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.

Friday, June 30, 2017


June, hm, June, June, what to do for June. Aha, I know! Mokugyo or 木魚. That is to say, the wood fish drum/slit gong/bell/idiophone-struck-slit-drum  -- used across Asia in both Buddhist and Taoist rituals, (but, of course, imma talk about what *I think* is Japan's take on it).  Why? Well cuz, um, the 6th lunar month was Minazuki/Waterless month, and, uh... because  water equals fish which equals tuna, the Friday specialty meat at Subway? I dunno, just picked it really. And I mean, it is the last day of the month, so I just need to finish something, right? ;)

Apparently, during the time of Dōgen (who lived from 1200 to 1253 and introduced Zen to Japan), the wood fish drum called mokugyo was a  flat one that was part of 'the meal ritual' -- it was in the 'outer hall'. People hit it with a long pole during the ritual. They looked like this 'un (from the Met's Collection), 'less I be mistaken:

Then there's the type of drum that the people of today call mokugyo, which looks like a sleigh bell with a "handle" of two dragon-head fish, both biting a ball (or jewel, I've seen it called a jewel). The ball is a symbol of earth -- our plane of existence, I guess? This type seems to be the one that most people talk about, so that's the one I (hope) I am focusing on. (Of course the Met just said that both are called mokugyo...Anyway, insert rant and (yet another) minor nervous breakdown here, and let's continue.)

They're made by hollowing out a piece of wood. Camphor wood's the top choice, but you can get ones in mulberry wood or rosewood. (Unless it's that my source is mistaken... Really, some days I think that's this blog's unofficial tagline.)

The big ones are usually 2 or 3 feet tall -- but you can find bigger (see the video below) a piece. I got most of that basically from one book, which also says that they're painted -- red or "plainer" colors.

How do people play mokugyo? They use a padded drum stick. Big ones are put on a cushion before they're used. (Dunno how 'big' one has to be before it needs a cushion...) Here's a short video of a big mokugyo -- looks like a three-footer, easy:

From what I can figure, the mokugyo is kept in the hondo of Ryutokuji (龍徳寺) in Otaru (小樽), Hokkaido (北海道).

What I've found says mokugyo have two purposes: one is to help keep time during sutra chants, and and the other to call monks together for a Buddhist service. This probably varies from monastery to monastery, not to mention sect to sect. Speaking of which,  two sects I've read that use mokugyo are Zen (or禅) and Jōdō aka Pure Land (or 浄土宗.) (So if you ever find yourself on the lookout for spotting one, you know where to start now.)

On a related note, fish symbolism says that because fish don't blink, fish are like a metaphor for vigilance. Guess that makes sense -- mokugyo are meant to keep you on track, like. (And now I know not to start a staring contest with a fish.)

One version has it like this: mokugyo is supposed to have been the creation of one Chih-ling, a Chinese priest who lived during the Sui dynasty (Don't know when that was? I didn't either. It was 581-617 AD. There. Now we both know). Inspiration for it, goes a recounting, came from the Subha Sastra, a sutra.

Or was it?

Here's another history. A Chinese monk called Yinyuan Longqi brought it over in the 1600s. (Yinyuan, according to this same account, started the Ōbaku sub-sect of Zen. His personal dates are thus: 1592-1673.)


Myth/Legend/Origin Stuff
Here's a version of the mokugyo's origins: a priest in India got reborn as a fish, because he didn't live like he should've done. His new fish body had a tree growing out of it (whoa). Not only that, whenever this way out of left-field appendage got buffeted by anything, the fish/ex-priest got hurt.

Instead of being honest with himself about why he was now a fish with a tree growing out of his back, he blamed his superior/ex-superior and wanted to exact some good, old-fashioned revenge. One day, this same superior/ex-superior needed to cross the river the fish/ex-priest lived in, and verily did the fish/ex-priest go and take him some revenge (the narrative I came across didn't say what exactly that was, but apparently it counted as revenge).

The superior asked the fish what was going on, and the fish spake his delusion, to which the superior responded with flat denial, telling the fish that You Get What You Deserve. The scales fell from the fish's eyes. The fish asked the superior to make something out of his back-tree that people would use in Buddhism. This would get the fish closer to Nirvana. The superior obliged: he made a fish-shaped drum out of it. When the drum was used, the fish was able to go to Nirvana.

Now for a different origin story that completely (well sorta) flips the dynamic. It talks about a priest (I think) crossing a river and being saved by a fish. He made the fish a promise that he then forgot about... When it came about that the priest had to cross the river a second time (for some reason), the fish gave him a near death experience in retaliation for the slight. In response to this, the priest made an effigy of the fish -- a fish-shaped drum -- so he could beat the tar out of something without officially breaking his vow of non-violence. (I'm not quite sure he'd quite got the whole concept of non-violence.).

That one seems like a different moral story, perhaps on the importance of Keeping Your Promises.... or maybe perhaps Going To Bed On Time And Eating Your Vegetables (Because River Fish With Supernatural Powers Are Touchy And Have No Sympathy For People With Bad Memory).

To round out this post, here's a little science. Poking around for mokugyo info turned up a study on them. Scientists looked at both the drum's hertz (it usually makes two 'peaks') as well as what people liked best about the sounds. I don't understand all of it so... link!

Well, here we are again! Hope you had fun. ;) (Oh, and it's pretty  easy to find mokugyo for sale online. Just thought I'd put it in for the curious. )

"Culture in Action: Playing the Spoons and Other Curious Instruments"; Liz Miles; 2011

"A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism"; Christmas Humphreys; 1984

"We Japanese: The Customs, Manners, Ceremonies, Festivals, Arts and Crafts of Japan"; Frederic de Garis, Atsuharu Sakai; 2002

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Mokugyo

"Dōgen's Pure Standards for the Zen Community: A Translation of Eihei Shingi"; Taigen Daniel Leighton, Shohaku Okumura (translators); 1996 

"A Japanese-English Dictionary of Culture, Tourism and History of Japan"; 山口百々男, Steven Bates (translator?); 2010

Encyclopedia Britannica: Dōgen

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Wakasa Agate Carving

Impressive but hard to look at, right? Many, many,many, 
thanks to the Met's art gallery for the originals I used in this composite. 
And the inventor of MS Paint. (None of the above artifacts are Japanese, by the way.)

In the dynamic, image above, note the two kanji. These make up the word menō, the Japanese word for agate. For those who can't make heads or tails of them and/or don't want to be bothered heading to a translating site to get a copy, here they are in print: 瑪瑙. 

From sight, I'd say the first one means "king trying to catch his horse", and the second one means "king waiting to flip three burgers on the grill". As I am such a kanji expert, I feel fully justified putting this interpretation forward for further review. ;)

And now a transition paragraph into the subject proper:

In spite of the fact that it doesn't get anywhere near as much publicity as, say, Sri Lanka or Brazil's gem industries, Japan does, in fact, have a toe/foot in the gem world: agates.

Sort of a surprise, right? You never hear about Japan being a source of luxury grade rocks. But yeah, in Fukui Prefecture (or Fukui-ken, kanji like so:  福井県) they've been mining agate and crafting things from the stuff for like two-ish centuries. (The origins may or may not be somewhere in the first 50 years of the 1700s). It's even got official 'traditional craft' status, as of 1976 (or Shōwa 51, for the era inclined.) So you know it's worth reading about, right? ;)

For those who missed this map in my
last post I used in it (whichever 
one it was...) -- voila! Map.
The official name for the ages old tradition of agate carving, unless I've grossly missed the mark, is 若狭めのう細工 -- all that is pronounced "wakasa menō zaiku". (Yeah, the site where I found this phrase used hiragana for menō... I've read that kanji can seem a bit 'heavy', like academic, so my guess is they wanted to look a little more visually accessible. Either that or it's just the normal way to spell it.) It means Wakasa agate work/workmanship. Why not "Fukui-ken menō zaiku"? 

Well, I found that Wakasa is the name for a coastal type province that today is but a part of southern Fukui Prefecture. For a while, it was an international trade stop, and whose importance wasn't to be sneezed at. It  was a source of seafood for the imperial court -- it came to be referred to as miketsukuni (or a miketsukuni province, not entirely sure which), whose kanji, I think, are this: 御食国. The first kanji, I wanna say, is an honorific one, the second one's "food" and third one's "country". Nowadays, this ex-province is called (the) Wakasa region. Um, so, I guess since the industry started in the province, that's what they went with...

But this isn't exactly the end of the agate nomenclature confusion. (At least, I've been confused.) We've got some more specificity to get through. See, there're websites -- including Japan's official tourist site -- that make a point of emphasizing a certain city's connection to this great agate tradition above all others in the region. Can you guess which city? (A hint: politics.)

This city, which was located 'round abouts smack dab-ish in the middle of the Wakasa region, holds the name of the seemingly improbable name of Obama. (Didja get it?) Nothing to do with our previous head of state, the kanji are: 小浜, which mean "small" and "shore".  (You might also see the kanji for "city" added to the end. I've seen this with other cities. Dunno what the nuance/nuances is/are.) 

Now about the agate itself. One source described the deposit(s?) most common color as red. In the pictures I've seen so far, you get a lot of intense red-orange and orange coloration, plus a range of paler versions. And of course, because it's agate, these colors can come in layers of stripes, sometimes in rectangle-y shapes. A few pieces I saw had definitely got some translucency going on. Sort of like the picture below with all the circles that look like a pudgy bee, but not, as this one's Minoan. (Again many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seriously, if you want awesome -- and public domain photos, at that -- check out their site.) But I also saw at least one giant chunk of agate in process that was more gray than anything else. But I know the secret behind this discrepancy! 

They get agates all nice and vivid by heat treating them (this is also traditional, by the way). Which, if you're looking for the purity of rocks that were just shined up a bit, might feel like a bit of a let down, but still, you gotta admit, they're pretty eye-catching afterwards. 

Anyways, to get 'em all shaped, one tool I saw used in more than one video is the sand and water slurry and a grinding wheel. Beyond that, the secrets of the agate masters carving techniques remains a mystery to me -- for now.

Here, look at this video, which, for all I know, explains things better than I do (It's a little muffled, you might have to turn the volume up):

 Then there's this one video where I saw this one guy use a grinding wheel to polish a magatama he was making, though he wasn't in Wakasa. (A magatama is a bead with all kinds of cultural context. Some are basically like one half a yin-yang symbol. Others are like a cross between that and a macaroni noodle.) See, I'll put it here:

Speaking of videos, there're also a few that show kids doing stuff to agates, one had them etching with razors, while another had them rubbing agates with sand paper. (Shaping them? Polishing them?). Both were at the Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum (kanji (and hiragana) thusly: 御食国若狭おばま食文化館. Not entirely sure how to pronounce all of it, and I'm not even gonna try.) It's right across from Obama castle (no presidents involved there either) -- and a tax collector's, and a courthouse for family cases. Hm... Is that terrible or brilliant planning?

Agate -- it's not just a type-o! (See cuz, agate/a gate... Look, I knew what I meant!)

Japan Heritage: Wakasa Province: A Cultural Heritage Linking the Seat to the ancient Capital: Miketsukuni and Saba-kaido Road: Cultural heritages linking the Japan Sea to Nara and Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan

As my lazy Japanese skills don't allow me to read things that are more complicated than "Kenji is seven years old. He likes cake." I don't know how much information I'm leaving out. This really applies to a significant portion of these references, but here's two I thought I'd point out, to those learning the language. So, yeah. Cheers!

Number one:

And number two:
御食国若狭おばま食文化館: ご利用案内

Oh, and here's where I got the Shōwa date. (He's got era names and dates too, and the transliterations and the kanji. And it's an site, which means it's academic and therefore official. Which makes this author happy.)