Monday, April 30, 2018

"Windows for the Crown Prince" Book Review-Type Thing

When the mood takes me, I poke around (usually on Wikipedia) reading about Japan's royal family. Which is how I found out about, uh, oops, hang on, um... *leans over, grabs the book, and flips it open to the title/author page* Elizabeth Grey Vining. (Hey, I said I read about the family, not that I remembered what I read.)

Mrs. Vining, a Quaker and a writer of Pennsylvania extraction, was an English tutor for the current emperor, Akihito, for a couple years during Japan's reconstruction, when he was crown prince. (Not that exactly needs saying, but now it's there, and, well, let's just keep going.) She wrote a memoir on it too: Windows for the Crown Prince. The title comes from what someone said to her, I think...

You can find Windows on the Internet Archive (boy does that sound like a confident prediction about  the future of computer technology,) but I'm not entirely sure its supposed to be there. It was published in 1952, and as much a confused and seemingly futile slog as figuring out current copyright laws can be, it feels safer to say the book is probably somehow still under copyright... hmm... I suspect there's probably a fair use thing going on there somehow.

Anyhow, stepping out of that loose thread preoccupation of thought (for verily have I others that we readers of the Internet may pick at,) I was able -- through the glorious, tax-paid service of inter-library loan -- to get ahold of a copy. From the public library whose name includes Wyoming -- though oddly enough, isn't actually in Wyoming. (Speaking of Wyoming, it actually has -- hang on, won't be a moment -- *sounds of typing and scrolling* sixteen over there. Not bad for a population of *further sounds of typing and scrolling* 579,315. That's one library for every 36207.1875 people.)

So. To begin. The way Mrs. Grey Vining writes/wrote Windows... It's kinda got a kinda 1800s-y style. I mean, if you've ever tried older books, you tend to get really long sentences, and the whole thing has a sort of heavy, wooden-y-ness that makes it feel a little dry-ish. Not bad, if you're in the mood for it, but not something you're as often in the mood for as books that flow more smoothly. (Not that I'd ever do such a  thing as compose a sentence that could possibly hold any sort of potential for being perceived as, in some manner or other, unfolding itself to display a measure of length that did not behoove it, due to an irreconcilable  level of entirely unnecessary excess contained within the myriad of parceled clauses that constituted its whole. :D ) Also it's a a little choppy. When she's building up an idea/line of thought, there are times she just stops, leaving the end just hanging out there at the end of the paragraph. .Mebbe she was trying for plain, tell it like it is practical speech? Eh. *Shrugs"

(...Then there were a few spots that possibly come across as just a tad racist, cuz, f'r instance, she talks about Highland Scots people being pessimistic as a matter of heredity -- though I suppose it could be some kind of artistic license. There's also a bit where she feels she's becoming "Oriental" in her thinking... it just comes off a little weird, is all.)

However. There were times I liked her descriptions of things she'd come across, like priests uniforms and landscape type things, a sort of peaceful/restful/poetic and interesting cultural experience is kind of what they were was like. And sometimes she tells good jokes. (I mean, they made me smile, anyway.) Another thing I kind of liked, was that overall she emphasizes positive things going on. Prolly thought it was the diplomatic thing to do, I dunno. Anyway, sometimes its nice to have a book that keeps you more focused on overcoming difficulties and good things happening, y'know? (If you're curious about her opinion on Hirohito/the Showa emperor, she -- at least in this book -- says she takes the view he didn't want war. So yeah. That's it.)

This book has a lot of details, like the names and backgrounds of all these people in different positions she got to know (including imperial family people,) charity stuff she did, nicknames, diplomatic dinners, names of sights, Christmas celebrations, charitable works, descriptions of events (like a poetry party hosted by the emperor and concerts,) notes on human nature, travel descriptions, descriptions of meetings with MacArthur (she was there when he met with Akihito once,) lessons at the Gakushuin (Peer’s School,) private lessons with Akihito (and the lessons with him and other kids, including some of his family members,) books she read with him as part of his lessons, a couple sort of surveys of Japanese people’s opinions on some Japanese stuff (like the tea ceremony, gagaku (that's an old kind of music)…) All kinds of stuff. (No kanji or macrons for the romaji, though, if that’s a niggling question you’ve had.)

Speaking of concerts (if you read the paragraph above,) one time when she was talking about a Ise Shrine ritual dance music and she said she ended up being reminded of different things, like bagpipes and Bolero (that’s by Ravel. I know because I found a tsugaru shamisen group cover of it the other day, and that was part of the title)… I don't know much about kagura (which is the only word I know for sure is supposed to be ritual dance,) but if it's anything like gagaku (a very rhythm oriented, sort of out of control/wild/intense-sh kind of music, at least with an ensemble) I think I can see it. Very rhythm-y, a bit mysterious? 

Now, if I remember right, after three years, she says he find was going a little funny, thinking she had to leave or forever have an "Oriental" touch to her thinking (not sure how to feel about that... sentiment) and was feeling worn out. And she thought that once Akihito was done with Middle School, that would be it for her. But she caves to social pressure and stays one more year.

Here’s the very last bit, which is in a chapter titled Postscript, where she’s been back home and just got a mail from the imperial family, translated by one Mr. Sumikura. (Sumikura had been a grand steward for Akihito and had come to the US on gov’ment biz 'n such):

In spite of all the formalities and the distance, the Empress’s personality came through to me, and for a moment I was back in Japan once again within the Moat, in that sunny room with the carved rabbits and the Noh dolls.

The next day Mr. Sumikura took many photographs in order to make an album for Her Majesty. I answered the Crown Prince’s letter by air mail.

It kinda sorta feels like how the Hitchhiker's Guide books end, without a sense of wrapping up exactly, and a little melancholic (maybe cuz there is no real sense of wrapping up, even though its the last chapter, and you'd rather the adventure not end anyway) at least for the reader. Or it’s supposed to make you realize that perhaps the ending had yet to be written, kinda thing. I dunno.

So all in all, do I reccommend it? Yeh. It's got a few odd spots, and the style might stop you up a bit now and again, but it's interesting and kind of nice. 

Well, how about that -- only two this time. I mean, if you don't count Google Search's popup of the US Census Bureau and Google Maps. (Can something like that be a personal best?)

"Windows for the Crown Prince"; Elizabeth Vining; 1952

Monday, March 26, 2018


This kinda interesting image comes from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It's title is: Moon Reflected in the Rice Fields at Sarashina in Shinano Province or, for the kanji-minded: 信州更科田毎の月. It's by Hiroshige Utagawa. Except for the fact that there are rice fields in it, the image doesn't actually have anything to do with kayu-ura. Still, it's 
sort of eye-caching with its muted colors and such. (Waves a hand vaguely at it to encompass all possible features that could come under discussion.)

I want you to imagine me battling away, scaling enormous obstacles, charging through the ranks of uncharted forests in strange lands no human eye has set foot on before in an unparalleled race against all manner of threatening forces that would leave anyone breathless with the danger .... because that's a much better image than the undeniable fact that two New Years have started up (*Super Late* Happy Lunar New Year/oshōgatsu/お正月!) and I'm still pushing my way through several(ish) false starts with getting these posts going again.  I was almost ahead of time, several times. Ah well. Here we go, then!

First, your pick of spellings/names: we've got kayu-ura, kayuura and Mi Kayu Ura -- what do they mean? "Rice gruel divination" or thereabouts. And the term for it as a ceremony is kayu-ura-shinji. (Though the "mi kayu ura" seems a little different, but not much.) The kanji for it seems to be 粥占.

Yep. And you thought you'd heard it all when it came to the ways people strive to suss (yes, that's a word) out the future ahead of time. If you wanna know more, then scooch your eyeballs on down to the next (couple of) paragraph(s,) cuz I'm not gonna put 'em all here. (They wouldn't fit, and it'd just be a crazy mess of ideas all stuck together. And we all know that to be done right, crazy messes of ideas require proper spacing.)

'Ts m'art.
Anyhow, kayu-ura is actually a sub-variety of fortune telling methods used to give the future for the rest of the year -- two examples I found from a list that only gave two specific-ish examples so they're all I've got were the harvest and the weather.  Generally though, it's to see if the harvest will be bad or good. (The over-variety of fortune telling methods is toshiura, which I've seen translated into English (and quite a few more syllables) as "divination for the coming year.") And there's more than one type of kayu-ura!  

First off, you've got your partway slit stick (apparently the type of wood's not all that important, but willow wood was mentioned) in a pot of rice gruel method. The basic process goes like this: insert the slit stick, stir, and remove stick, then interpret what it means that you got whatever number of grains you got stuck into the slit. The stick's got different names, but the one that I found kanji for (these two: 粥箸) is kayubashi. (Japanese language learner-types may recognize that the second kanji is for chopstick. They may also recognize the first kanji, which I do not. This kanji seems appropriate though: it looks like half the character for "pull" was stuck on both sides around the character for "rice," sort of making a kanji sandwich. So all in all, I think we cannot but conclude that the kanjis are telling us to pull our rice sandwiches with our chopsticks... then again, mebbe not so much -- but it makes a fairly memorable mnemonic, right? Actually, I looked it up and 粥 means "rice porridge." And if you wanna be polite you call it o-kayu or お粥.)

Then there's a method -- just for foretelling the harvest -- where you: first take 12 hollow rods of something like bamboo... the basic idea seems to be something natural, hollow and long, but that's just my interpretation based off the fact that the other example was reeds. (The word for these rods is tsutsu -- I popped that into Google Translate, and you know what it came up with? Cylinder. Course when I tried to pin it down on that, it gave me different words. Argh. Just...argh...) The next step is to write the months on the rods or crop names. Then you stick them into cooking adzuki (yes, it's not rice, but it's still considered acceptable) or rice -- and when whichever you've picked is done cooking you open each rod to see what all ended up getting stuck in them. I think I found the name for a ceremony of this type of kayu-ura is tsutsu'ura shinji.

While we're still on types, I came across a type where the kayu-ura is to let the kayu go moldy over a couple days and figure the future that way, but the source doubted its existence. Well, then I found a site saying it was the online space for a shrine called Imori Shrine (founded 859 AD) and that it does do kayu mold divination. They hold this ritual/ceremony on March 1st. (That's St. David's Day, by the way. You know, patron saint of Wales, sometimes drawn with a dove on his shoulder? No? Well, you should. Welsh culture is vastly underrepresented. I mean, have you ever heard of a pibgorn or a cwrth crwth? Exactly. I hadn't either till this February. Hm, what's that? The blog's called Things on Japan, not Things on Wales? Okay, okay, back to the topic then.) And, after poking around YouTube, I found it's not the only place that does the mold version, as there's this place (that's Esohachimangū or 恵蘇八幡宮, in Asakura city (aka 朝倉市) in Fukuoka Prefecture (aka 福岡県), which is on the island of Kyūshū (aka 九州. Whew, there, geo-linguistic exposition completed!):

If you watch it till the end, you'll see what they do with the rice afterwards, at least at this shrine.

So, when does all this agricultural prognostication go down? Wellp, that just depends, now, don't it. In th' traditional way of things, it's supposed to be done on the 15th day of the first lunar month -- aka koshōgatsu (aka 小正月) or "Little New Year's Day." But if you're more a solar calendar kind of person, no worries there: nowadays kayu-ura's done most often on January 15th.

(I found an exception to the general January 15th rule on the Shimonoseki City website, which has what it calls a kayu-ura-shinji ritual at the Saigawa Shrine on the 23rd -- of November. Yeah... before I finally read the resources right and found that January 15th was the most common pick for a kayu-ura ritual, I was of the opinion the Shimonoseki City's website held yet another seemingly non-sensical, unexplained contradiction whose sole purpose was to render what little sense I thought that I'd made of this world a complete and utter shambles. But I stand corrected. Shimonoseki City just does things a little differently, is all.)

También, en (¡ay! cuál es la palabra por "prefecture"?) de Akita, se existe la tradición...yeah, once again and prolly not for the last time, that's where my shaky Spanish skills just give it up and walk away. Anyhow, there's a shrine in Akita Prefecture called Koshiōji, and their version of kayu-ura involves a pole about 117 inches long and rice paste: said rice paste is spread on said pole and the future is interpreted that way.

Then there's the kayu-ura at the Awaji-shima Izanagi-jingū. It's a rod version, but farmers are the ones putting the rods in -- and they don't leave them in, they dip them in. And the rice is boiling. (I suppose the other practice might involve boiling, but since my official source didn't say, I'm not going to either.) This ceremony is specifically called mi-kayu-ura. However, in a free-translated (or at least I assume it is) narrated video about this -- it still shows activities done by people wearing priest robes... and it seems to be that it's the shape the porridge as it comes out of the tubes that's important...sigh. Well, instead of me giving a my usual of attempt at understanding it, why don't you watch it instead? Here ya go -- just remember it cuts to nothing around 3:43:

For some of that good old-timey reading, here's this paragraph from 1879 (or at least that's the publication date I found had... I, however, sporadically entertain a level of suspicion when confronted with a book's publichation date. Case in point, a copy of the attached chunk of words was in a book copyrighted 2002. *Quizzically lifts an eyebrow in an attempt to appear laconically arch* S'right, I'm watching you, people who put the dates into books, 'm watchin' you.) Ahem,  the text:

A curious custom used formerly to be practiced at this temple, called Mi kayu ura, or "Divination by gruel." One the 10th day of the 1st moon, a quantity of beans of the species called adzuki (phaseolus radiatus) having been boiled in the presence of the gods, a roll of 54 tubes of fine bamboo, each inscribed with the name of a kind of seed crop, was lowered into the semi-fluid mass, and from the way in  which the beans entered the tubes, the priests drew inferences as to the probability of the particular crops being successful or the reverse. The peasants then knew what it would be best to sow during the year.

Anyhow, you may be wondering just how all these rice smearing/sticking/stirring future telling traditions happened to come about, so I'll tell you. Seems that rice wasn't just rice -- It also used to be seen as important in a supernatural sense. People thought it could be used for doing exorcisms, and it just sort of followed from there.
So while we're on history, let's talk about just how common kayu-ura is in these our modern times: it isn't. At least, not as a community thing. (It used to be a community thing.) It used to be before the Meiji Period. (And as you've (probably) read above, it is a thing that shrines do. Some publish their results.) And Osaka Prefecture's Hiraoka Shrine's kayu-ura shinji even was classed as an Intangible Cultural Asset. (Oh, and Hiraoka Shrine's/Hiraoka jinja's kanjis are like so:  枚岡神社.) On and on a related note, from what it looks like from what I've seen, it seems that kayu-ura rituals are kind of festivals? And it seems they're called, as you language learners among you (you know who you are) might guess, 粥占祭 or kayu-ura matsuri. 

Here's a video that's supposed to be Hiraoka Shrine doing a kayu-ura, as I understand it at least. (If your Japanese is better than mine -- which let's face it -- isn't necessarily that hard a thing to accomplish, then you may end up catching things that contradict all my information completely. Cuz for all I know, it does... anyway, enjoy the movie. It shows details that I didn't get from the written sources I found -- like the fact that it looks like they give people the kayu when it's all over. It could be that it's just the way Hiraoka Shrine does things, but anyway, enjoy the movie.)

Well, that got kinda long, huh. Props to you for finishing!

Anyway, that's the end of the post. Yep. Pretty much....*cough, cough*... Cubs look good this year, don't they? Um... Well, see you next month! (And if I got anything wrong it's because it was either the resources or it was me -- or both. It could be both.)

Reeeeading Rice-booooowww!!!! (Sorry.)

Kokugakuin University: Encyclopedia of Shinto: Kayu'ura

Imori Shrine: The Ritual of Kayu-ura Kayubiraki

Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan" Volume Seven; Asiatic Society of Japan; 1879

Shimonoseki City: Shimonoseki literary calendar
Kokugaguin University: Encyclopedia of Shinto: Tokushu shinji

日本吉 NIPPON-KICHI: 枚岡神社 Hiraoka-jinjya Hiraoka Shrine; 2006/12/17

和英日本の文化・観光・歴史辞典 A Japanese-English Dictionary of Culture, Tourism and History of Japan; 山口百々男, Steven Bates; 2014

LACMA: Moon Reflected in the Rice Fields at Sarashina in Shinano Province

Don't forget, you can use these (and your own ingenuity) to help correct and improve whatever it was that I wrote up there. Cuz sometimes other people can help other people make the other people's works better than it was before the other people came along and helped. Right? Anyway, desperate PSA over, you can go about your day now.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Hiatus Ahoy

Okay, quick l'il update, y'all. Life has been kinda crazy, so coupled with my sad habit of employing the last minute ethic, I think I'm gonna just take a break for a bit. Don't worry, I'll be back. -- B.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Sigh, I knew this day would come. In my defense, other projects/projects/psychotic-earthquakes-people-quaintly-include-under-the-term-"life" have been calling me aside. (I've never used 8 hyphens in a sentence before -- awright, personal best!) So, let's see what I can rustle up for this month tonight.... (thumbs through the internet a bit)... amacha? Sure, why not!

It's sweet tea (so the kanji sound like they're are probably 甘and 茶) -- but not, you know "sweet tea." (Though both are diuretics.) Well, you know stevia, right? Funny tasting stuff, meant to be this awe-inspiring, calorie-free, low glycemic sweetener, but when you get it, you're first reaction is to be repelled by how un-sugar like it is? Well, culturally-biased palette rant aside, the plant amacha comes from sounds like the old-time Japanese version of stevia, including there being liquid and leaf forms.

But in amacha's case, it comes from a species of hydrangea.

The Plant
Yup. Hydrangea tea. Not exactly two words I would have put together. Then again,  as with many topics, my knowledge of edible botanicals probably would have a hard time stretching out to fill a tablespoon, so, yeah... Anyways, I found a (super long) scientific name for the amacha hydrangea (which likes to grow on mountains and itself is called amacha) is Hydrangea macrophylla Seringe var. thunbergii (Siebold) Makino (Saxifragaceae.) I've also seen it shortened to just Hydrangea thunbergii. But there, now we all know it! (Of course, I've also seen it that the type of hydrangea is Hydrangea macrophylla var. serrata, so yeah. Maybe they're synonymous... Botany!)

So where's the sweet come from? A chemical an aspiring scientist will find in the leaves, that (an)other(s) scientist(s) have named phyllodulcin. To get the leaves to make this chemical though, you need to create a reaction -- that is, you need to either ferment them or squish them up. (Hooray for science!) On a related note, I've seen one book that says leaves prepped to be amacha are fermented, and a book that says they're dried. They might be disagreeing, they might be agreeing. Only the editors themselves may truly know.

Why Do People Make It?
People who follow a religion (cult?) called Gedatsu-kai make it because of a ritual that involves pouring it over items/places thought to have unclean spirits connected to them so that the spirits will drink it and become clean. One example is memorial tablets/plaques of relatives. Looks like the name for this ritual is amacha kuyō.

A ritual that is completely different (as far as I can tell) in its purpose is kanbutsu, which takes place on Buddha's birthday (that's April 8 for those of us who don't know, as well as for those of us (myself included) who probably or at least may have heard about this and didn't remember, as well as for anyone else who I can't think of this moment and I should probably end this sentence now.) From what I've read, it's kind of a teeny, weeny little bit like communion at a Christmas church service. Here, see what I mean.

A shrine's set up over a statue of Buddha that's standing up (part of a belief about him being able to stand when he was born) that has amacha in front of it. People go to watch some of the amacha be poured over the statue. After this, they then receive some themselves. They'll drink the amacha, which does two things. One is that it's supposed to make it so they'll be healthy. The other thing is that it's supposed to make them more dedicated to their religion.

Okay, it's about 10 where I'm at at the moment, so I think I'll call it an article. G'night now. :)

Because really awesome information sharing people like to share who they are quoting in such an authoritative manner! Plus, I mean, this also makes it so it's not my fault if you go out and accidentally pick say, some leaf that brews a tea with the shockingly bold piquancy of a pickled durian-lutefisk fusion.

"Cell Culture and Somatic Cell Genetics of Plants" (Indra K. Vassil, Editor-in-Chief), Volume 5: "Phytochemicals in Plant Cell Cultures"; Indra K. Vasil (Editor in Chief); Friedrich Constabel, Indra K. Vasil (editors); 1988

Japan and Things Japanese"; Mock Joya; 2006 Well, would'ya look at that!

"The Cultural History of Plants"; Sir Ghillean Prance (consulting editor), Mark Nesbitt (scientific editor); 2005

"Japanese Culture and Behavior: Selected Readings" revised edition; Takie Sugiyama Lebra, William P. Lebra; 1986

"Asian American Religious Cultures"; Jonathan H.X. Lee, Fumitaka Matsuoka, Edmond Yee, and Ronald Nakasone (editors);

"Comprehensive Natural Products II: Chemistry and Biology" Volume I: "Natural Products Structural Diversity-I Secondary Metabolites: Organization and Biosynthesis"; Lew Mander, Hung-Wen (Ben) Liu (editors in chief); Craig A. Townsend, Yutaka Ebizuka (volume editors); 2010

(And, yes, I do know that amacha is a real word in Spanish -- Google told me. ;) )

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Awa or Foxtail Millet

Lessee here...

Ooh, I know! Well..., nope, that won't work. Hm. Let's try...*squints a bit* foxtail millet/awa/粟? Sure, why not!

The kanji for millet, arts-ified.
A masterpiece, beyond all doubt. ;)

Short Section on Science-y Stuff
As I've probably ranted before, the academic community has be-gifted many an incomprehensible scientific name for the flora and fauna of this world. But this time it's not so bad. Foxtail millet's scientific name is pretty short -- and it actually looks pronounceable: Setaria italica. In Japan, you can find people farming it in Shikoku as well as Kyushu.

History-ish Facts
Awa in Japan is as old as the hills -- or at least the Jōmon period, and that's pretty old (Depending somewhat on your personal perception of time, of course -- I mean we mustn't forget about the elasticity of our linear perception as humans which...I've gone off topic again, haven't I? Right then.) Looks like it started out in northeast Hokkaidō and went down.

It was part the "five grains" (or gokoku aka 五穀.) This is a group of grains (obviously) that has some cultural clout. F'r instance, you can find in the Nihon shoki as well as in the Kojiki. These grains, according to these heavy works, came from the murder-ified body of a goddess -- which goddess it was depends on the book. (Real appetizing, amirite?)  And, f'r instance, the Heian period imperial court had rituals that involved the five grains.

Apparently, awa's not that common anymore. Before World War II it was. That seems kind of like an inversion from what you'd expect, at least in my opinion, but eh, I basically know nothing about Japan's historical economy and cultural preferences toward grain products. So yeah, anyway, on to uses!

People make this grain into candy (yes, candy), mochi (my super-vague and partly guessed understanding is it's pounded like mochi and served), dango, cooked and served on its own, and cooked with rice (with more rice than awa) and served. (The names of the first three are awa ame, awa mochi and awa dango, if you wanna know how to say it in Japanese. Dunno what you'd call the last two though.)

Gotta say, like a couple other foods I've written about, I have a high amount of skepticism when it comes to my ability to smile, nod and perform other necessary social tasks after tasting millet-flavored sweets of any sort.

A little caveat: Just don't let your awa get cold, unless you like giving your jaw a workout.

A Video
Here's a quiet, bilingual-y video showing a moon viewing dessert called Tsukimi Awa Zenzai. It's pretty much what it sounds like -- Moonviewing Foxtail Millet Zenzai (anko/red bean paste as bullion, at least that's what it is in this video). ;)

Know thy grains!
"A Dictionary of Japanese Food: Ingredients and Culture"; Richard Hosking; 1995

"The Forgotten Japanese: Encounters with Rural Life and Folklore"; Miyamoto Tsuneichi (author), Jeffrey S. Irish (translator); 2010

Routledge Handbook of Premodern Japanese History"; Karl F. Friday (editor); 2017

"Rice, Agriculture, and the Food Supply in Premodern Japan"; Charlotte von Verschuer (author), Wendy Cobcroft (translator and editor); 2016

"The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume I Ancient Japan"; Delmer M. Brown (editor); 1993

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Kinkafu

This 1600s koto was made as a thank you present from a guy to another guy for helping him kill people who were trying to kill him. (Cropped from a pic the Met's art gallery, if you were curious.) 

So here we are again. Again. (Again....again. Ahem, again.) End of the month, the sun continues to rise in a generally east-ish direction, people fry their morning eggs and wonder about the true nature of cholesterol -- I've spent 28 of these 31 days basically not doing a thing for a post, in spite of slightly tense, mild remonstrances (or at least the one) to myself about getting it done.  (You'd think there'd be some kind of solution to this somehow. ;) )

Now, I had had a thought of writing about another traditional festival dance (actually found tutorials on it even), but... I don't think so. Not yet. Instead, we'll talk about songs. 

See, every so often, I try to find really old Japanese music. And fail miserably, as using my trusty keywords of old/ancient/traditional Japanese music/songs/folk songs tends to bring up absolutely the opposite of that for which I am hoping. (Ugh, nope, that's just stilted and unnatural. I don't care if it kept the preposition from the end of the sentence, it just doesn't sound right.) This week, I tried again. And came up with (non-video) results that included the Kinkafu or Songs to Koto (or Zither, depending, 'cause that's what a koto is, it turns out) Accompaniment. Which I tentatively posit the kanjis are thus: 琴歌譜.

There's only one known copy of then Kinkafu, and it's got a note that a guy, a ōutashi (a person who really knew what they were about when it came to music) named Ō no Yasuki copied it in 981 AD. Theorized dates as to the compilation of kinkafu include 810 or 918 AD.

I guess it was lost or something, because a guy named Sasaki Nobutsuna found it again in 1924 -- looked up the name, and there's a noted scholar with the same name (at least in the English alphabet, his kanji are 佐佐木信綱) who lived from 1872 to 1963. I wonder if it was him...Eh, probably. He had the motive and likely had access to ancient materials. (Lol, why yes I have been watching crime dramas, why do you ask?)

What's in It
Twenty-one song sheets/music-ified poems for koto and person -- or twenty-two, depending on the book (and verily which part of the same book, as I found) you read. (Because who wants to agree on everything? Sheesh...*inarticulate grumbling.*) It includes the right ways to stretch your vowels to fit the music. The lyrics are all written in Man'yōgana, the Chinese script worked to fit the Japanese language. 

Seems the Kinkafu lifted a selections of its poems from other books like the Shoku Nihongi. Another thing that seems to be so is that whoever made the book changed the spellings of the poems a bit. (maybe to make the poems work better with the measures and the beats and suchlike) -- at least, that's what I got from one book. From my mathematical attempts, it looks like a good chunk of the songs came from the 600s and earlier. It gets confusing, so let's just keep going.

To give you a feel for what's in it, here's song 12, as from A History of Japanese Literature, Volume 2: The Early Middle Ages:

Yamato no kuni wa
Kamu kara ka
Ari ga hoshiki
Kuni kara ka
Sumi ga hoshiki
Ari ga hoshiki kuni wa
Akitsushima Yamato

Is the Land of Yamato,
Seen against the sky,
A perfect place to be
Because it's true to the gods' ways?
Is it a perfect place to dwell
Because it's true to the land's ways?
The land where I want to be is
The Dragonfly Islands, Yamato.

Kinda nice, huh? Anyways, I like it. (A definite improvement over the farmer-swearing-at-the-rocks-he-keeps-finding-in-his-field song -- aka song 7. I mean, it does have a sort of meaningful weariness about the endless struggles and hardships that can plague the laboring man's days along with, to a lesser degree, a touch of wonder/mystery of ages long past meets paradise lost-ishness, but yeah, not one I'd advocate for singing in the complete original. (You are, of course, allowed to disagree, but I will disagree with you. ;) ) Plus, depending on the tune, I guess, it would be kinda depressing to sing or listen to, I'd think... Well, this l'il rant sure has got longer than I wanted -- I'll get back to the topic now.)

Here's another one, song 17, again kindly transposed and put into English by the same book. It's a mash up of "I love you thiiiisss much" meets "I'm following my significant other." But, you know, all naturey and rhythmic and poetic.

Isu no kami
Furu no yama no
Kuma ga tsume mutsu
Maro ka moshi
Ka ga tsume yatsu
Maro ka moshi
Ware koso koko ni
Idete ore

On Furu Mountain in
Bears have six claws,
And I -- oh my!
Deer have eight hoofs,
And I -- oh my!
I  love him as much as that.
There's the reason why
I have come here to
The mountain spring.

Def'nitely got a sort of 1930s Disney/Broadway kinda feel. As for the title for these songs, I'm sure they're around. Somewhere. But I've not seen them on the page's I've read (or sometimes skimmed). So that's one mystery that'll just have to linger for now.

Segue to Atsuta Shrine and Back 

There's also group of songs that, depending on the translation, you may see called "wine-blessing songs." They're some of the songs that also come from the Nihon Shoki. But in the Kinkafu, it (possibly) says (maybe) that they had a special use. You were supposed to sing 'em on Tōka no sechie. (A translation (boy, I'm using that word a lot in this post) I found for this term is 'stamping song banquet' -- 'cuz tōka can mean 'stamping song,' see. Apparently, tōka no sechie is only one part of a rite at Atsuta jingū/imperial shrine (or 熱田神宮 as people in Japan spell it) that's now held on January 11th. One place didn't mention all of this, but did say tōka no sechie was held (lunar style,mind) in the 1st month on the 16th day. Oh no wait, apparently the no sechie version was a Heian imperial thing, but it turned into a spring service of Atsuta shrine, praying for bumper crops -- the shrine's version's called Tōka Shinji. Whew, there, I hope that's got it all.)

Book on a Book

And speaking of wine and poetry (and the Kinkafu) there's an informative art book on it: Festive wine: ancient Japanese poems from the Kinkafu. Two guys (Noah Brannen and William Elliott,) and an artist called Maki Haku collaborated on it -- it's an annotated selection of the Kinkafu's song/poems plus art from Maki Haku (which he spelled 巻白 and it's actually his artist name; his actual name was Maejima Tadaaki. On a related note to this related note, he was born in 1924, the year of the Kinkafu's discovery -- coincidence?... Yeah, I think it was too.). It was published in 1969.

So Then

So then, did I find any recordings of these songs? No. Well, I may have found something (or two somethings,) but I wasn't sure exactly what they were. Instead, here's a rendition of Sakura on a 25 string koto:


For when music debates need their scores properly noted...  :D

Monday, July 31, 2017

Owara Kaze no Bon

Consider the mountain village of Yatsuo (kanji thusly, or so I hope: 八尾) or Yatsuo-machi (verily do I grawr at you, un-standardized transliterations and variants that I am forced to collect from my sources). This village is part of Toyama city (which is probably spelled like this: 富山市) which itself is part of Toyama Prefecture (which is spelled like this: 富山県 and is on the left side of Honshū under the sticky uppy peninsula). They have something that draws people to them. It is this.

The people in this village have this religious event/festival thing that's 300 years old plus. It's called Owara Kaze no Bon (Owara is the district. I believe). It's supposed to be an interesting sight because it's melancholy and eerie and surreal and stuff.  

Kay, that was my intro, feel free to start the next paragraph. (What are you still doing up here?  Go down already! You' won't find anything else up here, I can tell you that! ;) ) 

This festival/event is supposed to have two points: to ask for a good harvest and to keep the wind from attacking. (Keep reading, the second point makes more sense with the first point later on.) 

There's a theory about where this tradition came from. It's pretty simple: Bon and a harvest request event got mixed together. Apparently, these days, the event is supposed to have had a large increase in people who like to see things coming to watch them.

People of Owara traditionally stop working to come together and dance for the night. They light paper lamp stands (that's paper lamps, part of stands), which makes sense if you're going to be dancing at night. They dance to a song of the village's that they sing, the (plus-ish) Ecchu (bless you! Sorry, I couldn't resist) Owara Bushi or just Ecchu Owara. The kana for it are thus: 越中おわら節(Ecchu may sometimes be spelled etchu, just an fyi. And an argh, but that's not an acronym). However. This doesn't seem to entirely hold true today...

From the looks of it, there are official dancers. There are costumes, one for the women (yukata) one for the men (happi coats and pants) -- and both wear large straw hats, at least some of them. (Take a circle, like the cardboard one you get in a frozen pizza, bend it mostly in half and that's the basic shape right there). Instruments accompany -- kyokū (Chinese fiddle), taiko and the shamisen. Somehow, younger dancers seem to be able to join in at some point... dunno. There seems to be an official singer/official singers. Anyways, dancers dance through-ish the village (which I've also seen called a town...). Apparently, it's all supposed to average 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, at the village's elementary school (Yatsuo Elementary School -- hey, cool, that spells YES!), there's a stage at the playground. Here, preservation societies from the Owara district dance their dances. Not clear what exactly this means... but it looks like it costs 20 dollars for unreserved seats (Saw some footage of dancing in a shrine or a temple though... And there's something about different stages? Hmms. I could go into a long, and probably not a little disgruntled, quasi-expository rant, but I think I'll just let you all discuss it among yourselves.) 

But wait, there's more confusion! (At least, I was confused). Here, so you don't have to read my awkward paraphrase (which would really just be yet another quasi-expository rant) it's from the Japan National Tourism Organization: 

"The dance is performed in an area extending some 3 kilometers from north to south, and the 11 Owara district sub-branches, each forming a unit, dance on designated stages as they travel around the area.There. All done. (Kinda makes it sound like a relay/marathon, dunnit. Like, it's a 3k dance, or something. ;) )

For lyrics to Ecchu Owara (Bushi), go here, I think.

When (and some more Why)
Vaguely September 1 through September 3. (Apparently, it can change, so watch out.)  It's supposed to be the 210th day after the first day of spring. Sounds oddly specific, right? Apparently, in Japan's traditional calendar, the 210th day after the first day of spring is supposed to be a very bad day to be a farmer, as you are likely to get hit by a typhoon. (Hence the dangerous wind prevention/placation aspect of the dance).

Here's this one, it's kinda nice, it's got a choreographed human experience, slice of life type realism-y-ness of people passing through the festival and visiting. The music is like "relaxing" spa ad-spot guitar but maybe with a touch of Iberian tourism guitar mixed in. Definitely seems to be going for a sort of subdued tone. Anyhow, 'nuf of my highly articulate Ebert/Maltin-ing, if you want to see the dance, start at 2:28-ish (also make sure to watch for a dog in one of those bent round hats and a sort of meta moment where a cameraman/woman films a cameraman filming people):

I have no idea what they're singing at the very end, but it sounds fun.

And here's a longer video of the festival/event. (I mean, it's not as long as if you tried to watch all of the 1987 version of Little Dorrit in one sitting. But depending on how slice-of-life you feel, and depending on how much you like this kind of music, it could feel like it.) If you're like me and you have a bit of trouble appreciating the more intensely stylized vibrato the singer/singers uses in places in these videos, you might try speeding up the video a bit. (I know, I'm such a culture-less American.)

Then here's this short version of a lady just singing the Ecchu Owara (Bushi). At least I hope she is, because if she isn't that'd be a little embarrassing. Anyhow, I found it to be a bit easier on my Western ears than the others:

And there's all kind of videos out there, so if these still leave you curious, don't worry there's more!

Below are the places, free to all who search, that have, in these frenzied afternoon (and evening) hours of the last day of July, guided these fingers to type the facts they have found therein. Enjoy!

This source o' mine here has costs and times and such like, for the abroad minded: 

Once again, impressively short, if I do say so.