Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Walk in the woods - behind the shrine complex in Nikko

Last Thursday we had some errands to run, and as much as I hate errands, I can’t complain too much in this case. One of those errands brought us to Futaara shrine in Nikko. See what I mean? There are plenty of a lot worse places you could be forced to visit on official business. Like the Immigration Office in Utsunomiya, or the drivers license testing center in Kanuma. I’ll take the Shrine and Temple complex anytime.

Since we are chronic cheapskates and hate paying for parking (which, as you can imagine, is rather expensive in touristy areas, and you don’t get any more touristy than Sannai in Nikko), we did what we always do. Instead of stopping at one of the big parking lots nearby Rinnoji, we continued up the mountain, past the grave of monk Shodo, towards Takinoo shrine.

Yep, along this road. Be careful, it's narrow.

You want to park for free when visiting Nikko? Then you gotta do the same. Follow the narrow, twisty road along the river and soon you will see plenty of spaces where you can park your car, 100% legally, for free.

The downside of this arrangement is that you still need to walk to the shrines. But you walk alone, or almost alone, through the woods. There are no loud tourist crowds, no information booths, no commotion. Just you and a stone path through the forest. But don’t worry, the path is well maintained. It’s the same path that the shinto priests use during Yayoi festival when they carry mikoshi back from Takinoo shrine to Futaara.

Not a soul in sight.

The path will take you by the entrance to Mt. Nyoho. Seeing the sign there, I realized that it might be a good idea to climb this mountain as a practice run for next year’s Mt. Nantai midnight extravaganza. Yes, we’ll be climbing that mountain again. And again - at night.


Sad, this is the shrine by the entrance to Mt. Nyoho. People, who do that, should be tarred and feathered and made to wear a sign around the neck proclaiming "I have an IQ of a stool sample." And Marielle (because I'm pretty sure that's who wrote it - judging from the crossed out "Andrea" above) - yes, you're stupid. Anyone who disrespects any place of worship like that is a moron. Case closed.

But Nyoho is relatively easy to climb, or at least those familiar with it say so, and I’d like to believe them. So maybe in September when the weather’s nice and not too hot, we'd give it a try. Are you up for some Nikko mountain climbing this fall? You're welcome to join us. This time we’ll do it, like normal people, during daytime.


Statue at the entrance to Mt. Nyoho.

Following this stone path to Futaara, you’ll exit the woods at the back of the shrine. You’ll also get to see a lovely view of Taiyuin along the way (it will be on the right).

And, as an added bonus, you can also stop by the grave of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s horse (one of them, anyway, presumably he had more than one). Now, how’s that for special? If you consider that the dude never actually visited Nikko when he was alive, that’s quite an accomplishment.


Apparently when Ieyasu's spirit was transferred to Toshogu, his faithful horse came to Nikko as well. Once in Nikko, the horse's job was to serve in ritual ceremonies. I guess those ceremonies when shinto priests get to ride horses and such. And then the poor creature ended up in the woods.

So yeah, now you know where the locals park when they visit the shrines in Nikko.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Afternoon in Ueno

While in Tokyo, in addition to getting shot in the face (well, I did, Dr Trouble just watched), we visited Ueno. Why Ueno? No particular reason, other than it's the last stop on the Utsunomiya line.

We didn't go to Ameyoko (bleh...), we didn't go to the zoo (it costs money), or any of the many museums there (money again). We just walked around the Ueno Park where we didn't have to pay and took pictures. Well, Dr Trouble did, while I complained that we should go home because the cats must be lonely, hot (even though we left the AC on for them) and hungry.

Between my complaints, we did manage to visit the Ueno Toshogu (being renovated, nothing special, maybe you'll see pics another time) and the Ueno Rinnoji (nothing special). We also saw a lot of homeless people in and around the park. Literally everywhere. I have no idea how they were surviving in this ridiculously hot weather.

Living in the countryside, we do see a lot of poverty (ha! you should see our neighborhood!), Japan is not as egalitarian as the well-off natives would like you to believe. But though I am sure there are homeless people in Tochigi (there must be), I have been pretty much insulated from the sights of in-your-face out-on-the-street homelessness. Or maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough. Dunno...

Anyway, let's look at something that you've already seen countless times on other blogs. Lotus blossoms.

Here they are in Ueno:


And what's the plural of "lotus"? Lotuses? Or loti? I mean, there's fungus and fungi, succubus and succubi, torus and tori. Why not lotus and loti?


But my favorite shot must be this one:

The plant looks so surprised to see us.

This statue was also quite surprised to have its picture taken:

Say what you want, it's creepy. Me no like. Or is that how it looks during the full moon, huh?

Not sure, if it was exactly full, but judging from my bitchiness that day, it must have been. Or was it because of the needles to my face? Not sure. Either way, here's the moon.


When Dr Trouble took this photo I was already on the train home. The cats won't feed themselves, you know...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Monjayaki vs Okonomiyaki

It’s always interesting to learn just what kind of google searches bring people to our blog.

Sometimes it’s the bizarre stuff, like “monkeys use onsen in winter what do they do when they get out” or “tengu fetish”.

Sorry, I don’t know what they do when they get out, presumably use a towel to dry themselves and then retire under the blankets with a heating pad. That’s what I would do, and I’m of comparable intelligence to a Japanese monkey.

And "Tengu fetish"?

Please, if that’s you who googled that, stop reading now and try to channel your sexual urges into something more socially acceptable, like good old-fashioned bondage. Though on the other hand, that unnaturally long nose does create some interesting possibilities… hmmm.

Yet for the most part what brings lost web surfers here is the usual and the mundane.

“Japanese schoolgirls”. “Fundoshi”. “Japanese food.”

Sorry, can’t do much about the first two today, but what about Japanese food? As it happens, you're in luck - that can be arranged.

Hinokuruma is listed in the Lonely Planet guides, how about that?

While running some errands in Nikko last Thursday, we stopped by at Hinokuruma (a restaurant run by our friend Shinako) and had okonomiyaki for lunch. Mine was pork kimchee, Dr Trouble’s – just pork.

His porky okonomi before cooking.

And here they are on a hot plate. Yum!

Dr Trouble tried to talk me into ordering monjayaki, but I’m not that dumb.

Fortunately, a lovely couple from Tochigi city (hi guys!!!) came to my rescue. They were kind enough to let me film them, too. Thanks!


Yes, it looks vile.

Now, I’m known to consume things that look disgusting but even I have my standards. Or as my friend, who served me my very first monja years ago in Tokyo said – “everything can be made palatable with a proper application of bacon or beer.” How true! And since I don’t like beer, I normally stick to bacon. So would I eat a pork-free monja, like this one here? Not a chance in hell.

“What if it was made by a handsome guy wearing nothing but a fundoshi?” I hear you say. Oh, shut up!

Or watch these two videos and tell me - which one would YOU rather have for lunch?

Making monjayaki:

And making okonomiyaki:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shot in the face

Last Tuesday found me in Tokyo. How exciting… Not, not really. I don’t particularly enjoy Tokyo, I’m far too old for this type of place. What I want right now is the convenience of living in a city, but without the claustrophobia, and that I can find in thousands of other places outside of Tokyo.

One thing, however, that I can’t find outside of Tokyo is affordable shots to the face. Botox shots, that is. What in Utsunomiya costs upwards of 30 000 yen, in Tokyo, at a very nice clinic right next to the Omotesando metro station, can be had for 7 500 (for the part between the eyes).

And so every so often, you will see me braving the crowds and getting molested on the train to the capital. Ah, the things we, shallow and vain women, do for beauty!
Not that I was beautiful to begin with, that's debatable. Though when it comes to shallow and vain, I definitely haz that. Bukkits of it. And so, on Tuesday, off to Tokyo I went.

The clinic is nice and moderately fancy. Nothing exceptional. They offer a whole plethora of beauty treatments, but since my middle names are “budget” and “trouble”, I just stick with botox.

I’ve had botox injections in a handful of countries so far, and I definitely must say that Japan is the least fussy of them. You make an appointment, go in, fill out a paper and sign a consent form. Then you sit in a chair with a fluffy blankie over your knees and wait. After a few minutes, the shooter comes in, tells you to scrunch up your forehead, marks the appropriate spots and after a swab of disinfectant, the shooting begins.


Ouch, ouch, ouch!

The shooter (they are not nurses, or even doctors, just some random beauticians licensed to handle toxic substances – like botox) last Tuesday was very skilled and didn’t make me punch him in the face. Yes it was a he. And he did a very good job. There wasn’t even a tiniest bruise on my forehead. (The man might have been a medical professional, but since he didn't introduce himself, we don’t know. The lady who injected me a few months ago was a beautician.)

When are you gonna finish, dammit!

And now, two days later, my ability to look pissed off, fierce and constipated is gone. GONE. It feels so wonderful!

You’ll get the report about all the other, equally unexciting, things we did in Tokyo soon. Maybe. If I feel like it. Or maybe not. Because there are hundreds of bloggers who gush about Tokyo, complete with a steady stream of more or less lame photos, already. We shall see…

Now, if you excuse me, I have to admire my paralyzed forehead in the mirror one more time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Open Letter to PR Professionals

Dear PR Professionals,

Every so often you send me an inane email promoting your site, product, hotel, gizmo, whatever. For the most part, I don't mind. I enjoy reading your emails. Hey, anything is better than spam, right? And once in a blue moon, you actually tell me about something worthwhile - like books. I like books.

But lately, it seems that some of you are suffering from a very common disease - laziness. Or maybe it's inability to read English? Either way, it annoys me and shows just how PR-unprofessional you are.

Today's case study:

An idiotic email from a not very bright lady (named Luciana Salaün, btw) in Argentina. Why is it idiotic? The email is about boutique hotels, and more specifically - about whatever overpriced tourist trap she is promoting at this moment.

If Luciana (that is, if she can actually read and comprehend English) had taken one look at my blog's title, she would have known to take her boutique bs somewhere else.

But no... In the best tradition of moronic PR "professionals" she valiantly trudges forward with her canned email of "pillow menu, 180 thread count linens, womens and mens robes and sleepers in all rooms and endless details that create an unique experience in the city." Missing apostrophes and all...

Luciana, my dear, if I ever make it to Argentina, sure as hell I won't be spending my money at any boutique hotels, because:

  • a. I won't be able to afford it anyway (over 100 bucks per night vs Couchsurfing? - duh!), and

  • b. In general, I dislike pompous pricks who own those types of places, and
  • c. Those hotels hardly ever live up to their hype.
  • And at the hotel you're promoting, pets are not allowed. Now, Luciana, I may not travel to Argentina with my pets, but given a choice, I try to support pet friendly businesses wherever I am - you would have realized that if you had taken 10 seconds to look at my blog instead of just harvesting my email address.

So as far as I'm concerned, you can shove your Conde Nast Traveller hotlist where the sun don't shine (under those exquisite sheets of yours). I don't read Conde Nast, but maybe I should - just so I can avoid the places they recommend.

Well, Luciana, that about covers it. Hopefully, next time, before you send out a press release, you will actually check who you're sending it to.

So, dear PR professionals, please don't bother to email me about hotels, cruises, exclusive trips, and other once-in-a-lifetime cliches. Because unless you are offering me a free stay (plus airfare), I'm not interested. So, bugger off.

Now, let's see how long it will be before I get another one of those PR emails... I'm guessing around Friday. At noon.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tanobe no Tensai festival – in Ichikai Town in Tochigi

Yesterday was the day of Utsunomiya fireworks - held on the banks of the Kinu River. But instead of stopping there, we passed cross the river and drove further east to a small town in the middle of nowhere - Ichikai Town (not a city, pop. 12 500), which lies somewhere between Ubagai and Nasukarasuyma. I wasn't joking when I said it was in the sticks.

The festival of Tanobe district (that’s the old name of the district where Ichikai is located), called Tanobe no Tensai (田野辺の天祭), takes place at Takao shrine (高お神社) in Ichikai. This shrine so obscure that even Google and Yahoo maps cannot specify where it is. Kagutsuchi no mikoto (迦具土神) is enshrined there.

As expected, we got stuck in a huge traffic jam – people heading to the river for the fireworks display, and then, after taking an impromptu detour to avoid the jam, we got lost... We had to stop by at two different konbinis (convenience stores) to ask for directions. Yes, it was that rural! Eventually, we somehow managed to get to the shrine. (And it’s a miracle we did, because Ms. Trouble, who used to work in Ubagai, kinda sorta knew the area and was navigating, while Dr Trouble was very diligently ignoring her directions.)

You can call this festival Tensai (天祭). A temporary festival “shelf” called tendana 天棚 (dana 棚 = shelf) is assembled on the first day of the event. It doesn’t look like any shelf we’re normally familiar with, but that’s what they call it.

Tendana assembled for the festival. It has two levels; lower - for the traditional orchestra and upper - for Shinto priests praying and drinking booze during idle time.

Approximately 20 young, half-naked guys appeared around 8:30PM on August 21st, made circles, kept spinning around, got splashed with water, fell to the ground, got up and started all over again. This activity is called “Hadaka momi (裸もみ) - getting squashed while naked. Ms. T was sort of disappointed to see that they did not wear fundoshi (see this older entry to find our more about her enthusiasm regarding fundoshi).

Wet, half-naked guys spinning like around in circles.

Wet, because they get splashed with water, over and over again.


So, it was kind of like mud wrestling, except there were no girls in bikinis and no real mud. And the music sucked.

The ceremony of this festival is supposed to bring fertile crops, especially rice. However, I cannot figure out why young, half-naked, very drunk (oh yes, they were) men are supposed to spin around for a good rice harvest.

Anyway, it was our first time to watch this bizarre festival, but we actually had fun after all (and Sukiya on the way home).

And this girl just discovered that when the men's shorts got wet, they became see-through. Kind of like a wet t-shirt contest, but with guys and underwear, I guess.

While driving from Ubagai, we got stuck in a heavy traffic jam once again. The fireworks revelers were going home. Fireworks, that we missed. But instead, we bring you this:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I was interviewed about being a matsuri otaku!

Sibylle Ito (go ahead, follow her on Twitter - she is one of the nicest people on the innerwebz!), of the fabulous "Where Mt. Fuji meets Matterhorn" blog interviewed me recently about the thing in Japan that I love the most - matsuri (Japanese festivals).

The interview is here, please check it out. And if you're curious to find out what I look like, my photo is there, too. OK, enough of this self-promotion, now, back to important things.

Sibylle does a wonderful job conducting and publishing interviews with different individuals each week, and I am honored that she thought that matsuri and being a matsuri geek were worth talking about.

Of course, I couldn't have answered the questions without Dr Trouble's help, for which I am very grateful. My husband knows more about matsuri than anyone else I've ever met (including some hoity-toity Japan culture experts from overseas, PhDs and all).

Buttsuke in Moka

He got me started on matsuri by accident. Previously, a festival was a festival was a festival was just another festival. So there's a bunch of cute guys prancing around with mikoshi, big deal. Another matsuri, yawn...

And then, during a visit to Rinnoji in Nikko (yes, a Buddhist temple) something clicked. I was standing in the Sanbutsudo Hall, when the cogs in my brain suddenly turned and the light came on. I was so proud of myself to finally figure out who these Buddhist deities were in Shinto.

That started the process (now - our tradition) to check at each and every shrine we visit, which deity is enshrined there. From there, the jump to matsuri was an easy one.

Summer Festival in Moka

With Dr Trouble being a Shinto freak (but with a Buddhist streak), learning about matsuri is easy. The man is a walking encyclopedia of Shinto knowledge and a card carrying member of the International Shinto Foundation.

So there you have it - anyone can be turned into a matsuri otaku, even someone as unlikely as myself. 

Now, if you excuse me, I have to research the festival we are going to attend this weekend.

And Sibylle, thank you so much for this opportunity!!!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Candle illumination at Jikoji temple in Utsunomiya

by Dr Trouble

The reason why Jikoji temple is located where it’s located

View Larger Map

As always, first things first… When an Utsunomiyan (I guess that's what you call an inhabitant of Utsunomiya, right?) hears the words “Jikoji temple”, it immediately brings to his (or her) mind the Red Gate, which was renovated in 2008. 63 years ago, during WWII, the gate was totally destroyed thanks to the Utsunomiya city airstrikes.

This temple is also famous for one of the earliest cherry blossoms in Utsunomiya. Actually we went there this April, though the weather was not delightful. Not at all.


Jikoji temple is located to the northeast of Utsunomiya castle. In Ancient Japan, each direction was assigned one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (Earthly Branches). North corresponds to “mouse” (子: pronounced as “ne”), East to “rabbit” (卯 “u”), South to “horse” (午 “uma”) and West to “chicken” (酉: “tori”). Northeast has two animals - cow (丑 “ushi”) and tiger (寅 “tiger”).

And then, there’s the evil monster called Oni (鬼).

Image: Wikipedia

Oni is depicted as a macho guy with either red or blue skin. He also has horns - like a “COW”, and short pants made of “TIGER's” skin. Since Oni has features of both cow and tiger, Northeast is called “Kimon - (鬼門) - Entrance gate of Oni, and you should have something powerful to neutralize this evil creature with.

Obviously Jikoji temple (Red Gate included) is thought to act as a sacred barrier to stop this evil spirit from entering Utsunomiya's downtown. Now Jikoji temple is in Utsunomiya downtown, however, I am sure that back then, it was the periphery of the city.

Candles in the Temple during Obon season

Most of us, especially old dudes, still believe that the spirits of dead ancestors come back to our world three times a year, twice in Ohigan (spring and fall - お彼岸) and once during Obon - お盆?

Starting at 6PM on August 16 at Jikoji temple, members of the Danka system (檀家制度) get together for the veneration of their ancestors. Strictly speaking, today (the tail end of Obon) is the day to send the ancestral spirits back to their world.


Buddhist priest of the highest order delivering the prestigious Sutra of Jodo school.

The ceremony started with chanting – done by the Buddhist priest of the highest order, which I have no clue what it means. Then they marched to the Main Hall of the temple, and then headed to an Amitabha statue standing at the end of the stairs. The old priest prayed once again, but once again, I had no idea what he chanted. I was just standing too far away from him to hear.

Chanting in front of the statue at the top of the stairway to Heaven, or rather, since we're talking Buddhists here - Nirvana.

Members of the Danka sat in front of the Main Hall until the head priest finished his chanting. They suffered a lot from mosquitoes during this ever-lasting prayer…

We have a famous (well, sort of) and very dedicated musician in Utsunomiya, Daiju KURASAWA, who organized the music for this event. We saw him last year at a different festival. Last year he actually volunteered for the Oya festival in Utsunomiya. Maybe he did this time, too (I am not sure), or maybe he’s a devout Buddhist (I am not sure).

And finally, since this ceremony is mostly for the Danka members, you are supposed to contribute 500 JPY (approx. $5) to participate. And for your “donation”, you get an amulet to get rid of evil spirits coming from Northeast.

New feed for the blog

Because Google are a bunch of useless a$$hats, it proved impossible for me to migrate from the "old" feedburner to the new Google-based thingie.

My old username and password simply stopped working when I tried to "claim my feed", and of course the people at Google that deal with feedburner issues were totally unresponsive. And judging from the volume of angry messages on the feedburner google forum, I'm not the only one with this problem.

So, instead of struggling to claim my feed, it was simply easier for me to disconnect from the "old" feedburner and get a whole new account.

Sorry, if you were a subscriber, now you need to do the whole subscriberering thing all over again.

But then again, if you were a subscriber, you're not reading this, because you didn't get this message. Oh well.

Anyway, the new subscriberering thingies are on the left. 

See you around!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Today in Moka - ceremony to honor casualties of war

August 15th is the day when Japan surrendered in WW2. It is also the day to honor those who died during the war. Last year we went to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo to witness the August 15th ceremonies.

This year, having just returned from Shikoku, we were too tired to go to Tokyo. Instead, I stayed at home, and Dr Trouble attended a local ceremony - Toro Nagashi - 真岡の燈ろう流し (Lanterns in the river) - in our favorite city - Moka.


It started with Buddhist monks chanting prayers for the casualties of war and then paper lanterns with a candle inside (500 yen for the privilege) were taken down to the river.

Priests prayed.

And then led the procession to the river.


And that's about it.

So, if you prefer a more traditional observance of the end of the war in Japan, here is a set of old photos, taken in 1943 and 1944, of Yasukuni shrine.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

On staring and good-looking men

Staring. Seemingly every foreigner in Japan has something to say about it. And now - so do I.

Though it may come as a surprise to many, I haven’t really been stared at in Japan. For the most part, I’ve been treated just like any other anonymous face in the crowd. And yes, I am a blond, western woman.

From time to time a kid, or a drunk salaryman farmer will do a double take, but that’s about it. Dunno why. Maybe I’m spectacularly ugly? But no, then people would REALLY stare. Rather, I must be spectacularly average, so pedestrian and mundane that even the most inquisitive countryside obachans don't pay me any attention.

There are no scared children who clutch their mothers’ skirts and burst into tears upon seeing me in a cereal isle at the local supermarket. There are no curious looks from gas station attendants or postal workers. I go about my daily business mostly ignored by mostly everybody.

When approached by native strangers, and with no hesitation on their part, I have always been addressed in Japanese. I’ve been asked for directions and complained to about the weather, all in a friendly Tochigi manner. Nobody seems surprised by my presence, and nobody makes a big deal of it.

When visiting Tokyo, infrequently as it may be, I’m just another boring gaijin. Yawn, burp, snore… I’m perfectly invisible. I’ve been invisible in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, of course. But surprisingly enough, I’ve also been invisible in small-town Tochigi, Fukushima and Ibaraki – places not normally known for their cosmopolitan, multi-culti flair.

I got so used to my anonymousness that I forgot that I do indeed look a lot of different than 99.99% of this country’s population. And I was rudely reminded of this fact this week while visiting Shikoku.


Yep, Shikoku. Luckily its nature is more luscious than its people.

Boy, do people have a staring problem there, or what? Both natives and foreigners alike, it seems. I have never seen a guy run up from behind me, turn around and stare. Last Thursday was the first such experience. The first of many.

All this attention made me feel first awkward, and then superpower mighty. If they can stare at me, let me stare back. But actually, no major staring was necessary. My mere presence had a profound effect on people. Women gawked with open mouths (yes, I was fully and quite decently dressed, in case you’re wondering) and men fell off their bicycles. And I felt like that Chinese girl in the “Memoirs of a Geisha” movie when the Michelle Yeoh character tests her if she’s ready. She looks at some guy on a bicycle and he falls down. And shit, I’m no geisha and in Takamatsu I could do the same. Awesome!


Bike accident in 3... 2... 1...

That the natives may stare that is to be expected. After all, I’m a newcomer who has encroached upon their territory. And let’s be frank here, Shikokans are fugly (I guess that's what centuries of inbreeding can do to the best of us). I’m a movie star by comparison.

But other gaijins? That’s a bit extreme. Guys, for a white woman, I’m not that beautiful (I’m less than average, according to my ex, but not so ugly that you’d want to gouge your eyes out). So stop staring, you’re just being rude, especially when you’re walking along with a lady friend hanging onto your arm. And ladies, yes, I’m a skinny bitch and my tits might be bigger than yours, but trust me, they’re all natural, no need to stare.

If anything, this road trip made me appreciate Tochigi that much more. And now I’m glad to be back to my usual obscurity. Crap, sometimes I wish people good-looking men* would stare at me here. But sadly, in Tochigi, I’m nobody special.

*) - I’ve never considered Tochigi guys to be especially good-looking, but damn, compared to the inhabitants of Shikoku, they are.

And speaking of good-looking, which Japanese prefecture has the handsomenest men? Opinions, please.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Road to Meiji Revolution Hello Kitty

This one will go nicely with my “onsen” shotgun toting Kitty I found last year in Nikko.


Again, the NRA would be proud. And just consider the possibilities! They are endless, really.

  • “Freedom Fighter” Kitty.
  • “Black Hawk Down” Kitty.
  • “Going Postal” Kitty.
  • “I hate school” Kitty.
  • "I don't like Mondays" Kitty.
  • and so on...

If this can be labeled as a “Ryoma Sakamato, Bakumatsu Period, Road to Meiji Revolution” Kitty, then the sky’s the limit.

PS. Found it at a highway rest stop in Otsu.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Miya Matsuri 2010 - videos

Yet another Miya Matsuri, the annual Utsunomiya city summer festival is behind us. Amazingly, the weather was nice this year and it didn't rain. I'm sure that Mother Nature will correct this oversight on the night of Utsunomiya hanabi (fireworks) on August 21st.

But in the meantime, here's a drunk Tengu who instead of leading the parade, gets all cozy with the young ones.

And yes, he was drunk. He needed a helper to keep him upright and push him in the right direction.

Here, check out these Miya Matsuri videos, all shot by yours truly, so please excuse the crappy camera work. It's hard to fawn over the Bamba boys and keep the camera from shaking.

But first things first.

These videos embed goofy here, so to see them in all their shaky glory, please right click and choose to watch them on YouTube.

This is Orion dori (Utsunomiya's main pedestrian drag) all decked out for Miya Matsuri:

The little hos in training were adorable, though, white boots and all.

Here, the guys purify the streets before the mikoshi procession. And we meet a lost Red Riding Hood and two friendly punks:

Now, if you're into mikoshi (as opposed to Red Riding Hoods or overweight punks), this one's for you:

And if sweaty guys and giant drums are your thing, then the Bamba Dori team is definitely your thing. They are the stars of any Utsunomiya show. Seriously, I'm surprised that women are not throwing their bras and undies at them.

For photos, go here and here. Now, if you excuse me, I have to pack for our trip to Shikoku. Sanuki udon, here we come!!!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Religious significance of climbing Mt Nantai

And praying while watching the sunrise from the summit

After posting our report about climbing Mt. Nantai at night, we got two very intelligent questions Carolyn from Oakland Daily Photo, and we really appreciate her interest in the subject.

And here are our answers.

Mt. Nantai - Image by Asa-moya

Why is the mountain sacred?

It is not surprising to learn that ancient human being, regardless of their ethnicity, cultural background, and geographic location, were all in awe of mountains and considered them sacred. This sort of idea called “animism” was initially developed by a German scholar - Georg Ernst Stahl, and then redefined in English by Edward Burnett Tylor. Personally, I don’t feel like describing this as a religion, rather, I would call it faith. And to me there is a significant difference between the two.

A mountain can be worshipped and considered sacred because of its shape, frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions and mythical significance. Mt. Olympus and Mt. Ida are the highest mountains in Greece and on the island of Crete, respectively, and both of them are sacred mountains of Greek gods.

The same principle applies to ancient Shinto called Koshinto (古神道) in Japan. Inhabitants of Japan during the Jomon period were in awe of mountains where they dwelt, hunted animals, went fishing, and harvested nuts. Without a food supply from the mountain, they had no life, or their life would have been much more difficult.

After obtaining a variety of things that their mountains had to offer, how did they feel? It’s only natural that they spontaneously expressed their gratitude to the mountains by organizing ritual ceremonies, however primitive and simple they might have been.

Then it is not surprising either to further imagine that they decided to have rules within their community not to over-hunt and poach animals living on the mountain. They could have decided to distinguish the area of their everyday life from the hunting grounds on the mountain, which they might have started to call a “sacred ground” or “sanctuary”.

Image by Marx Pix

What they did next was to mark a ceremonial entrance to the mountain. Later on, that hut turned into a shrine and the gate - torii (鳥居) was painted in vivid red to be easily noticed. That’s why shrines tend to be built at the border between everyday dwelling area and sacred places.

Now you know why the entrance gate to Mt. Nantai is at Futaara shrine's Chugushi shrine (二荒山神社中宮祠). The objective of Futaara Chugushi shrine is to restrict the entry to the holy mountain - Mt. Nantai, where Okuni (or Ookuni no nushi or Oonamuchino-mikoto: they are all the same god but with a different pronunciation of his name) is worshipped.


Entrance to Mt. Nantai

What does one pray for or pray to during the climb?

As Ms. T. already explained in her comment, it could be anything. It’s all up to you - Okuni is a very open-minded god, you know. And because you pay (= donate) 1000 yen (= approx. 10 bucks) for climbing Mt. Nantai at night, you have the right to make your own wishes, no matter how evil or dirty they are.

Now I hear you say, “this is not what I wanted to hear.”

OK, OK, there is more.

There is a common expression while climbing a mountain, especially when climbing Mt. Fuji. It’s called “rokkon shojo" (六根清浄). It’s theoretically a Buddhist term. “Rokkon” means “six senses [visual perception, hearing, olfaction, taste, sense coming from skin (touching, temperature, pain), and consciousness]. “Shojo” means purification. When put together “rokkon shojo” means purifying klesa (poison) inside your heart that was produced through the six senses (rokkon).

To purify your spirit and remain as pure as possible, you got to avoid seeing, hearing, sniffing, tasting, touching, and sensing evil things around you. By repeating the term “rokkon shojo” while struggling to climb a holy mountain, your spirit will be purified. The harder the trek, the purer your spirit becomes. Basically you are virtual-experiencing the discipline that yamabushi (山伏) have been practicing for centuries. And then, the full-of-pain endeavor of purifying your spirit culminates in exposing yourself to the holy shower of rising sunlight on top of the sacred Mt. Nantai!

In order to get rid of your klesa (i.e. dirty mind and evil spirit, you name it) you should climb at night, and that’s why we start climbing at midnight. We should reach the top before the sun rises. Does it make sense now? I hope it does.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Tohaisai - Climbing Mt Nantai at night

This is a Japan Blog Matsuri entry for August. This month's matsuri is hosted by Through Eyes From Afar and the theme is Nature and Japan.

Yeah, we got that covered, that's for sure.

Now read on, and then visit Through Eyes From Afar to check out other Japan Blog Matsuri entries for August.

Let me start off by saying that I love mountains. I really do. I just don't like to climb them. Why? Going up is the easy part, that I can do, no problem. It’s the going down bit that is always a circus. And today was no different.

But first things first.

What was I doing climbing a mountain today? And not just any mountain, but Mt. Nantai (2486 meters above sea level) – one of the most sacred mountains in Japan.

And not just any old climbing either. Oh no! We couldn’t be that mundane, now could we? Because if you’re going to do something you don’t especially like, you might as well go all out and do it like it’s meant to be done, right? Do it once but do it right.

And that’s why we were climbing Mt Nantai at night.

Waiting to pray before the climb

Yes, it was Tohaisai time – the sacred nighttime climb to watch the sunrise from the summit. The full name is: 男体山登拝講社大祭 – Nantaisan Tohai Kosha Taisai and it’s held annually on July 31st until August 7th.

The event is organized by Futaarasan shrine in Nikko, and as the name suggests – you climb the mountain and you pray. The only difference between this climb and an ordinary hike is that this one starts at midnight, you climb in the company of other worshippers, and you do it by flashlight.

Waiting to start the climb

And once at the top, you can pray while admiring the sunrise. That is, if the visibility is fine. This morning it was foggy - well, you are, after all, IN the clouds. Today, before the sun rose properly, the visibility was an astounding 10 meters.

The whole thing starts at Futaara shrine in Chuzenji (that's still Nikko, in case you're wondering). There’s a daytime festival that inaugurates the climb, then you pay 1000 yen, and off you go.

Praying before the climb

By the way, notice their clothes? They're more like Buddhist than shinto priest's clothes. Why? That's how it was back in the olden days, there wasn't much distinction between those two religions.

Once when all the initial prayers are completed, at the stroke of midnight the gate behind Futara shrine is opened and it's showtime. The climb should take about 4 hours, so you arrive at the summit just in time for the sunrise.
The gate is open, time to go.

Now, I don't know if it’s just me, but man, it was hard. It was also slippery, dark and muddy. On the other hand, I’m glad it was dark. If I saw what I was climbing over, I’d probably never even attempt it. And as it was dark, and the only light came from my and other participants flashlights, I just had to focus on what was in front of me and blindly go forward.

Once you start, there is really no option to stop. You climb in a huge group, so any slacker causes a jam. This year there were about 2500 climbers (as reported by Shimotsuke shimbun). We were divided into smaller groups of about 500 people. Hint – if you’re planning to do this climb, elbow your way into the first or second batch of people at the start. Otherwise you’ll never reach the summit in time for the sunrise. Or you’ll have to climb like a mad man.

You are led by shinto priests in Buddhist clothing

Actually, today some people did climb like mad men. The fastest guy reached the top in about 90 minutes. Now, for comparison, it took Dr. Trouble 4 hours, and it took me 4 and a half. And Dr Trouble is a fit beast that can jump over rocks like a monkey. I’m not fit, but I’m very determined. And even though at the 75% mark it looked like I might want to give up, I gave myself a kick in the butt and pushed on. Let’s just say that Dr Trouble never expected to see me at the top. (Jerk, after all these years, he should have known me better by now.)

Yes! We made it!

Watching the sunrise from the top of Mt Nantai

You'd think there would be a statue of Monk Shodo at the summit, but no. This actually looks like Okuninushi - the god of Mt. Nantai.

Going up is easy, it’s the down part that always kills me when mountains (or anything elevated, including ladders) are involved. Let's just say that going down, at least for me, was pure hell. It was already daytime and I could actually see the way. And that was the main problem. I scratched my head and thought to myself, often out loud, “How the hell did I get up THIS thing?”

Going down, lake Chuzenji in the background

And then the inevitable happened. I fell and twisted my ankle, skinned my leg and smashed my knee. How did I manage to do that when for the most part I was sliding down the mountain on my butt is anybody’s guess.

Bottom line, when I reached the 40% mark going down (that’s where the access road starts), the descent for me was over. Dr Trouble was waiting for me there (didn’t I tell you he can jump like a monkey?) and when he overheard people coming down complaining that a foreigner caused a jam, he knew something was up.

Soldiers supervising the descent, and assisting when necessary. They also do the cleanup, so please be kind and don't litter!

When I hobbled down, he dragged me to the Red Cross van (even though I was fully prepared to hobble all the way down to Futaara shrine) where the paramedics took one look at my leg and told us we’re riding the rest of the way – that I wasn’t going anywhere on this foot and would be stupid to try. And that someone down at the shrine was going to examine it and administer first aid. And that they did. Their diagnosis? Sprained ankle. One of only four injuries today, which for 2500 people, is not bad at all.

Praying at the summit

If you want to participate in Tohaisai, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Get a head light, not just a normal flashlight, but the kind that goes on your head, you'll need all your hands to just hold on.

  • At Futaara shrine make sure you are in the first or second group, otherwise you'll never make it to the top before the sunrise.

  • It will be cold at the summit and you will be soaking wet, bring a jacket and a change of clothes. Though if you’re female, you won't be able to change anyway - there's no privacy really.

  • Waterproof backpack for your camera gear – that is essential. Even if it doesn’t rain, the humidity just hangs in the air (after all you're IN the clouds for the most part), everything will get wet if you don’t protect it.

  • Gloves (essential) and a walking stick (optional). Personally, I don't like walking sticks, but that’s because I use all my limbs when climbing over rocks and exposed tree roots.

  • There will be drinks and snacks for purchase at the 40% mark, and cup ramen, miso soup and hot beverages at the summit.

  • Take all your trash with you!!! You’re in Nikko National Park. The poor soldiers who hop the mountain all night and day long during this event pick up everything left behind, but that's not an easy job, even if you're a fit soldier. Do you know how heavy their backpacks are? They carry radios, chains, ropes, drinks (which they give out to exhausted climbers going down) and first-aid supplies in them, AND they pick up trash along the way. So do your part and pick up your trash yourself.

  • Toilets - only in designated port-a-potties at the 40% mark and the summit. No shitting on the mountain! This is a holy place. So a strong bladder is essential.

  • Once you start climbing, the only option to back out is at the 40% mark (the access road). If you change your mind later on, the only thing you can do is to move to the side and wait until the morning to go down.

  • Going slow is OK, just let people behind you pass from time to time. You don't want to be like that foreigner today, who caused a traffic jam on the mountain. Ahem...

  • There are soldiers and police stationed at the most dangerous sections, that's the time to ask for help, if you have to. It seemed that at least one person at each section could understand English, and they were eager to show off their speaking skills, too.

  • You will see a lot of older Japanese folks passing you. Don't feel bad. They’re not mere mortals like you and me. They’re tough Japanese grandpas who climb this bloody mountain every freaking weekend.

  • This is a tough climb, even some of those fit Japanese people agree. There will be very few (actually, apart from the access road, none at all) flat stretches. It's all very steep and very up. So be careful!

Happy climbing!

And here's a video of Tohaisai 2010 - enjoy!