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.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hanya mask

This was the first Hanya mask in Iwami Kagura style that I completed. I have posted already about the meaning and history of the hanya.
My teacher is Saburo Ando, one of only a handful of master mask makers in Iwami. I think I drive him a little crazy because I have a tendency to make "unauthorized" changes. :)
My masks are fully functional as masks to be worn during Iwami Kagura, but are more commonly sold to put up in house entrance foyers where they scare off evil spirits.
Originally carved in wood, for about 100 years they have now been made of a washi (Japanese paper) base coated in a mix of lime (ground seashell) and glue. This makes them strong, but much lighter than wooden masks. It also allows for more flexibility in the form.
If you are interested in purchasing this or any other of my masks, please contact me through the address at the top-right of this page.
I can also custom make masks.

Red Hanya mask
Blue Hanya mask

Friday, June 6, 2008

Akiyoshi Town, Yamaguchi.


Not a true "manhole", but a cover to a valve, but the same design is used on the manhole covers in Akiyoshi Town, in the middle of Yamaguchi Prefecture. The design shows a view of nearby Akiyoshidai, the largest karst (limestone plateau) in Japan.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Kuga Shrine, Kyoto.


Kuga Shrine lies about 2k south of Kamigamo Shrine, just off Omiya dori. Omiya means "great shrine", and the road name refers to Kuga Shrine. Kuga enshrines the ujigami of the Kamo family. Ujigami is the clan ancestral kami. The kami is Kamotaketsunumi, one of the original kami that descended from Takamagahara (the High Plain of Heaven) to Kysushu with Jimmu, the mythical first Emperor, and then guided Jimmu to Yamato.


Kuga Shrine is a subordinate shrine of Kamigamo Shrine, and Kamotaketsunumi is the grandfather of Kamigamo's main kami. Records indicate that the shrine was already in existence in 859. The current shrine buildings were built in 1628 and are in the style of the Engi era (11th Century)

All that remains of a once mighty, sacred cedar tree.

Yamata no Orochi

The story of Susano defeating the 8-headed serpent Yamata no Orochi is the most well known kagura dance in Iwami. In a regular performance, which goes on all night through till dawn, The Orochi dance is the finale.
This performance was a collaboration between Yen Calling ( an ensemble of rock musicians led by Yukata Fukuoka) and a Hamada kagura group, there were only 2 serpents. Later I will post the complete Yamata no Orochi story illustrated with scenes from kagura, and a full blog on Yen calling.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Akiba Shrine, Nishigamo, Kyoto.


In the foothills of NW Kyoto City stands Kyoto Golf Club. Bisecting the convoluted course is a narrow valley reached by a small road that passes Shakuhachi Pond. After passing under the bridge traversed by the golf carts one comes to Akiba Shrine. Enshrined here is one of the Fire Protection deities. There are many Akiba Shrines scattered throughout Japan, the original shrine is in Shizuoka, and the Akiba cult was spread by Yamabushi, the mountain warrior monks of the shugendo religion.


The shrine is in a state of poor repair, and seems abandoned, but on closer inspection one sees that the altars in front of the small hondens have fresh offerings placed upon them.

There is also a small Inari shrine, also with fresh offerings. Probably no priests visit the shrine. Akiba (sometimes pronounced Akiha) is classified as a "folk" kami, which basically means its very popular but has nothing to do with the Imperial kami that State Shinto is based on.


Further evidence of the Shugendo connection is the small altar to Fudo Myojin, a Buddhist deity of Indian origin that was particularly revered by followers of Shugendo. The altar is at a water purification spot, the channel above brings ice-cold mountain water which falls onto the yamabushi in a form of water purification. Shugendo was outlawed by the Meiji government in their drive to create the national State religion of Shinto. It became legal again after 1945, but is now just a pale imitation of what it was.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A walk along the Yato River


The Yato River starts at about 900metres up in the mountains of the Mizuho Highlands, right where there is a small ski area. It then travels 30K until it reaches the Gonokawa River and enters it on the opposite bank to my village. One of the first walks I took when I moved to this area was along the Yato, hoping to reach the source in one day. Walking upriver I passed through Kawado, Oda, and Ichiyama. After Ichiyama the river does a couple of S-bends, and on the outside curves it is deep and still (above photo).


Next comes the small village of Yato, and a short distance after that Yato Dam. At 44metres in height, its not a huge dam. Built in 1958 its main purpose was to stop flooding downstream. It also supplies drinking water to the villages downstream and generates some hydroelectric power. Behind the dam the artificial lake stretches like 2 narrow, windy, crooked fingers. It's called Sakurai Lake as the Yato river valley has been known as Sakarai-go since the 8th Century. It's a great place to walk as the road has no traffic and the banks of the lake are uninhabited. In the winter thousands of ducks come from Siberia and settle on the lake.


As I got closer to where the "lake" ends and it becomes a river again the light of the low winter sun came streaming across and through the forest illuminating a scene of glorious fall colors. After passing through a small, sleepy village I reached a main road, and in a few kilometres it and the river turned 90 degrees and went along a long straight valley. High up in the mountains running parallel to the river runs the Hamada Expressway whose concrete purpose seems to be to bring hordes of tourists from the urban conglomeration around Hiroshima to the fine, sandy beaches of Shimane in the summer.


In the town of Ichiki stands a curiosity. A small temple lies literally underneath the expressway, and on one of the massive concrete towers that support the expressway is a relief of a giant cedar tree. Before the expressway was built there stood a giant cedar tree in the grounds of the temple. Often at shrines, and sometimes at temples one can still find these ancient giant trees, many more than 1,000 years old. This particular beauty stood directly in the path of the intended expressway, so was chopped down and memorialized in concrete. Somehow poignant and ironic.


I only made it a few more kilometres before the river turned up the mountain and became much steeper. The day was getting late, and my tired legs did not relish a steep climb, so I ended short of my hoped for destination.
One sight I saw a lot on this and most other walks I make around the countryside is abandoned houses. One often reads that Japan is a small, overcrowded country, and thats why most people live in very small concrete boxes, but that is a bit of a lie. The cities are very crowded, and most Japanese live in cities now, but the countryside is filled with thousands and thousands of big, empty houses. Problem is no-one wants to live in the countryside. Whereas in Europe and the U.S. many people want to escape the cities and live in the countryside, but can't afford to, the Japanese countryside continues to depopulate. People seem to WANT to live in the cities.

Enduring Identities. A review.

Enduring Identities: The guise of Shinto in contemporary Japan.

John K. Nelson

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0-8248-2259-5

324 pp

The Japanese religion known today as Shinto remains little understood by many visitors to Japan, and even by many Japanese. The most often used description of it as "the ancient religion of Japan" is simply inaccurate and misleading.

For anyone seeking to understand Shinto, Enduring Identities is a great place to start.

John Nelson spent a year at Kyoto's Kamigamo Jinja, one of the major shrines in the Kyoto area, and the fieldwork and interviews he did there explore the forms that Shinto takes today.

Kamigamo Jinja pre-dates Kyoto, and the book contains a lot of interesting history of the area that one normally doesn't find in the standard tourist literature, and particularly interesting is the information on the area being primarily settled by immigrants from what is now the Korean peninsular.

By interviewing many of the visitors to the shrine, as well as the parishioners, and the staff and priests, Nelson builds up a description of what Shinto is and means that is far more diverse than, and sometimes contradictory to, the commonly heard cliches. He also does an excellent job of presenting the relationship between contemporary Shinto and State Shinto, the nationalistic, militaristic cult that held sway in Japan for the first half of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the Yasukuni Shrine issue will find it informative.

There is an interesting chapter on the "sacred space" of the shrine that is useful and relevant to an understanding of how such concepts manifest themselves in many areas of Japanese life, not just shrines and temples.

The longest chapter concerns itself with the annual cycle of rituals and ceremonies that take place at the shrine. Being both very old (7th century), and important, Kamigamo is home to some major ceremonies, most notably what is commonly called the Aoi Festival, and also the lesser-known Crow Sumo, but the information is also relevant to an understanding of Shinto rituals in general.

A book that would be rewarding to anyone interested in Kyoto or contemporary Japanese cultural anthropology as well as Shinto and Japanese religion.

this review originally published on JapanVisitor

Blue Hanya mask.

Blue Hanya Mask

This is one of my original Iwami Kagura masks. I've never seen a blue hanya, and no-one I know has either, but I was wanting the feel of the wicked witch of the north/Ice Queen. White hair is not unheard of, but it is not common. I chose straight horns, which are rarely used anymore, but were more common when the masks were made of wood. Lastly I lengthened and added a bunch more teeth.

Red Hanya
Regular Hanya

Iwami Kagura photos