Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Typical Japanese Landscape 12


Japan is mostly mountains, so this time some mountain shots!

An Afternoon Around Sanbe Dam4125

For those who have never been to Japan, it is hard to fathom just how much concrete there is, and how much "nature" is manipulated and controlled.

48 Hours. 270 of 600

I can't remember whose quote it is, but "The Japanese have a wonderful sense of beauty...... and absolutely no sense of ugly!"


More Typical Japanese landscapes
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Sunday, December 14, 2008

December harvest


Coming from northern Europe, I still am delighted by the fact that gardens in Japan keep producing all year long and the ground doesn't become frozen solid like concrete! Started picking Komatsuna, which is often called Japanese Mustard Spinach in English, but is actually not related to either mustard or spinach. It is believed that the name derives from a Kamatsu, once a village near Edo.


Cauliflower, karifurawa in Japanese, is not wildly popular in Japan. It was introduced from Europe in the Meiji Period. You don't often see it in supermarkets, so I was surprised one day while walking a backroad to come across a farm building filled with cauliflowers being boxed. I asked the farmer "how much" and he just gave me one. The kindness of strangers is something I've experienced often in all the countries I've lived in, but in Japan it tends to be in the countryside. On the same walk a car stopped, the driver handed me a big ripe persimmon, then drove off.


Yoko tried planting some ginger this year, but only half of it came up. Shoga in Japanese, it was introduced from China about 1,800 years ago. It is used a lot in Japanese cooking, but my favorite way of eating it is the thin slices that accompany sushi.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Otafuku mask


The Otafuku mask doesn't appear in any Iwami kagura dances that I know of, but it is worn by the female half of a kyogen duo. Otafuku is commonly known as the "goddess of mirth", and also goes by the name of Okame. It is believed that the mask is developed from the Uzume mask. The motif of the Otafuku mask is a common design found all over the place, but not often talked about is the sexual side of her nature.


I found this pair of huge masks gracing the entrance to a large shrine in Shikoku. I have seen her paired with a tengu before, and I've read about a performance at a fertility shrine in Asuka involving a tengu and an otafuku that is overtly sexual. The tengu/red demon most probably is derived from Uzume's husband, Sarutahiko, a giant being that has a very large nose.


My favorite derivation of the Otafuku mask though is this little sculpture I found at a fertility shrine in Yamaguchi.

Iwami Kagura Mask index

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yasugi Bushi, Dojou Sukui.

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This is the manhole cover from the town of Yasugi, east of Matsue in Shimane. It shows a dancer dancing the Dojou Sukui. Doujo are small eel-like fish and the dance involves scooping with a basket.

The song accompanying the dance is the Yasugi Bushi, the local folk song that is now known throughout Japan since recordings of it were made in the early 20th century. It is considered one of the most difficult of all Japanese folk songs to sing.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Invitation to Kagura

An Invitation to Kagura

Hidden gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts.

David Petersen

ISBN 978-1-84753-006-6


When I first became fascinated by Iwami Kagura there was precious little information about it in English. In the past 2 years 2 books have been published which redress this problem. Recently I reviewed God's Music, and now I can review An Invitation to Kagura.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, kagura is the least well known of the performing arts in Japan, and yet to those who have seen it its is one of the most exciting.

The book introduces just about every aspect of the art that one could possibly want to know, from it's history up to where and when you can see kagura nowadays. The author was introduced to kagura while living in Hiroshima, and it is the "secular" kagura seen at festivals in the Hiroshima area that are the focus, with shrine based kagura of the remoter areas occupying the periphery. My own experience is the opposite, with the festival-based kagura an interesting "fringe" to the core of shrine based performances.

The author makes no claim to producing an academic work, rather a labor of love, but the book is nevertheless well researched. The authors background is in theatre, so the relationship of kagura to kabuki and noh is covered, and his listing of the main stories would make the book useful as a guide to visitors to kagura performances.

His versions of Japanese history are a bit too Yamato-centric for my taste, with not enough delineation between myth and history, but that is a minor quibble for what is an excellent book. In conducting his research the author travelled to surrounding areas of west Japan, and his chapters on the regional variations of kagura I found most useful. The photos are good, though only black and white.

The book is self-published, so as well as being available through bookstores or amazon.com etc, it is also available as a less expensive e-book from

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fall colors: Dangyo Gorge


We've had freezing gale-force winds and snow flurries, so all the leaves have fallen off the trees, but here are some pics from 2 weeks ago when we took some friends up to Dangyo Gorge.

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Dangyo Gorge is located just off Route 261 between Iwami Town and Imbara. 261 now punches a hole straight through the mountain, so you take the turnoff along the old road. The limestone gorge has been carved by the water and there is a section of about 500 metres where the floor of the valley is solid rock sculpted into nice shapes.


In the bottom of the gorge is a small park with garden, vending machines (of course), and a small shrine. Footpaths go up and down the gorge and climb out to the road at several points.


On top of the gorge is a small hotel that only opens in the summer season, and a campsite open all year. There is a small settlement of farms further down the valley.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Gokoku Shrine, Hamada


Gokoku shrines are considered branches of the infamous Yasukuni Shrine. "Nation Protecting Shrines" enshrine those who died for the country, though originally that meant for the Emperor. The Hamada shrine enshrines almost 29,000 individuals.


The original Gokoku shrine was built in Kyoto in 1869. When the Emperor moved to the new capital of Tokyo a second one was built. This became the Yasukuni Shrine.


I find shrines built in the Meiji period to be quite sterile. They are usually built for Emperors and those that served emperors, and are very much the essence of the nationalistic cult known as State Shinto. Meiji era shrines are usually lacking in any natural connection to place. The Hamada shrine is built on the hill where Hamada castle once stood, I suspect to give it an association of authority. The Gokoku shrine in Matsue is also built on the castle hill there.


From the shrine one can climb up the hill past the stone foundations of the old castle. Built in 1620, the Lord of Hamada burnt it down in 1866 to stop it falling into the hands of the advancing Choshu forces.


There are fine views from the top of the hill, and is a popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fall colors: Hikimi Gorge


Hikimi Gorge is located in the mountains of the SW corner of Shimane, near the border with Hiroshima.


There are actually 2 gorges, the Upper Gorge located on the Hikimi river, and the Lower Gorge located on the Hiromi River. Both gorges run into Hikimi Town, and both are fine places for viewing the Fall colors.


The Chugoku Nature Trail, a route which combines footpath and road sections passes through the area. In the Lower Gorge there are cabins for rent.


For most people Fall colors means the scarlet of the maple leaves.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kamimukae: welcoming the gods.

Last week was the childrens kagura festival over the river in Kawado. The video shows a part of the second dance performed at kagura events, the Kamimukae. The first dance, Shiohare purifies the stage area in preparation for the kami, and the kamimukae invites and welcomes the kami to the performance.


Kamimukae is usually danced by 4 dancers, but if the kagura group is small then 2 or even 1 dancer can perform it. Like Shiohare, the dance revolves around the 5 directions (north, south, east, west, and centre) and so indicates the Taoism that is at the heart of much of shinto.

What was nice about this performance was that one of the dancers was a girl, something that is becoming more common, but is still not usual.


Women were forbidden from performing on stage in Japan at around the same time as in England, and Iwami Kagura being a folk tradition in a remote area has been slow to change.

Of course, the mythical originator of kagura was a woman, Uzume, and kagura by miko is also normal.

Monday, December 1, 2008

November Harvest 3


Chinese cabbage, or Pak Choi, is known as hakusai in Japanese, and is common in most gardens. It has been grown in it's native China for thousands of years but did not come to Japan until the early part of the 20th Century when it was brought by soldiers returning from the Russo-Japanese war.


Had a really good crop of kiwi fruits this year. About 20 years ago kiwis became very popular in Japan, and everyone started planting them. This past year I cut back the vines twice, once in winter and a second time in the summer after flowering, and I think that is why we got so much fruit.

beet greens

Started picking the fall crop of beets. I like the greens, but mostly I grow them to make pickled beetroot, a food that is impossible to buy in Japan.

November is a busy time in the garden,... lots to harvest, and time to bed the garden down for winter. December , January, and February is time to hunker down next to the woodstove and hibernate!
Picked the Fall potatoes.... first time I tried a second crop, and to be able to eat new potatoes is a delight indeed. Picked the last of the tomatoes and peppers.... great to be able to have fresh salad at the end of November!