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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Floating World

浮世

The recent film “Memoirs of a Geisha” has prompted a lot of questions from Japan-based viewers. Primary among them:

1. Why was a film allegedly set in the pleasure quarter of Kyoto, Gion, filmed primarily at a set in the suburbs of Los Angeles?
2. Why did those overwrought and cheesy sets of Gion look like a Westerner's postcard idea of “old Asia”?
3. With the exception of Watanabe Ken, why were the principal roles all given to Chinese actresses?
4. Why do most people in Japan not really give a damn?
5. Why are Kyoto's legendary teahouses now opening their doors to the public?

Kyoto GeishaThe answer to number one is, of course, cost and convenience. Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world. A second reason is that, with the exception of one or two blocks in Gion, most of Japan's most famous pleasure quarter is a garish war zone of neon, telephone wires and poles, shiny “modern” buildings with “Western” façades filled with hostess bars, “cabarets,” and brothels.

Number two is sheer laziness. A simple flip through any book of Meiji Era photos of Gion or Kyoto would give one a better idea of what the area actually looked like at that time. A phone call to a historian at UCLA—or, better, Kyoto University—would have sufficed. Instead, we were subjected to a faux Chinatown of exotic Orientals.

The pat answer to the third question is that Watanabe Ken, who starred with Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” is the only A-List Hollywood actor from Japan. Fair enough. In contrast, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang are stars in Europe and America and Japan. Can you name a single Japanese actress? Though most Westerners cannot distinguish Chinese from Koreans from Japanese from Vietnamese, to have Chinese actresses—whose body language, facial expressions, appearance, and accent could not be more different from Japanese, let alone a geisha—take the lead roles is insulting. Imagine if a Japanese actress were chosen to play a Chinese concubine in a Yimou Zhang film. Chinese students would riot in Beijing in government-organized anti-Japanese demonstrations. The Japanese Embassy would be stoned once again in a show of nationalist fury.

Question five can be directed to the Japanese Ministry of Education, which promotes rote memorization in lieu of thinking in its effort at producing demoralized and non-thinking subjects.

The last question, why has a tourist program been set up to allow non-introduced guests into the teahouses, is, alas, one of economy. 86 tourists, mainly from Tokyo but chosen on a first-come first-serve basis, will be visiting Ichiriki, in Gion, or one of four other houses. The Kyoto City Tourist Association created the tour program, which costs 40,000-50,000 yen ($450) per person for several hours of dining and a performance. In the past, the teahouses would never have allowed ichigen-san—Kyoto dialect for first-timers, outsiders, i.e., those without an introduction—past the front door. Not even a Gong Li.

And, in interesting news, the Chinese government has banned screenings of the film in China. The sight of Chinese actresses, though playing Japanese geisha, servicing Japanese men was apparently too much to swallow for the aged members of the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV.

Geisha Fans


Books on Japan

Hostels in Japan - Hostelworld

Sunday, January 29, 2006

'Small Japan'

「日本は小さい」って

Sayonara Hotel, Naples I’m just back from almost two weeks in Europe: four days in the UK and the rest of the time in Italy: Rome, Naples and the Isle of Capri.

I traveled with a Japanese friend who was constantly delighted and somewhat amazed by the not-uncommon sight of a Japanese restaurant, a business that had adopted a Japanese name, or advertisements for Japanese companies. You can see here a sample of some of them: the ‘Taro’ Japanese restaurant in London, the ‘Hotel Sayonara’ in Naples, and, if you click here, the advertisements for TDK and Sanyo on London’s Piccadilly Circus electronic billboard – including the very impressive CocaCola ad.

Restaurant Taro, London I was almost as amazed at my friend’s amazement as he was amazed at the number of Japan references in Europe. He is cosmopolitan and well-traveled but, like most Japanese even still, has little idea of how big a player Japan is on the world stage. Japan’s self-image seems to have been forged in the nineteenth century as a ‘small country’ and, in spite of the huge leaps and bounds Japan has made since that time, frozen at that. Japanese will talk about their country as ‘small’ when in terms of both area and population it is much bigger than the UK, quite a bit bigger than Germany, and, even though smaller in area than France, with twice France’s population. And I doubt whether the first thing that comes into a British, French or German person’s mind is the ‘smallness’ of his or her country.

People often ask me here why I came to Japan, and I respond that I first developed an interest in the country when I was an elementary school student. ‘What? You knew about Japan so long ago? And in New Zealand?’ I simply answer ‘Yes’, and tell them that at least half our home appliances and the cars we went through had Japanese names, and that in popular culture Japan was by far the foremost country when it came to representing what was typically Asian.

Anyway, it was touching to see my friend as thrilled by the attention Japan was getting, and it was nice as well to get little reminders of ‘home’ here and there.

Budget Hotels - Italy
Budget Hotels - Japan

Friday, January 27, 2006

Nishiki Market

錦市場

Shrimp and Oysters Nishiki MarketKyoto is a foodies paradise. From artistic kaiseki ryori to many “ethnic” restaurants, neighborhood noodle shops to high-end Franco-Japanese fusion cuisine, Kyoto has many wonderful dining options. For those more inclined to actually going to the market and shopping for their dinner, Kyoto also is blessed with one of Japan’s most colorful and varied food markets: Nishiki Market.

Located in downtown Kyoto, it is easily accessible from the subway or many bus routes. Nishiki Market is on a narrow street that is parallel to and one block north of Shijo Dori, one of the main boulevards in Kyoto. From Shijo Station on the Karasuma subway line or Karasuma Station on the Hankyu Line, you can walk to the Market in about eight minutes. The market runs for about 400 meters, or many city blocks. It is narrow and packed on both sides with stalls that sell vegetables, seaweed, tofu, fish, sweets, and trinkets, and much more.

Bags of Candy in Nishiki MarketNishiki was established some 400-years ago, and continues to draw in locals and tourists alike. Recently, as those with money have fled the growing crassness of the Shijo-Kawaramachi shopping area—formerly the place to shop and be seen in Kyoto, but lately overrun by karaoke shops, pachinko parlors, and teenagers—in favor of the Karasuma area, Nishiki has seen its clientele and fortunes swell.

On a recent swing through the market just before lunch, I sampled my way up and down the street. Nishiki is both a feast for the eyes and stomach.

The first store I came to had shrimp and oysters laid out on a bed of ice. A bit farther down there was a maneki neko cat beckoning passersby to come in and shop. Other beautifully arranged items included bags of sweets, beans floating in a giant wooden tub, and lovely little purses.

The arcade that houses the market is covered, so neither sun nor rain will spoil a day out. Be ready for the crowds of people.

Japanese Goods

Information on Kyoto

Maneki Neko in Nishiki MarketDecorative Purses in Nishiki Market

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kitano Tenmangu

北野天満宮

Traveled up to Kyoto yesterday for a brief visit to catch up with old friends. Took the bus again for a very reasonable 4,000 yen return fare from Nagoya. The journey on the JR bus lasts 2 hours and 30 minutes (compared to 50 minutes by shinkansen).
Giant votive wooden plaque - ema - at the Inoshishi Shrine, Kyoto

I stayed at the Kyoto Garden Palace Hotel just opposite the West Gate of the Imperial Palace. A pleasant evening was spent at the British style gastro-pub "Browns" (Bars/Restaurants/Clubs Kyoto) in the north west of Kyoto. Bus #46 going past Bukkyo University will take you pretty near, get off at the SeicoMart on your left as you head north.

The place is a pretty popular hang-out for foreigners in the area and is well worth a visit for the excellent food, draught Bass and good selection of single malts.

Today I visited an interesting wild boar (inoshishi) shrine just south of the hotel, strolled in the Imperial Palace and then paid a visit to Hirano Shrine and the "Hatsu Tenjin" at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. This huge flea market is held on the 25th of each month and features a vast array of antiques, plants, foodstuffs, second hand kimonos and just about anything else.

Prayers at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto

Having lived in Kyoto for over a decade and left three years ago, it is always special to come back. Some things have hardly changed, such as the ridiculously crowded buses (mostly people over 75 it seems, making use of their free bus passes), the hundreds of cyclists on the sidewalks and the amazing number of shrines and temples just about everywhere.

The place can have a certain melancholic feel to it, though, when the 1000s of students who attend universities in the city are on vacation, and Kyoto is left to ponder its past glories and seemingly rapidly aging population.



Japan Bookstore

Friday, January 20, 2006

Drunk in Gifu

岐阜で酔った

Omikuji at Inaba shrine, Gifu

Went up to Gifu at the weekend to see my artist friend Yoshiki Nakahara, who I met on a bus going up to Tokyo. I haven't been able to write about Sunday's events until now as I'm still recovering from the hangover. It was part of his farewell celebrations as he leaves for his Copenhagen home this week.

We started the day at an excellent restaurant located in an old sake brewery, just a few hundred yards from Inaba Shrine, where we went to take in the fresh air and watch the snow melting in a hurry from the shrine roofs.

Inaba Shrine, Gifu

We then paid a visit to Jyoguji Temple, where the abbot is also a painter and an aficionado of top of the range tube amplifiers and Leica cameras. He had had made some incredible wooden cases for his speakers – I think I counted about ten as we lounged in Recaro seats, listened to jazz from the amazing sound system and took in the garden view from the windows. Er…very Zen except the temple is Jodoshinshu.

Then it was a trudge through some never-ending tunnel back to Yoshiki's studio and a start on a bottle of Glenfiddich, followed up by a bottle of red wine brought by one of his former Junior High School mates, who he had met for the first time in 30 years.

The trip back to Nagoya was something of a blur of taxi rides, trains, subway rides and more taxis.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Haiku

俳句

The Haiku Handbook: Buy this book from Amazon
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku

by William J. Higginson

Kodansha International

ISBN:4-7700-1430-9
352 pp

First published in 1985 and superseded only partially by more recent books, The Haiku Handbook remains the best introduction to haiku written in English. It occupies a niche between the works of Harold G. Henderson and R. H. Blyth, being more comprehensive than the former without the koan-like paradoxes of the latter.
In addition to chapters fulfilling the title's promise to show how to write, share, and teach haiku, it also includes a short history of haiku from Basho's predecessors to modern haiku around the world, as well as chapters on related genres such as senryu and haibun. Although The Haiku Handbook is geared towards newcomers to the genre, it also contains material of interest to more experienced haijin (haiku poets). This includes in-depth discussions on Buson's "Visit to Uji" and Basho's revisions of one of his most famous haiku, as well as a season word list for quick reference.
Apart from the outdated resource section, this book is still one of the clearest and most comprehensive introductions to haiku in English and is also a handy reference work for experienced poets.

Peter D. Evan

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wooden Buildings in Kyoto

木材建築

The use of wood is one of the hallmarks of Japanese architecture, past and present. In Kyoto, in particular, wood retains a special place within the garish pantheon of modern Japanese building. Tucked in between pachinko and karaoke parlors, "game centers" and just plain ugly mass-produced homes and "mansions," many beautiful examples of the best of Japanese building can be found in Kyoto. These include the well-known temples and shrines, and the few remaining villas. Added to this list would also be machiya.

Kyoto Downtown CemeterySpared most of the bombing during World War II, Kyoto was left intact. Yet, in the go-go economic growth decades much of the city's architectural heritage was dismantled in pursuit of something more "modern" in the economic recovery that lasted until the late 1980s. Still, unlike Tokyo and Osaka--and nearly every major Japanese city--Kyoto was not bombed to the ground. Today there is even a boom in refurbishing older wooden buildings.

These are primarily but not limited to machiya, the wooden townhouses that were favored by Kyoto merchants in the pre-War period. Until quite recently, they were looked down on as kurai, which literally means dark. However, it has a negative connotation that to Kyotoites is equated with being poor, cold, uncomfortable--even primitive and embarrassing. From the post-War period until recently, these lovely, temple-influenced homes were routinely knocked down--by those who could afford to--and replaced by modern, plastic, soulless pseudo-Western structures. For those who could not, they were a mark of poverty and shame.

How times change.

Kyoto Oil FactoryThough downtown Kyoto has seen a repopulation thanks mainly to the number of "mansions"--ten- and twelve-story apartment buildings--and the convenience of living within walking distance of restaurants and subways and trains, there has been an accompanying reappraisal of machiya. The picture above shows a downtown temple's cemetery, and the cityscape behind it. As recently as forty-years ago, the rooftops would have all been tile; today it is a typical mishmash of styles. Visible on foot, though, are the many smaller homes that have survived--and the many restaurants and boutiques and galleries that are now in what were once private homes.

The stunning building pictured above at right is a cooking oil factory that survived one of the few wartime aerial raids in Kyoto. Bombs landed nearby and as many as 232 homes were destroyed and 30 people killed. Pieces of shard from the US Air Force's bombs are on display in the window, along with an explanation. It is located north of downtown, nor far from Kyoto's textile district, Nishijin.

Kyoto RestaurantAt left is Sarasa Kamogawa, a restaurant housed in what used to be a factory. One of three Sarasa eateries in Kyoto--all built in old wooden buildings--this one is located close to the Kamogawa River and just south of the Prefectural Hospital. Though once a factory, it has the feel of a machiya that was gutted and rebuilt with soft-tone wood. These types of restaurants and boutiques are all the rage among young women.

Japanese Goods

Sarasa

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The pinch

姉葉 木村建設
Japan - the construction state

Japan's economy is said to be back on the rise again. However, I was with my friend the other day and called in on the graphic design office he is a member of on the way home, as he had to pick something up. Being late at night, and the office deserted, I wandered around for a few minutes, while he was busy, looking at the profusion of design-related reference material and equipment that packed every corner of the modest-sized space.

I noticed a set of drawers, each with a designer's name on it, and, seeing my friend's name, got curious and opened it. The first thing to strike my eye was a set of 4 CDs he seemed to be in the process of designing, in striking colors using a feather motif. It is difficult to describe the impact in words, but my eye immediately picked it out as a piece of true art - quite different in terms of vividness and obvious flair from the usually more restrained minimal work I associate with him.

He came over, looked rather sadly at it, and explained that although - as he showed me - there was room for two more CDs in the boxed set, those two empty spaces would not be filled. The company had suddenly pulled the plug on his project two thirds of the way through 'because of money'.

The design company belongs to one of the biggest, if not the biggest, music publisher in Japan - perhaps the world, and is certainly not a company that is even remotely close to being on hard times. Quite the opposite.

My friend then went on - the sadness giving rise to a note of bitterness - saying that what they'd done to his project rose from exactly the same mindset as had given rise to the present construction industry scandal that Japan is in the throes of. Hidetsugu Aneha, an architect, has been exposed as having purposely skimped on the amount of steel reinforcing required to make the buildings he designed fully earthquake resistant - apparently thereby caving in to pressure from the Kimura Construction Company so that Kimura could save a few yen by not having to buy as much steel.

It is now widely felt that this is but the tip of the iceberg, and that there are hundreds of buildings in Japan that could well come tumbling down in the next big earthquake because of simple tightfistedness. As difficult to understand as it is in Japan, which is renowned for its wealth and its dedication to quality, this is the moneygrubbing side of the country that comes out in such scandals - including the smaller scandal of a work of art stopped dead in its tracks by a similarly minded scrooge.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Tondo Matsuri

Tondo Festival

The Tondo Festival occurs in early January around Koshogatsu, the lunar new year. For the New Year most homes and businesses in Japan hang a Shimekazari above the door. Shimekazari are sacred ropes braided from rice straw, and to them are attached various good luck charms, most commonly an orange. The shimekazari wards off evil spirits and invites the Kami to enter.

Tondo Festival At Tondo, a huge bonfire is made and into it are placed the shimekazari and other new year ornaments. The fire is lit by someone born in the same animal year, at this Tondo it was a 12 year old boy, and as the flames and smoke rise in the sky the people pray for health and blessing for the coming year. As the fire dies down a little, children who have been practising their calligraphy for the new year place examples onto the fire. If they rise into the air with the heat, it indicates success for that child for the new year.
Tondo Festival
While all this is going on, the people are served a variety of foods including Tonjiru, a really tasty stew made from pork, taro, and daikon, as well as Mochi, a glutenous rice cake that is a traditional new year food. Lengths of green bamboo are filled with sake and placed in the coals to warm, and then served to everyone.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

New Year Grand Sumo Tournament

相撲



UK | Japan

Things turned out as expected from the previous basho in Fukuoka in November. Mongolian powerhouse Asahoryu 朝青龍 won the tournament - his 7th consecutive win - completing a Grand Slam of tournament victories for the year.

The 1.85m (6'1"), 143kg (315lb) yokozuna's main challenger will again be the young Bulgarian Kotooshu 琴欧州 (2.04m (6' 8 1/2"), 143kg (315lb)) - who gained promotion to ozeki rank after Fukuoka - the first European wrestler to do so.

Other ozeki in the frame are veterans Chiyotaikai 千代大海 (29), Kaio 魁皇 (33) and Tochiazuma 栃東 (29), though Kaio is fighting hurt and Tochiazuma needs a majority of wins to hang on to his ranking.

Expect Asahoryu to claim his 8th tournament win on the spin without too much difficulty.

Tournament Details
Dates: Sunday January 8th - Sunday January 22th, 2006
Ryogoku Kokugikan - Tokyo

The Ryogoku Kokugikan is a short walk from Ryogoku station on the JR Sobu Line.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

'Moyai' at JR Shibuya Station, Tokyo.

渋谷駅前のモヤイ

Shibuya station's moyai. Waiting for a friend in Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district last night, I took a shot of this statue outside the west exit of Japan Rail's Shibuya station. It's a statue that serves as a rendevous spot, and is an example of what is called 'moyai' art from the island of Niijima (literally 'New Island') - one of the islands that make up the Izu Seven Islands about 180km south of Tokyo. 'Moyai' sculptures, this one included, are made from a pumice called 'koga', special to the island. The plaque beside it explains that 'moyai' is a word whose roots lie in the idea of getting together and co-operating, making it an art form particularly suited to forming the focal point of a meeting spot.

The similarity of 'moyai' to the statuary of Easter Island on the other side of the Pacific Ocean is amazing. However I am still not sure if Niijima's 'moyai' is a genuine art that is truly historically linked to that of Easter Island, or if it is a copy made possible by modern communications. Anyway, there it is in Shibuya, and most impressive in its big handsome simplicity.

Shibuya Flower Project. A stroll around it reveals another, flatter, face engraved on its reverse side. In the garden around it were seedlings that were only days old, and a handwritten sign advertising the Shibuya Flower Project that the garden represents, directing you to the Shibuya Flower project website - all in Japanese, but with lots of pictures showing the garden's evolution.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Culture of Cute

可愛い文化

Japan is the king of cool. Unlike Cool Britannia or Hip America, though, Japanese cool is nothing if not cute, intensely cute, maddeningly cute, even cloyingly cute. The Japanese for cute - kawaii - is uttered so often and so reflexively by so many that it has become a mantra. See baby: “Cute!” See little dog: “Cute!” See almost any girl/woman under 30: “Cute!”

Ciao Manga PictureLong-known to Japan-watchers, kawaii has now gone international. From New York art-scene superstar Takashi Murakami’s urban vinyl toys to Hello Kitty!, kawaii is now a serious life-style choice of adults throughout the civilized world.

The Asahi Shinbun newspaper, a serious center-left establishment paper read by 8.3 million people daily, recently ran a story on “Japanese soft power” and its spread around the world. The point of the article was that, a la Harvard professor Joseph Nye’s thesis, Japan’s influence is spreading less via the hard power of military and economy and diplomacy - but rather thanks to cuteness, or the power to attract.

According to the lead singer of a Norwegian pop duo called Kawaii, “kawaii is the image of peace-loving Japan. It expresses the kindness of non-aggression, of comforting others.”

The singer, thirty-two-year-old Mats, first learned music on a Kawai piano (Kawai being a surname that translates into the very English-sounding 'Riverwell', therefore not actually related to the adjective 'kawaii' at all). Later, thanks to 'Hello Kitty', he came to understand the meaning of the omnipresent word that almost shares the pronunciation of the piano maker's name.

The spread of manga and anime into a global phenomena are part and parcel of this. US journalist Douglas McGray, author in Foreign Policy of “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” pointed out the evidence of the Japan's "soft" power in 2002.

Ciao Manga PictureHowever, Japanese cool is no longer confined only to the cute; it has branched out to include capsule hotels in London, the popularity of futons, revolving sushi restaurants, and even pre-work stretching. In Japan itself all of these are, as the paper points out, decidedly B-class on the scale of cool. In the West, though, they are highly hip.

The last time I was in the US, this mismatch showed up when friends insisted they take me to the place to be seen in town: Nobu. After the price tag, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the evening was the hors d’oeuvres. With a straight face, an extremely tall and chic Korean-American waitress brought out a plate of eda mame beans laid out on an elegant dish. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends that this $19 plate of lightly salted blanched soybeans was what, in Japan, middle-aged men chow down at home while watching soccer or baseball on TV and slugging back cheap beers. Nothing any hipper than old guys picking their teeth and farting as they doze on the tatami mats in front of the tube came to mind as I stared at the exorbitantly-priced beans in front of me.

Viva Japanese soft power! Viva eda mame! Viva Kitty-chan! And viva kawaii!

Monday, January 02, 2006

Hatsuhinode The years first sunrise in Japan

初日の出


This year I wanted to combine two Japanese New Year traditions, Hatsuhinode (Viewing the years first sunrise) and Hatsumode ( First visit to a shrine). Not far from where we live is a 417 metre mountain named Honmyozan, and on top of it is a small shrine. Its not a huge mountain, but its the highest one in its area and the views are supposed to be superb. The weather has warmed up some, and it looked to be cloudless through tomorrow, so in the middle of the afternoon on new years eve we called some friends who own an Onsen in Arifuku at the base of the mountain to check if the trail marked on my map still exists. They tell me it does, and that people go up there for Hatsuhinode, so why dont we come and have a soak in their onsen before heading up there.

We get into Arifuku around 8 p.m. and enjoy a soak in the baths for an hour or so. Our plan was then to head up the trail out of the village and get to the top by midnight, sleep out and wake before dawn. Our friends though had contacted the Ujiko (Parishioners group) responsible for the shrine on top and arranged for us to drive up with them. There is no road marked on the map, but apparently the Ujiko have been building one to enable easier access to the shrine. The Ujiko consists of about 30 families who live around the mountain, and each year 3 families send someone to "run" the shrine over the new year. We meet up with them and ten of us pile into 2 little K truck pick-ups and head up the mountain. The word road does not adequately describe what we were on. Only slightly larger than a footpath, nothing larger than a K truck could make it. It is hand made, and steep. After about 20 minutes of driving we have to stop as the 660cc engine is overheating under the strain of carrying 5 adults and 3 kids. Another 20 minutes of driving and we stop, pile out, and walk the last 400 metres to the top.

The generator is fired up providing light, and we enter the small shrine. The space in front of the altar is 6 tatami, small enough for a kerosene heater to quickly make warm while the men busy themselves with preparations. One starts a fire to the side of the shrine, another lights the candles on the altar and starts filling paper envelopes with Osenmai, rice that had been on the altar as an offering to the Kami. The envelopes will be given to all the people who visit the shrine tomorrow. The oldest man in the group is a hunter and he had brought some Inoshishi ( wild boar), so he starts preparing Inoshishi nabe. Every village has a hunter, and wild boar are the main species hunted, so boar meat is not a rarity. About once a year someone gives me a big chunk. While all this is going on, the rest of us busy ourselves drinking the Omiki, the sake that has been on the altar for the gods. When that has gone we move on to non-sacred warmed sake. Someone pulls out a huge pack of sashimi, and someone else a bag of onigiri, then a bottle of nigorizake, and everyone sits around amiably chatting till we notice that midnight has passed.

The shrine was builthere in the early 16th century by the Amago clan, one of the dominant warlords in western Japan who had a small castle on top of this mountain. Following the Amago's defeat by the Mori clan the castle was destroyed but the shrine remained and has never had a priest so has been maintained by the local people ever since. The small building we are in has been constructed around the original shrine which is still in pretty good shape, though the cedar shingle roof is a little worse for wear. Around 2 a.m. the sake has got the better of me and I head out onto the rock outcropping in front of the shrine, spread out my sleeping bag and crawl in. Its a beautiful, moonless night filled with stars and though is below freezing I quickly fall asleep to be woken 4 hours later as the first visitors to the shrine arrive. They have spent more than an hour climbing the mountain and its still an hour to sunrise.

My sleeping bag is coated with frost so i stay inside it a little longer, but as color appears in the eastern sky I jump out and quickly head to the fire. More and more people arrive until we number about 30. Then a shout cause everyone to look to the east as the sun pokes over the horizon. Everyone claps and cheers as it slowly ascends till the whole orb is above the horizon. All agree that this is the best Hatsuhinode in many many years. Back in my village there is a new years party planned for 10 a.m., so with a small group we head back down the mountain by the footpath. It is as steep as the road we came up on, but not difficult walking, and the warming sun streaming through the trees make it very pleasant.

Onsen in Japan

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Eve at Toyokawa Inari Shrine Tokyo

豊川稲荷

I got together with a friend for New Year's Eve, eating nabe, nibbling snacks and drinking sherry while watching the perennial New Year Kohaku (lit. 'Red/White') marathon entertainment extravaganza on NHK TV that shows the whole of mainstream Japanese entertainment from the abysmal to the sublime, with more sequins and confetti than you've ever seen in your life.

The subway runs all night on New Year's Eve so at about 2am we braved tonight's zero degrees C (32 degrees F) caught the train to Akasaka-mitsuke station on the Marunouchi line and headed for Toyokawa Inari shrine.

'Inari' is the god of rice, and foxes are his/her(?) messengers. There are inari shrines everywhere, but this one happens to be the New Year shrine for the rich and famous of the entertainment world. It was lit with hundreds of red paper lanterns, and was thronged not only with supplicants, but with young female star spotters waiting for their idols to appear.

I brought my camera and would like to have shown you pictures of the rows of red lanterns, the various poses of the gray stone foxes that graced the grounds, from coyly elegant to sinuously stocky, the great offering box that stood in front of the shrine filled with notes and coins, the omikuji fortune slips that, if less than lucky, one ties to the branch of a tree before making one's way carefully home ... but, I found I'd left my SD card at home, so couldn't.

After paying our respects to the god of music, we shook a barrel of sticks, chose the numbered omikuji fortune slip that corresponded to the number of the stick that came out, and read them. My friend got 'Lucky'. I got 'Unlucky': warning me against aiming beyond what I was capable of and suggesting I keep my nose to the ground. Slightly sobered (literally!) I dutifully tied it to a tree, then we squeezed our way through the ranks of excited girls waiting for a glimpse of some flavor-of-the-moment boy, and crossed the road to the venerable Toraya ('Tiger') confectionery salon where we had a traditional sweet with thick green matcha tea.

Year of the dog. Toraya order chit showing this year's animal: the dog.

If only I could show you a shot of the sharp oblong block of delicately shaded translucent red and orange bean paste I ordered and the tea we were served afterwards with the cup in which was reflected the squares of gold leaf in the wooden saucer. There were not a few stars there, the nearest one to us being the stylishly pudding-bowled Kuroyanagi Tetsuko at the table just behind me.

We got the train back home at about 3.45am, amidst a carriageful of very quiet early morning commuters, more than a few of them seriously nodding off in anticipation of a long New Year's day in bed.