Monday, June 30, 2008


Amaterasu. Acrylic on paper. 2006

I'm a painter as well as a mask-maker. This is my version of Amaterasu, the "Sun-Goddess", and though I use some shinto symbolism it also owes much to Changing Woman, one of the Navajo deities.

Any introductory text on Shinto will say that Amaterasu is the most important kami in Japan, but that is only true of contemporary shinto which is closely related to the emperor-centric State Shinto created in the late 19th Century.

Amaterasu is the kami that the current Imperial family claim descent from and that is why she is now pushed as the "head" kami. Before the 20th Century there were actually very few shrines dedicated to her.


The most well known myth of Amaterasu is the Iwato story wherein she hides herself in a cave and plunges the world into darkness and is later tricked into coming back out. The above shot is a scene from an Iwami Kagura performance of Iwato.

You can see a small selection of my paintings from the past 38 years here

Akaoni mask (red ogre)

akaoni (red ogre)

This is a small Red Ogre mask made in Iwami Kagura style. With its hairless face and red color it looks the most like the euroamerican devil. Like all my masks, it is for sale, so please contact me if you are interested. You might be surprised how affordable it is. Like all my masks, it is a fully functional mask, but is also used as a "gargoyle" to drive away bad spirits from a home.


In this photo you can see one of the features that distinguishes Iwami Kagura,.... the fantastically elaborate and vivid costumes.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bullfighting in Japan


This manhole cover is from the town of Tsuma on the island of Dogo, the largest of the Oki Islands which lie off the coast of Shimane. Bullfighting has been a tradition there since the early 13th Century, though Bull Sumo is probably a more accurate title. The bulls lock horns and push. The loser is the one that turns tail and runs away. There is no truth in the rumor that the loser ends up as Oki beef. The story goes that bullfighting began as an entertainment put on for Emperor Gotoba who was exiled to the Oki Islands.
Bullfighting of this style also occurs at several other places in East and South-east Asia.
There are several bullfighting rings on the island, but the Oki Moo Moo Dome is the largest and is covered so bullfighting can be enjoyed whatever the weather.


Nowadays the bulls are raised for fighting, but originally in Japan they were used as beasts of burden, in fact there was a law against killing and eating cows not because of Buddhism, but because they enabled farmers to be more productive. Nowadays Oki beef is known as being particularly tasty, probably because the cows actually get to spend time outside in the sun grazing.

More from the Oki Islands

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Typical Japanese landscape & anaguma update


This is a fairly typical shot of the Japanese landscape. I took it a couple of days ago on my trip up to Togawa. About 65% of Japan is forested mountains. In the distance you can see the roofs of Ichiyama. The lighter green down below are the rice paddies. Summer is my least favorite season in Japan, visually-speaking. Grey, green, and brown is the palette. The wet air and overhead sun makes a very monochromatic view. In the winter you have strong shadows and when there is snow, strong contrast. In the spring there are a multitude of shades of green from the new growth, and colors from the blossoms. In the fall you have blue skies, low sun making shadows, and the reds, browns, oranges and yellows of the changing leaves.


Stepped outside my front door yesterday and right in front of me were one of the local feral kittens and a juvenile badger (anaguma). They were studying each other inquisitively about 50 cms apart, no hackles raised. Unfortunately the badger ran off due to my intrusion, and all I could get was this one snap. It was not the badger I posted a video of recently , that was an adult, this was a juvenile about 30-35 cms in length. Why these usually nocturnal creatures are hanging out around my house during the day is a mystery.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


The first dance in any Iwami Kagura performance is the Shioharae, in which the dancers purify the dance space in readiness for the kami. While there are nowadays performances of kagura put on in public spaces for tourists, the home of kagura is in the shrine, and like many activities it is performed firstly for the kami.

This performance is by the Ichiyama kagura group in their home shrine of Ichiyama Hachimangu. The 4 colors worn by the dancers represent the 4 directions. Above the dancers is the tengai, a canopy of paper streamers. The kami descend through these streamers into the dancers.

Kagura dancers hold various torimono, objects through which the kami pass into the dancers. In this dance the torimono are wands and metal rattles. Other common torimono are fans and swords. The dancers create mandalas with their movements, am influence from esoteric buddhism by way of Shugendo.

The dance lasts about 40 minutes.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Togawa Omoto Shrine


One of the first walks I did to explore the area I now live in was along the Yato river. After passing the dam and walking along the bank of the reservoir, after it once again became a small river I came to the small mountain settlement of Togawa. Maybe 20 households at the most, large farmhouses and a few rice paddies, at the end of the village set in a dense grove of trees was the local shrine, the Togawa Omoto Shrine.


Omoto is the original, local land kami. Up in Izumo he is known as Kojin, and like there it is a very popular kami here in Iwami. Omoto (and Kojin) is represented by a rope snake, usually found wrapped around a sacred tree. To my mind, this is the heart of the ancient form of Japanese religion, before the advent of modern State Shinto with its emphasis on the Imperial family, and national rituals. When I go for walks I am hoping to find these kinds of shrines.


The feeling at these kinds of shrines is one of silence and the sacred. The surrounding woods are dense and dark, with shafts of sunlight penetrating to illuminate the natural, aged materials of the shrine.

2 days ago I drove the 10k up into the mountains to visit the shrine again to check on some information for this blog. I was very surprised to find that the shrine had been completely rebuilt. Building a shrine is no cheap project (unlikel so much contemporary housing in Japan). A lot of native materials and labor go into the making. My first question was, where did the money come from? There is no "direct" financial support for religion in Japan. How could such a small community get the money? Just above the village, the small local road punches its way 800m through the mountain in a brand new tunnel. I suspect that the construction of the tunnel and the road widening infringed on village property slightly, and so compensation money was made available. The amounts of money that are spent on mostly unnecessary construction of roads and tunnels in Japan is truly staggering.


While it was good to see a shrine being rebuilt or refurbished, good that the life of the spirit still plays an important part in the community, it was sad to see that the grove of trees had been cut down. The shrine is now open, and light, but something powerful has been lost.


Japanese Plants: know them and use them,

Japanese Plants: know them and use them

Betty W. Richards Anne Kaneko

Shufunotomo Co. Ltd



This book is small enough to fit into a pocket or purse, yet absolutely packed with useful information on the flora of Japan. It covers trees, flowers, bushes, grasses, vegetables, and fruits, almost everything you are likely to see anywhere in Japan. Each plant is given in its English, Japanese, and Latin names, and has a color photo.

Information on where you can see the plant, where it came from, it's life-cycle, interesting tidbits on its cultural values and history, and, most usefully, how it is used. Wild food collection is still widely practised in the rural areas of Japan, and if you are a "stalker of the wild asparagus" this little guide is indispensable.

There is enough information for it to work as a field identification guide, or simply for learning the Japanese names of plants.

Excellent little book, I can't recommend it enough!!

Monday, June 23, 2008

June harvest (part 1)


Japan is a very fertile place! It's also very wet, with a mild climate, so it's very easy to grow a lot of food. Here is a selection of what we've been getting from our gardens this month. (I already posted about Lima beans)

Compared to Europe or the U.S., potatoes are relatively expensive in Japan, and there is not a great variety. I'm a meat 'n potatoes kind of guy, so a big chunk of my garden space is given over to the mighty spud. In our village this year everybodies potatoes did not do well,.. the plants were stunted and yellow, but I still managed to harvest about 40 kilos, certainly not enough to last the year, but never fear..... one of my neighbors, a full-time farmer - a rarity in Japan- , grows lots, and as she grows them for sale she throws out any that are under 4-5 cms. Once she found out I love those tasty little spuds she now gives me about 60 kilos every spring!!! The potato was introduced into Japan about 400 years ago by the Dutch. Coming from their base in Jakarta, potatoes became known as "jagatara imo", now shortened to Jyagaimo.


Garlic was known in Japan in ancient times, being mentioned in the 7th Century Kojiki. In the Heian period it was known as a food and a medicine. At some point there was a Buddhist proscription against eating garlic and so it fell out of favor and didn't start to be eaten again till the Meiji period (late 19th Century). The Japanese palate shies away from "strong" flavors, and so it is not used a lot, mostly in Italian and French dishes. We preserve some in soy sauce, and in olive oil.


Various kinds of small onions, spring onions, green onions, etc have been grown for a long time in Japan, but the large, globular onions were not introduced until relatively late, in the Meiji period. It was introduced by Americans into Hokkaido, and the american influence on the newly colonized northern island's agriculture is easily visible today. From there it spread south. It was also introduced on a lesser scale in the Kobe area from an American living in that Treaty Port. I always plant some of our onions close together and then pick them when they are small,... perfect size for pickled onions, something not available in the stores here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Recommended Japan web resources

These are five websites that I access regularly, and for those living in Japan, or those interested in visiting, they all offer valuable information.

Japan Map

This is the complete geologic survey map of Japan. From the home page, click either of these

and you are taken to a map of Japan. Click on the map where you want to see, and again at the next level. The contour map is zoomable, and scrollable. Train stations, Post Offices, schools, shrines, temples, etc are all marked. A word of warning.... Japan is building new roads constantly, and in some cases the map has not been recently enough updated to include the changes, also many of the footpaths that are marked have fallen into disuse and no longer exist. I sometimes double-check with Google Maps, but it is still the map I print out and refer to on my walks, wether in countryside or city.

Hyperdia timetable

For finding routes and times for train journeys in Japan, this site is excellent. Not only that, but it is simplicity itself. Enter start point, destination, date, and time, and hey presto the first 5 choices are shown. It works with all the private rail lines as well as JR, and also includes connecting buses. Completely detailed with changes, waiting times, and ticket prices.

ZNET Japan

In-depth articles by many good historians and journalists that cover the issues you won't read about in Japan's banal and incredibly non-controversial media. Labor issues, Japan's international relations, Article 9 and military, historical revisionism, etc. much of this material is translated from Japanese. There is also a small set of links to other alternate media sites on Japan.

Encyclopedia of Shinto

This is a huge site, and is the complete translation of the Encyclopedia of Shinto into English. Laid out in the original chapters, the online version has added short videos and an excellent search function. If there is anything you want to know about Shinto, this is the place. I write a lot about shrines and ceremonies, and often this is the only place to find information in English. Any shinto terminology in my blogs that you aren't sure about, definitions can be found here.


This is a directory of thousands of the older, major, Shinto shrines in Japan. The opening page gives you a clickable map of Japan. Choose your area, and the left of the page is a list of shrines organized by old province names. Each shrine page has many photos, all the relevant historical information, and a map link.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Milky Way Hall (inside)

Sunday Sun8713

Going inside Milky Way Hall I was surprised to find an open central area filled with a shallow pool. Luckily a shaft of light was coming in through the buildings superstructure.

Sunday Sun8716

Designed by local architect Shin Takamatsu, Milky Way Hall is a 700-seat uaditorium and conference centre in Gotsu.

Sunday Sun8723

Sunday Sun8715

Friday, June 20, 2008

The rainy season has arrived!


The rainy season has finally arrived. It's late this year. This is the first year that I actually got everything ready in the garden for it, and then it didn't come. Like the cherry blossom season, the rainy season starts down south in Okinawa and then gradually moves north. This year it skipped over us and went straight to Kansai and Kanto.
The rainy season means high humidity. Green mold starts to grow on everything,... clothes, shoes, books,.... we even lost half our video collection to the mold. It also means it's not comfortable to go for walks, so without the garden to work in, and without walks to go on, its a time of staying inside,.. reading, writing, napping :)
Often the rainy season is no wetter than much of the rest of the year, and sometimes it's more like monsoons.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blue Oni (demon or ogre) Mask

Portrait of the photographer as mask.

This is my largest kagura mask to date. It is a blue Oni. As usual I had to experiment a little, so I changed the eyes some. The most common translation of oni is "demon", but I am less and less satisfied with that due to the association of the word demon in english with pure evil. I think a better translation of oni would be ogre. Oni can do bad things, but they can help people too.

Oni are almost always depicted as being very hairy, and one theory of their origin is that they were the original inhabitants of Japan. As the rice-growing Yayoi people started moving in to Japan around 2,300 years ago from the Asian mainland, the indigenous people were pushed up into the mountains where the rice-growing invaders did not initially go. From the mountains the "oni" would probably have raided villages for food or women.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hagi walls and natsumikan


This manhole cover is from the town of Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture. It depicts 2 of the things this popular tourist destination is famous for, old walls, and Natsumikan. The natsumikan is a type of large, bitter orange that bears fruit in the summer. You can see many natsumikan trees throughout the town, and juice and preserves from the fruit are on sale everywhere.


Large sections of Hagi have been spared redevelopment, mainly as a result of the railways line going around the town rather than through it, so some areas of the town are still laid out as they were in the Edo period. Tall earthen walls and stone walls in a multitude of forms line the streets.


Utilizing old rooftiles in walls is not uncommon. See this one in Kyoto.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Milky Way Hall (outside)

Sunday Sun8691

With its rectilinear, minimal design and windowless walls clad in blue tile, Gotsu's Milky Way Hall looks like a warehouse or factory, but is in fact a 700 seat auditoriun and conference centre that hosts concerts and other cultural events.


Opened in 1995, and designed by Shin Takamatsu, it is called Milky Way Hall because there are small lights set in the wall and at night the building displays constellations on its exterior.

Sunday Sun8689

Takamatsu is a professor at Kyoto University and was born locally at nearby Niima. He has designed many buildings in his home prefecture including Hamada Childrens Museum, and Nima Sand Museum.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Anaguma Japanese Badger

Anaguma Japanese Badger

This guy was rooting around in my back yard recently. I figured it was a tanuki, a racoon dog, but when I posted the video on another site someone pointed out that it was an Anaguma, a Japanese badger. They are quite similar animals, and Tanuki soup is quite often made with anaguma. It's the same species that is found all over Europe and Asia, Meles meles. They are found all over Japan. Anaguma are nocturnal creatures, so it was strange that it was out and about in the middle of the day. They are omnivorous, and it was rooting around one species of plant, so maybe it was going for the roots, maybe for bugs or worms. When I finally moved closer it just sauntered away nonchalantly. The name anaguma derives from 2 kanji that mean "hole", and "bear". We are visited often by creatures from the surrounding forest, usually at night. I caught a Marten going after my chickens, and there was a Civet around for a few weeks. The monkeys haven't been by in a while, though they will surely come once the persimmons ripen. Shimane gets more bear sightings than any other prefecture, but so far none have come into our village. The wild boar will probably raid the gardens once the sweet potatoes and pumpkins are getting fat, though we trapped and ate three of them last autumn, so maybe word has gotten round and they will leave us alone this year.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Omoto Shrine, Yato.


This wonderfully weathered torii stands in front of the Omoto Shrine in Yato. It's a small settlement on the banks of the Yato River, not big enough for a shop, but it has 2 shrines.
The Omoto shrine is dedicated to Omotojin who is the original, local, land kami. Up in Izumo he is called Kojin, and he was the main kami of worship for every community in the old days.


Prior to 1945 there was just a hokora (wayside shrine) here set in a grove of trees. The trees were cut down and sold and the money used to build the present shrine. Every 6 years until 1966, Omoto Kagura was performed here. My friends recently deceased grandfather danced here and 5 times became possesed by Omotojin, the most times for one person in living memory. Shamanic kagura was widespread in Japan until the Meiji era. This area of Iwami is the only place in Japan where it is still practised.


In front of the shrine stands a giant Mukonoki tree with a width of 1.5 metres. Aphananthe Aspera has no name in English. The leaves of the tree were used as sandpaper.


A few hundred meters away, the steps lead up to the Hachiman Shrine.

Modern Japanese Thought

Modern Japanese Thought
ed. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0-521-58810-3

I read books about Japan so that I can deepen my understanding of the place I live. After reading hundreds of books it gets harder to find ones that add much to what I already know, so it was a thrill to pick up and start to read this one.
The two main areas of interest for me are, pre-Yamato Japan, and the Meiji era. This book is about the latter. The bulk of the book is made up of chapters from the Cambridge History of Japan, with an introduction and a chapter on post-war Japan added. The introduction itself is excellent, and well worth the price of the book. The first chapter on Japan's turn to the West does a good job of introducing all the different strains of thought that began to influence Japan in the late Tokugawa period, and dismisses the overly simplistic notion that Japan was a "closed" country before Perry.
The second chapter on Meiji Conservatism documents the reaction of those who held power in Japan doing everything they can to resist any new ways of thinking that threatened their hold on power. The third chapter covers the chequered history of socialism, liberalism, and Marxism, in Japan, and the fourth "Japan's revolt against the West" covers the politics and philosophies that fed into the drive to colonial expansion and war. The final chapter covers the period after the end of WWII.
One thing that recurs again and again in Japan, in the late Tokugawa, early Meiji, early Showa, and Late Showa eras, in reaction to what is perceived as negative processes, is the looking back to the village, and "Folk" as the source of Japan. While reading about Yanagida Kunio, the father of Japanese follore studies, I gained a new repect for him. His views on the damage that State Shinto did to what he considered the heart of Japan is fully in accord with my own views.
If you are wanting to know why so many "western" notions, like democracy, or Human Rights, don't quite make a transition into contemporary Japan, this book will help.
Highly recommended.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Gotsu Sunset

Gotsu sunset

The skyline of Gotsu is dominated by the smokestacks and industrial structures of the cellulose factory. Snapped this a few hours ago from the car as we crossed the bridge on the way home.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Imamiya Shrine Kyoto

Imamiya Shrine Kyoto

Imamiya is a large shrine complex that was built at its present site in 1001, though established a few years earlier on top of nearby Funaoka Hill. The shrine was established to ward off one of the plagues that periodicly attacked the area. There are many sub-shrines within the grounds, but the 3 main kami are Okuninushi (sometimes called Onamuchi, sometimes Daikokuten), Kotoshironushi, and Inadahime. What is interesting is that these are all Izumo kami. Okuninushi was the Izumo leader who "gave" Japan to Amaterasu's descendants, Kotoshironushi is the Izumo version of Ebisu. There are three distinct versions of Ebisu, one for central Japan, one for northern japan, and one for western Japan. Usually in the Kyoto area they refer to Ebisu as the child of Izanami and Izanagi and hailing from nearby Awajima. Inada is the Izumo "princess" who married Susano after his defeat of the serpent Yamata no Orochi.
The architectural style of the main shrine buildings and impressive gate are 17th Century, but were reconstructed in the early 20th century.
There had earlier been a ceremony at one of the sub-shrines (Munakata-sha, I think), and the offerings (sake and various foods, sakaki branches) were still on the altar.
The area around Imamiya has a nice old atmosphere, and its not surprising that many "Samurai" dramas are filmed here. Heading south from the shrine I spied this wonderful old wall built using roof tiles.
Kyoto Accommodation

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sky beans.


Finally finished picking my Lima beans! It was a bumper crop this year,... probably more than 50 kilos. Called Sora mame in Japanese, it means "sky beans", because when the young pods first start to grow on the stems, they grow upwards towards the sky rather than hanging down.
Its not sure exactly when they were introduced into Japan, but probably around the end of the Edo period. They are quite expensive in the supermarkets because they don't stay fresh for long, and so are not particularly popular. They are usually eaten boiled or grilled. Recently at a ryokan we were served rice with a few lima beans mixed in.


I like them! Mainly because they are easy to grow, they take very little tending, and also because they grow through the winter and so supply fresh food to the table by spring.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The bridge at Aquas.


First-time visitors driving along Route 9 or passing by on the train through Hashi always point to the tower of the bridge at Aquas and ask "What is it?". From a distance the 46 metre tall curved tower doesn't look like a bridge at all. I'm not a civil engineer, but I believe it is an unusual form of cable-stayed bridge.


The curve of the tower represents a wave, and the 130m long bridge connects one of the fine, white, sandy beaches of Iwami Seaside Park with Aquas, the biggest and best aquarium in west Honshu.


The tiled surface of blues continues the theme of the sea. Built in 1996, as yet I have been unable to find out who designed it.