Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cigarette Butt (タバコの吸い殻)

I was walking through one of the covered shopping arcades this past weekend in Matsuyama City when I came across a green booth dedicated to neighborhood cleanup projects and overall environmental awareness.

Before I knew it, one of the volunteers had handed me a plastic bag and salad bar variety pinchers and told me to go pick up some trash. I was all set to put on my best "Me no speaky the Japanesey" face and return the items to him out of sheer laziness, when a single word caught my attention: "prize."

You said what about a prize now?

As was explained to me, all I had to do was collect stray trash items off the ground as I walked my way through the arcade. Once I ended up in front of the large department store at the end of the corridor, I could trade in my bag of rubbish for a special prize.

This was all it took to set me off scavenging the ground like a stray dog. I chuckled to myself as I thought of those who littered. Fools! Their trash would literally become my treasure. However, as it turns out, a full day's worth of shoppers all scavenging for trash makes for one clean shopping street.

There was virtually no trash to be found. A toothpick, an eyelash...give me SOMETHING!!!


I suddenly became quite anxious. What would happen if I reached the end of the line and was unable to present the volunteer with even the smallest fragment of waste? I dreaded the disappointed look on the volunteer's face. I dreaded even more the thought that I might be denied my prize.

While waiting at a crosswalk I picked up a crinkled leaf and tucked it into my pocket for backup. I immediately began brainstorming ways to defend my find in Japanese should the volunteer balk at my submission. I got as far as, "Leaf = trash, you understand that punk?"...when...

JACKPOT!!! I spot an honest-to-goodness cigarette butt tucked behind a folding sign out front a drugstore. I had to ask the clerk restocking the outside display to step aside so I could reach the crown jewel with my plastic pinchers.

Knowing that there was no way I could be denied my prize, I marched up to the ending booth and proudly thrust my hands forward. My tiny cigarette butt was floating in a giant ocean of plastic bag, but I didn't care. I was beaming!

I made sure to enthusiastically point out my find to the volunteer. He seemed less than thrilled. If I had had one, I would have taken a picture of the cigarette butt out of my wallet and launched into the following conversation. "You know, last week my little cigarette butt here did the cutest damn thing..."

I asked the volunteer's advice as to which receptacle I should put it in. But, try as I might, I couldn't actually make the pinchers grasp the tiny butt, so I was unable to transfer it into the trash can when prompted. After fumbling for what seemed like a full minute, the volunteer grabbed my entire bag and unceremoniously threw it in the bin.

Where were the balloons? The band? The photo shoot with the mayor?

I was so shocked by the casual dismissal of my holy offering that I barely noticed the volunteer handing me my gift.

I tore open the small pouch.

My face contorted as I saw the prize. There in my hands was one additional plastic trash bag, folded neatly into a tiny square. The green lettering on the pouch encouraged me to use said bag around my neighborhood and keep the trash pickup spirit alive.

I made sure to throw away my gift in the proper bin before leaving.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Drumline (新居浜太鼓祭り)

If you will remember back to my earlier post entitled, "The Ballad of Bone and Kuma," I wrote about a man I affectionately named "Mr. Ki."

The word "Ki," like "Chi" in Chinese culture, can refer to one's spirit, essence, or being. Mr. Ki spoke very passionately about his own life force in relation to some of Ehime Prefecture's more dangerous autumn mikoshi festivals.

A "mikoshi" can best be described as a portable Shinto shrine. If you envision the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones, you'll be on the right track visually. These gold boxes are hoisted off the ground and carried around the city via two or four wooden poles and a whole lot of manpower!

As is custom in these parts, many autumn festivals feature "battling mikoshi." The basic idea is to have two groups of men carrying mikoshi run into each other at full speed as if jousting. In most cases, the only goal is to smash the shrines together until the opposing side's monument is completely destroyed. Think of it as a traditional Japanese-style demolition derby.

This past Saturday I attended the Taiko Festival in the neighboring city of Niihama. The Niihama Taiko Festival is a one of the largest and most famous "battling mikoshi" festivals in the prefecture.

The Taiko Festival is named such because each of the giant 17-foot-tall mikoshi that are carried through the city, have a taiko drum and a taiko drummer housed inside. Thus, the procession of shrine floats is punctuated with the booms of these traditional Japanese drums.

Once a good number of floats have congregated in a central area (in my case a local Shinto Shrine), it's time for the battling to begin. Since smashing these giant towers together would kill or maim an untold number of people (not to mention the poor soul drumming inside), the opposing group members merely attempt to violently throw each other from the float.

Speaking about this festival, Mr. Ki said his (and I quote) "heart is set ablaze" by the display of spirit. He also said that every year several people die during the festival. These unfortunate souls are usually spectators who fall and get trampled by the enormous crowd.

Having spent the better part of my last hour at the festival nose-to-neck in a solid mass of human flesh, I can attest to the very real possibility of getting injured if you are not careful with your footing.

"I'm 62 now," Mr. Ki said. "At this age I feel that I am ready to die. If I were to die during the festival...

(long pause)

...that would be a good death."


Let the festivities commence!

This shot gives a good idea of the sheer size of the taikodai. These floats can weigh over two and a half tons and reach over 17 feet in the air. And they're transported exclusively using manpower!

Packed in a mass of people while waiting to take pictures of the approaching taikodai floats.

Did I mention we were at a shrine?

The large floats can cost over $100,000 USD to build. I guess this neighborhood couldn't come up with the proper financing.

Each of the 50-some neighborhoods in Niihama City have their own taikodai float. Residents can be seen cheering on the members of their neighborhood as they pass by with the shrine.

Since this is a harvest festival, allow me to explain the symbolism. The red and white striped parachute-looking thing on top symbolizes the sun. The black cushions on each corner symbolize the clouds. Finally, the huge hanging tassels are meant to symbolize the falling rain.

The annual Niihama Taiko Festival is often nicknamed the "Man Festival" (otoko matsuri) due to the fact that males are the ones who exclusively lug around the floats and pick fights with opposing groups.

Here is what they use to carry the mikoshi around the city.

A closeup showing the detail found on one taikodai float. A shrine's panels always depict traditional Japanese buildings, locations, and folk legends. Also, golden dragons are a staple that adorn every float.

The entire side panel.

These guys have the best seats in the house! They ride atop the float pushing branches out of the way and waving to the crowd.

Several of the taikodai floats lined up at the shrine grounds. This area got absolutely flooded with spectators as the festival progressed.

Mikoshi Kombat! Round 1: FIGHT!!!

King of the Hill...uh, I mean...Mikoshi! All throughout the festival, one can hear the ringing sirens of ambulances. Emergency medical attention is as much for these young men battling it out atop the mikoshi as it is for the spectators, who stand a real chance of being trampled.

On display in a shopping arcade. I'll never look at mikoshi the same way again...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Here is a video I took on my digital camera of the blue and orange shrine groups battling it out. Watching the young guys fall off the mikoshi left and right, I couldn't help but stand amazed that more people didn't end up in the hospital.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Through The Looking Glass (直島)

One hour off the coast of Takamatsu by ferry lies the island of Naoshima, one of the strangest and most wonderful places I have visited in all of Japan.

Naoshima is an island dedicated to the appreciation of modern art. There are large and small art galleries and museums scattered along the many windy island roads. The atmosphere certainly didn't feel like Japan. Come to think of it, it didn't much feel like any place I have visited before.

In addition to the formal galleries, Naoshima is home to a plethora of outdoor installation pieces. Some are in plain view, others are hidden away in secluded clearings. Walking along a seemingly normal beach only to come face-to-face with a giant yellow pumpkin is a common occurrence here.

The three museums I visited while on the island were the Benesse House Museum of modern art, the Chichu Art Museum, and the Art House Project.

The Benesse House Museum was everything one would expect from a modern art museum. Pieces there utilized country license plates, neon lights, charcoal, and sticks. Any further description of the art from me will likely result in complete and utter unintelligibility.

Of the three I visited, "Chichu" was my least favorite gallery due to the overly pompous staff members and the fact that I had to take off my shoes three times while going into the different exhibition rooms. The stars of the show were three Monet paintings displayed in a giant solid white room illuminated only by natural sunlight. While I wasn't a fan Chichu's sophisticated museum experience, I must concede that the Monet room was quite stunning.

Finally the "Art House Project" was a series of traditional Japanese wooden houses (called kadoya or machiya) outfitted with lights and sculptures, effectively turning them into giant walk-in art pieces. I found this gallery (if you can call it that) to be the most interesting of the bunch.

As if trying to describe Narnia, Hogwarts, or Wonderland after the fact, I find that words fail to convey the energy and vividness behind what I saw and experienced. Take a look at the pictures below, perhaps they will do a better job.

If you ever find yourself in Takamatsu, a daytrip to Naoshima is a MUST. It is quite simply a place unlike any other you will visit.


If you read the Japanese from right to left, you'll understand where I'm headed...AM-IHS-O-AN

A shot of the ferryboat I rode from Takamatsu Port to Naoshima Island. The ride took exactly one hour each way.

This is Onigashima (Demon Island) from the Japanese folktale Momotaro the "Peach Boy." It is named this and marketed as an attraction due to its many caves and caverns. Along with Naoshima and Shodoshima, it is one of the three tourist islands off the coast of Takamatsu City in the Seto Inland Sea.

The scenic views around Naoshima are almost works of art in themselves.

The beach. It was an absolutely gorgeous day during my trip - You couldn't ask for nicer weather.

A smaller island I noticed. With some sort of rock path leading up to it?

You could tilt these squares into any orientation you liked. This placement represents my complete artistic vision. I'm worried that the deep symbolism of my work may be a bit too obtuse for casual blog readers.

As far as I could surmise, this was in fact some sort of giant, holey chair.

I wasn't entirely sure whether this was an art piece or not. Still made for a pretty picture though.

This was an outdoor piece using stones as the art material of choice.

This sign welcomes you to the Benesse House Museum of modern art. There were some pretty neat installation pieces inside, but I think that me trying to describe the modern art for you will be an exercise in futility.

And here is a shot of the museum building itself. Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed inside any of the galleries I visited.

Man reading gibberish newspaper with dog.

Elephant pot.

Cat pot (with plant).

Snake chair.

Cat tower.

Camel pot.


GIANT PUMPKIN! Have you ever seen something so wonderfully absurd?

Words fail me at a time like this.

And here's the yellow pumpkin's red sister.

Polka dotted pumpkin.

View from inside the pumpkin.

Figured I'd take a break from all the art with this picture of Sumiyoshi Shrine.

I certainly did not expect to find a James Bond museum on a small island off the coast of Japan. But, I was delighted by its presence nonetheless!

First published in 2002, The Man With The Red Tattoo is a James Bond novel written by Raymond Benson (the official author behind Die Another Day). As I soon found out upon entering the museum, the novel takes place in Naoshima.

Fans of 007 will also recall that Japan was the stage for Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice (both the novel and the film). Naoshima residents are so proud of their James Bond connection that they erected this museum to educate guests about the novel.

My guess is that this giant heart installation piece has something to do with the novel.

Wall hanging from Thunderball.

Another wall hanging. This place was chock full of memorabilia, posters, and props from the various films.

I'll end with this artwork further evidencing Naoshima's deep love of 007. The city of Takamatsu actually has an official committee whose sole job is to petition EON Productions in London to have a future Bond film take place in Japan.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Green Thumb (栗林公園)

Ritsurin Park is unarguably the biggest tourist attraction in Takamatsu City. With buildings dating back to the early 1600s, the park is considered to be among the most beautiful and historically significant in Japan.

Though, to be fair, it is worth noting that Ritsurin is not considered one of Japan's "Three Great Gardens." They are:

*Kairakuen (Mito)

*Kenrokuen (Kanazawa)

*Korakuen (Okayama)

Of the three, I have only been to Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prejecture.

Ritsurin Park is situated against Mt. Shuin on the western side, and contains six ponds and thirteen different hills of varying sizes for sightseeing. The site was designated a Japanese Narional Treasure in 1953.

Please enjoy the pictures below.


This warm and friendly face ushers you into Ritsurin Park. Nothing fits with the whole garden aesthetic quite like the statue of an old man who seems to be screaming, "Get OFF my lawn you young whippersnappers!"

This was the first tree I saw upon entering the park.

The same techniques used to raise a small, potted bonsai applied to this big guy here.

Out of all my pictures, I like this one the best!