Hatsumode:  New Year’s Shrine Visit


“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Year of the Rooster at Futenma Shrine

Shrine Entrance

Shrine Entrance

Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells.  Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works.  However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day.  After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….

Talisman for the New Year

Talisman for the New Year, including evidently lucky-dice!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-proud-celebrationsHatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead.  Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more).  And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.

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Each year the shrine puts up a large ornately painted wood plaque with the New Year’s zodiac. This Year: Year of the Rooster!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-leaving-ema-wmWe went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd.  Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day.  No doubt god understands.  Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all.  While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!

Jody's Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

Jody’s Fortune, Not as Good as Mine!

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-tied-fortunes-wmPart of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes.  Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.

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new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-new-year-talismans-2-wmThere are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students!  Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so.  Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed.  One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.

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Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar.  After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times.  Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving.  Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples.  This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.

Leaving Our Ema

Leaving Our Ema

new-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-new-year-arrownew-years-2016-2017-futenma-shrine-visit-kabura-ya-turnip-headed-arrow-bulbFinally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”).  This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan.  Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired.  Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits.  Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits.  Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.

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It’s true that church is not where we go.  While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity.  Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.

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Happy New Year from the Kings!

Toshikoshi:  New Year Noodles in Japan


“Noodles are not only amusing but delicious….” ~Julia Child

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Jody and I are lucky to have a delicious udon noodle restaurant, Marukame Noodle, just a few minutes away, and even more fortunate to have a terrific excuse to head out on New Year’s Day to feast on a steaming bowl of fresh Asian pasta in a savory broth:  “Year-Crossing Noodle”!

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Marukame Noodle, Okinawa

Toshikoshi (年越し蕎麦), or “year-crossing noodle,” is a traditional Japanese noodle dish eaten, for some on New Year’s Eve, and for others, on New Year’s Day.  And although yes, I admit, the noodles are usual of the soba variant, I find myself preferring the much thicker and almost chewy Chinese udon as the noodle of choice.

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The tradition of eating noodles around the New Year became common during the Edo era (1603-1868) in Japan.  When soba noodles are made, the dough is stretched and cut into a thin, elongated form, a geometry said to represent a long and healthy life, while the buckwheat plant (source of many Japanese noodles) being a rather hearty plant that can survive severe weather represents strength and resiliency.  And cutting the noodles while eating symbolizes a wish to cut away all the misfortunes of the old year in order to commence the New Year anew and refreshed.

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However, the noodles should never be broken, cut or shortened during cooking.  And there are other various traps that could result in a backfire; don’t eat right at midnight (you’ll not be able to cut ties with the old), and don’t eat while temple bells are ringing (the bells are supposed to cleanse of evil and sin, and you wouldn’t want to consume any!).  Jody and I, having a late lunch/early dinner on New Year’s Day, were pretty much free and clear of any complexity.

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Given all this positive symbolism (see Welcome Spring and the New Year for more), why tempt bad karma and NOT slurp down some tasty noodle soup at the New Year?  Steaming hot, Jody and I topped ours with nuggets of fried tempura batter (actually the leftovers of frying tempura meats and veggies), a slew of freshly-sliced green onions, and with sides of tempura chicken, shrimp, and vegetables.  Yummy!

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Happy New Year, friends!  I hope you had an amusing and delicious meal of your own to help invite longevity and health for you and yours.

Geishun (迎春): Welcome Spring and the New Year!


“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The New Year is perhaps the most important time of the year in Japan, akin to the way the West views Christmas. At the end of the year, the Japanese traditionally say, “I wish you will have a good new year,” or in Japanese (formally), “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください).”

Although we’ve been flirting with the New Year as the world always does for the whole of December, the Year of the Sheep is fully upon us. And, being the Far East Flirts that Jody and I are, we celebrated differently this year than we did last (See Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker to read about our past flings).

This year Jody and I took another island-hoping jaunt to another remote near-by island (see Tropical Trek to read about another), this time Ie (pronounced “Eeee-A”) Island. Taking the military up on one of their pre-arranged good-deal tour packages, we embarked on our 2-night stay at a Japanese “resort” over the New Year’s. And our journey – and the festivities were both full of surprises.

Celebratory Dinner!

Celebratory Dinner!

The Japanese New Year (正月, Shōgatsu) is an annual festival in Japan, similar to others celebrated elsewhere across the globe. Since 1873 the Japanese New Year has been celebrated according to the western Gregorian calendar on January 1, or New Year’s Day (元日, Ganjitsu). However, much of Okinawa, being much more closely aligned throughout history with China rather than with the Empire of Japan, still recognizes their New Year as the contemporary Chinese lunar New Year, which varies based on the moon but usually occurs in late January or sometime in the first half of February. It’s a pretty good convention; why have only one New Years in a year when you can have TWO?!?

Finding ourselves on Ie Island in the heart of a very elderly and rural population, the customs and traditions surround the Welcoming of Spring (which the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrates) were well represented, and in which we eagerly participated.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year...and beyond.

Soba for Long Life in the New Year…and beyond.

The night of the countdown, the hotel served us fresh dishes of buckwheat soba noodles, to be topped off with steaming broth. The stretching and consuming of the long noodles are representative life stretching well into the future. Although feasting on soba noodles is traditionally done after ringing in the New Year, our resort made the traditional dish available starting at 10pm. Of course, after our Korean BBQ feast that only started just a couple of hours prior, we had to literally find the room in our bloated bellies, else we tempt the darker side of fate in the coming year.

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Traditional New Year decorations in Japan

Bubbly makes everything better.

Bubbly makes everything better.

The hotel offered typical Japanese fun and games during New Year’s Eve in a bonenkai party of sorts (read Bad Year? Fogetabout it! for more on how the Japanese dismiss their troubles of the past), to which such fanciful fun is typically reserved. We missed the – and here I am not kidding – the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game, and interrupted the “Guess what’s in the Box” amusement with our late arrival. Although I was the first to win at bingo, just before midnight Jody and I retired to our room for a more private countdown and personal kiss (or two).

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, explanation at the YYY ResortIe Island New Years 2014-2015, zoni soup, broth, taro, spinach and rice cakesNew Year’s Day, however, came with a whole host of celebratory events. January 1st and 2nd are generally regarded as feast days throughout Japan, and our hotel didn’t fail us in this regard. A hugely popular dish made and consumed during the day’s festivities is ozōni (お雑煮), a soup centered around mochi rice cakes. Our soup at breakfast was served with soft-boiled taro and some fresh spinach, topped with a salty clear broth.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, pounding rice for mochi rice cakes on New Years

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody pounding rice for rice cakesHowever, it’s not just the consumption of mochi that is important; it’s the actual creation of the cake from raw rice that’s the heart of this long-lived ritual. In Japan rice is more than food; it’s considered a sacred grain. According to Shinto belief, the ritualistic act of creating mochi invites kami (gods and spirits) to visit. The mochi themselves are thought to contain the presence of kami; and as such they represent perfection and purity and are believed to imbue the eater with these qualities. The ceremony involving these cakes starts with boiling sticky rice (餅米, mochigome) and placing it into a wooden bucket-like container called a usu (臼). The rice along with large, heavy wooden mallets called kine (杵) are both hand-patted with hot water so the rice won’t stick. Using these kine held high overhead, two or more people take turns pulverizing the rice, a cadence being necessary to avoid simultaneous strikes.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, dusting mochi rice cakes with flour WM

After a period of beating, the rice is turned and folded by hand, and then beaten once again. This rhythmic cycle goes on again and again until the rice becomes a sticky white dough, when it is finally transformed into spheroid-like solid dumplings. Although the dough is usually made before New Year’s Day, the hotel allowed the guests to participate in this important tradition on January 1st itself. Served as kinako mochi and coated with brown sugar powder and soy flour, such treats are eaten specifically for good luck in the coming year.

Breaking open the New Year's sake barrel.

Breaking open the New Year’s sake barrel.

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin toasting the New Year with sake fresh from the opened barrelIe Island New Years 2014-2015, toasting the New Year with sake in a traditional wooden cup (masu)Traditional Japanese culture also makes frequent use of sake as a way to observe special events, and is perfect for toasting a New Year. Our sake was served to us from a freshly opened large timber barrel and presented in a traditional small square wooden cup called a masu. Sipping our generous portions of chilled sake on a blistery cold and windy New Year’s Day definitely helped keep us – or at least our spirits – warm and toasty. As rice represents the soul of Japan, sake brewed from rice represents its very essence.

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

Waiting for First Sun of the New Year on Mt. Gusuku

There are also a whole plethora of things to celebrate as the “first” of the New Year. Perhaps foremost of these firsts is the “first sun” (hatsuhi) or “first sunrise,” which Jody and I celebrated (or attempted to) together from the top of Mount Gusuku, the highest perch on Ie Island affording a full 360 degree panoramic view of the East China Sea and Okinawa Island. Although the previous day’s 300 step hike up the steep slope was under clear, blue skies, the overcast and scattered rain showers of New Year’s morn kept the disc of the sun well-hidden; our first twilight will just have to suffice!

Ie Island New Years 2014-2015, Kevin and Jody looking for first sun hatsuhi on top of Mount Gusuku

We were still able to share a few quiet moments together in silent contemplation on that mountaintop, only to be broken by our “first laughter” (waraizome). In Japan, like most any place else on the planet, starting the New Year with a smile is considered a very good sign. And this year, I plan on smiling more than ever. So, from the Far East Fling to you and yours,

Happy New Year!

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

あけましておめでとうございます。

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Geisha & Maiko vs. Hose & Heels: Working Women of Gion, Kyoto


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“The biggest industry in Japan is not shipbuilding, producing cultured pearls, or manufacturing transistor radios or cameras. It is entertainment.”  ~Boye De Mente, Some Prefer Geisha

“Geishas are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.” ~Iwasaki Mineko, Geisha, A Life

“There is currently no western equivalent for a geisha—they are truly the most impeccable form of Japanese art.” ~Kenneth Champeon, The Floating World

Modern Hostesses and "Snacks"

Modern Hostesses and “Snacks”

Japan-travel-Kyoto-Pontocho-Alley-visitWhat is up with all the prom dates and late-night flower shops?” I ask Jody as we wander the streets in and around Gion.  Women, or more correctly young girls, scurry about the streets in their über high heels and hipster nylon leg fashion, dressed to the nines for a ball extravaganza that never seems to materialize…while flower arrangements that more resemble funeral ornamentation are whisked away to the many small bars that dot each alleyway.  Perhaps the Japanese are subconsciously mourning the loss of their old ways.

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

Kyoto has a fetish obsession with nylons, which I admit I enjoy

FCP%20Legs%20Beautiful-smallJust after sunset something odd happens on the outskirts of Gion in Kyoto, the original capital city of Japan and still it’s cultural and religious center.  Young ladies frequent the numerous small nylon and pantyhose shops found there, dressing up on their way to “work” as hostesses and “snack bar” girls, far from the geisha ideal and sensuality of the past.  The ever-resourceful Japan has invented the “snack bar” (basic bars, older women) and “hostess club” (plush lounges, younger women), both places that come pre-stocked with attractive women, where drunk men can find female companionship without worrying about breaking the ice – or even rejection, and women can get paid for babysitting inebriated and males with low self-esteem.  Leave it to fickle Japan to work out such a regressive lose-lose system.

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Me and Jody in front of the Yasaka Shrine

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Traditional wooden nameplates of Maiko

Gion (祇園, ぎおん) is a small historical district of Kyoto, Japan, dating back to the Middle Ages.  Centered in front of the nearby Yasaka Shrine, the neighborhood was designed and built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, and then evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan.  Jody and were fortunate enough to stay on the very outskirts of Gion in an old, authentic Machiya (see Timeless Townhouse to read about that adventure!).

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

A collage of our Machiya stay in Gion

Geisha neckGeisha (芸者), geiko (芸子) or geigi (芸妓) are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act in general terms as hostesses, but whose skills center on perfecting and performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, traditional dance, skillful games and intelligent conversation.  The word consists of two kanji characters, 芸 (gei) meaning “art” and 者 (sha) meaning “person” or “doer.”  The most literal translation is “artist,” “performing artist,” or “artisan.”  The geisha of the Gion district (and in Kyoto generally) actually call themselves geiko, more directly meaning “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art.”

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then-now-geishaContrast this with Japan today, which offers various flavors of hostess clubs and “snacks.” Many young Japanese women work as kyabajō (キャバ嬢), literally “cabaret girl” (although there is no dancing or nudity), and most use a professional name genji-na (源氏名).  The Japanese hostesses of fast-paced, impersonal modernity, rather than highlighting traditional high culture and ideals of sensuality, instead are relegated to lighting cigarettes, pouring drinks, offering flirtation more than wit, and singing karaoke pop songs to entertain today’s average Japanese Joe Sixpack.  Although such hostesses are often said to be the “modern counterpart of geishas,” these groups of women are literally worlds and time apart.

Sadly, not Geisha...or even Maiko.

Sadly, not Geisha…or even Maiko.

672px-Maiko_in_GionMaiko (舞子 or 舞妓), literally “dance child”) are apprentice geisha, and actually are the one who wear the white make-up and elaborate kimono and hair dress which we in the west hold as the popular image of geisha.  A year’s training leads to a woman’s debut as a maiko, and under modern Japanese law, all must be 18 years of age, except for those in Kyoto, where women can apprentice as early as age 15 (as opposed to age 3 or 5 a century ago).

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14195691615_ccc5a28e7c_bShiroNuriSeriesMaiko are considered one of the great sights of Japanese tourism, and although most westerners don’t’ realize, they look very different from fully qualified geisha.  The scarlet-fringed collar of a maiko’s kimono hangs very loosely in the back to accentuate the nape of the neck, a primary erotic area in Japanese sexuality.  She wears the same white makeup for her face on her nape, leaving two or sometimes three stripes of bare skin exposed.  Her kimono is bright and colorful with an elaborately tied obi hanging down to her ankles.  She takes very small steps and wears traditional wooden shoes called okobo which stand nearly ten centimeters high (4 inches).  There are five different hairstyles of a maiko, all impossibly ornate and complex, each marking a different stage of her apprenticeship.  Around the age of 20–22, the maiko is promoted to a full-fledged geisha in a ceremony called “turning of the collar” (erikae) where white replaces red.

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars....

The whole idea behind Japanese Hostess clubs and Snack bars….

60947212_66fb58d83c_mattachmentModern hostesses’ professional wear consists generally of very short skirts or cocktail dresses, but range to prom-like gowns, both looks completed with stylized “big hair,” sexy high heels, and what only can be described as a fetished-obsession with nylons and pantyhose.   These girls drink with customers, sharing in a percentage of drink sales. For example, a patron purchases a $20 drink for the hostess (in addition to his own), which usually are non-alcoholic concoctions and guarantees the hostess’s undivided attention for the subsequent 30-45 minutes.

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ShiroNuriSeries14584584159_e22d477ea9_bIn modern times the traditional makeup of apprentice geisha is unmistakable, though established geisha generally only wear full white makeup during special performances.  This makeup features a thick white base with red lipstick and red and black accents around the eyes and eyebrows.  The application of makeup is hard to perfect and consumes vast amounts of time, and is applied before dressing to avoid dirtying a kimono.

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Yikes.

Yikes.

Not a geisha

Not a geisha

Personal introductions to geisha and maiko were, and still are often required today.  However, modern patrons of hostess clubs are greeted warmly (if not insincerely) at the door and invited directly in.  At some establishments, a customer is able to choose his specific female companion, but that decision is most often left to the house’s mamasan, herself once a hostess who’s worked her way up cleaning splashes off the glass ceiling and into management.  In either case, the hostesses usually rotate after a certain amount of time or number of drinks, offering customers a chance to see a fresh face.  Personally speaking, I have always been assigned a “snack” in a “Snack Bar,” but have had choice in the Okinawan Hostess Clubs I’ve visited.  For the experience.  And nothing more!

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

There is no greater insult to Geisha than this.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

A mature and established Geisha and her Maiko.

airfrance3A maiko’s eyes and eyebrows are drawn in; the eyebrows and edges of the eyes are colored black, and red is applied around her eyes.  The lips are filled in, but not in our more familiar Western style, but instead red and white is used to create various optical illusions and representations, such as a flower’s bud. Maiko wear this heavy makeup almost constantly, but it does change over time to a more subdued style to better reflect her maturity and to help display her own natural beauty.  For formal occasions, mature geisha still apply white make-up, but for geisha over thirty, the heavy white make-up is only worn during the special dances that require it.

Well, I was wrong.  Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse....

Well, I was wrong. Manson as a Geisha is indeed worse….

Katie, you're no geisha....

Katie, you’re no geisha….

There is one way in which geisha and their loosely modern equivalents seem to converge: in addition to their on-site duties, hostesses are generally obliged to engage in paid dates called dōhan (同伴) with their patrons outside of the bar, beyond regular working hours.  Although characterized much differently, maiko and geisha are also paid for such alone time.  While the intersection of prostitution and both geisha and hostesses remain vague and unsure, the fact is that sometimes sex occurs on these “paid dates.”  Although such an arrangement of sex for money is clearly dictated by geisha, there are ongoing concerns about human trafficking and sexual slavery with hostesses, particularly those of non-Japanese citizenship.  Note that since Japanese law narrowly defines prostitution specifically as “intercourse with an unspecified person in exchange for payment,” non-coital services remain legal and are widely offered and available.  If only Clinton had been President in Japan, he actually wouldn’t have had sex with that woman!

Monica, not a Geisha.

Monica, not a Geisha.

Geisha Girls from our "Sayonara" going-away party last year

Geisha Girls from our “Sayonara” going-away party last year

13933417728_f4b9093d88_bUnfortunately, in modern Japan, geisha and maiko are now a rare sight.  In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today, there are far fewer, with most estimates between 1,000 and 2,000.  World War II heralded a huge decline, especially after 1944 when geisha teahouses, bars and houses were all forced shut by the government so that everyone could work in factories in support of the war effort.  At the end of the war such facilities were reopened, but geisha as a label was irreversibly defamed as common prostitutes began referring to themselves as “geisha girls” during Japan’s post-war occupation.  An association which the American GIs bought, hook, line and sinker.

I'm pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

I’m pretty sure this Geisha and Maiko are the real deal.

Our "real" sighting!

Our “real” sighting!

14606602998_d3487a96e9_bThe most common (mistaken) sightings are those of tourists who pay a fee to be dressed and made up as a maiko.  The Gion neighborhood in Kyoto has five hanamachi (“flower towns”), or geiko districts, and despite the geisha’s considerable decline in the last hundred years, Gion remains famous for the preservation of forms of traditional architecture and entertainment, and remains one of the places in Japan where a foreigner has a good chance of actually seeing a geisha.  While we did see plenty of woman playing the part, we maybe, just maybe saw one in a rickshaw…and I’m almost positive we followed a maiko and her geisha for a block or two (see below).

Not as sure about this one....

Not as sure about this one….

Personally speaking, the intrigue and sensuality of geisha and maiko, regardless of how backwards and repressive some in the West may think such lifestyles are, should and will always outclass and outlast the rather demeaning heels and hose of the snacks and hostesses that now frequent the streets of Kyoto.  I feel for the Japanese women today who, although they most likely think they are exercising free-choice in pursuit of their destinies, have given up so much status, income and power of the past.

vintage geisha girls

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At least they are dressed well for the funeral. And how’bout those flowers….

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Me and Jody with our performing Maiko for the night.

Trampled Torii: Abused by the West


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Capitalism is King, if not god, in the West

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What would his flesh be, Hardees??

What if we used Christian religious symbols in a rather haphazard and nonchalant way?  Worse, what if it was used for purely commercial purposes.  Would you, maybe some of your friends, or perhaps a family or two become offended or even outraged?  I bet some would.  But then again, let he who is without doing the same among us be the first to cast blasphemies….

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I’m not sure the Pakistanis appreciate “The Man” on Their Spiritual Moon

If these graphics have got your dander up, it’s for very good reason.  After doing a recent blog on how the Germans in the 1930s hijacked the Far Eastern swastika for rather dubious purposes (read about it here), it immediately struck me just how oddly inappropriate the West’s use of Japanese “torii” are, especially throughout the American military.  In other words, this blasphemed blade can (and does) slice both ways.

An authentic tori marks the division between the profane and the prolific merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

An authentic torii marks the division between the profane and the prolific (if not sacred) merchandising of the new base exchange in Okinawa

stereoview Kyoto Torii shrineTorii (鳥居, literally “where the birds reside” or “bird abode”) are traditional Japanese gateways at the entrance of Shinto shrines.  In Japan, birds have long mythical connection with the dead, as is true is most shamanistic-based religions or cultures.  The first appearance of torii in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the 10th century (CE); the oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century, while the oldest wooden torii dates to 1535.

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Huge steel torii marking a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Visiting the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine, Kyoto, Japan

Torii are typically made of wood, stone (or concrete in more modern times), and very rarely sometimes metal (steel or cooper).  Wooden torii are usually painted a bright red vermilion, complete with a black upper lintel and contrasting bases, while stone or concrete gates are left in their natural state.  Some of the most profound examples of torii can be round at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands are lined up in close spacing, forming torii tunnels that run for thousands of meters up and down the shrine’s hillside.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii (of course inscribed with their name) to Inari, the kami or deities of industry and business.  In an ironic twist, the same shrine has as its anthropomorphic mascot a fox, ideally suited for shrewd and cunning business dealings.

A properly fantastic - and spiritual display of torii!

A properly fantastic – and spiritual display of torii!

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

While sacred as the USMC invasion beach in WWII, this is a fantastically poor use and portrayal of a torii.

Not all torii are at shrines or temples; the torii in general marks the entrance to a sacred space, and thereby separates the hallowed ground from our more tangible and profane world.  Rarely is it used as a free-standing non-religious symbol placed in non-consecrated plots.  Roads or paths leading to a Shinto shrine are almost always straddled by one or more torii.  If multiple torii are present, they are used to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary core of the shrine, the honden.

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass....

At least this religion makes your ass look better, instead of making you look like an ass….

glossarytoriigateWalking through a torii gateway helps to cleanse a person, along with water purification rituals that are practiced before formal entrance to the shrine’s honden.  Together, both help one make ready to properly pray to the kami enshrined in and around such sacred ground.  While usually seen at Shinto shrines in Japan, torii can also be found at Buddhist temples throughout the Far East.  On maps, iconic torii usually indicate the site of a Shinto shrines.  Interestingly, in a nod to the past when the Emperors of Japan were considered deities themselves, coupled with the enduring relationship between Shinto and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands in front of the tombs of each Emperor.

Former Emperor Hirohito's Tomb

Former Emperor Hirohito’s Tomb

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The Religion of the Devil Dog

The torii functions as an explicitly religious symbol when it marks the entry into a sacred arena.  When such an association is absent, such a structure cannot be properly referred to as a torii.  While torii used outside of a religious context are not religious symbols themselves, they still remain approximate copies of religious symbols, an organic facet of the torii that is simply inescapable.

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there....

The only sacraments beyond these gates at Torii Station is the Scuba Locker found there….

Pilots are not the only priests in aviation.  The divine trinity more appropriately consists of:  Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

Pilots are not the only priests of aviation. The divine trinity more appropriately consists of: Pilots, Navigators, and Aircrew.

However, the torii is widely used by the West well outside of all and any religious contexts.  In fact, it is most often used by the US military in directly antithetical ways to those of the Far East.  For example, it is not just the symbolic entrance of “Torii Station,” an Army base on Okinawa, it is the very name of the base.  Similarly, it is used by Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa (CFAO), and can be found framing rather pedestrian street signs, building names, and lessor commands and organizations throughout the American footprint in the Far East.

This is where the liberty rule blasphemy is, in part, produced.

This is where a sailor’s liberty is blasphemed

RAKKASAN_DECAL

Mr. Don's 80th Birthday Party

Mr. Don’s 80th Birthday Party

In a personally interesting tangent, one of the most well-known army units, the “Rakkasan,” uses a Torii in its coat of arms.  Rakkasan derives from the Japanese word for umbrella, and in the context of this airborne unit, can be loosely translated to, “man falling under umbrella.”  The Rakkasan are the only military unit whose nickname that is still in use was designated by an enemy, and is the only unit in the military whose guidon does not bear a finial but a torii.  I know very well a veteran of this unit, a man named Mr. Don Cripps, who has TWO combat jumps with the Rakkasan during the Korea War.  I have had the honor of skydiving with him almost weekly since I learned to jump in 2006; Mr. Don, as we all refer to him, is now 83 and continues to skydive just about every weekend.  Read more about him here.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama.  Not his airborne patch.

Me and Mr. Don skydiving back in Elberta, Alabama. Not his airborne patch.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts' claims.

No doubt religion sells, but I doubt the veracity of their shirts’ claims.

Hell, it's even on our money!!

Hell, it’s even on our money!!

I wonder if we Westerners have ever stopped to think about how the Japanese – and those throughout the Far East – view our rather insensitive (at best) and probably offensive (in general) use of such religious icons.  While Capitalism may be King in America, and for some, it substitutes as their religion of choice, it still provides no right for hijacking such meaningful symbology, rich in myth in legend.  Particularly when these symbols of peace and the divinity are used to represent violence and death, things which both defile and soil the notion of purity in Shintoism.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.

If only our wedding chapels were this nice.

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Modern Missions of the Far East

Modern Missions of the Far East

But, as I always like to say, the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  Western weddings are all the rage in Japan, and with Okinawa providing the fabulous backdrops of blue skies, sand beaches, lush greenery, and turquoise waters, Western-style “wedding chapels” can be found at all the resort hotels.  Yes, while they are completely modeled on a Christian theme, these wedding venues have little to do with religion.  It is, like for Christmas in Japan (see my blog on this concept here), it is the very notion of the Western Wedding that appeals so to the Japanese, not any aspect of the religiosity of the nuptials.

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

The Occult of the Mouse, Far Eastern Flavored

I guess much like the beauty and lines of the torii appeal to those of us lucky enough to flirt with the Far East.  Touché Japan, on this one; I find no grounds for blasphemy or negligent disrespect by either culture.  Still, we all should strive to be more mindfully aware of our surroundings, and what our actions convey and deeds mean to others.  After all, the whole idea of religion is to coexist.  That, my friends, should be the same, East or West, Torah or torii.

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

What the gods really think of all our stress over religion!

And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World….


Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

Jody and I back in September 2010 when I had a Great, Big Secret

“Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.”  ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Where there is love there is life.”  ~ Mahatma Gandhi

“Do all things with love.”  ~ Og Mandino

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see’em bloom, for me and for you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I friend of mine recently “liked” a comment on Face Book, not an unusual action in the days of over-indulgent social media.  However, what is unusual about the comment on her page, a response from me to a posting of hers, was from early October…of 2010.  Do you realize how hard it is to move that far backwards through your wall?!?

I will Marry Her

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

Jody knew it too, hence the coy wink

As you can see, in it I divulged my growing devotion and desire to be with Jody.  Permanently.  Of course this “liking” comes on the heels of Valentine’s Day (VD), a quite romantic if unlikely notion.  But what makes this so very abnormally doubtful is I have no idea what possessed A to reach so far back into her FB postings to see or find this particular entry…if she was, indeed, even looking.

7395685800_1894eb976f_bIt is, as I like to say, another example of how the universe unfolds pretty much how it should.  From my wedding vows, said to Jody more than 13 months after I proclaimed to A that I would indeed marry Jody:

“We are all children of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
and have a right to be standing here, in absolute love.
And whether or not it is clear to those here today,
no doubt for us, Jody, the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation

Vows at our Alter of Naval Aviation

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A sentiment NOT associated with Jody, but my earlier mistaken marriage.

Jody and I have decided to adopt the Japanese approach to VD, and trust me, it does not involve the double-barrel shots of penicillin to the buttocks – been there, done that, “butt” (pun intended) the t-shirt had to be burned for infection control.  Rather, Jody is (hopefully) going to get me chocolates, we’ll walk down the block for a local and wine-infused dinner, and then stumble home to continue our celebrations.  In March, I get to return the favor, and then some, during “White Day.”

valentine

Here VD in Japan takes an interesting turn away from the West:  women traditionally do all the giving.  When chocolate companies originally started pushing the Western idea of VD in Japan, they focused on women as sole givers.  At the time, Japanese women were quite conservative in voicing affections, so the rather novel idea of surrogate chocolates was immediately and widely embraced.

I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

However, as a new tradition not yet ingrained in culture, customs surrounding Valentine’s Day in Japan have shifted.  In more modern times, women do give chocolates as a gesture of love.  But before you get too overly excited about receiving chocolates from a Japanese woman, realize that they also give chocolates to work colleagues and male friends – called giri-choco, literally “obligation chocolate” – as a gesture of thanks or friendship.  The concept of giri is very Asian; it is a mutual obligation that the Japanese follow when, if someone does you a favor, then you feel obligated to do something in return.  In this sense, it is not unusual for a woman to buy 20 to 30 boxes of chocolate at several hundred yen each (several dollars) for distribution around the office and to other male friends.

There's a Hooters in Japan??

There’s a Hooters in Japan??

The colors of a rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces, of people going by
I see friends shaking hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’, “I love you.”

Conversely, for that special man in her life, a Japanese lover can choose from various types of honmei-choco (“sweetheart” or “true love chocolate”) of much higher quality (and cost) than the obligation sweets.  And, even more recently, home-made treats have become even more popular, along with gyaku-choco (“reverse chocolates,” men giving women chocolates), and tomo-choco (“friendship chocolates,” very popular between young girlfriends).

Another New Trend:  Heart-Shaped Pizza!

Another New Trend: Heart-Shaped Pizza!

It’s clearly become a very popular day in Japan; more than half of Japan’s annual chocolate sales happen during February and March, when “White Day” occurs.  “White Day” was created in Japan in 1980 to help soften the guilt of males who received VD chocolates.  Exactly one month after Valentine’s Day, men who were lucky enough to receive sugar-infused gifts are given the chance to return the favor.  But, in a sexist twist that seems to have not been lost in translation, the expectation for these return gifts is to be of higher value than those purchased by women!

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more, than I’ll never know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Selfie at the Alter

Selfie at the Alter

6211305178_bb5798e566_bNo matter how you elect to treat your own VD, please strive to root your life in compassion and love.  It is a utopian ideal, but one worthy of our attentive focus and best effort.  To Jody, I rededicate my life to the You and the Me in Our Us, and finish this Valentine’s Day with the closing stanza of my wedding vows when I did indeed marry you, not so secretly:

“In the face of the sham, drudgery, and broken dreams of the past,
You have made the world – my world – a beautiful place.
Be we cheerful this day as we always strive to be happy.
I love you Jody, my Desideratum, my desired thing
Wife from this day forward.”
Yes! I DID marry that girl!!

Yes! I DID marry that girl!!

 

Yes I think to myself …….what a wonderful world.

~~~ Happy Valentine’s Day~~~

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