Saturday, February 27, 2010

Japanese Igloo Festival - Kamakura Matsuri

Japanese Igloo Festival
Kamakura Matsuri

Kamakura Matsuri - Japanese Igloo Festival in the northern Japanese city of Yokote

In the small city of Yokote in northern Japan, the citizens eschew the modern conveniences of warm homes in the middle of February and pile into small snow huts known as Kamakura. It's the Kamakura Matsuri and they've been doing this for over 400 years.

Sori - old fashion sled for transporting toddlers and supplies


Kamakura occupants wearing old fashion hanten coats or donbuku in the Akita dialect

These Kamamura-style igloos are two meters in diameter made of piled-up snow which is then later hollowed out. Inside is a charcoal brazier in the middle to keep the place warm. The temporary inhabitants of these Kamakura sit on cushions while cooking sweet mochi which is a type of a chewy rice cake and heating up a type of non-alcoholic sweet-tasting type of sake known as amazake.




On the far side wall is a makeshift altar to Suijin-sama, the Shinto god of water. One of the origins of the festival is that one time Yokote suffered from a lack of drinking water and the Kamakura were erected to get Suijin-sama's attention. Suijin-sama's attention is also requested in the form of rain in order to provide enough water for the coming planting season.




Visitors are invited to enter the Kamakura and freely partake of the mochi and amazake. Many of the occupants of the Kamakura are rather short. This is due to the fact that many local children play house in the snow huts. They are the hosts and hostesses which explains why it's hard to find hot sake or beer in many of the Kamakura. The ones with bigger inhabitants will sometimes have the necessary liquid refreshment.

Cooking mochi



In addition to the charcoal braziers, the locals stay warm by wearing a straw cape called mino and a traditional winter coat known as a hanten. Hanten is a short winter coat with thick cotton padding which became popular in the 18th Century. In the Akita dialect it is called a donbuku or donbugu by older generations.


Yokote Castle 


Most of the Kamakura snow huts can hold up to about 4-6 people but at the end of the evening I ended up in one that held 17 people! These were all full grown people so there was booze a-plenty leaving me very warm that cold night but with a raging headache the next morning.




The Kamakura Festival is a simple but beautiful festival and it's very friendly and inviting. The festival is held every year February 15th and 16th from 6pm to 9pm.

Hundreds of miniature kamakura dot the city of Yokote


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Modern Japanese Ghouls Hold a ‘Grudge’ – film review


“The Grudge,” based on the more distinguished Japanese film “Ju-on,” is light on plot but garners a 4 out of 5 on the Scare-O-Meter.
©2005 Sony

Japan has a long, ghostly tradition with beings from beyond the grave. Many of the ghosts that appear in plays and stories are females seeking revenge for wrongs done to them during their lifetimes, typically by cruel, heartless husbands. 

In the old ghost stories, vengeful Japanese ghosts would continue to haunt their victims until they went insane, died, or at least made some form of restitution to appease the angry spirits. 

Some Japanese ghosts were born out of tragedy or sorrow and would haunt any person who came near. These spirits were particularly feared because they represented a danger to all unless they were somehow put to rest.

Although I knew about the horrific nature of old Japanese ghosts, I had thought modern Japanese ghosts would be more polite and demur. I had imagined a modern Japanese ghost timidly coming up to someone and saying “Sumimasen (Excuse me)! BOO! Gomen nasai (I’m sorry)!” before whisking away. “The Grudge” (2004) showed me how wrong I was about modern Japanese phantoms.

©2005 Sony

Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar of TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame, “The Grudge” depicts a haunting by very impolite spirits. Gellar plays an American student nurse in Tokyo who accidentally gets involved with a haunted house that has the nasty habit of killing visitors. The ghosts of the house were victims of a tragedy and now they rudely kill anyone who comes in contact with them. 

The spirits’ motivation for killing is explained at the beginning of the film in a brief written prologue, which states: “When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is left behind.”

For Western audiences it may seem unusual that the two main ghostly antagonists who having been innocent victims of a violent death themselves would seek to cause the death of another innocent person. In many Western stories, ghosts are often motivated by the same things as living people namely the pursuit of justice for wrongdoings. The ghost of a murdered person will seek vengeance on the person or persons responsible for their death.

If a ghost is malevolent, it often turns out they were a bad person in life — as in the back-story to the main ghost character in the “Poltergeist” (1982-1986) movies.

To understand the nature of the supernatural entity of “The Grudge,” one has to understand Japanese belief in spirits and the supernatural.

In the book “Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends” by Michiko Iwasaka, there is a passage which is a direct echo of the opening lines of the movie:

“Anyone who dies under great emotional stress creates an energy which is not easily dissipated; these yurei [ghosts], thus, have an impact on the local environment…”

This type of spirit is called a “goryo” — vengeful ghost. A goryo, however, is less like a consciously aware ghost that plots revenge and would be more familiar to Western audiences. A goryo is more like the energy of the emotion created at the time of death. And to some degree it represents the unconscious mind free of the limitations and morals of the conscious analytic side.

©2005 LionsGate

Formal belief in goryo can be traced to the Heian Period (794-1185) when goryo were thought to be the angry spirits of political enemies that had died in exile or had been executed. 

The noted scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane became one suchgoryo. Through guileful manipulations, his enemies at the Imperial Court engineered his banishment from Kyoto. Sugawara died in extreme sorrow while in exile. Shortly after his death, a number of natural disasters occurred from droughts and epidemics to lightening strikes, which were believed to be caused by the angry spirit of Sugawara. 

To appease his goryo, Sugawara was given a ceremonial promotion at the Imperial Court and eventually he was made into a god-spirit whom modern-day students pray to for success on their exams.

Goryo were vengeful spirits from the aristocracy who like Sugiwara have the power to affect the very seasons. Another more commonly experienced type was onryo. While less powerful than thegoryo, the onryo were the ghosts that kept Japanese of then and now frightened out of their wits. Onryo are typically depicted with wild unkempt hair in a white burial kimono.

Although onryo could be either male or female, the most popular onryo were women. Often powerless while in life, these female onryo wielded great power in death. They would wreak vengeance on husbands and lovers who spurned or hurt them in life usually by driving them mad with fear.

Director Takashi Shimizu has built on this old concept to create a deadly onryo of a very frightening ghostly mother and son duo. “The Grudge” is an American remake of the original Japanese thriller “Ju-on” (2003). “Ju-on” is Shimizu’s horror franchise that grew out of a short TV story to become a successful and scary theater-release movie which was followed by a sequel. Famed “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi, who helped produce the American remake, thought “Ju-on” to be one of the scariest movies he had ever seen.

Jason Behr and Sarah Michelle Gellar stare down a ghoul in “The Grudge.”
©2005 Sony

“The Grudge” opened in America during the Halloween season last fall but it has only recently opened in Japan. One notable difference is the inclusion of a few extra violent moments that were left out in the American version in order for the movie to keep a PG-13 rating in the States. 

Overall there’s not much of story. Some people die, then some other people die. Most of the film is just one scare after another, with little character development or plot. “The Grudge” is more like a series of creepy vignettes strung together to make a film. However, these vignettes are quite scary. It’s the cultural nuance of the goryo/onryo-type spirit that “The Grudge” represents and the genuinely frightening moments that makes the film an interesting experience for Japanophiles and horror fans alike.

On the Scare-O-Meter, “The Grudge” rates about 4 out 5 screams.
On plot, it rates about 2 stars out of 5; however the concept behind the movie rates about a 4.


This is a film review I originally did for OhMyNews, an online Korean newspaper, back in 2005. I’ve included a video review of the Ju-on series by the late Rodger Swan.

Gods, Devils, and Geisha - Setsubun in Kyoto

Gods, Devils, and Geisha
Setsubun in Kyoto and Nara

A Devil arrives with sword and torch at a Buddhist Temple in Kyoto

Setsubun (Feb 3rd) is a Japanese Spring ritual where Japanese drive bad luck in the form of Oni (devils) out of their homes with a handful of tossed beans. At temples and shrines, they do mame maki which is throwing beans and other things to gathered crowds.

Mame Maki (bean-throwing) with Geisha

Setsubun is one of my favorite Japanese holidays and I've been celebrating it for the past 6 years or more. In the past I always celebrated it at temples and shrines in or around Tokyo. This year I headed for Kyoto taking in Nara in the evening as well. I started Setsubun on the 2nd with some Geisha mame maki (geisha were throwing beans that is, not that they were throwing geisha).

On February 2nd, while Americans watch groundhogs watching for their shadows, Japanese, or at least those in Kyoto, watch Geisha throw beans to gathered crowds at Yasaka Shrine. The Geisha actually are maiko who are Geisha apprentices. There were two groups of maiko, one from the Pontocho district and the other from the Miyagawacho district. Before doing mame maki they graced us with a brief dance performance - a rare treat.

In the evening I went to Mibu-dera, a temple famous for its association with the Shinsengumi, a militaristic police group for the old Shogunate in the mid-19th Century, and for kyogen plays. Kyogen is type of comical play which was often performed as intermission pieces of more serious Noh dramas. Unfortunately for the visitor, no photography or video making was allowed. This was either to protect the performance or to keep away the distraction of camera shutters clicking, video cameras beeping, and those idiots who don't know how to turn off the flash on their pocket cameras.

Setsubun Devils are distinguishable by their horns and fetching tiger pants

Mibu-dera put on a special Setsubun kyogen for the occasion about a widow who encounters a Setsubun devil. The widow is visited by a devil in the guise of a traveler. He has a magic hammer which he makes an expensive kimono for himself and the widow. They begin drinking sake and the devil drinking too much falls asleep. The widow gets greedy and decides to make off with the hammer and kimono. As she strips away the "traveler's" kimono she sees his true self and screams. The devil awakes and comes after her. Panicked, the widow reaches for the first thing to defend herself and throws it at the devil. What she threw at him was dried soybeans, the traditional beans of Setsubun. Devils hate beans for some reason and so the widow was able to drive the devil away. It was easy to understand the story despite my limited Japanese because it was all done through pantomime.

On the next day, Setsubun proper, I went to six places starting with Yasaka Shrine for a brief mame maki by people in old court costumes from the Heian Era (794-1192). The men wore a kariginu, the everyday wear of a court noble, which would later become the formal wear of the samurai in later ages. The women wore the costume of a Shirabyoshi dancer. Shirabyoshi were female dancers who wore men's clothing and performed slow rhythmic dances that influenced later Noh performers. The Shirabyoshi tradition began in 12th Century, the last century of the Heian Period and until 1868 the last century in which governmental power would reside within the Imperial Court.

Mame Maki participants wearing old court costumes

From Yasaka, I made use of my all day bus pass and leapt onto a northbound bus to Heian Shrine. Heian Shrine was built just over a hundred years ago as a replica of the old Imperial Palace. There I got a snatch of a Kyogen performance which thankfully allowed photography and video. What caught my attention was that one of the performers was female. Traditionally Kyogen like Kabuki and Noh was performed solely by males including the female roles. As this was a festival performance perhaps the rules were relaxed.

Kyogen Performers

From Heian Shrine I went to Shogo-In, a temple which normally lies off of the tourist trail as there is not much to lend itself to fame amongst so many other temples. However, this small temple puts on one of the more interesting Setsubun rituals. The priests dress as Yamabushi, which are a type of ascetic hermit who are known for often living in the mountains following a creed which is a blend of Buddhism and the native Shintoism.

A brief snow flurry at Shogo-In Temple prior to the Setsubun exorcism

Yamabushi were mysterious hermits credited with having supernatural power

Yamabushi playing seashell horn

After a lengthy but catchy chanting ritual, three devils arrived wielding their massive iron-studded clubs. They were quickly subdued by bean-throwing Yamabushi and tamed into submission. Later the devils participated in mami maki by throwing the beans at us instead.

Setsubun Devils often wield huge iron-studded clubs

An elderly Yamabushi confronts a devil with courage and beans

Setsubun Devil throwing beans rather than having them thrown at him

At another small temple Rozan-ji, a temple far too small to accommodate the number of visitors that Setsubun brings, three devils arrived bearing weapons while another gave blessings to visitors.

A Setsubun Devil Bestowing Blessings

The weapon-bearing devils danced around before going into the temple. An archer came out sometime later to do a kind of archery exorcism ritual in which he shot untipped arrows in the four cardinal directions. Soon after the three devils emerged from the temple sans their weapons. They were staggering about reeling from the effects of the Setsubun exorcism rituals. After that mame maki was done and here they threw hard-shelled sweets and small mochi rice cakes.

Archer performing archery exorcism ritual

A Devil going down for the coun

After that I took a train to Nara and got there in time to see yet another Setsubun exorcism demonstration in the evening. Nara was the first capital of Japan from 710-784. At Kofuku-ji Temple another lengthy exorcism ritual took place while the crowd shifted restlessly waiting for the main event namely the devils. The crowd was silently shouting in their minds "Get on with it! Bring on the Devils!" as the priests droned on. Finally after an eternity of waiting, the devils arrived both big and small. They pranced about the stage under the night sky waving torches and weapons.

L'il Devil

Here the devils were apparently too tough to be defeated by just mere beans. At Kofuku-ji, they brought out the big guns in the form of Bishamonten or Bishamon, a Buddhist deity and Guardian of the North. Bishamon battles all kinds of evils. North is the direction where Japanese traditionally believe evils come from so the Northern Guardian has to be pretty stout to deal with them. Bishamon took on all the devils by himself. It was like spiritual pro-wrestling with (plastic) weapons.

Bishamon – the Muhammad Ali of Buddhist Devil Fighterscostumes

After that I went to Kasuga Taisha Shrine for a cool down. The shrine's Setsubun was far more low-key. No gods, devils, geisha, mountain priests, or grasping hands for flying beans. They just had lanterns lit up for the night. It was very beautiful and serene. Whew! After all that I was Setsubuned Out!

Kasuga Taisha Shrine


About Me

My photo
Tokyo, Japan
Vagabond traveler currently hold up in Tokyo. I've done a far bit of traveling and had a few interesting adventures along the way. This blog is a chronicle of adventures past and present and those yet to come. I’ve been to about 30 countries though some no bigger than a kitchen table. I’ve run with the bulls of Pamplona, hiked the Inca Trail, got mugged in Mexico City, floated down the Nile in an old boat, climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, got ripped at Oktoberfest, and rode the notorious Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Party Train.