Although the Tokyo official sakura season is still not declared there are a few early bloomers here and there around the capital. I walked through Hibiya Park which is about as downtown as you can get in central Tokyo and found that spring was already coming along nicely probably a week or two earlier than the rest of the city. Cherry trees were blooming, lots of other flowers as well, and the wildlife was coming back to the ponds and wetlands in the park. I saw newts, lizards, turtles and even a couple of egrets hunting for food!
What today is Hibiya park started out as the private gardens of several different feudal lords. When the Emperor took control of the country in the 1860s, the old feudal lords were ordered to leave the capital and the area around Hibiya park was mostly abandoned. In 1871 the military moved in and placed barracks and gunpowder storage in the old gardens. The military eventually left and the government started planning a new kind of park in the location of the old parade grounds. Before the end of the century the new Japanese government had sent out hundreds of young scholars around the world to study hard and bring home the latest in all art and sciences, on of these men was Honda Seiroku who had studied landscaping in Germany and was placed on the design committee of one of the first western style parks in the country. Hibiya Park was officially declared open in 1903.
The park has seen quite a lot of the modern history of Japan, it has been the base of a military mutiny, riots and demonstrations, it has been turned into a refugee shelter and temporary burial ground after earthquakes and during the war all of the flower beds were turned over to growing potatoes and the metal in the park railing and statues were confiscated for military use. After the war some of the buildings were occupied by the US Navy as headquarters. Today it is surrounded by the head offices of several banks and newspapers as well as three government ministries. When people in Japan think about park, it is usually the Hibiya Park that comes to mind!
One of the more interesting buildings in the park is the old park management office built in 1910 in the German Bungalow style. Right next to it is a more recent restaurant building in a slightly similar manner.
A sunny Saturday afternoon walking along the Sumida river near the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and I saw a group of people feeding a lively flock of gulls. Few scenes are as much fun and easy to photograph as this!
This spot on the Sumida river is very popular with tourists, as it is where two different cruise ship operators and water taxis have their starting points, about a dozen different vessels and half as many different lines. The most popular lines go to Odaiba, a reclaimed island on in Tokyo Bay. You can read about one of these lines in a couple of posts I did in 2012, here and here. I can’t wait for spring to arrive!
In the 1970s Japan experienced a boom in sport fishing. All over the country men (and some women) would spend all weekends, for years and years, on fishing in rivers, lakes and on the oceans. Walk into any Japanese book store and try to count the dozens of dozens of fishing related magazines and you will start to understand the scope of the national interest in fishing. You are also likely to find fishing goods stores in any town in Japan. As the saying goes in the US, “it is a one horse town”, the saying in Japan might possibly be “it is a one fishing good store town”. If you are ever trying to bond with a Japanese man over 50, talking about either fishing or golf is almost certain to be a hit. These days the fishing craze has subdued a little. Young people are not so interested in it anymore, a fact which is visible in the recent demise of one of Japan’s longest running movie series, the Tsuribaka Nisshi (“The Fishing Maniac’s Diary”) of 21 movies (starring Toshiyuki Nishida, in my humble opinion one of the finest Japanese actors of all time and fantastically underrated abroad).
Even though, go to any body of water in the country and you’re bound to see a bunch of fishermen, around the clock. Some are doing it to relax, others as a way to spend their retirement and to get out of the house, others are doing it to put food on the table (the unemployed and homeless). I saw these well equipped sports fishermen at the far shore of Enoshima Island in Kanagawa Prefecture south-west of Tokyo. I saw them catch all kinds of fish, some squids and once even a large octopus. I hope to join one of my fishing friends some day for a proper boat trip out on the ocean!
The last photo is just a lucky shot of one of the original fishers of Japan – the bird of prey circling over the ocean with Mount Fuji in the background.
When I started this blog it was always my ambition to tell a story with the photos. I soon realized that photos alone was not enough and that I needed a story to go with them, but I can’t write and I wanted only the simplest stories. Some stories are almost impossible complicated though. This blog post has been sitting on my to do list since May this year. I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it. Here goes. I’ll give it a try. It is extremely simplified.
In the very long ago mythical past of Japan, the people thought that there were many Gods in the lands. The ice-age myths were alive and well. They told stories of animals, springs, rocks, mountains, clouds and skies being inhabited by a kami, a God. Humans were Gods in the making as well and these Gods could never be killed, they stayed around at family altars and watched over their descendants gathered around the hearths and homes. There was no need to build temples since everywhere was already inhabited by a kami. In the 7th century the cool new thing, buddhism came over from China and they started building nice temples that filled up with rich offerings and gathered monks and nuns around them. The priests who communicated with the kami were miffed, and so to stay competitive they started building shrines of their own, honoring the most important or strongest of the kami. Japan would be very lucky to have two peaceful non-competitive religions coexisting in quite a bit of harmony. The kami enshrined in these buildings sometimes grew bored and needed to be taken out for a bit, and so the festivals you still see today, with the portable shrines, the omikoshi, were born. To spread the benign influence of the kami around, the shrines started erecting Otabisho, which are in essence mini-shrine motels, places where the kami in the omikoshi can rest for a little while or even spend the night as they travel around the parish. These Otabisho were built in specially significant locations, sometimes within the shrine precincts, sometimes just outside, sometimes even an hours walk away. Since the kami now inhabited these otabisho they were considered extraordinarily holy and lay people were forbidden to enter while the kami was there. Armed guards with sharpened swords would be placed outside to protect the kami while they rested. Today, many hundreds of years later, a few very old shrines still preserve this tradition, one of them being the Okunitama Shrine (大國魂神社) in Tokyo’s western Fuchu City. The first photo shows one of these modern day warriors in front of the Otabisho, holding up his sword, luckily it was not necessary to unsheathe it that night. He is accompanied by city elders, friends, Boy Scouts and curious locals of all ages. Inside the kami of the Okunitama shrine rests safely. Traditionally you are not supposed to see the inside of the Otabisho but I think the residents of the apartment building right next to it can get a pretty good view of the Otabisho enclosure just by opening their front doors!
There is one more complicated and interesting ritual taking place at this spot on the same night, the Lucky Arrow. In a procession from the main shrine to the Otabisho the head priest rides a black horse and shoots an arrow at a target presented by a lower ranking priest or assistant. Hitting the target means that the kami are in favor of the city and will protect them during the coming year. To be on the safe side the mounted priest is very close to the target and shoots as many little arrows as necessary, although the first one rarely misses. Now, the really interesting and absolutely terrifying aspect of this ritual is that the people of Fuchu, which happens to be the home of a horse race track a few kilometers away, believe that possessing the arrow shot by the head priest in front of the kami while mounted on a live horse, is going to bring them extremely good luck in betting on the horses. For horse racing fans there is no stronger talisman in the entire country so a few of them (only the burliest needs to bother) will show up to try and catch the arrow as it bounces of the target, usually in mid-air, usually within the kicking distance of a very proud horse! I consider myself fairly used to horses and if it is one thing I always remember it is to never walk behind a horse within kicking distance. These men however seemed absolutely fearless as their quest for the lucky arrow almost ended in a big brawl. It was actually quite scary and I had a very hard time concentrating on taking photos, hence the poor documentation of this interesting folk custom of Fuchu City!
These rituals take place during the Kurayami festival, which is a night festival that used to take place under the cover of darkness. When Japan opened up to foreigners in the late 1860′s however, they were so embarrassed about this festival that would be sure to shock the sensible western missionaries and traders to their very bones, so they quickly changed it to a daytime and early evening festival. Fuchu is still a very dark city after nightfall though, and the photos I took actually looks brighter (thank the kami for modern technology!) than it was in real life, hence the dark blurry and grainy shots. If I am lucky and get a chance to see this again I will be better prepared to take better photos!