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Monday, 8 February 2016

Swing yourself into good luck at Ana Hachiman-gū

I'm not superstitious. I firmly believe that chocolate ensures mental health and books bring eternal happiness, and that's why I gather as much of both as I can, but that's science, not superstition. Don't you dare argue with me.

That doesn't mean I don't find superstitions interesting. Anything that humankind applies to explain what it doesn’t understand yet – or should that be to understand what it can't explain yet? – any fire that the talking ape lights in an attempt to keep the darkness at bay interests me, be it religion, mythology, superstition or folktales.

Why are we always asking why? That's what I want to know. Anyway.

When I heard about a shrine in Waseda that has a "return of spring = change in fortune = swing from the negative to the positive" festival, complete with charms and whatnot, plus a quirky combination of astronomy and astrology, I toddled along.

It's held at Ana Hachiman-gū (穴八幡宮), and it’s called Ichiyō Raifuku (一陽来), literally the return of spring, figuratively a change in fortune. It starts on the winter solstice, 22 December, and continues until 3 February. That's Setsubun, which is the day before Risshun, which is the official start of spring according to Japan's traditional lunar calendar.

The main entrance of Ana Hachiman-gū. You can see a statue of a yabusame archer on the left.

Winter solstice is (scientific fact) the shortest day and longest night of the year when (wishful thinking) everything changes: cold becomes warmer, dark becomes brighter, and it must follow, as the night the day, that bad luck will become good luck.

Since the sun changes direction on the solstice, good luck also changes direction, but fear not! You can buy a charm that shows you exactly in which direction you should head to find good luck, the end of the rainbow, the nearest konbini that sells Smirnoff Ice. Presumably if you put this charm in your wallet, it will swing from empty to full.

Nothing to do with horses or lucky directions. I spotted him on the shrine's main gate and couldn't help smiling:
it's difficult to look fierce while holding a flower in your mouth. 

What amuses me about this particular charm is that winter solstice means only one thing in Japan: the real cold is about to begin, and the really bad "do I still have fingers?" freeze usually hits in February. Even longer days i.e. more sunshine is debatable, because from January to April it's one dismal grey day after another.

I also grinned when I realized that this year's lucky direction is 南微, pronounced nanbitō. That required a bit of Googling, and it turns out that these lucky directions are based on old Chinese astronomy (or astrology) rather than the Western cardinal directions. Nanbitō, as far as I can figure out, is halfway between south and south-south-east.

An explanation from the shrine's website

Not my personal lucky direction then, because that would be as the crow flies to London. 

No, what made me grin was imagining your average Tokyoite finding that direction. Rather tell them to stand in front of exit 43(b) at Shinjuku Station, next to 7-Eleven, and look across the street, between the koban on the right and one iPhone width to the left of the AKB-forty-whatnot billboard. Then they'll find it.

Older people might know where north it, because you don't sleep with your head in that direction – here be demons! – but the rest of the city? Ha bloody ha. Somehow I don't see them using these techniques.

I didn't buy my own charm because no way on this planet would I stand in a queue for two hours (yes, the shrine was that crowded), but I found this picture on the internet:

I've saved the best part for last. Horses! All Hachiman-gū shrines are dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and archery, but this Waseda shrine has particularly close links to yabusame, or horseback archery: in 1728, Tokugawa Yoshimune ordered the shrine to practice yabusame as a prayer to heal his sick son.

The shrine continues the ritual: every year on Sports Day (the second Monday in October), archers and their horses parade through the area and then have a contest in nearby Toyama Park. You can see a statue of an archer at the shrine's entrance, and two horse statues in its main gate.

Above and below: a statue of an archer and the horse statues in the main gate

Talking of the Tokugawa family, just next to Ana Hachiman-gū is a temple called Hōjō-ji (放生寺), where the famous family prayed for several generations. As a matter of fact, the temple sports the Tokugawa crest on its roof. Since it's so close to the shrine – you could refer to the two places of worship as fraternal twins – it also takes part in the Ichiyō Raifuku celebration. I've read that the cheerful faces on its roof (instead of the usual scowling demons) symbolize "the swing to the positive". See? They look positively beatific.

Smile forth, says I, and let us hope spring arrives soon. Despite the fact that we've been blessed with a warmish winter, my southern soul longs for spring and summer.

Soon. Please?

The torii at the shrine's side entrance is decorated with 10 000-year-old
turtles called mannengame, symbolizing a long life.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Everything in Japan is dangerous

Are you ready for my first rant grumble* of 2016?

* I added some art to turn this into an aesthetic treatise instead of mere kvetching. Ignore Ru being her usual impatient impolite impudent and also impecunious, since we're now im-ing, self and just look at the pretty pictures.

I'm not complaining about tertiary education yet; that irritation needs to cool down a bit. No, this is about Japan's obsession with "abunai" (dangerous) and its concomitant addiction to Predictability, Rules & Regulations.

Last weekend I walked to Yushima Tenjin. It's a profoundly silly thing to do during the New Year's period, since it's one of the busiest shrines in Tokyo thanks to gazillions of students asking its enshrined deity, Sugawara no Michizane, for success in the school entrance exams that will be held in the next few weeks.

I'm not going to repeat the spiel about the god of scholars; you can read it here.

Yushima Tenjin from inside the complex, early in the morning when I was not the only person ignoring the barriers. See that torii? Now look at Hiroshige's paintings below ...

I knew the shrine would be busy, but I thought there would be breathing space at 8 am. I was wrong. To aggravate an already impossibly congested situation, the shrine, or its security guards, or whatever god prevents accidents, decided to block two of the shrine's five entrances apparently – if a security guard is to be believed – because they're too abunai. Dangerous.

Both blocked entrances involve steps, but only one flight is steep enough to possibly cause problems if you're stumbling along in a dense crowd and you're 97 years ol …

Oh. Sixty percent of Tokyo is 90+. Ah well. That explains that then.

Two different prints of Yushima Tenjin, both by Hiroshige. See the torii? Same torii (or different torii, same place)
in my photo. You could see Shinobazu Pond from the shrine in those days. Now? Forget it.

I've been to Yushima every New Year for the past six years, and this is the first time they've blocked these entrances. Now you're forced to walk around the block, up a steep hill just perfect for myocardial infarctions, and then stand in a queue that stretches several blocks to enter via the remaining two entrances on that side.

I guess recently an old-timer accompanying her great-grandson to pray for his (or her, but probably his: this is Japan) blessed entrance into the hallowed halls of next-door Tōdai accidentally tripped on the steps while eating mochi and carrying a portable kerosene heater, and that immediately led to new rules and regulations.

Did I obey it?

You really don't know?

I walked down a side street, ogled the steep Otokozaka (men's hill), noticed the red barrier, side-stepped down a tiny alley, approached the very easy Onnazaka (women's hill), spotted another red barrier, muttered impatiently, made a U-turn and … climbed over the men's barrier. I add, in my defence, that I was not the first person to do so. Nobody stopped us (that time).

I took a few photos, felt claustrophobic, developed a strong urge to slap the septuagenarian security guards who were yelling instructions into megaphones, and decided to go home. Down that manly slope. Again I was not the only criminal. (Do not for one second believe all Japanese people always follow the rules.) Whereupon a security guard came galloping up the steps shouting "abunai!" at us.

This is Otokozaka, the very dangerous slope, strictly for Very Brave Men Only, and the barrier that I climbed over.
Or side-stepped. 

Onnazaka. No idea why this is regarded as dangerous.

Now this is where I misbehaved badly. I knew exactly why he was upset and what he was shouting at us, but I pretended to be a clueless tourist, alternatively smiled and frowned at him, and continued on my merry way. The camera dangling around my neck, or rather, cradled protectively in my arms (it's new!), helped. The Japanese transgressors turned back up the hill. They were closer to the bottom of the hill than the top, but Septuagenarian-san waved them back up. I continued skipping down. Short of physically tackling me – and even then – listen, Japan beat the Springboks, but I wasn't playing in that team, OK? – there was nothing the guard could do to stop me.

Then I walked past a few other flustered guards who had, while I was taking photos, assumed their positions at extra barriers in the streets leading up to the shrine. They ogled me nervously. I capered on.

Japan, you are your own worst enemy. It's a trait we share. I'm sorry that I upset your security guards, but I break and enter. It's in my blood. #I'mfromAfrica 

I need a drink. Smirnoff, anyone?

Above, ema with a monkey (2016 is the year of the monkey) and below, shrine detail and good luck arrows.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Monkey business in Akasaka

I said I'd be back, didn't I?


OK, so, the year of the monkey. Usually a new year and a new Chinese zodiac sign involve a bit of Googling and searching and walkpeditioning to find a shrine than embodies that particular animal, but this year I got lucky. It's the year of the monkey, and the one monkey shrine in Tokyo happens to be a fairly famous one that I've been to several times.

Nonetheless, I revisited it very early on the morning of the 31st: early enough to avoid the millions of New Year's visitors, and in time to watch the shrine's preparations for the crowds.

Hie Jinja (日枝神社) in Akasaka.

It’s not entirely clear when this shrine was established, but it was probably in 1478 by Ōta Dōkan, a warrior-poet. Tokugawa Ieyasu relocated it to the grounds of Edo Castle, and in 1604 his son Tokugawa Hidetada moved it out so that the people of Edo could worship there.

It was officially designated one of the kanpei taisha (官幣大社), meaning that it stood in the first rank of government-supported shrines. It lost this status in 1946, when the American occupation forces outlawed state Shinto. It remains, however, the only shrine that's allowed access to the Imperial Palace.

This straw circle is called a chinowa kuguri (茅の輪くぐり). It’s part of a purification ritual. Stand in front of the circle, walk through it towards your left, return to the front, walk through it again towards your right. You see this circle at most major shrines during the New Year’s period. 

It enshrines the deity Oyamakui-no-kami (大山咋神), also called Sannō (山王) or mountain king. An entire cult developed around Sannō, called Sannō Ichijitsu Shinto (One Truth of Sannō Shinto). It's a syncretic school that combines Shinto with the teachings of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Shinto-Buddhist syncretism developed from the Japanese concept that Shinto kami were manifestations of Buddhist divinities.

Sannō's messenger (使い tsukai) is the monkey, and that finally brings us to the two monkeys in front of Hie Jinja's haiden as well as the wooden carving in its main gate. Usually a shrine is guarded by koma-inu (lion-dogs) or kitsune (foxes) if it's an Inari shrine, but Hie Jinja has monkeys. These animals are considered patrons of harmonious marriage and safe childbirth, and to this day women flock to this shrine to pray for these benefits.

Or – if it's the first day of the year of the monkey – half of Tokyo arrives to pray for a bit of good luck.

I've been to this shrine countless times, including during a day-long walkpedition with Dru, but this was the first time I saw bananas on the monkey statues. I guess it behooves us to appease this year's god with a snack before we ask for mercy, money and boundless power.

Or books and chocolate and another UK trip.

Happy 2016, all, and let's hope there's no monkey business this year.

PS: Not much wit and witticism in this post, but I haven't gotten my blogging groove back yet. I have written a rant about the PT job that finally shattered any remaining faith I may have had in Japan's tertiary education system, but I have to soften it before I publish it. We can't have readers choking in their Post Toasties, as my journalism professor always said.

shimenawa (注連縄) is strung across the main gate to indicate the boundary of a sacred space. The white papers tied to the ropes are called shide (紙垂), and are meant to prevent impurities from entering the sacred space. 


A sign saying  謹賀新年, kinga shinnen, happy new year.

I spotted the first plum blossoms of the season at the shrine. It's the earliest plum blossoms I've ever seen in Tokyo, which proves yet again that this winter has been weirdly warm.

No no no. This is not a gratuitous photo at all. This, dear readers, is the very first photo taken with my new camera. Yes! I have a new camera! His name is Mycroft, for he is all-seeing, sleek and sexy, and has a big nose. He's a bit more complicated than my previous one, and we're still getting to know each other, but I'm in love.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy Year of the Monkey

Good morning, all, and Happy Monkey Year! Here's a baby baboon from South Africa:

I'd like to think he's sticking his tongue out at 2015 and saying "good riddance". It was a tough one, but I really hope – think – am 97% sure – that I'll return to blogging this year. This post is a start, and I'll get going properly in February, when the part-time job that's killed my free time is finally over.

I hope 2016 is a jolly one with no monkey business. Let's go ape, shall we?

Friday, 11 December 2015

Sherlock the meerkat

Look! Ekaterina drew me a Sherlock meerkat in Japan!
PS: Where's John? We can't have a Sherlock without a John! Kitsune John? Where's his gun?
PPS: Is 2015 over yet? No? Ugh.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Todai ginkgo report 2015: dismal prospects

I interrupt my self-imposed (and still continuing after this post) hiatus to bring you bad news. Todai's glorious ginkgos will not be at their best this year; as a matter of fact, it would be a waste of time to go. The trees were pruned ruthlessly earlier this year. I assume there are good reasons, but it means that this year there are no branches, and therefore no leaves, left. To wit:

The photo above shows the road leading to Yasuda Auditorium. The trees are skeletons. If you want to give it a go anyway, your best option is the road behind Aka-mon. See below.

The Yayoi Campus is another possibility. However, the trees are still mostly green. It's been an unusually warm autumn so far, which might mean a later-than-usual change. Peak time will be towards the end of November. Maybe.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Temporary hiatus

Hello, all!

I'm putting this blog on ice for about two months. (Not that I've been very active this year, but ... ja ... ) I'll be in London this month, and when I get back* I'll crash head first into the new winter semester. I'll be busy.

Enjoy autumn up north and spring down south, read a few books, have a few glasses of red wine. I'll be back in time for another edition of Tokyo's Glorious Ginkgos.

* Yes. Well. The last time I went to a foreign country on what was supposed to be a 3-week holiday, it turned into a 10-year stay. Things tend to go off track when Ru starts wandering across borders. However. I do have a return ticket. So. Enjoy the peace and quiet, because it won't last.

またね!Mata ne! Till later!



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