Its even hotter today, and the meteorological office has proclaimed the rainy season officially over, so I decide to take my friends to another waterfalls, though at this one we can be guaranteed complete privacy.
Gongen Falls is a sequence of 6 waterfalls that cascade down the side of a nearby mountain. Only a couple of kilometers from our home, individually each waterfall may not be as impressive as Kannon Falls, but together they fall over 200 meters.
Each falls has a pool at their base that are perfect for skinny-dipping, and the reason they are so private is that it takes a little effort to reach them.
After parking the car its about a 2 kilometer walk. The first 1500 meters is along a fairly wide track, but the last 500 meters entails clambering over a rock filled gorge and its impossible to do without getting your feet wet.
My favorite pool is below the fourth falls. The pool is only a few meters wide, but 3 to 4 meters deep.
The rock around the pool is colored red, and the local legend has it that this was caused by the blood of a dragon.
A long time ago, the water stopped running down to the village downstream. Unable to flood their paddies and grow rice, the villagers became worried, so one man went up to the falls to see what was wrong.
He shot an arrow into the deep pool and the water erupted as a screaming dragon burst out of the water and flew away dripping blood. Since then the water has never stopped running.
Below the sixth falls are a couple of larger pools that are not so deep.
Above the final falls, at the top of the mountain , stands a huge, ancient oak tree girdled with a shimenawa marking it at a sacred tree.
Bamboo Gallery I
Japan Shimane waterfall
Monday, July 31, 2006
Sunday, July 30, 2006
We have some friends visiting for a few days, and its HOT! What better to do than chill out by splashing around in the natural air-conditioning of a waterfall.
We head to Kannon Daki, at 60 metres the tallest waterfall within the boundaries of Sakurae Town. It lies a couple of kilometers up Shikaga Valley just off Route 261.
After a couple of hundred metre walk up a shady valley next to a bubbling stream, you turn the corner and there it is. The spray and mist made by the falls cools the air.
Its a natural water slide into a cool pool of pure mountain water. For an hour we had the place to ourselves, and then families with kids start to arrive.
Right at the base of the falls is a little Folk Shrine mixing Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian elements.
There are 2 stories connected to the Falls. The first concerns a certain Mr. Yamamoto, a local notable from the mid-Edo period, who rested on a rock here and enjoyed a smoke. As he headed off down the trail he remembered that he had left his tobacco pouch on the rock. He headed back only to find a dragon with his pouch entangled on one horn. The dragon was surprised and bolted, so Mr Yamamoto never got his pouch back.
The story doesn't mention if Mr. Yamamoto had been imbibing sake at the time.
The other story concerns a local woman who committed suicide by jumping off the top of the falls. Her ghost reputedly still haunts the area so no local people will venture here after dark.
Hotels in Japan – Bookings
Bamboo Gallery I
Japan Shimane waterfall
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Hip hop is big in Japan, and, as I wrote in a previous blog, its aficionados are everywhere, studying their moves in the reflections of shop windows. There is another tribe of street dancers though that doesn't seem to draw inspiration directly from the States. Japan-born though it may be, it is hard to see what aspect or tradition of life in Japan it springs from.
First, click here to see Japanese girls jumping:
A long-dyed-haired boy, virtually in punk drag, is squalling Japanese lyrics into a portable sound system outside the south exit of Shinjuku station. He is accompanied by a nerd on an acoustic guitar, strumming frenetically. They are supplemented by a circle of madly enthusiastic girls - by no means outlandishly attired, quite the opposite - who jump, that's all, JUMP to the music waving their arms up and down, 'milk-the-cow'-style, in loose sync with each other. As the song hits its final chord they throw their arms centerward and, in a twee little gesture, flick out their fingers altogether.
That's it. The song is over. They stand around for a minute while the boys warm up again, ready for another excited round of jumping up and down and waving their arms in loose sync.
Does it draw its roots from gym class? Is it punk madness given the gloss of Japanese 'kata' (form)? Is it a bit of both? They could be doing the bump, they could be doing hula, they could be doing John Travolta disco-dancing. Why jump?
Hey, why not!?
Buy beautiful, cool Japanese kimono here.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Just finished reading a great book Bamboo In Japan, and it prompted me to go through my files and dig out some more images of bamboo. The photo above is of a water basin at a Hachiman Shrine near my home. The dippers are ingeniously made out of a single piece of bamboo.
All these rakes and brooms are made from bamboo.
Tied together bamboo makes great fencing, and in this case a cover for a well at Yoshida Shrine in Kyoto.
In the spring we all go out and dig up young bamboo shoots. Takenoko are a great delicacy. The strainer/basket they are in is also made out of bamboo.
By the side of the roads in the countryside you see stacks of giant bamboo. In the Fall they are made into huge drying racks to dry rice and sometimes beans.
Bamboo Gallery I
Japan Kyoto Bamboo
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Listen to the sound of the cicadas
In the pauses between the rains, the forest and mountains around my home come alive with the sound of Cicadas (semi). For the Japanese, the sound of the cicadas signifies the arrival of high summer.
The young cicada nymphs have been underground for anywhere from 2 to 17 years, and once they emerge they climb the nearest tree and shed their exoskeleton. The males then begin the calling for a mate.
The discarded exoskeletons can easily be found littering the forest floor, and in the erroneous belief that they were corpses, has led to an association of the cicada with death, as in this haiku by Shuho from 1767.
little did I know
it was my life.
Buy organic green tea from Shimane Japan
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Listen to music from the Kuromatsu Festival
Went to an unusual matsuri on Saturday at Kuromatsu, a small fishing village on the Shimane coast near Gotsu City. The central part of the Kuromatsu matsuri is the carrying of the mikoshi (sacred palanquin) around the village. At a normal matsuri the mikoshi leaves the local shrine and circles the community before returning to the shrine. What is unusual at Kuromatsu is that the shrine is split into 2 parts, and the part where the Kami (God) resides is 2 kilometres away on a small uninhabited island.
First, a purpose-built boat carrying the mikoshi, priest, and musicians in happi-coats leave the beach and head to the island to pick up the God.
A small flotilla of boats, decorated with bamboo and brightly colored banners follow along. On the main boat and simultaneously on the beach, musicians keep up the beat.
Once the island is reached, the priest and villagers carrying the mikoshi climb to the island shrine and the priest "calls down" the kami and then carry her back to the boat.
By now dusk had settled in so the boats turned on their lights which had been set up on the boats in patterns of kanji. As we headed back to the beach the matsuri space there lit up with fires and lanterns. It was a magical time, the sea was like a mirror and the pink light of dusk added to the festive atmosphere. Shimane has some beautiful coastline, most of which I have seen from a friend's yacht, but with the lights and music added it was truly other-worldly.
Once we arrived back at the beach and the mikoshi was placed in its spot, the matsuri began in earnest.
Buy Noren curtains from Japan
Japan Shimane festival podcast japanese music
Saturday, July 22, 2006
The Tokyo Summer Festival is a renowned name in world music festivals with a history stretching back to 1985. Imaginative programming, high quality acts, and marketing flair have made this festival a summer institution in the Japanese capital.
A look at themes from past years reveals a history of academically-inspired eclecticism, leaning, if anything, towards nationality. The very first Festival in 1985 was ‘”Music, Exoticism and Orientalism” – The Maturity and Transformation of Occidental Music’, and since then it has covered the music of Russia, the USA, Paris, German Romanticism, the Gypsies, Italy, India, as well as such approaches to music as comedy, ballet, cinema, women, literature, and, last year, the ‘cosmos’.
The organization behind the Festival is the Arion-Edo Foundation headed by Ms. Kyoko Edo and deriving its classical appelation from the 6th century Greek poet Arion, whose singing so enchanted the dophins within earshot that they saved his life after his being cast into the sea by barbaric sailors. The Foundation is devoted to making extraordinary music as widespread, accessible and understandable as possible, and sponsors an annual young musician’s award for that purpose.
The theme for this year's Tokyo Summer Festival, the 22nd, is 'Songs of the Earth/Music in the Streets', focusing on the music of the people as opposed to the music of the privileged. I, however, was privileged to attend one of the Festival’s concerts this afternoon, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ “reinvented by Gilles Apap”. Vivaldi’s music made a comeback in the 20th century partly because it was precisely what this year’s Festival is all about: music that rebels against intellectualism, appealing directly to the senses.
Gilles Apap, introduced in the program as ‘the violinist of the 21st century’, is a much-feted violin 43-year old prodigy who studied under the late Yehudi Menuhin. I too the JR Chuo line to the Musashino Civic Cultural Hall in Musashino City, Tokyo, to see him play.
‘The Four Seasons’ was performed by the Zappa-esque-sounding ‘Colors of Invention’, a quartet consisting of a violin (Apap), an accordian (Myriam Lafargue), a contrabass (Philippe Noharet) and a cembalo (Ludovit Kovac). It began with a foot-tapping rhythm beat out on the body of the contrabass, was taken up by the players whistling while they worked, Apap playing his violin like a banjo, getting up and walking around to jam with the other players, and more.
The sound was pure magic, not only in its imaginative eclectism of area, age and style, but in its execution too. There is something of the joker and the demon in Apap. He is the life and soul of his ensemble, and his simply getting up and wandering over to the other players visibly imbued them with an extra dose of verve. He smiles – he almost winks. He transmits himself through his eyes and demeanor every bit as much as through his music.
And what music! Throwing the ettiquette of musicianly form out the window he embodies only the essentials of what form it takes to perform his art. In other words, no coat and tails, semicircle of black chairs, or po-faced 'maestro-ism'. Rather, humor, repartee, and comaraderie allied with a perfect piston of a bow arm and a posture built around evoking beautiful sound from his instrument.
Apap’s range is enormous. There is a ruthless element to his playing, free of vibrato, where he almost seems to sit back from his instrument and watch it. The violin is unerringly swiped and fingered, producing a tone as sharp and glistening as broken glass with the power of something electric. Then there are those passages where he leans right in, listening to the heart of his violin as does a lover or a doctor, and with that unerring right arm and that dancing left hand drawing out of it long licorice sweetness.
I was surprised how perfectly the accordian complemented the sound of the violin. Reeds and strings have more in common than I had imagined. The astonishingly agile Myriam Lafargue on the accordian engaged in a solid-hued partnership with the virtuosity of Apap’s violin. The contrabass did exactly what its name says: it counterpointed, and with an aptness that at times spilt over into the droll, drawing chuckles. The cembalo was almost a world of its own that adorned the rest of the ensemble with an extra dimension of soft, starry sound.
Thank you Vivaldi, ‘Colors of Invention’ and the Tokyo Summer Festival for expanding the world of my musical experience! There is still more. Performances go on until August 5. Go here for more details of the Tokyo Summer Festival.
Buy genuine Japanese dance flutes.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Listen to music from the Mushiokuri Odori Festival
Went up into the mountains to Iwami Town (Central Shimane) this afternoon to watch a dance that used to be performed all over the country in earlier times, but has now all but disappeared.
The dance was part of a religious ceremony that was held to rid the rice paddies of insects, a form of spiritual pest control that is no longer needed due to Japan's heavy use of chemical pesticides nowadays.
Starting at 10am in the morning, the dancers and musicians travel around the village stopping and performing their dance at numerous points. Dressed in summer yukata and with wide-brimmed hats decorated brightly, the dancers carry drums and are accompanied by other drummers, metal bells, and flute. The dancing ends at 6pm.
Travelling along with the dancers is a straw effigy of a samurai on horseback. He is the "scapegoat", and after the dancing he is placed in a fast-flowing river to wash away the "sins" of the villagers that were held to be responsible for the infestations of insects.
Buy beautiful Japanese dance fans.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
We've been getting a lot of rain recently in the San-in area. Over the weekend we were visiting the Oki Islands again, and twice we had to slam on the brakes as we rounded a bend to face a wall of mud and debris blocking the road.
When we got back home, it was pretty wet, but nothing extraordinary considering it IS the rainy season.
But last night it poured... and poured... and poured.
The photo above is my neighbor's garden, under a metre of water. The satoimo (taro) in the foreground will probably be ok. It can stand a bit of flooding.
My upper garden was thankfully spared the flooding... it's waterlogged but OK.
My village is a dead-end tucked into a V-shaped valley with steep hills on 3 sides. 2 of the 3 roads out of the village were closed by floodwater.
Underneath the water are the village's rice-paddies; probably this year's rice crop has been destroyed.
The centre of the photo on the left is my lower, riverside garden!! Well, about 3 metres below the surface of the water is where my garden used to be until today.
Gone is all my almost ripe sweetcorn, carrots, and sweet potatoes, but worst of all is the loss of my bumper parsnip crop.
You simply cannot buy parsnips in Japan and I was so looking forward to roasting some in a month or so.
One good thing though; once the waters subside they will leave behind a layer of rich silt which will mean bumper harvests next year.
The main road down the river to the coast was open, so at lunchtime I headed to work.
About halfway down to the coast the river had risen to within 20 cms of the road. Apparently, not long after I passed by, the road was closed as the river was still rising.
That meant a 20km detour up into the mountains to get home tonight.
Even then I had another delay as I had to stop a few hundred metres from my village as they were pumping out the floodwaters from the neighboring valley.
Every fifteen minutes they stopped the pumps and the cars were allowed to drive on over the giant hoses laid across the road.
Buy beautiful Japanese umbrellas.
Japan Shimane flood weather nature
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
This Monday was Sea Day (Umi no Hi), a national holiday, and I decided to investigate a little more the area around the Museum of Contemporary Art (that I visited and wrote the July 2 blog about).
The area is the western edge of Koto ward, in the east of Tokyo; the subway stations are Kiyosumi-shirakawa on the Oedo and Hanzomon lines, and Monzennaka-cho on the Oedo and Tozai lines.
I was really there to write a guide to the area for the Tokyo sightseeing page, as it is the perfect place to stroll around for half a day if you want to take in something of Tokyo that isn’t necessarily connected with department stores, boutiques and bars.
The area has a slightly downtown air to it: relaxed, ever-so-slightly worn down (as opposed to run down), and is remarkable for the number of old buildings made of cement (see photo above) - a very rare sight in Japan.
I visited Kiyosumi Teien Gardens and for forty minutes was transported by the manicured beauty. I was on my way to probably the most famous temple in the area, Fukukawa Fudo.
I kept a look out for other likely temples, but although the area has a lot of quite grand, important-looking ones, they are generally rather staid and institutional.
I happened to look in at Fukagawa Enmado about halfway between the above two stations.
Again, it was cast pretty much in the routine neighborhood temple mold, but something otherworldly caught my eye: something aquous and apart.
I went through the gates, crossed the lurid Astroturf, and carefully opened the sliding doors to the room below the building directly across from the main entrance. No one was around and I felt a bit like an intruder. However, as soon as I was inside I forgot all that.
I suddenly found myself floating in a lava-lamp dream of Buddhist fantasy: dim spot lighting, an omnipresent, evanescent pale gelid glow, mirrored ceilings, great cubes of empty space and shiny white paneling, and - in the center of it all - a huge, serene Buddha basking in the mystique and a maze of reflections.
Right next door to this arctic aesthetic, separated by a short wall, was the reddish golden glow of an adjacent altar lined with shelves containing tall brass vials.
It was all completely devoid of sound, movement and any other human presence. After five minutes of tiptoeing around thinking ‘Wow, like … WOW!’, I left – somewhat enlightened.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
I've just got back from a few idyllic days in London away from the rain and humidity here in central Japan. I was staying in the Bloomsbury area of London near Russell Square, the British Museum and London University Senate Building.
The area has quite a Japanese influence, especially with the number of Japanese restaurants in the area catering to Japanese businessmen, tourists visiting the British Museum and students studying at the university.
Samurai Sushi & Bento Restaurant on Goodge Street is one such place but there are 3 or 4 other Japanese eateries within easy walking distance.
Nearby University College London (UCL) also has a strong Japanese connection, as it was here in 1863 and 1865, that probably the first Japanese students to London came to study. Future Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi, along with Kaoru Inoue, Masaru Inoue and other Japanese students attended lectures at UCL and a plaque and stone monument records their visit. Many of these men returned home to play leading roles in the modernization of their country in the Meiji Period.
The Japanese Peace Pagoda on the south bank of the Thames in Battersea Park was built by Japanese monks and completed in 1985 under the guidance of Japanese peace activist Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985), the founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji Buddhist Order. The first such Peace Pagoda in the UK was built in Milton Keynes in 1981.
Kew Gardens, in south west London, has the original hinoki gateway of the 1910 Japanese Exhibition at White City - the Chokushi Mon. The gate is a four-fifths replica of the gateway to Nishi Honganji Temple in Kyoto. The gate is set in a pleasant Japanese-style garden and nearby is a haiku carved in granite and donated by the Haiku Society of Japan in 1979 to commemorate the visit of haiku master Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959) who was inspired to verse by his stay in Kew in 1936.
Freed from all fear of man
England in Spring
Books on Japanese History
Japanese Folding Fans
Japan in London #1
Monday, July 17, 2006
The night before Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri (festival) most of the city’s downtown is closed to cars and trucks. Yakuza wannabes set up street stalls selling squid on a stick, hotdogs, yakitori, warm beer, iced drinks, and lots and lots of games for children. With a bit of skill, you can catch and take home a new pet: goldfish or turtles or crabs. There is also a “lottery” game in which you pick a number and then hope for a prize. You pay 300 yen, inevitably lose, and then get a consolation prize.
The thugs who man (and often woman) the stalls roll their Rs, use casual verb forms to one and all, and have to pay the real mob a basho-dai (inflated “rent” for setting up their stalls on the street). The cops do crowd control and emergency services but leave the stall owners to their own devices.
Yesterday there were heavy thundershowers at 4 pm, so it was cooler than usual. The main streets are closed off from 6 pm for Yoiyama, and most women come in yukata, brightly colored cotton summer kimono. Many men wear jimbei, which is a lightweight cotton outfit that can double as pajamas or for relaxing at home.
On the side streets off of Karasuma Dori (street), old Kyoto families open the doors to their machiya townhouses and show off their heirlooms: byobu screens, fans, and more. It is here too where most of the floats, the enormous Yamaboko, that are the feature attraction of Gion Festival, are parked for the night. You can get right up to them, which will not be the case on festival day.
Unlike Gion Festival, which is now mainly an event for older tourists bused in from the provinces, Yoiyama is mainly for Kyotoites. People of all ages—though the young and families with small children are definitely in the majority—come out in their finest summer wear. From our neighborhood groups of young women headed out to the bus stop in their yukata, making or confirming plans on their cell phones.
After two hours, with most of our bodily and spiritual needs sated—and the crowd growing ever denser—we fled for home.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Central to Japanese culture is the idea of ‘kata’, or ‘form’. In the tea ceremony, for example, the actual drinking of the tea has been relegated to what seems like an almost disposable step in the rigmarole of correctly placing the bowl, correctly making the tea, correctly observing the bowl, correctly raising it to your lips, and correctly returning it.
Add to that the infamous lack of space in crowded Japan and the lack of free time its workforce is permitted, and in sport repetition of form, as opposed to actual play, becomes the rule. Old men practicing sidewalk golf swings are ubiquitous, school tennis club practice more often involves endless hours hitting balls thrown at you by the coach than actually playing your teammates, and in like manner baseball ends up being, in practice if not in spirit, more about practicing your hit than making homeruns.
Baseball is traditionally as close to a national religion as you will get in Japan. For the time- and space-pressed devotee, there is the batting center. Few, if any, areas in Japan are without one. They are at least as busy at night as during the day, full of men thwacking balls pitched at them mechanically at various speeds.
Listen to the sounds of a Japanese batting center here - the rhythm of wood on leather, accompanied by the whine of the ball-feed system and followed by the rattling of the surrounding wire netting as the ball hits it. This happens under fierce white night lights surrounded by the calls and caterwauls of the city streets.
This sound was recorded at a batting center in one of Tokyo’s busiest and most sleepless areas, the red-light Kabukicho area of Shinjuku ward.
Read more about Japanese baseball here
Also, shop for Japanese baseball happi coats here - cool, ideal for summer!
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Listen to kagura from the Mihara Kagura Festival
Mihara, a small village in the mountains of Shimane prefecture near my village recently held a Kagura Festival to celebrate the local groups 60th anniversary. There are several hundred Kagura groups in the Iwami area, though it is hardly known outside this area, which is a real shame as it is very exciting and dynamic and very entertaining. The festival was free, and as I had not seen some of the groups performing we decided to visit for a few of the dances.
Musical accompaniment to the dances is provided by large drum, small drum, hand-cymbals, and kagura flute. Girls don't dance usually, but its not unusual for them to be kagura musicians.
Periods of frenetic dancing are punctuated by speeches. The stories are mostly taken from the ancient legends in the Kojiki and Nihongi, though there are a few medieval tales as well. Men play the womens parts, as in the photo above.
But its the masks and the monsters that attract the most interest. Iwami Kagura masks and costumes have developed their own ornate, detailed style, unique to the area. These are scenes from the Katsuragi legend.
The most common format for the dances is of a battle between the "heroes" and the "bad guys". In every instance the good guys win after 15 minutes of wild dancing with swords, spears, and bows.
Kagura Dance Flutes
Kagura in Ichiyama Shimane
Omote Kagura Museum
Friday, July 14, 2006
I took advantage of a break in the rain to take a half-day walk in the mountains. I started from the small town of Nima, on the central Shimane coast, and got off the local train there at 6:30.
The skyline of Nima is dominated by a collection of glass and steel pyramids that house the Nima Sand Museum. Back in the 1990s, when Japan had more money than they knew what to do with, the central government gave a huge chunk of money, no strings attached, to every single town in Japan.
A few towns used the money wisely: one local town built a huge indoor swimming pool and library, but most used the money to build what can only be called "follies" that in the end only benefited the construction companies. Nima Sand Museum is such a project.
The only thing of note is the world's largest sand timer, which takes a complete year for the sand to fall through. Every New Years Eve there is a ceremony when the timer is turned over to start the next year.
I headed up the valley in search of interesting shrines. Already I was soaked in sweat. The valley is full of rice-paddies, and the rice is growing strong now. There is not much work to be done in the paddies, but the vegetable plots need a lot of work, so everywhere were old people bent over working.
In the countryside people tend towards the habit of siesta in the summer. Once it gets hot everyone hides out indoors and naps, but at 7am most have been working for a couple of hours.
After a couple of kilometers I headed up a small side road into the mountains. The road has been closed to vehicles, so its a very pleasant quiet, shady walk uphill.
About halfway up something stirs in the undergrowth, accompanied by a deep growling. I’ve seen and heard most of the critters that live in the mountains, but this must have been a bear.
Last year Shimane had the highest number of bear-sightings of any prefecture, but I have yet to see one face-to-face.
It crashed off deeper into the forest and I never did get a glimpse of it. I love it up in the mountains. There are just scattered farms and a few small hamlets, and no traffic.
It is rare to see anyone under 60 years of age. Shimane has the highest percentage of old people in Japan, and I worry about what will happen ten or twenty years on when most of them are passed on.
The younger people prefer the convenience of the towns. What always strikes me is the friendliness of these old mountain folk. Everyone has a wave and a smile and a greeting, and they love to chat. So unlike most of the town and city dwellers I meet in Japan.
I found a couple of nice mountain shrines, then dropped down into the Shizuma River valley which heads back towards the coast. Here I found a big impressive shrine to Amaterasu, commonly known as the Sun Goddess.
It is often claimed that she is the supreme deity in the Shinto pantheon, but that is due to her role as ancestress of the Imperial Family. There are actually not a lot of shrines to her.
A little further downstream and I came across a local kindergarten enjoying themselves in the river. Not something you would see in any of the large cities of Japan. I was tempted to join them, but while the water may be free of industrial pollution, it is loaded with agricultural chemicals from the paddies upstream, so I passed.
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