Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Kyoto’s Jidai Matsuri – Festival of Ages Part 1

Kyoto Celebrates History with Festival Parade
Japan’s Imperial city on full display during ‘Jidai Matsuri’

An Imperial Princess with two attendants from yesteryear

Every year on Oct. 22, the city of Kyoto celebrates its long history with the Jidai Matsuri — “Festival of the Ages” — a long procession of participants dressed in the various fashions of Japanese history. The festival was created in 1895 to mark the 1,100 anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as Japan’s imperial capital.

On Oct. 22, 794, Emperor Kammu decided to relocate the imperial capital to what is today modern Kyoto. The imperial capital used to be 30 miles to the east in Nara, a city brimming with powerful, politically scheming Buddhist institutes. While the capital was in Nara (710-794) a certain amorous Buddhist priest nearly got himself named emperor by a lovesick empress. She died, however, before he could make his dream a reality and all the priest received was a swift banishment for his efforts. This incident and the strong influence of the Buddhist Temples on the imperial court, helped to prompt the move away from Nara.

The Imperial Court remained in Kyoto until 1867 when it was relocated to Tokyo. Kyoto was crushed by the news — even today some of Kyoto’s citizens will refer to Tokyo as the “new capital” despite the fact that all of Japan had been ruled from Tokyo since the beginning of the 17th century. Still, pride in their city is unflagging and a few decades later, Kyoto was seen celebrating its long and glorious history. In 1895, the Heian Shrine was constructed, which is a 2/3 scale model of the original imperial palace. The first Jidai Matsuri marked its opening.

The Heian Shrine and the Jidai Matsuri honor the spirits of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781-806) and Emperor Komei (1847-1866), the first and last reigning emperors of Kyoto. The participants in the procession represent famous moments and people who left their mark on Kyoto, Japanese history, and culture. The costumes are historically accurate and have been painstakingly recreated using traditional methods.

The Jidai Matsuri begins at Kyoto Gosho — the old Imperial Palace — and winds its long way to Heian Shrine. There are over 3000 participants in the Jidai Matsuri and the procession lasts for two hours. It takes the participants 2.5 hours to reach their destination at the Heian Shrine.

The Jidai Matsuri follows a reverse chronological order, starting in the mid 19th century and going backward to the founding of the city a thousand years earlier.

The first participants arrive in horse-drawn carriages that would have looked right at home in Victorian London, except for the dress of their passengers. Inside the carriages sit Japanese and foreigners dressed in kimono symbolizing the opening of Japan to the world in the 19th century.

Horsedrawn carriage with Japanese and Foreign Occupants from the Meiji Period

Behind them comes the Royal Army of the Meiji Restoration which fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate government in Tokyo in order to restore the power and dignity of the Imperial Court, led by Emperor Meiji. A number of Imperial supporters actually wanted Japan to remain closed off from the world but after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it became all too apparent that Japan could not remain isolated any longer.

Meiji Troops – they fought supporters of the Tokugawa Shogunate to restore the Emperor’s power

The Edo Period (1615-1866) is represented by a delegation from the Tokugawa Shogunate paying a visit to the emperor. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, won a great battle at Sekigahara which assured his power as sole ruler of Japan. The emperor bestowed upon him the title of Shogun in 1603.

Representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Though he retired in favor of his son two years later, Tokugawa still oversaw much of the governance of the country until his death in 1616. The seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate was Edo — modern day Tokyo. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s successors and their ministers were less inclined to deal with foreign affairs and so they passed a series of edicts which basically closed Japan off from the rest of the world for almost 250 years.

Another representative of the early Edo Period is Izumo-no-Okuni (1600) who was the originator of the art of Kabuki. She was once a maiden in the service of the Izumo Shrine, one of Japan’s holiest Shinto shrines, and became famous in Kyoto for her dancing. She created the first Kabuki dance with young women dressed as samurai. The dancing was apparently too distracting for the samurai and other men that the stuffy Tokugawa Shogunate banned women from the stage as of 1629. From then on, all roles, including those of the women, would be played by men.

Izumo-no-Okuni – creator of Kabuki dance with one of her players

A large ornate oxcart represents an official visit paid to the emperor by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. Toyotomi arose to power from humble beginnings in the wartorn Sengoku (Warring States) Period. After the death of his lord, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi continued his master’s work in uniting Japan under one banner.

A colorful wagon pulled by an ox

Under Toyotomi, the tea ceremony rose in popularity amongst the samurai and later other classes. Though a creative and innovative leader, in his later days he foolishly attempted to invade China through Korea, which bogged both countries down in needless destruction and death.

Following Hideyoshi is Oda Nobunaga. His entry into Kyoto in 1569 represented the culmination of many warlords’ life dream during the Sengoku Period. To be able to march into Kyoto and proclaim to fight in the emperor’s name was the ultimate sign of warlord’s success in those turbulent times. Many had been unable to do so because they were beset upon all sides by enemies.

Oda Nobunaga and his troops entered Kyoto in 1569

In 1560, a powerful warlord, Imagawa Yoshimoto, tried to march all the way to Kyoto but was killed enroute in a surprise attack by Oda Nobunaga. Oda fought many battles to quell the warlords who would not submit to his power — he even fought against the militant Buddhist clergy. His bloody career came to an end in 1582 when he was killed by one of his own generals in a surprise attack.

The gap in years shows with the arrival of Kusunoki Masashige, which jumps the procession back over 200 years to 1330. Kusunoki was a samurai of the early 14th century and fiercely loyal to the emperor. Japan was ruled at the time by the disintegrating Shogunate government in Kamakura (one hour south of Tokyo). Emperor Go-Daigo plotted to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate, but was exiled. Kusunoki aided in the emperor’s escape and fought against Kamakura forces with skill and ingenuity.

The loyal Kusunoki Masashige

In 1333, the Kamakura Shogunate fell and Imperial power was restored, but only temporarily. Many samurai were dissatisfied with their reward for their aid and with the court noble’s high-handed attitude. One of the chief leaders at the time, Ashikaga Takauji, sided with the discontented samurai and drove Go-Daigo into exile where he set up a rival imperial court in the south which lasted several decades. Ashikaga Takauji then went on to set up a new Shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. He and his successors have been left out of the Jidai Matsuri entirely. I realized with this conspicuous absence that this “Festival of Ages” is not so much a celebration of Japanese history, but a celebration of Kyoto’s history and its emperor. Those who neglected the emperor have been left out of the procession.

However, in 2007 the gap between Oda Nobunaga and Kusunoki Masashige was finally filled with the added representation of the Shogun Ashikaga Takauji.

Ashikaga Takauji finally gets to appear in the Jidai Matsuri

As for the faithful Kusunoki Masashige, he remained loyal to Go-Daigo and died heroically in battle against Takauji’s forces in 1336. A statue of Kusunoki was erected in Tokyo nearly six centuries later to commemorate his selfless devotion.

Kusunoki Masashige’s colorfully-attired troops from the early 14th Century

Behind Kusunoki comes the Lady Shizuka, a famed Kyoto dancer of the late 12th century, who was the lover of the hero Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune. Hers is a sad story. Yoshitsune was a brilliant Genji general in the Gempei War (1180-1185) fought between the great families of the Heike and the Genji. His success, however, earned him the jealously and distrust of his half-brother, Yoritomo, the leader of the Genji. In 1185, Yoritomo forced his half-brother to flee and live like an outlaw.

Shizuka Gozen (Lady Shizuka): tragic herione of the late 12th Century

Four years later facing capture and certain execution, Yoshitsune committed suicide. Shizuka, pregnant with his child, was captured by Yoritomo. Reportedly, she danced for him and so charmed him that Yoritomo spared her life and that of her unborn child only if it was a girl. Unfortunately, the baby turned out to be a boy and was soon put to death so it would not grow to manhood and seek vengeance for its father.

Representing the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) are the Yabusame Archers. Yabusame is a Shinto ritual with military practicality. A Yabusame archer had to shoot an arrow at three targets spaced out along a track while riding a galloping horse. The first Kamakura Shogun, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, encouraged his samurai warriors to practice Yabusame to keep their skills sharp. Yoritomo set his capital in the east in Kamakura away from what he thought of as the debilitating influence of Kyoto.

Sometime after Yoritomo’s death, the position of the Shogun was usurped by his wife’s family, the Hojo, who ruled in the name of the figurehead Shogun as Regent. They established a firm government that resisted an attempt by one emperor to overthrow them (which probably reflects the absence of the Hojo in the Jidai Matsuri) and two invasions by the Mongols. They were financially weakened by their efforts to defend Japan against the Mongols. Half-a-century later, the Kamakura Shogunate was overthrown by forces loyal to the emperor.

A Yabusame Archer and his retainers


October 27, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, festival, Festival of Ages, history, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto, life, travel | , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Japanese Beer Trilogy

Here’s a trilogy of videos on Japanese beer – one on beer vending machines in Kyoto, another one on a draft beer vending machine in Tokyo, and a final one on historical beers – beers with labels of famous people in Japanese history with short bios.

This first video is from BusanKevin in Kyoto talking about the wonders of outdoor beer vending machines in Kyoto on a hot day:

In response, I did a video on a draft beer vending machine I discovered in a pool hall in Tokyo a few nights ago.

Taste was not to bad but it gave me a huge head of foam which is quite common anyway even with live servers:

background music by Super Girl Juice

Later that same night I came across some “Historalicious” Japanese beer which were beer bottles with labels depicting famous people from Japanese history. Get your drink on while learning some Japanese history with Historalicious Japanese Beer – if you can read the bloody small cursive writing on the label:

Crack open a cold one and enjoy the Japanese Beer Trilogy!

August 17, 2008 Posted by | beer, Blogroll, culture, drinking, entertainment, japan, japanese beer, japanese beer vending machine, japanese culture, japanese history, life, shinsengumi, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Video Clips of the Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance

Here are some short clips of the Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance 2006. They’re very brief as I shot them with just a digital photo camera and not a video camera.

Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance

This is from the first story of the performance about a handsome fan maker and his fiance Akane. Here, Akane, the fiance of the Fan Maker, dances.

The story also involves Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit, who loves the handsome fan maker. He refuses her love because he loves Akane and so she freezes him.

The Fan Maker is rescued by his fiance and they return to Kyoto as Spring begins.

In the second half of the performance, scenes from the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a court lady of the 10th Century. Maiko (apprentice geisha) dance to represent Spring at Dawn the favorite time for Sei Shonagon:

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.”

Two Geisha dance to represent Autumn Evenings from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book:

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.”

Geisha dance and throw treats to the audience near the Finale of the show.

April 20, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, dance, entertainment, event, Geiko, geisha, japan, japanese culture, kamogawa odori, Kyoto, life, maiko, travel, video, youtube | , , , | 1 Comment

Japanese Fire Festival on Kyoto’s Mt. Kurama

Fire on the Mountain
The Kurama-no-Himatsuri: a spectacle of fire, smoke and noise
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Buddhist priests leading the fiery procession

Visitors to Kyoto will find themselves in for quite a treat if they are in the city on Oct. 22 because two great festivals are held that day.

At noon the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) is held in central Kyoto. It’s a two-hour long procession depicting the various fashions and famous people from Kyoto’s long history. In the evening, the place to go is up to the mountain temple of Mt. Kurama to see the Kurama-no-Himatsuri — the Fire Festival.

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A Smoky Procession of Giant Torches

The whole mountaintop looks like it’s on fire from the constant stream of torch-bearing participants going to and fro from the temple. The torches range in size from simple handheld torches to gargantuan ones that require three to four people to carry.

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Torches blaze while their bearers take a break

The festival’s origins go back over a thousand years to the late 8th century when the Emperor would send torch bearers from his palace all the way up to the temple. The purpose of this ancient rite is to guide the spirits of departed souls and gods along their way through the human world by the light of pine torches.

Crowd Warning!
A tip on how to beat the long wait
user posted imageThe Kurama Fire Festival attracts a large crowd so it’s best to head up early.The Demachiyanagi Station around 5 p.m. gets extremely crowded with a huge line waiting to take the train to Kurama – 45 minutes outside of central Kyoto.The wait-time after 5 can be up to three hours. Some people opt for a taxi. Another option is to do as I did and walk 10-15 minutes to the next station and cram yourself into the next oncoming train. The return train also boasts a long line so a 15 minute walk down to the next station would be advisable.

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Priests carrying blazing pine torches light the way for roaming spirits

For the families around the temple this is a time to set out their heirlooms for display. Visitors can see suits of samurai armor, colorful folding screens, and exquisite ceramic dishes.

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Family treasures on display

The festival begins with young boys in kimonos carrying small pine torches.

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Children carrying a large torch

After them come teenage boys carrying slightly larger ones together in groups of two or three. Older boys and men dressed in loincloths, colorful half-shirts and headbands carry even larger torches.

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A smiling youngster helping carry a big torch

Then around 8 p.m. come the really big torches — measuring five to six meters in length — which sometimes requires four stout men to carry.

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Torch bearers struggle under their load

As fire and smoke fill the air, the torch bearers chant “sai-rei, sai-ryo!” which means simply “festival, good festival!” Taiko drummers help to get the festivities “fired” up with a rhythmic booming of Taiko drums accompanied by the jangling clangor of metal being beaten to a lively beat.

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“Hot” buns

Even for visitors, things can get a little hectic with all this fire about. Sometimes these large torches are turned around and visitors have to move out of the way or duck to avoid being singed by huge flames. Burning braziers on tripods dot the way along the festival route and the unwary can accidentally bump into these sending a cascade of blazing sparks all around.

The Kurama-no-Himatsuri is an exciting and lively festival with just a hint of danger to make it interesting. It’s definitely worth seeing even with the throngs of people and the smell of smoke that will cling to your clothes.

A torch burns a little too close to its bearer’s shoulder

Mt. Kurama and Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune
Exiled youth receives training from goblins


Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune and his faithful companion Benkei

The Kurama-dera temple is famous in Japanese history as the place of exile of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune (1157-1189), one of the tragic heroes of the late 12th Century. Yoshitsune’s father was a leader of a failed attempt to seize the reigns of power from the Heike family. His father was assassinated and a number of his relatives were executed. Yoshitsune was only a young boy of two during all this but the times were cruel and often young sons of enemies were killed to prevent them seeking revenge later in life.

Taira-no-Kiyomori (1118?-1180), leader of the Heike, was prevailed upon by his mother to spare the lives of Yoshitsune and his half-brother, Yoritomo, on behalf of their youth. As it turned  out, it was not the best of decisions for after Kiyomori’s death, the two half-brothers led the Genji clan in the destruction of the Heike.

Kiyomori sent Yoshitsune to Kurama-dera temple to keep him from causing trouble and with the hope he would become a peace-abiding monk. According to legend, Yoshitsune met the fabled Tengu – winged goblins with faces of crows or men with long noses — on Mt. Kurama and learned from them the fighting arts. Yoshitsune later escaped from Mt. Kurama and led the Genji to victory over the Heike.

Unfortunately, his success and popularity earned him the animosity of Yoritomo who was the supreme leader of the Genji and as well as all of Japan with the Heike’s fall. Yoshitsune was forced to flee for his life and live on the run as an outlaw for several years until, cornered at last, he committed suicide to avoid capture and execution.

March 20, 2007 Posted by | buddhism, culture, event, festival, fire festival, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, mt. kurama, travel, Yoshitsune | , , , | 6 Comments