Of all the photographic subject available in this fantastic country few beats the ladder acrobatics for photogenics! These teams of gravity defying fire fighters are really something to see. I took saw the Saitama prefecture Kawagoe city team at the Kawagoe spring festival opening last week. In the old days samurai families tasked with fighting fires in the cities of Japan developed a technique of quickly and safely raising ladders using not much beyond bamboo, ropes and hooks. The bravest would then race up the ladder and quickly be able to locate the source of the fire and the direction it was likely to travel in. A low tech solution to problems faced by firefighters in many cultures. To keep their skill up the teams would practice on the ladders in a form of acrobatics that is now the “hashigonori engi” (梯子乗り演技). There are different traditions but most of them center on a dozen core positions centered around where on the ladder they are performed (up, middle or moving downwards). Most teams follow the traditional 69 positions although very few of them are every used be the individual teams. Can you spot the position called the “sea turtle”?
There are even some extremely scary looking two man positions that I have never seen in real life (not to be confused with bigger ladder teams where two or three men do their own routines on different parts of the ladder at the same time). I took so many photos of their three different performances on this day so I will a second bunch of photos for later. Enjoy!
At the holy Takaosan mountain in Tokyo’s Hachioji city you’ll find the Kitouden (高尾山自動車祈祷殿), a sub temple to the famous Yakuoin which is devoted solely to traffic safety, and naturally it is a drive in temple. Well, not as much drive in as drive up to, but still. The temple is open to a large parking space where observant car owners, bikers and cyclists pull up to receive their yearly blessing. In the ceremony a monk will read prayers over the vehicles and the visitors and at the end of it you get a sticker to put on your car.
Quite correctly, buddhist monks are of the opinion that there is no such thing as an “accident” in traffic and that they can be avoided by having the correct attitude, the right state of mind and a heightened awareness of everything from your own stress as a driver to the mood of the drivers around you. It is the monks hope that the prayers will help you keep concentrated on traffic safety and thus avoid injury to yourself or others. Being calm and aware are two very buddhists attitudes so they fit right in with traffic safety!
The temple building of the Kitouden itself is not very interesting but the statues of the ferocious tengu facing the cars are fantastic, and very photogenic. My favorite is the seated tengu, taking the aspect of Buddha himself.
Spring is here and this year’s Kawagoe Harumatsuri (the 25th Kawagoe City Spring Festival) went off in perfect sunshine. The festival is over a month long and runs until the 6th of May with events happening most weekends and a few weekdays in Saitama prefecture’s Kawagoe City. As usual the opening ceremony was spectacular with the usual taiko drumming, folk dancing, musketry, marching bands, brass bands, koinobori painting for the kids and ladder acrobatics by the local firefighters. In fact, the weather was so good photography was quite difficult in the harsh spring sunlight! Last year’s opening day was grey and rainy, perfect for taking photos but not for enjoying a day out. I’ll post more photos from this fun spring event!
Last weekend while visiting Yasukuni shrine to see the sakura trees I also spent a while watching the semi-annual iaido performance at the Kagura stage in the shrine grounds. There were iaidoka, practitioners of iaido, of both sexes, from young to old and including at least one foreigner. Iaido is a highly philosophical sport focused on the quick drawing of the sword, a resolute attack and a smooth withdrawal. Because it involves actual weaponry there is not competition aspect to it. There are three kinds of swords, a wooden boken that is used for kata (or set movements) with more than one person, iaito which is a blunt metal sword and a shinken, which is a sharpened sword. There are also kata for more than one swords, extra long swords and sneakier “stealth” kata that involves hidden daggers.
Originally iaido was a real practice for real combat situations but these days it is more like a very fluid form of zen meditation, similar to zen archery, kyudo, and not even remotely similar to the combat sports like kendo or naginata. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become reasonably good at iaido. There is something comforting about a sport where the best practitioners are also usually the oldest!
Despite this performance being free for anyone to watch it is not very well advertised apart from a line or two on a sub-page of the ever elegant and modest Yasukuni shrine official website.