Tuesday, February 28, 2006



When I was around 7, I spent 2 months in Japan, then came back to the States and was afraid of my father and forgot how to speak English. I just thought my father looked (cue the fairy-tale narrator's voice) so tall and so white and so long-nosed. And what was the huge smile he had from ear to ear with all those teeth showing? And why was everyone trying to engage me in conversation and trying to hug me so much?

It all came back of course -- the vocabulary and the comfort with smiling. But I still go through a period of disorientation when I come back to America. Sometimes I think I'm just a hypersensitive person, and that the disorientation is strictly the result of a screwed up sleep schedule. I don't do well with sleep deprivation.

But then I read this fascinating blog entry about a guy who has just landed in NYC and is going through some of the similar sensations I do. He writes of the contradictory sense of indivduality that Americans have, which reminded me of something I wrote last summer.

In general, I don't like to talk about what it feels like to come back to America. It is a really crappy feeling, and I don't want to share it with people who, hopefully, are happy to see me back. I'm also not an idiot. I know that I'm American.

Funnily enough, I don't feel anything negative when I land in Japan. This time, my mother laughed at me for trotting around Nara as fast as I could to my favorite little restaurant a few hours after we were off the plane. I was just SO HAPPY to be in this other place that I love and consider home. Adjusting to America is more difficult, and I even go through a period where I can feel myself actively resisting the changes needed to fit in again.


Trendwatching: Elf Shoes

I saw shoes like this quite frequently in Tokyo on the feet of the most fashionable men. Out of the cities, I ran into these shoes less often.

Essentially, they have very pointy toes, are somewhat loosely constructed, so the foot looks "flat," and have really long laces that are looped around the body of the shoe several times.

Tapered shoes in general seemed to be popular with young men in Tokyo (a version of the Fall and Winter 2005/2006 Prada shoe). But this elf shoe thing is a pointy beast unto its own.

Personally, I thought it was an interesting fashion statement. I like tapered shoes because they elongate the leg, though I know that for the moment, women's fashion is focused on round-toe pumps. But I also know that pointy-toed shoes aren't for everyone.

Monday, February 27, 2006


For The Gamers

I know these aren't the best photos, but I was still figuring out how to use my camera at night (without a tripod). I'm sure the die-hard fans out there will recognize the ad and the location. ;-)


Matsuri Report: Kamakura

The little town of Yokote in Akita province holds the Kamakura matsuri every year to honor the water god and to coincide with the lunar new year.

It's a gorgeous festival in which children make "igloos," or kamakura.

Children sit inside with small charcoal burners. They heat amazake and roast mochi and invite visitors to come inside with the phrase: "Haittetanse."

You are allowed to enter the kamakura, though you have to take off your shoes in order to sit on the tatami mats inside. It is surprisingly warm inside the kamakura.

You can also see fields of small kamakura alongside the river, or by the schools. The small igloos are lit up with candles and, as with Setsubun at Kasuga Taisha, it feels like the earth has opened up and revealed a secret property of nature to you.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Oga Food

The Oga Peninsula, where Namahage takes place, sticks out into the Japan Sea and as a result, has access to a few species of fish you don't see on the Pacific Side of the country. We stayed at a lovely ryokan in Oga, and, as is the case with ryokan, were served much more food than I could comfortably eat for dinner. However, there was just no way I could let any dish go untasted -- even if I couldn't finish it.

How is this for a dinner spread? The thing is, the dishes kept coming. When I would finish one, another would come out. I was utterly defeated by the time dinner ended. I must have eaten over 10 kinds of seafood which, if you love seafood as much as I do, is a wonderful problem to face. The sashimi was particularly excellent.

We also ate a particular kind of ishi yaki which is a specialty of Oga. In this dish, hot rocks are placed inside a large pot of soup. The rocks are heated over 3 hours before guests arrive for dinner, and are dangerously, mortally hot.

Once guests dropped the rocks inside the pot, the stock began to boil.

The ryokan wait-staff carefully put in pieces of fish and vegetables to also cook in the stock. The final broth was excellent (and hot!).

I ate one other Akita-ken specialty -- kiritampo. You can see the kiritampo in this photo; they are the fish-cake looking "sticks" poking up on the right side of the picture. These are made from rice which is pounded, then molded over a stick, then roasted.


Bamboo Madness


Takeuchi, a matsuri in the town of Rokugo, takes place once a year on February 15th. Men wearing crash helmets divide into two teams: the north and the south. At a signal, they carry massive bamboo poles into "battle" and whack at each other for 3 minute intervals. This happens twice. After that, the men simply slug it out until they are told to stop (a command they tend to ignore for some time).

According to this site, it is believed that:

if the North wins, a good harvest of rice is promised, and if the South wins, the price of rice will go up.


The entire spectacle ends with many generations of townspeople burning paper streamers attached to long bamboo poles; the streamers carry the wishes of townspeople and burning the papers are said to ensure that their prayers are heard by the kami.

Takeuchi is definitely one of the nuttiest, most violent matsuri I've ever seen.


First posted on Japundit.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Hiburi Kamakura

hiburi kamakura

Hiburi Kamakura is one of the Ko-shogatsu festivals. As this site explains, the major O-shogatsu, or new year celebrated in December 31st, is:

primarily celebrated by court nobles, samurai, and similar people. The other is "Ko-shogatsu," the minor shogatsu held from January 15th of the lunar calendar, which is primarily performed by farmers . . . In this (hiburi kamakura) event, celebrants also brandish burning straw rice bags by gripping the end of about a one-meter long rope attached to the bag. The rice bags are set on fire by the burning firewood in the kamakura. People pray for the sound health and well-being of their family while the bag is burning. In farmer villages, many koshogatsu events were held up to 1930 or 1931. The brandishing of burning straw rice bags has continued, but only around the Kakunodate area.

What's it like? You are essentially wrangling fire. You are conscious of the burning rice bag growing lighter and lighter. You can hear and feel the fire all around you. You don't want to whirl the bag too slowly, or you will hurt yourself. You also don't want to get out of control and whirl it too quickly, or you might hurt someone else. It's exciting and a little bit dangerous. I was both relieved and a little bit sad when it is over.

johnny hiburi

Photo from John Yuehan's site. Check out his comments on Hiburi Kamakura! I first posted this article on Japundit.


Seasonal Nails Continued

I couldn't leave Tokyo without a manicure, this time with a spring theme. I'll be sad when this disappears.

Friday, February 17, 2006


My Adorable Cousin

I adore my cousin Mah-kun. He has incredible style and I always love what he wears. Here he is posing beside his car, which is a behemoth of an American Chevy, and which he insists was used as a hearse. This goes along with his collection of silver skull rings. However, because the hearse guzzles so much gas, he is thinking of switching to a Toyota.

And here is Mah-kun's other self -- Mah-kun the priest. That's right. His father is a Buddhist priest at the temple which has been in my family for several generations. Mah-kun says that once he removes the silver rings (and earrings) he becomes a different person, though his sense of fashion is no less savvy. He made a point of telling me that he had carefully chosen the color coordination of these robes; most young guys wear blue, but he liked the whole "brown on brown" sophistication.

I like to try to make my family laugh when posing for photos. This is especially true of Mah-kun and his father who put on serious faces when posing for the camera (in robes). Here I am trying to get Mah-kun to smile.

It didn't work.

And here is Mah-kun's father, Sempoh-san, who I have known for years. I was pretty much in tears when we left. We both have incredibly fond memories of our time together over the years. I wish there were a way to make our homes closer.



marie namahage Many travelers to Japan don’t get to Tohoku, or the “northern country,” which is too bad because in many ways, it is here that traditional culture is best preserved.

Winter is filled with a number of famous festivals, and I’ve been spending the better part of a week trying to see most of them. I’ll start today with a few pictures of Sedo Matsuri, commonly referred to as "Namahage," which takes place on the Oga Peninsula (get our your atlases). The “real” Namahage takes place on December 31st and is for locals. The Feburary version is for visitors, but if you ever get the chance to see it, you won’t feel that you have been gypped.

The word namahage comes from the local word for “blister.” The namahage themselves are fierce looking demons. As one scholar writes:

Some ethnologists and folklorists suggest it relates to a belief in deities (or spirits) coming from abroad to take away misfortune and bring blessings for the new year, while others believe it is an agricultural custom where the kami from the sacred mountains visit. These kami (spirits) have the power to assure rich harvests, so they are welcomed and feasted.

shisan jinja 1 In the daytime, Shinsan-jinja, where Namahage takes place, is a beautiful spot, nestled up against a mountain side.

namahage on hill

Things change once it is dark. Taiko drumers pound out a fierce rhythm while people huddle around a bonfire. The namahage come down from a snowy mountain side carrying torches and knives (the torches are real; the knives are not).


Once down by the humans, the namahage target are little children – or the occasional foreign visitor who looks very out of place. It ends with a mamemaki (this time it was rice kernels), free mochi and a very civilized lottery.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Valentine Apples

If you don't want to give your sweetie a chocolate for Valentine's Day, you could settle for giving him or her this apple. It comes with a little Valentine sticker on the skin.

Peel of the sticker, and the Valentine message has literally been "suntanned" right onto the skin. Nifty, eh?

Happy Valentine's Day, sweetie!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Sacred Deer of Nara

Once upon a time, as the story goes, deer were the sacred messengers of gods of the Kasuga shrine which is located here in Nara. The descendents of these deer live in the Nara Park and occasionally wander around the city streets. Because they are sacred, they are protected by law.

The deer aren’t exactly tame, but they aren’t exactly wild either. You can buy special “shika sembei” or deer crackers to feed the animals. But as anyone who has done this will tell you, years of sacredness can sometimes make the deer behave in a slightly overentitled fashion.

In the summer, for example, the bucks still have their antlers, and they may prod you from behind to ask that you hurry up and start feeding them.

Clusters of deer may crowd around you and nibble on your buttons or sleeves to demand attention and thus food.

deer and students

Some deer may not differentiate between the special “deer crackers” and your own food, as this group of students discovered.


An overwhelmed tourist might therefore feel compelled to actually escape from the deer, and it is not uncommon to see people yelp, or run away with deer in hot pursuit.

trash can

One final note; these trash cans have been wrapped with a rubber band to prevent deer from getting at the food inside. Even special sacred deer need to be protected from themselves.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Lantern Festival

Sometimes in Japan I have what I call the "lantern problem." This is basically my inability to capture the mood of certain places and situations on film. This problem is most pronounced when I want to photograph old matsuri, which eschew electricity and favor fire and lanterns to convey a mood.

I can't say that I'm exactly satisfied with these photos, but I've done my best to take some pictures of the lantern festival at Kasuga Taisha, or Kasuga shrine, which took place in Nara during Setsubun. The grounds of the shrine are lined with hundreds of stone lanterns. These are lit twice a year. All nearby lights are extinguisehd (save for a few vending machines which seemed incredibly out of place and inordinately bright). The effect is incredible; the stone lanterns, several rows thick in places, fan out into the woods, their hearts glowing like little amber hearts. The forest feels very much alive.

The shrine itself is festooned with bronze lanterns, and these are lit as well.

The gold light reflects off of the vermillion paint, and you literally feel suspended inside an enormous well of gentle red light.

Yes, I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but it's true. If you have the chance to visit Kasuga Taisha during its lantern festivals, I strongly recommend you go.


Chasing Demons, Continued

I wrote yesterday about the preparations underway to celebrate Setsubun, and the need to chase away demons, or oni, with soy beans. My mother always made sure I did this every year, though there were a few times when I was living alone and I had to use peanuts or sunflower seeds as a substitute.

I can report that we were indeed successful this year in getting the oni out of Koufukuji temple.

There are three kinds of oni at Koufukuji: red, green and black. After listening to a large group of priests chanting (beautifully) inside the temple, a large crowd of people including yours truly watched as 6 oni (two of each color) danced around on a stage. The oni carried lit torches and generally did their best to frighten and entertain the audience while a drum pounded and an eerie reed/brass-like instrument squealed. The torches were actually a little scary; it wouldn't have taken much for a mischievous oni to rain sparks down on the crowd.

Bishamonten, the guardian of the north and the god of war, came out and "killed" the onis. Ebisu, god of luck, then came out of the temple and threw out small packets of soy beans, or "luck," to the crowd to take home. After Ebisu, emptied his bag, temple dignitaries (including Miss Nara) threw out the remainder of the temple's stash of good luck bags.


Chasing Demons

February 3rd will be Setsubun in Japan, or a “parting of seasons.” Essentially, after this day, winter will end. Traditionally, people celebrated this change by chasing out the demons, or oni, which have accumulated over the year in the homes. The weapon of choice is a handful of soybeans and the words: “Oni wa soto. Fuku wa uchi!” This roughly means: “Demons go out! Good luck come in!”

I’m in the city of Nara – a favorite place – where plans are underway to chase out the demons, or oni, in a big way. To prepare, stores have put out little demon decorations (most of the demons are cute, of course) and special packages of roast soy beans.

One sushi store was selling a “demon out good luck in” sushi special.

I found this display of oni masks which I assume actors will wear at the oni exorcism at Koufukuji later today. I’ll report back later to let you know if the demons really did go away, and if good luck really did arrive.

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