians are making efforts, however, to make mass public transportation more effective (note: this was in 2003). Mini-van taxis called “Maxi-Taxis” are springing up in many areas providing short-distance travel for locals and intrepid independent travelers. Still for those short on time, it might be best to go on a tour where the transportation is reliable and guaranteed.

Count Dracula – Romania’s cash cow that sucks up the tourist dollars

I just wanted to go a simple 38 kilometers from Bucharest to see the tomb of Dracula, Vlad Tepes, the notorious fifteenth century ruler of Romania. Only a few buses go there a day and they only run every two or three hours. By the time we finally reached the small village of Snagov where Vlad Tepes is buried, it was late afternoon. Our guidebook neglected to mention that the tomb and the bus stop are a few kilometers apart. We were forced to walk two or three kilometers with our heavy backpacks. I was in my usual spirits at times like this; i.e. complaining up a storm about inefficient Romanian public transportation and the laziness of travel book writers who probably never go anywhere that they write about but just read encyclopedias and make up the rest of the stuff.

Vlad Tepes’ tomb is inside a small monastery located on an island in the middle of a lake. I had to rent a boat in order to reach it. The boat rental place was closed because it was an off day, so I had to pay inflated prices – about $15 as opposed to the usual $3 – to rent a boat. What I got was a disgrace to nautical engineering. Our boat was more bathtub than boat. At least we were given proper oars and not the planks of rotten wood they had originally planned to give us.

Snagov Monastery – the resting(?) place of Dracula

I let my long-term traveling companion, Deirdre, handle the oars of our little rowboat-bathtub first as she has stronger arms than me (a fact she rarely ever brings up). I took over once we were out of sight of shore and the possible ridicule of my boating skills that might have followed had anyone seen me. After going around in three circles, I got us back on track to the island.

On the island we were met by a man whom we thought was a priest. He greeted us warmly with the grace of God then asked us for $6 photo charge. Since we had already taken pictures of the outside before he arrived, we politely declined.

Dee with one of the small children of the night

Our religious faith was further stretched when the priest then asked us for 10 Euros to enter the monastery. After making sure he meant 10 European dollars and not 10 European people, I took a good look at the monastery to see if it were worth such a price. Only slightly larger than a breadbox with an inside covered in scaffolding, I decided that 10 Euros for the monastery was a wee bit too high of price to pay especially considering how the normal price was less than one Euro.

I was besides myself in anger and despair. I had really wanted to come here and was willing to make any sacrifice necessary to do so. Prior to coming to Romania, I became obsessed with Dracula. I wanted to visit all of the places associated with the historical Dracula – Vlad Tepes – and Snagov being reputedly his final resting place was naturally on my list.

Dee, Drac, and Dave

Despite the lack of transportation to Snagov, I had been willing to submit to an inconvenient bus schedule. I really had no plans on how to leave Snagov either save hitchhiking. I had dragged Deirdre along with me who could have cared less about an old dusty tomb then I marched us both to the shore with our heavy packs. I let myself get ripped off on the bathtub boat which I rowed with less ease then I’d like to admit. Now near the end of a trying day with my goal in sight I had a crooked priest trying to rip me off.

I numbly handed over 5 Euro note but I hesitated on pulling out the rest. I didn’t have much cash on me and I still had to get us out of Snagov somehow and find a hotel for the night. Deirdre pulled the note from the greedy priest’s hand and gave it back to me. Suddenly I realized that despite all the hardships it took to get here, somehow it wasn’t worth it. A slight inflation of the price I might have accepted or even been willing to offer but this priest pushed too far and even my Dracula obsession couldn’t overcome my indignation and my overall cheapness.

The priest understood our spiritual plight and told us in the most polite way to get off the island. He had some flunky with him who spoke a little English but he didn’t speak very much except to make sexist comments about Deirdre and laugh at us like one of those villainous sidekicks that aren’t too bright and just laugh at whatever their bosses say even if it isn’t funny.

Taking our boat back into the water resulted in a comedy of errors. I was so angry at the priest and the cackling village idiot that I couldn’t control that stupid bathtub of a boat we were in. The boat kept going around and around in circles as Deirdre traded insults with the two gentlemen. I became so angry at one point that I stood up in the boat and told the two quite loudly that they should engage in Biblical relations with themselves. A wicked enraged thought passed quickly through my mind that I should moon the pair. I have no idea know why this particular desperate, depraved action came to mind. I hadn’t mooned anyone since junior high.

I brought down my zipper and was about to execute an about-face to unbutton my pants and release their cargo when suddenly I realized such an action would probably capsize the boat. I would have rather drowned than be rescued by those jerks so I sat back down and tried to row again. Eventually I got us away.

Me and Vlad

Overall the experience was a Pyrrhic Victory. The scheming duo didn’t get any money from us and we got our pictures but we didn’t see the tomb. They, in turn, got to laugh at something for a while and thereby were able to relieve themselves for a few moments of the tedious boredom they must apparently suffer from. So we were both winners and losers in this sad affair though I still relish the idea of tipping the scales in my favor by slipping back to that island one day and burning down their houses.

The irony of the situation is that these two tried to rip us off in seeing the tomb of a man who was known for his fierce policy of honesty. With long, sharp, pointy sticks, Vlad Tepes used to treat the prostrate glands of dishonest merchants who had the cheek to cheat and overcharge their customers. Had Vlad been around today, that so-called priest and his flunky would have quickly gotten acquainted to splinters in the most embarrassing of places.

Vlad Tepes was a cruel man living in cruel times. The name Dracula was a title meaning “son of the Dragon” which was in reference to the fact that both he and his father belonged to an association of royal knights called the “Order of the Dragon.” In Romanian, Dracula has a double meaning which is “son of the Devil.” Enemies of Vlad Tepes began to use this meaning implying that he was the “son of the Devil” because as prince, Vlad was one mean son of a bitch. This double meaning is what inspired Bram Stoker to choose the name Dracula for his vampiric villain.

Vlad Tepes was a Prince of the Romanian province Wallachia and Lord of Transylvania. His realm was bedeviled by thieves, plotting nobles, corrupt merchants, and Turks – yet it was blissfully free of vampires. Vlad’s solution to the majority of these problems was impalement. Tepes was another title given to him (though probably never mentioned to his face) which means: “the Impaler.”

Vlad Tepes ruthlessly cleaned out the thieves and bandits of his territory to such an extent that according to legend, he was able to leave a golden cup outdoors in the center of his capital of Targoviste and none would dare steal it. Anyone caught stealing knew they would end up at the top of a long stake.

Vlad dines amongst the impaled

Impalement was an awful way to die in a time when there were many awful ways to die but dammit! I can’t think of nicer bunch of bastards who deserve it more.

I don’t think of these two as representative of Romanian people. Such experiences are not common place in Romania but, as with anywhere you go, there is bound to be some scheming fellows who will try to earn an extra buck or euro or bean or whatever the local currency is, off of the tourists. That they were Romanian has little to do with my dislike of them or my desire to set fire to their homes. That they were bastards trying to rip me off had everything to do with my dislike of them and my desire to set fire to their homes.

The rest of my time in Romania was great even with the slow transportation. Romania is incredible country filled with fascinating sites from crumbling Gothic castles to fortified churches and painted monasteries. I love traditional Romanian food and culture. As for the Romanians, they are quite friendly, honest, and very helpful, but it seems as with those two on the island that Vlad didn’t impale all the bad apples when he had the chance.

Vlad gets a kiss from Dee

October 29, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, Dracula, halloween, Romania, Snagov, travel, vampire, Vlad Tepes | 5 Comments

The Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Train 2006 Movie (kind of)

The Roving Ronin Report Presents the Full-Length Feature (7 1/2 mins) of:

The Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Train 2006

I finally got around to making a more indepth follow-up to my early Yamanote Halloween Train videos.I have more commentary from myself and from participants including one who confirms the existence of the Halloween Train event going back to 1990. It also contains a brief message to a pair of Tokyo-living Wikipedia users who last year did everything they could to get an article on the event deleted because they never heard of it.Also for some of the critics who decry the event as just crazy gaijin taking over the train, you’ll note that nearly half the people in this video are Japanese.And here’s last year’s montage video slightly modified with an opening sequence.

October 26, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, cosplay, costumes, drinking, entertainment, event, festival, halloween, japan, life, party, tokyo, travel, vampire, video, yamanote halloween train, Yamanote Train | 3 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


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 | 16 Comments