Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Tsukuba has been changing rapidly with plenty of new buildings and a large influx of out-of-towners. Stiil, with all the dramatic changes, the city can be seen as being a collection of villages which retain their own identities. The community spirit can most easily be recognized by outside observers in the village Matsuri (festivals). If you look more carefully, however, you will find other signs of what life was like before this area was turned into The Science City.
One interesting feature of the village (shuraku or buraku) is the meeting hall (shukaijo). Now many of these have been rebuilt as what look like prefabricated sheds. However, you can still find several meeting halls that are used for KO (講）which are traditional wooden structures which could be mistaken for a small shrine or temple. Ko are prayer or study meetings which became popular in this region in the Edo Period (1600-1868). There are a confusing variety of ko, and I have described the most popular one, The Ko of the 19th (ju ku ya ko,十九夜講) in an Alien Times article.
Mrs. Okamino was concentrating deeply on her sweeping and did not notice my approach. I almost felt bad that I was going to disturb her, but I was determined to talk to her about that night's Fudo-Ko and to get some pictures of the inside of the Fudo Hall, especially of the fearsome statue of Fudo-Myoo,whom the women respectfully refer to as Fudo-Sama,which I had only ever had a peek at through the grating of at the front of the hall.
For many generations, a Fudo-Ko (women's prayer meeting in front of the image of Fudo Myoo) has been held at this worship hall in Higashioka. It had always been held once a month, on the 27th, but now with it getting harder and harder to get the neighborhood women together (only eight regularly gather now), the frequency has been reduced to one meeting every other month.
The women take turns being toban, the person in charge of preparing food and tea, and they get together at about 8 pm, chanting the Dainichi Kyo Sutra which they all know by heart. This is done before an impressive wooden image of Fudo Myoo (不働明王), one of the 5 Deva Kings to have been introduced to Japan in the 9th century by the great Buddhist priest Kukai in the 9th century. For some reason, Fudo, the Unmoveable One, became the most popular of these frightening figures, and a cult of Fudo spread throughout the islands, with special success in the Kanto Area, where he was worshiped by both warriors and peasants alike.The most famous place known for its worship of Fudo is Narita-San Temple(Shinsho-Ji),one of the most visited in all of Japan This popularity is interesting because in India and China it is RARE to find an image of Fudo alone (one that is not part of the group of all five myoo). I have not yey been able to determine just why this particular figure was !
so attractive for the Japanese.
The Fudo image at the Higashioka worship hall is impressive indeed with his sword and rope and halo of flames. What a contrast to the serene Niorin Kannon image worshipped at the Ju ku ya ko(19th night Ko). This difference in countenance,however, does not indicate a difference in objective, as the Fudo Myoo uses his fiercely determined expression to bring people to an understanding of Buddhism. He is believed to bring good health and easy delivery,prevent disaster and even bring monetary success.
Certainly, sitting in the old hall, smelling of ancient tatami mats, with Fudo glaring down as the rhythmic chanting pounds in their ears, could not help but make worshipers reflect on their ways and consider taking the correct, middle path .
Of the dozen or so Ko regularly practiced in this area before WW2, only about 4 are still actively being kept alive. Just acroos the Hanamuro River in Saiki, there is another very interesting Fudo Hall which I will discuss in a future posting.
There is no listing of these events online or in any printed form. The best way to get information about a Ko near you is to speak to the older people in your neighborhood. They will be very glad to hear that you are interested.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
The recent inauguration of the new National Art Center near Roppongi, has made things even more interesting for art lovers, and being that it is located near a Hibiya Line station it is easilly accessible to Tsukubans (even for those with only a few hours to spare).
I wanted to arrive at the museum early today,to have as much time as possible taking in the works of Australian Aboriginal Artist Emily Kame Kngwarreyey, who had been a ritual body painter and sand artist until she finally put brush to canvas in her late seventies. Living in the Red Center of Australia, a couple of hundred Kilometers from Alice Springs in a community ironically called Utopia,Emily must have spent nearly all her time in the remaining decade of life painting,as she created THOUSANDS of canvasses,many of them HUGE. She usually did this by spreading a canvas out on the sand, exposed to the elements, and in some of her works careful examination reveals bits of sand,vegetation and even an occassional DOG PAW PRINT!
Emily had no formal artistic trainig and virtually no knowledge of Western or Eastern artistic traditions. And Though eventually prices for her canvases soared way over the million dollar mark, she certainly was not painting for the money. This makes her,for me at least,an exciting example of pure artistic expression and an accessible channel for gaining incites into her peoples 40,000 year old culture.
The National Art Center`s building itself is quite interesting though I only looked at its facade briefly and then hurried into the exhibition gallery. If the floors were not wooden I would think that in was an airport terminal. with a spacious lobby with many restaurants and cafes. The galleries are entered through what look not unlike airport gates, and you actually have to pay for each exhibition separately at these gates. All the restaurants were crowded,making it seem that the hall was the center of the museum and not the inconspicuous galleries.I was surprised to see that there was even food to match an exhibiton. For the European Still-Life Painting show from the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, on eof the restaurants had an Austrian chef serving special Viennese lunches!
The design of the building is not surprising when on elearns that it was the creation of architect Kisho Kurokawa who also designed(among many other notable commissions) the Kuala Lumpur Airport Terminal! Of course when that was built it was the largest terminal in the world.And what a lonely place ,too,never having been able to compete with Singapore Airport as a regional hub and seeming almost empty in its hugeness, with staff going to and fro by bicycle.
Paying my 1,300 Yen entrance fee,I took a deep breath and entered another dimension-DREAMTIME. Emily`s works are abstract,appear simple and can be divided into several distinct phases. Nearly all the works on display ,however, were alike in that they were abolutely mesmerizing. I felt like I was at a Thai Restaurant.Thai food is delicious and it also physically affects your mouth, giving it a unique sensation. For the first time in my long museum-going life I felt the same sensation-IN MY EYES. More than any Da Vincis,Rembrandts or Picassos I felt LIFE in Emily`s canvases.
Of course we can try to interpret these works.Maybe they are maps containing wisdom related to gathering foods and medicines.Maybe they are reflections of subtle observations of the desert landscape.Maybe they are inner-visions which all humans can relate to. I could go on and on, but as my friend Rick said about this show, maybe it should just be FELT and not THOUGHT ABOUT.
Several times I reached the exit of the gallery, but each time I headed back to the start , staggering about, intoxicated ,trying to absorb as much of Emily`s energy as I could.
This incredible exhibition closes Monday evening. If possible-SEE IT.
I hope the energies I absorbed can be utilzed efficaciously in upcoming tenGooz gigs and recording sessions.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
These famed harbingers of spring arrive in the Kanto area in April, having flown great distances from southern China,and as far as Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. In Japan, swallows have come to live closely with humans, mostly nesting in settled areas, including large cities. They make their mud and grass nests under the eaves of houses and shops and usually return to the SAME HOUSE every year, OFTEN ON THE SAME DATE! The annual return of the tsubame has been considered a happy occasion by their host families. Having your house or shop selected by the swallows for nesting has traditionally been considered highly auspicious and you can still find home-owners and shop-keepers putting out boxes or newspapers to catch the droppings and maybe even putting up a screen or wind-shield for additional protection. In older villages and towns and in the older sections of large cities, one nest or more under the eaves of an old building, with chicks poking their beaks out expectantly w!
aiting for their mothers return, as their father stands guard close by, is an endearing image of a Japan quickly disappearing.
Year by year, the swallows are finding themselves less and less welcome. The traditional belief in the luck that the swallows bring is being gradually replaced by the the modern worship of THE STERILE and clean, and by this I mean an intense dislike of bugs, large trees, animals or anything else that smacks of DIRTY.
These days, proud owners of little, plastic, half-million dollar houses, are most likely to have swallows nests quickly removed or more cruelly just closed off, separating parents from young.
Still, the old values come to the rescue sometimes. Here is a story about the swallows at Misao Ito's house in Kukizaki. Misao lives in a grand old neighborhood, just across the street from Mrs. Noguchi's (of the mask fame) thatched-roof manor house. Her family decided to knock down their old house and build a modern style home, one which did not seem appropriate for swallows nests.
When her family was looking into ways of removing the nest which had been constructed by their front door, the neighbors came to intervene. Don't destroy the nest, they warned. If you do that youre house might burn down!
They told Misao's family that having the nest would bring good fortune to the family and that if the number of chicks hatched was an odd number, they should celebrate by eating sekihan (red rice for festive occasions). The Ito`s followed their neighbors advice and in the end all parties were satisfied. The birds raised their young,the kids enjoyed watching the dramatic, private nature show on their front porch and the neighbors are at ease, because tradition was not broken. And most of all their is the anticipation of the same birds return next spring and the spring after that.
With more and more swallows returning from overseas to find themselves unwelcome, I think it's time to re-instill in everyone this old excitement which the swallow used to bring.
Besides their miraculous annual return, they are beautiful, graceful, hardworking parents, who eliminate plenty of mosquitoes (without poisons)!
Why shouldn't we welcome them!
You can find many nests with chicks in them under the walkway of the Art and Physical Education Department of Tsukuba University. Parent birds can be seen for the next few days scrambling for as many insects as they can catch. Watching them over the deep green, young rice plants is the best way to view them in Tsukuba.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
It is my interest in these very common and uncelebrated flowers that led me to the discovery of a bizarre state of affairs in the world of Japanese-English translation -- especially in regard to the names of certain plants.
Knowing the roadside flowers to be tachi-aoi (立葵) and confirming that the same flowers were called hollyhock in English, I tried to learn more about their history and cultural associations. At first I was surprised that the ancient Aoi Matsuri Festival (葵祭) was often referred to as the Hollyhock Festival in English guidebooks and other texts.
I also discovered that the J-League 2 soccer club representing the capital of Ibaraki was called The Mito Hollyhock. This name was chosen because the crest of the great Tokugawa Family which ruled the Mito Domain for centuries consisted of 3 futaba-aoi leaves. This crest has been made extremely famous by the classic TV series Mito Komon. The Wikipedia article on hollyhock also said that that flower was the symbol of the Mito Clan.
At first I was excited. These flowers that I alone seemed to be interested in appeared to have highly distinguished historical and cultural associations. I wanted to write about this. Luckily , I started to dig further.
I did this because I still had lingering doubts about the connection between aoi and tachi-aoi. I had been to the Aoi Matsuri and seen that the Aoi associated with that festival was a leaf. I had even taken one as a souvenir and kept it in my wallet. The seal of the Mito Clan also consisted of 3 leaves (representing the 3 branches of the Tokugawa Family).
The leaves on the Mito Crest and the aoi leaf in my wallet looked NOTHING like the leaves of the hollyhock (tachi-aoi).Photos in field guides also showed me that tachi-aoi was the roadside flower, but I could find no pictures of aoi in any bookstore flower guide.
To make a long story short, I became slightly obsessed with getting to the bottom of this mystery. At the library I was able to confirm that the scientific name of tachi-aoi(hollyhock) was Althaae rosea , and that the symbol of the Mito Tokugawa and of the Aoi Matsuri was a plant with NO COMMON ENGLISH NAME but known as Asarum caulescens among botanists and futaba-aoi among the Japanese (see photo. These two plants have NO CONNECTION other than being PLANTS and having the character aoi (葵)in their names.
Finally, I went to the Tsukuba Botanical Garden to consult with Dr. Tadamu Matsumoto. He was also astonished that the Mito Soccer team had been called Hollyhock, as there was no botanical connection between futaba-aoi (the highly esteemed leaves on Mito Komon's emblem) and the common roadside tachi-aoi (hollyhock).
There is obviously a big problem with translation when dealing with the names of plants which are not familiar to the translators. These types of errors occur not only in Wikipedia and blogs but also in respected journals, dictionaries and encyclopedias. I fell victim to such a mistaken translation when writing about the Boy's Day (Tango No Sekku) traditions in Japan (Tango no Sekku over the Ages).
In my article I mistakenly wrote that the Japanese put irises(the Japanese term is shobu 菖蒲） in their baths and on their rooves on that day. I had gotten this translation from very respectable source books. However, I later realized that the shobu used is NOT an iris(hana-shobu) at all but a completely unrelated plant called CALAMUS(related to taro) by botanists and which was believed by the ancient Chinese and Japanese to have the power to expel evil and bad luck.
For me hollyhocks are amazing flowers and are worthy of having a soccer team named after them. But I'm sure that the citizens of Mito will not be pleased to learn that their team is named after the TACHI-AOI and NOT the revered FUTABA-AOI.
It's like calling the Seibu Baseball club The Azarashi (sea lions) instead of The Lions. Why not? They are both mammals!
Friday, July 04, 2008
As with most other Japanese traditions, the history of Tanabata is complex, and tracing its roots can be confusing. The way it has been celebrated has also transformed DRAMATICALLY over the centuries. Matters are made even worse when you find out that different cities celebrate the festival on different dates, a month apart.
Simply put, the 7th day of the 7th month on the lunar calendar is the day the the stars Vega and Altair are closest in the night sky, and the ancient Chinese developed a romantic story based on this celestial event. Separated for a year by the heavenly river (the Milky Way) two lovers, a cowherd and a weaver-girl get a chance to meet for only one night before being separated until the same time next year. It was on this night that the women weavers and other craftswomen of the ancient Chinese court made supplications to the two stars in the hope of improving their skills. It seems logical enough that wishing on two stars would be more efficacious than wishing on one.
In 8th century Japan, everything Chinese was the rage among the aristocracy, so naturally this star festival was adopted at the Japanese court in Nara. Members of the leisured class made offerings of colorful foods and enjoyed viewing the stars to the accompaniment of koto music. On the other hand, the reading of the characters 七夕 as tanabata, came from an indigenous story about a weaver girl Tanabatatsume (棚機津女), who sat by the riverside weaving beautiful fabrics for the gods. The Tanabata Festival today is a product of the coming together of these these two currents.
The custom of writing wishes or poems on colored paper originated in China. The paper colors used today are still those favored in ancient China: blue, yellow, white, black and red. However, the other traditional paper decoration designs on the bamboo trees aa well as the famous Tanabata decorations of Sendai are based on the story of Tanabatatsume.
Another completely different aspect of the Tanabata celebration in Japan was that it marked the beginning of preparations for the O-Bon Festival and on that day it was customary to wash hair, religious implements, animals etc. in anticipation of the return of ancestral spirits.
It also became customary in Japan for boys and girls to pray for better skill in calligraphy and poetry.Many older Tsukabans,as children,would wake up early Tanabata morn and gather the dew from the tar leaves in the garden. This water would be mixed to make ink for that days calligraghy on the tanzaku. The day after the festival, the tanzaku (strips of paper) were cast off into rivers or the sea. These customs remain almost only as fond memories in the minds of older generation.
In the Edo Period (1600-1868) Tanabata decorations experienced a GOLDEN AGE with townspeople trying to outdo each other in putting out the more outstanding decorations. This tradition lives on at the famous Tanabata festival in Sendai, where merchants line the shopping district with spectacular decorations.
A strange turning point in the history of Tanabata was surely the adoption of the western calendar by the Meiji Government after 1868. The seventh month is August according to the lunar calendar, but is July in the new calendar. These days the 7th day of the 7th month is NOT the time when Vega and Altair meet. This occurs in August. And more to this, the beginning of July is still the rainy season and stars can rarely be seen at all! Sounds ridiculous, but it is true. The festival is celebrated a month too early.
The great Sendai Festival, however sticks with the correct timing, as do the festivals in Yamaguchi City and Oita. For major NEW CALENDAR events (I mean in July) head for the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival in Kanagawa.
There are many historical details which I have left out and you are probably glad for that. Just remember that if you spy a colorfully decorated tree, remember the story of the lovers. Maybe you will be inspired to jot down a poem, or a special wish.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
It is clear that the darkness of the rainy season and the deep warm shades of moss have had a huge impact on Japanese aesthetics. For example, compare the Buddhist temples or clothes from the brighter lands of India or Thailand, with those of Japan. There are often bright, bold or shimmery colors and surfaces, which are needed so as not to be washed out by the brightness of the sun. In shadowy Japan, different , darker ,colors, more natural and earthy ,came to be utilized and loved. Moss and moss green have been an important part of this sensibility. This can be seen most clearly in Japanese gardening and landscaping, the cultivation of miniature trees (bonsai) and in fabric design.
There are several temples which are actually famous for their moss gardens, including Saiho-Ji and Gio-ji in Kyoto. Nearer to Tsukuba is Myoho-Ji in Kamakura. (Did you know that JR trains can be taken directly to Kamakura from Tsuchiura or Ushiku Stations during the summer?) These are nationally renowned Koke-dera (moss temples), but it is by no means necessary to leave our city to partake in the pleasures of moss viewing. As I mentioned above, the sacred grove of any shrine or the grounds of any temple will do, especially on rainy days.
Unfortunately, the same conditions which allow moss to thrive are favored by various types of mould and mildew and foreigners who come to live in Japan are driven to despair by their relentless proliferation. Walls, books, photos, are all common victims. Once I discovered that a pair of white sneakers I wanted to wear had turned black with mould! This is not just a nuisance, but a health hazard as well.
Of course, this is a problem for the Japanese, too, but since their ancestors have had to deal with the problem for millennia, there are plenty of bits of folk knowledge passed down from generation to generation which help to cope.
The most important point to remember is good ventilation. Make sure that the air in a particular room does not stagnate too long. Whenever the sun DOES shine you might want to let its rays do their work on anything you are worried might get mouldy. Remember: the light of day is the best disinfectant!
A more recently developed trick for dealing with mold was introduced to me by Harumi Takaya, who is always a great source of information about traditional life in Tsukuba. This is the use of baking soda. For example, baking soda mixed in with your laundry detergent at a ratio of 3 to 1 will prevent your laundry from getting moldy (if like most Japanese, you don't have a dryer). Putting a mixture of baking soda and water into a spray bottle and spritzing it on the walls etc... is also a good idea.
Don't let the darkness and the rain get you down! Go out and explore Japans endless SHADES OF GREEN! For the summer months THESE are the Emerald Isles!