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!
About near the north-middle of Okinawa, on the main island’s western coast lies the Busena Cape (Busenamisaki) stretching out into the ocean and sheltering a large coral reef in its shallow bay. I visited there in 2011 and took these photos of the 760m long white beach. These days the cape has a resort park, with the obligatory resort hotels and tourist attractions. Many of these are left over from the 2000 G8 Summit meeting. I wonder if any of the visiting world leaders got to see any of the natural beauty of this little piece of paradise? Tellingly, the only of the eight leaders who attended who is still in the same position is Russia’s Putin. Also tellingly, the most interesting part of the summit was the hockey game between a Canadian and a local Okinawan team. Ice Hockey in Okinawa? Who would have imagined it. If you are ever lucky enough to get handed a 2000 yen note, that was issued first in 2000, you can see the commemorative back side featuring Shuri castle from Okinawa.
One of the main tourist attractions of the cape is the glass bottom boat tours. Having never seen a coral reef before it was interesting, but for people who are braver than me I guess that the real action is underneath the surface, diving and snorkeling. Like in all the oceans of the world, the coral reefs of Okinawa is most likely heading towards extinction. There are volunteer and government programs to restore the reefs but without tackling the larger problem of ocean acidification it is unlikely that we will be able to show our grandchildren any corals apart from the ones grown in aquariums. Okinawa also regularly suffer from overpopulation of starfish that feed on corals and there are local volunteer diving teams that spend weeks every year removing starfish or even killing them to save the coral. As always in these problems, without addressing the causes the symptoms are unlikely to go away.
Still, to uneducated visitors like me, this part of Okinawa looks like a little piece of paradise. You can find the homepage of the Busena Marinepark here.
Oh, and this is the 1800th post online (not including deleted posts). Time flies!
At the budo, or martial arts, tournament and exhibition at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine a few weeks ago I saw this wonderful performance of Yabusame or mounted horse archery. I have written previously about the glory of Yabusame (I am completely in love with this sport) so if you are interested in the details of the sport head over to that post from 2011. This year’s Yabusame at Meiji Shrine was slightly unusual due to the high number of very talented female archers. You could tell from the excited reactions of the audience when they were being introduced that female archers make a wildly popular sport even more popular! The biggest drawback with Yabusame is that it is a very audience unfriendly sport. For the effort involved in setting things up and the costs involved, very few people can actually see it and the most devoted audience members had already staked out their spots on the grass 5-6 hours before the event even started! The action is also very rapid – the announcer will announce that an archer has left the staging area on the left, you hear the thunder of the hooves and in a split second the horse thunders past you – a cheer from the crowd if there is a hit, once, twice, maybe three times. It is all over very quickly and if you lose you concentration you might miss the best bit. I was plonked firmly at the front end of the audience section, wedged between two other photographers so I go to see the horses right the moment before had reached full speed, but even with my fast camera I missed many passes. Still, there is no sport on Earth like Yabusame and it’s an incredible rush to be within touching distance of horse and rider thundering past!