Summer in Japan is festival season. The days are hot and humid and the evenings are pretty much the same (except just a little less hot). It thus figures that the best time to hold an outdoor festival is in the evening when the temperature has dropped a little.
There are fireworks, traditional dancing, taiko drumming, stalls selling festival food and cold beer, and locals dressed in traditional costume. In some ways it reminds me of a Scottish Ceilidh (dinner dance), which provides the rare occasion for everyone to dress in kilts and dance the night away.
Of course wearing a kilt in the traditional manner at close to 60 ° North is quite a different climatic experience to wearing a Yukata on a balmy summer evening in Japan.
Every year the appearance of the cherry blossom is a celebrated event in Japan. For the last several weeks we have been informed on TV and in the newspaper of the progress of the “cherry blossom front” as it sweeps across the country from Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the north. Daily forecasts include the proportion of blossom expected in each location, from just beginning to bud to full bloom. Where the trees are planted in clusters the effect is certainly impressive, but sakura in Japan is really about the changing of the seasons. The bloom of the cherry blossoms heralds the coming of spring.
It is customary to partake in “hanami” at this time of year. This involves setting up picnic or BBQ at a nice spot below a blooming cherry blossom tree, and then proceeding to eat and drink the afternoon away. Blooming brilliant. To help facilitate this important cultural exercise our town holds an annual Sakura Festival. This year it was absolutely freezing, but we all attempted to ignore that fact to the extent that our bodies would allow, and enjoyed the food, dance and festivities. We felt particular sympathy for the Hawaiian Hula dancers.
The sakura were not in full bloom on the day. A few days later and all these trees were covered in brilliant white petals. A few days after that and after a heavy fall of rain the petals had fallen to the ground, blanketing the path in petal snow and flowing down the river like confetti. There is something about the transience of the cherry blossom that is a thing of beauty in itself.
Last week we ate lamb at home for dinner. This is the first time I have eaten lamb in Japan because it is generally expensive and not widely available. We were able to enjoy chowing down on some succulent sheep as a direct result of one of Nicewife’s (distant) relatives passing away.
Let me explain. When one attends a funeral in Japan it is customary to give a sum of money to the deceased’s family. The amount depends how close one’s relationship is to the deceased, but can be as much as $400 AUD for close relatives. Some of this money is used to pay the exorbitant funeral bill, some is kept by the family, and a proportion is returned to the giver as an obligatory thank you gift.
A common way to deal with this “thank you” gift is to purchase a catalogue for a fixed amount (price unmarked) and send this to the giver. This catalogue is a high-quality glossy publication full of merchandise and luxury items of food, and the giver can use the enclosed order form to pick something which is then delivered for free. Nicewife’s parents’ house contains an assortment of goods (a casserole dish, an umbrella stand) that have been obtained in this manner. This time they chose some lamb.
I find this whole concept interesting because generally the Japanese go to great lengths to superstitiously avoid any incidental associations with death, but will quite readily eat food and keep items obtained through these funeral catalogues.
Yesterday morning as the sun rose over Inazawa (the town neighbouring ours) in central Japan it was a crisp minus 3 degrees and there was unmelted snow lying in shady areas. Thousands of local men clearly thought, “What a beautiful day to dress in nothing but a loincloth and walk around for hours exposed to the elements as a participant in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri (Inazawa Naked Festival)”. I make this ridiculous claim only because yesterday I saw with my own eyes thousands of men dressed in nothing but loincloths walk around for hours in the chilly north wind, as willing participants in the Inazawa Hadaka Matsuri.
This is just one of a number of “naked ” festivals across Japan, which are said to have originated in the Nara Period (710 to 794 AD).
Early in the afternoon, groups of local men in loincloths started to appear outside houses and community centres, drinking saké, chanting together, jogging on the spot, and generally looking cold and embarrassed. After spending some time cutting circuitous routes through the backstreets they then slowly converged at the entrance to Konomiya Shrine. By this time their bodies had warmed up due to an unusual combination of alcohol and exercise, and cold water was sprayed on them in order to prevent skin rash as the crowd of semi-naked men became increasingly thick and uncomfortably close.
This festival centres around one man – the Shin-okoto (literally “god man”), who is incidentally the only participant who is actually naked (apart from those unfortunate middle-aged men who could occasionally be seen having “wardrobe malfunctions” midway through the festivities). Shinto traditionalists believe that touching the Shin-okoko cleanses one of sin, evil and other general misfortune. I don’t know how much traction this gains amongst the majority of younger Japanese – who are basically superstitious secularists – but in Japan once something becomes a tradition the fact that it has become so is reason enough to continue to do it. Towards the end of the festival the Shin-otoko basically crowd-surfs his way up to a small door in the shrine building, in which, with the loss of any small amount of remaining dignity, he is involuntarily inserted.
This isn’t moderately absurd. This is completely nuts.
Along with Obon and Golden Week, New Year is one of the three most important Japanese holiday periods in the year. The way it is celebrated in family life is in some ways similar to how Christmas is spent in the West. The house is decked out with New Year decorations such as the kadomatsu. New Year postcards (called Nengajyo) are sent. Saké is drunk. Specially prepared boxed food (called Osechi) is eaten. Prayers are said at the local shrine for good fortune for the year ahead. Children are given presents in the form of cash from parents and relatives.
As is typical for most Japanese families, we spent the period from 1st to 4th of January visiting relatives on both Nicewife’s mum’s and dad’s side of the family. This mostly involved talking a lot and eating heaps of delicious food! One new year speciality is a pounded rice-cake called Mochi which we made at home from rice we harvested in November. Mochi is responsible for a number of deaths each year as old people in particular can easily choke on the glutenous rice ball. We’ll find out this year’s mochi death toll in a few weeks’ time. Nicewife’s dad reckons they must be taking surveys and making calculations right now!
There are many traditions associated with New Year in Japan, but the actual date of New Year apparently isn’t one of them. Up until 1873 Japan celebrated New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. Given the cultural and religious significance of New Year in Japan, switching to the Gregorian calendar must have been quite an upheaval.
On Tuesday we took a trip to a small city north of here called Inuyama. What I like the most about Inuyama is that its name translates literally as “Dog Mountain City”.
Absurd juxtapositions aside, the most interesting thing about Inuyama is that it is home to the oldest original wooden castle in Japan. This trip we completely ignored that fact and instead spent the day visiting the grounds of Jakko-in (寂光院) temple, which sits atop a hill covered in beautiful deciduous trees.
There were a few minor disasters during the day. The half-hourly free shuttle bus from the train station only runs on weekends – we discovered so after arriving at the station and attempting to board the non-existant bus. The result was a long and precarious walk along a road sandwiched between the river and mountains. At some points the road narrows to just one lane and the footpath disappears completely, bringing goods trucks and infants in pushers uncomfortably close.
Half way along the 2.5km walk a wheel fell off our 3-wheeled pusher. To the amusement of passing motorists I spent 5 minutes imitating a primate, using a rock as a hammer in an attempt to fix it. (Appropriately, this area is also famous for its monkeys.) This affair was generally embarrassing, but not disastrous. However, these minor issues were soon forgotten when we arrived at the grounds and were able to enjoy Japanese Maples aflame in brilliant reds. We joined the throngs of very old people in tour groups and made our way up the hill.
Viewing the changing of the leaves is something of a seasonal tradition in Japan, and with the beauty of the vibrant display of colours on offer, who can blame them?