Munakata-Okinoshima W.H. bid

Fukuoka ancient monuments tabbed for UNESCO heritage list

Kyodo (Japan Times)

The Council for Cultural Affairs has picked a group of five ancient monuments in Fukuoka Prefecture as a candidate for UNESCO cultural heritage status in 2017.

Munakata Shrine near Fukuoka, Kyushu

Munakata Shrine near Fukuoka, Kyushu

The government will recommend the Munakata-Okinoshima monuments to UNESCO by next Feb. 1 for screening by the World Heritage Committee in summer 2017.

The monuments include the island of Okinoshima, which lies midway between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula.

The island is home to Okitsu-Miya Shrine, which was used for prayer rituals for Japan’s successful exchange with the Asian continent in the fourth to ninth centuries.

About 80,000 articles unearthed on the island have been designated as national treasures, including a gold ring made on the Korean Peninsula and a cut glass from Persia.

A local government official said Okinoshima is suitable for the UNESCO cultural heritage list as it represents a rare case where the island itself has traditionally been worshipped.

The group of monuments also includes the Munakata Taisha shrine pavilions and ancient tombs on the northern tip of Kyushu.

Japan already has 18 sites on the UNESCO list, including the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” approved earlier this month.

The shrine at Oki Island, only open once a year for its festival

The shrine at Oki Island, only open once a year for its festival

 

See http://explorer.road.jp/islands/okinoshima201105/ for more pictures, as above, of the Oki festival.

Festival yakuza

Yakuza at the Sanja Festival (photo by 'Yumi' for Japanworld)

Yakuza play a prominent part at the Sanja Festival (photo by ‘Yumi’ for Japanworld)

The ties of the yakuza with Shinto are not widely-known, but they certainly exist.  They are not perhaps surprising when one considers that the mores of the yakuza are deeply rooted in Japanese traditions. It’s why gang leaders are often pictured making shrine visits, so as to enhance their self-image as guardians of Japaneseness.  And yakuza rituals often borrow deeply from Shinto practice.

A news item in Japan Today touches on the close ties between the yakuza and the huge Sanja Festival, which took place in May.  The article raises more questions than it answers.  What was the purpose of the two men?  How and why were they ‘unlawfully’ manoeuvering a large mikoshi?  What indeed was going on?

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2 yakuza members arrested for obstructing Sanja Festival

Japan Today

Two yakuza members have been arrested after they obstructed the Sanja Festival in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in May.

The suspects were identified as Shuichi Obitsu, a 46–year-old executive member of organized crime group Sumiyoshi-kai, and Masahiro Kondo, a 30-year-old member of the group, Fuji TV reported Saturday.

According to police, the two men unlawfully maneuvered a large mikoshi (portable shrine) during the festival near their office. Police said they showed off their tattoos and yelled at spectators to intimidate them, all of which disrupted the flow of the festival.

Police said the pair have been charged with creating a public nuisance.

There have been many similar cases caused by yakuza members at the Sanja Festival in the past.

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For the background to this story, see this article on yakuza involvement by ampontan.
For pictures of yakuza involvement in Tokyo’s Torikoe Matsuri, click here.

There's little mistaking the festival costume here! (courtesy the japanismo site)

There’s little mistaking the festival costume here! (courtesy the japanismo site)

 

Mitarashi at Shimogamo

Mitarashi saiMITARASHI MATSURI at Shimogamo Jinja from 5.30-22.30 (July 19-26) ¥300

Summer in Kyoto is hot, hot and humid!  At this time of year all one wants to do is wade through cold water.  Well, that’s just what you get to do in the Mitarashi Festival at Shimogamo Shrine.  Considering that it promises a disease-free year, particularly for legs, then it’s easy to understand why the festival is so popular.

All dolled up to wade in the purifying water

All dolled up to wade in the purifying water

Purification is Shinto’s raison d’etre, and the festival can be seen as a mini-misogi (cold water austerity).  The idea is that it removes impurities and restores you to full vitality.  In Shinto terms it’s a cleansing of your soul-mirror so that it shines brightly once more.

The water comes out of an underground stream, which is why it’s icy cold and invigorating.  Participants pay Y200 and get a candle with which to wade upstream and set before Mitarashi Shrine, dedicated to a purification kami.  Thousands pass through the stream over the four days, with yukata and trousers hitched up for the knee-high water.

Afterwards you get to drink a cup of the purifying water.  The idea is that the spiritually charged water will infuse you with the strength of the kami.  Following this one walks past a display of black stones taken from the bottom of the stream, which are said to be a special deterrent for disease demons – particularly the one that causes temper tantrums in children!

In front of the shrine the newly furnished enmusubi shrine attracts groups of yukata girls, and amongst the stalls set up for the occasion are the popular Mitarashi dango (dumplings said to resemble bubbles gushing up out of the water).

Shimogamo Jinja is a World Heritage Site and Kyoto’s premier ‘power spot’.  Here is a rare chance to see it lit up in spectacular fashion and in festive mode.  This year the festival has been extended from three days to be a week-long affair, so that unlike the crowded Gion Festival this is on a more manageable scale.  There’s little doubt about it: Mitarashi is the coolest festival in town!

(For a report on last year’s festival, see here.)

Crowds place their candle in stands before the shrine

Crowds place their candle in stands before the shrine

Afterwards there's a chance to imbibe the sacred water, so that purification is both internal and external

Afterwards there’s a chance to imbibe the sacred water, so that purification is both internal and external

Like other Shinto festivals, a spiritual core lies among all the jollity

Like other Shinto festivals, a spiritual core lies among all the jollity

Special foot ema are provided, on which one writes one's name and age before supplicating the water deity

Special foot ema are provided, on which one writes one’s name and age before supplicating the water deity

Some take advantage of the occasion to pray for a new partner at the shrine’s increasingly popular ‘enmusubi shrine’, where two branches of the sacred tree have merged into one

As an attraction for the occasion, the shrine displayed this improbably colourful creation of the three-legged crow (yatagarasu), ancestral founder of the Kamo clan.  The figure was created by art students, and the modern fantasy element could be taken as a nod in terms of contemporary tastes by the traditional guardians of the shrine.

As an attraction for the occasion, the shrine displayed this improbably colourful three-legged crow (yatagarasu), ancestral figure of the Kamo clan. The bird was created by art students, and the modern fantasy element could be taken as a nod in terms of contemporary tastes by the traditional guardians of the shrine.

Fushimi Inari Motomiya

Fushimi Inari at night

Fushimi Inari’s magnificent entrance gate lit up for the festival

It’s at times like this that one understands why Kyoto has been voted the most popular destination on earth by readers of Time Inc’s Travel and Leisure Magazine. We’re in the midst of the Gion Festival, between the first parade and the ‘after parade’ on the 24th.  The Shimogamo week-long Mitarashi Festival has just begun.  And this holiday weekend sees too the huge Fushimi Inari Motomiya Festival, when worshippers from across Japan descend on the shrine.

Inari fox mask

Fox masks are a theme of the festival, in honour of Inari’s guardian animal

For two days the shrine is absolutely packed with visitors, with the highlight coming on Sunday evening when the approach and buildings have special illuminations and are lit up by lanterns.  It’s a very special event at this very special shrine, which in the world’s no I city has recently overtaken Kiyomizu Temple as Kyoto’s no. 1 tourist destination.

One of the main attractions are the hand-painted lanterns, which make the approach an artistic and aesthetic experience (as well as a frantically jostling and crowded one).  The ones on the outer fringes are clearly done by elementary school students, but as one approaches closer to the Worship Hall the paintings grow in sophistication.  Some in the inner compound are almost breathtaking and clearly worthy of being presented for the enjoyment of the kami.

As in the very best of Shinto, this is a festival of the people which mixes enjoyment and light-heartedness with spirituality.  There’s no sign here of the rightwing nationalism that the Abe administration is seeking to impose on the country at large, and it’s a reminder that Inari is not a member of Jinja Honcho.

The festival is very much this-world focussed, with the kami seen as a living presence and fox-masks in abundance.  The predominant feeling is of gratitude.  Gratitude for the gift of life.  Gratitude that such a place as Fushimi Inari exists.  Gratitude for such a wonderful festival.  Gratitude for living in Kyoto.

Even amidst the excitement and illumination the guardian fox keeps tight hold of the granary key

Even amidst the excitement and illumination the guardian fox keeps tight hold of the granary key

Jostling crowds squeeze past the stalls on the narrow approach road

Jostling crowds squeeze past the stalls on the narrow approach road

At festivals participants get to have as much fun as the kami

At festivals participants get to have as much fun as the kami

Animals are nearer to the divine, they say...

Animals are nearer to the divine, they say…

Even the shrine's white horse seemed in a good mood...

Even the shrine’s white horse seemed in a good mood…

The shrine office did good business too.

The shrine office did good business too.

Some of the artwork around the stage was impressive

Some of the artwork around the stage was impressive

There were all kinds of subjects and styles

There were all kinds of subjects and styles

Lantern artwork

lantern art

There was traditional dancing too...

There was traditional dancing too…

... and people left with warm hearts and happy memories for another year of Inari providence

… and people left with warm hearts and happy memories for another year of Inari providence

Gion 2015 (Kikusui)

Gion Festival fan

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Musicians packed together on the Kikusui Float

The evenings before the grand parade on July 17 mark the busiest, bustling peak of the month-long Gion Festival, but this year a typhoon currently hitting Shikoku threatens to wreak devastation.  At the time of writing it’s the evening of the 16th, and a fierce wind has set in bringing driving rain.  Whether the main parade tomorrow morning will take place seems doubtful. [In fact, it did take place!]

In the happy hours before the typhoon, I managed to walk around the downtown area where the 33 floats (known as yamaboko) are set up.  Many display their treasures and altars for public viewing, and some allow access onto the floats from the second-floor of the adjacent building.

The top of hoko floats reach upwards towards heaven like lightning conductors

The top of hoko floats reach upwards towards heaven like lightning conductors

Each float has its own history, its own traditions, and its own neighbourhood support system.  I like to concentrate on one particular float each year, and this year focussed my attention on the Kikusui (Chrysanthemum Water) float.

The original float burned down in 1864, then after an absence of 88 years the present float was built in 1952.  It is one of nine huge hoko in the festival, which means it has an enormous tall pole, weighs about 12,000kg, and needs a team of some 30-40 to pull it, with two men piloting it round corners by slipping wet bamboo beneath the fixed wheels.

The Kikusui float took its name from a well in the neighbourhood, which was associated with a Chinese legend about a Chrysanthemum Boy.  He was a favourite of the emperor, and forced into exile by jealous rivals at court.  But in his new place of residence the boy was able to drink dew from the leaves of chrysanthemum flowers and so lived to be 700 years old.  It’s for this reason the float has tapestries depicting scenes from the Chinese story.

Tea is served!  Not only that, but you get to keep the plate with its chrysanthemum design.

Tea is served! Not only that, but you get to keep the plate with its chrysanthemum design.

In one of the adjacent buildings a set of green tea and Japanese cake was served, in front of an altar with a doll representing the Chrysanthemum Boy of ancient China.  The doll is a substitute for a chigo (page boy), into whom the kami would once have descended (one can easily imagine a spirit descending down the long pole and into the human vessel).

Before the main parade on July 17, the doll is moved from the altar and onto the float.  I was told that it is manipulated so as to move in the same Noh-like manner as the human chigo in the grand parade’s leading float.  It’s as if both are unconsciously moved by an animating spirit.

Each of the floats in the Gion Festival produces its own chimaki amulet.  These distinctive charms are hung on entrances for good fortune, especially businesses (the festival was run by city merchants in the past).  Those who buy the Kakusui amulet are allowed access onto the float,  where one can see for oneself the small size into which the musicians are squeezed.  Because of the Chinese legend, the Kikusui charm is  said to promote longevity in addition to good business – so if you’d like a long prosperous life, try heading next time for this fascinating float!

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For the first of a 10-part series on the Gion Festival, click here.

For an overview of the modern Gion Matsuri, click here.  For a brief report and pictures of the evening before the parade, known as yoiyama, click here.  To learn about the spiritual side of the festival, click here.    For a talk about the shamanic elements, click here.  

Gion Festival chimaki

The Kikusui Float charm, designed not only to bring success in business but to ensure a long life

The big wheel can move forward, but it can't turn corners

The wheels on the float are fixed and so can’t turn corners, necessitating complicated manoeuvres

Tea is served with Japanese elegance

Tea is served with Japanese elegance

Tea is drunk in front of the altar with the Chrysanthemum Boy doll

Tea is drunk in front of the altar with the Chrysanthemum Boy doll

The sales girls are busy throughout

The sales girls do a brisk trade of amulets and other festival goods

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Last year’s charms are discarded, to be ritually burnt

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Beneath the float can be seen bamboo strips that will be placed beneath the wheels during the parade in order to help navigate corners. Notice the aesthetic quality of the rope binding the wooden parts of the float (no nails are used).

Scenes from the Chinese legend of the Chrysanthemum Boy adorn the sides of the float

Scenes from the Chinese legend of the Chrysanthemum Boy adorn the sides of the float

The Kikusui float is noted for its particularly lavish decoration, making it stand out during the grand parade

The Kikusui float is noted for its particularly lavish decoration, making it stand out during the grand parade

Some of the floats are in narrow packed streets, difficult to negotiate even for the many pedestrians

Some of the floats are in narrow packed streets, difficult to negotiate even for the many pedestrians.  This is the view from the second floor of the Kikusui float, with an octopus dumpling stall in the foreground.

Pilgrimage

In Edo times the pilgrimage to Ise was a bustling, jostling affair that mixed the secular and spiritual

In Edo times the pilgrimage to Ise was a bustling, jostling affair that mixed the secular and the spiritual

It seems wherever you go in Japan, there is a pilgrimage route nearby.  Some of these are major pilgrimages, like that of the Kumano Kodo, while others are local and less well-known.  There are 33 Kannon pilgrimages, Seven Lucky Deity pilgrimages, and miniature versions of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. Some have fallen into disuse, or are largely carried out these days by bus.  Nonetheless the combination of movement, place and spirituality continues to have a powerful attraction, even in the modern age.

In the article below, the British environmentalist Satish Kumar writes of the many benefits of pilgrimage.  He’s a remarkable figure, whom I’ve been lucky to meet on a couple of occasions.  Once a Jain monk, he has campaigned for peace and nuclear disarmament, notably by walking over 8000 miles to the capitals of four nuclear countries – Washington, London, Paris and Moscow.  He is editor of Resurgence, runs the Schumacher Collge of environmental studies in Devon, UK, and insists on reverence for nature as the basis for social and ethical action.

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(Satish Kumar, extracted from an article in Kyoto Journal, no. 78)

Satish Kumar at a talk in Kyoto

Satish Kumar, earth pilgrim, at a talk in Kyoto two years ago

Being a pilgrim is a state of mind; it has nothing to do with actual travel. Travelling is symbolic. We travel in life, and through life. All of life is a journey. The journey is metaphorical as well as literal. Making a journey from A to B is only the ostensible goal. But going from A to B is not the point of the pilgrimage. Wherever you are, with your consciousness, with your way of being, with your way of looking at the world, with your way of connecting with the world, you are a pilgrim. A pilgrim is someone who sees life as a sacred journey, who sees the Earth as a sacred home, who sees the universe as a process.

When you are making a physical journey and living thanks to the hospitality of people along the route,you experience the generosity of your host and humility in yourself. That experience can linger even after the physical journey. So, the physical pilgrimage and the metaphorical pilgrimage are interrelated.We make the outer journey in order to make an inner journey. Our inner landscape is shaped by the outer landscape and viceversa.Therefore,by making a journey to holy places, such as the River Ganges, Mount Kailash, Santiago de Compostela or Iona, I was moved to explore my inner landscape, and make my journey to the holy source within. The abundance and the majesty of the Earth inspires me and lifts my spirits. Thus, the outer journey and the inner journey become one.

Traditional pilgrim garb was natural, simple - and hard on the feet.

Traditional pilgrim garb was natural, simple – and hard on the feet.

If you only want to get somewhere, then you are a tourist. A tourist looks for self-gratification. A pilgrim seeks to commune with the other and unite with the whole. For a pilgrim, every moment is a sacred moment, a beautiful moment; every moment is an opportunity to connect. Connecting and relating is true spirituality. Spirituality is present everywhere, in every moment, at every time. Just as there is no moment when we are not breathing, in the same way there is no moment when we are not spiritual.

To be a pilgrim is to be on a path of adventure, to move out of our old comfort zones of certainty and to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, with surprises and with the unpredictable. We have to let go of our prejudices and preconditioning, to make strides towards the unknown. It is a natural human condition to be afraid of the unknown. But the holy grail is not a tourist destination! There are no guidebooks, there are no road-maps, you cannot book your accommodation in advance!

When we consciously become pilgrims, our journey becomes a hero’s journey. The mythologist Joseph Campbell talked about this journey. Heroes are those who are prepared to take their lives in their hands. They are not afraid of risks. They are not self-centred, because they are totally and unreservedly dedicated to their quest. The Buddha was a hero of this kind. He left behind his princely palace, his wife and child, his wealth and comfort, his servants and courtiers. He moved out of his comfort zone, seeking the end of human suffering. He did not contemplate for a moment the impossibility of the task. The innocence of his mind was such that he was prepared to go through any difficulties, any problems, any obstacles, to fulfil his quest.

In essence I realised that being a pilgrim is a state of mind, a state of consciousness, a state of fearlessness.

Modern-day pilgrims head for Nachi waterfalls in Kumano

Modern-day pilgrims head for Nachi waterfalls in Kumano

Fitting out a shrine

Hotly recommended youtube video of a NHK World programme about shrine fittings and decorations. It may not seem exciting, but for anyone with a sense of craftsmanship, it’s quite riveting. The documentary is part of an excellent series called Core Kyoto with which a couple of personal friends are involved.

The programme not only highlights overlooked aspects of shrine decoration, but shows the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into them. As with other Japanese goods, the attention to detail and the aesthetic effects are stunning. More than this, though, the video highlights the deeply spiritual quality inherent in the crafting of the various items.

Amongst the ritual ornamentation covered in the programme are the bell rope (suzu no o) and the use of hemp; metal fittings;  the planing of cypress wood; the use of handbells; the long tassels that adorn mikoshi; and the sacred mirror.

The programme is 28 minutes long (though it mistakenly says 42). Put aside some time, slow down and watch with due appreciation for the centuries of time and the hours of dedicated labour involved. You won’t regret it, and it may change the way you look at shrines.  And possibly at Shinto too….

Tanabata 7/7

Tanabata decorations7/7 (July 7) might be considered lucky indeed.  And in Japan it’s closely associated with stars and lovers.  How come?

Stars and constellations had a close connection with the spirituality of early Man. ‘It’s written in the stars,’ goes the old saying. Tanabata is a clear example. It concerns two lovers represented by two different constellations, which are separated by the Milky Way but able to meet once a year.  By way of celebration, people write poems or their wishes on strips of brightly coloured paper which are tied to bamboo.

Like much of ‘Japanese tradition’, it has its origins in China. It was first mentioned in the 7th century, and later during the Tokugawa period it became established as one of the ‘five seasonal feasts’.  These included New Year’s Day (1/1); Kyokusui no en (Poetry writing) (3/3); Boys Festival (5/5); and the Festival of Chrysanthemums (9/9). Things have changed since then, but the Tanabata tradition carries on.  (Why is there no 11/11 festival?  Because the Chinese number system was thought to end with 9.)

Tanabata decorations and a sacred tree

Tanabata decorations around a sacred tree

Here is what the authoritative Kokugakuin encyclopedia has to say on Tanabata:

“According to an ancient Chinese story, two lovers—the Herdsman (Altair in the constellation Aquila) and the Weaver woman (Vega in the constellation Lyra)—traversed the sky separately and could cross the Milky Way and be together but once a year provided the sky was clear.  This day was called Qi Xi, or “seventh night” (read tanabata in Japanese).

A similar myth existed in Japan about the saintly maiden weaver, Tanabatatsume (lit. ‘girl of the shelved loom’), who awaits her annual one-night visit from a kami at her hut by the river (that is, the Milky Way), and this fused with the Chinese tale of the Weaver woman.

Also related to this celebration is a festival called kikōden, during which women pray for improvement in their weaving and calligraphy skills. At the court during the Heian period, they would skewer various foods from land and sea such as pears, peaches, and dried bream on seven gold and seven silver needles and threading them with five-colored string (blue, yellow, red, white, and black) to use as a tanabata offering. A banquet would also be held during which the emperor would observe the meeting of the stars, and performances of poetry, songs, and instrumental music would take place.

Tanabata decorations at a Kyoto wedding hall

Tanabata decorations at a Kyoto wedding hall

Nowadays on Tanabata, people commonly write poems or wishes on fancy strips of paper (tanzaku) and cut stars and other shapes out of brightly colored paper, and use these to decorate a stalk of bamboo. The decorated stalks are customarily released into rivers, streams, and the sea the next morning. Some believe this practice is the product of the spread of lessons in reading and writing during the Edo period.

In some areas, horse-shaped puppets or other objects are substituted for bamboo stalks, and in others, the celebration involves a lighting of torches. Regardless of these variations, the celebrations that mark Tanabata are another example of an event wherein people welcome the kami and their ancestors for the occasion and send them away after they have spent the night.”

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Wikipedia also carries a full page of information on Tanabata, including this rather interesting titbit…

In 2008, the 34th G8 summit in Tōyako, Hokkaidō coincided with Tanabata. As host, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda invited the G8 leaders to participate in the spirit of the festival. They were each asked to write a wish on a piece of paper called tanzaku, to hang the tanzaku on a bamboo tree, and then to take the necessary actions to change the world for better. As a symbolic gesture, the actual writing and the act of hanging up that note is at least a first step.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made colored strips of paper and a bamboo tree for G8 wishes available in Roppongi during the summit. Protesting organizations in Sapporo during the G8 summit also tried to use the spirit of Tanabata to focus attention on a somewhat different set of wishes.  Non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, and CARE International set up an online wish petition campaign to coincide with the G8 Summit and Tanabata.

Decorations to advertise the Iwashimizu Tanabata Festival

Sacred and secular mountains

Fuji and herons

Herons view the evening sky with Mt Fuji in the background

Mountains are a vital part of Japan’s identity, and Mt Fuji its sacred symbol. Some 70% of the country is mountainous, and the terrain is characterised by rice-growing villages set amongst steep hillsides. These ‘abodes of the gods’ have shaped the nation’s religious sensibility.

Not only are sacred mountains viewed as protective deities, but they serve sometimes as guardians of remote and scenically situated shrines. ‘Entering the mountains’ to develop spiritual merit started in prehistoric times and was moulded into a syncretic practice called Shugendo. Mountains took practitioners closer to god in more senses than one.

In the abridged book review below, Stephen Mansfield suggests that the sacred quality of mountains has been eroded in a secular age of tourism and environmental destruction. Even the volcano Mt Fuji, tallest and most beautiful of Japan’s mountains, has not escaped despoliation and overuse.

The sacred hill of Mt Miwa, which acts as 'spirit-body' of the kami for Omiwa Jinja

The sacred hill of Mt Miwa, which acts as ‘spirit-body’ of the kami for Omiwa Jinja

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On mountain peaks and tourist trash

Stephen Mansfield for The Japan Times July 5, 2015

Review of One Hundred Mountains of Japan, by Kyuya Fukada, Translated by Martin Hood. 246 pages University of Hawaii Press

Despite hazardous climatic conditions, treacherous features, and the large number of people who have come to grief on them, in his 1964 book Nihon Hyakumeizan (“One Hundred Mountains of Japan”) Kyuya Fukada highlights the benevolent characteristics of mountains, their function as protective sentinels and tutelary deities in the lives of those who inhabit surrounding villages and towns.

Fukada’s criteria in selecting peaks was based not on height or reputation, but the following: “A mountain must have character; it must have history; and it should have something that makes it uniquely itself — an extraordinary distinctiveness.” Accordingly, Fukada writes about each mountain as if it were a person, with a particular set of characteristics, strengths, flaws and defining identity. In the author’s view, a truly outstanding mountain should also be associated with religious traditions, and accord with his assertion that, “mountains have always formed the bedrock of the Japanese soul.”

Hill path

Japanese holy men had long been ascending peaks, but it was only in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) that Englishman Walter Weston first introduced Japan to the notion of climbing mountains for the sheer pleasure and the exhilaration of the experience. Many a mountaineer has set out in earnest to “conquer” a peak, only to discover locals — hunters of serow and bear, or religious petitioners — have already been there, leaving small, unvarnished wooden shrines, votive tablets or old bronze coins as evidence of their ascents.

Borrowing from the nature writings of John Ruskin, Fukada shared the Victorian sage’s view of the ascent of mountains as a morally ennobling experience. If one part of Fukada was an unapologetic romanticist, the other half was a cynic — or at least a healthy skeptic.He asks, “Is Japan’s landscape doomed to be despoiled at the hands of the Japanese themselves?” Noting a stone monument to the poet Takuboku Ishikawa near the Akan-dake volcano complex in Hokkaido, Fukada writes, the “local tourist industry has battened on (Ishikawa) as the poet most likely to serve their commercial interests.” Passing a “touristified mock village,” he can barely conceal his derision at the sight of “people in Ainu costume sitting in their shop fronts carving wooden bears.”

Wooded hill track

It was still possible in Fukada’s early climbing days — with many trails relatively untrodden — to treat mountains as objects of reflection and meditation, a pleasure made feasible by a pristine landscape of snowfields, trackless wildernesses, watercourses and highland meadows bedizened with Japanese parsley, sorrel and white florets.

On Mount Iide, a peak in the Tohoku region, Fukada finds a rusty sword placed beside a stone marking the summit. At another spot near a shrine standing beside a grove, he finds antique pottery fragments in a shallow streambed.

The writer knew these peaks before the era of mass tourism, ski lifts and easy access; his later encounters were with increasingly less naturalistic landscapes. On the slopes of Mount Azuma, Fukuda finds once-virgin terrain that has not been able to withstand the attentions of commercial developers. He warns that at the height of the tourist season, “you would be well advised to don a mask if walking in the vicinity, so dense are the dust and fumes.”

Fukada finds old huts and lodgings, once intended as shelter for pilgrims and mountain mystics, which have been converted into modern inns and a sprawl of facilities catering to the contemporary visitor. On Mount Takazuma, a sacred place for both Shinto and Buddhist worship, Fukada finds a spot that was “once the haunt of cognoscenti who shunned the vulgarities of Karuizawa and lake Nojiri” has now been reduced to “just another tourist trap.”

None of Fukuda’s harshest criticisms, however, detract from the intrinsic beauty of his 100 peaks, or their forms, which have remained essentially intact. In his climbs, the writer’s senses sharpened on the grindstone of these mountains, Fukada shares the sheer joy of being alive amid such magisterial eminencies.

Primal mountain… it was here on Mt Takachiho that the heavenly deities first descended to earth in the person of Ninigi-no-mikoto

Gion Festival begins!

Yes indeed, it’s July 1 and for Kyoto it’s the beginning of the month-long Gion Festival, dubbed one of Kyoto’s Big Three (along with Aoi and Jidai Matsuri).  It’s one of Japan’s oldest and biggest affairs, and there are many websites devoted to the event.  For me it’s a true People’s Festival and a wonderful display of Kyoto culture at its finest.

The following brief description comes from the Kyoto Visitors Guide (which has an excellent interview with one of the festival musicians playing ‘Gion bayashi’): ‘Last year was a historical moment for the festival exactly 48 years in history, when the Gion Festival returned back to its original form. The commonly known united-procession was separated into the Saki Matsuri and the Ato Matsuri. So this year will be the 2nd special year to witness the revived Ato Matsuri.

The Saki Matsuri’s parade is gorgeous and boisterous with many floats as usual. In contrast, the revived Ato Matsuri is held in a much quieter atmosphere as there will be no stalls, nor extra goodies, etc. For tourists who can stay a bit longer, you may have a great chance to see the contrast of both the gorgeous and fun Saki Matsuri along with the solemn and beautiful Ato Matsuri, like the yin and yang of the festival.’

On July 1 the chigo (sacred page) of the main float Naginata-hoko visits Yasaka Jinja to pray for a safe festival. (courtesy Kyoto Visitors Guide)

On July 1 the chigo (sacred page) of the main float Naginata-hoko visits Yasaka Jinja to pray for a safe festival. (courtesy Kyoto Visitors Guide)

The festival was kicked off this morning with a visit to Yasaka Jinja, host shrine of the event, by the chigo (sacred page) to pray for safety.  There then follow a whole series of rites and ceremonies throughout the following month, with the highlight being the main procession on the 17th.

The following listing comes courtesy of Wikipedia….

  • July 1 through 5: Kippuiri, opening ceremony of festival, in each participating neighbourhood
  • July 2: Kujitorishiki, lottery for the parade order, in the municipal assembly hall
  • July 7: Shrine visit by chigo children of Ayagasaboko
  • July 10: Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi portable shrines
  • July 10: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River
  • July 10 through 13: Building-up of floats(Former parade)
  • July 13 a.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Naginataboko
  • July 13 p.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Kuse Shrine
  • July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 15: Yoiyoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 16: Yoiyama(Former parade)
  • July 16: Yoimiya shinshin hono shinji, dedicative art performances
  • July 17: Parade of yamaboko floats(Former parade)
  • July 17: Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the city
  • July 18 through 20: Building-up of floats(Latter parade)
  • July 21: Yoiyoiyoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 22: Yoiyoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 23: Yoiyama(Latter parade)
  • July 24: Parade of yamaboko floats(Latter parade)
  • July 24: Parade of hanagasa or “flower parasols”
  • July 24: Parade of mikoshi from the city to Yasaka Shrine
  • July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
  • July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine
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