Monday, July 27, 2009

Japan Lite: Welcome to the Caldron

Fudomyo. (Photo from the Daruma-san blog)

By Amy Chavez

"Atsui desu, ne?" (It's hot, isn't it?) This is the universal summer greeting in Japan. You can be in a crowd of complete strangers when someone will sidle up to you and, as an "ice-breaker," say, "It's hot today, isn't it?" And you agree with, "So desu ne." (Yes, it is).

Since everyone knows the "Atsui desu, ne" greeting anyway, we could make the process a lot simpler by just giving the answer first. Wouldn't it be easier to greet each other with "So desu, ne?"

But there is much more behind "atsui desu, ne" than merely its annoying ubiquity and the fact that "It's scorching hot today, and I feel like I'm going to burst into flames any moment" would be far more accurate.

To the Japanese, it's just a statement of how things are, not necessarily a complaint. And the Japanese, not being the hairy beasts that we Westerners are, are perhaps more comfortable being hot.

Even on the hottest days you can see men walking around in suits and women in long sleeves, gloves and long pants. The Japanese continue to take hot baths even in the summertime. To them, "atsui desu, ne" is merely stating a fact.

Welcome to the caldron.

You see, fire plays an important part in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto rituals. Whereas Westerners might equate fire and heat with hell, in Japan, fire is used for purification.

There are goma fire-burning ceremonies and hiwatari ceremonies where people walk over hot coals. There is the "sacred flame" in Reikado Hall in Miyajima that is said to have been lit by Kobo Daishi 1,200 years ago.

At Obon, ancestors are welcomed with fire (mukaebi) and at the end of Obon are sent off with fire (okuribi).

Kyoto is one of the hottest places in western Japan, and possibly all of Thailand. This must have been a factor when choosing Kyoto to build so many of Japan's famous temples and shrines.

In August, Kyoto celebrates the Daimonji okuribi with five fires on five different mountains to ward off illness.

Since fire is a way of purifying, next time you're all sweaty and about to pass out from the heat, think of yourself instead as merely on your way to reaching purification.

To reach that pure inflamed state we have to raise our body temperature as much as possible. If your skin starts sizzling in the sun, I'm pretty sure you have attained enlightenment.

Indeed, the high temperatures make you seriously consider the meaning of burnables and nonburnables in Japan. With temperatures in the high 30s, sometimes even 40 C, almost anything can self-ignite. You start looking suspiciously at vacant lots — I could swear there was a building there just last week, you think, while looking at a few remaining smoldering embers.

Whenever I travel by train in the summertime, I consciously seek out the fire extinguisher in the train car just in case the guy sitting next to me should suddenly burst into flames. It's a wonder Japan doesn't distribute personal fire extinguishers to people when the temperature gets over 40 degrees.

On these really hot days, keep an eye out for Fudomyo, the Buddhist deity. You can recognize him because he'll be coming at you with a sword in one hand and a rope in the other. Oh, and he'll also be engulfed in flames. Really.

Fudomyo is always depicted with "flames of wisdom" around him. These flames purify you by burning away your material desires.

So there you go, desires are burnable. Fudomyo is nonburnable. Demons are also nonburnable, which is why Fudomyo holds a rope in one hand — to catch the demons with.

Whenever the temperature surpasses 40, you can just feel Fudomyo's presence. He's probably just around the corner.

Concrete, on the other hand, doesn't burn, which is why there is so much of it in Japan. Japan is possibly the world's first nonburnable country. That's why you never hear about out-of-control wildfires in Japan.

So, stop complaining and enjoy the heat! Let it purify you. But if you reach spiritual combustion, then don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Japan Lite: Putting the bugs out to sea

It's pouring down rain, so we haven't opened the Moooo! Bar yet today. If it clears a bit in the afternoon, we'll open. In the meantime, I thought I'd share with you my most recent Japan Lite column from the Japan Times. This one is about our Mushi Okuri festival on the island a couple weeks ago. Enjoy!

The Japan Times, Japan Lite, Saturday, July 18, 2009

Putting the Bugs out to Sea

By Amy Chavez

Last weekend, we threw all the bad insects off our island in a ceremony called Mushi Okuri (seeing off of the insects). The island people didn’t exactly kick the insects off the island, but rather, they asked them to leave. Leave it to the Japanese to be so polite as to assist the insects to the water’s edge, put them into a special insect boat, and wave bye-bye. It’s a wonder they didn’t send them off with cash envelopes.

This annual sayonara party is a folkloric tradition going back hundreds of years. It starts at 9:30 am at the island temple with much chanting and praying. Then, a small wooden boat is lifted off the altar and the island people march it around the island displaying it among the fields and gardens along the way in the hopes that the insects will jump at the chance for a free boat ride.

This grand sayonara party takes place during the rainy season, when most insects are out strolling in the nice, damp weather. It is an optimal time for advertising a free boat ride.

At the head of this procession is the insect caller, 68 year-old Harada-san, who sings out the names of the insects one by one and tells them to go back to where they came from. This is a special song that the insects find irresistible, and thus are easily duped into believing they should get into the boat.

In the mountains of Japan, I’ve heard that during the mushi okuri ceremony, they “return” the insects to the next village’s field. But not here. Here, it is believed the insects come from Kyoto. Yes Kyoto! So they are told to go back there.

Now would not be a good time to visit Kyoto. The city must be buzzing with insects from the countryside flying around haphazardly trying to adjust to the big city.

But apparently, free boat rides to Kyoto are a very effective way of getting rid of insects. If it wasn’t, I’m sure my neighbors would have given up doing this hundreds of years ago. Not all insects are asked to leave, mind you, just the bad ones. The good ones are allowed to stay.

What’s the difference between a good insect and a bad insect? Plenty.

Although most people call all bugs insects, in Japan, you have two kinds of bugs: insects and outsects. The insects are the ones in your in-group and they live inside your house. Like relatives, you may not like them but you must tolerate them. Ants, roaches, and mosquitoes are examples.

The bugs outside of your house are, naturally, not called insects but outsects. The outsects are those in your out-group, and those outside your comfort zone—things that make you go “Whoa!!” Centipedes, geji-geji, and giant hairy spiders are examples. These outsects should never be trusted. However, they sometimes make it into your house and become insects until you exterminate them or throw them back out.

Outsects also include garden pests that ruin crops and termites who eat houses. The outsects are led by the geji-geji, a fearsome, disgusting leader with multiple limbs. If you think centipedes are unpleasant, then geji-geji are totally yucky wucky.

But there is something admirable about the outsects. They are fighters: they bite, they sting, and they jump like ninjas. They are instilled with the samurai fighting spirit. Thus they are feared by humans.

Imagine for a moment, what you could do with a geji-geji in your house. They are absolutely disgusting. And they know it. So the next time you have too many houseguests, just call on the geji-geji. They’ll clear your house of all humans in a matter of seconds. People will flee for their lives yelling, “Whoa!!”

After the Mushi Okuri festival, and the bad insects had safely set sail for Kyoto, Harada-san came to the Moooo! Bar for a drink. He lamented that he was the only one trained to sing the song to the insects to summons them to the boat. “When I am gone,” he said, “there will be nobody to take over the job.”

“Ah, don’t worry, Harada-san, I’ll do it for you,” I told him. He was so happy to think the tradition might survive, that he led the entire bar in a spontaneous rehearsal of the song.

After much practice, I think I’ve finally got it down too. I just hope the bugs don’t hear the “Whoa!!” that I put into the refrain.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shiraishi Bon Dance July 18

Come dance with the locals at the Shiraishi Odori (dance) this Saturday!

On Saturday, July 18, there is a special performance of the Shiraishi Bon dance. If anyone would like to learn the dance, come on out as the locals will be teaching it to tourists on the beach. It is an evening event. The locals will be dressed in the traditional costumes and there will be the taiko drum master bellowing out the song while the sun sets in the background. It's a great event for photos as the sun sets over the sea while the dance is performed on the beach (see photo above).

The Shiraishi Odori is one of Japan's "Bon" dances and is a designated one of Japan's Important Cultural Treasures. It is danced by the locals at Obon during the Festival of the Dead in August to appease the souls of the fallen Heike warriors of the Genpei War during the sea battle at Dan no Ura as told in the story of The Heike Monogatari. The dance has been performed every year for over 700 years.

The performance this Saturday is a special performance to give people a chance to preview it and try it themselves. About 200 people will attend the event.

Come join us!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Opening of the Sea ceremony

We're gearing up for a great weekend at the Moooo! Bar. This is the official opening weekend of the beach, which is launched with the "Opening of the Sea" ceremony (umibiraki) On Sunday. We'll have over 50 yachts coming for the annual Shiraishi Yacht Race on Sunday as well, so starting Saturnday night, the parties will begin! In addition, on Sunday morning there will be a Shinto-Buddhist ceremony to throw all the bad insects off the island (including the termites!) .

See you all this weekend on the island! Mooooooooooooo!
Site Meter