Hello people I bring greetings from spring.
Not that it actually is spring here. It bloody snowed on Saturday night and it’s still incredibly cold but Sunday was the 3rd of February and that means and it was Setsubun and thus it is now spring.
Setsubun means the coming of the new season and happens at the start of each new season in Japan. Technically the one in February is called Risshun but nobody calls it that so neither am I.
Setsubun is one of the bigger Japanese festivals and there are a number of traditions that should be observed. The big Kansai thing is to eat maki-zushi (sushi made from Maki) whilst facing the compass direction for the year. This is something to do with the kanji for maki being the same as lucky direction but that’s all lost on me because I can only read about 4 kanji and 2 of those are just the kanji for Japan. Japanese culture is absolutely chock full of kanji puns by the way. They love puns here, not necessarily because they’re funny, they just really, really like puns. However, despite knowing in advance that Kansai people did this I completely forgot to do it and actually had a Chinese on Setsubun. Whoops.
The other big tradition is to eat roasted soy beans. 1 for each year of your life and 1 more for good luck. I did do this but eating 22 soybeans is bloody hard work. Roasted soy beans aren’t bad though. Kind of like peanuts but much more bitter. They go really well with beer.
The final big tradition is to do Mamemaki (bean throwing). People throw beans out of the door of their home or at somebody wearing an oni mask. I have absolutely no idea what the legend behind this is and neither do any of the Japanese people I asked. Wikipedia only says “In the Heian era, a famous Buddhist monk was said to have driven away oni by throwing beans.” So that’s helpful. Anyway the jist of it is that there is some half-legend about two onis that bring plagues and bad fortune attacking a shrine. A monk inside chased them away by throwing beans at them and thus saved his land from plague and misfortune. Now Japanese people throw beans to have good luck in the new spring.
Oni is typically just translated as “demon” and there are a host of magical creatures called “oni” in Japanese mythology but there is also a specific creature known as an oni. Oni’s are giant ogre-like creatures. Roughly humanoid in appearance with curly black hair, two horns, ferocious grins, tiger skin loincloths and big clubs. They’re usually either blue or red.
Here are some oni.
Well rather than doing mamemaki at home I opted to head out to Yasaka-jinjya again to see a mamemaki apparently featuring geisha. Patrick in tow we set out on the loooong journey from Sannomiya to Gion.
When we got there the celebrations had already started and this is what we got to see.
First up was a traditional dragon dance. The dragons split off and dance and then come together to fight. This was pretty cool. The flute was really atmospheric and the actual dancing, while not really exciting, was still cool purely because it was something I’ve never seen before.
I have a video of the entire dance but Youtube has been a git again and hasn’t let me upload it. I’ll try and get it up tomorrow.
Much, much more fun. Sorry no video but the sound on my camera is so naff it wouldn’t do it justice. Taiko is Japanese traditional drumming in groups and it’s fantastic. It is impossible to listen to this beat and not want, in some small corner of your brain, to mount a horse and ride to war. It’s furious, driven and mesmerising.
Later on the Taiko drummers started wearing oni masks and did a version of oni attacking the shrine. Some drummers in oni masks started hitting drums (still in rhythm) dancing about the stage and acting like monsters. Not as cool as the pure drumming but again it was nice to get to see something I’ve never seen before.
Ah, here’s what I came for. Yes ladies and gentlemen I have now seen a real life, honest to god, geisha. Three of them! And they are gorgeous. Actually gorgeous probably isn’t the right word. They’re not conventionally attractive, nothing is sexy about them rather they’re beautiful, like a piece of art is beautiful. The actual human being kind of disappears behind the make-up jewellery and clothes but what’s left is beautiful. It was really, really exciting to see them, like something from a lost age living and breathing and dancing in front of me. I feel privileged to have seen them.
So did the Japanese crowd too it seems. They went mad for the geisha and tried to mob the afterwards as they left the stage. I guess even if you live in Kansai your opportunities to see geisha are still fairly slim. And they are truly magical to share a presence with.
However with all due respect, their dance was a bit naff.
Following the geisha dancing the geisha and priests (complete with silly hats) started chucking beans at us all and there was a mad scramble to catch them. Despite being tall Gaijin Patrick and I lucked out, so we had to go buy our beans.
But wait, the beans come with some kind of tombola ticket do they. Oooh things are lucking up.
And they were, the prizes included a bike, DVD players, ornate Japanese crafts, food, sake and sweeties amongst other things.
I however won a bottle of cold tea and some freezer bags.
WHAT KIND OF A PRIZE IS FREEZER BAGS!
Patrick at least got some slippers.
And then bar a wander and some food we went home.
One thing I have to mention before I forget it is a conversation I had with a student today.
The 3rd Grade (san-nensei) are preparing for their high school exams soon and I’ve been helping the students that will be studying English next year. They have to do an interview in English as part of their exams and they have a list of questions the examiner is likely to ask. I’ve been helping them prepare stock answers and practise speaking in an interview situation.
Today I helped one of my students with her application to keimei high school which is, of all things, a Christian High School (there are almost no Christians in Japan so it seems so out of place here). One of her questions is what does she want to study at keimei and she had written “I want to study christianity habit”. Now leaving aside the issue that the grammar really should be “I want to study Christian habits” I had to explain that habits wasn’t really the best choice of words to go with Christian as it implies that she wants to study nun’s clothes. Cue on of the most awkward and downright strange conversations I have ever had in my life. Have you ever tried to explain what nuns are to someone who doesn’t really know about Christianity and doesn’t really speak English? Saying they were married to god just caused even more unnecessary confusion.
In the end I told her I’d explain nuns with the aid of pictures in her notebook next week. She left still confused but apparently satisfied and we changed the sentence to “I want to study Christian beliefs.”