Friday, February 29, 2008

Touring Okayama

Besides the Naked Man Festival, I want to share some of the other sights we saw during our visit to Okayama. We hit the two main tourist attractions there: the castle and the garden.

Okayama Castle originally was built in 1597, but it was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1966. Its claim to fame is its black exterior, which has earned it the nickname the Crow Castle.

I think the detail of the castle is beautiful, especially the gold ornamentation. Here's a shot of a lucky fish gargoyle from the inside peering out.

Next to the castle is one of the most famous gardens in Japan, Koraku-en, which means "The garden for taking pleasure later." My Lonely Planet Japan guide tells me this was taken from the Chinese proverb that "The lord must bear sorrow before the people and take pleasure after them." The garden was completed in 1700 by the local feudal lord.

It was a nice place for a Sunday morning stroll. I enjoyed some of the nice ponds and bridges, but I think it will look a lot prettier in the spring when all the flowers and plants come to life, especially the grove of 100 plum trees, which bloom in red and white. No doubt autumn would also be impressive as the garden boasts plenty of maple trees.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

(Nearly) Naked Man Festival

Now that I've finally resolved some computer issues, my blog's back in the saddle again.

Yeah, I thought some naked butts would help wake you up.

This was one of the first scenes we witnessed as we walked toward the Saidaiji Kan'nonin Temple for none other than the Naked Man Festival on Feb. 16.


The Hadaka Matsuri took place in Okayama Japan, a two-hour bus ride east of Hiroshima. This was one festival I admit to having marked on the calendar several weeks in advance, anticipating it with the joyful glee once reserved for the year I discovered a Nintendo under the Christmas tree.

Well.. maybe it was a little less pure than that, but whatever.

The Naked Man Festival was absolute insanity. I have never seen so many lunatics in my entire life.

As we walked along lantern-lit streets toward the temple grounds, watching our breath vaporize in the frosty night air, we encountered several groups of hollering Japanese men prancing through the streets in nothing but socks and white fundoshi, a loin cloth similar to the ones worn by sumo wrestlers. Full exposure from the back side, with a long cloth draped across the front.

Shop owners sprayed them with hoses and hurled buckets of cold water over them as they galloped past, yelling "Washoi! Washoi!", a word that one of Joe's coworkers told him means "The gods are coming!"

Hotdogs were a hot item being sold by roadside food vendors, along with beer and jars of sake, which the parading men swilled in great quantities. Joe, as you can see, partook ... of the hotdogs. I'm told the men drink sake to purify themselves. Riiiiiight, that's it.

A bit of liquid courage was, no doubt, necessary to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Once onto the temple grounds, the crazies were directed toward the purification pool, where they were forced to wade through waist-deep water beneath a large stone torii gate. They then had to run back around the neighborhood — getting splashed by more water all the way — and return for more punishment. Three times they had to wade through that pool, which must have been just a degree above freezing.

Check out the madness:

Once they completed their three rounds, the men headed to the main temple to wait for the competition to start.

Mobs of men — some reports said nine or ten thousand, but who knows whether that's true — poured into the temple, shivering, shouting, shoving, swaying. From my perspective, the mass seemed to take on a life of its own, moving like some giant amoeba. When a few men would stumble on the steep temple stairs, dozens more would fall with them, flowing over the steps like a human waterfall.

At points, some men passed out. Others went berserk and started beating people. That's when a large team of men in long white coats (firefighters, perhaps) would go charging into the crowd like a giant wedge and force the men back. Guards back in the temple would shine a red light on the offender, who would be dragged out forcefully. This happened perhaps a dozen times.

On both sides of the temple, small armies of police formed. I have never seen so many police in one place in my life. There had to be 600 or 700 of them.

The excitement built to a fever pitch as the clock ticked toward midnight, when suddenly all the lights cut out and everything went black. Camera flashes and the lights from the TV cameras illuminated the naked mass like a giant strobe light. It was at this moment that monks tossed the coveted shingi (sacred wooden sticks) into the crowd. The man who makes it off the temple grounds with the one real shingi in hand is said to win good luck for the year, as well as a hefty cash prize. I've heard it was around $1,000 or $2,000 — perhaps enough to cover that hospital bill for the broken bones and gouged eyeballs he'd receive in the fight, ya think? Half a dozen fake shingi circulate through the crowd as well, so the men are never really quite sure if they're busting balls over the real thing or not.

Apparently this craziness has been handed down for generations. According to Okayama city's web site, the festival traces its roots back to the early 1500s. It says priests at the temple would distribute a paper amulet, which gained a reputation for being "highly effective" (whatever that means). The priests would toss the amulet out to eager crowds that gathered in the temple. Later, the amulet was changed to a pair of wooden sticks.

The actual competition lasted around ten minutes. We could never tell where any of the shingi were, or when someone got away with the magic stick. At one point the lights went back on and after several more minutes of madness, they finally started cheering and posing for pictures on the temple steps.

Here's video of the minute leading up to lights out. After that, the low light made it difficult to get a focused shot. It pretty much looked all the same the whole time, anyway.

We passed by the medical tent on our trek back to the train station and saw a lot of guys splayed out on stretchers. Made my stomach queasy. Hypothermia is supposed to be pretty common at the event, and it gets pretty nasty in the melee. Last year someone died. He was crushed to death.

Needless to say, I quickly squashed the little voice in Joe's head that said "Hey! Maybe I should do this next year!" Even though I do think he could drop kick most of those guys across the temple. Actually, I'd be more worried about him running through frigid water and frolicking about outside for hours than I would be about him getting knocked around by a bunch of Japanese guys going ape-shit over a wooden stick.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Proof that minivans really are evil

I spotted this in Itsukaichi, a suburb on the west side of Hiroshima. Awfully lame wheels for the devil, I must say.

And he's got a Labrador Retriever.

Comments speculating on the name of Satan's Lab are welcome.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008

Orchid Festival

Joe and I narrowly escaped being swallowed up in the jaws of a large plastic Venus fly trap on Saturday.

Our brush with death came at the Orchid Festival at the Hiroshima Botanical Gardens. We went to lay eyes on the 30,000 blossoms (800 varieties — I had no idea there were so many) filling a giant greenhouse at the gardens. It was fantastic — the perfect way to spend a chilly February afternoon.

I thought I'd share some of the sights.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Celebrating Setsubun

Here's Joe, all tuckered out from sledding in the snow on an innertube last Sunday.

I've fallen a bit behind reporting our latest adventures, but I hope to catch up this weekend since tomorrow is a national holiday. You know what that means! No work! Ah, the joys of being a government employee!

Ok, well it means something else, too. It's National Foundation Day, which celebrates the founding of Japan. It doesn't sound like there will be much hoopla — no fireworks or anything like that. Rather, it's a day for the Japanese to fly Japan's flag and reflect on what it means to be Japanese. So I suppose I shall sit around and contemplate how grateful I am to the Japanese for taking a day off to be grateful they're Japanese. Hurray!

Now, back to the regularly scheduled program...

Last weekend Joe and I made a trip into the inaka (countryside) with about 50 other foreigners who belong to the Hiroshima International Center to play in the snow and celebrate the Japanese holiday of Setsubun. Strangely, the only other American on the trip was a guy who works at the HIC. We rubbed elbows with people from all over the world — China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Russia. Pretty cool!

We all piled onto a charter bus for the two hour drive to a community center in Kita Hiroshima-Chou, a mountain town in the northwest end of the prefecture in an area known for its concentration of ski resorts.

While Hiroshima city was just generally chilly and wet, the mountains were draped in a thick blanket of snow. I'd say there was probably 8 or 10 inches of the stuff. Nice wet snow, too, the perfect kind for playing in. So after some playful romps sledding down a little hill, we dove in to make a snowman taller than Joe. I gave him stick arms and bamboo antennae and for a little while forgot that I was not actually 8 years old anymore.

Unfortunately, some rambunctious boys knocked down our masterpiece before I could photograph it. But I did capture this cute sculpture some other guys made of An Pan Man, a popular children's cartoon in Japan.

When we were ready to take a break, the Japanese were happy to greet us with warm sake. They had set up some sort of wood burning stove in the parking lot. Some of them went out in a little truck to cut down some bamboo trees. The bamboo trees are hollow, with the trunk divided into sections all the way up. They sawed the trunk into little shot glasses for the sake, setting them on the oven to warm. Long sections were used as containers for pouring the sake. The old men were rather insistent that we drink the stuff. Luckily, it was rather weak, so after four or five shots I was still standing.

Later, everyone trooped inside for a buffet lunch of Japanese food and a few other international dishes followed by kagura dancing and a performance by a woman dressed as a geisha. All quite impressive.

Here's a video snippet of her performance.

The kagura dancer was in such constant motion that I just couldn't seem to get a clear photograph of him.

The cool thing was that after the kagura dance was over, the foreigners were invited to come try on some of the costumes. The Japanese snagged Joe and outfitted him in this amazing dragon costume with a really long tail. He became like a mini celebrity. Everyone wanted their picture with him.

We capped off the day with a Setsubun celebration, though I have no pictures of it to share since it was mass chaos in the community center and I was getting showered by stray beans. Setsubun celebrates the approaching of spring. Traditionally, one person wears a horned red demon mask while others pelt him with dried soybeans and cry "Oni-ha-soto, fuku-ha-uchi!" ("Demons out, luck in!") until he runs out of the house.

Long ago, the Japanese believed that during this period ghosts and other monsters would gather together, bringing with them misfortune and disease. Throwing soybeans at them was supposed to drive out these unwanted beings. Roasted beans are deemed lucky. So you are supposed to throw the same number of beans at the demon as your age, and that protects you from harm and illness. Everywhere around the beginning of February, stores sell kits with demon masks and roasted beans so families can carry out this ritual at home. The man of the house gets the honor of playing the demon, by the way.

Some people take it a step further. They pierce sardine heads with sprigs of holly and hang them on the front door. The smell drives off demons and other foul influences. Not so necessary for us here, we decided... though I'll be sure to adopt this particular Japanese custom should I have any more run-ins with pesky neighbors back home.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A peaceful discovery

Last week I headed downtown to go to Japanese class at the Hiroshima International Center only to find out that the location of the class had been moved to another building. Of course I, with my fantastic sense of direction, promptly got lost trying to find it.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Knowing that I would be hopelessly late to class, I gave up the search and began poking along back to the train station. That's when I came across an old building marked as the Former Bank of Japan, Hiroshima Branch. The old bank was one of the few structures to survive the blast of the atomic bomb in 1945, and it was the most well preserved.

A sign said an exhibit of paper cranes was on display inside, free to the public. So I wandered in. Inside, the thick stone walls blocked out the sound of the city, a still silence hanging in the air.

I walked through the barren first floor, keenly aware of the sound of my footsteps slicing through the silence, and followed the signs up the stairs to the third floor, where I was greeted by a bored security guard. I had the place to myself.

Stepping through a door into one room of the exhibit, I drew in my breath. Stunned, I stood back to admire the giant mounds of paper cranes, in all colors of the rainbow, heaped before me nearly as high as the ceiling.

Ten million paper cranes, a symbol of peace, formed a small mountain range on the third floor of the bank. In a neighboring room, garlands made of colorful cranes blanketed every wall. And these were the cranes sent to Hiroshima just in 2002. Every year, 10 million cranes are delivered to the city for display at the Children's Peace Monument in Peace Park.

The monument memorializes Sadako Sasaki, who was 2 years old when she was exposed to the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima. She survived with no external wounds and grew into a strong and athletic girl. Nine years later, in sixth grade, she was suddenly diagnosed with leukemia and hospitalized.

While in the hospital, Sadako clung tightly to her belief in an ancient Japanese legend that states that a person who folds a thousand cranes would be granted a wish. For eight months, she continuously folded tiny paper cranes out of medicine wrappers and other paper in hopes that she would be cured.

She never gave up her hope for recovery, folding more than 1,000 cranes before passing away at age 12 in 1955.

As Sadako's story became widely known, the folded origami paper crane gradually became symbolic of the call for peace. Her bronze statue in Peace Park shows her holding a golden crane. Sometimes the monument is called the Tower of a Thousand Cranes because of the cranes offered there throughout the year.

It's a truly touching and awe inspiring sight to see that millions of people have made this gesture of peace. There are just so many, it's hard to wrap your head around the idea of it all.

If you're interested in making your own paper cranes, I found this nifty how-to video on the web. Also, the website for the city of Hiroshima tells you where to mail cranes if you want to contribute.

For any of you back home with Springfield City Schools, this could be a cool project for the high school kids once the school district has its Japanese coursework off the ground. You could send the cranes to the mayor's office or to me, and I'd be happy to deliver them. I know I plan to make some paper cranes this year and deliver them personally.