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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Todai ginkgo report, 20 November

I don't want to repeat the whole spiel about the glorious ginkgos at the University of Tokyo (Tokyo Daigaku or Todai). Read more here and here, or simply click on the tag "Todai" on my blog. Let's just say, "It's showtime, folks!"

Lina, it's going to be utterly magnificent next Friday. Ready?

The most glorious ginkgo in the world is still mostly green. He usually changes relatively late.
He's an old-timer. He's not in a hurry.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The flowery, flying hare of Inaba

Africa time. I'm on Africa time. Chronically, permanently and indubitably. Chrysanthemum season is almost over, and here I am, finally, with this year's offering.

Quick recap of flower, festival and rationale for fascination. Wait. I need a synonym for "reason" that starts with an "f" to satisfy my fatal weakness for alliteration. Findication? No. Got it. Foundation. That works. We start again.

Quick recap of flower, festival and foundation of fascination.

It was first cultivated in China in the fifteenth century BC, and was regarded as one of the so-called four noble plants: orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, chrysanthemum. The flower eventually found its way to Japan, where it was called kiku () and revered so highly that it became a symbol of the imperial family. 

There are numerous chrysanthemum exhibitions all over Japan in autumn, often at shrines. The bigger ones display not only individual blooms, but also dolls called kiku–ningyō (菊人形), which are made of hundreds of chrysanthemums. 

The biggest festivals are at Shinjuku Gyoen and Tokyo's bigger shrines and temples, but this year I chose to go a tiny local festival in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Sugamo.

It's held at a temple called Shinshō-ji, one of the locations of the six Jizō of Edo, and it’s best described as humble but charming. I would've said understated, but that hare!

That's the hare of Inaba. He's the chappie who …

Look, this is going to get very complicated very fast, but I'll do my best.
So there was this hare that enlisted the help of crocodiles to travel from an island to the mainland – he persuaded them to form a bridge so that he could step on their backs – but then he pissed them off and they ripped off his skin. A couple of gods happened to stroll by on their way to woo a lovely maiden, and instead of assisting him, they told him to bathe in salt water. Which is not a good idea if you've got no skin, but fortunately the youngest god, Ōkuninushi, took pity on the hare and told him to bathe in fresh water from the mouth of a river, and to roll in the pollen of cattails.

The hare recovered and helped the young lad to win the hand of the maiden.

Whereupon Ōkuninushi become the ruler of Izumo and the god of nation-building, farming, business, medicine and happy marriages. He's enshrined at Izumo Taisha, one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan.

All due to that hare.

Here's the crocodile!

That’s my story, but if you prefer a more formal version, here's an excerpt from an ancient script called the Kojiki:
Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down. Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: "What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind." So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down. Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain. But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: "Why liest thou weeping?" 
Incidentally, although many English sources refer to the animal as a rabbit, it's not, if I may be pedantic for a while, and when am I not? It's Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus). Same order, Lagomorpha, but different genera (link). As far as I can determine, there's only one indigenous rabbit species in Japan, the so-called Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi), which is only found on two small islands between Kyūshū and Okinawa.
However, most English sources talk about rabbits in Japan, and it's undeniable that Japan has a bit of a thing about rabbits: if they're not saving the country and holy matrimony, they're fulfilling their role as one of the Zodiac signs, pounding rice in the moon and pretending to be birds.

I'm not joking. The counter for birds and rabbits in Japanese is wa ( ), and that's the kanji for feathers or wings.

The reason for this is ..

Oh, Japan, you sneaky minx. You truly are a master of hypocrisy when you're in the mood.

During the Tokugawa era, the eating of four-legged animals was forbidden (link), but dang, rabbits are delicious, plentiful and easy to catch. What's a carnivore to do? You reclassify rabbits as birds.

Problem solved.

This is supposed to be a story about flowers. How did it turn into flying rabbits? Where were we?

Most chrysanthemum festivals continue until 23 November. You'll find a list of venues in this previous post. My personal recommendation? Shinjuku Gyoen for the widest variety as well as gorgeous autumn colours in the rest of the park.

Small display just outside the temple's entrance

The temple's entrance

Flowers on the steps leading to the temple

Above and below, the Jizō statue

The Jizō statue is 300 years old.

This deocaration is so tiny that I initially thought I was looking at origami flowers. No. It's the real thing.

An advertisement for the festival in Jizō-dōri

Jizō sweets

This display is in Rikugien, which is just a short walk from Sugamo.

Another display in Rikugien.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kiyosubashi in print and real life

This is a photo post that I just have to do after discovering a print made by Kawase Hasui. It depicts Kiyosubashi (清洲橋), which is – as far as I'm concerned – the most beautiful bridge across the Sumida River. It was completed in 1928, and has a length of 186.2 m and a width 22 m. It was modeled after a suspension bridge across the Rhine (at Cologne), and it's regarded as an Important Cultural Property.

Hat tip to Googleplusser Hirai Mamoru, who told me about the print.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Ginkgo watch 2014, Part 1

Here we go! We're halfway through November, and the golden ginkgo countdown has started. I took these photos on the Hongō campus of the University of Tokyo yesterday morning. The trees are usually at their best towards late November, early December, as you can see here and here.

The university buildings are undergoing massive renovations – they're old! – which means this year's photos also feature less attractive construction paraphernalia, but not to worry, it's easy enough to focus on the glory of the trees.

The most glorious ginkgo in the world is still mostly green.


Yasuda Auditorium

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?

  • The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.
  • It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.
  • You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.
  • It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.
  • Birds protect it against fire.

See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

The outer gate

The main shrine seen through the outer gate

Main shrine and office to the left

Why Kanda Myōjin?

Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed through the shrine during my walkpeditions. I followed my neighbourhood's mikoshi twice during the Kanda Matsuri, one of Tokyo's three biggest festivals, which revolves around Kanda Myōjin.

Then I moved closer to Asakusa, but it's still very easy to walk to the shrine. The only difference is that I now use its back entrance on Kuramaebashi-dori instead of approaching from Ochanomizu Station in the south.

The steps on Kuramaebashi-dori lead to the back entrance of the shrine.

Torii at top of steps


Tokyo's three most famous holy sites are, arguably, Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Meiji Jingū in Yoyogi and Kanda Myōjin between Ochanomizu and Akihabara. Let's focus on the latter – one of the oldest in Tokyo – in this post.

When you refer to anything in Tokyo as "old", it has to be considered in the bigger context of three events:

1) The Great Fire of Meireki started on 2 March 1657, raged for three days, killed 100 000 people and destroyed 70% of the city.
2) The Great Kantō Earthquake struck on 1 September 1923. Estimated casualties range from 105 000 to 140 000. More than 570 000 homes were destroyed, leaving almost 2 million people homeless. 
3) The American bombing of Tokyo on 9 to 10 March 1945, codenamed Operation Meetinghouse, pulverized the city. Almost 42 square kilometers of the Japanese capital were incinerated, and between 80 000 and 130 000 Japanese civilians were killed in the worst single bombing in recorded history.

You'll understand that very few buildings survived all three.

Kanda Myōjin did. Well, OK, sort of. Remember that this is Japan, where "authentic" doesn't mean "unchanged".

I quote from Shinto Shrines by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (my main reference for this post):

The shrine was founded by Makanda Omi, a descendant of the hereditary clan of priests of Izumo, and the shrine maintains that it is named after him. However, there is another tradition that Kanda (literally "god's land") refers to the area's position as a one-time possession of Ise Jingu. Either way the area's history is older than that of Tokyo but it came to be very much associated with the edokko, the Tokyoites whose families go back several generations in the city … By the end of the Meiji period Kanda had the largest fruit and vegetable market, as well as the largest population of any part of the city. It was a hangout for students, with three major universities and the famous secondhand-book district. It was a bustling town of merchants … It is this raffish urban atmosphere that has shaped the character of the shrine and its worship. No wonder that two of the most jolly and mercantile-oriented of the good-luck shichifukujin, Daikoku and Ebisu, are at the heart of the townsman's worship. 

The shrine was originally located in Ōtemachi, but moved to its current location in 1616 when Edo Castle expanded. The original building was destroyed in the quake, and then, in 1934, it became the first shrine to be rebuilt (on the same spot) in steel-reinforced concrete. That explains why it survived the fires that flattened Tokyo during the American bombing.

More quirky features of its hybrid Western/Japanese construction:

The floor of the haiden (hall of worship) is concrete, which means you can enter with your shoes on.

Standing in front of the main shrine

Standing in front of the main shrine, on the opposite side, looking towards the office

This was taken in front of the shop where you buy good luck charms.

It has a slightly coffered ceiling which was allegedly inspired by church architecture.

The shrine has its own museum which houses objects related to the Kanda Matsuri as well as a collection of ukiyo-e.

The shrine's museum

The magnificent mon or outer gate was constructed in 1975, replacing the original gate that was destroyed in the Kantō quake. The gate has drawings of the shishin, the four spiritual creatures that guard the main directions on the compass (dragon, tiger, phoenix, turtle); but its main symbols are the butterfly and the "tethered horse", which are both associated with Taira no Masakado ( 将門), the owner of the above-mentioned decapitated head. He lived in eastern Japan, not far from Tokyo, in the Heian period, and led a rebellion against the central government of Kyoto. The emperor's forces caught up with Masakado in 940 and executed him. His head was brought to Kyoto and displayed at a market on the tenth day of the fifth month. Now it gets interesting. His head refused to decompose, and its expression got fiercer every day. One night it started glowing and … flew back to eastern Tokyo. It got tired, though, so it rested in the village of Shibasaki, present-day Ōtemachi. Villagers found it, cleaned it, and buried it near the original site of Kanda Myōjin. (Read more here.)

This was taken in spring, which explains the cherry blossoms.

Detail on outer gate

Butterfly motif on outer gate

One of the two "tethered horses" in the outher gate. Sorry about the reflection on the glass!

The gods of Kanda Myōjin

I've already mentioned several, but here's a short description of the three main ones. Who are combinations and permutations and alternatives and associations and whatnots of other deities, so it gets a bit complicated if you're a southern barbarian.

1) The main deity is Ōnamuchi-no-kami (大穴牟遅神), also known as Ōkuninushi (大国主命). He's the one who saved a rabbit from a crocodile, and thus won the hand of a princess, but then he had to chase a boar that was actually a rock, and then he was killed by a tree, and then he had to sleep with snakes and centipedes and wasps, but fortunately his mother was the interfering type and she saved him every time. I keep telling you: the real hero in all Japanese stories is the mother. Read more here and here.

Ōkuninushi is the Shinto god of abundance, medicine, luck and happy marriages. The kanji in Ōkuni can also be read as Daikoku, one of the seven gods of good luck, which explains the association between the two deities and Daikoku's prominent statue at the shrine.

Ōkuninushi and his rabbit


This was taken in the New Year's period, when you walk through this circle to ensure good luck.

2) The second deity is Sukunahiko no Mikoto (少彦名命), the deity of medicine, good fortune and success in business. He's associated with Ebisu. He's not one of Japan's main gods; doesn't have an English Wikipedia entry; and doesn't get much attention on my favourite mythology website, onmarkproductions, except confirmation that he's also associated with Ōnamuchi/Ōkuninushi.

Ebisu's statue

Detail on Ebisu's statue

3) The third god is Taira no Masakado ( 将門), the owner of the above-mentioned decapitated head. He's my favourite. Love and marriage, meh. Rebellion and violence, yes please! #I'mfromAfrica.

Benefits and blessings

You can pray for … um … everything at this shrine.

It's probably best known as a shrine for businessmen where you can pray for commercial success. This is especially true during hatsumōde (初詣で), the first shrine visit of the new year, when salarymen flock here in their hundreds of thousands, neatly dressed in the ubiquitous black suit and white shirt. This is an old article from 2009, but I've included it because it's a well-written English summary. (I can't help thinking about "the pain of the dire economic conditions" if, or should that be when?, Abenomics collapses.) You can also see a video about hatsumōde  at the shrine here.

You can pray for success in gambling or achievement in sport, or you can go for broke: gambling + sport = marriage. As you can expect at a shrine that honours the god of happy marriages, this is precisely what you can request here, but the course of true love never did run smooth and never did come cheap, at least not in Japan: an enmusubi omamori (good luck charm for love) costs ¥1000. That's a tad on the high side, but no pain, no gain.

You can buy a kanai anzen (家内安) omomari, which promotes good health and helps to protect your family.

You can have your car blessed at the shrine; as a matter of fact, there's a special parking area on the eastern side of the complex for this purpose. This ritual is called kurumabarai (車祓い) or "car exorcism", which simply means purification or protection, but of course I gleefully imagine a chanting priest waving away evil parasol dybbuks and malignant mamachari monsters. Both of which, please note, can harm a car. Ha. They could harm the gods themselves. Read more about protection against traffic accidents in this post.

If you've bought an expensive car, best protect it against Tokyo's ruthless mamacharis! The guy on the left
is Dru of Hinomaple. It's not his car. Grin.

The best one: a special omamori for workers in the IT industry (link). It will protect you and your computer against virus attacks. It looks like a computer chip and has three parts: a card for your wallet, a sticky strip for your computer and a tiny sticker for your phone. It costs ¥800. Dunno about you, but I think a trouble-free computer is a heck of a lot more important than a trouble-free marriage.

I actually bought one of these omamori, but I sent it to a friend in South Africa without taking a picture. I found this photo on the web:


There are several smaller shrines on the western and northern sides of the complex, including a few Inari shrines. I've also spotted a collection of foxes (I would, wouldn't I?) on the parking terrain.


Small Inari shrine behind the main shrine



Pony! Cuteness! Aw!

Shrines used to have (and a few rural ones still do) sacred horses to transport the gods, but it's well nigh impossible to keep a horse at a shrine in Tokyo. The solution is ... a tiny pony called Akari. Isn't she adorable? I'm sure the gods are too kind to expect her to carry them.

Akari, the shrine's pony. I dare you to look at her and NOT dissolve into a puddle of goo.

Fanfare, please, for my real discovery

I've mentioned before that I have a tendency to look where I'm not supposed to look. As I said in a previous post: "I'm turning into Japan's top rooftop expert: if I'm not chasing robbers on roofs, shooting foxes on roofs or lying in puddles on roofs, I'm hunting down demons, tigers and fish on roofs. Since I've started wandering through Tokyo with my camera, I've learned that eye level is often boring. Look down. Look up. That's where the interesting stuff is. Take temple roofs, where several captivating creatures prowl."

That’s why I noticed this and this and this:

Water fowl on the roof watch out for fires and protect the shrine against its devastation.

The shrine refers to these birds as みずどり, mizudori, water birds.

"Birds?" I wondered. "Not a gargoyle thingy or a phoenix, which is normal, but a cute, plump, friendly-looking bird. Why? What is it? Why so many? Why here?"

I went Googling. I disappeared into dusty tomes. I added 2 and 2, got 11 and deduced (incorrectly) that it might be a Mandarin duck (オシドリ or oshidori), symbol of fidelity – this is, after all, a love shrine – but I couldn't get confirmation anywhere. I asked around and got blank looks. I Googled again, with every possibly search term, but … nothing.

Then, while researching this post, I noticed a "contact us" on the shrine's website. "They're never going to answer weird questions from a weird foreigner using garbled Japanese," I thought, "but what the heck, if my forefathers could survive the Anglo-Boer Wars, I can write an email."

So I did. I politely asked the shrine what, and where, and when, and why, and who, and how, and please pardon my dreadful Japanese, and do you have chocolate for me?

That same day … that same day! … the shrine responded. Chocolate wasn't included, but nonetheless I'm a happy customer. Oh, Japan, I love you very much. I grumble about your politicians and your gender inequality and your %$£ parasols, but I do love you very much. Your customer service and your politeness towards strangers remain unequalled.

(Please note, Sherlock pubs in Kanda are excluded from this statement. Don't ask me to explain. I will explode. Ask Cecilia.)

So. Birds. Not Mandarin ducks, but mizudori or generic water birds. Remember what I said about the Great Fire of Meireki? Fires were common in Edo: according to a popular saying, 火事と喧嘩は江戸の華, kaji to kenka wa Edo no hana, fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo. Edo was also known as City of Fires (火災都).

Yikes. Somebody should register that as a blog name. Wouldn't it be a great title for a book or a movie?

Anyway, fires were Terror Number 1 in Edo, which was largely constructed of wood. These birds, generic water birds, are supposed to keep guard on the rooftops, warn and protect against fires.

The little bird is also used as a symbol, or mascot if you wish, for the shrine's mobile site:

The post now consists of 2755 words. New record?

Let's stop right here. I could write another 3000 words about the famous Kanda Matsuri, but I've covered a bit of it in this post.

So. That's it. Kanda Myōjin is a fascinating shrine in a very interesting area – used books and cherry blossoms to your left, computers and maid's cafés to your right – and it has very friendly staff. Go. You'll love it. Say hi to Akari for me.

PS: Maybe say hi to Masakado as well. Don't want to get him grumpy.


1) This is the latest in my "ultimate guide" series. The first one about Nikkō Tōshō-gū can be found here; the next one will probably be Sensō-ji in Asakusa, but Crikey Moses, that one requires an encyclopaedia!

2) I haven't responded to any previous comments yet. It will happen, presumably before the next millennium.

Main sources of reference

Shinto Shrines by: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion by Joseph Cali with John Dougill 
A New History of Shinto by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen
Practically Religious by Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, Jr.

Generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema. Akihabara is just around the corner. (Curve?)

Curtain detail at main shrine

Water fountain in front of main shrine

This mask / demon is paraded during the Kanda Matsuri.

Omikuji or fortune papers during the New Year's period

Phoenix and water bird on the shrine's roof: double protection

This made me smile. The most important skill required of modern Shinto priests is dexterity with a smartphone camera.

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