Tuesday, February 16, 2021

An Ancient, Modern Festival

 Every year, as I have mentioned, the Oni descend from the mountains to visit, sometimes fiercely, sometimes nicely, often threaten misbehaving children, are propitiated with food, drink, music and dance, perform themselves, and take themselves back to the mountains for another year, leaving promises of good fortune, or at least not afflicting the community with bad fortune. 

In Oga, near Akita in the the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, there is a famous annual festival that draws visitors from all over the country. The Namahage festival is held in mid-February. True to form, the Oni, played by beautifully costumed locals, come down from the mountains. They dance, and several incredibly talented members of the troupe play Taiko and gong in a rousing performance. They scare children, reminding me of the Seafair Pirates of Seattle as they work the crowd, and then, after being provided with food and drink, take themselves off to the mountains again for another year.

Hokusai, Setsubon

Setsubon, of course, is kind of a miniature home version of this festival, which is also sometimes played out in small communities with an annual house-to-house visit from the local Oni, in kind of a cross between Santa Claus and Trick-or-Treat.

But the Oga Nagahame is a big one! It's one of the biggest in the country and I would love to go to it sometime, freezing in the cold as the torch-bearing Oni come down the mountain.

Artist unknown, from Hepburn, 1886.

In this unusual COVID year, the Oga Namahage festival was still held, though it was closed to the public and only a limited number of invitations were issued to allow for sufficient space and masks were the rule for all, not just the Oni. But Japan, being Japan, expert in preserving its own culture while smoothly and skillfully adapting to anything and everything, extended an invitation to YouTuber John Daub, who made it possible for me to attend in the comfort of my Tokyo apartment. And so can you!

It looked like great fun. The Oni came down the mountain, "terrorized" the crowd and danced, with folk style moves reminiscent of Sumo wrestlers warming up. Some of them enacted a visit, on stage, to a home where they frightened, were fed, and ate, all per classic protocol. Then there was a wonderful Taiko performance.

Artist unknown

No shamisen, but the drums and the gong were fantastic! More dancing in the crowd, and then the Shrine's Chief Priest gave them all sesame cakes, for which the Oni, mostly very courteously but with a little bit of mischief, lined up to receive, and back up the mountain they went for another year.

As I try to show through the characters and stories in The Toki-girl and the Sparrow-Boy series, this is a modern manifstation of one of Japan's great strengths. Japan adapts and adopts, yet preserves and protects, remaining always, on the most essential and deepest levels, itself.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Climbing Mountains with Susan Spann

     I first met writer Susan Spann online, when she was preparing to come to Japan just as she completed treatment for a rather nasty type of breast cancer that had attempted to derail her plans. As a survivor of some 34 (now 37) years standing, and a writer who had just obtained a visa in a new and odd category that allows me to live in Japan to write books, I felt a great kinship with Susan and reached out. If she needed a friend and ally, I figured, she had both in me.

    Susan hoped to come in on a journalist's visa to write a book on climbing the hyakumeizan, Kyuya Fukada's famous list of 100 sacred mountains in Japan, within a year, and setting a couple of records in doing so. Since my visa category was brand new, narrowly defined, and I had a heck of time getting it, I watched the proceedings with interest. Over the eight months it took to get my visa, I spent more than a month in Korea on separate trips while waiting anxiously, taking a great boat trip, seeing lots of World Heritage sites and other interesting things, and getting research material that resulted in The Sparrows of Pusan. Susan's longing for Japan was as great as mine and her anxiety at least equal, so my heart went out to her, especially given her health at the time. 

    Her initial application was denied. What she was proposing wasn't journalism. I am a retired lawyer, as, now, is Susan, and I didn't like the advice she was getting. I thought she'd fit into this tiny, obscure and new visa category as well as I did. I put her in touch with my immigration lawyer. He's very good, and this time, with the new category, her application was successful.

    I like Susan. She writes nicely crafted and culturally accurate mysteries (the Hiro Hattori series of Shinobi mysteries) occurring about two hundred and fifty years before the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy come onto the historical scene in the Meiji era. I enjoy them and look forward to each successive one. I liked her proposed project. I liked her guts. I understood the emotional landscape in which she stood. We became IRL friends and I followed her hyakumeizan project from its inception to the publication of Climb, the resulting book.

    As I read Climb, I remembered so many of the things she describes from when they happened. Yet, I felt them each anew, as I followed the journey of a remarkable woman wrestling with demons, determined to achieve a remarkable goal. Even though I had watched her change, her blossoming, her improving health, her progress despite continuing obstacles, as it happened, Climb is an intimate memoir that brings increasing understanding of how courage, persistence and dedication to a goal can create change in not only one person but can inspire others to fight their own demons and realize their own dreams.

    Yes, you'll like Susan, too, and want to go along with her. Her journey is personal but will leave you inspired to Climb for yourself.