Noilly Prattle: January 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rome - The Pantheon

Hail Agrippa!
These charming "Centurions" hang around the piazza in front of the Pantheon in Rome and, with their flamboyant finery and smooth-talking patter waylay starry-eyed tourists and charge them to pose for pictures. This one, of course, was a candid freebie; the young lady in the photo is unknown to me. It's a composition of two photos and some color tweaking on the sky.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 5 -- Of Demons and Heroes...and Mundane Historicity

Kibitsu Shrine as seen from Kinojo Castle
      It has always fascinated me how myth or legend and history become so intertwined that you can't tell where fact and fiction begin, or end for that matter. History, after all, is a story with “Hi-” in front of it--like high story or tall tale, maybe? Basically, history is whatever the writer says it is. Two different versions of the same event can have a very different interpretation depending on the writer's point of view. Both can agree that an event happened but can differ dramatically on the causes and effects of that event.

the demon Ura
Devil's Pot (probably a cast iron bathtub from an old inn
In the previous post I discussed the legend of a prince Kibitsuhiko, the son of legendary Emperor Korei (2nd Century BC), who governed the district of Kibi from where the 吉備津神社 Kibitsu Shrine was later built on the site of his castle. The legend is that he battled with a demon named Ura who lived in a castle called 鬼ノ城 Kinojo (Devil's Castle) on a mountain across the valley from Kibitsuhiko's castle. The story goes that Ura was terrorizing the countryside and abducting people, some of whom he used as concubines, some as slaves and some he simply cooked in a big iron pot (called the Devil's Pot) and ate. He, being a demon of supernatural prowess, was able to shoot arrows three kilometers across the valley at Kibitsuhiko's castle. Not a very nice character whose aberrations called the prince to do battle and restore law and order to the area. Eventually, the demon was subdued and peace returned to the Kibi district. Kibitsuhiko eventually became the kami (deity) enshrined at Kibitsu Shrine.

part of the panorama seen from Kinojo Castle

But, where does this legend come from.

wall restoration with the
West Gate on lower right
wall foundation stones
It was known historically that there had been a castle/fortress on the mountain across the broad valley from the Kibitsu Shrine. In 1974, archaeologists began to excavate the area where this fortress called Kinojo had been built. Parts of an ancient wall and large flat stones used as foundations have been exposed and some reconstruction work has been done on the site. One thing led to another and we decided to take a little day trip to have a look at the archaeological site that is associated—in legend at least—with Kibitsu Shrine. The site is actually not far from Road Buddy's family home and she told me that she had walked to the site as an elementary school student on school excursions. That's a considerable uphill hike since the site sits high up on a mountain ridge.

foundation stones for probable 
          barracks or storehouse
reconstructed West Gate         

diorama of Kinojo Castle and its surrounding wall
Kinojo is said to be one of 30 castles in a chain of fortresses built in the 7th Century from Kyushu to Osaka (23 confirmed by archaeologists). Japan at that time was allied with one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea during the Yamato Period and apparently there were blood ties between the royal houses. China, meanwhile, wanted to expand its territory to include the Korean Peninsula and was taking advantage of the strife among the three Korean kingdoms and allied with one of them. The then Yamato Emperor sent a fleet of Japanese ships to aid his Korean ally, but was defeated at the Battle of Baekgang-gu (Japanese name, the Battle of Hakusukinoe) in 663 AD by the better equipped and trained Chinese ships. The Emperor feared an assault by the Chinese and wanted to defend western Japan from retaliation for the incursion by the Japanese “navy” to aid its Korean ally. Kinojo and its sister forts were built to protect the capital at Nara from a Chinese attack that never came. 

model of a watchtower and its foundation stones
Somehow these historical events morphed into a legend of heroes and demons (much like dragon slayer legends of Western Europe) that is a great deal more colorful than what "really" happened. Of such stuff are children's dreams made and probably those of many adults as well. At any rate this legend certainly got the imagination of this day-tripper going.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 4 – 初詣 [Hatsumode] (New Year's Shrine Visit)

omikuji tied to tree branches
Hatsumode in Japanese means a New Year's visit to a Shinto shrine. People go to the shrines to pray for health, prosperity and luck in their various endeavors. Some people will make a New Year’s Eve vigil of it and head for their favorite Shinto shrine where a very festive ambiance prevails. The actual period of Hatsumode runs through January 15 and the scene gets progressively less hectic the later you visit the shrine. The first day or two are a traffic nightmare on the roads leading to certain major shrines. Bumper to bumper backups of several kilometers that move at a snail’s pace for hours are not unusual.

Shinto shrines sell all sorts of good luck charms. Paper ones are called おみくじ omikuji and are basically fortune telling cards. They can then be folded and tied to tree branches for good luck.

entrance exam success prayers
Another popular good luck charm with high school students is a wooden plaque asking for success in entrance examinations to top colleges and universities. Many shrines specialize in these plaques. Another popular good luck charm is a wooden arrow that you can obtain for a year and then burn in the shrine precinct before purchasing a new one for the oncoming year. One of the most popular items is an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Last year was the Year of Snake, my own birth year animal and this year is the Year of the Horse. Road buddy and I decided to visit one of the shrines in our area, 吉備津神社 [Kibitsu Shrine] (which has unique double roof architecture and is a place that we hadn't visited in years) to buy a horse figurine for this Year of the Horse.

Happy New Year banners
purification water fount
As is the case with many, if not most, Shinto shrines you have to climb a lot of stone steps—a kind of stairway to heaven I suppose. Kibitsu Shrine is no exception. There are two sets of steps, the first leading to the main gate that is still below the level of the shrine precinct proper. Two huge red banners proclaim 謹賀新年 (pronounced KIN GA SHIN NEN) or Happy New Year. Before the gate there is a roofed fount with bamboo dippers for purifying the hands. The steps are gaily decorated with white paper lanterns giving the whole a rather festive atmosphere. After passing through the main gate another climb brings you to the main shrine precinct. 

main gate with decorative paper lanters
As I mentioned above, the Kibitsu Shrine is unique in Japan and is designated as a National Cultural Treasure. Its uniqueness lies in the construction of the roof with its double peaked roof and wide up curved eaves that give the impression of some mythical bird in flight. It is simply breathtakingly beautiful. Other buildings adorn the precinct, but none can match the splendor of the main building. We walked around admiring the grounds and buildings and bought our horse figurine.

with its double roof and wide eaves the building appears to soar like some mythical bird

section of long roofed passageway

 Another interesting feature of Kibitsu, which covers a very large land space on its mountain slope, is a very long covered passageway that I would venture to estimate approaches 300 meters in length. As you walk along there are many annex buildings that are small shrines dedicated to this or that deity.

water wheel
Road buddy was intent of finding a large cooking pot that she said was to be found somewhere in the shrine. I had no idea what she was talking about. That’s why we were walking along the passageway, when I noticed an interesting water wheel that I wanted to look at more closely near a large building off a side branch of the long passageway. Road buddy asked a man taking photos near the water wheel if he knew where this mysterious pot was to be found and he indicated the large building just behind us.

the story of Kibitsuhiko and the demon Ura
There is an interesting story told about the origins of the founding of Kibitsu Shrine back in the mists of myth that involves this pot, a prince and a demon. Road buddy translated the story for me. It goes something like this: The prince, named Kibitsuhiko, the seventh son of the then reigning Emperor, had to slay a demon named Ura who was terrorizing the countryside. After long struggles he managed to chop off the demon’s head, but the demon kept on moaning and groaning—a kind of restless undead zombie. The demon zombie told Kibitsuhiko to find his (the demon’s) wife named Azo, a sorceress in her own right, and ask her to cook some rice in this large pot. (Rice is never far away in old Japanese stories.) There was apparently some magic in that old pot of rice that would release the demon from his appalling condition. The quid pro quo was that he would stop being a badass and thenceforth advise Kibitsuhiko on becoming a great and just ruler of the country. Obviously, given the similarity in their names, Kibitsuhiko is said to be the founder of Kibitsu Shrine.
Shrine priest 
consulting the oracular pot
There really is a large pot that is kept boiling in the building over a pine wood fire. (If you’re a wood fire enthusiast you will appreciate the wonderful scent.) When we arrived, there was a ceremony going on inside and we couldn't enter at first. A shrine priest and priestess preside over the pot and the person who is seeking advice has to pay 3000. Apparently, the hissing steam of the pot is thought to be an oracle. Oddly, though, the priest and priestess do not interpret the oracle, the supplicant has to do the interpreting him- or herself. And it’s a bargain at only 3000--about $30!

Chinese Zodiac animals - snake (l.) and horse (r.)
Usually, you will find a Buddhist Temple around a Shinto Shrine and Kibitsu is no exception. The beautifully landscaped 普賢院 [Fugen’in] Temple sits below Kibitsu Shrine at the foot of the mountain. We strolled around Fugen’in for a while before heading back to the car and returning home with our horse and a cocktail before dinner. Not a bad way to spend a chilly winter day.

Fugen'in -- Buddhist Temple
rice paddies in winter -- just outside the Kibitsu Shrine precinct

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Looking Back: 16 – swimming with sharks

Mayport Naval Station, Jacksonville, Florida
     After leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard we returned to the Kaskaskia's new home port the Mayport Naval Station, Jacksonville, Florida. Apparently the refit done in Brooklyn hadn't been completed or perhaps had been done half-assedly, I don't remember the details. We were scheduled for further refitting in Mobile, Alabama in April, 1962. Once in Mobile, I requested a leave of absence to go to Miami to pick up my car, spend a few days and then drive to Jacksonville to rejoin the ship.

Sputnik I
       Two events of note occurred while I was serving aboard the Kaskaskia. It was the time of the Cold War when the Soviet Union launched the first orbital satellite, Sputnik I in October 1957. The following year President Kennedy pulled out all the stops to play catch up and the NASA civilian space program for aeronautics and aerospace development and exploration was founded in July 1958.

Sigma 7
recovery of Sigma 7
       In October 1962 the “Kassy” was assigned to one of the Atlantic recovery positions for the United States' fifth manned orbit of the planet as part of NASA's Mercury Program. Walter M. Shirra orbited the earth six times in the Sigma 7 spacecraft on October 3, 1962. Although still behind the Soviet Union, this flight set a new record of manned flight for the US space program. The Sigma 7, however, landed nowhere near us in the mid Atlantic Ocean, but in the Pacific Ocean and was successfully fished out of the water where Shirra had landed a half mile from a recovery carrier.

swim call (shark watch in background)
       The Captain of the Kaskaskia decided to give the crew a couple days of liberty on the island of Madeira, which was not so far from our recovery station in the eastern part of the Atlantic, before returning to Jacksonville. But, before steaming off for Madeira, the Captain called a “swim call” over the loudspeaker while we were still on station. This meant that anyone who felt like it, could literally go jump in the ocean. Of course it helped if one could swim, since the water was a good two miles deep. Well, I could swim, and along with most of the rest of the crew donned a swim suit and jumped in and went swimming.

       The water was full of small jellyfish that were practically invisible but you could feel little shocks when you bumped into one or several—and you were constantly bumping into them. The thing I found most remarkable, however, was the incredible pressure pushing up from below. It was impossible to sink. I tried to swim straight down but kept getting pushed right back to the surface. After a while I got bored with the swim and the jellyfish and returned to the side of ship and climbed back aboard on a kind of rope ladder made from cargo netting. All of a sudden somebody yelled “shark in the water”.

       There were still a lot of the guys in the water and they all started scrambling to the side of the ship and climbing the rope ladder. Naturally, the possibility of sharks had been anticipated and a lifeboat with armed men aboard—the “shark watch” had been put in the water to patrol the periphery of the swimming area. As the last few guys were scrambling aboard the shark became visible between the ship and the patrol boat and one guy was cut off from the ship. As the shark headed for him he managed to swim to the life boat and scramble aboard spoiling the shark's chance for dinner. The shark, which appeared to be maybe 10 or 12 feet long or more, kept swimming around the ship and it was finally shot more for sport than because it presented any further danger to anyone.

       After the afternoon's excitement we got underway and headed east towards the Portuguese island of Madeira, famous, as some may know, for its wines.

To be continued...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Looking Back: 15 – the home stretch

USS Kaskaskia AO-27
    I've decided to take up the narrative of my "Looking Back" series from where I left off a year ago. In December 1961 I was assigned to my last ship. The subsequent two years, 1962 and 1963 were to be two of the most traumatizing years for the country and, by association, for me as well. Neither the country nor I would ever be the same again and we would eventually part company as I moved increasingly to the left and the country moved increasingly to the right. So, I pick up my story in December of 1961.

    The idyll of Southern Florida was pretty much shattered by the traffic accident on the Florida Turnpike. It received its coup de grace soon after when I was once again transferred to another ship. I got temporary orders in October, 1961 for a two-months training program in none other than Norfolk, Virginia again, but I don't even remember what the training was for. In December I traveled north to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to report aboard my new ship, the USS Kaskaskia AO-27. The Kaskaskia was a fleet oiler very similar to my first ship, the USS Pawcatuck AO-108, only the “Kassy”, as you can tell by her number (27) was much older—bit of a rust bucket of questionable seaworthiness actually.

Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan
       The Kaskaskia, first launched in 1939, had been decommissioned in 1957. She was recommissioned on December 6, 1961, the day after I had reported aboard. She was again decommissioned in 1969 and sold for scrap in 1970 having plied the waves for some 31 years. I remember steering the Kassy out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard under the Brooklyn Bridge, past the towers of Lower Manhattan and down the Hudson as we headed for our home port in Jacksonville, Florida. So, I was on my way back to Florida, but not to the sunshiny south, to the ho-hum unremarkable northern part of the Sunshine State.

       I had arranged to leave my repaired 55 Ford in Miami while the Navy went about the logistics of my transfer. The Navy's requirements superseded any personal problems or considerations. In fact I have hardly any impression left of Jacksonville at all. I did take a couple days leave of absence to go to Miami, visit the Ts and pick up my car and drive it back to Jacksonville.

       The Cold War was soon to heat up and catch up to us while I was serving aboard the Kaskaskia. I was coming to the end of the active duty phase of my enlistment and was starting to think about life after the Navy. Reenlisting wasn't in the cards. I simply had too independent and non-conformist a personality to be career military material. But, neither did I have any idea about where to go or what to do next. I liked the Miami area and thought it might be worth a shot at finding work and living there, but I had no skills other than what I had learned in the Navy. Unless I was interested in the merchant marine, navigation and steering ships were of limited marketability on the civilian job market. I had learned a few business skills in high school such as bookkeeping and typing and filing, but being a clerk-typist for minimum didn't sound terribly exciting as a career—the merchant marine would've paid much better.

       Then a guy named Devita (who actually looked a lot like the comedian Danny Devito) came aboard and was assigned to my division. He was older than I was and, like me, he was a QM. He had been discharged from the Navy, but for some reason reenlisted. I'm guessing he probably wasn't making it very well in civilian life. We got to be friends and he told me how there was lots of money to be made in the beauty salon business. He thought that Miami would be a great place to set up in business since I was interested in going there after I got out. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to ask him why, if it was such a great business, he had given it up and rejoined the Navy. Nevertheless, the idea germinated in my mind, but other things of a more immediate urgency came up on the Kaskaskia, and what to do after my discharge was a matter for the future and I kept it on the back burner. Meanwhile, NASA and the Cold War were waiting in the wings.

To be continued...