Understanding Te no Uchi

A topic that often comes up no matter how long a person studies martial arts is what he/she should be doing with their hands during x, or how they should manipulate their weapon during y. These examples are generally related to te no uchi (手の内), which is an important area of training that is introduced to many beginners of martial arts, yet is deep enough in principles that even advanced practitioners continue to work on.

Te no uchi refers to how you wield a weapon in your hands. It is not limited to just how one holds a weapon, but goes as far as how to manipulate it, how to do certain strikes, how one’s hands change grips, how it is held based on one’s posture, and so on. You’ll hear this used for many weapon-based martial systems such as kenjutsu (剣術), kyūdō (弓道), sōjutsu (槍術), and so on. However, it is not just used for when you possess an object in your hand, for te no uchi is also used for hand-to-hand martial systems like karate (空手) and taijutsu (体術), for in essence even a martial artist’s hands are a “weapon”.

Let’s refer to the te no uchi of the naginata. One of the basic te no uchi often taught very early is keeping a consistent grip style with the right hand on top and left hand on bottom similar to wielding a katana. This is reminiscent to how it was used on the battlefield in the past especially in troop formation. Another te no uchi taught is how to switch hand positions, which is important depending on the situation and type of naginata being used. The following example below illustrate this when doing repeated horizontal cuts.

① The initial grip (left pic) is important, as it determines the te no uchi for the right horizontal swing.

② Finishing the swing, the right hand turns the naginata vertically (left pic), from which the left hand slides up and switches place with the right hand (middle pic). Through this a transition to a horizontal swing using the intended te no uchi can be established.

③ Finishing the left horizontal swing, same action is performed again, this time left hand bringing the naginata vertical (middle pic), then switching with the right hand (right pic). Repeat.

This is a step-by-step demonstration on how to achieve this switching of hands in order to maintain a specific reach with the naginata. Of course, as one becomes proficient, this manipulation will become smoother & natural. However, the overall execution of this te no uchi will still remain as long as it’s properly ingrained in the body.

Another scenario concerning te no uchi can be seen during kenjutsu, when two practitioners lock their katana together in tsuba zeri ai (鍔競合い). When the skill level between the two are about even, the one with the better te no uchi can get the upper hand. For example, it is advantageous to understand the moment when to push the opponent’s hands up through the use of one’s tsuka (柄, sword handle), or how to twist one’s hands to utilize the tsuba (鍔, sword guard) to push the opponent’s sword to the side in order to break through their defense, which is possible through the use of advanced te no uchi.

In ending, te no uchi is one of the basics found in Japanese martial arts that is learned very early in training. It’s critical that beginners practice this in order to progress in their respectful martial system. Yet, it is something that can forgotten and left behind, as its continues to define a practitioner’s proficiency even in advanced techniques. Thus, te no uchi is a fundamental skill that can be worked on even for a lifetime.

Today’s Understanding of Warrior Virtues of Old

In these modern times, warrior virtues are associated with Japanese martial arts. These virtues are said to help build character, fine tune one’s spirit, and make you an exemplary being in modern day society. The fact that these are taught in many martial schools around the world is a good thing, as it helps us to be a better neighbor to those around us in these relatively peaceful times. Yet, were virtues also valued the same way during times of war & strife many centuries ago in Japan’s history? Let’s look at the different listings of virtues, their origins, their roles from a historical standpoint, as well as how they are interpreted in today’s generation.

SANTOKU

One of the earliest set of virtues is said to be based on the theme of 3 simple principles called “santoku” (三徳). This concept called santoku¹ originally comes from Confucianism, a belief developed first in China way before Japan started developing its culture as we know it. Within 4 major texts used in the study of Confucianism, such as the 10-volume series called “Lúnyǔ” (論語), and “Zhōngyōng” (中庸) are examples of values people are instructed to follow. When Confucian teachings were brought over to Japan in its earlier years, it slowly was integrated into the lifestyles of nobles and the Imperial household. They also were adapted by those in the warrior class.

There are 3 virtues that stand out the most, which are said to make up santoku as known in Japan. They are the following:

  • Chi (知) = Knowledge
  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence     
  • Yū (勇) = Bravery

These were virtues that were highly regarded, and expected to be followed not only by warriors, but those in leadership positions. When analyzing these, one can see how influential and essential they can be, especially for those who have to deal with conflict. Those involved in military activities stress the necessity of knowledge in many things concerning going to battle, including strategies, preparing troops, scouting, and so on. For benevolence, despite taking up a violent profession, a warrior was expected not to lose their humanity, as well as keep order for those around them and when entering other lands. As for bravery, this is a valued virtue necessary to go into battle and face the enemy that threatens their border. This scope ranges within the different territories in Japan when the military clans were becoming a powerful group as early as 1100s.

The idea of santoku doesn’t just stop here, as the concept of “3” continued to have a great influence in Japanese culture. Religious systems like Buddhism and Confucianism are known to employ 3 principles related to food, personality, and so on. There are even modern-day usages as well.

GOJŌ

Next is another set of virtues said to be followed by those who took up military profession during the Medieval period in Japan, called “gojō” (五常)². Translated as “the 5 natural habits”, gojō also comes from Confucianism. The concept of 5 habits were devised by Dong Zhongshu, who was known as a philosopher, politician, and Pro-Confucian supporter in the early Han Dynasty.

The 5 virtues under gojō are the following:

  • Jin (仁)  = Benevolence / Humility
  • Gi (義)    = Righteousness
  • Rei (礼)   = Respect
  • Chi (智)   = Understanding
  • Shin (信) = Belief

Like many lessons influenced by religious beliefs, gojō was meant as an example everyone must follow, as it outlines the most natural traits of humans that must be maintained. Depending on those interpreting it, how these 5 virtues play a role in one’s daily lives is different. For warriors during the Sengoku period, they were outlined in a way in which how to conduct themselves both on and off the battlefield. On another note, gojō is an example of how the number 5 was a significant number in Asia, as there is plenty of other examples similar to gojō. For example, there is “gogyō” (五行), which outlines five elements that represent the creation of life, cycle of death, parts of the body, medicine, and so on. There is also “gorin” (五倫), which is seen as a precursor of gojō, as it has a similar focus on values based on a person’s relationship other people in their lives.

Many generals in Sengoku period are said to have expressed the concept of gojō during their military career, especially during the 1500s. Date Masamune is one of those generals, who also had his ow way of expressing this. His version was called gojōjun (五常順), where he warns not to be over-absorbed in the 5 virtues of gojō, possibly hinting the need of ruthlessness at times.

Interestingly, gojō was paired with santoku at some point in time, for while gojō was a set of virtues a warrior mustn’t forget, santoku was a set of virtues a warrior needed to ingrain within his/her being.

BUSHIDŌ

Last, we come to a very well known and popular set of virtues known as “bushidō” (武士道). Usually interpreted as “the code of the samurai”, it is a word 1st seen in the “Kōyō Gunkan” (甲陽軍鑑), a historical recordings of the Takeda clan which was compiled by Kasuga Toratsuna during early 1600s of Edo period. The following are the 7 virtues of bushidō:

  • Gi (義) = Righteousness
  • (勇) = Bravery
  • Jin (仁) = Benevolence / Humility
  • Rei (礼) = Respect
  • Makoto (誠) = Honesty
  • Meiyo (名誉) = Honor
  • Chūgi (忠義) = Loyalty

There are a few not-so-well known facts that are important even today when referring to bushidō as representing 7 virtues of the warriors in the past³. For starters, the word was written after wars were rampant, and when the Tokugawa shogunate ushered in centuries of relative peace. Whether or not the word was actually in use beforehand can be debated. Also, since it only appeared in this sole documentation known as Kōyō Gunkan, it may have been a specialty word made up for use by the feudal lord Takeda Shingen and his retainers. Furthermore, there was no list of virtues accompanying the term bushidō, so what was it truly dotting on in terms of what made an exemplary warrior is pretty much a mystery.

Pic of the 1st cover design for “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”

Possibly the biggest fact worth mentioning is bushidō was not a general term publicly known in Japan, so it didn’t have any real influence on the populous. Instead, the word first was introduced in an English book from the early 1900s called “Bushidō: The Soul of Japan”, which was written by Nitobe Inazō. Mr. Nitobe’s intentions was to teach the West about Japan, and how they were both civilized and peaceful to the world. He also included a list of virtues that outlined what bushidō stands for. At a later date, the book would be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.

THE BAD…AND THE GOOD

One of the issues primarily with bushidō is that it is a modern invention, yet is delared as being the virtues followed by Japanese warriors during warring times. This isn’t true at all. There was much criticism even by the Japanese after the book came out, which still exists today. For starters, Mr. Nitobe, despite descending from a samurai family, was not raised as a warrior, but instead as a scholar⁴. He also studied much about Western culture, and made his faith in Christianity. Some critics express that the virtues made for bushidō and how they were presented were inspired by his Christian beliefs, and how the West viewed soldiers at war at the time. On top of this, Japanese scholars, and later many of the general public in Japan, did not sit well with bushidō and what it stood for, as it was a contradictory of the factual behavior of warriors and those of the samurai class, as there was plenty of examples from historical documents & stories of uncivilized behavior they have shown. This even proves true up till the mid 1800s right before the samurai class was finally abolished due to the violent end of the Tokugawa reign, followed by the induction of Imperial control through the Meiji Restoration.

Despite whether or not the virtues mentioned above where truly influential historically, they play a very large role in today’s world. As many countries have governments that focus more on non-violent means for economical growth and citizens live together in environments that promote peace & prosperity, having santoku, gojō, and bushidō act as vehicles that can inspire people to be humane and live together in harmony, whether they are your neighbors or from overseas, is definitely a good thing. This holds true for those who study martial arts; where a person learns skills that can be lethal if used for the wrong purpose, being taught alongside with virtues designed for warriors can help to keep practitioners on the straight path and become exemplary individuals within their community. Even bushidō has been accepted in Japan society today, as the term, along with its virtues, are beneficial in promoting Japanese culture to other countries around the world.

From a different perspective, it can be argued that bushidō and the virtues that represent it are nothing more than a collection of the same virtues revered in the past. While this is actually true (excluding meiyō and chūgi), it is still argued that warriors did not actually have a list as such that they had to live their lives by. This can be said even for santoku and gojō; while these virtues were built into Japanese society and valued by certain military experts, how warriors behaved during war and how leaders engaged in power struggles against one another were not guided by these virtues many times. Although virtuous praise of certain famous warlords and legendary fighters are often written in stories and recited in songs & theatrical plays, it is usually done so by those who are the victors and by those who support them.

ENDING

Warrior virtues, although considered a piece of history, can be very inspiring and help guide people to be civil amongst one another in these modern times. Like most things from the past, however, certain pieces of history may become romanticized, thus taken out of context. While warrior virtues may have been conceived in the past, it is important to understand their factual use on a historical level, lest we view them in a skewed manner today. This wraps up this discussion on warrior virtues. I hope this helps clear the air and bring light on understanding warrior virtues associated with Japanese martial arts.


1) There is a santoku from Buddhism, but the ideas in this version is different

2) Also known as “gojō no michi” (五常の道)

3) There is actually an 8th virtue associated with bushidō, which is called “jisei” (自制). Jisei is the final product of those who uphold the 7 virtues by exhibiting restraint and self-control. While it is a demonstration of a fine quality, jisei (self-control) is said to not stand on its own like the other 7 virtues, thus it tends to be omitted from the list.

4) Nitobe Inazō was about 7 years old when the Meiji Restoration took effect (1868), which came along the end of the samurai class.

Learning from Coded Instructions

When studying kobudō (Japanese traditional martial arts), you tend to run into many terminology that are coded. This use of wording is a form of encryption to hide the true nature of said lessons or techniques from falling into the hands of a rivaling martial system in the past. In modern times, it is much easier to decipher such jargon due to the openness of martial knowledge by many teachers and avid students. On one hand, these coded words express a lot about the mentality of past Japanese masters based on the environment they lived in, as well as the culture they grew up with, which in itself can be lessons to enrich one’s training.

An example of coded description can be seen in this one line from a document I am currently translating called “Tsuki no Shō” (月之抄), which is a study guide for those who are training in the kenjutsu of Shinkage ryū Hyōhō (新陰流兵法). The line goes as the following:

水月にて 座ト太体之手字ニ身ヲひねり掛ケ 一尺ヲカカへて打へし」

To summarize the line, it outlines how to go about trapping an opponent’s sword. While everything is straightforward, what is not is the part that is in red, which is read as “suigetsu¹”. This is a very common, poetic word that is used within many different fields of interest throughout Japan’s history. A general translation for this would be “water & moon”. In Japanese martial arts it tends to represent the area near one’s solar plexus. However, in the line stated above this would be incorrect. Not to be translated literally, it’s actually interpreted as “when the moon is visible on the surface water”. When read during a description of a sword dueling technique, one would be perplexed as to why this rather flowery, out-of-place visualization is there in the 1st place. Fortunately, after conversing with those who study Shinkage ryū Hyōhō, as well as doing some research on my end, I’ve come to learn that this simple word is actually a coded word for taking proper distance.

Much of what is learned from coded instructions require proper guidance from an instructor, as well as a great amount of training which entails going through trial & error. Just because it is understood that suigetsu refers to distance, distinguishing the point when “the moon is clearly visible on the water” still requires experience. This can be applied to even to the basics of kenjutsu. Let’s take Jōdan no kamae² (上段の構え) as an example. Jōdan no kamae is a universal posture in many martial systems where a sword is held above one’s head. It is considered to be a very strong posture due to being able to deliver a lethal blow to one’s opponent’s head. On the other hand, it is also deemed the most vulnerable, as there is little defense offered for most of the body. Even with these points explained, there are still factors that play a part in how one can take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of Jōdan no kamae. At what range would you get cut if you assume this posture? When can you successfully strike down the opposition through this posture? Actively training and going through trial & error as you put these points to the test will usually provide an answer.

Within the kenjutsu of Kukishin ryū (九鬼神流) which my group studies, are also coded instructions. One of the 1st lessons students learn is the concept of issoku itto (一足一刀), which helps to understand the range where two people’s swords meet. Of course, it goes further than this, as students learn the proper footwork to advance or withdraw in regards to the reach of their swords. Another one can be seen in the kata called kasugai (鎹止). The name for this kata comes from a small interlocking staple-like bolt used to join two pieces of wood together when constructing buildings centuries ago in Japan. For this kata, the idea of “bolting down” one’s opponent is taken from this carpenter’s tool. Of course, the type of footwork, distance and angles required to make this happen requires proper explanation and demonstration in order to grasp this idea.

In conclusion, learning from coded terminology in Japanese martial arts can be a perplexing experience, even when guided by proper instructions. Yet, if one takes the time to understand the reasoning behind it, as well as make use of the visual representation that is part of the Japanese culture, coded instructions can help boost one’s training experience. Of course, this is a case-by-case matter, and depends on whether a practitioner is able to embrace such a manner of instructions.


1) Depending on the martial system, can also be referred to as mizoochi (鳩尾).

2) Depending on the martial system, this kamae is also referred to by different names.

Translation 101: Understanding Old & New Japanese

Translating Japanese into one’s native language is a skill of its own. Depending on area of interest, some prior independent or specialized study & research is required when attempting to transcribe info from one language to another. It is separate from just studying the Japanese language alone; even for a native Japanese person, attempting to explain the contents of something they have never heard of or are unfamiliar with is a very difficult task. For those individuals who wish to go down the path of translating, years of exposure to said field of interest, along with lots of trial and error is needed in order to get a proper grasp. 

In the case of older Japanese documentation on martial & military-centric topics, it is imperative to be familiar with the time period the document was written versus modern day standards in order to understand the differences. For instance, when reading older Japanese texts, it is common to see the use of kanji (漢字, Chinese-derived written characters) that differ from the ones used for the same words used today, yet need to distinguish if there are any similarities at the same time.  As an example, here’s an entry from Buyō Benryaku (武用便略), an 8-volume compendium of general items, gear, and practices used by warriors, martial artists, guards, and the like. This was compiled by Kinoshita Yoshitoshi in the early Edo period. In the 6th volume, there is a section regarding methods of arresting wrongdoers, which also contains a short entry and picture regarding the mittsu dōgu¹ (三つ道具), which are staves with special implements on one end.

ANALYZING OLD & NEW TEXT

Below is the aforementioned page, followed by the original text and my translation.



三つ道具之圖

釻棒 
 
挟脵 今云桎
 
捻ル ヒネリという

右或番所ノ三道具ト云捕手ノ三道具ト云アリ

 
Picture of the mittsu dōgu (from right to left)

Tsukubō

Sasumata (known as a shackling tool nowadays)

Nejiru (called “hineri” as well)

To the right are some of the tools you will find in a guardhouse, called the mittsu dōgu (3 tools). These are also known as the “torite no mittsu dōgu” (3 arresting tools).


In 2 other articles² I had mentioned about the mittsu dōgu. What’s interesting is the difference between how they are written in their respective sources. Below I will explain the kanji used for those mentioned in the Buyō Benryaku, and compare them with the modern day writing style.

1)
DESCRIPTION: Tsukubō is a T-shaped tool that a person would thrust at one’s target to push and pin them down. The barbs on the T-shape implement helps to increase its effectiveness.

tsuku・bō / 釻・棒 
The reading of tsuku (釻) is a unique one. Originally the name of the metal fittings that secures the string on a bow, it was later used to describe the 2 metal bars that protrude outwards at the end of a stick. Bō (棒) means “stick”.
 
Comparing this with the more modernized written version:

tsuku・bō / 突・棒
This tsuku (突) means “to thrust” or “to stab”. It’s pronounced in its plain verb form, which is unusual. This may have been done so the same “tsuku” pronunciation could be retained. The kanji for bō remains the same.

It can be said that the older kanji for tsuku is more descriptive to design, while the modern version indicates the manner to which this tool is used.

2)
DESCRIPTION: Sasumata has a U-shape implement on the end, and is used to capture a part of the body to hold a person down.

sasu・mata / 挟・脵
The use of sasu (挟) here can indicate “to grip from both sides”, “to sandwich inbetween” or “to trap”. Although used in this older document, this kanji is still used in modern times. For mata (脵), this is an older kanji that refers to the crotch or thigh. At times the kanji used for mata is “叉”, which is another older version that means the same thing.

If we compare this to modern written form:

sasu・mata / 刺・股
The kanji used for sasu (刺) here generally means “to stab”, but also has an alternative meaning of “to catch”. The modern-day version of mata (股) is used.

On a technical note, both versions of sasu are in their plain verb form. Although still a name, it is done so in an unusual manner. Also, while both versions imply catching a supposed criminal by their leg, sasumata wasn’t only used there, but could manipulate other parts of the body when necessary.

3)
DESCRIPTION: The purpose of the nejiru is to snag a person’s clothing, with the sleeve of the jacket being the main target.

nejiru / 捻る
There is only one kanji used here. Actually, an action verb is used as the name. Nejiru means “to twist” or “to wrench”. The name actually describes the action used, which is to twist this tool once it’s snagged onto a person’s clothing in order to capture them.

While the reading “nejiru” is correct, it seems to be an alternative name…or that there were other names used depending on group, area, etc. “Hineri” (ヒネリ) is also used, and, despite being written in katakana³ (片仮名, a written form that indicates the phonetics of words) in the text above, is an alternative pronunciation for the same kanji. Another name that was used during Edo period was “mojiri” (錑). In this case, it was viewed that there’s a technical approach to using the mojiri, which was called “mojirijutsu” (錑術). For the most part, all names indicate the physical motion of how this tool is used.

sode・garami / 袖・絡み
In modern times tools like this are universally called “sodegarami” (袖絡み), which means “sleeve-snagger”. This is probably due to its effectiveness to control a weapon-wielding suspect with the sleeve of a jacket being the target area. This is a more direct labeling that identifies its purpose.

UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES

Why are there different ways to identifying the same thing? There are some factors that play a role in this. For starters, since the time when when Japan adopted the writing style of kanji from China, there was no one universally accepted style of using the Japanese language. Before a standard was developed in the early 1900s⁴, there were different colloquial speeches depending on the prefecture, education, area of residence, group of association, and so on. As an example, within a group that lives in the south of Japan they may identify one thing with a particular label, but within another group that live in the North may use a different label.

This lack of standard also can be seen in the written style individuals used hundreds of years ago. In some cases a writer may have used one version of a kanji because it was what was familiar to him, yet another writer may choose to use a different kanji that had the same meaning just because that is what he was familiar with. This happened a lot if the contents were learned verbally, and had to be transcribed however the writer could do. Fortunately, furigana (振仮名, identifying kanji phonetically with kana next to or above it) was used in some older documents, which help to understand not only how to pronounce an unfamiliar kanji, but to understand what it’s describing in case it’s something that most are familiar with verbally.

Finally, some things were coded intentionally through aliases. This was possibly done to hide the real identity of a topic from those who are not part of a certain group. This was common practice in many martial systems and military manuals. Since guardswork and policing were also performed by martial artists, this practice also came into play. The downside to this is if the original term is forgotten and only the alias has been documented, it is hard to figure out what is being discussed if there are no pictures associated.

After the Japanese language became standardized, many older, unusual words & kanji were dropped, and replaced with modernized versions. If the change is minimum, it could be as small as replacing with modernize kanji that help making the reading easier. However, if the change is more drastic, some labeling could be replaced entirely with a new word. It’s points like these that make doing research important.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, it is important to learn how to research older documents to compare the contents to that which are known in modern context. This is important to remember for those who wish to be a translator of topics that have an old history. It’s impossible to think you’ll know everything no matter how related it is to your area of interest, or that you’ll remember every single word or kanji that you’ve come across. Keeping notes, having reliable sources for referencing purposes, and further updating one’s knowledge on said area of interest is critical in order to produce acceptable work.


1) This is not the only case where the term mittsu dōgu is used. It is a common one used to identify 3 things that are considered valuable or important. For example, in the same document used above, the jutte (十手), manriki (万力, nowadays known as the kakute [角手]), and hananeji (鼻捻) make up a unique category called “Kingoku no mittsudōgu” (禁獄の三つ道具), which were essential for handling imprisoned criminals. Next, there was 3 methods for shackling those who were held in captivity, which was by the hands, feet, and the neck. Then there are 3 different types of Japanese designed boats recognized at one point in time. Finally, 3 important farming tools necessary were the. suki (鋤, plough), kuwa (鍬, hoe), and kama (鎌, sickle).

2) Those two articles are here and here

3) Generally, katakana is used to indicate foreign words, unusual words, and visualizing sounds. However, it was also commonly used alongside with kanji in official government documents, books, manuals, and so on before modern times.

4) Small details about this effort to reform the Japanese language was discussed here

Chōyō no Sekku: The Fall Festival

When following traditional festivals and celebrations in Japan, you find out a few interesting things, such as specific ones may have more than one date depending on the prefecture, or goes by a different name depending on the history of each town. For this article, I will introduce Chōyō no Sekku, a festival with a long tradition.

UNDERSTANDING THE TRADITION

Chōyō no Sekku (重陽の節句 ) is 1 of the 5 seasonal festival that originates from Inyō Gogyo Setsu. Before modern times, this took place on the 9th day of the 9th month based on the inreki (陰暦, old calendar). One of the reasons is that according to auspicious readings in ancient Chinese philosophy, odd numbered days are viewed as lucky, while even numbered days are seen as unlucky days. Since 9 is the highest single-digit odd number, Chōyō no Sekku was designated on this date. After Japan adopted a more modernized calendar, this date was changed accordingly by about a month, and takes place on a different day each year within that month. For example, this year it falls on the 25th of October.

In the old calendar, this festival took place around the same time chrysanthemums were in bloom. According to the adjustments the new calendar brings, this still holds true. Due to this, it also received the alternate name of “Kiku no Sekku” (菊の節句, Chrysanthemum Festival). This isn’t coincidental, but possibly intentional due to what chrysanthemum stands for.

Since ancient times in China, these flowers were believed to give a longevity of good health and fortune by warding away evil spirits. This belief was also brought over to and adopted in Japan. Amongst specific groups, they are deemed valuable and used for important activities, such as in Shintō and Buddhist rituals. There is an old phrase that describes the chrysanthemum as “senkyō ni saku reiyaku¹”, which means “the elixir that grows within the enchanted lands²”. This truly expresses this sense of value the chrysanthemum had in the past.

ORIGIN AND HISTORY

Origins of this festival is said to have 1st passed on as a ritual in China during during ancient times. When it started to become a regularly practiced festival during the start of the Heian period (794~1185) in Japan, it entailed going to designated areas within the Imperial grounds of the Capital and viewing the beautiful gardens that were full of chrysanthemums. This was called “Kangiku no En“ (観菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Viewing Party) or “Kiku no En” (菊の宴, Chrysanthemum Party) for short. Noble families also grew these chrysanthemums on their property as a means to ward away bad luck. Over the centuries, this value for chrysanthemums trickled down to common folks living in different areas of Japan. Due to its wide popularity, it became recognized as an official seasonal festival.

Outside of viewing these flowers, people decorate their surroundings with chrysanthemums. For example, they may be placed on top of certain objects, put inside of a pillow, have petals float on the bath water, or put them in a special pouch within their clothing. Along with its appealing visual appearance, the fragrance from the  chrysanthemums are said to aromatic.

FESTIVE FOODS & DRINKS

This festival is not only just about looking at or surrounding yourself with chrysanthemums; like the other seasonal festivals, Chōyō no Sekku also has the custom of consuming specific foods and drinks.

Pic of kikuzake. From Photo-AC.

One example is kikuzake (菊酒) , which people would drink as they strolled through those beautiful floral gardens an gazed upon at these flowers In the past. Kikuzake stands for “chrysanthemum wine”, which is made with the actual flower. If placed in a cup, then the actual flower or a few petals would be placed inside to float on the surface. This went along with the celebration, as consuming it in this fashion synonymous to getting eternal life and/or warding evil. In actually, chrysanthemums are filled with nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and Glutathione. Even though these wouldn’t really grant you eternal life, drinking kikuzake would at least help you to stay healthy just for a little bit.

A bowl of kurigohan incorporated in a meal. From Photo-AC.

Another is kurigohan (栗ご飯), which is a simple dish of rice with diced chestnuts on top. Like chrysanthemum, chestnuts grow in the Fall. Being a source of food that was gathered in villages in the past, it was used to make sweets. During preparations for Chōyō no Sekku, kurigohan became a popular dish to eat.

ENDING

With Fall in effect, Chōyō no Sekku is one of the seasonal events that can be participated in different ways, whether through flower viewing, home decor, or through a meal. Take note that while the date from the old calendar may be recognized and referenced, the date on the new calendar is generally followed. As mentioned earlier, this year Chōyō no Sekku will be celebrated on 10/25, but will fall on a different date within October in the following years.



1) 仙境に咲く霊薬. Senkyō refers to the enchanted and often fairytale-like world that sennin (仙人, miracle workers in the form of monks, holy men, wise men) reside in through mysterious powers. Usually regular people who have “evolved” through enlightenment from their studies and training, they visit the human plane at free will. When given a more realistic spin, senkyō refers to areas where these enlightened individuals choose to reside far away from normal civilization, such as mountains and forests. 

2) Reiyaku is equivalent to an elixir or miracle drug that is said give a person enteral life. This can also be in the form of a drink. Usually associated with concoctions made with medicinal-like ingredients such as herbs, plants, pure water from the mountains, etc.

Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 2

In part 1, I shared my experience in attending a matsuri, or festival in Japan. For this article, I will elaborate more on one of the main components found in large festivals, which is the dashi. This will include the history, design, differences from the mikoshi, and the many names it is known under based on area.

DEFINITION AND BEGINNINGS

Dashi is written as “山車” in Japanese. At 1st glance one would think phonetically it should be pronounced  “sansha” or “yamaguruma”. Why “dashi” is used is not really known.  From a literal translation you get “rolling mountain” or “mountain on wheels”. This has a deep meaning due to how it originated.

The dashi is associated with festive celebrations that have roots in ritualistic practices. Its purpose is to call down kami (神, usually identified as divine spirits, deities, and gods) that have some connection to ancient Shintō beliefs¹ from the heavens into man-made mountains that were made out of trees, leaves, pieces of lumber, and other natural materials. Through this show of worship, the locals sought protection from evil spirits & calamity, or to receive continual good fortune for their area, which is believed to have been granted by these gods.

An account of the origins and meaning behind the term dashi. From “Me de miru Hachioji no Dashi Matsuri”.

The origins of this ritual is said to come from an ancient belief that certain inanimate objects housed gods, especially for those that are higher up in the sky. This was especially true for mountain tops, as well as rocks & trees that are found high up on mountains. It is thought that people at the time wanted to invite these divine spirits that they worship into a special medium during times of ritualistic festivities. Thus the dashi was invented. Another thought is the dashi was originally brought up a mountain to where it would be tall enough to be the major point of attraction for these divine spirits. In order to do so, wheels were attached to it so it could be pulled up a mountain.

Certain historical documents like the Kojiki (古事記), Zoku Nihon Kōki (続日本後紀), Kiki (記紀), and Ruigu Kokushi (類聚国史) give the notion that ritualistic festivities that incorporate the dashi was normal practice as far back as the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). This ranges from the age-long festivities that took place in Gion, Kyōto (this was originally the capital city where the Imperial family and noble families resided in), to during a ceremonial event called Daijōe (大嘗会)² . In the past, the dashi went under such titles like Shime yama (標山)³ and Yamaboko (山鉾). These different events, in some shape or form, was to ward off misfortune and calamity away from the area and its inhabitants through the protection of the deity being called for.

These festivals were carried out in rich & prosperous areas like Kyōto up until feudal warring for the sake of control over Japan became excessive, such as during Sengoku period. Once Japan was unified under the rule of the Tokugawa clan, festivals featuring the dashi resumed. As different prefectures became developed during Edo period, many towns also adopted this traditional practice as they started their own festivals, which includes building their own unique dashi. Today, the artistic construction of the dashi used throughout Japan is a visual spectacle that attracts much attention, both from the locals to visitors from other countries. It can be argued that much of the ritual/worship aspect is a minor for these festivals, or gone all together from people’s minds. Still, this has not deterred such festivals to continue, and this may be due in part of the dashi.

DIFFERENCES FROM THE MIKOSHI

A common object used during festivals is the mikoshi (神輿). Like the dashi, this plays an important role in accordance to Shinto traditions. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the dashi for they are not the same at all. Below is a list of the differences for both the mikoshi and the dashi.

3 mikoshi of different sizes. From Photo-ac.com

Mikoshi

  • Mini shrine to transport local god to temporary shrine
  • Houses divine spirit that remains closed to the public
  • No humans are allowed in
  • Carried as they are light

A mikoshi is made in the semblance of a mini shrine. It’s purpose is to transport the deity that resides in the main shrine to a temporary shrine during the procession. General public are not allowed to see the inside of the containment on the mikoshi, which supposedly houses the god of the local shrine. This is the same as when visiting the main shrine.  The mikoshi is much smaller than a dashi, and, depending on design and weight,  is generally carried by 2-4 people. 

A dashi in motion. From Photo-ac.com

Dashi

  • Design is a large float-like vehicle
  • Means to attract divine spirit
  • Live entertainment by human inside
  • Pulled as they can be very heavy

As mentioned before, the dashi is a large float-like vehicle that is designed to rival a mountain. They are usually adorned with eye-catchy accessories, which is much different from the mikoshi. The purpose of the dashi is to not only be attractive to the local god to come down and embark inside, but to be as source of entertainment to appease the god. People are allowed to sit inside the dashi, and act as the source of entertainment. To further assist with this, workers may also sit on the sides and/or on top of the dashi. As one can imagine, the design can make for a rather large and heavy vehicle. With wheels attached to the bottom, a dashi is pulled by a good number of people in order for it to move⁴.

MORE THAN ONE NAME

The common name used today to describe this mountain-on-wheels throughout Japan is “dashi”. However there are specialty & colloquial labels used as well. Here’s a list of these unique titles along with the areas in Japan you will most likely be able to hear them.

1) Yamaboko (山鉾) = Previously mentioned, this could have the meaning of “mountain lance” or “mountain that pierces the sky”. Thought as one of the earlier terms for dashi. This title is used in Kyōto.

2) Yamagasa (山笠) = Literally translates as “mountain-umbrella”. Used in Hakata City, Fukuoka. Records on the reasoning behind the term is non-existent. Furthermore, the dashi used do not give a clue, for the dashi used in Hakata City always have a new design every year.

3) Yatai (屋台) = Used in Tochigi Prefecture. A title that actually has the same meaning as dashi, but nowadays acts as a word for booths, stalls, and the like that are set up at festivals and amusement parks where locals can play games and buy food. For the matsuri held in Tochigi, yatai is still reserved for use as the name for the dashi.

4) Hikiyama (曳山) = Can be translated as “a mountain that is pulled along”. Considered an older word, it is still used in certain areas, such as Shiga Prefecture and Saga Prefecture.

5) Saisha (祭車) = An interesting dashi used in Mie Prefecture. One of its unique traits is that it features a 3-wheeled wagon design with percussion instruments such as symbols and drum hanging from the back, and may have many lanterns positioned on top. Unlike other bigger counterparts, the saisha design tends to have it on the small side, with decorations on top of its roof that makes it look taller. This makes it not have a lot of room for anyone to sit on, if at all. Also, performers can play music at the back as they walk along with the saisha.

6) Danjiri (地車, 壇尻) = This label is used primarily in the western part of Japan. Danjiri stands out from the rest of the dashi with its longer shape and somewhat lower roofing. This lends to an older looking architecture that can seat many workers during the festival. Another point worth mentioning is that danjiri are known for their speed, as they are pulled around at a faster pacing.

DECORATING A DASHI

Over time the architecture of the dashi has evolved and has become a work of art. Each prefecture have their own team or hire specialists that craft their dashi according to the vision they have in order to tell their story. As can be seen in the pictures provided, some creativity goes into designing a dashi to be tall & adorned with different accessories, yet still leave ample room for the workers to sit or hang on. Some, on the other hand, are designed where instead of a person, a doll depicting a warrior or a mythical creature sits on the dashi. Architectural design gives credence to this, as some may be shaped like a small building with multiple tiers and roofing which allows many people to board on it. Others may be built like a room or chamber, where individuals dressed like nobles sit during the procession. Then there are those that may bear a design like a stage and have a kabuki actor perform.

The terms dashi gazari (山車飾り) and dashi kanagu (山車金具) are used when referring to decorations & metallic parts for the dashi. These decorations consists of pillars, golden emblems & plates, embroidery fabrics, curtains, ropes, and drums. Some boost decorations similar to that on shrines, while others may have an appears that is wild like something out of folklore. Most of these have a strong Asian motif, with concepts coming from Shinto or Buddhism. Then there are those that make use of dashi ningyō (人形, doll), which can range to it being small to larger than human size.

The decorations have special meaning. For example, they may tell the story behind the start of that particular area’s dashi matsuri, portray famous individuals or mystical beings, or they may inspire a quality that is synonymous with the town or area. One example is the large festival that takes place in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture, where some organizations participate with their own specialty dashi. These tend to be based on old Japanese folklore and kabuki plays, such as Urashima Tarō, Bō-shibari, and Yoshitsune Senbon-zakura. As one would expect, creating elaborately fancy dashi meant that they got a special name as well, so their style can be remembered when recorded in each area’s catalogue.

CONCLUSION

This wraps up this article about dashi. One article is not enough to describe the plethora of unique dashi that are rolled out each year in Japan. While seeing them in pictures is great, physically being in the crowds of a festival to see them during the procession is an experience you’ll never forget. Hope this article is convincing enough to make the trip out to Japan if you haven’t (that is, once the world has settled down and traveling becomes safe).


1) Ancient Shintō (古神道, Ko-Shintō) is considered vastly different from modern Shinto today, as it incorporated a more archaic ideology regarding nature, spirits, and how humans interact with them. Form of worship was much more open-ended, as its basis included primitive, esoteric beliefs such as animism. Over time, however, this changed once Taoism and Buddhism were introduced to Japan, and over time Ancient Shintō and other older beliefs started to be pushed away.

2) Also written as Daijōsai (大嘗祭), and can also be pronounced Oonie -matsuri and Ooname-matsuri.

3) Also written as Shime no yama (標の山).

4) At one point in time, cows were used to pull a dashi.

Experiencing Japanese Festivals ~ PART 1

This year I was really looking forward to my summer vacation in Japan. However, due to the current pandemic, this was not possible. Some of the activities my family and I had planned included seeing the street festival that takes place in my wife’s hometown. Street festivals are a great sight to experience, as it really shows the unity and pride in these by the local townfolks. I don’t often take pictures when I travel about or take part in special occasions like this, for I prefer to take in the experience and enjoy every moment without disengaging by taking out my camera. Recently I stumbled upon some actual pics of me and my family taking part in a street festival, and figured I’d share it here.

These pictures are from late summer of 2009. Japan is especially humid around this time, so we could dress in light, comfortable clothing. Many of the town folks, along with my family, gathered late in the day along a busy street in Motoyokoyama Town (元横山町) in Hachiōji City (八王子市), which is located in the western part of Tokyo. We all arrived early while preparations were at hand. This street festival, called “Hachiōji Matsuri” (八王子祭), is done annually in August. The main attraction is the numerous dashi (山車), which are like large floats that are competitively designed and adorned to be the best spectacle to the crowds of people.

The dashi, along with other elements featured during the street festival, are supported by the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja (八幡八雲神社), which is the main shrine of this part of the city. While considered a young tradition since the formal development of Hachiōji during the Edo period, it is recorded that festivals of this nature have been in practice in rich & flourishing areas since the Heian period (794~1185), such as Kyoto.

Wearing a happi (法被, traditional light coat especially used for working) shows one’s support for the festivities at hand. Most participants wore different types of happi depending on their role during the festival. Myself and my daughter (pic above) also wore a happi we received from my parents-in-law.

In these street festivals, a procession takes place. Depending on the celebration, certain objects or equipment will be used. Here we can see a mikoshi (神輿), which is a shintō vehicle designed to house the god that is worshiped and considered the guardian of this section of Hachiōji. There are actually two gods of the Hachiman Yakumo Jinja, which are Hondawake-no-Mikoto (誉田別命) and Susanoo-no-Mikoto (素戔嗚尊).

Take note that although this follows along a tradition, esoteric & religious beliefs may not be so prominent for the festival or even amongst those participating. Instead, the enjoyment and unity such events bring are the winning point for many. As for the mikoshi, it is an adorned vehicle which the inside cannot be seen. It is also a portable size, allowing several individuals to easily carry during the procession. Generally speaking, a mikoshi is a work of art and unique between the many towns and prefectures found in Japan.

Next is the dashi, which is the vehicle that is used to attract the gods from the heavens, and have them be entertained in order to keep their interest to stay for the festival. There were a few present at this street festival. Unlike the mikoshi, a dashi is a very tall vehicle similar to a float. There is usually one entertainer minimum sitting inside the float, but there can be more. Also there can be entertainers riding outside on the sides or even on top of the dashi. Due to their size and weight, the dashi has wheels in order for it to move and has to be pulled by several workers. Dashi also showcase some impressive designs and decorations. They are intricately planned, and have skilled designers craft these decorations. Up close they are a sight to see. Depending on the town, the design and decorations are unique and have special meanings.

We stayed for several hours, as the festival continued in the night. In preparation for this, the street lamps came on. Along with this, the glowing lanterns and lights on the dashi added an eerie yet mystical aura as darkness slowly draped around us.

On the side of the streets were vendors selling food and drinks. These were handy if you needed some form of nourishment to keep going, or if you just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the street food.

We’ve come to the end of this little walk down memory lane regarding Japanese street festival. Hope you all enjoyed a glimpse into it through the pictures provided. In my next post, I will continue to discuss about festivals that place dashi as the main attraction, which will include the lore and the distinguishing points that put it in a class of its own.

Blog Update Announcement

Over the weekend, I made some decisions with the blog which will hopefully bring more quality to the contents being provided here. For a few years Light in the Clouds was run under a free account, meaning internal and external upgrades were vastly limited. As the topics I research and write about continue to expand in the form of articles, stories, and translations, I felt it was time to invest in them financially. As of yesterday, Light in the Clouds has been has been upgraded to a more premium account.

What does this mean? For starters, the “wordpress” in the address has been removed, and my site can stand on its own. This will help for establishing my contents as a brand, which will prove vital with current and future projects. Also, I have the options of adding plugins and other customization to this site. This is something I wanted to do for the longest. Although it will be a learning process as I experiment with various add-ons and such, in the long run they should help to further how content is delivered, appearance of the site, and the like.

Another important part is available space. Originally I had to be mindful of what was stored on my site. While images do not take up much space, sound clips and videos do. Now, through this upgrade, I will have much more space to work with, and should be able to post articles with videos. On top of this, all works found in the Translations section have been reconstructed and are now stored on this site. For the longest I had been using a 2nd site for storage purposes, but can finally cut this process out. This will make performing maintenance much easier.

Just wanted to share the good news. The new address is <https://lightinthecloudsblog.com/>. The old address still works, but for how long I do not long. Stay tuned and be on the look out for the new changes this site update will bring.

Translations Update

I’ve managed to put some time in on a few of my translation projects. Didn’t quite meet my quota, but still made some headway nonetheless.

  • Updated “Heiho Yukan” with the remaining pages
  • Updated “Topics Related to the Lunar Calendar” with a new entry, entitled “Months of the Old Calendar”
  • New topic open under “Kai Kokushi”, which contains the 1st part of the entry on Hara Hayato Sa Masatane

These can be accessed through “Translations” in the menu above. Although my schedule is still pretty tight, hoping to have another update soon, especially more entries for Buki Sode Kagami.

Stay tuned!

Tōkenjutsu & Universal Lessons Concerning Element of Surprise

Recently I had a discussion with a good friend of mine regarding techniques for throwing bladed weapons. The premise was based off of a text from a book I am currently translating, “Tsuki no Sho”, which discusses principles around the use of Jūji shuriken (十字手裏剣, a cross-shape throwing blade). My friend, who has spent many years training in Shinkage ryu kenjutsu, also mentioned a similar kata, but which instead uses a shotō (小刀, short sword). While size of both are different, using them in an unperceived fashion is important in both scenarios. For this article, I want to discuss a bit about throwing bladed weapons, and how the element of surprise is an imperative tactic no matter the size of the weapon being used. In my training group, the universal term used is tōkenjutsu (投剣術, techniques for throwing bladed weapons).

When learning how to incorporate throwing weapons, whether they are designed for that purpose or not, much of the instructions tend to lean towards psychological warfare. This is especially true when practicing the timing for surprise attacks through kata geiko. Of course, psychological tactics exist for other usages of throwing weapons, such as offensive purposes. Yet, this tends to get limited to specific weapons, whereas tactics for surprise attacks tend to incorporate a broader range of weapons. Due to the nature of attacking with a thrown bladed weapon in an unexpected manner, a level of mental and physical skill is necessary to pull this off.

One of the 1st steps utilizing psychological tactics is through one’s kamae (構え, posture). In Classical Japanese martial arts, this is one of the basics, so a great amount of time is spent understanding how kamae dictates what we do. This is not just a physical matter but one that pertains to attitude. Some kamae are naturally suited for certain scenarios, making it easier to incorporate movements to launch a throwing weapon without being perceived. For example, in a case were one must flee from an opponent who has a katana, one turns around and begins to run. In that movement, we can use a taijutsu kamae called tonsō no kamae (遁走の構え, Escaping posture) to pull out a hiragata shuriken (平型手裏剣, a flat wheel-like throwing blade) from one’s inner pocket. When the opponent is at a certain distance and preps to strike, we turn and throw the hiragata shuriken. Such a tactic like this can help in aiding one’s escape if done correctly, or to attempt to subdue the injured assailant if necessary.

In another scenario, where both combatants are wielding a katana, you may be perplexed with a very strong and skilled opponent. It’s here where you use an unperceived tactic from tōkenjutsu that can grant victory. As your opponent assumes jōdan no kamae (上段の構え, high posture), you follow in suit. As the opponent comes in with a shōmen giri (正面斬り, downward cut to the face), we crouch down and hurl our katana to impale them. Of course, we have a failsafe in case this doesn’t work, which involves pulling out one’s shotō and quickly closing the distance whether our katana hits the mark or not, for the notion of a person suddenly throwing their main weapon (katana) is enough to create a shinriteki na kuzushi (心理的な崩し, mental break). This can cause one’s opponent to hesitate even just for a brief moment, which may be enough to win.

Or, taking a different approach in the previously mentioned situation, you attempt to go toe-to-toe through kumitachi (組太刀, battling out with swords). At some point, you back away, then assume seigan no kamae (正眼の構え, straight-to-the-eyes posture). As your opponent approaches and attempts to swat away your katana, you pull out a small blade hidden on the side of your sword handle. Hurling it as your opponent is distracted, you then finish with an uncontested downward stroke with your katana. Some katana have one or two holes in the tsuba (鍔, sword guard), where small knife-like blades can be placed through. Such a design allows a warrior to have an additional trick up his sleeve, but it’s one which works only if the adversary doesn’t perceive exists ahead of time.

In conclusion, psychological tactics are very effective when throwing bladed weapons. Learning this through kata geiko is common practice. No matter the situation, using the element of surprise is indeed a universal tool handling a bladed weapon that will be thrown no matter the size.