Thursday, December 31, 2020

Aomori's Nebuta Festival!

This huge festival, normally held annually but cancelled in 2020 for obvious reasons, features enormous and wonderful lighted floats at which noted artists work bringing classic scenes to magical life for an enormous parade, party and the Haneto dance anyone can join -- if you can get your hands on the right yukata, which doesn't seem to be too hard!  

Its origins are uncertain, but since it's held in early August, prime farming time, it's thought it's a syncretion of the Tanabata Festival (when a couple turned into stars by angry parents are allowed to meet once a year, mid-summer, to renew their love, usually commemorated with a party and fireworks) and the Nemuri Nagashi, a festival originating in the need to ward off drowsiness during the busiest of the farming season. Why having a gigantic and complicated party during the middle of that time would help farmers stay awake doesn't make much sense to me -- you'd think everybody would sleep for days from the preparation, the exertion and the party's aftereffects -- but apparently a festival was just what everybody needed to renew themselves for the rigors of the harvest season.

The Nebuta Wa-Rasse Museum is just outside Aomori station, and while there is another very interesting (to me, anyway) museum near Shin-Aomori, it was cold and damp and that one's largely a recreation of a Jomon period village, so the Nebuta Wa-Rasse Museum sounded like a better bet for a winter day.

And it was! This is so much fun! I hope that someday I can attend the actual festival, grab a yukata of the correct pattern and join the two million people who come, at least some of them, to dance in the streets! Wa-Rasse is the chant everybody cries as they carry the floats through the streets. It seems to have no real meaning, except to keep rhythm, but as the videos of parades past show, it's chanted loudly and with great enthusiasm.

At the entrance, a model of one of the floats, giving a preview of what's within.
In this display, you can can play with light effects to make this face turn into whatever you want, something the actual artists who conceive of these magnificent floats, no doubt appreciate.
Sketches and a mock-up of one of the faces used in the floats.
Another example of one of the characters used in the classic multi-dimensional scenes recreated by some truly amazing artists!
Just the lighted faces alone are fantastic.
Then you see several of the real floats, which are on rotating display. See the person, lower right, for scale. Every angle has different characters. The scenes are detailed and huge, with something new everywhere you look.
Another angle!
Another float!
The biggest taiko I've ever seen. It's about 7 feet in diameter. Yes, this appears in the festival with a group of six taiko not quite this large. That'll wake you up! Unfortunately, because of contagion issues, there's no demonstration and you can't play the drums, but I understand sometimes you can hear the experts and try your hand yourself. Oh, YES!
This was a close as I could get to one character off one float. Every single inch contributes to the stories from folklore, mythology and theater the floats tell.
The dragon's in there. Somewhere.
Look carefully. This shows the internal structure -- bamboo -- of the figures on the float, the lighting arrangements, how the paper covers the structure and how it is ultimately painted. There are times when it's possible to join in the construction for brief periods. I don't know how much help the visitors provide during these hands-on demonstrations, but I'm sure it's great fun.
Another character from another float. They are so multifaceted and complex it's hard to take them in.
This hall contained "portraits" and biographies of the notable artists who design and supervise the construction of these remarkable objects. Twenty appear every year. Only six are displayed at any given time.
This much smaller float comes as something of a relief -- they are overwhelming. One can only imagine them parading through the streets on a hot summer night! The videos will hold your attention for hours and make you want to join in!
Another angle of the artist's wall.
From the Hall of Fame -- only six artists have been given the title of Master. There ARE videos of the parade, the dancing and the construction process, all of which are fascinating. I could have spent hours more there than I had.
Aomori is all about apples, and next door to this museum is the A-Factory, where cider is made (closed to visitors now) and several places I recognized from Washington as apple storage and shipping facilities. This museum and Aomori station are right on the docks, so I bet these apples travel farther than Japan. In the museum shop you can buy almost every apple product imaginable but no apples, except by the case. You can, though, get snow-apple sake. So I did, and it was very good! It STILL hadn't started snowing, although the warnings increased in ferocity and threat level. Meters of the white stuff -- but not yet!
Many places sell individual servings of local sake in little juice glasses featuring art connected with the local product or event. Since I have a growing collection of those, I couldn't resist this one. This sake is good, too.
Finally, the next morning, as I prepared to leave Aomori for Tokyo on my third and last day of travel on my 3-day Tohoku pass, it started to snow. There was a small park right by my hotel. I don't know if you can see it, but I swear snow was falling in this picture.
This is also from the park. I don't know what those posts are meant to be, besides pretty, but you can see the snow a lot better. Yes! It finally happened! 
And here, on the Shinkansen, as I prepared to leave Aomori behind, it's clearly and obviously snowing. In a big way. Everywhere in Japan, I gather, except the Kanto Plain, which is where Tokyo is, and where I live.
But I did see it snow! And JR East, plus the cities of Akita and Aomori, surely gave me serious value for my money. Now we're back to STAY THE HECK AT HOME as the New Year Holidays enter full swing. We know the vaccines are coming and Japan, once it approves them, will distribute them quickly and at no cost through its highly efficient and truly excellent National Health system. I think everyone has so much confidence in this that they're jumping the gun, to the point where Gov. Koike is nearly at the point of asking Prime Minister Soga to declare another State of Emergency so she can shut much of Tokyo down. 
I purposefully scheduled this little trip to avoid the New Year's Holiday crowds, and I'm glad I did. I got a fantastically fun little trip before I am once again confined to quarters -- with a book to rewrite! And that I will enjoy.
I hope you've enjoyed my telling of my trip even half as much as I did doing it!

The Beautiful Coast of the Sea of Japan

From the Resort Shirakami train traveling the Gono line, the train -- which slows down for photo ops at particularly scenic locations, of course -- traverses the West Coast of Honshu, overlooking the Sea of Japan. On a clear day, I hear tell, one can see Korea, or maybe it's Russia, or maybe a bit of both depending on where you are and which way you look. 

The cloudy day with occasional spattering rain was perfect for me, because nowhere in Japan have I seen a coast where I felt more at home. If you love the Oregon Coast or the parts of the Washington Coast that are accessible to visitors, you'll like this part of the ride the best. Look at those views! I think they speak for themselves.

Finally, the train leaves the coast and heads inland for Aomori. There's a shamisen concert right on the train at this point. You can go to the lounge area at the front to hear it live, but it's also broadcast all over the train. The music is haunting, lyrical and just a little bit rock and roll!

Aomori is apple country, famous all over Japan, and more, for its wonderful apples and apple products. This last picture is an apple orchard, one of the first I saw. And snow again, but on the ground, not falling, though the weather forecasters kept tantalizing me!
The train stops at Shin-Aomori, the new and modern Shinkansen station, where most people get off, but there was something I wanted to see near the older and stair-ridden Aomori station, which is the terminal, so I stayed on. Stay tuned. This next part is fun!

An Afternoon In Akita

 It was almost time for me to leave on my lengthy train journey around the Tohoku region in the north of Honshu, Japan's largest island, when I realized I would actually have some time in Akita and Aomori. Surely there were things to do and see there! Surely some of those could be accomplished in the limited time I would have in each city!

I consulted the Internet. There's so much to do in and around Akita that I could easily spend several days there, and it's now on my list, when GO TO becomes possible again. But there was plenty to see right around the station.

Right in the station, I discovered that Akita has Oni. Oni are an interesting subject. These two (female and male, though only an Oni would know the difference) are right in the station. There's a folklore museum in Oga, a short train ride away. There are festivals! There's a hot spring resort, there's a famous beach! Oni are introduced in Coming Home, the first book in the Toki-girl and the Sparrow-boy series, but they'll be back. The subject of festivals and folklore all over Tohoku and also Hokkaido, festivals and tales often recount them coming down from the mountains in the winter (or spring, or summer, or fall), causing havoc, threatening misbehaving children, being appeased by drink, gifts, food, song and dance, and agreeing, usually, to bring fortune before vanishing until the next year, unless they are welcomed from the get-go as bringers of fortune. The word is sometimes (poorly) translated as "demon" and sometimes they are held to guard the gates of "Hell" -- either the Shinto or Buddhist versions of a portion of the afterlife. They survive everywhere I know of in the Setsubon festival, held in early February, where roasted soybeans are thrown and everybody chants something roughly translated as "demons out, fortune in", humans eat a bean for each year of their age plus one, there is usually dancing, singing and festivity, and a good time is had by all. But the further away from this area one gets, the more diluted the Oni and their influence seem to become, and while there is extensive academic research on this subject, that will be incorporated into my particular version of the Meiji period in a future book.  
Akita also has dogs. LARGE dogs, from this enormous and adorable one in the station to tiny versions depending from keychains, and real live ones doing all the guard and sled dog and pet things that they do. Those can be found in Senshu Park, a short walk from the station on snowy streets. There is an exhibit, with a shop, of course, but it was closed. However, a number were happily walking their humans a little too far away for me to get pictures.
The main gate of Kubota Castle, which is mostly in ruins now, but restored here and in the "tower in the corner," which was closed, but impressive from the outside. Not everything is open, of course, due to winter and COVID, but the gate was certainly classic and lovely.
Migrating geese come through this area, and enjoy the castle moat (frozen now) as well as surrounding lakes. This statue was outside the Satake Historical Museum. The Satake family (from the Genji clan and formerly from Hitachi) governed Akita from the beginning of the Edo period in 1602-3. The part of the domain that remained in family hands after the Meiji Restoration was the castle proper, donated by its descendants to the city in 1984 to become Senshu Park. The artefacts in the museum even predate their arrival in Akita. It's worth a visit.
In the forthcoming The Shadows of War, Azuki and Renko need to learn how to stand in these stirrups at a gallop while performing mounted archery, or yabusame, which was in the process of changing from a battle necessity to a ceremonial sporting event. You can see it performed today; it looks hard and it's great fun to watch -- probably even more fun to do! 
Armour and a battle flag. There are many battle flags. I didn't have time to check them all out, but there's even a chart showing which ones belonged to what group, which might have been critical in battle.
I just liked these paintings. I wish I could do them justice. The bamboo is particularly stunning.
More armor. The fuzzy crosspieces on the helmets stand for hairy caterpillars, an emblem of the Satake family because such a caterpillar cannot travel backward and a Satake samurai never retreats. The one on the right dates from the latter half of the 16th Century.
This is Satake Yoshinobu, if I read it right, who led the family here in 1602 when they were "demoted" by Tokugawa Ieyasu and transferred from Hitachi to Akita. They proved their mettle by ruling well and long outlasting the Tokugawa Shogunate. He looks pretty tough, was pretty darned smart, and I doubt if he ever even thought of retreat.
Construction sites are often marked by the ubiquitous orange cones connected by rails with some eye-catching reflectors hanging from them so that people don't wander in by mistake. Here, they're Oni, of course. Cute, friendly Oni, who remind you to stay out, please. I also saw that the local police have Oni, a couple, on the back of their jackets. The pair I saw were gone before I could get a picture. The adoption and adaptation of the dark and fearful into friendly allies is something Japan does well, and often. 
But these more classic Oni, located in the station, hark back to tougher times and older festivals, when Oni had sterner warnings to give, and scarier consequences to hand out. Fortunately, these two directed me to my hotel until my train the next morning.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Glorious Trains

 I didn't realize what I train enthusiast I am until I started spending time in a country that not only uses a lot of trains but enjoys and appreciates them. In the US, it's almost always faster, cheaper and significantly more convenient to drive or fly. Passenger rail, except for short-distance commuting, is almost nonexistent, irregular, rarely keeps to schedule and quite expensive. 

But in Japan, things are different! Lots of commuter rail exists. Even many of the Shinkansen lines are designed to get people from here to there quickly and efficiently in reasonable comfort. Tiny little trains connect rural areas with each other and with more central hubs that connect to bigger hubs and eventually big hubs, usually served by the Shinkansen lines. 

There are also scenic lines, resort lines, overnight sleeper lines and even steam trains that run (often as a special attraction on regular routes) just for the sheer pleasure of railway fans. 

To encourage travel, before GO TO turned into PLEASE DON'T for a while, a special discount three day pass was and is being offered to foreign passport holders offering unlimited travel around the Tohoku region of Japan during that period. Since skiing is almost certainly out of the question for me this year, due to my spinal fracture, and since I wanted to see some snow, and since they have a lot of snow in Tohoku (and very little in Tokyo due to weather patterns and mountain locations), I got one, determined to go as far as I could.

I went to Akita, on a very nice regular Shinkansen. Fast and fun. After an overnight in Akita, I took the Shirakami Resort Line, a special scenic route, to Aomori, where I spend another night, and then caught the regular Shinkansen home. It was great fun, although I barely saw any snow fall, and made it back to Tokyo before a huge storm that promises snow to almost all of Japan -- except Tokyo, where it's cold but sunny. 

A steam train model in Akita station. The original is in use on a scenic steam train line I have ridden!

This is the Buna train, the scenic train running on the Gono line between Akita and Aomori.

Not only is it nice, they have sake on tap (local varieties) that come with a souvenir coaster!
Finally, on the way out of Aomori on the regular Shinkansen heading back to Tokyo, I saw actual falling snow!

  • This was taken on the way up to Akita. It was sunny out, but it had snowed -- this was near Morioka and there was snow on the ground all the way north from there!
There's lots more to come.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Giving it a Rest

A couple of weeks ago I finished the first version of the first draft of The Shadows of War, Book 8 in The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series.  What that means is that I got to the place where it ought to end, so, pursuant to classic wisdom, I stopped.

I set it aside for a few days as I made a last pilgrimage to Taiseki-ji for 2020, and then went through it again. I strengthened this and tightened that and fiddled with something else, but it's still not quite right. It's getting a rest until after the first of the year when I can approach a comprehensive rewrite with fresh eyes. 

Normally, this would be great, because end of the year and New Year celebrations abound in Japan, and I would normally look forward to celebrating them without the pressure of a draft hovering over me like an unfriendly drone. But COVID reigns this year, and Japan's getting hit hard right now. I'll be in line for the vaccine in March, I hear, as soon as testing, approvals and distribution methods are finalized, but right now GO TO has become DON'T GO TO, and everything is pretty much cancelled. Still, I get a break and there's nothing wrong with that.

Over the last two weeks, I have been able to run quite a few errands. The best errand resulted in liberating me from the back brace early so I can start rehabilitation. I'm concentrating on Shaolin QiGong, and it's hard! But if Madame Feng can do it (and, in the books, she's about twenty years older than I am), so can I. I also managed to plant a little winter garden with petunias and primroses, repotted my herbs and see signs of spring flowers barely starting to emerge. It's always nice to have something growing to watch.

Rosemary, lilies and Primroses

The most interesting errand, as far as local color goes, was new glasses. 

Nearly two years ago, I'd been told I'd have to go to an ophthalmologist for my next glasses as an optometrist can't do Progressive/Transition lenses. For some reason not entirely clear to anybody, least of all me. I recently began looking for an ophthalmologist. An advertising poster at Kamata station told me there was one right in the station. While the ad and the website talked about contacts in detail, glasses weren't mentioned, and I've been told for years that I simply can't use contacts, nor is there Lasik for the likes of me. So, on my way back from someplace else, I stopped in to see if they did glasses and, if so, to make an appointment.


Half an hour later, they'd simply shuffled me through and I had a nice new prescription and the knowledge that none of the major eye problems that affect older people, of whom I am indubitably one, affected me. 

Another romp through the computer and I found a place I could get the lenses I wanted and went there the next day this place was open. I found I could get Progressive/Transitions (called dimming, here). I found I could even get them mounted in existing frames. This outfit would even take some of the many old pairs of glasses I have cluttering my desk for recycling. I also found that all this wonder was as expensive as the last pair of glasses I ordered, on-line, including new frames. But they'll be ready January 4, and I can start back on the book soon after. 


The glasses will take longer than normal because the whole country is closed, more or less, from December 28 through January 3 for the first part of the New Year holidays. The official New Year season ends January 15, but this is the part most people are taking off this year. People would normally travel during some part of this time, but not this year. PLEASE stay home is the watchword and if you must go somewhere, distance, wear your masks and don't forget the hand sanitizer -- an area in which, from what I have seen, people have been getting lax, perhaps because it's cold and people are wearing gloves. No more, though. People are paying attention again and it will help.


While we all hope that the Solstice and the Solar and Lunar New Year celebrations will bring us all renewal, what they have in truth brought us is the hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. Vaccines are being deployed and will be deployed.  New leadership in the USA can start digging out the mess left by the prior dearth of leadership there. Japan will entrench and continue to cope, adjust and adapt as needed, like it always does. I will publish a new book on schedule and, who knows, maybe it will be possible to get distribution to work this year. While technically my distribution has widened and increased, the actual fact of the Internet and Internet-based businesses not working very well right now has resulted in difficulty for authors all over the world. That'll change, but it's going to take a while.

In fact, it's all going to take a while. "Normal" isn't something we can "return to" ever, much less quickly and easily. Yet, we see a start. Just as the first green shoots from last year's bulbs are making a bare appearance above the soil, there is a start. We can indeed look forward to renewal and rebuilding, though it's not going to be the same, not ever again. 

For right now, though, for these few weeks of holiday, we can take a break, take a rest, and rejoice in our endurance. And look forward to a future that will be new and different, but will at least be a future.


May it be a happy one. Happy new year, everybody!