Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Traditional Japanese Swords

(I will be putting up the remaining posts throughout the spring, for my own enjoyment, before I go back to blogging myself. This post is by Alice. Thank you Alice!)

Manipulation of traditional Japanese swords requires strict etiquette. Until today, every handler is required to apply these customs since the traditional Japanese sword represents a religious and social symbol worthy of respect and careful handling.

Several of these customs include:

• Never take the sword out of its sheath (saya) to present it: originally, this custom served to guaranty the security of people surrounding the sword-handler. However, this custom is still performed today for the same reasons. In general, one must always ask for the sword owner’s permission to unsheathe the blade and especially stand in good distance from him.

• The sword’s blade must never be pointed to the ground since, in case of a fall, its point could risk damage. Further, in the course of the handler’s movements, the blade must never be held horizontally; it is to be kept in a vertical position with the blade towards the top.

• Never touch the blade with the fingers. The traditional Japanese sword is very fragile and must be handled with care. Indeed, the blade is very sensitive to the sweat’s acidity and will find itself damaged.

• The handler should always discretely salute the blade when he removes it from its sheath. According to the Japanese religion, an artistic object deserves to be recognized for its meaning and value. In fact, according to the Samurai the famous Katana was considered the source of the warrior spirit. In a gesture of reverence, the Samurai often had their name engraved in their sword’s blade. This act can be understood as a way to attribute personal value to the object, which is a common theme in Japanese religion.

According to the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu is said to have given her grandson Ninigi No-Mikoto a sword as he was given the duty to reign down on earth. Many stories can be told about the mystical power of traditional Japanese swords. One of them involves two swordsmiths, Muramasa and Masume. Both decided to do a contest to see which made a better sword. To test the sword, Muramasa held his sword upright, which cut every leaf in the blade’s path in two. However, when Masume performed the same action, the leaves avoided his blade, passing on either side of the sword. Masume’s blade was therefore declared superior to its rival as it was proved to possess mystical and spiritual powers.

The Samurai and Katana

The Samurai are considered the most honourable warriors of ancient Japan. The Samurai’s principal weapon is a two to four feet long sabre called the Katana. Usually employed for outdoors combat, the Katana are characterized by their curved blade and high manoeuvrability. According to the Samurai history, the Samurai were the only individuals granted with the right to handle a Katana sword. If an individual belonging to the farmer or lower soldier class was suspected of owning such a weapon, he would be outright killed.

Hara-kiri (“Cutting the Belly”) is an act of suicide carried out by the Samurai in order to avoid falling into the enemy’s hands. Indeed, the Samurai preferred to take their own lives instead of succumbing to the enemy and suffer shame. A Samurai performing hara-kiri generally uses the smallest traditional Japanese sword called wakizashi. However, hara-kiri could also be used as a capital punishment for the Samurai in case he committed unprovoked murder, robbery, corruption or treason.

The Making of Katana
While the Katana’s handling was restricted to a selected group of individuals, its making also was. Ancient Japan swordmakers were an honoured class; the forging of the blade, notably, was perceived as a highly sacred activity: it was widely believed that only individuals with the purest hearts and highest moral standards could master the art. Rites of purification were (and are still) performed before engaging in the act of forging.

-video showing the making of a katana sword:

~guest blogger, Alice Giraud

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What we're talking about in class today.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Magatama Beads

(This post on the magatama is by Lauren. Lauren, thank you!)

Magatama beads are authentically Japanese and date back to the Jomon period (14,000 BC to 400 BC). Magatama, meaning “curved jewel” or “curved spirit/soul” are comma shaped beads typically made of jade, glass, rocks and various semiprecious stones. These beads do not only have an aesthetic appeal to the Japanese, but have a long history of being incorporated into their religious practices including shamanism and Shinto.

The magatama beads have several possible origins. It is believed that they developed from hunters wearing the animal paraphernalia (claws, teeth, bones) from their game as mementos (Holtom 32). Another possible origin is that magatama beads are representative of the crescent moon, a fact supporting this is “the use of jewels in Old Japan as devices wherewith to magically control the tides”, like the moon (Holtom 34; 33-5). Some scholars also believe that these beads are derived from the Chinese ying-yang symbol, as they are visually similar (Schumacher, Arnheim).

Some of the earliest religious uses of magatama beads were in Japanese shamanic practices. Here they were used as tools to draw a kami spirit into a shaman, who would serve as a medium between kamis and humans (Matsume 18-19). The beads were also used in spirit pacification rituals to “call back the spirit of the deceased and then to bind it and/or transfer it” (Ebersole 96). This was possible because the magatama beads are believed to be a lure to the kami as well as a temporary residing place for them (Blacker 106). These ideas are given further solidity when looking at the Kojiki story of coaxing Amaterasu out of the cave. Ame-no-uzume (the kami that causes the laughter) is thought by scholars to be a shaman who becomes possessed by Amaterasu while performing a spirit pacification ritual where she is reviving Amaterasu's soul (bringing it back from the dead and binding it in the world of the living by using magatama beads tied on a sakaki tree) (Ebersole 98; Matsume).

The most important magatama beads are called the yasakani no magatama and is one of the imperial regalia objects. In this context the beads are believed to possess the soul of a person wherein it can be passed on to others as a means of passing one's authority or power to its receiver. Izanagi's gift of these beads to Amaterasu is so important because in doing so, “Izanagi ceded all of his spiritual power to Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kami” to rule with (Philippi 71). This is because Izanagi had previously put his soul into the beads by shaking them (indication of a spirit pacification ritual) (Philippi 71). The transfer of power and authority to rule Japan has been handed down in this way - through the yasakani no magatama beads - from Amaterasu to her descendants, right up to the present emperor and continues to be done through the imperial accession ceremony (Ebersole 96).

Finally, magatama beads are believed to be beneficial to their owner. According to
Schumacher they are for the “'avoidance of evil'”, the “'magic of good fortune'”, or “growth, longevity, and prosperity”. This is depicted again with Izanagi giving the beads to his daughter, as he wanted to grant her longevity (Philippi 71). So, next time you're in Japan, get some magatama beads as they might bring you luck, long life or even a kami.

~guest blogger, Lauren Forbes

A hat that does more than just keep your head warm.

(Alison gives us this post on the kaihogyo hat. Thank you very much Alison!)

Just outside of the city of Kyoto we find Mt. Hiei, home to the Japanese Esoteric Buddhist sect called the Tendai. The most extreme practice some of these kaihogyo monks undertake is the one thousand day walk, where practitioners walk
the equivalence of the circumference of the globe over a period of seven years (Covell 256). It’s easy to understand why these monks are called the “marathon monks.” Anybody would concede that spending an average of 143 days per year walking would require top-notch attire and walking equipment, but these monks don’t have so much as a good pair of sneakers. Instead, the kaihogyo monks adorn themselves with no more than straw sandals, a robe, a wooden hat, and some accessories. What is of particular interest is the hat, considered to represent the principle deity of Mt. Hiei, Fudo Myo-o (Rhodes 194). (For a picture of the hat, go to: http://www.kyoto-np.co.jp/kp/topics/eng/2003sep/09-18.html)

The practitioner is said to be a symbol of Fudo My-oo and is to recite his mantras during their entire walk, establishing a constant state of worship (Ludvik 117). Since the Fudo hat is a representation of Fudo, it serves as a constant reminder of the deity and of the ongoing state of worship. The hat is made by wood from a hinoki tree and is rolled up on both of the sides, giving it an oblong shape that kind of resembles a hotdog bun. Because the hat itself is said to be Fudo Myo-o, the marathon monks are to treat it with the highest respect; in fact, the monk isn’t even allowed to wear it for the first 300 days of his practice, except when it rains (Rhodes 194).

Hagami Shocho, who completed the one thousand days of walking in 1954, recalls at first feeling somewhat sceptical about the attire the monks had to wear. Quite quickly, however, he realized that each article of clothing had its own purpose. Of the hat, he noted that its streamlined design made it “just the right fit for narrow tree-lined mountain trails” (Covell 263). This logical design of the kaihogyo attire extended, in his opinion, to the logical and scientific nature of the practice itself. As a result, the Fudo hat takes on a larger role, representing not only the powerful deity Fudo but also the rationale and science of traditional Japanese Buddhist practices (Covell 263).

Any kaihogyo practitioner is said to pledge to kill themselves if, for any reason, they are unable to complete the one thousand days of walking. As such, they carry with them a dagger and a rope if they find themselves unable to go on. Placed in their hat is the rokumon-sen coin, the coin that is pays for the ferry toll to cross the river separating the dead from the living. Here, the Fudo hat takes on another function: that of facilitating border crossing. This is especially interesting considering how much we’ve discussed border transgressions this semester. The Tendai monk sets out on his practice (very much alive) with the preparedness to cross into the world of the dead if he cannot complete his practice. The hat, moreover, is what makes possible this border crossing. So, in addition to representing a very important deity and reflecting the logical nature of the Tendai tradition, the Fudo hat also serves to cross the ultimate border between life and death. Now that is one heck of a hat.

For more on the kaihogyo practitioners, see:



For more on Fudo Myo-o, see



~guest blogger, Alison Colpitts

Sunday, April 5, 2009


(Thanks to Marc for this informative post on incense!)

Entering a Buddhist or Taoist temple, one is immediately aware of a pleasant sent in the air, the scent of incense. After exposure one can almost immediately recognize the presence of a temple or shrine based on smell alone, it is a very recognizable and distinct smell. The Japanese have been using incense within their religion and culture for hundreds of years. Buddhism was brought to Japan in the year 538 C.E. and along with it came incense. Ever since then, incense has been an integral part of Japanese religions.

There are many different ideas of what constitutes incense, but generally speaking, “Incense is defined to be both the perfume or fumigation arising from the burning of certain resins, barks, woods, seeds, fruit, etc., as well as the material being burned itself” (Bedini, 41). There are two main types of incense: direct burning and indirect burning. Direct burning involves combustion, while indirect burning involves heated stones to create the effect. Both types were and still are used by the Japanese. Direct burning incense is found in many temples, shrines, and homes. A good example of direct burning incense are incense sticks. Indirect burning is done during Kodo (the incense ceremony) or strictly on religious grounds within special incense containers.

Kodo, as stated previously, is a Japanese incense ceremony. It is a very hard ceremony to perfect. “It takes many years of study, and a great deal of practice to perform the incense ceremony properly. The art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is itself very difficult, and takes about 15 years to master. The art of Kodo takes over 30 years!” (Oller, 2). The incense ceremony represents the Japanese appreciation for incense. There are many Kodo ceremonies, such as kneading the incense and burning the incense, and also many games that are often run by a Kodo master. Yet, Kodo is jut one of the many uses for incense.

Within both Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, incense is burned very often. Incense sticks are the most prevalent in temples. They serve at least four distinct purposes. First, they are burned as a form of purification. They can be used to purify both objects and people. The second use of incense is to aid prayers on their way to the other world or to ancestors. Incense is seen as a medium that allows one to have contact with spirits and deceased relatives. It is also used as to facilitate the burial process for the same reasons. Thirdly, it is used to help in meditation, to calm oneself (this calming aspect is why incense was medicinally used as well). Lastly, incense was used as a measurement for time.

The use of incense as a timekeeper was prevalent in Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and is still used today in rural monasteries. Matchcord and Candle are the two main types of incense timekeepers. A matchcord consists of incense wrapped into a cord shape, and candles consist of a solid piece of incense. Candles have designated amounts of time. They were used as timekeepers for the monks. The gathering bell was scheduled to be rung by the burning of incense.

It seems that incense and Japanese religion go hand in hand. Incense is an integral part of a Buddhist/Taoist temple or shrine. Japan has used incense throughout the years, for purposes such as prayer, burials, and time keeping. Incense is very important to the Japanese people, and is therefore celebrated during Kodo, a way of giving thanks to such an essential element of Japan.

~guest blogger, Marc Duquette
(This is Jared's take on sake. Thank you very much Jared!)

SAKE!!! Many students of religion have encountered it somewhere along the line, some of them likely dropping a shot of it into a cup of beer and consuming the concoction post-haste, perhaps even yelling something in the process. Funnily enough, the tradition and history of sake goes well beyond this modern-day ritual; it actually has ancient roots in several crucial Japanese religious rites. Thanks to Kelly for the background on rice--as sake is (as she explained) a rice-based alcoholic beverage, an understanding of this component of its nature is important.

Japanese culture and ritual is abundant with sake. Small bowls of sake are offered to the dead or to the kami, new barrels are opened to ceremoniously celebrate the beginning of new businesses, and further, sake plays an important role in specific purification rituals (Kasulis 2004, 56). In 2008, for example, workers at North Shore Constructors in Japan splashed each part of a machine to be used to drill tunnels with sake before embarking on their endeavour (Ritchie, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review). They describe it as a ritual undertaken to wish for good drilling. Kasulis points out that ancient myths and folktales allude to the fact that the kami are fond of sake. In some examples of the use of sake in Japanese religion, its intoxicating quality is of little to no importance. Sake barrels at Shinto shrines often represent the donations of patrons and have nothing to do with intoxication. But as Kasulis admits, the inebriating qualities of sake are often relevant and therefore should not be ignored. Accordingly, Japanese workers often drink sake as a means to escape social norms and hierarchies; drinks after work with co-workers and employers tend to disintegrate existing social norms (think back to carnivalesque inversion!). Barrels of sake are opened following Shinto ceremonies, and even following victorious sports events, and are passed around freely to spread good fortune. Ms. Curley, in class, correctly explained sake culture as a culture of looseness, libido and relaxation in many contexts.

It’s interesting to note than during the Second World War, Kamikaze pilots drank sake before their missions. What might be their motivation? Could it be religious – a way of connecting with the deities in their last minutes of life? Or something else? It seems to me that there are cynical and not-so-cynical answers; you be the judge :)

Sake maintains a position as one of the five elements that provide purification in Shinto ritual (the others being water, salt, fire and sand). It has already been described in this blog how rice assists in forming a communion with deities. Japanese folklore explains the history of sake as a sacred beverage produced as an offering to the gods (Lebra 1986, 114). Mortal beings drank sake in a rite called naorae, drinking it in communion with the gods, in a sense sharing their spiritual essence (Lebra 1986, 114). The communal aspects of religious sake drinking in Japan have carried over into its secular use, as seen by its use following sports victories and a hard day’s work. But its communal nature holds perhaps the most value in its application and use in Shinto ritual.

In 1824, Samuel Morewood wrote a book entitled ‘An Essay on the Inventions and Customs of Both Ancient and Moderns in the Use of Inebriating Liquors’. It’s available for free online through Google Books. Specifically, check out pages 136 and following for an interesting account of sake in Japan during that period. Kanpai!!

~guest blogger, Jared Schwartz

Bunya Ningyo

(Bianca brings us this post on one of the coolest forms of Japanese theatre.)

Puppetry generally brings to mind children playing with felt finger-puppets whilst putting on performances for each other, and not a critically-acclaimed, historically and culturally significant art form, at least in the mind of
a North American. However, in the Japanese cultural tradition, the manipulation of puppets is executed with ritualistic expertise and often included in religious rites (Walter). There are many forms of Japanese puppetry, including Bunya Ningyo, which in 1977 was recognized as a National Intangible Cultural Asset (Wales).

Sado is an island located in the Japan Sea with an interesting history and has been described as representing a microcosm of Japan (Sado Tourism). Historically, many well-known people accused of political or ideological crimes were exiled to Sado and more recently Sado has been the birthplace of many intellectuals and artists, including puppeteers (Sado Tourism). Sado puppetry is divided into three categories: Sekkyo puppets (preachers of morality), Noroma puppets (simpletons) and Bunya puppets (storytellers). Gorozaemon Suda of the Niibo district brought a group of dolls from Kyoto 250 years ago and founded a theatre on Sado (Sado Tourism). Sado prides itself on its Sekkyo and Bunya stanzas that remain closer in form to the stories of the founders of the genre as well as the recent movement to ensure conservation of this prized cultural asset (Sado Tourism). Bunya puppetry, along with other traditional folk performances, is a significant and essential part of the annual calendar of festivals and events (Sado Tourism).

The Bunya (storyteller) puppets are carved out of wood and clothed with fabric. The puppets are nearly life-size, and though their wooden faces hold the same painted expression, the puppeteer, dressed in black to remain invisible to the audience, gracefully guides the body, head, and limbs creating precise, life-like movements across the stage, as musical accompaniment expresses the changes of feelings and emotions of the mute puppets (Wales). The puppeteers use one hand to control the stick attached to the puppet’s head while the other hand is tucked inside the puppet’s clothing so the performer can maneuver the body (Wales). Bunya Puppet Drama is not your average puppet show - the themes can include sex, violence, alcohol consumption, and other commentaries and reflections on Japanese society (Walter).

Whether on or off the stage, the puppets’ pale faces and blank expression can be quite unsettling, There is power in the simplicity of their facial features as well as their movements, and after a while you are convinced you have their expression change. I had the pleasure of visiting Sado Island, and seeing the works of art that are Bunya puppets in the “flesh”. My parent’s long-time friend is a Canadian-born artist, who has been living on Sado Island for 12 years and had the honour of apprenticing under the master Moritaro Hamada (1900-1998), who said that Sado puppetry may rest in his hands (Wales). When we were visiting, he was working on a piece in honour of Sado Island including puppets of the ever-present raccoon-dog and the quintessentially Sado tugboat fisherman. Bunya puppetry, an important cultural feature of Sado Island, is an art form that celebrates Japanese folkloric tradition with increasingly more modern elements.

~guest blogger, Bianca Martella

(This is Alexandra's post on cherry blossoms, or sakura. Thank you Alex!)

For the Japanese people cherry blossoms have spiritual meaning, they symbolize the transience of life. This concept is very deeply rooted in the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, that the state of all life is suffering and transitory. The beauty of the flower and their brief life, beginning each spring symbolizes the essence of a human’s short life well-lived. (Ann McClellan) It is important to realize that the concept of a short life represents both life and death. The life process is considered cyclical as life leads to death and death is predicated upon life and then followed by rebirth. (Sepp Linhart) Summed up in the phrase mono no aware, cherry blossoms are linked with the notion that sadness is inevitable when tied with the experience of beauty because nothing lasts forever. This phrase perpetuates the notion of a short life well lived, which is still evident in today’s Japanese culture with the annual Hanami festival held in honor of the cherry trees. (Christian Roy)

Cherry blossoms are a symbol of Japan’s national character. The life of a samurai in feudal times was traditionally compared to the short lived cherry blossoms in that they last no more than three days. To old samurai there was no greater glory than to die on the battlefield like scattered cherry blossoms.

The planting of cherry trees, most specifically in ceremonies still holds importance for people of rural Japan. For them dropping cherries whose branches had fallen to the ground were believed to be the souls of the deceased people who traveled through the blue sky and down to the ground through the cherry trees.

Today when cherry trees bloom Japanese people from all walks of life participate in Hanami, the flower blooming festival. It celebrates the week long flowering of the cherry trees in spring. The origins of Hanami are said to date back to the Seventh Century when the blooming of cherry blossoms was considered an truthful indicator for the conditions of the coming harvest. (Ranjan Shandilya) Full blooms would signify an ample rice harvest and this would be cause for celebration among the merchant classes.

A favorite station of Hanami‘s floral pilgrimage is Mount Yoshino on Honshu Island. Traditionally it holds that this is where a Buddhist monk planted the first cherry trees in Japan. During the festival, people come out in large numbers at parks, temples and shrines with family and friends to hold flower viewing parties. The festival is held to celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossoms and it gives people a chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful view. (Christian Roy)

During the Hanami festival the traditional folk song ‘Sakura, Sakura’ is chanted; (Ann McClellan)

Cherry blossoms, Cherry blossoms
Across March skies.
As far as you can see,
Mists or clouds?
Their fragrance is floating,
Let us go, let us go
It’s a must see!

On a final yet interesting note, the traditional Japanese values of purity and simplicity are thought to be reflected in the form and colour of the cherry blossoms.

~guest blogger, Alexandra Woolf

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Oage and Inarizushi

(Tasty post by Eithne. Thank you Eithne!)

My first interaction with sushi was not good. I was jet lagged and waiting for a flight in the Vancouver airport, and the sushi pieces were unbelievably dry, and shrink-wrapped into plastic dated from a few days previously. The positive side of this first experience is that my interactions with sushi could only improve… and they have. The first time I encountered inarizushi, I immediately became a fan and it has quickly become a regular presence on my order sheet. Hearing Melissa mention the link between inarizushi and the kami Inari, I decided to focus on this particularly delicious aspect of Japanese material culture.

In the Japenese religious imagination, the figure of Inari is quite ambiguous. The kami can be found portrayed in both in male and female form, is worshiped in both Shinto and Buddhist rites, and there exists a multitude of accounts that offer different explanations the development of Inari worship. However, one thing that is agreed upon by all accounts is Inari’s “deep connection to rice”. Another point of agreement is the close relation between Inari and foxes. Believed to be messengers between the realm of the living and the realm of kami, foxes are “inconographically ubiquitous” in the practice of Inari worship, and traditional images of Inari usually include the portrayal of the kami surrounded by foxes. It is in this connection with foxes that the relation to fried tofu presents itself.

Fried tofu (oage) is the most popular food offering at Inari shrines. The reasoning behind this offering is the common belief that “foxes are said to like this particular food.” The streets leading to Inari shrines are populated with many stalls selling oage to be used as ritual offerings. The connection between foxes and fried tofu is also extended to inarizushi, a type of sushi made with fried tofu. Inarizushi is made from simmering oage in soy sauce and other seasonings, and then fashioning a pocket from the tofu and stuffing it with rice. This surrounding of rice (of which Inari is closely associated) with fried tofu can be seen as a microcosmic representation of the traditional images of Inari, in which the kami is shown surrounded by foxes.

The origin of this connection between foxes and oage is somewhat of a mystery. Clearly it isn’t part of the diet of a natural wild fox, and “no clear tradition links it with the fox or Inari worship.” There are numerous speculations as to why this connection was established. One potential explanation could be the resemblance between the colouring of oage and the fur of a fox (both being a golden brown colour). A second explanation focuses on the amount of effort required to make fried tofu. A work-intensive undertaking, it was believed that the time and effort required made it “a suitable offering for the kami.” A third speculative reason is the fact that fried foods were often offered to the devas in esoteric Buddhist practices, and thus the use of fried tofu entered the Shinto tradition through the shared worship of Inari (who, in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, is associated with Dakiniten).

If you’d like to sample some good inarizushi, my personal recommendation is Soba and Sushi, located on the corner of Sherbrooke and Northcliffe in NDG . Or, if you are feeling very ambitious, you can find a recipe here.

~guest blogger, Eithne Sheeran

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hina-ningyo--This ain't no Barbie.

(This post was written up for us by Mallory. Please make sure to read it before tackling the final reading of the semester. Thank you Mallory!)

Arguably the most important of Japanese dolls, the Hina-ningyo play a central role in the Hina-Matsuri (Girl’s Day). Occurring on March 3rd each year, the Hina-Matsuri is an event focussing on the pleasure and prosperity of young women, ensuring that they grow up to be prime marriage material. Hina-Matsuri is also closely linked to springtime and the coming of peach season, the most sacred of all crops. These hina exist as the focal point of the festival, providing a medium through which purification, serenity, and good luck can occur. Can your Barbie do that?

Just like the hito-gata dolls we have seen in the purification ritual of the Suwa Shrine, so too do these ningyo signify eradication of impurities. The combination of sin-infused representative dolls and water allows one to wash away evils. We’re familiar with the concept of yorishiro – a type of miniaturized “temporary lodging place” for the kami. The use of hina-ningyo in the Girl’s Festival originates in the very same concept. Through a long process of evolution, the traditional use of dolls for purification expanded and multiplied, making the dolls catalytic in many customs. It was not until the 17th century that hina-ningyo were solidified as a display in the Hina-Matsuri, but the use of these minis goes back hundreds of years.

Linked to the Heian Period (794-1185), early forms of the dolls were simplistic. According to the luxurious trends of the Edo period, the scale of the dolls reached human proportions. Around the same time, this matsuri was demarcated as an official seasonal holiday, and the scale of the dolls was regulated by the government to permit widespread and affordable participation in the previously elitist custom.

I guess even the state believes that every little girl deserves a chance to decontaminate herself on her special day.

Annually, these dolls make an appearance in the best room of one’s home. The display itself can be an heirloom, home-made, or purchased as a gift for a girl’s first Hina-Matsuri. Little girls get a chance to host a party on this day, and often dress up like the dolls themselves.

No collection is complete without the most important dolls: the dairi-bina. Representing the Emperor and Empress, these lords and ladies are also the most basic part of the ningyo set. The Emperor stands to the left and usually has very broad shoulders. His wife tucks her legs under her, often making her appear to be sitting on a pillow. Originally made of materials like clay or paper, they were simply understood as miniaturizations. Early pairs were plainly attired and ambiguously gendered, yet through the ages the figure’s textiles, accessories, and body shape were developed into the ornate dolls of today.

During the 18th century, the dairi-bina made some friends, and are since accompanied by three women-in-waiting, five musicians (gonin-bayashi), two ministers, and three samurai protectors. In order to accommodate the new ningyo (normally 15 in number), the single stage of the Emperor and Empress became a 5-tiered podium (hina-dan) covered in bright red fabric (hino-mosen). In order to accommodate the kami spirits residing in the dolls, some hina-dan feature seven tiers. The bottom two levels are filled with miniaturized offerings in order to guarantee that happy marriage. These include peach blossoms to the kami who will reward the family by taking away impurities and ensuring the happiness of daughters.

Despite this wide variance among sets of hina-ningyo and the major changes that they have undergone, their symbolism remains the same. The dolls banish bad luck and other impurities so that girls can prosper in the year to come.

Word to the wise – always put away your hina-ningyo right after Girl’s Day, otherwise your daughter might have trouble finding the
Ken of her dreams.

Check out more dolls!
Modern and delicate dairi-bina
A more affordable home-made set, with servants too

Here’s an example of a 7-tiered hina-dan

Pop-culture dolls exist too!

~guest blogger, Mallory Bey

Japanese demons: Tengu--demons of war

(Jackie brings us this post on the trickster figure, the tengu. Thank you Jackie!)

The Yamabushi tengu, a bird-like goblin, is depicted as a patron of martial arts, a skilled warrior and mischief maker who is known to perform malevolent and illusionary acts toward haughty and self-righteous religious leaders by punishing those who wilfully misuse knowledge and authority to gain fame or position. Originally depicted as guardians of the mountain, the Yamabusi tengu is presently regarded as a protector of religious law: tengu are protectors of the Dharma (Buddhist law). As patrons of martial arts, tengu are credited with extraordinary skills in sword fighting and weapons- smith. They sometimes serve as mentors in the art of war and strategy to humans they find worthy. The tengu are also sometimes worshiped as Shinto kami and revered to as spirits or gods.

Sojobo, the mythical king of the tengu, sit at the top of the structural hierarchy of minor deities who inhabit the mountains of Japan. A popular spiritual mystic of Japanese folklore, Sojobo possess strong mystical powers. His physical attributes are characterized as: a tall man with long nose, red face, wearing garb of hermit or priest, with small hat that serves as a drinking cup; with or without wings, but always able to fly; sometimes wearing ‘geta’ (wooden sandals), holding a magic fan made of bird feathers (when used, can make hellish winds), carrying a staff or small mallet. The Sojobo statue is found in Kamakura, Japan.

Sojobo’s distinctive trademark, a fan made of Fatsia leaf. The magical element of this marquee could create strong winds that result in hellish storms. His fan is also used to change his physical appearance: to shrink or elongate his nose. His fan is made from seven feathers as a sign of his position at the top of tengu society. Sojobo is deemed extremely powerful, and is believed to possess the strength of 1,000 normal tengu (demon deities). Sobjob possess the ability of teleportation, telepathic communication and shape shifting. Through his telepathic communication, this elevated deity has the ability to pollute minds and manipulate thoughts of both mortal and immortal individuals. He sometimes transformed himself into human to interact with people.

The long nose of the tengu is also marked as a source of its power. This prominent feature of the tengu is noted as the defining characteristic of the mythical tengu. The phallic-shaped nose of the tengu can measure up to seven hand-spans in length and is often identified as the main feature that deplores its true identity: the tengu is often disguised as priests or nuns, a camouflage from its true form which is a hybrid morphology of a half man, half –bird creature, known as the Karasu (crow). This elongated feature of tengu is associated with the Shinto deity Sarudahiko and is recognized to play a prominent role in many religious festivals such as the Shimokita Tengu Matsuri which is held for 3 days in the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo (http://bartman905.wordpress.com/2009/02/01/shimokita-tengu-matsuri/).

Additional information about the Tengu is accessible through the following links:





~guest blogger, Jackie Jones


(This post on bamboo is by Hannah. Thank you so much Hannah!)

Bamboo. It makes up 99% of the Giant Panda’s diet and it can be fashioned into chopsticks or simply cultivated in one’s own Zen Garden. In addition, it is the fastest growing plant on the planet, sometimes skyrocketing upwards 47 inches in one day! However, besides the aesthetically pleasing nature of bamboo, it holds great cultural significance in Japan. For example, during the Northern Song Dynasty, literati-style painting became all the rage in China. As the Chinese Buddhist priests made their way into Japanese Zen monasteries, their brush and ink style artwork followed them. It began as a countermovement to the traditional Orthodox painters of the Imperial Academy of Painting and the paintings were meant to emphasize the painters own individual experience with their natural surroundings. As the title of Masuyama Sessai`s painting suggests, literati is about having “pure conversation among green mountains.”

Bamboo began to be incorporated into literati-style paintings in several ways. Firstly, the wispy brushstroke technique of the painters mimicked the slender, flexible stem of the bamboo plant. Secondly, the aim of this style is to fuse humans and nature into one harmonious being. A tree could be painted to depict virtuous human qualities such as resilience, longevity, and honour by using hard, strong brushstrokes. Case in point, bamboo is known for its supple stems that can bend dramatically without breaking. The Japanese associate these characteristics with strength and fortitude (like that of Japan’s militaristic past) as the seemingly delicate bamboo stalks can withstand powerful winds and the cold of the snow. In this sense, the literati would fuse the strength of both nature and culture into one beautiful scenic painting.

Bamboo has also gained cultural significance in Japanese tea ceremonies. The bamboo wood is hand-sculpted into a tea whisk (chasen) which is used to mix green tea powder and hot water together in preparation for a tea ceremony. Bamboo has become the material of choice for these chasen’s as it is durable yet flexible, allowing the host to vigorously whisk the tea. In addition, bamboo has no odour or smell which could tarnish the taste or aromas of the tea.

Sen no Rikyu, the most famous Japanese tea master, was the first to use bamboo as tea ceremony flowers (chabana). Chabana’s are used as centerpieces during tea ceremonies and act as an artistic reminder of the current season. Sen no Rikyu began to incorporate bamboo vessels into the centerpieces. This vessels were simple and modest, like Sen no Rikyu, and never detracted from the ceremony itself. Appealing to the wabi ascetic for imperfections, the vessels were never perfectly sculpted and often used bamboo that had flaws such as cracks.

Presently, bamboo is still a significant part of Japanese culture and recently, other countries are beginning to demand bamboo, mainly for decorative and culinary purposes. Luckily, the rapid growth rate of the plant, along with Japan’s dedication to recycling old bamboo should ensure the sustainable use of bamboo.

~guest blogger, Hannah Mott

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ringo or Taiko?

(This is Philippe's take on taiko. Thank you Philippe!)

I must start this post with a confession. After reading the article concerning the practice of okoshi daiko, I thought: “So what!? They’re playing ONE drum! I can play FOUR or FIVE at the same time!!!” What is so special about this particular drum that makes it able to single handedly satisfy one’s appetite for rhythm?

The Japanese word taiko translates to ‘big drum’. Its presence can be traced back all the way back to the Kojiki: “Amë‐nö‐ uzume‐nö‐mikötö bound up her sleeves… …and overturning a bucket before the heavenly rock‐cave door, stamped resoundingly upon it” (Kojiki I xvii) Historically though, it is unclear whether the drum’s origins stem from Japan or from the influence of neighboring cultures. “
Taiko can be found in archaeological sites from as early as the Joumon Period (10,000 B.C.E. – 300 B.C.E). Excavated earthenware drums and clay figures that depict drummers suggest that drums were used on ceremonial and religious occasions in ancient Japan” (Izumi). In fact, the most ancient representation of taiko, a clay statue of a person with drum hung from his shoulder, was found in Gunma Prefecture. And, there are those who claim that the drum came from India via China and Korea along with the influence of Buddhism. Indeed, some Buddhist sutras and murals feature depictions of instruments resembling taiko. What is known is that there are many reasons the taiko was played throughout Japan’s history. We have seen how it was used as a means of protest through the practice of okoshi daiko, but it has also featured in ceremonies like the Buddhist summer festival Obon where “people danced, circling around a yagura (wooden platform) where a singer, a drummer, and a fue (bamboo flute) player provided background music for dancers” (Izumi). The drum was also used in warfare to intimidate enemies and rally soldiers and, in other instances, to delineate villages whose borders were established by the audability of the sound produced by the taiko. “In some Buddhist traditions, its rumbling sound represented the voice of Buddha and in Shinto shrines it accompanied prayers to heaven” (www.shumeitaiko.org/history). During the ceremony of Mikotonori, for example, “the sound of drumming bridges the divide between the human and the divine” (www.shumeitaiko.org/shumei-taiko).

There are two principal categories of taiko based on their construction method: (please note that daiko is the suffix form of taiko) The byou-uchi daiko or, simply, byou-daiko is built by attaching the drumhead along the edge of the drum shell with nails while the tsukushime daiko or shime-daiko features heads that are stretched over metal hoops which are then tensioned with the help of rope. The taiko also come in various shapes and sizes. The most common byou-daiko is the nagado-daiko (long-bodied daiko). It is long and wine-barrel shaped and produces a very deep sound. Odaiko or ‘big fat drum’ refers to larger drums that are typically played by two drummers on either sides of it. Furi tsuzumi, is a type of very small taiko which some of you may recognize. It is attached to a stick, which is rolled between your hands to make two beads, attached by strings to the drum’s sides, strike the heads and produce the sound.

The idea of taiko ensembles is relatively modern. The first kumi-daiko, as they are called, was formed shortly after WWII by (yes!!!) a Japanese jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi. Since then, the trend has grown significantly to international appeal with groups having sprouted in Europe and North America and professional troupes like Kodo enjoying a busy touring schedule around the world.

It is interesting to note that the symbol tomoe is commonly depicted on taiko. This symbol signifies the meeting of heaven and earth. The shapes resembling commas or magatama beads are understood to be the same as the shape of the soul and, within the tomoe design, designate heaven, earth and humanity. I end with a quote from the group Shumei Taiko’s website “the Shumei Taiko Ensemble continues to unite people of all beliefs, nations, and languages in a grand vision of love and harmony. The Ensemble began in a moment of kanno doko, in which the sound of drums accompanied prayers to heaven. Its music can be understood as a form of prayer, a prayer for world peace and friendship among all people of the earth.” (www.shumeitaiko.org/shumei-taiko)

~guest blogger, Philippe Melanson

Rocks Rock.

(This cool post is by Alex. Thank you very much Alex!)

If you find this sharp, pointy stone attractive, then chances are you do not have a healthy sense of humanity. For your sake, I hope you find it repulsive. While this rock may seem appealing, this appeal is really just an effect of the stone’s façade. In accordance with the fine Japanese practice of rock gardening, described as shibusa, (meaning quiet & refined taste), stones such as the one pictured above are less refined than those that are naturally smoother, or at least are not this shape. (**please note. This specific rock was not actually used to infer a poor sense of humanity, but it’s the closest rock I could find that looks like the diagram of a bad rock in the book Magic Trees and Stones: Secrets of Japanese Gardening. As I am not a cultivated Japanese Gardener, I may be misleading you completely. If so, I apologize). This is not to say that all stones with points and protrusions are inauspicious—in fact it can be quite the opposite. Protrusions are not all bad—though distinguishing between the bad and the good is a technique reserved for experienced gardeners. Protrusions can act as an indication of the direction in which the stone’s spirit moves, and this can serve to be very helpful when attempting to achieve proper balance between different stones. The trick is to choose those stones that have just the right amount of protrusions, while effectively reading what the stone is saying. A stone’s spirit direction can be sensed by careful observation, paying attention to its contours and composure. It is important to recognize the spirit direction to hear what the stone is saying and, and then to be arrange multiple stones so that they relationships with one another. Just as the balance of the push and pull between the ki of the calligrapher and the word is crucial for establishing and maintaining balance, so too is the ki dynamic of stones. The arrangement of stones needs to correspond to their calling and responding to one another. For example, one stone may be winking at another stone, and this calling needs to be made in the direction that the receiving stone is running. Alternatively, stones may have their backs turned to each other, like lovers in a brief quarrel. The essential element here is to create a connection between the stones, so that together they will speak in unity and evoke a sense of harmony for the garden viewer. When this harmony is achieved, one should get the same sense of power and balance that is similar to the experience of written calligraphy or the rhythm of music.

Harmony of the qi in the rocks enhances the energy flow and adds to the natural component that is inherent to the garden. As even the slightest error in rock positioning can devastate the balance, it is the role of the garden arranger to partake in effective communication with the rock. It is not only the shape of the rock or stone that contributes to its value, but also its cultivation of moss. As moss takes a long time to grow, its presence is an indication of age, and thus mossy rocks are revered. The subtle refinement of a moss-covered stone is described as shibusa, and is understood to be of ultimate beauty.

The focus of the rock in the rock garden is to listen to, understand and contemplate the rocks and stones as a means to cultivate deeper understanding, while showing respect for the rocks and their ki.

To learn about the variety of stone arrangements, their meanings and symbols, check out these books:

Reading Zen in the Rocks: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden by François Berthier. ISBN 0226044114


Magic of Trees and Stones. Saiot & Wada. ISBN 3101916842K

OR if you just want to look at some really cool, old pictures of Japanese rock gardens & you get excited by looking at really old books, check out the Supplement to Landscape Gardening In Japan by Josiah Conder. ISBN 3103048044L.

These are all available or your convenience at our trusty McGill library.

~guest blogger, Alex Beveridge

The Kimono

(This post is by Carolyn. Carolyn, thank you very much!)

The kimono is the national costume of Japan. Literally it means “thing to wear” (ki-“wearing”, mono- “thing”). Kimonos are T-shaped, straight-lined robes which are wrapped around the body, the left side over the right (except when dressing the dead for burial) and generally fall at the ankle. They are secured by a wide belt tied at the back called an obi. They are generally worn with split-toe socks called tabi and traditional footwear (zori or geta).

Compared to western dress, the kimono is much more conservative. Rather that the focus being on the shape of the dress, the areas of fashion are the colors the patterns and the decorative details. The kimono has a large surface on which the artist can display his art. All garments of kimonoed genealogy have in common four elements: geometric use of standard fabric widths sewn together with minimal cutting; an open, overlapping front; an attached neckband sewn around the front opening; and sleeves consisting of a width of fabric attached to the selvages. The various parts of the kimono garment have changed over the years but the basic form of the kimono remains.

An adult kimono is made from a bolt, which is approximately 12.5 yards, of standard width cloth of approximately 14 inches. The ready-to-wear kimono is a relatively new phenomenon; traditional stores still display their wares as rows of fabric rolls. Two straight lengths of fabric make up the kimono body which are joined together up in the middle of the back and left open at the front from the shoulders down. Two half-width sections (okumi) are sewed in to each side. The okumi provides an amplitude of fabric where the gown is lapped, left over right, and held together by a sash (obi). The sleeves are attached to the sides of the body and are very wide. The size of the kimono depends on the individual, but the fabric is never cut to be made smaller, rather, the excess fabric is folded into the seams making the kimono fundamentally adjustable because the original bolt width is retained in the seams.

The kimono has its origins in China. From the time of the Han dynasty (approximately 200 B.C.- A.D. 200) the basic shape of Chinese clothing consisted of a front-wrapping robe with an attached collar and rectangular sleeves. It is believed that a Han-style kimonoid garment first made an appearance in Japan as early as the fourth century. During the seventh through tenth centuries, the reigns of the Sui and Tang dynasties provided the model of civilizations for the Far East and any culture aspiring to be recognized would have been drawn to adopt Chinese culture. An adoption of their aristocratic clothing is therefore expected.

~guest blogger, Carolyn Dandenault

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bashō and Haiku

(This post by Sam starts with my favourite haiku. Thank you Sam!)

行春や/ 鳥啼魚の / 目は泪

Yuku haru ya / tori naki uo no/ me wa namida

Spring departing—/ the birds cry out / and the eyes of the fish / are full of tears

--Matsuo Bashō


Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry that derives from the linked verse form haiku no renga (Higgins 26), one specific definition states that it is “a record of a moment of emotion in which human nature is somehow linked to all nature” (Henderson in Higgins 26). Through its brevity of words and focus on natural experience, haiku evolved into the dominant poetic form for Japanese poets. Haiku poets aim to capture the clarity of an emotion in a small amount of syllables that can be understood by all audiences. Haiku practitioners use a kisetsu (seasonal lexicon) which refers specifically to the climates of Kyoto and Osaka—where the largest populations reside—but certainly speaks to all of Japan (Higgins 20). This poetic dialect has created a distinctive relationship between emotions, seasons and symbols, and in turn ties both reader and poet to the orbiting macro and microcosm.. In the twentieth century, many poets chose to break ties with traditional haiku by focusing on images rather than emotions, disregarding any reference to seasonal context.

One of the most significant founding-practitioners of haiku was Matsuo Bashō (1644-94), a committed Zen Buddhist. His poetry has been continually popular and influential for poets well into the twenty-first century and the cause of many celebrations. His school of thought emphasizes “kōgo kizuko (awakening to the high, returning to the low), fuga no makoto (truth of petic art), zōka zuijun (following the Creative), butzuga ichinyo (object and self as one), and fueki ryūkō (the unchanging and changing)” (Shirane 257), in order to “create poetry that was simultaneously orthodox and unorthodox, that was sanctioned even as it was transgressive”(257). Bashō’s religious conceptions were also emphasized in his works as he “incorporated orthodox Neo-Confucian thought…hoping to raise the status of haikai, [and] give it a spiritual and cosmological backbone]” (298). Today there are many English translations available of his works and is hailed as a foundation Japanese haiku poet.

Though it is indigenously Japanese, haiku has also pervaded Western concepts of poetry and was particularly influential on the American Imagism movement. Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In the Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough” (Untermeyer ed. 106) does not conform to traditional Japanese haiku but was a driving force for its popularity in America. There are many Western misconceptions about haiku because of errors made in translations from Japanese to English. It is especially concerning for the belief that haiku must be written in three lines with seven, five, and seven syllables but in the Japanese form it may be written in one or two lines with a more concise sounding syllabic structure (Barnhill 5).

More translations of Bashō’s poetry:


~guest blogger, Samantha Schwartz

Can you pass the salt, please?

(This is Robert's post on salt. The title of this post really cracks me up. Thank you Robert!)

We use it to give taste to our food. We have many elaborate ways of distributing it on our Montreal streets in the wintertime in order to prevent us from slipping on the ice. We throw a pinch of it over our shoulder for good luck when we spill it. These are merely a few ways we use salt in our every day lives. Salt has been, for ages, one of the most essential elements to the human diet. In the Jewish religious tradition, the Lord tells Aaron that the sacred gifts given to the Lord are to be Aaron’s and his offspring as an everlasting “covenant of salt” before the Lord (Num 18:19 TANAKH). This valuable food preservative became symbolic of the permanence of the covenant people. In the Christian tradition, Jesus speaks to his disciples and tells them that “you are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14 RSV) (Deatrick 41), suggesting that the disciples are now the most important element of witness to the world. Homer called “salt” divine and Plato named it “a substance dear to the gods” (Casal 75). But why is salt used in the Japanese religious tradition and what significance does it have?

Salt is known to be a preserver from impurity. In the purification rituals of misogi (washing one’s body – similar to the Christian concept of baptism) salt is used in order to remove all “spiritual dirt” from the individual (Casal 75). Within Shinto purification rituals, salt is one of the three items that are offered to the kami (rice and water being the other two) as instruments that ward off evil spirits. Since evil spirits abide within impurity, the purity of the salt drives them away. For this reason, salt is scattered in a location in order to cleanse and purify the area. A good example of this can be seen when a child is born. The room where the mother gives birth is purified with salt (and water) and the mother may also purify herself with salt or a salt-water bath after the delivery. Birth being a source of impurity transgressing the border between the land of the living and the land of the dead it is necessary to purify both those involved (e.g. the mother) and the place of the transgression (e.g. the delivery room) (Norbeck 272-273). Similarly, at a funeral ceremony, two small mounds of salt (known as the shio-hana, salt-flowers) will be found on either side of the entrance of the house. Once the coffin is gone, the house will be purified of any spirits by scattering salt over the floors. Those who attend the funeral will usually sprinkle salt-water over the coffin at the graveside, and will themselves be sprinkled with salt before returning to their homes, all in the effort of exorcising the ghost which might have accompanied the person (Norbeck 275).

At weddings, salt has two significant meanings. When the bride leaves her family home, the small mounds of salt at the door are used because her departure is similar to that surrounding the death of a person. Because the bride leaves her family’s home and becomes fully integrated with her husband’s family, the bride is considered by her family as symbolically dead (Casal 79). Salt may also be used at the wedding ceremony itself, both as a purifying agent as well as provide the couple the “force of life” which is attributed to salt (ibid). You may also find these little salt mounds (salt-flowers) at the entrances to commercial establishments, like restaurants, stores, theatres, etc. There significance is again two-fold. They first act as a purifying agent that prevents evil or misfortune from entering the particular establishment, but they also act to invite good business and patrons (Casal 82).

Finally, when watching a sumo match, you might have been wondering why the participants scattered salt in the ring. The tradition originated centuries ago when two contending parties entered into a sort of duel in order to sort out their differences, the outcome of the duel being somewhat a divine ordeal that was to be abided by everyone. They used the salt, therefore, to purify the area of the duel and the contenders that would be at the mercy of the mystical powers of the divine (Casal 87).

Salt, in the tradition of Japanese religions, has a sacred quality to it that contributes to the purification of a place or person when borders have been transgressed. It is itself a pure substance that wards away evil and re-establishes order.

~guest blogger, Robert Camara

The Heartbeat of Japan

(Sunpreet gives us this cool post on taiko. Thanks Sunpreet!)

Pulsating through the villages of Japan, this thunderous beat resonates a sound so deep that it renders a spiritual experience to all those who listen. You may be reading this and thinking, okay, so the heartbeat of Japan is a drum? What’s special about that? Let me tell you, this drum is no ordinary musical instrument. It’s the instrument of life.

More formally known as the taiko, this Japanese drum is played during religious ceremonies and festivals. Traditionally, these drums were used to drive away evil spirits and awaken the vigor of warriors during war. In modern times, the taiko is not only used as a musical instrument; but also as means of physical activity. The rhythmic beat of this drum has inspired people to connect as a ‘global community’.

Taiko literally translates into “fat drum”. The taiko is a percussion instrument and is usually played with a drumstick called a bachi. The drum itself varies in different shapes and sizes. The largest drum is called the adaiko which is made from a single piece of wood. Other types of taiko drums include the o-daiko (big drum), uchiwa-daiko (fan drum) and the hira-daiko (flat drum). The trees that are used to make the taiko drums are over a hundred years old. Each drum is designed and tailored around a particular festival or purpose. For example, during a religious Shinto rite, the dou-daiko is usually played. The dou-daiko is known for being used during religious ceremonies since its large exterior was central in displaying its importance during the ceremony. It is also important to note that only priests were allowed to play the drum for the duration of the ceremony. It was thought that they were the ones able to channel the energies associated with the taiko and the gods.

The importance of the taiko drum can be revealed through Japanese History. Although the exact time of when it was introduced is not clear, it’s influences seem to stem from China and Korea. It is thought that this instrument was introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794). In religion, the taiko found a place within both Shinto and Buddhism. It was believed that these drums were inhabited by a god and that it would bring prosperity to the villages. This central idea led to the framework of Japanese religions to be built around the drums. Hence, special ceremonies in both Shinto and Buddhism were celebrated with the beat of the taiko. In Buddhism, the taiko influenced “Bon dancing”; where the drum was its feature performance. Shinto was also heavily influenced by the ways of the taiko since shrines were accustomed to play the drum while praying to deities. Even chanting was rhythmically adapted to flow with the beat of the drum to enhance its strength. In terms of village festivals, the taiko drum was used as a tool to rouse the villagers and get them to participate in the festivities. The taiko was able to stimulate the crowd through its vibrating sound. Since these festivals were based on seasonal changes, the drum was designed to either play a sound to ensure a bountiful crop or to thank the deities of a good harvest.

The influence of the taiko in terms of the 21st century is reflective of the Japanese community. In terms of participating in a festival, the community helps to make it a success. These festivals are supposed to bring people together and provide a form of escapism from the daily routines of ordinary life. The taiko drum is an essential component in bringing the community together. A new concept of taiko drumming, called the “Taiko Ensemble” allowed for large numbers of people to participate. This new concept is flourishing in modern times since it creates a synergistic energy amongst the participants. Ensemble drumming was originated by Daihachi Oguchi, who formed the first taiko ensemble. This was introduced in Japan in 1951. Several other ensemble groups have emerged since then and have influenced the world of music. Since the ensemble recreates the sound of the drum through different motions and by interacting with one another; it is also a form of great physical endurance. The power necessary in order to play the drum while still producing an invigorating sound requires stamina. Thus, the physical activity involved in playing the drum has made it become not only a form of relaxation but also a type of recreation activity as well.

The sound of the taiko drum will always be penetrating through the hearts of the Japanese people. More importantly, however, is that its sound has the power to enrapture all of our souls since it’s the basis for human rhythm.

A short video showing the magnificence of a taiko drumming performance:

~guest blogger, Sunpreet Dhaliwal

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sake Objects

(As a follow-up to Garland's post on tea, below, here is Joshua's post on sake. Thanks Joshua!)

For centuries, sake has been the most important and popular intoxicant in Japanese society. It has played a significant role as the object of religious worship and traditional ceremonies. According to the Japan Sake Brewers Association, "In Japan, sake has always been a way of bringing our gods and people together" (
http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/ek20071016wh.html). The religious function of sake, therefore, can be seen as an intermediary between the real world and the spirit world. With such an important function to fulfill within the religious realm, many objects associated with the drinking of sake have also taken on a religious significance.

For example, the Omiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture houses a deity of sake brewing. The sugi (Japanese cedar) leaves at the shrine were traditionally used to create a sugidama, which is a container made of tightly bound leaves used to store sake. Following the first batch of sake made at a brewery each year, it is placed in a sugidama, and hung out in front of the brewery. The sugi tree and its leaves are religiously significant for the Japanese as it is said that if sake is placed in the sugidama, it cannot go bad (http://www.esake.com/Knowledge/Newsletter/JT/JT2000/jt2000_20.html).

Also made from the sugi tree is the masu, a square box of 180 millilitres made from sugi wood which is traditionally used to drink sake from. During feudal times, the masu was used to measure rice but over time came to be used as a cup for sake. This new function arose because the strong cedar taste associated with the masu complemented the sugidama’s flavor. However in modern times, the masu has generally been replaced by the ochoko or simply a glass. In Japanese restaurants though, it is not uncommon to see a mix of the past and the present: a glass placed inside a masu, with both the glass and the masu filled to the top with sake as a sign of hospitality.

In addition to the religious and traditional significance of objects associated with sake, many are also works of art. This can be seen in the variability of artistically designed tokkuris (flasks) or ochokos (cups). Unlike in Western society where glasses and bottles associated with drinking alcohol have little artistic relevance, artistry in objects associated with sake is essential to one’s enjoyment of the sake. The tokkuri is a ceramic flask in which sake is typically served. It usually has a large body and a narrow neck, however, it may come in all shapes and sizes. The tokkuris are hand made by potters. Same goes for ochokos, which are small cups from which to drink sake. They usually broaden at the neck to allow the aroma of the sake to move upwards. It is believed that the nicer the tokkuri or ochoko is, the more enjoyment one will receive from drinking its contents(http://www.e-yakimono.net/html/cup-shapes.htm). Therefore, as a result of the importance placed on sake in Japanese culture, the objects associated with its brewing and drinking have also taken on a special significance.

~guest blogger, Joshua Kropveld