Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rika's Shichi-Go-San(七五三), 7-5-3 Ceremony

We just finished taking pictures for Rika's Shichi-Go-San(7-5-3) ceremony. In Japan, kids have a ceremony at the shrine and take studio photos to celebrate certain ages. This tradition comes from the Heian period. originally only for royalty. Boys are celebrated at the ages of 3 and 5. Girls at the ages of 3 and 7. In general, odd numbers are considered lucky in Japan. One reason is that they can't be divided equally. Such is the superstition at weddings, one should never give a gift of even numbers. The age of 3 was traditionally when children received their first haircut. Boys started wearing their first "boy clothes" at 5 years old. Prior to this, boys and girls dressed pretty much the same. At 7, girls wore a kimono and for the first time with the traditional obi belt. These ages were milestones and signified taking one step closer to adulthood. In the Meiji period, this became a tradition for the masses. Today, kids take picture at photo studios and renting kimonos before going to the shrine. This is usually done around November.

We did ours in two days. It was Rika's first time and she was the main event, but we decided to do both girls for convenience. Rika actually turns 4 tomorrow and Hana turns 7 next February. The first day the girls wore traditional kimonos and took pictures at the studio and then we visited Kanda Shrine for the ceremony. This is pretty famous shrine in Yonago, especially for New Years and is also where Junko and I had our wedding ceremony.

For the ceremony, we all sit down in the shrine facing the alter. The priest first waves a staff with paper lightning shapes to purify us. Then he plays the drums to awaken the Kami spirit residing in the yasiro building behind the alter. He then kneels before the alter and reads from a white folded paper for this particular ceremony. At the appropriate time, he reads the names of those the ceremony is being done for. He not only gives their names, but must read the address. The Kami has to know who the person is and where exactly they live. He bows again and claps, finishing the rites. Afterward, the girls received wooden arrow good luck charms and long, thick stick candy that represents growing up straight and healthy. We went back to the studio to return the kimono for Rika and we had lunch at a family restaurant., a rare occasion for the Winters.

The second day, we went back to the studio and the girls took pictures with western dresses and played princess. They had a grand time and both looked great. Rika especially is a natural in front of the camera. The photos are not cheap and photo studios make a lot of  money at this time of year. I post more pictures when we get them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Travel Shimane: Adachi Museum of Art, The Best Japanese Garden in the World

Where is the best Japanese garden in the world? It must be in Kyoto, right? Wrong! Then, of course, it has to be in Tokyo. Try again. The best Japanese garden in the world is at Adachi Museum of Art, in the small town of Yasugi, in Shimane prefecture of western Japan. How do I know this? It’s about 40 minutes from my house and also my wife’s hometown. I live in Yonago. It’s a city of about 150,000 people at the western boarder of Tottori Prefecture and is the second largest city. Yasugi is near the eastern boarder of Shimane Prefecture, with about 43,000 people. This is a pretty rural area for Japan. Japanese gardens are ranked by the Journal of Japanese Gardening which evaluates gardens worldwide. Most of the top ten gardens are in Kyoto, but the number one spot for six years in a row is the garden at Adachi Museum. This is in part due to the museum’s constant trimming schedule that involves all the staff. The museum’s founder Adachi Zenko travelled throughout Japan, collecting rocks and plants for the garden. There are a total of six gardens, covering 165, 000 square meters. The garden can be enjoyed all year and has a distinct look in each season. The museum regularly hosts apprentices from all over the world to study gardening. One of my former students was a manager there and went to New York to give a presentation on the gardens. The museum even bought up the mountains behind the gardens to preserve and ensure the pristine look of the garden.

The museum is worth a visit for the garden, but also has an excellent collection of art, highlighting the works of Yokoyama Taikan. I’m not an art connoisseur, but I remember looking at some paintings and I saw one that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was dark cliff, almost black except for a single strong stroke of white for the waterfall. I felt I could almost see the water moving and hear the sound of the waterfall. It was a queer feeling. Another memorable piece was a sculpture of an old wise man. He had the most uncomfortable gaze, as if he were looking right into your soul. There is also a special tea room with a “living scroll painting” which is a rectangular window with a frame that overlooks the garden. Tickets to the museum are not cheap however; 2,200 yen, or more than twenty dollars. But one good thing is that Yasugi residents get free tickets from the local government once a year.

Go here for more information and great pictures of the gardens:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Travel in Shimane, Japan: The God Tree Sutaji(スタジイ)

The God Tree

 When one thinks of Japan, one of the first images to come to mind is of Japanese temples and shrines. These are often set in the mountains and surrounded by beautiful trees. Many of the older, larger trees in and around shrines are venerated as god trees. There is not a god living inside the tree. The tree itself is a god. They are marked by ceremonial ropes and regularly prayed to. The trees one most often sees are cedars. They grow tall, straight and true as an arrow. They stand as majestic sentinels surrounding the shrines.

The god tree Sutaji near Matsue however, is something all together different.

From the rather large parking area, the tree is not visible, but it overlooks a group of rice fields. In the distance, you can see a distinctive Torii gate set against a mountain which marks the entrance to a shrine. Everything is bright and sunny. You follow a small path between the rice fields and ascend a short flight of stairs. After passing through the Torii gate however, you are plunged into darkness. The air is cool and damp, the bright sun a fading memory. There is a clearing with woods in the background beyond. You turn and see the tree. It is quite impressive. The tree’s “trunk” base is 3 meters(10 feet)high and 11.4 meters(37 feet) wide and is surrounded by a wooden fence. There are 9 branch stems, one of which has long since died. The tree is some 20 meters (65 feet) high. Sutaji does not grow up so much as out. Its most impressive feature is its impossibly thick and heavy branches, each of which would make a respectable tree. They are so big in fact that many of them are supported by wooden beams. These immense branches span out in all directions like the tentacles of some uprooted monster. You soon realize the tree is all around you. Its entire surface is twisted and knarled. This is no cedar. Actually there is no convenient English name for what kind of tree it is. In Japanese it is a “shee” tree. The dictionary calls it a Pasania and is part of the beech family. It is sometimes referred to as a “stone oak” and has an acorn-like nut, but is actually an evergreen. It is approximately 300 years old, which is relatively young compared to other famous trees in Japan Other large Sutaji like trees peer at you from the surrounding woods.

 In the crook of one of the large branches you see a strange shape of woven reeds. This is the head of the serpent. There are ceremonial papers hanging that resemble teeth. There is a long woven rope that is wrapped around the base of the tree. Near the tree is a very small shrine called Shitabi Jinja. Every year on November 9th there is a harvest festival at the shrine. It is a time to give thanks to Sutaji for the harvest and pray for the following year. The villagers weave a 45 meter (147 feet) long snake rope from straw reeds and wrap it around the base. The decaying corpses of previous year’s snakes can be seen at the foot of the tree. I’m not exactly sure about the history or meaning behind the serpent, but it is probably associated with the story of Yamata no Orochi. This is one of the great stories of Japanese mythology. The hot headed god-hero Susanoo is expelled from heaven and lands in the province of Izumo. Izumo city is not far from Matsue and Izumo was the old name of the kingdom of this area. Susano is enshrined at Kumano Taisha, not far from Sutaji and is said to be the spot where Susano landed. In the story, Susano fights and defeats a huge eight-headed dragon (Orochi). The story is reminiscent of the battle between Hercules and the hydra. With its unusual shape, Sutaji conjures up images of the Orochi with 8 thick, snake like appendages coming out of one central base.

When visiting Sutaji or other great trees, it begs a chicken or the egg type question; which came first, the tree or the shrine. Ideally, one assumes that a presence was felt at the tree, it was somehow special and a shrine was built close by. One the other hand, it probably wouldn’t have been left alone to grow so big if it hadn’t been growing on holy ground in the first place. In the city, or going by the fields on a train, if you see a particularly large tree, you can bet it’s on the grounds of a shrine or temple.

I’m not an overly superstitious person and am a lover of nature and great trees, but there is something not quite right about the place. In my minds eye, Sutaji is not a benevolent god and I jokingly wonder if it is worshipped out of respect or fear. I’m sure that Sutaji is beloved by the local people; a matter of local pride. But for me, it’s just a little bit creepy, which makes it all the more interesting. I’d love to visit again.

Getting there

Matsue city is about 45 minutes west of yonago on the eastern side of Shimane prefecture. Shitabi Jinja and Sutaji are about 30 min. south of Matsue, off of route 432, in Yakumo-mura village. The parking lot opposite the shrine was built with busses in mind, so there may be bus service from Matsue station. It would make an interesting day trip if you were staying in Matsue; worth taking a look.

Japanese Links

Shimane Prefecture- Sutaji Sutaji

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A funny Joke

"The luckiest man will have an English house, a French cook, American salary and a Japanese wife.

The unluckiest man will have a Japanese house, an English cook, French salary and an American wife."

There's a cool, wacky site I found about Japan. The guy had this joke, I couldn't stop laughing.

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