Tokyobling's Blog

The Hidden Christian of Kamakura

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on June 23, 2015

At the tiny Gosho Shrine in the ancient city of Kamakura to the southwest of of Tokyo there is a touching tiny cemetery (very rare for a shrine) with something as rare as a wooden cross seemingly carelessly leaning on the old stone wall. The cross marks a tiny statue that is said to represent the grave of one of the very few Hidden Christians of Kamakura, or at least so the legend tells.

It is said that someone living near the shrine placed the statue where it is now, but nobody knows who or when. Since then the statue has been affectionally referred to as the Granny of Spring Time and used to hold flowers. The tiny statue fits snugly into two hands (but you can’t touch it, it is far too brittle and old!) and has a lovely but very sad and pained expression on its weathered face. The statue’s hands are clasped behind its back, with a square hole between what might once have been fingers. The woman is kneeling forward, and it looks almost like her arms have been bound. From the front the faint outline of her kimono is showing, and since the left side of the collar is to the front, we can assume that she is wearing a burial kimono in a style reserved for the dying or soon to be dead. The thinness of the sash could be the mark of a prisoner, and someone, maybe herself, has carefully folded her kimono under her bended knees in a very elegant and careful manner. The elegance of the kimono, the painful expression and the hands tied behind her back gives her a dignified expression despite the situation.

A few years ago a few characters were identified carved into the base of the statue, which would date it to January or February 1684, 61 years after the famous Magni Martyres Nagasaciences, the Grand Martyrdom of Nagasaki, when 52 Christians, lay people and priests, were burnt at the stake or decapitated. 26 of them were canonized in 1867 by the Pope Pius IX. At this time, in the 17th century, the Japanese government were already well informed about world events and were well aware of the role Christianity played in helping European nations conquering and colonizing most of the planet. The Japanese were extremely determined to stop what they believed would be the eventual colonization of Japan, to the extent that they fought a bitter civil war and later purged anyone they could find with Christian sympathies, which culminated in 1637 with the Shimabara Rebellion, where a peasant army of Japanese Catholic Christians ransacked and looted buddhist temples all over modern day Kyushu island. To put a stop to foreign backed revolts once and for all the Tokugawa government in Edo closed the border of Japan and sealed the islands off from the rest of the world until it was forced to open up in 1853 thanks to US gun boat diplomacy.

We will never find out who the statue actually represents, or who carved it. Could it be someone who witnessed her execution? Or is it a statue used in secret Christian rituals by a family who relocated from Nagasaki? Perhaps the statue was lost or stolen, or the people who ended up owning it forgot what it was meant to represent? Just to possess this statue up until 1853 would have been quite dangerous, so maybe some distant relative talked the owner’s family into disposing of it at the shrine, hoping that it would be taken care of? It is interesting to speculate, but we will never know for sure.

Until a few years ago the statue had been used as a flower holder, but thanks to a local man with an interest in history and woodworking, it now also has a cross to accompany it. As I was looking at the statue, the sun moved through the branches of the trees opposite the statue, and for a few brief moments it was bathed in sunlight.

Note also, the Shinto and the Buddhist grave markers next to the statue. This is truly a cemetery for many faiths.

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Kanda Matsuri Shishigashira – Lion Heads

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on June 22, 2015

One of the most powerful symbols of the great Kanda Matsuri that took place last month at one of Tokyo’s great shrines, the Kanda Myojin, is the entrance of the two Shishigashira, lion heads, into the shrine itself. One male, and one female, their role is to protect the processions of the shrine festival, and when they finally enter the shrine on the last night they are carried on wooden beams by an all female team. Accompanying them are a set of large traditional drums played by young girls, in a very unusual and ominous style of rhythm. It sounds like nothing else I have heard at a Japanese festival. Since this year’s festival was the 400th, the shrine was crowded beyond capacity. The police and the shrine guards could impossible contain the crowds so the women had to really battle their way to the front of the shrine and receive the final blessing from the head priest. The large golden heads looked amazing!

The original shrine Shishigashira were both destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake in the 1920s, and these were recreated from photos and drawings in 1983.

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Shinagawa Matsuri – Omikoshi

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on June 18, 2015

The Shinagawa Matsuri a couple of weeks ago has some pretty interesting omikoshi, well known for the attached drums, which are beaten continuously during the parade. The movement style of omikoshi is also quite peculiar and has a very interesting rhythm and style. You must see it to appreciate though, as the photos do not do the movement justice! I took these photos at the shopping street leading up from neighborhood just below the shrine itself. Accompanying each omikoshi is not only the drummer, but also one or two flutists, which makes the festival even more festive than usual!

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Yoshiwara Gionsai – Shizuoka Prefecture

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People, Places by tokyobling on June 15, 2015

I spent yesterday in Fuji City, in Shizuoka Prefecture which is two prefectures over west from Tokyo, visiting the lovely and colorful Yoshiwara Gionsai, famous for its many dashi (mobile festival platforms). The festival was as great as ever, despite the tiny bit of rain that fell at the end of the festival. You would be excused for not believing that we were actually in the middle of the rain period here in Japan, but so far there has not been very much of it.

The main attraction of the Yoshiwara Gion Festival is the main street in Yoshiwara Honcho, where the different dashi are pulled up and down the streets by the members of the neighborhood they represent. The dashi are manned by kids and adults who play the more or less traditional music of these festival. When I say more or less I mean that Shizuoka is famous for being slightly more innovative in the music and rhythm sections of their festivals and the kids have quite a bit of freedom in deciding how they are going to perform. Most opt for the traditional way but there are a few far away influences to some of teams drumming or dancing!

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