Sunday, August 13, 2006

Floating Altars Everywhere

(Edited August 14 to add a few photos from Emiri!)

I know, I'm woefully behind! But FH is home, and the preparations for his return and the fact of his return do give me some leeway, I hope! Here is "the rest of the story" of Emiri's wonderful visit. Click on the images for larger versions.

On Thursday, Emiri still needed to find Sasebo City/Nagasaki Prefecture-specific gifts (preferably food) to take back to her friends in Okinawa. So, we headed out to Kashimae Pier and the Sea Pearl Resort. Kashimae Pier is the "jumping off point" for the 99 Islands (really there are 208, depending on the tides, but it's more poetic the other way, I guess!) If you've seen the opening 30 seconds of "The Last Samurai", you've seen the 99 Islands--they're really lovely.

First, we wandered through the gift shops. We discovered that the area where I live is famous for loquats (also known as biwi), a small orange tropical fruit. To me, it tastes like a cross between apricot and mango. There were lots and lots of different loquat pastries, loquats in jelly, loquat mochi (rice paste balls), loquat caramels...even funny little plastic loquat charms with smiling faces on teeny leashes, to hang from one's cell phone! (Yes, I now have two fat, grinning little plastic loquats dangling from my mint-green phone, although you can only see one of them, along with my little transparent green frog. Em has a miniature version of the Japanese fishing floats, made by her friend in Okinawa.) Loquats are considered unusual, because they flower in the fall or early winter, and produce their fruit in late winter or early spring.

I find the selection of "gifts" in these little shops to be fascinating--pickles of all kinds, dried squid, raw squid, dried fish of all kinds, and lots and lots of cute but useless plastic "charms". Emiri got lots of special attention, due to her great skills with the Japanese language. I'm so in awe of her! Even before she speaks, she draws people to her, with her smile and her attitude. After a brief walk along the pier in the beautiful sunshine, we enjoyed lunch at an Italian restaurant (Japanicized, of course!) on the pier. I tried Calpis, a very lightly carbonated, opaque white soda. It's supposed to have a lot of calcium, and had a very mildly sweet, slightly chalky taste. It was interesting, and I rather liked it, despite the fact that the name sounds like something vulgar in English!

Then we parked the car, and headed for Fukuoka on the train. This time, we got off at the right station! We took a taxi to a part of Fukuoka called Hakata, to the Kushida Shrine (built in 757 AD), and enjoyed wandering around. Though most shrines have similar features, there is always something distinctive about each one, and this one was no exception!

Kushida Shrine oversees the Hakata Yamakasa festival, which originated in 1241, when a Buddhist priest named Souichi Kokushi was carried through the town on a platform, from which he sprinkled holy water to eradicate evil spirits responsible for a plague that had struck the town. The festival takes place from July 1-15 every year, and the climax, Oiyama, begins at 4:59am on the last day. On Oiyama, a drum signals the start to the first kakiyama, a one-ton "race float" shouldered by a team sometimes numbering over a hundred men. The team carries the float, sort of like a giant portable altar, on a five kilometer route through the streets of Hakata. Six more kakiyama follow, each one hoping for the best time on the 5K route. The seven nagare (teams) are drawn from more than 10 areas within Hakata, and can be distinguished by the different patterns of cloth used to make their happi. Each team of bearers has special short coats (mizu happi) made of the team fabric, sort of like a team uniform to be worn while carrying the floats, and matching long robes (naga happi) that they wear at other times during the festival. The various team members have different roles and responsibilities, indicated by different colored head cloths.

There are special traditions associated with Hakata Kamakasa. For example, participants must not eat cucumber during the entire festival period, becasue the Kushida Shrine crest resembles the cross-section of a cucumber. Also, all team members are forbidden from having sex during this time, so as to save their "life force" for carrying the one-ton kakiyama. It's considered an honor to be allowed to participate, and the participants take the various rituals and traditions very seriously. During the 15-day festival period, the whole Hakata district is the festival site, with the kakiyama on display, as well as the kazariyama, which are insanely tall "decorative" floats. The altar floats made to be carried are made of heavy wood hung all over with gleaming golden plaques and decorations. (Please forgive the bad photo of the kakiyama--they were in a dark "garage" and I could only take a photo through the glass, my camera was dying, and that was the only image that even came close to turning out. I'm sorry!) The decorative kazariyama are decorated with figures ranging from samurai warriors to cartoon characters. The one on display at the Kushida Shrine was fascinating, covered with lifesized figures, with vibrant colors and lots of sparkling silver and gold.

There was also a memorial to the forefather of modern Japanese theatre, Kawakami Otojiro-no Kishinhi (1864-1912). He was the first to bring Shakespeare to Japan, and the first to stage productions of plays for children. I was thrilled to find the little memorial plaque at the back of the shrine itself!

Then Em and I set out to find the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, which was much easier said than done! We walked for a while in one direction...nothing. Consulting the little guidebook map and the very vaguely placed "this is it" red dot, we tried another direction. Nothing. We stopped a man about to get into his car, and Em asked directions. He offered to take us there in his car, but we demurred. So he grabbed a rock, squatted in the street, and drew a map for us on the pavement! Hurray, we've got it! So we head back in the direction from which we came. And walked. And walked. Arrgh--nothing! We stopped again, this time at a shop filled with American-style t-shirts and jeans, and Emiri worked her magic in Japanese again. Ok, back we go. Finally, we found it...about half a block from the Kushida Shrine! Our search was frustrating and sweaty, but ended up being worth the trouble, at least to me. If Em didn't think so, she was generous to keep it to herself.

The museum was small, but interesting. We wandered through the little exhibit building, where I learned much of the information about the Hakata Kamakasa festival and the floats we'd seen at the shrine! They had miniature dioramas, and a bank of old fashioned phones for visitors to listen to the "funny Hakata dialect." Of course, those didn't do anything for me, since I can't tell the difference between one Japanese dialect and another!

There were some absolutely amazing fabrics on display that looked sort of like batiks or tie-dye...the fabric of some looked as if it had been stitched very carefully in a specific gathered pattern, dyed with the deep indigo dye, and the stitches taken out once the fabric was dried. I could not read the Japanese that explained the exhibit, so my guess may be wrong. Regardless, they were really lovely. I believe these are the fabrics used for the naga happi and mizu happi of the altar float teams.

There was also a series of life-sized dioramas depicting a shop and a home at the turn of the century, complete with appropriately-dressed mannequins. There were displays of other local crafts as well, such as the Hakata dolls, Hakata-ori and Hakata shibori textiles, Hakata magemono (cylindrical boxes made from thin sheets of wood bent into shape), heisuke brushes (for calligraphy and painting), hariko (bobble-head animal figures made in a medium similar to paper maiche), multi-colored worked glass similar to Murano glass, fighting tops (a totally different shape than the tops Sasebo is famous for making), and famous Hakata scissors. Unfortunately, we were too late for any of the many demonstrations of these fascinating crafts, and for the chikusen-biwa Japanese lute playing.

The other part of the museum (Maichiya Hall) was a relocated and restored Hakata-ori textile-weaver's house from the Meiji and Taisho eras (turn of the 20th century). The building itself is long and narrow, with the tatami rooms on either side of the central hallway built to become larger towards the back, in a fan shape for good luck. In the center of the main room, the ceiling opened up, giving a sudden impression of space and light. The main pillar of the house (the daikoku-bashira, representing the head of the household and his strength) was intricately carved, and soared up in the space. The hall was fascinating, with several very intricate looms and displays of astoundingly complex woven fabrics. I was so sad that we'd missed the demonstration, as I wanted to see how the big loom worked. There was a long loop like a conveyor belt of wooden plaques, each with a different pattern of holes. I think that somehow, the holes in each plaque help direct the heddles of the loom, each plaque moving into place for a different part of the pattern, kind of like a player piano's paper scroll. But I am not sure, and I want to see it in action! Unfortunately, they were closing, and so I snapped several photos, and we had to head out.

We headed back towards the train station, trying to catch a taxi as we walked (we were pretty far away!) Despite the humidity, I enjoyed the walk, looking in shop windows and people-watching. Though I thought Sasebo seemed like a pretty big city to me, I now understand why it's considered sort of small-town and rural, despite its 300,000 residents. Fukuoka is very much more "big city", with tall buildings and modern shops, and fewer old-fashioned Japanese storefronts. I got another sense of what a premium is put on space in this country, as I passed a parking lot. The lot consisted of a relatively small footprint, but had "racks" on which each car was driven. The rack was then raised until it was almost touching the rack holding the car above, and another car was driven in and raised. I've never seen so many vehicles crammed horizontally and vertically into such a small space! I guess that's another reason for the intense and very expensive car inspection required every two years...I sure wouldn't want the car above mine leaking oil or transmission fluid or whatever onto the roof or hood of my car! Thanks to Emiri for the photo.

We finally got a taxi, and got back to the train station. We grabbed a quick bite to eat in the station itself, which, like many Japanese train stations, was like a shopping mall, filled with stalls and shops and restaurants. Then Emiri headed on the short trip to the Fukuoka airport to fly back to Okinawa, and I headed for the train back home to Sasebo. Even that experience was interesting! The platforms were crowded with people headed home after the workday. In the US, the crowds would swarm towards the doors as the train pulled in, shoving and jockeying for position. Not so in Japan! Every few feet was a mark on the pavement to show where the doors would be when the train stopped . At each mark was a single line of people, snaking carefully so that no line intersected any other line, and no line blocked the pathway up and down the platform. It was amazing--everyone knew what to do and where to stand, no one was pushing, no one behaved as if he or she were more important than anyone else or in more of a hurry.

I didn't know where my particular mark was (some cars are "first come, first serve", other cars are "reserved seat only", and I had a reserved seat. So I excused myself and asked a fellow traveller where I needed to be, with my few words of Japanese, some charades, and my out-thrust ticket. She smiled, bowed, chattered in Japanese, and gestured down the platform. In the next line someone looked up and saw what was happening. She beckoned to me, I went to her. She looked at my ticket, smiled, bowed, spoke to me in Japanese, and pointed me to the next line, where a young man beckoned me to come to him. This went on from line to line down the row, until I was at the appropriate mark...then I was handed down the line to my spot at the end. It was very funny! Rather than gesture to me to go down eight lines to find mine, my fellow passengers took the bakka gaijin (idiot foreigner) in hand and gently herded me to my place. I loved it!

Emiri's visit was quite short, but despite my propensity for running late, we still managed to cram an awful lot into three days! I hope she can come back again, and I hope to get a chance to visit her in Okinawa. In the meantime, she was a very tolerant guinea pig, as I discovered where I can take visitors to Sasebo. Thanks, Em, for being such a fantastic, easy-going and fun guest!