Saturday 30 March 2019

End of an Era at Meiji Shrine: Giant Torii, Sacred Sake, and Horns of Jealousy

Blossom for soon-to-be-empress Princess Masako

Here in Japan, as the sakura bloom, many are eagerly awaiting the announcement of the new era name as the current emperor prepares to abdicate (Just announced - the new name is Reiwa=令和). As well as the Western calendar, Japan also has its own calendar known as the nengō (年号) system; in modern times this has corresponded with the name of an imperial era. So the Heisei era (as the current period is known) started with the accession of the current emperor Akihito in January 1989 and will end on April 30 2019 - the 31st year of Heisei - when he abdicates in favour of Crown Prince Naruhito. Interestingly, during his reign the emperor is never called by his name but only as emperor (ten'nō=天皇); after his reign he will be referred to as Emperor Heisei (平成天皇). Thus, if you ask a Japanese the real name of a current or former emperor most will not know.

The custom of posthumously naming an Emperor after the era during which they ruled began after the death of the Emperor Meiji in 1912 (film buffs may remember the very young emperor portrayed in The Last Samurai). The Emperor Meiji is enshrined - but not buried - in Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū=明治神宮) which boasts 100,000 trees right in the centre of Tokyo, just a stone's throw from Harajuku Station. The shrine was finished in 1920, burnt down during World War II, and rebuilt in 1958. The giant torii gate at the entrance to the shrine complex must be one of the most photographed places in Tokyo. As you walk into the shrine, there are more of these imposing gates, including the Ōtorii (大鳥居) Grand Shrine Gate which at 12m tall is the biggest wooden torii in Japan. It is made of 1500 year old Japanese cypress (hinoki) and if you look carefully, you will also see branches with sakaki leaves tied to the bottom of the gates, a species of evergreen sacred to Shinto.

Talking of things sacred to Shinto, sake (rice wine) is high on the list. Walking through the shrine precinct you will come across a giant wall of refined sake (seishu=清酒) barrels wrapped in straw which are given as offerings every year by the Sake Brewers Association. A little further on you will come to the Meiji Memorial Hall where the Meiji Constitution was signed; Shinto weddings (shinzen kekkon =神前結婚) are also performed here (if you have enough money!). (Ceremonial) sake drinking is a key part of the ceremony, specifically the drinking of three cups three times (nan-nan-san-ku-do). The evergreen mentioned earlier also features, with the priest offering some to the altar near the end of the ceremony.
These two giant 'husband and wife' camphor trees planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of the emperor have become a symbol of happy marriage and harmonious life within the family
The day I visited I was lucky enough to see a wedding procession headed by the Shinto priests (note the amagutsu footwear) followed by two shrine maidens (miko) and the bride and groom. Note the bride's white paper headwear, known as a tsuno-kakushi (角隠し) or "horn hider". The meaning of this is rather unclear, but in Japan if someone is angry people often gesture with index fingers making horns on the head. Thus, the "horn hider" seems to mean that wives should suppress any anger/jealousy and be obedient to their husband! For those of you who assume this is the 'traditional' gender role, be careful: the Shinto marriage ceremony and indeed many of the social norms relating to how wives and mothers 'should' act are recent inventions, created after the beginning of the Meiji era.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Yoyogi Park: Cherry Trees, Rockabilly Dancing, and Counting Crows

There's still a slight chill in the air in the mornings and evenings - northern Japan had blizzards last week - but the cherry trees are coming into bloom right now. The next week or two will be the best time for holding a blossom viewing 'hanami' party and one of the most convenient places to have your picnic in Tokyo is Yoyogi Park which has over 600 trees plus food and drink stalls.

Yoyogi Park is just a short walk from Harajuku Station, next to Meiji Shrine (to be featured in the next post!). It is one of the largest, most spacious parks in Tokyo (134 acres), with ponds, forested areas, fountains, gardens, statues, a dog run, a bird sanctuary, and bike paths: expect to see joggers, dog walkers, yoga circles, dance groups, cyclists, musicians, jugglers, kite flyers, frisbee throwers, tai-chi classes, and much more! Another thing you'll definitely see are crows - hundreds of them. There's seven in the picture below: according to the superstition of counting crows that means either a secret, a mystery, or a curse!
Yoyogi only officially became a park in 1967: before that it was a military parade ground (pre-war), US military barracks (post-war), and then main athletes village for the 1964 Olympics. A legacy of its military past is the marvellous 'Pine Tree of Imperial Troop Review' (えっぺいしき=閲兵式). The sign below the 12m tree tells us that this was the spot where the emperor would stand when reviewing the troops and giving the imperial salute. There is certainly a special regality to the tree, especially when the trunk is wrapped in a rice-straw mat in winter as the Japanese do to protect trees not from the cold but from harmful insects (the practice is known as komo-maki =菰巻き). The mat is burnt - full of insects - typically at the end of February.

Finally, a post on Yoyogi Park wouldn't be complete without mentioning the rockabilly dancers (ロックンローラー族) who gather outside the Harajuku Gate on (some) Sundays to drink, dance, and listen to 50s rock 'n' roll music. Both young and old, dressed in leather and denim, wearing sunglasses, and sporting quiffs and slicked back hair (men) and pony tails (women), it's fascinating to see a thriving sub-culture in the heart of the capital. One of Australia's best known bands, 5SOS, was so inspired that they wrote a multi-platinum song, Youngblood, accompanied by a fantastic video shot in Tokyo featuring some of the Japanese twisters. Performances are unscheduled but if you're unlucky enough to miss them, check out the video below for a taste of what you missed!

Friday 1 March 2019

A Mask Wearing Culture: Hay Fever Fashion

In England I never wore a mask, never really saw others wearing masks, and didn't notice any masks on sale. Japan is very different: masks are everywhere from commuters on the Yamanote Line to hikers in the countryside, from students to the elderly. There are multiple reasons Japanese wear masks. Among young women, it is often a sign that they got up too late to apply make-up! However, in general the reasons often depend on the season. 

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During winter they are used to prevent catching a cold or the flu or to stop it spreading to others if you have been unlucky to catch one. Coughing or sneezing on a crowded commuter train without a mask will result in a quick social death. The air is also very dry at this time of year so wearing a mask is a good way to prevent a sore throat (especially so if you keep the heater on while you sleep at night). In the spring, Asian dust or yellow sand (kōsa =黄砂) carrying pollutants and particulates like PM 2.5 blows over from China and other countries (Kyushu is especially affected), so masks are used to filter this out. At this time of the year, though, probably the most common reason for wearing a mask is hay fever (known as kafunshō=花粉症).

As the cold snap switched abruptly into unseasonably warm weather, the start of hay fever season was officially announced on February 18th (when cedar pollen started to fully diffuse into the air). The media has been full of dire warnings that this year will be especially miserable for the one in four Japanese who suffer from hay fever, with the amount of cedar pollen in the air even in Tokyo forecast to be as much as four times higher than last year. Part of the reason cedar (sugi=杉) pollen is such a problem can be traced back to after World War II which saw mass planting of the fast-growing trees to aid the post-war construction boom. Cedar pollen is expected to continue until mid-March in eastern and western Japan and that is followed by hinoki or Japanese cypress pollen: the trees produce huge amounts of of tiny, super-light pollen grains which when inhaled can cause severe allergic reactions. While cedar and cypress are the main culprits, as the chart below shows the pollen (kafun=花粉)calendar runs through to October and includes multiple kinds of allergens, even including rice plants (ine =稲). See here for a more detailed regional calendar with pictures.
Comparing with the UK, we can see a similar patten with tree pollen in the spring (red in the chart), and grass and weed from summer to autumn (green in the chart). The main culprit in the UK though is grass which peaks in June: cedar and cypress are no-where to be found.

Magazines and TV have been full of cleaning tips for reducing pollen in the home: wipe rather than vacuum floors, dry futons and clothes inside (or outside early in the morning), brush (harai=払い) clothes after coming home, and use air purifiers. Allergies are big business in Japan. As well as masks, products on sale include anti-pollen glasses that also claim to prevent lenses from fogging up, nose plugs, nasal sprays, and portable air purifiers small enough to be worn around the neck. But it is the masks that are the big-sellers and in recent years these have become something of a fashion item too, with different styles (black or flower-printed masks anyone?) to fruit-scented ones and even masks taped directly to the cheeks. The other day I visited a "pop-up shop" in Ometesando Hills by Pitta Mask which has been promoting masks as a fashion accessory; the shop had a section offering advice on how to coordinate masks by colour and size with your clothes!