Noilly Prattle: November 2016

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Road Trip to the Sea of Japan (3)

Kagura - 神楽

impression of the Japan Sea
     After a roughly two-hour drive from Izumo Taisha along the Japan Sea coast we arrived at our ryokan in the hot spring town of Gotsu for an evening kagura performance at a small theater in walking distance of the hotel. The hotel is unusually laid out. It is built along a narrow river valley. There was a series of long hallways from the front lobby to our room. I estimated some 200 to 300 meters in length. Along the way there was a charming room done up in reds where you were free to taste several different kinds of sake and wine. You could buy a bottle if you wished, but there was no supervision and no compulsion to buy or limit on how many “tastes” you could have. The plum wine was excellent.

one of a series of hallways
in the long hotel

the "tasting" room

back at ya!


outdoor bath with cedar wood tub 
        Our smallish room had its own private hot spring bathroom (actually as big as the room). Although much smaller and far less elegant than the rocky pool we enjoyed the previous night in Matsue, the cedar-wood tub was still a pleasant if more confined soak before going down to the restaurant for dinner and then walking the short distance (far less than the distance between the lobby and our room) to the kagura performance venue.

a very small theater
         When we arrived there were already a few people seated on a bench at the back of the small room and on the tatami floor. I started to sit on the mats since the bench was fully occupied but some of the men insisted that I sit on the bench and made a place for me (in deference, I guess, to being a foreigner who might have difficulty sitting on the floor for a long period and consideration for my advanced age)--kind, but not flattering. It was, I admit, more comfortable that way, though.

performance catalog
        So then, what is kagura? Kagura (神楽, かぐら, "god-entertainment") is a Japanese word referring to a specific type of Shinto theatrical dance—with roots arguably predating those of Noh. They were originally ceremonial dances performed at Shinto shrines depicting mythological themes from the oldest chronicles of Japan the ca. 712 CE Kojiki and the ca. 720 CE Nihon Shoki.

5th Grade boy dances the Ebisu dance
        Four different dances were performed on the tiny stage which included the orchestra--traditional drum, flute and percussion instruments (some played by very young children), and the dance floor space. One dance was performed by a 5th Grade boy. He portrayed the god of plenty called Ebisu, a somewhat rotund and jolly faced character. He ended his dance by tossing wrapped candies, of which I caught quite a few, into the audience.

Gorgeous Costumes and Fantastic Masks

Susano-o and the Yamata no Orochi

the Earth Deity and wife (The Old Couple)
Susano-o pouring sake into Yamata no Orochi
        The main dances of this evening concerned the Japanese Deity Susano-o no Mikoto god of the sea and storms (brother of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu) and his battle with the giant 8-headed snake-dragon Yamata no Orochi who was devouring young maidens, who were the daughters of an old couple who had only one daughter left. The old man was an Earthly Deity named Ashi-nadzuchi. His wife's name was Te-nadzuchi. Their surviving daughter's name was Kushi-nada-hime.The old couple pleaded with Susano-o to save their last daughter from the monster. Susano-o agreed if they would give him the girl to be his wife. The snake dance is usually performed with eight snakes (representing the 8-headed monster) if the stage is big enough. Our stage was far too small to accommodate eight snakes and only three were used; but in the small enclosure the final battle was quite impressive and loooong. The battle was touch and go with sometimes the snakes winning and then Susano-o seemed to have the advantage, then the snakes writhing and wrapping him in their snaky bodies; the snakes were plied with buckets of sake until one by one Susano-o severed the snakes heads and, at last, emerged victorious.

Susano-o chopping off one of Yamata's heads

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Road Trip to the Sea of Japan (2)

Izumo Taisha  出雲大社  
(the Grand Shrine of Izumo)

main entrance of Izumo Taisha
     After leaving Matsue we drove along the coast of Lake Shinji to one of the oldest and most historic Shrines in Japan—Izumo Taisha (出雲大社), the Grand Shrine of Izumo. The Shrine is associated with Japan's creation mythology and is often considered to have been in existence in the 8th Century according to the nation's oldest chronicles—Kojiki and Nihon Shocki. The Shrine is also associated with the Kagura (god entertainment) performances we were planning to see in the evening.

Okuninushi no Okami
        The principal kami (god or deity) enshrined in Izumo Taisha is the “gentle-hearted” Okuninushi no Okami. He is said to have created the land of Japan and was the ruler of Izumo and the deity of good relationships and marriage. Consequently, people wishing to obtain a good marriage come to Izumo Taisha to pray and buy good luck charms. If and when Mr. or Ms. Right is found they will often come to Izumo Taisha to celebrate their marriage.

        Perhaps the most characteristic oddities at Izumo Taisha are the shimenawas (sacred straw ropes). There are two of them, the largest of which is 13.5 meters long, weighs about 5 tons and adorns the entrance to the Kagura-den (an enormous hall). The twisted ropes (said to suggest sexual union) are the most easily recognized and distinctive features of Izumo Taisha.

wedding party in front of the Kagura-den and the large 13.5 meter shimenawa

the smaller of the two shimenawas

Amaterasu granting her favors to Okuninushi
        According to the creation myths, when Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, descended to earth Okuninushi gave him his country. As a reward Amaterasu gave Okuninushi Izumo Taisha and her favors as well. Shinto is an animistic nature worshiping belief system with a lot of hanky panky among the gods and, presumably, mortals as well.
one of two assembly buildings for
the 8,000,000 Shinto deities
        Izumo Taisha is also the meeting place for the annual convocation of Shinto's 8,000,000 deities from all over Japan. There are two long buildings which are said to house these numerous personalities and serve as seating for their convocation meetings. I couldn't quite figure out how they could fit 8,000,000 deities into these two relatively small although quite long buildings.

scale replica
        A record compiled around 950 (Heian period) describes the shrine as the highest building in the land, reaching approximately 48 meters. Evidence of the original sanctuary, part of one of the pillars for the structure has been discovered—three cedar trees with a three-meter diameter at its base. It is on display at the shrine. There is also a small scale model of what the sanctuary is thought to have looked like made by some college students.

        One will see lots of statues of rabbits strewn around here and there in Izumo Taisha. It turns out there is a story about the “White Hare of Inaba”. I had never heard of it, but It's well known among the Japanese. Briefly, the story goes like this:

white rabbits pounding pine nuts
        When Okuninushi was young he and his eighty brother gods wanted to marry one Princess Yakami and were all traveling to Inaba, her country, to court her. Along the way the ran across a poor hare along the seashore that had been flayed of its skin. The hare said that he was from an island and had tricked some crocodiles the line up and form a bridge that he could hop across. As the hare reached the mainland he bragged about having tricked the crocs but the last one heard his boast and tore his skin off.

the inner sanctuary of
Izumo Taisha
        Okuninushi's cruel brothers laughed and decided to torture the hare further. They told him to jump in the sea and he would feel soothed. Of course, the salt water only increased his pain and discomfort. The gentle-hearted Okuninushi took pity on him and told him to bathe in the fresh water of the river and then to gather the flowering spikes of some cattail plants and roll around in them until he was covered with fleece. The cured rabbit then predicted that Okuninushi would win the hand of Princess Yakami.

main Torii (gate) to Izumo Taisha
        After walking through the Shrine's Main Torii (gate) we spotted a Starbucks across the street and went in for a snack before driving the two hours along the coast of the Sea of Japan to Gotsu Hot Spring for an evening Kagura performance. 

the Sea of Japan

Friday, November 11, 2016

On a Trump Presidency

    I am not in shock!

         I was a bit stunned at first until I started to put two and two together. 

         I have been running a low key anti-Clinton campaign on my blog and Facebook page for several months. My reasons are defined there and I won't rehash old stuff here. I was, frankly, delighted to hear that she had lost since I felt that she, and not Trump, was the greater of two evils. 

         Like a friend of mine said elsewhere, "Change is good, isn't it?" Change, of course, is a two-edged sword and we will have to wait and see how it goes with Trump. But, I felt that with Hillary there would be NO change whatsoever, and I think we were sliding into a potentially expanded war spilling out of the Middle East with her continuing her ineffective and disastrous neo-con activities ("We came, we saw, he died . . . Ha-ha-ha!) which have already left such a trail of anger, hatred, death and destruction in the M.E. 

         These two articles, if read with an open mind, go a long way in explaining why and how Trump won the 2016 Presidential election.

        Many people may not like the messenger, but the message is loud and clear: the neo-liberal economic policies (finance capitalism) and neo-conservative (military imperial expansion and hegemony) foreign policies (status quo) put in place by the Reagan Administration and perfected by the Clintons were repudiated by the electorate (the ones who bothered to vote at all). To my mind it's a pendulum swing, the kind that occurs in American politics periodically. Hillary (the status quo standard bearer) was, in the end, powerless to stop the swing because she was on the wrong side of History. 

         History is moving away from American hegemony and groping (oops, that word!) towards a multi-polar world balance of power among the current great powers: the USA, China and Russia. If Trump can manage to begin that kind of foreign policy he could turn out to be a great president. As for the threat of "fascism" heaped on him, the reality is that America already is a pretty violent fascistic state with mass surveillance and militarized police forces and mass conditioning (brainwashing) through public relations and mass media. 

         I am cautiously optimistic that at least there is now a chance of some things changing on the international scene, hopefully for the better. Who knows?

         We shall see!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Road Trip to the Sea of Japan


the getaway route
    We recently took a road trip to Shimane Prefecture on the Japan Sea coast north of Okayama Prefecture to attend a Kagura dance performance in the hot spring town of Gotsu in Shimane Prefecture. Along the route our plan included a couple visits: one to Matsue Castle and another to Izumo Taisha also in Shimane.

        Japan has many castles left over from feudal times but only a few are authentic relics from the feudal period. During the Meiji Restoration in the 19th Century many of the old feudal castles were destroyed in order to eliminate a base from which local warlords could rebel against the newly reinstated Imperial System (following the Tokugawa Bakufu [Shogunate]) system known as the Edo Period—1603 to 1857.


Matsue Castle donjon
        There are, in fact, only twelve remaining original castles in Japan. There are many concrete replicas of which, unfortunately, our own castle in Okayama is one. After a 2.5 hour drive we stopped off in Matsue on a weekend getaway to have a look at Matsue Castle, or what’s left of it. Like many other castles most of Matsue Castle was destroyed, however a request by a local citizens’ to retain part of what was left was honored by the Meiji government and so you can see an authentic feudal castle donjon in the city of Matsue.

castle moat and walls w/some outbuildings
          We pulled up to our hotel in Matsue around 3:30 p.m., a really beautiful little hot spring ryokan with a private spa in the room, and, although the weather was cloudy and drizzly, we decided to walk to the castle before getting into the rock spa and having dinner. We borrowed some umbrellas from the inn and walked the 1.5 km. to the castle.

supporting posts lashed together
with iron bands and brackets

the donjon well --
the dojon was the last retreat
in case of a siege of the castle

snake motif helmet  -  circa. 17th Century
full suit of armor


a room at the top - view from the last retreat in the donjon

castle and walls lighted and reflected in the moat


huge 17-mat tatami room 
our room on the ground floor
from the garden
        After returning we enjoyed the lovely stone pool before a typical Japanese style gochisou (feast) served right in our room. A Japanese gochisou is a multi-course concoction of various delicacies presented on/in exquisite tableware with an eye to color, placement, variety and, of course, taste. This type of meal is not peasant fare, it’s more what the nobility enjoyed in ancient times. A good ryokan gives you a hint of what it was like in those days. Of course, you have to acquire a taste for some of the dishes on the menu—like fermented squid.

the hot spring rock lined pool

the gochisou
fermented squid -  slurp, Yum!
(It took me many years to be able to eat this.)