Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How Iwami got it's name

Shimane Prefecture was formed by joining together 3 of the old provinces, Oki Islands, Izumo, and Iwami. The old provincial identities remain strong today, with an Iwami identity being stronger than a Shimane identity. I live in Iwami, and most of this blog is about Iwami.

The name Iwami is written with 2 kanji, "iwa" meaning rock/stone, and "mi" meaning look/see, so the name means something like "see rock".

The most common theory of the names origin says that it refers to the rocky cliffs around Hamada, which was the original provincial capital, but on one of my shrine-visiting walks I came across another story which is not well known, but far more interesting


The story begins a long, long time ago, before the introduction of Buddhism, when the area was ruled by female shamans.

The people of the area were under attack from a giant eight-colored serpent( not to be confused with the eight-headed serpent of Izumo).

The local kami, a shamaness names Amenotoyotarashikarahime fought against the evil serpent, and like all such battles it was long and hard, but the evil power of the serpent was too strong and eventually Ameno weakened.

Just as it looked as if Ameno would be defeated, "ofuda" rained down from the sky. Ofuda are small paper strips from shrines that are in essence charms to ward off evil or encourage good spirits. These ofuda were from a kami from neighboring Izumo, Yatsukamizuomitsununomikoto. (if Susano can be said to be the creator of the Izumo nation, and Okuninushi presided over it's demise, then Yatsukami ruled at the height of Izumo's power)

The ofuda did the trick, the serpent was weakened, and Ameno revived enough to finish off the serpent and hack its body to pieces. (North of here is a mountaintop shrine in the village of Yairoishi (eight-colored stone), and behind the shrine is the head of the eight-colored snake, now turned to stone)

The next part of the story is a little unclear, either for some reason Ameno turned herself to stone, or she turned the serpent, now in pieces, into stone. As the stone head exists, it seems likely that the latter is the story.

Anyway, Yatsukami felt the event was important enough that he instructed the people to remember the event by "LOOK AT THE STONE!"

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Kagura season is in full swing!

This is a scene from the Kakko-Kirime dance performed last night at the shrine in Kawado.


In the opening part of the dance an inept priest bumbles and fumbles his way around the stage in an attempt to find the correct spot to place a drum for a sacred ceremony. I saw this dance performed by 2 different dancers last night, and though both dances differed they both stressed the comedic element.


It's October, the rice has been harvested, and until the middle of November it is now Kagura season in the Iwami area. Every village will be holding it's annual matsuri, and here in Iwami that means all night kagura performances. Some places have a Kagura-den, a seperate building like an outdoor stage specifically for kagura, but most places round here perform it in the Haiden, the main hall of the shrine.

Last night we had the choice of 6 different shrines less than ten minutes drive away that were having all-night kagura. If we wanted to drive 20 minutes the number increases to 20 or so. I like to visit different shrines and see how the different groups interpret the dances, and there are still plenty of dances I haven't see yet.

The photo above is the Ichiyama shrine, where we went first. One of my friends is a kagura dancer there, so we've been often, but still I saw a dance that I hadn't seen before. For everyone attending there was also free food... piping hot bowls of oden, uden, and later onigiri.


The next shrine we stopped at was in Kawado. There will usually be a bonfire going all night at the matsuri,... something the kids like to play with and around. This is one of the few nights of the year when kids are allowed to stay up all night, though many crash out at some point only to wake up for the finale at dawn, the Yamata No Orochi dance.


If you've never seen Iwami kagura, then you've missed one of the most exciting of all Japan's traditional performing arts, and if you've never been to an all-night village matsuri, then you haven't experienced what I consider to be one of the defining experiences of life in Japan.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Piggyback Frogs!

One Day in Izumo9674

I found these 2 in the shallow pool of Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

One Day in Izumo9680

As I knelt down to take photos they swam over and literally poked their faces into the lens!.

I have no idea if it is an adult and child, 2 adults, ... are they mating? Maybe a naturalist among you can tell me?

One Day in Izumo9684

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Izumo Taisha Shrine, Hamada


This branch shrine of Izumo Taisha is just off busy Route 9 in Hamada, sandwiched between modern concrete buildings. Like its parent shrine, the great Izumo Taisha, it has an unusually large shimenawa. Most people I know in Hamada come here for Hatsunode, the first shrine visit of the new year.


Most shrines in Japan are now branch shrines. The "spirit" of the kami at the head shrine is "divided" and brought to the new location. Sometimes this was done by the rulers, as is the case with Hachiman shrines which were spread by the samurai. Sometimes the kami is brought by travelling shugenja, as with Akiba and Atago shrines, and sometimes the kami is brought by a delegation of villagers who travelled to the main shrine, such as Konpira.


The identities of the kami have changed over time, and they also often have a buddhist identity. The kami of Izumo Taisha, Okuninushi, was more commonly known as Daikoku, one of the seven lucky gods. According to the ancient Yamato legends, Okuninushi "gave" Japan to the Yamato, although there are no stories of him in Izumo itself, he being based in what is now Tottori. Okuninushi is associated with marriage, and like its parent shrine in Izumo, this shrine also has a wedding hall attached to it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Typical Japanese Landscape 8

A walk to Chomonkyo 1741

Abu River (Abugawa) valley, NE Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Early morning, November.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Kansai International Airport (Departures)

One night in Kansai Airport 4053

The terminal building at Kansai International Airport is the longest in the world,... 1.7 kilometres.

One night in Kansai Airport 4057

The 4-story "canyon" is part of Renzo Piano's award-winning design. Built on an artificial island at huge cost, the island sank 3 metres more than predicted and so several billion more dollars were spent.

One night in Kansai Airport 4055

Incredibly light and airy, it's a very comfortable airport to spend time in, partly because its not very busy.

One night in Kansai Airport 4066

Piano's initial sketch was of a glider landed on the island, and the departure lounges are the wings stretching out on either side of the main terminal.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

October Harvest


Started to harvest some edamame this week. Edamame means "twig beans" as the pods grow in clusters from short twigs attached to the main stem. Edamame is the name used in English nowadays, but in fact edamame are just immature soy beans. They are boiled lightly in the pods and then eaten mostly as a type of "bar snack", though I read that in the West they are served at expensive Japanese restaurants. I prefer to let the beans grow full term when they become Kuramame, black beans. The crows took most of the beans I planted, so I tried starting some in pots and they succsessfully transplanted, so that's the way I'll do it next year.

eggplant pickle

Still picking tons of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Eggplants grow so easily and are so prolific that people don't know how to use them all and many just rot in the gardens. The best way I have found to preserve them is with this Sri Lankan Eggplant Pickle recipe. It's a lot of work, but well worth the effort.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Small Hanya mask 2


This is another version of the small Hanya mask in Iwami Kagura style. The hanya masks are the most popular in terms of sales, and its the most popular search term bringing visitors to this blog! What little is known about Hanya masks I've written here


There are only about 3 or 4 different forms and shapes for Hanya masks around here, but the painting and shading makes for a much wider range of appearances. I love seeing new kagura groups with masks by different mask-makers and studying their different styles.


This one is an older mask carved in wood. It is too big to be used as a performance mask, and was made as a decoration to scare off evil spirits, the use made of most hanya masks sold.


Over time I will be posting lots more of my masks, and they are for sale, so please contact me if interested.

Kagura Mask Index

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Saburoiwa, Ama.


This draincover from the island of Ama in the Oki Islands shows a rock formation known as Saburoiwa. The design around the circumference shows dancers performing at the island's Kinnyamonya Matsuri.


Iwa means rock, and Saburo is a name traditionally given to the third son (Ichiro means first son). All of the Oki Islands have spectacular coasts, with many rock formations and towering cliffs.


On neighboring Nishinoshima Island are the basalt cliffs and formations of the Kuniga coastline that are part of the Daisen-Oki National park.


Tour boats explore many parts of the coastline in the Oki's, and there are also glass-bottomed boats to see the abundant sea life that inhabits the area.

Japan, A View from the Bath

Japan, A view from the Bath

Scott Clarke


University of Hawaii Press

ISBN 0834816579

Anthropologists must sometimes endure hardships conducting their field research, often far from home, sometimes in primitive conditions, struggling with foreign languages; it can be a lonely time. So spare a thought for poor Scott Clark, who, while collecting information for this book had to endure thousands of hours steeped in hot water in baths and hot springs the length and breadth of Japan. The result was this fascinating little book that documents the bathing habits of the Japanese people.

Any book on a subject as broad as Japan must choose a viewpoint, and bathing customs and culture is a good one as the Japanese differ from many cultures who see bathing as simply a way to stay clean. For the Japanese, it is much, much more.

Combining solid historical research with the aforementioned fieldwork he traces the history of bathing in Japan from ancient times up to the present, and the surprising fact emerges that bathing has always been a communal, social activity in Japan. From the Sento (Public Baths) in towns to the rural farmers who would take it in turns visiting neighbors to take a bath, only the very rich would bathe privately, and until the recent introduction of western-style bathrooms in homes, most Japanese did not have their own private bathrooms.

Onsen (Hot Springs) are also extensively covered. Owing to its volcanic geology, Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs, and they are among the most popular of destinations for short breaks. Even trips made for other purposes will probably include a visit to an Onsen in the itinerary.

Clark admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing mixed bathing, as that was in fact the norm until the Meiji Period when the government segregated bathing so as to appear “civilized” to the West and its Victorian morals, and the sad fact is that nowadays the Japanese are as prudish and embarrassed by nudity as many other cultures. However, many Onsens remained mixed until the 1980's as the clientele until then was mostly old people. In the 80's the onsen boom began and young people began to visit and so segregation was gradually introduced.

In the latter part of the book he explores many of the factors that give meaning to Japanese bathing habits, foremost of which are the notions of “pollution” and “purity”. Washing doesn’t just clean the body, but also the spirit, and the mind. Ritual washing and bathing are very important, and most major events in life are accompanied by bathing, from the newborn babies’ first bath to the cleansing of the corpse.

The book would be very useful for anyone planning a trip to Japan and wishing to be forewarned about customs they will probably need to partake in.