2014
06.30

SYNOPSIS:  About nothing much.  A day in transit.  Nothing going on.  About the ride into the Japanese Alps.

 

I exchanged my 3-tatami cubicle room at the Eco Hotel in the fourth largest town, the shopping capital of neon-lit 21st century Japan, for an 8-tatami room in a traditional thatched farmhouse in the remote village of Ogimachi, which for all practical purposes, had gotten stuck in the 18th century and which has a mere 600 residents.  For a few days I replaced my carton juice, yoghurt, banana, or pre-packed sushi meals, with the home-cooked local cuisine.  The neon lights of Nagoya made room for the stars of the Japanese Alps.  And the annoying advertising trucks which blasted advertisements and sports news across town gave way to the slightly less annoying frogs which trumpet their news across the ponds.    I am not complaining.  🙂

To get here, my limited express train named Haida had to maneuver narrow steel bridges, balance along the edges of mountains and ride along in gorgeous valleys, which an English announcer at one point likened to the Rhine River.  Now there was an unexpected comparison!  For a brief moment it felt indeed like some German landscape. But the difference is that you have these enormous, rolling mountains here and unlike Germany, where you find yourself mostly immersed in the forests once you get in, here you get these frequent vistas along valleys and across mountain ridges which are completely unique, and trains rather than going through the forests ride along the edges. Perhaps there is a reason why this area of Japan is called the “Japanese Alps”.  Switzerland definitely has vistas and mountains that compare.  Haida got as far as Takayama.  From here there is only the bus.

It had to get through tunnels which were longer than any tunnel I had ever been in except perhaps for Afghanistan.  There was not just one tunnel, but tunnel after tunnel after tunnel with just a couple of hundred meters separating one from the next.  It felt like we were diving into the mountain, coming up for quick gasps of air before being submerged again by darkness.  This is a constant reminder how difficult this terrain is and again and again it invites my admiration on how the Japanese have built a network of infrastructure of roads, bridges, tunnels, and in this area dozens of dams, which is likely one of the highest ranking in the world.  No matter how remote a mountain village is and how high up it hides out — there is a way to get there which lives up to any 21st-century expectation, and there is electricity.

After a hiatus of a few sites such a the Pearl Island or the Ise Shrine, or an outright deviating shopping spree, I am “on track” again following the UNESCO trail of Japan.

But as always, these transit days are long but typically uneventful.  This one was no exception.

Good night.

2014
06.29

SYNOPSIS:  An ancient tradition of fishing and how it feels to watch it in the modern world as it is exploited as a money-making tourist industry.

 

I have raised this question before, most recently with the rebuilding of Ise, so I apologize if I sound like a broken record: how much nonsensical or barbaric behavior can one justify by either tradition or religion?  It is a question that permeates the 20th and 21st century perhaps more than any time before, as we have set worldwide standards through declarations of human rights, women’s rights, animal rights, prisoners’ rights, etc.

Yet, here and there practices slip through which seem to either go unnoticed, and/or unchallenged; why?  To me the tourist attraction of cormorant fishing which is popular in this region falls into such a category.  I did not know what to expect, but I was curious.  And in general I love the preservation of traditions, so I signed up.

Cormorant fishing has been cultivated and recorded in this region for over 1300 years.  It involves sea cormorants which are caught in the wild and then trained in captivity by a master fisherman.  In Inuyama, only four of these cormorant fishers (three men and one woman) called usho, currently have the skills for this fishing method. They are trained by a veteran of 60 years in the trade.

This first thing the usho does is to fill the tip of the bird’s beak so that the bird can no longer injure the usho in case of an attack.  In order to prevent the birds from flying away, some essential feathers in one wing are clipped.  After that, the bird is trained to swim off and to return to the usho’s boat.  It is always held on a kind of a leash, a string called tanawa, which is fastened to the bird’s neck and wrapped around the body beneath the wings.  The string serves two functions: it forces the bird to return when the master pulls and it prevents the bird from swallowing any larger fish, as it would naturally do, but to retain them in its neck so that it can be retrieved by an assistant in the boat.

While fishing, an usho will manipulate up to ten of these strings and if you can imagine when ten birds are going off in all kinds of directions, there is indeed a great skill level not to get the birds entangled in one big mess.  The usho constantly has to pull and rearrange the strings in order to keep the birds free to swim and to return to the boat with their catch.

Speaking of the boat:  It is called an u-bune and is quite sizable, about 13 meters, long and narrow. Three people will ultimately be on board with the birds: the usho, an assistant called nakanori, who retrieves the fish from the birds, and a steersman known as tomonori, who maneuvers and moves the boat forward.   Fishing can be done during the day and for photography’s sake, I tried to join a day excursion.  But you have to register a day in advance for that one.  So, I joined a more typical night excursion but photography was awful and I apologize.  Of all my pictures only one was halfway decent to demonstrate the process.  I am sure infinitely better images can be found online.

The boat is equipped with a kagari, an iron basket which is filled with pine wood and set ablaze.  This fire illuminates the river and attracts the fish.  It also creates a nice bright spot which obscures the usho for any good photos if you end up in the wrong place on the accompanying boat filled with tourists who watch this spectacle.  OK, I will stop complaining but this was very frustrating.  After contributing a lot of money to a fishing practice which I now have great reservations about, at least I wanted some good photos.  The irony of it all!  😉

What I liked best about all this is the outfit the usho was wearing: first, a pointed black hat called kazaore-e-boshi which is both a windbreaker and a protection against the fire sparks that fly around massively once the boat is moving.  Then there is the special “bib”, the muneate, which again protects against the sparks and goes over a blue fishing suit, the ryofuku, with tightly-fastened cuffs and legs.  A most funky looking part is the koshimino, a straw skirt which keeps the ushu warm and protected from splashing water.  Our ushu pointed out proudly, that she is making her skirt every year new from exactly 365 pieces of rice straw.  Topping all this off, or should I say footing it all off, is a pair of half-sized sandals called ashinaka which prevents slipping on fish and oils in the boat.

We tourists boarded a covered boat with cushions which took us first for a 1/2 tour of the Kiso River where we enjoyed Inuyama castle lit by night.  For the second 1/2 our boat was floating next to the fishing boat in which the usho had lit the fire and was now edging on the cormorants to fish.  There was a lot of splashing, calling, and squawking in the dark, a lot of sparks flying and the occasional glimpse of the usho manipulating her strings or the assistant pulling one of the birds who had caught a fish out of the water — by the neck — and then throwing the bird back in to the waters.  I was not amused.

Before our trip I had observed the two assistants preparing the birds for the trip by fastening the strings around neck and body.  I did not like the looks of that.  When they stuffed the prepared birds into a row of buckets in the boat by twisting (if ever so gently) their necks around so they would fit, I began to have more doubts.  But now, when I had to watch how the birds were pulled by the necks and thrown back into the river, I completely lost my appetite for this spectacle.  This did not seem right.

Perhaps, the birds really became the master’s friends or pets as one of the brochures seemed to suggest.  And yes, perhaps they lived twice as long in captivity as in the wild. But this is like saying you chop off your cat’s paws and then consider it your friend because it does not run away.  Well, I know analogies are limp and this one in particular.  But you get my drift.  Somewhat disturbed and quite unhappy about having been a part of this tourist trap, I returned home.

Good night.

2014
06.28

SYNOPSIS:  The world of the Meiji Restoration as it presents itself in a vast open-air museum.  From a prison to the doctor’s office; from a sake brewery to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (no kidding).

 

There is a lot to be learned (by me) about the Meiji Restoration, a relatively short period dating from 1868 to 1912, which despite its short life, seems to have had far-reaching consequences for Japan.   I have been baffled a bit by the term “restoration”.

So, it wasn’t a revolution, nor a coup, not a reformation either, but a restoration.  From what I understand it was the ruling class, some aristocrats, who restored power back into the emperor’s hands and away from the shogunates, the military class who had ruled Japan for 250 years during the preceding Edo period (1603-1868).  Something does not seem right about this picture.  Some day I will do my research on this.  For now, I come to this history from a very hands-on perspective, judging it purely through the affects it has on the arts.  And for that, the Meiji Mura Open Air Museum in Inuyama seemed perfect.

Picture again Greenfield Village, the open air museum by Henry Ford in Michigan (if you are from around there) and imagine it in the most spacious mountainous site flanked by a big lake.  It could not get much more picturesque than that.  It literally takes all day to get through and since I took my time and had not gotten there until 11 AM, I actually missed a few buildings.  From one end to the other it’s a few kilometers and perhaps, if I had fully realized that, I would have carried my back pack.  Instead I left it in a locker, which gave my sore shoulders a rest, but which forced me to hike all the way back in a hurry at the end of the day not to miss closing time!

60 buildings have been relocated here from that time period and put in their own picturesque setting to form the illusion of some sort of a village from the Meiji period.  Indeed, there is about everything you would expect in a town: the police box, the prison, the court house, the sake factory, the lighthouse, the high school, the medical research lab, two churches, lamps, bridges, factories, a post office, a doctor’s office, a brewery, a telephone exchange, a tea house, a foreigner’s residence, a martial arts gymnasium, the barracks of an infantry regiment, a glass factory, a public bath house, a library, a photo studio, a kabuki theater, a beauty parlor, various houses of the rich and the poor, and a hotel.

And just so you can really feel as if you are living back then, a steam locomotive, a street car, and a bus operate for real and you can ride them (for a fee, of course) across the village.  Really, what is missing?

I did not see any Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines…  I guess it is significant that there are two churches.  This was the time when Japan opened up to foreign influences, which in the case of Christianity, did not last long and did not go too well (massacres included).

The shogunate had pursued a policy of inwardness, focusing on all that represented Japan.  The new Meiji government, headed by a puppet boy emperor, focused on the outside, the western, developed industrial world.  Japan was to come out of its perceived backwardness.  The buildings reflected that beautifully.  Some of them combined traditional Japanese materials and techniques with western elements; others looked purely like copies out of central Europe.  And a few buildings reflected the resistance which most likely existed against this restoration as well.

One sentence from an information poster at Nagoya castle keeps going around in my head: there was the palace which currently is painstakingly reconstructed — and the sign at the castle matter-of-factly stated:  The palace was dismantled during the Meiji restoration to make room for army barracks!  The exclamation mark is mine.  That, in my art-historical mind, raised about a dozen flags about the Meiji Restoration.  Were they cultural barbarians?   Were they just anti-military?  But who in their right mind would do this, anti-military or not?  And why army barracks?  Who were the enemies?  What battles did they expect to fight?

I thoroughly enjoyed the day at this park-like village.  The sun was shining and the photo-ops were great.  I finally caved in and am doing it the Japanese way: I bought a hat.  I hate hats!  Now I look like an old Japanese lady, but who cares?  At least I don’t have to go the umbrella way and I can still survive the sun and operate my camera.  I know I should have done this weeks ago…

A few buildings would rank as my favorites; the post office (of all places) was cool.  The sake factory, impressive.  But how could it be otherwise, spot #1 has to go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s entrance hall and lobby of the Imperial Hotel which he designed in 1919 and which functioned as a state guest house for the new government housing politicians and royalty from all over the world, and the occasional celebrity, such as Marilyn Monroe.

But then there was the earth-shattering quake of 1923 which leveled much of Tokyo.  The Imperial Hotel actually suffered much less damage than other buildings in the area, but it was still no longer structurally sound; several floors had crumbled and chimneys were toppled.  It was dismantled and rebuilt here in the 1960’s.  Even the pond in front of the hotel was rebuilt and the effect is quite striking.  When you circle around the building you see that it is only a little more than a façade. But you clearly get the FLW feel with all of his signature features, including some of the original furnishings.  Quite astonishing.

And so went another day at the little town of Inuyama.  If I had time, I most likely would have gone to another theme park in town, called Little World.  Here in miniature, dozens of famous buildings from around the world have been recreated for fun and for education.  But as always, there is not enough time to do it all.

Good night.

 

2014
06.27

SYNOPSIS:   About a castle which still has a traditional town, and about this town and the cruel and not so cruel traditions it fosters.  Meeting a nice Japanese couple.  A few words about Japanese and the English language.

 

It’s a tiny little dot on the map:  Inuyama, but it’s worth a trip if you have the time.  The castle of Inuyama — yes another castle! — is the oldest in Japan.  That should count for something and it justified my visit.  And it is one of the few castles which still has a town to go with pretty much the same as it had a town at the time of its conception.  That is definitely something that counts.

I had gotten up very early in Nagoya and made the trip out here.  On my way from the station I noticed an elderly couple walking out of a hotel, greeting me with big smiles.  Soon after, I would see them again at the castle, where they started to talk to me.  On and off throughout the day we would run into each other and I am really sorry that I did not exchange contact information with them.  But they are good examples of a rare breed of Japanese: the ones who can speak English.  I really can’t get over the fact that young people can barely say hello in English.  This is not coming from the position of an arrogant American who thinks that all of the world has to speak his or her language.  This is coming from a teacher’s perspective where I wonder how any young person will be successful in an increasingly global world without a foreign language (and that means English for starters).  What is most surprising to me is that there is none of the eagerness I have encountered in other countries to learn the language through movies, books, news, and contact with foreigners on your own despite inadequate schooling.  No.  It is almost as if there is a resistance, a certain sureness that one can and will survive just fine without the Western foreigners.  Tourism here is definitely not geared towards the English-speaking world even though it is much better now than I hear it was just 30 years ago, where no street sign and no information was posted in English.  But tourism is one thing, the global economy another…

Even the world “tou-rist in-for-ma-tion” pronounced very slowly will draw scary blanks!  And that is a phrase posted in English at every train station.  How oblivious does one have to be not to have ever read this?  At a UNESCO town with a big world heritage center — again, posted on multiple signs and in big letters throughout town, a woman who lived two blocks from it could not communicate with me when I asked her where I had to turn to get to the “he-ri-tage cen-ter”.  No chance.

But then there are the ones who have studied or lived abroad and who can and are eager to speak English, the very, very few.  And this older couple was among them.  We exchanged some pleasantries and a few sentences whenever our paths crossed.  They were on a little vacation at the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary!  They had five children and eleven grandchildren.  They were such a sweet, gentle and pleasant couple.  They reminded me of you, Elida and Bill!

But back to the castle — what can I say?  It looks quite like all the others.  🙂  It was a bit smaller than some I have seen.  But now I have a good sense on how remarkably authentic the reconstructions really are, which I have seen since this one was through and through original.  This one had a unique entry.  You had to actually go through a Shinto shrine — up a flight of stairs, past the shrine and out through a row of torii gates — to proceed up to the castle.  I wonder if it was the castle kami that was venerated here, or if the shrine was a later addition taking advantage of the nice elevation and the prominent location.

A stroll through the downtown area at the foothill of the castle, and even moreso, a look at the city museum’s model of the town, reveals that it has a remarkably authentic city center as well.  There was no devastation through war or fire even though an 1891 earthquake destroyed the west side of the castle and during the Meji restoration (here we go again) some of the buildings deemed unnecessary, were torn down.  But overall, the medieval character of both castle and town were preserved.  One does not see that very often.

With a preserved old town come preserved traditions.  From all I can tell, Japanese are the most festival-enthusiastic people I have ever come across.  And Inuyama comes with one that combines ancient puppeteering with a unique parade.  Huge floats called yama-dashi are constructed of wood which look like a set of receding squares stacked on top of each other.  There are 13 yamas in total and they each have a name!  Each float is three stories high.  The bottom story with the largest square will have poles for men to pull and push this thing along.  These guys also perform sophisticated and choreographed movements as they are pulling the floats and of course, they wear color-coordinated clothes.  The center cubicle has to be big enough for two to four puppeteers to kneel inside and there is room for some children to ride along on this level to wave to the crowd and to cheer.   They are dressed in golden clothing.  And the smallest square on top, covered by a canopy, provides the stage for several, 2-3 life-size puppets to perform.

Some of the floats are completely covered with candlelit paper lanterns, 365 on each of them.  They alternate with the puppet floats. Even in the model procession and in the video which was playing at the museum, this festival was a sight to behold.  The most exciting spot in the parade is when each of these floats has to make two 90 degree turns in brief succession as the parade moves up one long street and then back the one parallel to it to make a big (rectangular) circle.  The men who move the float work hard at these precarious turns which are accompanied by lots of screaming from the audience, shouting and banging, and and the booming echo of the wheels which at that moment drown out the flutes and drums that accompany each float.  Even these turns have names:  donden.

A whole museum in town was dedicated to models of this festival and puppet making.  A hands-on section allowed the visitor to manipulate one of the puppets, and I was amazed how much resistance there actually is.  To make these puppets dance takes muscle!  A puppet master typically maneuvers about 6 sticks around to move the legs, arms, and head of his or her character.  This form of theater is called karakui and the festival is known as the Matsuri festival.  It originated under the patronage of the lord of the castle in the 17th century and was affiliated with the Shinto shrine dedicated to the local gods.  Definitely a fun, fun tradition.

But there is another unique tradition in town — this one a lot more sinister: cormorant fishing.  But I will need a full blog for that, so get ready.  Tomorrow.

Good night.

2014
06.26

SYNOPSIS:  There are cultural sites in Nagoya, not just shopping — a castle, a garden, a museum, and a famous craft center, but no theater this time of the year.  About Nagoya’s cultural side.

 

By American standards Nagoya is as much a cultural hub as it is a shopping center.  Only by Japanese standards and by the standards of one American teenager does it fall short a bit.  In Okinawa, my first stop after Tokyo, I met an American guy at the hostel who had spent 6 months at Nagoya as an exchange student.  When I asked him what there was to see his answer was: there is really nothing going on there!   As we continued talking it turned out that his dad is quite the Japanese culture freak and was hoping his son would catch on.  Boy, will he be in for a rude awakening!  This kid had not gone to any of the museums or sites.  I wonder what he will have to show his dad…  When I mentioned that there was a museum that was holding one of the most outstanding treasures of all of Japan he mumbled something like: yeah, that’s what my dad wanted me to see…  Oh brother!

I had to do with a kitschy reenactment movie of about 20 minutes since that cultural treasure in question, the “The Illustrated Tale of Genji is only on display for the public for one month out of the year.  But even without it, the Tokugawa Art Museum is no slouch.  The Tokugawas had ruled Japan as one of the major clans during the Edo period from 1603 through 1867.  The core of this museum collection was formed by the inheritance of one of the clan members, Owari Tokugawa, who had been handed over 10,000 objects of precious furnishings, armor, garments, scrolls, swords, theater costumes, etc.   This was an impressive, well laid out and well labeled (by that I mean bilingual) display of first-class objects illustrating the life of the period.  Definitely worth the trip.

Adjacent to the museum and practically integrated is the Hosa Library, technically it is the owner of the Illustrated tale of Genji since it’s a scroll.  Aside from the 10,000 objects from the clan, the Tokugawas also owned one of the most extensive libraries of the Edo period, about 100,000 volumes of manuscripts and pictorial works.  A copy of the Tale of Genji was for sale and I already got myself quite excited until I saw the price tag: $1000. For a mere print not even a facsimile. That was definitely not worth it.  I needed one of the zero’s gone…

And the third component of this cultural compound is the Tokugawaen, a garden. OK, as gardens come in Japan, this one really is not worth mentioning.  But there were two kids feeding the goldfish — that was worth seeing.  They are already as fat and overgrown as any goldfish can be.  Yet, they will practically jump out of the water, mouths wide open to catch one of the small food particles that can be used to feed the fish — on sale in the garden souvenir shop.

I made my round today by one of the sightseeing buses which I mentioned once before.  Larger cities have them and they are a godsend as they go straight from one to the next cultural attraction in town without wasting tourists’ precious time.  I had three targets.

The Tokugawa complex was number one.  The castle was number two — yes another castle.  Now this one was worth it, perhaps for the wrong reasons.  But it was my first “concrete” castle.  As so many things were destroyed in the raids at the end of World War II — this once mighty castle from 1610, ordered to be built by the great patriarch of the Tokugawa clan, Ieyasu himself — was turned into rubble and ashes.  And in the eagerness of the 1950’s to rebuild, it was poured in concrete.  One can sense the change of times and attitudes no better than in the fact that current reconstruction of castle areas such as one of the turrets and most importantly, the entire former palace or the Hommaru is done in the same painstaking authentic way, using tools,  technology and materials from the time period — as has been done at Himeji recently.  Visitors are invited to observe the reconstruction workshop in progress from a viewing gallery.   Displays explain the various stages, methods and funding projects.  And an impressively restored first wing of the palace is already open and finished.

But the rebuilding of the main tower in modern ways also has its bright side: The interior has an elevator, the building is handicapped-accessible, there are museum exhibits and a central stair case which makes for great pictures seven stories down.   Another good castle experience after all.  And the views from these castle towers across town are always fun.

My final stop was a bit off the beaten path but for those of you with brand-name recognition most likely a household name:  The Noritake Gardens and Craft Center.  Coming from Dresden where the porcelain manufacturing town of Meissen is not far, I saw quite a few parallels with this craft center and the one in Germany.  There, the secret of porcelain production first had to be wrestled from nature by Johann Boettger.  The two brothers who are behind the first Japanese factory of ceramics, the Toki Gomei Kaisha, built here in 1904 in the new western brick style, had no such obstacles.  But just as Meissen porcelain runs the gamut from simple and austere to baroque and gaudy, so does the Noritake production.  The museum part made that clear; there was something for everyone throughout the 100 years of production.  Whether plates appealed to the tastes of the European Art Nouveau movement or to American settlers of the wild west, there was something for queens and something for cowboys, something for heads of states and something for the daily kitchen.

The craft center, which was actually a fully operational ceramics lab with people working, was heavily guarded against photography — why on earth is anyone’s guess.  From the design process to the mold, from bisque ware to the final product, you could observe it all. And if you were so inclined and for a nice fee, you could go to the workshop area and try your hands on any part of the process yourself.

For me the most fun part was an area in the back of the old factory.  Once there stood six huge chimneys of 49 meters each which had towered over the town.  Next to the castle they constituted the highest points in town.  They crumbled during the war and were fast outdone by Nagoya’s new high rises.  They could have easily fallen into oblivion.  But instead they were preserved at their still impressive 9 meters and the stumps were worked into a garden in which parts of the original tunnel kiln can still be seen.

The garden closed on me, and the day came to an end.  That was a lot of sightseeing in one day and for a town which supposedly has nothing to offer culturally.  And it was only about half of the sites according to the tourist information.  Among other things Nagoya is famous for its Noh-Theater productions.  I had hoped to catch a performance and was quite disappointed to find out that the theater had closed for the season.  Will I get to see any of Japanese theater?!  I very much hope so.

But for now I will retreat into my 3-tatami-mat-sized compact room at the Eco hotel right across from that overwhelming train station.  And I will sleep just as well in this $25 room as I would have in any luxury hotel.  I am sure of that.

Good night.

2014
06.25

SYNOPSIS:  About shopping in Japan.  About a train station to behold!

Nagoya is known as the second shopping capital (Tokyo beats it) of Japan.  And when I arrived at the train station of Nagoya I had no doubt.  But I also know myself — shopping the way it’s understood by most:  going to the mall — is not my thing.  I get completely overwhelmed and then cranky and just can’t do it.  I will do my best and work up some courage to perhaps go department store shopping in Tokyo at the very end.  Maybe.

Just to give you an idea of this train station and some of the shopping:  first it is not one but technically six stations combining the hubs for four private train lines, the state-run JR line, and the subway.   That is not counting the bus terminal or the taxi areas.  From beginning to end it measures a whopping full kilometer covering about 10 city blocks.  I have no idea how many entrances or exits there are.  I carefully remembered some landmarks to just get from one side to the other where my hotel was located.  The guidebook remarks to leave enough time for transfers.  Are they kidding?!  You fricking get lost there despite the endless signage in both Japanese and English.  And you may need half a day to make a transfer should you, god forbid, transfer between different lines, need any special care (such as an escalator for a heavy suit case), a special ticket (like the renewal of your rail pass), detailed information, etc.  Each of these could take you from one end of the station to the other and in between, good luck!

In this limited transfer I make, I pass about five bakeries.  I don’t even want to multiply and guess what that means for the total of bakeries for this station.  That’s just for starters.  The central Plaza advertises 35 restaurants whereas the JR terminal alone adds 53 more eateries and cafes.  And that is just food.  Now add the dozens of malls, hundreds of shops, multiple ticket counters, information stands, the post office, underground passages and I bet that there is more shopping in this one kilometer than in all of Ann Arbor combined!

And that is just the beginning for this town.  Nagoya is laid out generously in a grid system with wide 4-8 line avenues and neon-sign filled side streets.  Many of them are designated shopping districts.  There simply was no end to this.  There was just no way I could go shopping here.

For the last few weeks I had kept my eyes open about buying things.  After all, I can’t return empty-handed.  I need souvenirs and preferably a few handfuls of them.  A favorite  purchase among the Japanese seem to be the local sweets.  Every city has its special food things and store upon store sells them beautifully packaged with logos from the region such as the castle, or a landmark bridge, temple, or garden motif.  I would see people walking out of these shops with an armful of boxes.  I could not even tell for the most part what the content was…  Aside from that, no perishables for me.

I had also gone to some of the nicknack stores you can find near any tourist attraction.  There is an endless array of plastic and cheap paper or metal souvenirs.  Ugly, cheap looking, yet completely overpriced (an item I might be willing to spend $2 on will sure cost $10 and anything I would deem worth $5 will cost at least $20).  There was no way I could go shopping that way either.

But I sort of knew that and had chosen Nagoya for another type of shopping: developing out of the ancient temple fair tradition there was still one temple here that held antique fair/flea market type of gatherings twice every month.  That was my kind of a place — small, contained, funky, different.  It was just my luck that it was a rainy day…

When I arrived and saw some of the vendors packing I almost panicked.  The guide book had listed this fair as rain or shine.  And I had gone out of my way to be here.  But many of the vendors stayed open as promised, hovering themselves and their wares under umbrellas or plastic tarps.

I did not even know what I was looking for.  But I figured things would fall into place.  If money, size, weight, or all of the above would not matter, I could have walked out of this market with a truckload of stuff.  There were the $1000 ancient wooden Buddhist sculptures, there were the heavy and expensive brass tools of the scribes and the artists, there were tons of old kimonos, dyed fabrics, dolls, jewelry, tables full of unique ceramic pieces and on and on.  I felt like a kid in a candy store.   There were also old magazines, toys from the 50’s, film cameras, and pieces of small furniture.  Where to start?  I had to remember that everything I purchased either had to be carried or to be shipped back.  And most of my budget was needed for traveling, not for shopping or shipping…  No easy limitations.  I settled for some painting scrolls, a couple of kimonos and a set of lunch boxes.

From the market I carried my loot to the post office where it all had to be packaged and shipped.  The postmaster has a long list of forbidden items but luckily they were mainly food related.  He had no objections to my kimonos and my painting scrolls.  But he did object to the fact that I had put no address on the packing slip and that I had put a note on it instructing the US post office to leave the package at the door, should nobody be home on the day of  delivery… Back to the drawing board and following orders this time.  And so this day in Nagoya went with activities of a different nature.

I felt quite accomplished by the end of the day.  I have to say.

Good night.

2014
06.24

MIKIMOTO

SYNOPSIS:  About the origin of the cultivated pearl industry on Mikimoto Pearl Island in the town of Toba.

 

First Japan turns out to once be the largest silver producer in the world, now it turns out that cultivated pearls originated from right here.  All the things I did not know…

Outside of Ise, just 30 minutes away by local train is the little town of Toba.  From the station it takes a mere five minutes along the inland bay before you reach a covered bridge announcing the entrance to Mikimoto Pearl Island.  $15 entrance fee is not cheap, but this island museum was well done and even though highly commercialized — a huge sales shop is strategically placed and an overpriced restaurant is hoping to entice you — the museum displays were fascinating, tangible and bilingual and the landscaping and layout of the island a masterpiece of Japanese garden aesthetics.

In layman’s terms with lots of visuals, yet in great detail and scientifically sound, the various oysters were introduced, the history of natural pearl production was explained, models showed the process of cultivated oyster care and harvest, video displays showed women working assembly line style injecting oysters with “pieces” and oyster farming was explained in detail.

Among my favourite displays was a diagram showing all the parts of an oyster — did you know that it has dozens of “organs” membranes, layers, muscles, etc. — and how doctors, veterinarians, I guess — check up on these oysters after they have been “impregnated”.  Are they recovering as planned?  Are they eating well?  Is their digestive system operating correctly?  Are they not getting too fat?  It was hilarious.

I don’t quite share the obsession for the perfect round pearls.  Only 33% of the harvest lives up to that, of which 5% are considered premium pearls.  The rest is discarded as unsalable and then used in cosmetics, medicine, etc.  I actually rather liked the irregular shapes of the pearls and could imagine jewelry made of it quite nicely.

I did not know that there are different colours of pearl produced depending on the rim of the oyster.  There is the typical white-silver, there is pink, gold and even a silvery black.

In the sale shop you get sticker shock!  The first room has pieces ranging in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.  The next room gets more reasonably down to the hundreds of dollars and finally, there are a few pieces less than that.  But really — could anyone tell when you wear a necklace if it is worth $50,000 or just $500?  Most people might even think you are wearing artificial pearls!  OK, that depends of course on who you are.

One part of this museum is a demonstration of oyster diving done by traditional female divers known as Amu.  In this sea-dependent region from the beginning of times, the men went out fishing, but the women stayed closer to shore and were diving for food, seaweed, sea cucumber, and other critters which to this day are part of the Japanese cuisine.  These female divers have worn white outfits first recorded in the 3rd century.  It is supposed to scare off sharks and dolphins.  They dive pretty much without gear.  If they dive in pairs, one will go down with a weight and one remains in the boat and has to pull the diver up again, presumably not too soon but definitely not too late…  If a woman dives alone they go out with a wooden basket which they string to their body.  The go down a little less fast since they do not utilize the weight and them come up to their baskets to collect what they found.  It was amazing to see how long these women could stay under water.

The connection to cultivated pearls is that Mikimoto employed these Amu for his pearl farms and thereby guaranteed them employment and survival.  To this day there are 1300 female divers working in this region, the oldest of them 80!  Once they come up, they make a unique whistling sound.  It too, has developed over hundreds of years to optimize breathing after being under water for so long.   It is considered one of the 100 most unique sounds of Japan.  I certainly had never heard it before.  But it was hard to record with motor boats going by.

My hat is off to the guy behind this discovery: Kokichi Mikimoto.  Nothing was handed to him.  He came from a lower middle-class family and went through multiple phases of poverty and mishaps.  But he had drive and a vision and he was going to crack nature’s secret to produce pearls and to duplicate the production reliably.  And he did.  There were people who believed in and supported him.  His wife, some scientists, and some bureaucrats ultimately helped to remove some obstacles for him.  But most everything hinged on him.  He was born in Ise, but it was on this island that his wife found the first cultivated pearl after years of unsuccessful trials.  He made his town and this area prosperous.  But he also had a vision for Japan and he made sure that natural areas would be preserved.  He is responsible for the first National Park of Japan. All in all from what I could tell, a quite likeable guy!  No doubt he is revered around here and surely a bit idolized.  But he well deserves it.

This was a nice change of pace from temples and shrines.  But then there still was Meoto-Iwa, the famous shinto shrine of the two rocks that have been connected as if in marriage by a big rope.  Here, the marriage and love of the primordial Shinto deities Izanami and Izanagi – who through their loved created the Japanese islands and whose daughter is Amaterasu the patroness of the Japanese emperor – are immortalized.  Another one of those iconic images of Japan.  And so I had to stop in Futamura, walk a couple of miles and get that photo…  Who could resist.  Clouds or not.  The real attraction of course is to see the sun rise (or is it set) just between the rocks.  No chance of that, today.  It was just a gray day.

But in this spirit of getting away from the temples for a while, I have chosen Nagoya next — a town not exactly known for its culture but its vibrancy and contemporary life, for shopping and theater and most specifically, for an antique market twice a month.  Let’s see what that’s worth.

Good night.

2014
06.23

ISE

SYNOPSIS:  It may not be the most impressive shrine for tourists, but it is the most important Shinto shrine for Japan and one of the most austere and authentic ones, so I had to go:  About Ise, the imperial shrine.  About the question what it takes to justify unbearable costs.  And about the discipline of school children.  For some reason this is a very long blog.  I am sorry…  It’s just another shrine if you boil it right down.

 

Even the mighty Egyptians had to give up building pyramids at one point, most likely because the costs of creating one extravagant tomb per emperor whose construction would take decades — tying up most of the labor force of Egypt annually for four months (during flood season), and about 10% of the labor force for the rest of the year — was unsustainable.  We may associate Egypt foremost with pyramids, but in its 3000 years of existence, pyramids were only built for about 400 years.  The tomb construction at the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens that followed was sumptuous enough but could be accomplished at a fraction of the cost.  Who ultimately convinced the Egyptians of the new ways?  Were they even asked?  Was there resistance among the pharaohs?  What religious and doctrinal hoops did the priesthood have to jump through to accomplish this shift?   I don’t know any of these answers, but I realize that I will have to look that up when I am back and have some time.

Ise, according to tradition, is being rebuilt every twenty years to provide the gods with a shiny new home.  Since 673 AD, with one exception of a 100-year period during war in the middle ages, this shrine has been rebuilt.  2013 marked the 62nd time!  More and more I get the idea that shiny and new is more highly valued in Japan than old and rugged; in Shintoism it certainly seems to be so.  The rebuilding finished in 1973 for which I have data at hand, was done at a whopping $55 million.  That was in 1973.  That in turn means that this shrine, just in construction cost, will have to bring in about $2.5 million per year to pay for itself. That is not counting inflation of the last 40 years, and it is also not counting the upkeep of the large priesthood on payroll.  At festivals, dozens of them march out and they live and eat here…  I read somewhere that 1500 rituals are performed annually which somehow seems to bring some income and some justification for the large number of priests.  The rituals range from harvest festivals, to dedication ceremonies, to daily prayers and offerings to the gods.  Ultimately, is is likely the tax payers who will have to reach into their pockets, after all, this is the imperial shrine of Japan. Even though Japan looks like a modern democracy, one should not forget that there is still an emperor in the background.  Or is it possible, that this rebuilding still is done through private donations only as is recorded for the 1973 renewal?

20 years in the course of history is nothing.  I remember in 1993 when I was in graduate school, professor Kane lamented the impossibility to find large and mature enough trees in the forests to rebuild Ise.  The most mature trees needed to be 600-800 years old!  1973, 1993, that seems like yesterday!  Trees don’t grow that fast.  It could not have been any easier to find trees in 2013.  The forests of Japan are impressive but the appetite for wood is insatiable, given all the large beams needed for castle and shrine reconstruction.  In 1993 there was still equity from the legendary economic upswing Japan had experienced after World War II.  Even though the economic bubble was about to burst in Japan as well, Japan was still in great shape.   But now?  On the surface, Japan looks immaculate.  Hardly any homeless people, no outward poverty, no visible despair.  But one of the travelers I met who works here, mentioned that Japan has the highest suicide rate among middle aged, so-called “salary men”…  That is an alarming statistic.  And the stock market crashed in Japan as everywhere else…  Yet, Ise was rebuilt.  OK, as always, I am just thinking out loud raising more questions than I can provide answers.  That’s just what went through my mind when I approached Ise.

Ise is a small town and the Jingu as it is known, is split into two parts, the outer shrine called by its full name Kotai-Jingu Naiku.  You need to ride a bus for about 20 minutes to get there but of the two it is the more impressive one.  And then there is the inner shrine known as Toyoukedai-Jingu Geku.  You could reach it from the Ise station in about 5 minutes by foot.   Ise is the largest Shinto shrine I have seen so far.  It takes at least an hour to get around on foot at Naiku and a little less at Geku.  In my case, since I waited everywhere for people to get out of the way for pictures, you have to double or triple that time.

Ise is also the most austere and authentic shrine I have seen so far.  No red lacquer anywhere here.  And no mixing in with Buddhist practices either.  Straw, wood and gilded gables, clapping and bowing.  Nothing else.  It is very, very beautiful.  But once in a while I had to think to myself: everything looks like it came from Ikea…  😉

All the typical features of a Shinto shrine are present and a few extra ones: the famous Ujibashi Bridge quite literally divides the mundane from the sacred realm.  In addition to the ablution tank, a special area is used for ablution directly at the Isuzugawa River, whose waters are considered sacred.  And in addition to the main shrine there are several subsidiary shrines which are often more interesting as they are less hidden and closed off, revealing construction materials and building methods very nicely.  Some examples would be the Takimatsuri, a shrine dedicated to the river kami, the Kazahinominomiya, a very important shrine dedicated to the wind kami which is believed to have driven the Mongolians away in the late 13th century, or the Mishinenomikura, the kami affiliated with rice.

There are more walls and enclosures than at any other shrine I have seen — the main sanctuary is surrounded by four consecutive walls!  In addition to the priests whom you rarely see, other than during rituals or festivals, here there are a number of imperial guards.  Usually, worshippers at Shinto shrines are left to their own devices.  Here, these guards make sure that people like me behave and don’t take pictures of the inner courtyard or think of jumping the fence.  Just kidding!  It is way too high and of course, there are closed-circuit observation cameras, too.  After all this is the 21st century and this is the imperial shrine!

At Izumo-Taisha the creator god was worshipped.  Even though he is the most powerful of all the Shinto gods (you have to clap four times for him) he is not worshipped anywhere else unless you count his mythical marriage rocks, the Meotoiwa.  The most central goddess for Japan is his daughter Amaterasu, associated with one of the imperial jewels, the mirror, and the imperial lineage per se.  It is her grandson Ninigino Mikoto who is believed to have come down to earth to function as the first emperor of Japan.  This makes her the patron goddess of the imperial line.  It is at Ise that in her emanation as Amaterasu Omikami, she has her major shrine.  As anywhere, one does not get close to the god.  An entrance gate has a cloth obscuring the door, in front of which worshippers stand, pay homage and some money, clap their hands twice and make a wish.  At Ise you can not even walk around the compound to catch a glimpse of the back side of the shrine.  Ropes are preventing access everywhere and these imperial guards really guard…

What is unique to Ise is the fact that the 20 year rebuilding tradition requires two compounds per shrine.  After all, you can’t make the goddess or her symbol “homeless”!  While the new shrine is built, the old one functions up to the moment of transfer.  The actual transfer is a major affair known as Shikinen SenguWith pomp and ceremony the head priest and the full entourage of priests and dignitaries transfer the symbol of the god, the mirror, from the inner shrine of the old compound to the new home.  For a brief span of time therefore the two shrines will stand side by side.  Immediately the careful dismantling of the old shrine starts once it is no longer in use, but from start to finish months, if not years pass.  Usable parts of wood are actually shipped to other shrines in the country for needed repair work.   When the deconstruction is completed, nothing but a tiny gabled wooden structure of about 3×3 feet remains which marks the spot of the former sanctuary, the spot of the future shrine.

I was lucky enough, as it is just 2014, to see both phenomena.  I observed the side-by-side still in the remaining entrance and a couple of the the structures of the main shrine. And I saw the little marker structure in one of the subsidiary shrines where I actually could photograph it.  The Ujibashi bridge — as it is considered part of the holy shrine —  is rebuilt as well.  Here a row of the original bridge poles remains to indicate the location of the alternative bridge.  It was all quite fascinating even though it felt rather exclusive to be left out of so much.

If you pay the shrine a certain fee you may obtain the privilege to be led around by a priest between the first and the second fence and into the first court yard. There you can see a couple of the outer storage structures and yet another locked gate (looking just like the first one).  In fact, you can see that from where all the visitors can go.  That’s where the guards make sure you won’t take pictures (I got one before I was told.)  But if you pay, you are that much closer physically to the goddess.  It seems to be worth it to a few select.

Even though it was a weekday, throngs of people and school groups were out there.

Should we, the teachers of the world, be envious or scared?  There was a group of about 200 middle-school students attending the shrine.  Escorted by about half a dozen teachers, they marched in orderly and silently.  At certain points in the shrine they were gathered, instructed, divided into four groups and sent into various areas of the shrine to listen (and they did) to an explanation by their teacher.  Then they collectively worshipped, gathered back at the central point until all four units had congregated again.  Then they would proceed to the remaining three viewing points, intermittently gathering at the center.  There was no unruly conduct, no loud talking, no laughing, there was no running and no disturbance of the other hundreds of visitors.  There was utter discipline and cooperation…

I will have to ponder that.

Good night.

2014
06.22

SHINGU

SYNOPSIS:   Stuck in Shingu.  Another day in transit.  A few words and some images about food.

I had the choice to listen to a wise old monk who told me that the way to the Ise is to go North via Osaka, just the way I had been coming down here.  Boring but faster.   Or, I could follow the two girls who stood next to me this morning waiting for the parade, who suggested to go South along the coast of the Kii Peninsula.  Beautiful but slower.

Deep down I knew I was making the wrong choice.  But I so very much hate to retrace my steps if there is new territory ahead and if it promises to be scenic, then the better!

The parade had brought traffic in Koyasan to a standstill.  I waited for the bus to take me to the cable car for nearly an hour and then in desperation I stopped a car begging to be taken out of town.  Since car traffic was so slow it was hard for the car not to stop and it would have taken quite a heartless person to refuse.  I got picked up by a stoic driver and two chatty women.  They got me out of town and unloaded me at a bus which was operating at the outskirt.  In the few minutes we had, we exchanged some gifts — I got a bunch of Buddhist cards for safe travels and gave them one of the pottery pieces shaped in the outline of Michigan which I have taken along for occasions like this.

Just to get out of the Koyasan mountains takes a good hour.  From there it takes another hour just to get to the edge of the peninsula, to Wakayama on the West side, not counting any layover time, where you can transfer into a North-South train.  Layover at Wakayama was more than an hour and by then it was after 6 PM.  I had not even gotten started on the “real” part of the journey yet.  I got an express train to take me in 3.5 hours to Shingu, but there was no going further.  I was doomed.  And as far as the scenery, I got a mere hour of daylight and only a few glimpses of the shoreline and the impressive mountain ranges both left and right of the tracks, but hey, at least I did not retrace any steps.

Almost every Japanese town has “station hotels”  for people just like me.  All I had to do was literally cross the street to get a room in a run-down hotel — no English spoken.  It was all quite informal.  Hand over the cash and you get a room.  It was a smoking room; stinky and stuffy.  I opened all the windows and dearly paid for this as I woke up around 4 PM from the pain of about 10 mosquito bites on my face, the only exposed body part.  My eyes were swollen as the mosquitoes had bitten me right onto my eye lids; my nose had three bites — this was a miserable site.  But it got me up early and that is a good thing as I still have about 6 hours of transit ahead of me on top of the 6 hours I already did yesterday.  Well, the girls were way off in their time estimate.  But I had figured as much and today, at least, I will enjoy the scenery.

And since there is not much to talk about, I will say a few words about food.  First of all — I am not doing the Japanese cuisine any justice.  I refuse to go to a restaurant and spend $120 on a meal that, I am sure, would be memorable.  I could go and eat out for much less too, but this is just not the point of this trip.

I admit that my typical breakfast — if not provided by the hotel consists of this: a banana, yoghurt in a carton, milk-tea out of a bottle and orange juice — all purchased at the corner Family Mart or Lawson supermarket which you can find at just about every corner.   If I come across any of the bakeries I will pick up a piece of anything that looks good.  A croissant perhaps, or a roll.

Sometime in the afternoon around 4 PM when I get hungry I will go to any supermarket, train station, or department store again and pick up a box of Sushi and a can of Japanese beer for the evening.   The Sushi you get pre-packed is filling, affordable and comes in a great variety.  I have not yet gotten tired of it.

In a few places, like the monastery at Iwami Ginzan I got very lucky and had both traditional breakfast and dinner included.  Kyoro was knocking herself out to cook beautiful evening meals.  Every region here has special local foods.  At Koyasan it s a particular way of preparing tofu.  In Hiroshima it was a special kind of an omelette.  But I neither have the budget nor the company to enjoy sampling the local cuisine.  I will have to leave that to others.

Having said that, I look back at nearly a month of travel by now and I have to say that I have tasted quite an amazing variety of food.  I can’t ever tell you the names of anything I ate, but I will provide you with a nice array of images of the foods I have had.  To me the best thing of Japanese food is its presentation.  Not one single plate is used but as many little dishes as possible and as small portions as conceivable are put together on trays.  Lacquerware and ceramics, porcelain dishes and wooden plates all make eating in Japan a visual feast.  I am an indiscriminate and appreciative eater.  I have yet to come across anything that I did not like in Japan.  But yes, occasionally on my travels, there have been foods that I really despised: pig ear in Portugal comes to mind and camel paw in China…

It’s not quite evening yet, but after another day in transit I will catch up with my photos tonight and leave the sightseeing to tomorrow: Ise needs a full day of attention.

The scenery on the train(s) today was worth it.  The mountains around here are seemingly endless and the occasional glimpses of the rugged coastline dotted with mini-islands and industrial harbours are as rewarding as any train ride can be.  Many tunnels remind you of the difficulty to work this terrain.  And I was amazed to see how much progress the rice fields have made since I arrived here. Down from Koyasan it is hot and muggy here again.  Up there it was easily a full 10 degrees cooler.  It was nice while it lasted.  The rainy season is upon us and I am sure many more umbrella days will come my way.  Hopefully not tomorrow.

Good night.

2014
06.21

SYNOPSIS:  About a circus that was no longer Buddhism.  Or was it?  Kobo Dainichi’s birthday.  About parades and drumming bands and a special fire ritual.

The festivities started last night and focused around the main plaza.  There was also some singing in town at various temples before the main event, but the poster I had gotten hold off was all in Japanese and not very intuitive.  And “my monks” don’t speak English.  So I went for the safe spot.

Vendors had set up in the afternoon and there were interesting food specialties, knickknack shops with religious paraphernalia, and other booths selling such items as Nintendo games or comics.  Old and young had gathered in anticipation of the parade.

I did not know what to expect, but the poster showed a broadly grinning comic character clearly representing Kobo Dainichi surrounded by fire.  Really?   We waited for almost an hour.  I sat next to a young couple who had gotten one of the few benches and did people watching.  There were a lot of young men dressed in coordinated outfits —  turns out, they were part of the four different drumming groups that were performing that night.

Finally, the parade rolled in.  I recognized the music.  For the last two days I had heard it on and off and had always wondered — was that Buddhist meditation music or the ice cream truck?  (which of course does not drive around here as it does in the States).  I bet those were practice runs for the various floats that were pulled along.  Three or four events in the life of Dainichi were represented and a couple of scenes that may be related to his life.  That much was clear.  But since I am not familiar enough with his life it was hard to pinpoint them precisely.

All of this was fine and dandy, a circus for the people.  Religion gone to the street.  But I was quite taken aback when the parade stopped at the centre of the square, the music was turned off and a monk over the loudspeaker read presumably an excerpt from a sutra.  Some kids kept playing, some vendors’ music kept going but many of the people now stood in prayer.  That seemed very odd.  I felt this was way too much of a cross over of cartoon fest and temple practice.  Doing one is bad enough, but diminishing the other to that level seemed sacrilege to me.

Then the drumming started.  These bands were obviously not the pros but the local town’s bands.  But they were good!  First the youngsters — grade school. Then the high schoolers.  Then a family band — quite impressive with the five year old at the small drums, the 12 year old girl on the big drum, mom on a small one and dad on the massive standing one.  This was all rhythm-based.   The droning of the drums at full throttle made my throat vibrate.  And when this was all over, the parade moved on through the rest of town.

I don’t know what I had expected, but not quite this.  Perhaps, this was the folksy side of the birthday festivities and tomorrow the serious religious ones would follow?  Indeed at 9 AM at the Buddhist centre and open for visitors a full-scale service was performed but I was too far away to attend.  Also at my temple, the Sekishoin, the prayer hall was lit to full capacity whereas on ordinary days the focus seemed to be mainly on the central deity.  But I went across the street to yet another type of morning service specific to the Ekoin Temple: the fire ritual.

I had heard about it from Glen (see Okunoin entry) who stayed at this temple: every morning at a small substructure of the temple complex a fire ritual is performed.  This temple specializes in praying for the dead.  A price list will tell you what is available.  You can pay for one prayer on one specific day.  You can pay for daily prayers for a week, a month, a year.  And yes — you can pay for prayers eternally!  That made me pause.  It implied the confidence of eternal existence on the part of the provider.  I have encountered a confidence like this only in Egyptian culture where the pharaohs’ tombs were outfitted with mortuary temples and endowed with a priesthood that would provide for the deceased eternally.  You see what happened to them…

Again, I was just completely surprised about the discrepancy of the Buddhism I once studied, the pure and focused, the doctrinal and spiritual which in reality was not anything like it.  Unfortunately, I did not get a hold of the price list.  But a prayer for a day runs something like $3 and a prayer for a year about $500.  The eternal price was not listed — I guess you have to inquire in person, perhaps even negotiate.

If I get this right, it works like this: the monks write the name of the person they are paid to pray for on any given day on a piece of wood.  The next morning two monks enter this temple — the public is welcome to watch.  They recite sutras, ring the dorje, swing the vajra, and light a fire with small kindling.  It is sprinkled with incense and oils to fuel it a bit and to make it smell good.  Then the stack of wood with the names is picked up and the monk reads every one of them, bows, and throws it in the fire.  The recitation of sutras continues until the fire has died down.  Then the people in attendance are invited to waft of the smell by waving their hands over the fire and directing the smell toward them.  And then it’s over.  As much as I  was baffled by the idea of eternity, I liked this ceremony.  Praying for the dead is something quite central to many religions and most comforting for the survivors.  The monks did a great job of it.

Today was the actual birthday of Dainichi, and I eagerly awaited the parade.  It would start right in front of my temple and I got a high spot early on, looking down into the street where the participants gathered.  To my surprise the parade was no more solemn than the one last night.  Instead of five floats, only the most impressive one, that of Dainichi shooting an arrow into the woods, surrounded by fire, was the jewel in the crown finishing the parade.  Several groups of children, pilgrims, and nicely dressed women were walking the streets performing ritualized gestures with their hands and walking in a coordinated set of steps (sideways and backwards as well as forwards) to the same “ice cream” tune which by now I was intimately familiar with to the point, that it will not leave my head!  The handicapped were given a block in the parade and several other organizations, too.

I watched only the start of the parade.  Again it would wind its way to  the central square where today no vendors were holding the spot, but a stage had been set up on which the monks would lead prayers.  For me it was high time to leave.

My next stop is Ise.

See you there.