Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ancient Stairway

Kokage Shrine

Offerings for abundant cocoons

Ancient Custom Hanging on by a (Silk) Thread

Long before Japan was exporting Toyotas and Sonies,its most important foreign exchange earner was silk. Until about fifty years ago most farmers in the Kanto area supplimented their incomes by raising silk worms. Ten years ago I was still able to find the huts where these plump
caterpillars were grown and the sound of their loud munching on mulberry leaves still rings in my ears whenever I think about the times I came upon them. Now, even the mulberry groves which were a typical part of the Tsukuba landscape have all but disappeared.

Today,March 28th, I braved thunder and lightning to negotiate the steps up to Kokage Shrine and join the priests and 3 older, local gentlemen to give offerings for abundant rice crops and silk production and think back upon the heyday of Japans fling with the worms and their precious cocoons.
Kokage Shrine is yet another Tsukuba superlative. It is the oldest shrine in Japan dedicated exclusively to sericulture and once attracted thousands of worshipers, many from the textile
towns of Nagano and Gunma.
Located in the beautifully rustic Kangori(神郡) district of Tsukuba,the shrine is reached ascending ancient and uneven stone steps through an even more ancient sacred grove. It is said that the sea once reached this site and that an Indian princess who had set sail for Japan was dead upon arrival. Her ship was made of mulberry wood, and the locals imagined that she came from a land of abundant silkworms. They buit a casket for her and filled it with mulberry leaves.
To the right of the shrines main hall ,under an enclosure I found an undated E-ma painting depicting this scene.
I had a chance to chat with the Kanshushis(Shinto priests) as they were setting up the offerings on the altar. They were actually sent by The Tsukuba-San Shrine, as the Kokage Shrine has nearly been forgotten with the pricipitous decline in sericulture in Japan over the past few decades.
Now there are priests at the shrine only 2 days a year, March 28th for the spring offerings, and then November 23rd for the shrines festival. They explained to me how special the silkworms(kaiko) were to the Japanese, as they were the only domestic animal actually raised in peoples homes.They are also the only animals which normally are referred to using an honorific - O Kaiko-Sama, though the local people usual shorten this to O Ko-Sama.
As the time came to commence the ceremony only 3 old men had battled the stairs and settled inside the shrine for the ceremony.
This being a mere shadow of the crowds who would be there in former days.
First,a purification rite was carried out, and then offerings of cocoons, fruit and sacred sakaki leaves were made. O-miki(sake) was then drunk, and commemorative towels given to the few of us present. After the ceremony, we clambered down the steps as the local men reminisced about the shrines glory days.
Now the wooden buidings which would have been used by numerous vendors on this day were virtually falling apart. One man mentioned that a movie had been shot on this staircase, though he could not recall the title. Another man mentioned how just the other day the Emperor and Emperess performed a similar ritual for silkworms, which he had seen broadcast on TV(the Imperial Couple raises rice and silkworms for ritual purposes).
We reached the bottom of the stairway huffing and puffing. We entered the dilapidated old shop which once served the throngs of pilgrims who would flock here. They still sold a special souvenir- Kokage Yokan(beanpaste).
As a breeze entered the shop it gently lifted the paper displaying the price of the yokan. I noticed that for that day they had raised the price by 100 yen, taking advantage of the ceremony. Unfortunately,only 3 locals and I had shown up.
Times change, things change, and this ancient rite is certainly hanging on by a VERY thin thread.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bitter herbs in this season`s sweet

In Tsukuba, as the days get longer,here and there,slim shafts of greenery begin pushing up out from the snowless,brown, gray and straw-colored winterscape, giving us relieved assurance that once again, spring has come.It is in this time of year that many Japanese can be seen scouring the roadside, field edges or riverbank, as if looking for a lost object.
In fact, they are in search of yomogi(蓬), a wild herb which is gathered to make this season`s sweet - kusamochi(草餅), a distinctly green hued(perfect for St Paddy`s Day!) mochi-rice cake, sometimes filled with anko-sweet bean paste, or covered with kinako-soy bean powder.
Since yomogi(mugwort in English, though that word does NOT sound very appetizing), becomes inediblly tough quite soon after sprouting up, it has to be gathered when still very small ,young and fresh.
(I remember doing this years ago, for the first time, in the field behind the Tsukuba Central Police Station!)The herb is then boiled to make it less bitter, and then mixed into mochi(pounded rice cakes) and molded into small roundish patties.
  This gives the mochi a slightly bitter and grassy taste.
It is because of this flavor that the custom began in the first place in ancient China,
where bitter grasses were believed to be effective in expelling
impurities and evil spirits. This notion was imported to Japan in the Heian Period(794-1192)
though a different type of herb was the most common ingredient(母子草 hahakogusa or gogyou).
It was only in the Edo Period (1601-1868)the yomogi became the commonly used ingredient.Yomogi is also an important component og the heated acupuncture called moxabustion. This English term derives from the Japanese word mogusa, which is the dried
mugwort used for this traditional medical treatment.
These days kusamochi is also available at most convenient stores in this season and can of course be found at wagashiya(Japanese sweet shops).
I had one today. Why dont you enjoy the season and the tradition and try it for yourself!

Avi Landau

Saturday, March 01, 2008