Japan’s tsunami-hit towns battle to sustain folk arts

The Urahama district of this northeastern Japanese coastal city had for centuries marked religious ceremonies, and mourned their dead, with a dynamic sword dance by masked men, accompanied by drums and flutes.

But everything changed after the March 11 tsunami tore into Japan’s northeastern coast, sweeping away homes, performers and precious equipment in coastal areas, like Urahama, that had long treasured their traditional performing folk arts.

Now, people in many of the tightly-knit coastal communities fear the disaster may prove to be the final blow for some 100 troupes that had already been struggling to survive as the towns where they were based aged and young people left to seek work.

Read the rest of the story: Japan’s tsunami-hit towns fight to sustain folk arts.

Taking tea the traditional Japanese way

The faint sound of a wooden door sliding open is my signal to proceed. I shuffle into the bright sunshine, my gait restricted by my tightly wrapped kimono, and push open the gate.

Behind lies an enchanted world, utterly different to the teeming streets of Tokyo that are just outside. The plot of land is no bigger than a garden patio but each element – tree, rock, water, moss – has been placed so thoughtfully that the space feels twice the size. I crouch next to the well to wash my hands and mouth, and out of the corner of my eye notice the shokyaku, or the main guest, slip through a tiny square doorway and disappear into the chashitsu, tea room.

The path guides me to that same minute entrance. I squeeze myself into the darkened room, swivel around to place my straw sandals to the side of the entrance and leave the door open for the following guest.

I am in. My eyes adjust to the muted light, and I kneel and bow in turn to the calligraphy on the wall, the Edo-period tea caddy, and the kettle and hearth in an otherwise empty room of tatami straw mats. I finally take my place next to the shokyaku to wait for the two remaining guests to appear.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), the tea ceremony provided respite for the samurai warrior. It was the only space they entered unarmed. Laying their katana swords at the gate, through the tea ceremony ritual they allayed worries of impending war and death.

Read the rest of the story: Taking tea the traditional Japanese way.

In rural Japan, a modest bid to preserve tradition

NIYODOGAWA, Japan -Last weekend this dying town held a party, so its few remaining residents awoke at sunrise, headed up winding mountain roads and convened at the usual spot, where, for 217 years, they and their ancestors have gathered annually to celebrate their gods and assault their livers.

Many participants describe the Akiba Matsuri as the highlight of the year, and it combines the best elements of a holiday, a circus performance and a frat party. But lately, it has also come to resemble a wake. Niyodogawa, like so many places in rural Japan, is shrinking and aging, doomed by its demographics. Half the local population is 65 or older. This year, one local high school will graduate a class of six. No private companies offer jobs, so young adults face what amounts to mandatory banishment.

Viewed from up close, at least, Japan’s great rural-to-urban migration – hastened by two lost decades of economic stagnation – carries the weight of a terminal condition, and those in Niyodogawa no longer talk about solutions or reversals. There is only a dull ache, with a town in consensus that its future isn’t really a future. "I wish I could say there was hope," Niyodogawa school superintendent Toshumitsu Ono said, "but if I answer honestly I do not see it."

The Akiba Matsuri festival fits into this only because it’s the one thing in Niyodogawa (pop. 6,868 – after nine deaths and one birth in December 2010) that hasn’t yet changed.

Read the rest of the story: In rural Japan, a modest bid to preserve tradition.

Samurai archers tug at the strings of Japan’s heart

Japan’s Dosun Festival archery contest is a pleasant Sunday outing for residents of the Miura peninsula. They load kids into strollers, pack bento lunches and make the long hike down a wooded trail to Araihama Beach to watch as athletes dressed as samurai ride armored horses at top speed along a black-sand beach to fire arrows at squares of brittle wood.

Held every spring in a coastal village south of Tokyo, the contest at first resembles a sort of Japanese Renaissance Faire, with archers wearing anachronistic hardware: 13th-century costumes of silk robes, animal-pelt skirts, cloth shoes and ribbon-tied hats. The arrows have wooden turnip-shaped heads instead of sharp points.

But mounted archery, or yabusame, isn’t just nostalgic re-enactment. The Japanese admire it as a living sport. One at a time, the riders charge their steeds down a lane marked in the sand and fire arrows at a series of wooden targets, which fly apart thrillingly when clobbered with a turnip head. A hit at last year’s festival earned two thumps on a ceremonial drum and a chirpy comment through a PA system by a woman in the judges’ tower.

"Actually, it’s simple," one spectator, a woman named Yoshie, told me. "Hit the wood."

Read the rest of the story: Samurai archers tug at the strings of Japan’s heart.

Japanese Shrines full of those praying for good fortune as working year starts

Thousands of Japanese packed a Tokyo shrine on Tuesday, the first working day of 2011, to pray for better luck and a rebound in the lagging economy just days after ushering in the Year of the Rabbit.

By midday, some 70,000 people had visited Tokyo’s Kanda Myoujin shrine, dedicated to several gods including the god of good fortune, to bow their heads and wish for a more prosperous year.

"Gloomy news is all we hear around us these days, so I wished that this year we’d get some bright and joyful news for a change," said 46-year-old Yoshiko Saeki.

Japan’s economy is recovering at a sluggish pace from a deep recession. Though a government report last month showed growth of a revised 1.1 percent in July-September from the previous quarter, beating estimates, sentiment remains bleak.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect the economy to shrink 0.1 percent in the following quarter as exports slow and auto output slumps after the expiry of government incentives for the purchase of low-emission cars.

"I wished for an economic rebound from the bottom up so that my business is also positively affected," said Shinya Watanabe, a 24-year-old businessman who has been in his current job for just two years.

Read the rest of the story: Japanese pray for good fortune as working year starts.

Coming of Age Day

If you are one of the many people who love Japan and the Japanese culture then it is very likely that you will be trying to learn as much about this fabulous part of the world as possible. A holiday to Japan will help to bring your thoughts to life and if you want to be able to soak up as much of the culture as possible, then arranging your visit to coincide with a special festival will give you much more insight into their way of life. January is a special month in the Japanese calendar, because as well as celebrating New Year, which is always done with much colour and celebration, January also marks another very special occasion – Coming of Age for all new 20 year old Japanese boys and girls.

Every year since its inception in 1948, this festival was celebrated on January 15th, however in 1999, the date was changed and now, the Japanese Coming of Age festival is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of January. It obviously makes for a long weekend and time for Japan`s newest adults to enjoy themselves, as it is not until they are 20 that young Japanese are considered adults. Adulthood obviously brings responsibility, however it is also the first time that these new adults are allowed to vote and, unlike other countries, 20 is the legal age for drinking and smoking!

Although the Coming of Age Festival has only been officially celebrated since 1948, it incorporates many older traditions which make it a wonderful holiday to experience. Proud parents and other family members gather with their children to listen as their children cross from that of child to adult. Local governments arrange special ceremonies all over Japan where speeches are delivered by elders such as Mayors explaining the right of passage and everything that being an adult entails. The Coming of Age Festival in Japan is known as Seijin-no-Hi and if you intend visiting Japan, this would certainly be worth seeing, especially if you (or your children) will be celebrating a similar birthday. Japanese girls enjoy the chance to dress up in their finery and traditionally, all Japanese girls will wear a special type of kimono – a furisode – which has long sleeves, complete with an obi belt. As well as looking wonderful, these costumes are extremely expensive and are sometimes passed down from mother to daughter. Boys traditionally wear suits, however you can sometimes see the boys in traditional dress – the male equivalent of the kimono – which is known as a hakama.

As well as speeches from the elders, Japanese boys and girls often pray for their future at shrines and a very popular shrine for this is the Meiji Shrine. Shrine priests hold a special archery ritual, known as Momote Shiki in which two priests dressed in white fire blunt arrows to a target. As the arrows fly, they make a whistling sound and it is believed that this sound calls the attention of the Gods. Once the first two arrows have been fired by the priests, many more are fired by archers dressed in very colourful robes. This is also a fantastic opportunity for photographers to capture that perfect picture.

Visiting Japan at any time of the year will be a wonderful experience, however if you are able to travel in January, holiday deals you could soak up the atmosphere and learn a lot more about the culture of this amazing place.

Finding zen in a shopping mall onsen

Depending on where we are from, zen can be found in different ways.  If you are from the mountains, you may need to travel to the Himalayas.  If you grew up by a lake, it may be necessary for you to find a shimmering reflective body of water and take a solitary row.  But if you are from the suburbs, an on-sen in a shopping mall might just do the trick.

In Japan, there are on-sen complexes which are the the bathing equivalent of a multi-plex theater, where you can choose from a variety of baths to soak in.  These range from whirlpools with various built-in seating arrangements, to rotenburo, outside baths, under palm trees.  The tropical style architecture and design create a far-away resort feel.

After trying out all the baths, take your time in a relaxation room where fabrics in patterns from Southeast Asia drape over rattan armchairs and translucent curtains give semi-privacy to small rooms where you can lie down on a massage table and go into a heavenly state.

All this for 490 yen.

Sama Sama onsen in the D-Plaza Mall, Oita Prefecture
Sama Sama onsen in the D-Plaza Mall, Oita

If, like me, you are from the suburbs and prefer not to go too far for your nirvana, check your local listings to see if one of these complexes will be coming soon to a shopping mall near you.

Aikawarazu Life in Japan

My visit to the Yasukuni Shrine


His private visits to the Yasukuni shrine provokes the ire of many Asian countries. Why does Prime Minister Koizumi visit the Yasukuni shrine? I didn’t know. As it so happened, I had moved to Shinjuki and was living within walking distance of the shrine. So, one April morning, I made my way there to find out.

In my mind’s eye, I had thought the shrine itself would be larger and more imposing than it was. I was struck by its simplicity. I had double checked with one of the security guards on duty. “Sumimasen” I asked. “Yasukuni koko?” I said and gently pointed to its direction with my hand. He nodded his head and uttered a “Hai.” He then instructs me on Shinto protocol in Japanese and reminds me to clap twice. I reply with an “Arigato gozaimasu.”

The complex is bustling with activity. There are many visitors present. There’s a live performance taking place on a makeshift stage. I notice that there are many Japanese seniors in attendance.

I walk towards the shrine. I instinctively sense the reverence of the place. Many are offering their respects. It is a special place. I can see that. I can feel it. It is a place of worship.

After, I visit the war museum. I learn about the Yasukuni shrine. The shrine is where the Japanese revere their own who have died for the nation. The shrine dates from the Meiji period. The registry of souls also dates from the Meiji period.

The fallen become guardian divinities and protect Japan from evil.

I spend many hours working my way through the exhibits on the two floors. Many of the exhibits have been translated into English. There are exhibits on loan from the Imperial Family. I begin to realize that there is a connection between the Imperial Family and the Yasukuni shrine. There is a moving images presentation on Japan’s military past which I watch. I take a seat in the back. I notice that many Japanese are weeping silently. The atmosphere is charged with emotion.

I take a break and sit in the lounge area on the second floor to collect my thoughts. I feel weary. I am feeling tired. I feel slightly overwhelmed by it all but I continue on with my visit.

I make a mental note. There’s a reference to Nanking. There’s a reference to the GHQ occupation policy. There’s a reference to the Emperor Showa repudiating his divine status. There’s a reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Kamikaze exhibit leaves me feeling terribly sad. The photo portraits of the Kamikaze overwhelm me. There is a volume of their correspondence that has been translated into English which I read. Their words leave me feeling numb.

I explore the grounds of the enclosure. There’s a sumo pit on the premises and a lovely Japanese garden. My visit to the shrine leaves me with a deeper understanding of Japanese people and Japanese modern history. I come away with the understanding that the Yasukuni shrine, the Imperial Family, and the Sakura (cherry blossoms) shape the identity of the Japanese people. Yes, the shrine houses the names of Japan’s convicted war criminals but also those who fought for a modern Japan.

Originally posted on ThingsAsian.
photo by: HIRATA Yasuyuki

Hachiko Fever

The story of Hachiko, the Akita-ken who symbolizes loyalty, devotion, and friendship has been brought to the screen recently in a new movie, Hachi (also called Hachiko- A Dog’s Story). It was released in Japan on 8/8 (to correspond with ‘hachi, hachi’), and will be out in America on December 18. Whether or not you know the story of this inspiring canine who waited for his master at Shibuya Station everyday for over ten years, I recommend Hachiko Waits, by Leslea Newman, to fill you in. Leslea’s book is faithful to the details of the original story, while adding a few new characters, especially a young boy, Yasuo, who befriends Hachi. It is a young adult novel, though I must admit I read it twice myself, enjoying the details of Tokyo in the 1920’s and the story of how Hachi becomes the respected and loved Hachi-ko.

If you are in Tokyo, why not call a friend, meet at the Shibuya Station at the Hachiko statue, and make a Hachi night out of it. And of course, bring along a copy of the book for while you wait!

I’ll be waiting for a Wednesday (Ladies Day) or the first of the month to see the movie, when the price in theatres in Japan goes down to 1000 yen, from the regular 1800 yen ticket price.




Aikawarazu Life in Japan

Link to find out more about the Shibuya Hachiko Statue:


Survivor as OJT

Nissin Foods Holdings Co. will send 13 assistant general managers and 17 workers from its other group companies, including 4 executive officers around 40 years old, to a desert island in Seto Inland Sea for OJT (on the job training) starting August 26th.

The workers can take water, flour, plastic sheets, and of course instant – “Chicken Ramen,” which is Nissin Foods’ most famous product. They have to survive by making fire and cooking with their own made tools, while sleeping on or using for shelter the plastic sheets for 2 nights and 3 days.

The company has been using this OJT practice to train its younger workers physically and mentally since 2003. The first two years, it was done on a desert island, and then it was done on a mountain in Saitama from 2006 to 2008. But now it is going back to its tough beginnings on a desert island, so that it will be harder to survive.

On the monster website “2 channel,” people are saying “ Sounds fun,” and asking “Is it a TV project?” and some think “It is a ridiculous publicity stunt.” What do you think?