February 22nd is a special day, as it is a day of recognition for 2 separate themes in Japan. The first one is “Neko no Hi” (猫の日), or “Cat’s Day”¹, which has been around since 1987. The second is “Ninja no Hi” (忍者の日), or “Ninja Day”², which started in 2015. In this post I will pay tribute to both by introducing a topic that relates how cats were useful to the ninja.
There is a method for telling time called “neko no medokei” (猫の眼時計), or “cat’s eye clock”. During a time with no electricity and dependency was on the light from the sun, people in the past could use this method to tell the time by looking at a cat’s eye and observe how the pupils adjust based on the position of the sun. This is considered a special method used by ninja when they were active during middle ages in Japan. A few points to keep in mind regarding this is that while the method is indeed old, it was not originated by ninja, nor was it only used by them.
The concept behind the neko no medokei actually comes from a set of documents written in China in the year 860 called “Yūyō Zasso” (酉陽雑俎, Yŏu yáng zá zǔ in Mandarin Chinese). Within this text is a mixture of educational lessons and bizarre stories. Physical traits, coupled with some odd interpretations, regarding cats and their behavior with their eyes, nose, ears, and so on are included in this. Eventually, this text was brought over to Japan during the cultural exchanges in Japan’s earlier history, with the information on cat’s eyes being the inspiration to using it as a method for telling time. Of course, as with many things that have been adopted into their culture, the Japanese would put their own spin on it in order for it to fit with their culture and needs…this includes the ninja as well.
There is an old text called Mansenshukai (万川集海), which is considered one of the 3 important manuscripts of the ninja³. Within this text is a section called “Tenmonben” (天文編) which details information regarding weather conditions, operating at night, and telling time. There is a poem that describes how the neko no medokei works, which goes as the following:
「猫眼歌二 六ツ丸ク 五七ハタマコ 四ツ八ツ柿ノ實二て 九ツハ針」
“nekome uta ni mutsu maruku itsutsu nanatsu wa tamago yotsu yatsu kaki no mi nite kokonotsu hari”
Although written in code, this poem states simply the different shapes a cat’s pupils would undergo, which is related to the time of day based on sunlight. The details work according to the old clock system used before modern times, which incorporates the Zodiac signs from the Lunar calendar to indicate the specific hour(s) in a day. Here’s a breakdown of the poem:
Mutsu (六ツ) refers to the 6th hour of both the morning and evening, which would be at dawn and sunset respectively. At these times, a cat’s pupil will be a circle shape since dawn occurs before sunrise, and evening should arrive after sunset.
Itsutsu (五) represents modern time range 6~8 in the morning, and nanatsu (七) refer to 3~5 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will become an egg shape as sunlight is nowhere near being its brightest.
Yotsu (四ツ) represents modern time range 9~10 in the morning, while yatsu (八ツ) refers to 1~2 in the afternoon. A cat’s pupil will look like the shape of a persimmon seed as outside is pretty bright.
Kokonotsu (九ツ) represents the time around 12 pm, where the sun is at its brightest. Due to how bright outside is with the sun being at its highest point, a cat’s pupil will become thin and look like a pin.
Prior understanding of how to read this old clock system was critical in deciphering this poem in the past, although nowadays there are plenty of sources that explain it. Visually there are diagrams that interpret the details very clearly, such as the ones presented below.
One would imagine that the neko no medokei would’ve been useful for those who stayed in one location. While it is claimed that a ninja could use this while on a mission, most likely this would’ve been so during the day, for the neko no metokei wouldn’t be effective at night.
For those who own a cat could test this time reading method and see if the results are the same as above. If I did, I totally would give this a shot!
1) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Neko no Hi is because the number 2 is pronounced as “ni” (nee) in Japanese. It is said that if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it resembles the sound a cat makes.
2) One of the reasons February 22nd was chosen as Ninja no Hi is because of how the number 2 sounds close to “nin”, which is one way to say the word “忍” (nin, perseverance) and is usually associated with the image of ninja especially in pop culture. Basically, if you say just the numbers that represent this date as “ni-ni-ni” fast, it sounds like you are saying “nin-nin-nin”, which is like a shorthand of saying ninja.
3) These 3 are the following: Mansenshūkai (万川集海, also called “Bansenshukai”), Ninpiden (忍秘伝, also called “Shinobi Hiden”), and Shōninki (正忍記). Together, these are often categorized as “sandai ninjutsu densho” (三大忍術伝書, the 3 great secret texts of ninjutsu) in Japanese.
This year’s Setsubun no Hi (節分の日) fell on February 2nd, one day earlier than normal. Like many traditional celebrations in Japan, this is a day were people take part in activities to bring forth fortune by cleaning their homes, scattering mame (豆, roasted soy beans) within their homes to ward away bad luck, and consuming ehōmaki (恵方巻, long sushi rolls) while facing the designated lucky direction. But did you know that long ago the tradition of Setsubun actually took place 4 times a year?
The translation of Setsubun indicates this, for it means “the division of the seasons” (季節を分ける)¹. According to the old Lunar calendar, these 4 points were designated several days after the current season is waning, and one day before the official season change. The day right after Setsubun has a unique name that indicates the start of the next season. It is said that this practice originated from special rituals that took place in the Imperial buildings during the Heian period (794~1185) called “Tsuina” (追儺, Driving out Evil Spirits)². Onmyōji (陰陽師, diviners of Onmyōdō) performed these rituals as a means to prevent disease and calamity brought upon by evil spirits befalling on the Imperial palace during the transition from one season to another. Essentially, these Onmyoji had to do this ritual 4 times a year.
Below is 2021’s designated days for each season change according to the Lunar calendar. The day Setsubun would’ve been for the seasons of Spring, Fall, And Winter is also added.
2/2 (節分, Setsubun) → 2/3 (立春, Risshun, 1st day of Spring)
5/4 (節分, Setsubun) → 5/5 (立夏, Rikkan, 1st day of Summer)
8/6 (節分, Setsubun)→ 8/7 (立秋, Risshu, 1st day of Fall)
11/6 (節分, Setsubun) →11/7 (立冬, Ritto, 1st day of Winter)
Note that while these dates are correct, the only one that’s officially observed is the change from Winter to Spring. Even though these other Setsubun periods are not in use, you can find the 1st day of Summer, Fall, and Winter listed on Japanese calendars. For those who have a liking of divination can find special calendars that list the seasonal changes, along with a lot of information that was once a norm in society when the Lunar calendar was still in use, such as uranai (占い, fortune telling), kyūsei (九星, 9 Star chart) rokuyō (六曜, 6 auspicious days), and so on.
While this can be interesting to review for personal studies, just remember that the tradition of Setsubun has a lot of differences with modern day calendars. For example, the official first day of Spring in America is March 20th. That’s quite a gap! When Japan adopted the modern calendar, older practices associated with the Lunar calendar didn’t quite follow along so smoothly. Some practices had to have changes and adjustments implemented. This is noticeable when comparing certain season-influenced days dependent on the structure of the Lunar calendar to the new format brought on by the modern calendar.
By the way, I recently did a project based on the yearly seasons and days in accordance to the Lunar calendar. You can learn more about the unique days mentioned above, along with others and how they related to the seasons in the Translations section here.
1) The meaning of this word has been altered over time based on the current social perception of this tradition. It is not unusual (even in Japanese) for people to say that Setsubun means “driving out demons by scattering soybeans”. Actually that meaning comes from the term mame maki (豆撒き), which is the action performed on the day of Setsubun. As a whole, Setsubun is just the indication of the change of the season to the next, while those traditional practices on that day have their own individual labels.
2) There are other names for this ritual, such as Oni Yarai (鬼遣).
We continue with our discussion about Kagami Biraki and how it is celebrated in Japan. As mentioned in part 1, this ceremony has important ties with the martial arts community. Yet, it is but only but one part of the overall experience, as there are other manners in which people can acknowledge this without having to be a martial artist. In this article, we will take a brief look at the origins of Kagami Biraki, and how it is observed by the general public, both on an individual level and in a public setting.
MEANING BEHIND THE CEREMONY
Sometime in the Edo period, Kagami Biraki originated through strong roots to buke (武家), or military families. According to resources such as “Nihon Kokujo Daijiten” (日本国語大辞典) and “Nihon Daihyakka Zensho” (日本大百科全書), the original date was set for the 20th day of the 1st month, but was then changed to the 11th day due to the 3rd Tokugawa shogun Iemitsu passing away on the 20th of the 4th month in 1651¹. Some references still remain concerning the original date. For instance, In Japanese the 20th day of the month is pronounced hatsuka (二十日, 20 days). To tie it in with their heritage as warriors, the characters of hatsuka were changed to “刃柄”, which can mean “sword”, as the characters reference a blade and a handle.
To celebrate, men would have mochi set up before a fine suit of armor. Not only was this mochi called “gusoku mochi” (具足餅, armor mochi), but the ceremony itself was once called “Gusoku Biraki” (具足開き) or “Gusoku Kagami Biraki” (具足鏡開き). On the other hand, for women of these same families, they would instead setup the kagami mochi on a kagami dai (鏡台), which is a small platform where a mirror would normally go on. As a play on words, women also referred to the original 20th day as “hatsukao” (初顔) or “hatsukagami” (初鏡). This points to them seeing themselves in the mirror the 1st time of the new year and admiring their beauty.
For either manner, these families followed a belief about inviting the toshigami (年神) into their home through the use of a kadomatsu (門松, paired decoration of pine and large bamboo shoots) within the first week of the new year². Shortly after this, they would further wish for luck from the toshigami presently residing in their home through eating kagami mochi (鏡餅), which is a 2-tier rice cake that is slightly firm on the outside, yet soft on the inside. For public events, the kagami mochi is often very large, and may be in the familiar 2-tier shape or separated. Normally a powder white color, in some events the top mochi may be dyed pink. For those occasions where the presentation is simpler, the kagami mochi is much smaller, and placed on a kagami dai.
To consume a kagami mochi, the standard practice is to first split the top layer, then separate it. People can do this by hand, or with a small wooden mallet. Spreading it open in this fashion is symbolic as one’s fortune growing ever so widely. This action is usually described with the phrase suehirogari (末広がり), which stands for opening up like a folding fan called a sensu (扇子). This phrase is one of the reasons why a small sensu is used dress the kagami mochi. There are other terms used to describe Kagami Biraki, as well as how one goes about conducting this ceremonial-like practice, but the above one is currently the most recognized one.
WHEN & HOW TO CELEBRATE
In terms of general observation, there is “Kagami Biraki no Hi” (鏡開きの日, Kagami Biraki Day). While it is officially appointed on the 11th day of January, there are other dates depending on which part of Japan a person is from. On whichever day it falls on, the general population may choose to consume a treat that is believed to promote longevity and good luck. These treats usually consist of mochi in it. A few examples are the following:
kurumi mochi (くるみ餅, mochi covered in grounded walnut sauce)
oshiruko (おしるこ, sweet redbean soup)
Note that these can be eaten regularly anytime one feels like it, but tend to be chosen as the to-go choices on Kagami Biraki no Hi. From my personal experience, kinako mochi is a great treat on it’s own or, following popular trends, with green tea. It’s especially tasty with kuromitsu (黒蜜, brown sugar syrup). Yaki mochi is another that I’d generally eat on Kagami Biraki no Hi, as it is simple to prepare. Wrapped in nori (のり, roasted seaweed), it has a good crunch, while dipping it into soy sauce enhances the flavor.
As one would imagine, Kagami Biraki has a connection with religious establishments. As an example, priests of either Shinto or Buddhism perform rituals that are meant to ward off any serious natural disasters and plagues, which is still in practice today. Also, kagami mochi and other forms of charms are sold at the stalls that are set up on the grounds around shrines and temples, readily available for purchase by visitors. Another example is the symbolic use of taruzake (樽酒), or rice wine sealed in special barrels, as part of the ritual at a shrine. This rice wine is considered to be goshinshu (御神酒, divine wine of the gods), and is viewed to bring luck in the same manner as kagami mochi. In fact, the round lids are split open with a small wooden hammer. It is thought that the practice with the taruzake predated the kagami mochi, thus inspiring this common practice that anyone can do even at home.
Note that both kagami mochi and taruzake have a lot in common regarding how they are used during the ceremony Kagami Biraki. The round shape of the mochi and the lid of the barrel represent a “mirror”, and when “split open”, good fortune is spread out for each individual. Note that a small wooden hammer is the preferred method for bringing forth good luck. A few things to consider are their differences, such as that the term kagami biraki is used to indicate to splitting of the kagami mochi, but not for the splitting of the lid on the taruzake, despite it being used in the same event. Instead, the proper term for the action done on the taruzake is “sakedaru wo akeru” (酒樽を開ける), or even “shito wo akeru” (四斗樽を開ける).
An interesting point worth mentioning is the evolution of the name Kagami Biraki. While it did bear different titles from conception to the change of the designated day, there are 2 that are important in relations to the tone of this ceremony. It is thought that at one time in the past the name used for celebrating with kagami mochi was “Kagami Wari” (鏡割り), for a knife was used to slice open the mochi. For taruzake, “Kagami Biki” (鏡引き) was used to indicate how the lid was pulled off of the wine barrel. Due to unfavorable implications presented by both names, a more acceptable concept to highlight what the ceremony was meant to achieve helped to have both replaced by the title “Kagami Biraki”. If we look at Kagami Wari, the idea of using a knife to cut open something was reminiscent to seppuku (切腹, suicidal cutting of one’s belly), which contradicted with the idea of a ritual that was to bring luck. As for Kagami Biki, using a pulling force also did not fit well when it comes down to wishing for luck. It boils down to the idea that both kagami mochi and taruzake inhabited by new year lucky deity spirits³. Using a sharp instrument, or a physical pulling action, resemble an aggressive attack on these deity spirits with which people seek good fortune from. Thus, using a hammer to merely split the top layer was viewed as the proper method for releasing good fortune from within.
From its history down to the different manners in how it’s celebrated, we get a feel of how deeply entwined Kagami Biraki is with the Japanese culture. While instilling the ritualistic idea of wishing for longevity and good fortune, it is approached in a fun manner with the inclusion of sweet treats. This covers the overall observation of Kagami Biraki. Looking forward to public gatherings for this in the future once the world can get back to normal.
1) Note that is is according to the inreki (陰暦), or old calendar system once used predominantly in Japan. This means that, in comparison with the modern, Gregorian calendar, the inreki was late by one month. So, the 1st month of the new year would’ve actually been February.
2) The standard time in modern times is from January 1st to January 7th, although it may start as early as December, or end as late as January 15th, in certain areas of Japan based on their tradition. This period is called Matsu no Uchi (松の内), which stands for inviting the toshigami inside one’s kadomatsu.
3) Other than the toshigami, deities of rice such as inadama (稲魂) and kokurei (穀霊) were thought to inhabit the kagami mochi and taruzake. Thus the quality of these items, as well as the proper means of showing respect when opening these items, is important.
There are many martial arts groups that open the new year in Japan with a ceremony called “Kagami Biraki” (鏡開き). Along with how it’s utilized for the sake of auspicious readings and praying for year-long fortune by shrines and temples, this ceremony is conducted for the sake of good luck during year-long martial training sessions. Its purpose is symbolically significant that my Chikushin group has also adopted this to promote a safe & healthy training year. For this article, we’ll first explore how this ceremony is conducted, by looking at a few events that really illustrate the theme for the new year.
PROCESSION OF THE KAGAMI BIRAKI CEREMONY
Today, Kagami Biraki is used as an opening ceremony for many martial arts groups and organizations. It can be either a small gathering among those who are associated with said group, to a large gathering in a form of a collaboration between different organizations. Well established groups such as Maniwa Nen ryū and Kōdōkan Judō Institute hold this ceremony among their own members, as an example. These smaller events may commence with a speech or formal new year blessing, then followed by technique demonstrations. At the end, there may be traditional sweets and treats associated with the ceremony that are made available to participants, such as mikan (みかん, mandarin orange). Depending on their tradition, visitors may be allowed to view these groups’ ceremony.
One of the largest, most publicized of these events is “Kagami Biraki-shiki & Budō Hajime” (鏡開式・武道始), which is conducted at the Nihon Budōkan in Tokyo City, Japan. This is an event that has two parts, first being the Kagami Biraki ceremony, then followed by the martial arts segment. Dozens of different martial arts schools, both traditional and modern, participate to present their unique systems.
Let’s look at how Kagami Biraki takes place at the Nihon Budōkan. For the ceremony portion there are 3 parts¹. It starts off with “Yoroi Kizome” (鎧着始め), where individuals dressed in Japanese armor give tribute to the roots of combat to those warriors that fought during warring times. Next is “Sankon no Gi” (三献の儀), where the sōdaishō (総大将, commander-in-chief) does a ritualistic consumption of kachiguri (勝ち栗, dried walnuts), uchi awabi (打ち鮑, dried abalone), and konbu (昆布, kelp) alongside with sake (酒, rice wine) for the sake of gaining luck before going into battle. Finally, “Kagami Biraki” portion takes place, where the sōdaishō uses a small mallet to break the top layer of a kagami mochi (鏡餅, 2-tier decorated rice cake), while his second-in-command officers split the lid on a taruzake (樽酒, barrel filled with special rice wine). All of this is symbolic, and is considered important to promote the true spirit when engaging in Japanese martial arts.
Next is the training portion, which usually is conducted in the form of demonstrations by each participating group. It is a mix of groups that specialize in modern, sports-oriented styles, and traditional styles. So you may see one group that’ll demonstrate kyūdō (弓道, way of archery), and another demonstrate a version of karate. There are usually groups that are involved in iaidō (居合道, way of drawing the sword), sōjutsu (槍術, spear techniques), or naginatajutsu (薙刀術, glaive techniques). Over the years, this event had demonstrations of hōjutsu (砲術, gunnery techniques), jukendō (銃剣道, way of the bayonet), and even sumō wrestling. Every year, the participating groups may differ, so there may be variations in what types of styles are presented. After all the demonstrations are over, the floor is open for everyone to take part in hatsu geiko (初稽古, first practice session). A good variety of practitioners, both young and old, can be seen training together. Finally, this ends with an oshiruko kai (おしるこ会, sweet red bean soup event), where everyone can sit together and replenish their energy with this tasty treat.
Take note that each Kagami Biraki event has its own date in which it takes place. For the one that is held at the Nihon Budōkan, it’s held on the 11th of January. Unfortunately, this event was canceled due to the precaution against the current pandemic inflicting the world. For those interested, there are vids on Youtube that showcase these Kagami Biraki events. To see the one held at the Nihon Budōkan, I recommend the following video found on Budo Japan Channel, as it covers the explanation in this article very closely.
The connection that Kagami Biraki has with Japanese martial arts is considered a deep one. Every year many groups and organizations go to great lengths in organizing events where practitioners can feel they can begin their training in the new year on the right foot. Unfortunately, since a great number of participants are pulled in every year for this, many Kagami Biraki events have been canceled due to the current restrictions. As a substitute, it’s possible that these groups may have performed a smaller ceremony just for direct members.
Be on the lookout of the 2nd art on the topic of Kagami Biraki. In the next one, we will look into the actual history behind this ceremony, look deeper into some of the components that were briefly mentioned, and get an understanding of how it’s celebrated by the general public and through religious establishments.
1) This is carried out by “Nihon Kacchū Bugu Kenkyū Hozonkai” (日本甲冑武具研究保存会). This organization’s name in English is “The Association for the Research and Preservation of Japanese Helmets and Armor”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the arrival of the New year, there is also a new Lunar year, which plays a significant part on the prospects people can look forward to…at least for those who follow it. For the last several years I’ve covered each new year, from the representative animal sign, to any historical details that may be important. This year, I will try something new. Along with the cultural background, there will be a short story regarding the 1st zodiac animal sign for this year.
YEAR OF THE RAT
For 2020, the Lunar Zodiac cycle has restarted completely back to the beginning of the Chinese Calendar, making it the year of the rat. Pronunciation for rat is “nezumi” in Japanese, while the kanji used to represent the lunar year is “子年”, which is pronounced “nedoshi” or “nezumidoshi”. While many have started acknowledging the new lunar year, keep in mind that, in accordance to the Chinese Calendar, this doesn’t start until January 25th.
The lunar zodiac sign “子” is attached to the rat both image-wise and in pronunciation only for the Lunar year; as with the other zodiac signs, this sign did not originally mean rat, nor was it supposed to be represented by an animal. Interestingly, when the Lunar year falls on the rat, one of the symbolism used is growth or fertility. The character “子” has a meaning of small child, so prospects for the year range from increase child birth, seeds growing into plants, to having an abundance in harvest. A word related to this is “nezumizan” (ねずみ算), which means multiplying in numbers. This year being the start of the 12-year lunar cycle could play a role in this.
Along with the 12 Animal Zodiac signs, there is the incorporation of the 10 Heavenly Stem, which is written with the kanji “十干” and pronounced “Jikkan” in Japanese. Some things to note:
Jikkan has also gone full circle within its 60-year cycle, and starts off with “甲”
甲 is pronounced “kinoe” in Japanese
In ancient times, 甲 meant 1st in the 10-year cycle, while other (more modern) meanings include “shell”, “armor”, and “insects”
Kinoe represents “light-metal”, being a combination of ying-yang theory and the 5 elements
Going hand-in-hand with the 12 animals, we get a pairing of “kinoe-ne” (甲子, metal-rat)
Accordingly, 2020 is marked as the 37th year of the Sexagenary (60) year cycle
2020 also receives the title “庚子”, which is pronounced “kanoe-ne” in Japanese. In English this stands for “Year of the White Metal Rat”.
TRAITS OF THE RAT
In terms of human qualities, the rat sign represents being shrewd with spending of money, which leads to good saving habits. For this year, it is advised to avoid being too stingy with money, and squandering it on useless things. On top of this, the rat attributes to being cunning & clever, have a good discerning eye for when situations are good or bad, and being able to live laid back and calm especially in solitude.
Outside of the Lunar calendar, here’s how the rat sign was used for conventional means:
Time = from 11 pm to 1 am (-1 hr due to daylight savings in the states)
Direction = north (360°)
Month = November (according to Japan’s old calendar)
Energy = light (yang)
Element = water
RAT TAKES THE LEAD ROLE
In order for the Chinese Lunar Zodiac to be appealing to the common people, the tale about animals coming together to represent the 12 years was used. Over the ages, the tale had different settings, although the outcomes were always the same.
For this post, I added one version of this tale, which centers the attention on the rat. It is a short tale, one that I translated from Japanese to English. The original source is from “Eto Jōhō Site” (干支情報サイト), which can be accessed here.
A long, long time ago at the dawn of time, the Heavenly God made an announcement to all the animals throughout the lands.
“As the world is greeted by the New Year, come all to my kingdom on the morning of New Year’s day. Whichever 12 of you who are the fastest here will be appointed as an animal commander, where each of you will represent one year according to the order of your arrival. “
Upon hearing the announcement, each animal was very serious about this, with thoughts about being number one. They waited for New Year’s Day to come. It just so happened that the cat forgot which day they were to go to the Heavenly God’s place. The rat intentionally told the cat one day later than the appointed date, which the cat took at face value for the time, and happily went home.
When New Year’s day finally arrived, the ox thought to himself, “I should set out slightly early, since I do walk slow”. Making preparations while it was still late night, the ox headed out while it was still dark. The rat, who spotted the ox from the top of the ox’s shed, sprang up into the air and landed on the ox’s back.
With thoughts about wanting to be 1st as well, the rat pleasantly waited there, as the gates to the Heavenly Palace opened. Immediately it jumped down from the ox’s back, and scurried through the gates, making the rat the 1st to arrive. Following this, the order in which the animals arrived is the ox as 2nd, next the tiger, then the rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep (goat), monkey, rooster, dog, and boar (pig). As a side note, the cat arrived one day late to the Heavenly Palace, thus there are no good relations between the rat and the cat.
To this day, it’s believed that cats chase rats due to the grudge they bear from being deceived by that one rat.
With the prospects of this year being a prosperous one in terms of growth, let’s all do our best and end the year as winner, just like the rat did!
Now that 2020 is upon up, there is much to look forward to in the new year. To get off at a good start, I’ll start off with a post about a tradition connect to new years in Japan.
The 2 center pieces in the picture above are called “kadomatsu” (門松), which translates as “pine decoration by the gates”. More than just decoration, it is part of an old tradition where people would put these in front of their gates or by their doors to attract prosperity and fortune throughout the year from the deity called “Toshigami” (年神). Depending on the area in Japan, people would place the kadomatsu as early as the end of Christmas, to around the start of the oshōgatsu (お正月), or new year in Japanese. This will stay out until seven days after the new year. This goes in accordance to the week-long break everyone has in order to celebrate oshōgatsu in Japan.
The history of kadomatsu is old, with its roots going as far back as ancient China. Originally it starts off with simply matsu, or pine. Pine is resilient during the winter and retains its deep green color. For that, it is seen as a symbol of longevity, and is used at shrines for the sake of worshiping different deities. It would later be combined with take, or bamboo, around the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333). Nowadays, it is widely used in front of people’s gates, around the doorway of homes, and the entrances of business establishments. Historically there are different designs and sizes of the kadomatsu, making it that there is no one predominant look that must be followed.
Matsu (pine) and take (bamboo) have a high value in Japan, as there are many beliefs of blessings people can receive from them. This is because as plants they display strong characteristics, and possess long-lasting lifespan. It’s reasons like these that the kadomatsu, a combination of the two, represents “longevity”.
There is a saying related to the kadomatsu, which goes as so:
“Matsu wa senzai wo chigiri, take wa manyo wo chigiru”
Literal translation is “Pine grants one thousand years, while bamboo grants thousands of years”, but the actual meaning is wishing for an eternal life filled with good fortune. It’s believed that a person can receive this if their kadomatsu is successful as a yorishiro (deity medium) in attracting the Toshigami to reside inside it.
For my family, we brought ours out at the start of new years, and keep them inside our house near the door.
On May 1st, from around 10:30 am¹ the official ceremony where now Emperor Naruhito ascended upon the throne and became the 126 Emperor of Japan commenced. This took place at the Imperial Palace located in Tokyo Prefecture. The ceremony, entitled “Shin-Tennō Heika Sokui” (新天皇陛下即位), was televised and almost 2 hours long! Of course, this included waiting time, as well as departure time of both Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako.
Emperor Naruhito (2nd from right) and Empress Masako (right) stand in front of their guests during the enthronement ceremony.
To summarize, the live broadcast of the ceremony consisted of several segments, a few more significant than others:
1) The arrival of new Emperor Naruhito & guests to the palace (即位の儀式へ)
2) Passing of the 3 Imperial Treasures (剣璽等承継の儀²)
3) Arrival of new Empress Masako (皇后雅子さまが皇居へ出発)
4) Invitees taking audience before the new Emperor & Empress (即位後朝見の儀³)
5) First speech by the new Emperor (初おことば⁴)
Passing of the 3 Imperial Treasures (sword, mirror, and jewels) to Emperor Naruhito.
Some segments were much shorter than others. Still, it was a momentous occasion for many who were able to watch the ceremony.
Emperor giving his speech about a positive and prosperous Japan for the future.
Both sides finalizing the ceremony with a bow.
Final moments of the ceremony. Click on each pic for a short description.
From here on, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako represent the Imperial family. May 1 is also the start of the new era Reiwa, which also marks their time of reign.
1) Japan is 13 hours ahead of where I live, so the ceremony has long past from the time of writing this post.