Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, despite the rapid spread of 24 hour convenience stores. Soft drinks, cigarettes, and alcohol are by far the commonest, but all kinds of products can be found.
The photo above shows half of a bank of vending machines in Miyoshi, Hiroshima that are selling eight types of rice in 10 kilo bags. An absolute lifesaver if 100 people drop by unexpectedly for a meal and the supermarket is closed.
These next 2 are my favorites, and sadly they have been removed. They were located in Gion, Kyoto, and sold a dazzling array of lingerie and underwear as well as Baby-Doll nighties, stockings, tights etc. All the items are guaranteed unused, as it is illegal in Japan to sell used panties from a vending machine. The inclusion of schoolgirl gym outfits gives a clue as to who these machines are aimed at. There are a lot of love hotels in the neighborhood, and I suspect some male customers of said hotels might sometimes on the spur of the moment decide that his companion would look good in some kind of costume.
This last one I saw outside a chicken farm in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and one hopes the fresh eggs are replaced daily, as the sun was beating down on the vending machines when I passed by.
Some people say that its strange that Japan doesnt have chocolate or candybar vending machines, but in fact they do, though not many. Mini Aero's and Kit Kat's are sold in some soft drink machines. They are in jars the same size and shape as the drink cans, so are easily missed.
Japan Gion vending panties
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Monday, August 28, 2006
Went to the neighboring village of Ichiyama last night for the annual Kids Kagura festival.
As we arrived in the village the golden sliver of the new moon was just dropping behind the mountains. As we walked down the dark street, the hypnotic sounds of bell and drum wafted out of a Tenrikyo church. Tenrikyo is sometimes labelled a "New Religion", sometimes a sect of Shinto, and its quite popular around here.
At the community building where the kagura is to be performed a Shinto ritual was still taking place. The two shrines are to a God of fire and a God of the harvest,
Out on the street people started to arrive and the smell of barbecue and yakitori permeated the air.
Friends arrived, and the sake flowed, and I was introduced to a really interesting old gentleman, Mr. Hasegawa, who is an expert on kagura and local folklore. His "hobby" is embroidering the fantastically ornate kagura costumes, and he produced all the objects and models in the local kagura museum
The kagura dances were great. There were a couple of 6 year olds who were dancing publicly for the first time, and the concentration showed in their faces, but they did real well. I was also impressed with a couple of the junior highschool boys dancing. I guess Ive seen enough kagura by now to be able to discern what is good or not.
As we drove back into our village, we almost ran over 3 little baby boars. Momma should have been nearby, but I couldnt see her. She was probably down in the rice-paddies. Its been a few months since Ive eaten any boar, but these guys were so small they werent worth trying to catch. Better wait a year till they are bigger and fatter.
Japan Shimane Ichiyama kagura folklore podcast shinto
Saturday, August 26, 2006
The Peak of the summer heat has passed, and even though it is still hot I cant resist the urge to get out and walk in the mountains, so I take a walk to Ganrin-Ji, a temple in the mountains about 10k north of my village, Shimonohara.
To get there I follow a narrow road that snakes up a long, steep valley, with only the sound of the cicada, the rushing water, and the occasional bird.
About half-way up the valley, and having passed only one vehicle in 90 minutes, I reach the small settlement of Nagatoro. Not big enough to be called a village, rather a few farmhouses scattered over the hillsides, like most mountain settlements in this part of the world, its populated only by old people.
Local legend has it that some of the Heike warriors made their way here after the Gempei war of 1180-85 and hid out. There are countless places all over Japan with exactly the same legend, and if they were all true then probably more Heike clan survived than were killed.
After Nagatoto, the narrow road narrows further, moss grows on the asphalt, and the forest envelopes the road and blocks out the sunlight. Soon the asphalt is buckled and ribbed by the roots of the trees. This is most certainly a road-less-travelled.
After another hour the canopy opens up and I crest the hill into a small farm. Just below is Ganrin-Ji.
Originally a Zen temple, it is now True Pure Land, but what is interesting is the large gate with carvings. The gate is designated as a Local Treasure.
It might seem strange that such a beautiful structure should have been built in the middle of nowhere, but 400 years ago this was not the middle of nowhere, but quite an important place because 10K north is Iwami Ginzan, Iwami Silver Mountain, and in its heyday the mines there were producing fully one third of all the silver in the world.
This area was home to a quarter of a million people, either working in the mines, or supporting the mines. Work in the mines was brutal so lifespans were extremely short, so to service the need for many funerals there were almost 200 temples in the area.
Heading home by a different route, I come down the mountain into the long valley thats heads back to my village. I was struck by this lozenge-shaped window, showing an aesthetic touch on even a crude rustic building.
The rice paddies are changing color as the ripening ears of rice turn yellow. Another few weeks and they will be golden and it will be time for the harvesting to begin. Then its time for harvest matsuri's.
Japan Shimane hiking Ganrin-Ji Temple
Friday, August 25, 2006
While posted in Japan, American diplomat Abigail Friedman joined a haiku group and began writing in the 7-5-7 syllable form. Her recently published memoir, The Haiku Apprentice, tells of her journey into the world of haiku in Japan and beyond. Japan Visitor had a few questions for her.
JAPAN VISITOR: What made you decide to write this book?
Abigail Friedman: What got me started on The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press, May 2006) was a sense that the people I met in my haiku group deserved to be heard, and that what I learned through them would be useful for others. I was the only non-Japanese member of my haiku group and many of the people in my book, like Momoko Kuroda herself, speak no English. If I didn’t write this book, who would? Writing this book was more than just about me.
JV: I can see how you might be able to manage to write three haiku a month for your group, but as a diplomat, mother, and wife, how did you find time to write a book?
AF: I had often thought about writing a book, but I had a whole laundry list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly write one. For example, long ago I read that Thomas Mann’s children had grown up having to tiptoe quietly around the house so as not to disturb their father, the great writer. When I read that, I remember thinking, “Well, there you go. I simply can’t become a writer because I refuse to force my family to tiptoe silently around me.” Of course such thinking was crazy, and I now see this was my way of avoiding the challenge of writing a book. It takes courage to write.
I don’t know why, but eventually I just reached a point where I found it harder to live with myself not writing this book, than writing it. So I started. It wasn’t long after I began writing The Haiku Apprentice that I was talking to a friend of mine, an academic who has written several books, about how difficult it seemed for me to find the time to write. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, Abigail. If you write for five hours a week, at the end of a certain amount of time, you will have a book. It may be a bad book, but I guarantee you, there’ll be a book at the end.” I remember thinking, “Five hours? Why, I can do five hours a week!” And that’s what I did. For the first four months or so, I had a rubber stamp, and everytime I finished an hour, I would stamp my calendar. If by Friday I only had two hours stamped, then I knew I had to put in three hours by Sunday evening. (I didn’t let myself carry over hours from week to week or you can imagine how quickly the project would have derailed.)
As a working woman, married, with three children, I need to be flexible about when I write, because raising children is an unpredictable activity, right? Also, I hate waking up early in the morning. So, some days I might write from 8-9 p.m., other days, it might be ten to noon on a Saturday. The key with The Haiku Apprentice was that as soon as I turned my lap top on, I started writing. I couldn’t afford to dilly-dally.
There’s one more thing that helped make the whole thing doable for me: My husband is the principal homemaker. I haven’t done laundry since 1984. He makes dinner; he does the food shopping; he thinks about what we are going to eat tonight and tomorrow. Just imagine the number of women writers there would be out there if more men did most of the chores on the home front.
JV: In the first chapter, you write about meeting a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, but we don’t learn about your father’s involvement in the development of that bomb until much later in the book. Why didn’t you bring up your father’s working on the Manhattan Project earlier?
AF: I agree with Stephen King in his book On Writing (Pocket, 2002), when he talks of writing as an organic process, sort of like uncovering a fossil. That part of the fossil (my father’s work) just didn’t appear until later on in the book. After I wrote the draft, during the editing process, I suppose I could have moved it up. Perhaps I didn’t move it simply because at the beginning, Traveling Man Tree and I were exchanging formalities about ourselves. In the later chapter, where it does come up, Traveling Man Tree has brought up his very personal experience in the bombing of Hiroshima. So it came naturally to me to offer readers my reflections about my father’s work at that point.
JV: What does haiku mean to you, especially now that you have left Japan and are living in Canada? Is haiku your hobby, or something that you do?
AF: Haiku offers the chance to create space, to allow silence and peace and nothingness in my life. That’s the spiritual aspect for me. I don’t mean to be esoteric; perhaps an example would help. The other night at my home, we had all gone to bed. Everyone was asleep. It must have been about two a.m. when I woke up and went into the kitchen to get a drink of water. I was walking from my bedroom, through our living room and then into the kitchen. As I crossed the living room in the dark, out of the corner of my eye, just casually, I saw the dark silhouette of gladiola in a vase, I kept walking but…
my family sleeps --
in the salon
the gladioli are black
Bam! Now, whether this haiku is good or not, whether it wins awards, whether a month from now I tinker with it some more -- that is so much less important to me than that I was able to take this experience, this mood, which couldn’t have lasted more than an instant, and through the process of translating it into a haiku, I gave it value in my life. I expanded the experience. Instead of thinking about getting a drink of water, or why I might be awake, or what I had to do the next day, or when I might fall back to sleep, I thought about - and still think about - whatever I needed to express in that haiku. I re-read this haiku and consider that instant again. So in this sense, I find haiku a deeply satisfying, “spiritual” activity. To answer another of your questions, I suppose this means that haiku isn’t so much a “hobby” as something I “do.”
JV: Could you tell a little about the haiku group you founded in Quebec?
AF: Having a haiku group really helps me commit to writing haiku. In 2003, I left Japan for the U.S. I was back in Washington, D.C., I knew it would only be for a year, and I didn’t get around to joining a haiku group in the area. My haiku writing dropped dramatically. The next summer (2004), I moved to Quebec City, where I knew I would be posted for three years. There were no haiku groups in Quebec City so I started my own. At first, I was sure there would be no one writing haiku in Quebec City - it seemed so far from Japan and from my Japanese haiku experience. But I found out through Haiku Canada that there are a number of haiku writers in Quebec province, some of whom live very near Quebec City. I met a couple of them and we started a group. We now have about 30 people, a mix of English and French speakers; experienced haiku poets and beginners. We meet once a month and at each gathering we have anywhere from 15 to 25 people present. We follow the format I describe in the appendix of my book, that is, the first part of our haiku group meeting is similar to a traditional haiku group in Japan, and the second half varies each month, depending on the choice of the person responsible for organizing that month’s activity. I am back to writing haiku regularly, and I really enjoy it.
JV: Do you write in French as well as in English? What about Japanese?
AF: In Quebec, I write in French and in English. (And I have a bilingual blog on haiku: www.stonelantern.blogspot.com.) Sometimes, I will try to write a haiku in English and decide it sounds better in French. Or vice-versa. I haven’t been writing haiku in Japanese these days, I suppose because I am not in a Japanese environment, and no one in my haiku group would be able to understand it.
JV: Do you have any further aspirations regarding haiku? Do you hope to publish a book of your own haiku?
AF: I feel as though I am still seeking my own, unique voice in haiku. I think I am getting there, but until I have a body of haiku that I have written where I can say, “Yes, that’s me all right!” I don’t feel an urgency to publish a book of haiku. Just to publish so that I can say I’ve published a book of haiku would run counter to that sense of personal development that is so important to me. I probably will publish a book of haiku one day, but I want to do so when I feel the time is ripe.
At the end of September, I’ve been invited as a guest poet at the International Poetry Festival in Trois Rivieres (www.fiptr.com.) I’ll be reading my haiku in French. And I just contributed several haiku to a book of poetry, the proceeds of which will go to benefit the homeless. I’m not lacking for projects, that’s for sure.
JV: Thank you, Abigail.
Monday, August 21, 2006
For my final blog on the delights of rural summer matsuris I visited 2 daytime events on the Gonokawa River.
About 5 miles downstream from my village is the village of Matsukawa, and their Matsuri is held on the rocky beach of the river.
There is a stage for Kagura, Yosakoi, Taiko, etc, and lots of awnings to sit in the shade and eat and drink, but most activities take place in or on the water. There are kayak lessons for the kids, and a water slide has been built, but one of the most popular attractions is the free rides on the river boats. These long, narrow boats are used by locals to fish the river for Ayu (sweetfish). shrimp, and crabs.
Here they take the fish catching a little more seriously. You take off your shoes and socks and climb into a pool and catch the fish with your bare hands. Its not little goldfish, either, but eating-size Ayu.
Next day I headed downstream to the mouth of the river in Gotsu where the annual Dragon Boat races were being held.
Dragon boats were introduced into Japan from Okinawa, who got them from the Chinese. They are not sleek, fast boats like canoes, being more like steel bathtubs.
I took part in the race last year, and my arms hurt for a week afterwards. No way would I do it again.
This year there was a strong onshore wind, so the race distance was reduced. Still it took most of the day to run the various heats and finals.
That evening there was a big matsuri held on the banks of the river, topped off with the obligatory firework display.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Following the mid-August Bon holidays - Japan’s All Soul’s Day during which all Japanese celebrate the annual return of their deceased ancestors by having a priest come to pray at the family altar, or by making the trip to their ancestral village - Kyoto holds its Jizo-Bon festival on the following weekend. These are neighborhood block parties cum children’s festival whose purpose is to pray for the health of children, and are held nowhere else in Japan.
The festival officially begins when a Buddhist priest prays for the neighborhood Ojizo-san, a mini-Buddha placed in altars found throughout Kyoto. However, prior to that adults come together early in the morning to set up a temporary altar, hang up paper lanterns that are strung between telephone poles, set out tables full of sweets and drinks, and close off the block to traffic. In my neighborhood, in western Kyoto, following the pre-festival preparations all then made an offering at the altar.
At that point, the festival is a tightly scheduled series of events spread out over two days. Children eagerly await the signal - a gong that 2-3 children carry around and ring out at appointed times - for the next event. At 10 am, for example, the children receive sweets, at 10:30 there is a drawing for toys. At noon a lunch of chirashi-sushi is served to all.
After lunch, perhaps the most religious event takes place: “juzo-mawashi.” The children sit in a large circle, and pass around a long string of prayer beads to the beat of a religious gong. At three sweets are once again distributed. The first day ends with a small display of fireworks. Adults sit out in the street, drinking and gossiping while children play until late, wandering from block to block to see school friends and take part in many Jizo-Bon festivals.
The fireworks are small enough and safe enough to do on the street, and they end with “senko hanabi,” the small, lovely handheld firework that burn slowly in patterns that bring to mind flowers or a much larger fireworks display.
Day two starts with the ringing of the gong to call the children for a final package of sweets. At 11 there is one more drawing for toys and games. Following a communal lunch—and a lot of drinking—Jizo-Bon comes to an end and the adults disassemble the altar, take down the lanterns, and store everything until the following August.
Buy the traditional summer toy of Japan: taketombo (bamboo dragonfly whirlygigs)
Saturday, August 19, 2006
Listen to the sound of the boatwoman's song
The other noise in the background is the sound of the wooden oar
After visiting Hirugami Onsen in Nagano Prefecture earlier in the year, I decided to return in the summer to try floating down the Tenryu River in a traditional boat.
I thought this would be a literally cool way to spend part of the day but it was still baking hot for the most part.
From Nagoya, the journey is a pleasant 2 hour and thirty minute drive on Route 153 via Toyota City with a short cut on Route 39 through Korankei (香嵐渓) - where people swim and fish in summer for ayu (sweet fish) in the nearby rivers.
We spent the night at the Tenkunoshiro Sangitei hot spring in the center of Iida. This vast ryokan is situated on a hill with fine views of the surrounding southern Alps. The decor is fading glitz circa 1963 but the huge baths complete with a pleasant rotemburo (outside bath) have excellent water which feels silky smooth. There is also an interesting herbal mist sauna which certainly clears the sinuses.
I would like to return to see more of Iida, as the people seemed extremely friendly and the town has a number of interesting museums and plays host to an international puppet festival earlier in August. The surrounding countryside is also full of apple orchards and vineyards where it is possible to stop and pick your own in season.
In the morning we drove south from Iida on Route 151 to Tenryukyo, though you can also get there on a local JR train on the Iida-Toyohashi Line. There are boats roughly once an hour seemingly throughout the year and quite a crowd had gathered for our 10.30am departure. The first boat leaves at 8.20am and the last boat is at 15.45pm. Cost is presently 2,600 yen. See their website for full information (Japanese only)
We piled on to four boats and started our 45-50 minute journey downriver to Karakasa Station where you take the train back to Tenryukyo or the boat operators provide a bus if there is no connecting local train.
On the way we are given a guide to the river by the attendant boat-woman (who was quite a beauty), have our photo taken as a group (which you can buy later), stop for drinks at a boat-bar moored in the shade of the cliffs and are serenaded by the said siren in the middle of the journey.
The gorge is stunning and the water crystal clear though like most things in Japan the whole experience is probably best done mid-week in Spring or Fall.
Tenryukyo is a 30-minute drive from the historic castle town of Iida. Iida can be reached by JR train from Toyohashi on the Iida Line.
Hostels in Japan - Hostelworld
Japan Iida onsen Tenryukyo
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The past few days have been Obon, one of the 2 times in the Japanese year when many people leave the cities and return to their hometowns. At Obon, the dead, the ancestors, are honored. Graves are cleaned and every community holds the Obon dance known as Bon Odori.
In our village Bon Odori is accompanied by a small matsuri. There are only a handful of stalls, but they are manned by locals, so the prices are lower and quality higher than at a big town matsuri.
Before the dance the local Kagura group performed for a couple of hours.
In one dance a troop of monkeys leave the stage area and terrorize the children in the audience. Older kids have fun, but I saw several very young kids burst into tears of fright.
For the dance itself, the singers and drummer are atop a small tower in the centre of the grounds, and the community dances in a circle around it.
The song sounds very mournful, and I was surprised to see the singer reading the lyrics from a sheaf of papers, but apparently there are over 300 verses to the song, and they change each year.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
The stage entertainment offered at matsuri varies quite a bit. At Hamada the focus was on Bushi, traditional folk song and dance. Before that though we were treated to a performace of Para Para dancing.
I must admit I had not heard of this type of dancing before, but apparently it was popular about 10 years ago and spread beyond Japan's shore. It was performed by 4 sisters, ganguro, with short skirts, trademark loose-socks, tanned skin, and light makeup.
The essence of Para Para dancing is in hand and arm movements. The body, legs, and feet barely move. Some say it is a derivation of Bon Odori dancing which also favors hand movements. Next up was a performance of Hamada Bushi, this one a song and dance performed by fishermen's wives. Every village and town in Japan has its own "unique" bushi, but to the untrained ear (mine included) they all sound pretty much the same. This one was performed to a recording.
The local folklore society then performed 2 older bushi, the men's dance and the women's dance. These were performed to an accompaniment of shamisen and drum players, and the sound quality was far superior.
Finally, the biggest dance of all, a modern bushi written by noted Okinawan folk singer Kina Shokichi. This was accompanied by keyboard, electric bass, and other modern instruments.
Each group of dancers wore a different design of Yukata or Happi coat, and while Japanese folk music and dance can hardly be said to be exciting, it certainly is colorful.
Japan Shimane Hamada Festival folklore podcast matsuri
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Yesterday, the streets of Tokyo's Shibuya ward were the scene again for the Tokyo Lesbian & Gay Parade. Thousands turned out to celebrate their sexuality, in spite of the dark skies heavy with threats of bad weather. The area of Yoyogi Park around the headquarters of the national broadcaster, NHK, was a fairground from mid-morning with scores of stalls set up selling food, drink, and TLGP2006 memorabilia such as T-shirts and rainbow flags.
Around 2 o’clock, an hour before the parade was to get underway, the weather followed through on its threats and drenched the whole scene in ferocious downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. Spirits, however, remained undampened as the crowd sheltered under overpasses, tents and groves of trees for the 20 minutes or so that it lasted. Once it lifted the Parade was pronounced on as scheduled to uproarious cheering, and a few minutes after 3 the various groups that made up the Parade began to take to the streets.
The only concession to the prospect of another downpour was that the route was slightly shortened, but the impact of the festivities didn’t suffer an iota. There were brass bands, disco sound trucks, flag troupes, placards, breathtaking feathered and sequined costumes that you could only thank the weather god for sparing from a dousing, university gay and lesbian societies, a middle-aged mother bearing a placard reading ‘My son is gay’, a group of lesbians marching by bearing a giant inflated breast … a kaleidoscope of all facets of gay and lesbian life.
There was no negative feedback at all from the shopping crowds of Shibuya. Rather the Parade added to the already flashy and tinselly streets of the youth quarter a new layer of upbeatness and outrage.
The streets of Tokyo's gay quarter, Shinjuku Ni-Chome were especially crowded that evening with post-Parade party goers, especially since the weather had cleared up entirely with the bonus of leaving sweaty mid-summer Tokyo considerable cooler than usual. Ni-Chome is usually peopled only after dark, but today is a special post-Parade day of extra revels on the streets of Shinjuku 2-Chome for those who didn’t get enough yesterday afternoon.
Tokyo gay listings - where to go
Tokyo gay and lesbian listings - what's on
Tokyo Lesbian and Gay Parade 2005
Buy the traditional summer toy of Japan: taketombo (bamboo dragonfly whirlygigs)
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Summer Matsuri season is in full swing, and this weekend we went to the port town of Hamada.
Listen to the sound of festival hawkers
With a population of 60,000, Hamada is big enough to support a MacDonalds, but not big enough to have a cinema. Even so its the biggest town around here, and its matsuri draws visitors from the surrounding countryside.
Maybe because out here in the hinterland we lack the plethora of shiny baubles and distractions that "sophisticated" cities need to offer their inmates, but small town matsuri seem altogether more exciting and friendly.
This year's matsuri offered 130 stalls offering the usual variety of ways to spend your money. Like carnivals and fairs anywhere, the hawkwers keep up a steady stream of calls to entice you to try their wares.
There are plenty of stalls offering cheap, gaudy, made-in-China plastic toys for the kids, stalls for catching goldfish, plenty of stalls selling iced beer, but most of the stalls are offering food.
Hamada is a fishing port whose main catch is squid. Squid are shipped from here all over the country as well as exported, so its not surprising that grilled squid on a stick is offered.
I'm pretty sure octopus don't have testicles, so octopus balls must be referring to the shape of these octopus-filled pancakes.
Yakitori is probably the classic matsuri food. In a tiny village matsuri sporting only one stall, it will be a yakitori stall.
Also on offer are the classic American foods of French Fries and giant wieners on sticks. Just to show how international we are in the countryside I even saw one stall selling Mexican Tacos.
Once the sun begins to set a variety of entertainments are offered on stage, and the finale of the evening is a firework display, this year featuring 5,000 fireworks, but until then time is spent eating, drinking, bumping into friends, and admiring the pretty girls in their yukata.
Festivals in Japan
Japan Shimane Hamada Festival Yukata podcast matsuri
Monday, August 07, 2006
Listen to the sound of yosakoi
Last weekend's matsuri at Kawamoto featured performances by several Yosakoi dance groups.
Yosakoi dancing is group formation dancing to fast-paced modern electronic music, but is based on earlier folk dances from Kochi in Shikoku.
In 1954, in a bid to revive flagging community spirit, the town of Kochi invented the Yosakoi dance.
Since them it has spread all over Japan and changed its form quite dramatically, but to be Yosakoi the dancers must use Naruko, clappers similar to castanets.
Costumes have developed too, from the original Happi coat to some quite exotic and fantastic fashions.
Make-up is also helping to give groups their own distinctive style. The groups are composed of both sexes, and all ages, often within the same group.
There are more than 200 Yosakoi festivals each year around Japan, but none grander than the original at Kochi where more than 15,000 dancers perform each August.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Japan Shimane yosakoi festival podcast